Modern-Day Marcionism

If you are not up on your Marcionism, I encourage you to get with the program. More specifically, I encourage you to learn about Marcion and his teachings. And while you are at it, also look into Santayana. The latter is a Spanish philosopher of last century who once famously stated, “Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.”

Thus if a Christian does not know his history – or particularly his church history – he will likely repeat the mistakes of Marcion. So who was he and what was his error? He was a second century bishop who was condemned for his heretical teachings, including his views on God and the Old Testament.

In brief, he regarded the God of the Old Testament as a vengeful, harsh, vindictive and judgmental God, who in fact was not the same as the God of the New Testament. On the other hand, he taught, the God of the NT was a loving, compassionate and gracious God.

He not only posited a radical disjunction between God as found in the two Testaments, but between the OT and the NT itself, and between Israel and the church. His utter rejection of Judaism and the OT was just part of his heresy. He was a major proponent of Paul – or as one historian put it, he had an “exaggerated Paulinism” – so much so that he chopped the NT canon down to just 11 books: ten epistles of Paul and part of Luke.

In his view the OT God was simply a demiurge, an inferior God, who created the world, and the evil in it. Such a God had to be rejected for the good God of the New, the Father of Jesus Christ. His teaching was denounced as heresy, and was opposed by many, most notably, Tertullian. His five-volume treatise Adversus Marcionem (Against Marcion), written about 208, is where we learn the most about Marcion and his teachings.

His teachings were not unlike some forms of Gnosticism, although he differed in some points from them. Because of his many serious theological errors, he was eventually disfellowshiped in 144. He was not the first heretic the early church had to contend with, nor was he the last.

Now my point in raising all this ancient history is not just to tickle the intellectual palettes of a few church history buffs or theology lovers out there. No, I discuss this because it seems that Marcionism has not disappeared, but can be found in many of our churches today – even in our so-called Bible-believing churches.

Many contemporary Christians act as if they are in fact closet Marcionites. They too have a very low view of the OT, and tend to somehow think that the God of the OT is much different than the God of the NT. They seldom even read the OT, and they tend to shrink away from what they find there when they do read it.

Indeed, we have many believers today trying to resurrect Marcionism. The emergent church often moves along these lines. Many of them assure us that God is not a God of judgement, he is simply into love and acceptance, and probably everyone will be saved anyway. Indeed, according to some popular emergent leaders, hell almost certainly does not even exist.

Then we have the so-called “red letter Christians”. They like to highlight and dwell on the sayings of Jesus in the gospels (sometimes printed in red ink), often to the exclusion of the rest of the Bible. Thus their canon is even more reduced and massacred than that of Marcion.

They seem to forget the words of Paul when he said that “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). Not just the words of Jesus, but every word. And of course when Paul wrote this, basically only the OT existed for the use of the Christian church.

But the red letter folks want us to have a Jesus who is a bit like someone made in their own image: more of a tree-hugging hippy, flashing the peace sign, than the judge of all the earth. They seem to ignore the fact that there are plenty of red letters found in the book of Revelation, where we read about Jesus the conquering king with blood-covered sword in hand, who executes his just judgments on the wicked – just like the God of the OT in fact.

But these red letters tend to get omitted or overlooked by these folks. That strikes me as another example of Marcionism. When we ignore those parts of Scripture which do not fit in with the trendy social conventions of the day, then we no longer can claim to be biblical Christians.

The simple truth is, God does not change: he is “the same yesterday, today and forever” as Hebrews 13:8 asserts. Nor does Jesus. Jesus is God, and Jesus is unchanging. He is the same and will always be the same. So we have no right to claim that there are two different Gods, or that the God of the OT is somehow radically different from the God of the NT.

Those who actually bother to read the OT will see that the “nice” attributes of God – eg., his love, compassion, grace and forbearance – are just as much in full display there as in the NT. Also, the attributes we tend to shy away from – eg., his holiness, his justice, his wrath against sin, and judgment on evil – are just as much on display in the NT.

In fact we see all these attributes fully displayed at the cross. It is at once a marvellous display of his grace, love and forgiveness, as well as his hatred of sin and his wrath against all that stands against him and his purposes. As D.A. Carson has put it: “Both God’s love and God’s wrath are ratcheted up in the move from the old covenant to the new…. These themes barrel along through redemptive history, unresolved, until they come to a resounding climax – at the cross.”

Quite so. The need to decisively judge sin is plainly demonstrated here. But so too is God’s overwhelming love for us. All these aspects of God make up who he is. We dare not pick and choose those attributes which we feel comfortable with. We either take God just as he is and just as he presents himself to us, or we reject him altogether.

Selective acceptance of the Biblical text is just not an option for the follower of Christ. Marcion clearly had this problem, big time. But of real concern is this: how many contemporary Christians also have this problem? It seems that we need to not only address this issue in our churches today, but we also need to address the historical and theological amnesia affecting so many of us as well.

[1157 words]

23 Replies to “Modern-Day Marcionism”

  1. What the red letter Christians frequently forget is that many of the words of Christ were very judgemental and he highlighted the requirements of the law to its perfect intention. If you throw away the rest you miss most of the details about the grace that Jesus bought for us in his death.
    Aaron Downs

  2. Yes quite right Aaron

    In those red letters in the gospels we hear more about judgment and hell than perhaps anywhere else. Jesus talked about these themes time and time again.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  3. Yes, it is time to address such errors and “theological amnesia” whereby well meaning people just wanted a “compassionate” deity crafted according to their own liking by selective use of the full canon of the holy scriptures.
    Jeremy Wong

  4. Bill, Unfortunately there are certain streams and churches within those streams that probably follow Anthony Robbins and not the Bible “Beliefs have the power to create and the power to destroy. Human beings have the awesome ability to take any experience of their lives and create a meaning that disempowers them or one that can literally save their lives. ” – Anthony Robbins.
    It is alarming that lack of true discernment in the latter days will result in even the elect being deceived. We have been warned many times in the scripture about being deceived. Yet if we do not know Him initmately how can we measure what is being said.
    Peter Colsell

  5. No “red-letter Christian” I know believes anything like what you have presented, Bill. They simply believe in a Christocentric hermeneutic. What you have presented here is a caricature, a straw man.
    Matt Anslow

  6. It seems like they did not read John 5 since that has in it how the Son is going to be the Judge. Even in his discourse with Nicodemus he mentioned that he did not come to condemn the world, but those who do not believe are already condemned by their disbelief. The Gospel message is pretty clear, Jesus came to pay the sacrifice for our sins and he paid the judgement for those who receive him, but those who refused to believe will be judged accordingly.
    Ian Nairn

  7. Matt,
    I have lived long enough, and engaged in controversy quite a bit to know that when a position is attacked (or scrutinised, if you prefer) a standard response from its protagonist is to cry, “You’ve misrepresented me!” Being interpreted that so often means, “Ouch! You’ve hit a sore spot!” I think Bill, being widely read, would be quite clear on what the tenets of “Red letter Christianity” in fact are. Please give him credit for having a clear thought process and discernment.
    As to substance, what do you mean by “a Christocentric hermeneutic”? I’ve encountered this sort of talk, and terminology, from various groups over the years. When I was in college the Barthians would insist on that for their Neo-orthodox view of Scripture, the rejection of natural revelation, and the rather far-fetched view that every doctrine of Christianity had to be interpreted Christologically. The latter sounded fine until one found that, say in regard to the doctrine of election, where Christ was the only elect, that this meant universal salvation.
    Then I encountered it among the Dutch Reformed, with their insistence that every event in the OT had be interpreted such that Christ was the outcome (the so-called “history of salvation” hermeneutic). This was combined with a rejection of applications in sermons, denounced as “moralising”. Again, it sounded attractive, until one realised that this was also far-fetched in its own way, and involved some stretching and squeezing, and in turn outright rejection or explaining away of plain NT passages which do the very thing that the “history of salvation” hermeneutic professes to disdain.
    More recently, the Emerging Church (EC) has gone down similar paths, and finished up denying man’s inner corruption, eternal punishment, the Cross as substitutionary atonement, etc. In fact, it would be useful to explore the link, if any, between EC and Barth.
    So then “Christological hermeneutic” sounds good on the surface, but it is really a siren sound to a theological and spiritual grave.
    Murray R Adamthwaite

  8. In the red letters of Luke 24:25 Jesus rebukes His disciples for not believing the prophecies in the OT, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”

    And further on, in verse 44 more red letters “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Next verse – black letters – “Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.”

    Jesus did not call the disciples foolish and slow of heart because they did not read the OT – they did read it, but they did not understand what was being said.

    If they were called foolish and slow of heart for not understanding the prophecies in the OT, I wonder what Jesus would say about church leaders who preach that there is no hell and judgment, (failing to understand that Jesus is being loving and compassionate in warning people that there is a judgment and that there is a hell!)

    May the Lord have mercy and continue to open minds to understand the Scriptures.

    Annette Nestor

  9. I too get this a lot and didn’t know what to call it. I was trying to explain the gospel in the Jewish sanctuary service to someone once. I believe the old testament sanctuary is full of symbolism pointing forward to the coming of Christ. I also think It’s a great way to witness to Jewish people. He basically accused me of having a confused theology in that the gospel wasn’t even around then. I was just a baby Christian then but now I would quote Luke 24:27 and Acts 8:35 where it clearly points to Jesus being in the old testament. Not to mention that something like 75% of Jesus’ words were quotes from the old testament.
    Luke Belik

  10. Hi Adam,

    By Christocentric hermeneutic I mean no such thing. I simply mean a hermeneutic by which the entirety of biblical revelation is viewed through the lens of the teaching and example of Christ, inasmuch as Christ is the perfect image of the Father. I’m not sure why this would be in any way controversial, actually.

    Moreover, it is somewhat disingenuous to claim that anyone who protests another’s representation of them is simply saying “Ouch!” – what a perfect defence against rebuttals!

    Matt Anslow

  11. If you don’t read the OT from a Christ centred perspective you end up, for example, ascribing virtues to the stones David picked up to fight Goliath and moralising away the real meaning of the story. Here we have a wonderful picture of the Gospel. One (David) defeats evil (Goliath) of behalf of the many (Israel). Jesus (the one) defeats Satan on behalf of the many (the elect).
    Unlike the two on the way to Emmaus, how many times have you heard preaching on an OT passage with any mention of Christ and the Gospel?
    Des Morris

  12. Matt,
    My point was simply this: “a Christocentric hermeneutic” is as it stands is a vagary. It means different things to different people or parties. Meanwhile, your explanation in your response leaves me none the wiser: it is still a vagary. What do you mean by viewing the entirety of Biblical revelation through the lens of the teaching and example of Christ? The variations on that theme are almost legion.

    As to your response to my observation about misrepresentation, that has as a matter of fact been my experience: a stock reply to any objection is, “You’ve misrepresented me”. Come off it! Give the rest of us credit for some intelligence! Meanwhile, show us precisely where Bill is mistaken in his representation, and put the record straight.

    The type of approach you give to the David and Goliath story is a case in point of far-fetched exegesis, or should we call it eisegesis? The question to ask first of all is, what does the story signify in the narrative of the books of Samuel story signify (remembering that it is one book – the division is artificial)? This type of approach you give is really a sample of the allegorical method, whereby NT themes are read into the narrative in an arbitrary manner. For my part, I have often preached on and taught from the OT, but sought to show how the passage leads to Christ without recourse to arbitrary, allegorical simplicisms, however pious they may sound to some ears (I trust).
    There is a lot more to be said on this theme, but this is not the forum for a hermeneutics lecture. I’ll have to leave it at that.

    Murray R Adamthwaite

  13. Thanks guys

    Interesting, but I just read something now which nicely ties in to my article above. I bought a new commentary today on Kings by Peter Leithart in the Brazos series. In his introduction he says the book of Kings “reveals the God and Father of Jesus Christ, the God who is long-suffering and patient…” He continues:

    “In fact, 1-2 Kings as a whole puts the lie to Marcionite theology. Though 1-2 Kings reveals God’s judgment against unfaithful Israel, the God revealed in this book is not peevish and vindictive, a God quick to ly off the handle. On the contrary, a careful reading of 1-2 Kings reveals a God who is always giving more than people ask, imagine, oe deserve (1 Kings 3:10-14; 2 Kgs. 3:17-18; 4:8-17), a God of infinite, uncanny, unnerving patience.”

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  14. Nothing like getting into a conversation five years after the fact. Found this while looking for some history on Marcion, and have to say that Adamthwaithe’s thoughts are clear headed, the least reactionary, and making the most sense.

  15. Bill, not sure if you’ve responded anywhere to the recent publication by Andy Stanley, “Irresistible: Reclaiming the New that Jesus Unleashed for the World”? It is pure Marcionism, attempting to encourage the church to be ‘unhitched’ from the OT and to focus almost exclusively on Paul and selected epistles. Unfortunately, I have friends in senior places in large churches who simply can’t see the Marcion heresy all over this!! What are your thoughts?

  16. Argh….how did I miss that article??? Oh yes, Christmas time…caring for my daughter! 🙂 Thank you for this and your tireless ministry, keeping us educated on the full counsel of God’s Word!! Bless you. Mark

  17. Hi, Bill
    Just read your article and the following comments from various people. Thanks , your article was very clear and extremely helpful as were the comments contributed by Murray Adamthwaite. Great to read sane,learned contributions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: