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Yahweh vs. Jesus? An Excerpt on Marcionism from "Know the Heretics"

Categories Theology Book Excerpts

9780310515074Qoheleth was right: "what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun."

That assumption underlies the new book Know the Heretics. Author Justin Holcomb wants to help the Church avoid the mistakes of the past, so he presents 14 of history’s "major" heresies for our examination.

Take Marcion’s heresy. In a fit of dualitis, he pitted the Old Testament God YHWH against the New Testament God of Christ—believing the former was vengeful and the later gentle, loving. Such false dualism held implications not only for the person of Christ but the gospel itself.

We’ve provided the excerpt below to help you recognize and guard against Marcionism in all its forms, because unfortunately it’s a teaching that still affects the Church; there is nothing new under the sun, even false teaching.

-Jeremy Bouma, Th.M. (@bouma)

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Historical Background

Marcion (ca. 85 – 160) was the son of a Christian bishop and a teacher in Rome. Although unbiased historical information is scant, we know that Marcion was a wealthy ship owner from Sinope in Pontus, with excellent organizational skills. Around ad 140 he arrived at Rome, where he was welcomed by the church and soon donated large amounts of money and a building. But by ad 144, Marcion’s views had gotten him into trouble, and he was excommunicated from the church.

Marcion’s trouble began when he became involved with Cerdo, an early Gnostic teacher (see chapter 2). Cerdo influenced Marcion’s thought toward dualism, a worldview that pits two basic realities against each other. Gnostics were known for teaching a spirit/ flesh dualism, in which spirit is good and flesh is evil — an idea contrary to the Bible. Marcion did not exactly adopt Gnosticism, but he was intrigued by the concept of dualism and applied it to the Old and New Testaments. According to Marcion, the God of the Old Testament was a wrathful, vengeful deity who wanted to keep humankind subject to himself, while Christ was sent by the real supreme God to reintroduce the old religion of love and peace.

After he was no longer welcome in Rome, Marcion put his organizational skills to work traveling and establishing new alternative churches sympathetic to his view. Eventually his influence stretched all around the Mediterranean, and it lasted for a couple of centuries until the first Christian emperors suppressed Marcionism.

Heretical Teaching

Behind Marcion’s practical influence of money and political connections lay a theology founded on extreme dualism. This can be seen in his most well-known book, Antithesis, in which he pitted the New Testament against the Old Testament:

Marcion saw too many discrepancies between the Testaments. Old Testament passages suggest there are things God does not know, whereas the New Testament teaches that Jesus knows everything. The problems that Marcion wrestled with are similar to the problems that modern readers often experience. Why does God need to ask questions, if he’s all-knowing? Why does the Old Testament attribute to God qualities that we might consider petty — anger and jealousy and being arbitrary? The solution to this dilemma seemed clear to Marcion. There was not one God but two — the Yahweh of the Old Testament and Jesus of the New Testament — both bitter enemies, and by coming to Israel, Jesus was challenging the rule of Yahweh. Marcion taught that Jesus Christ was sent by an unknown Father to save us from Yahweh’s evil wrath… 

To solidify the wedge between the law and gospel, Marcion created his own canon, or list of sacred books he thought genuine. He rejected all allegorical interpretations of Scripture, which were often used to make difficult sections more palatable; only a literal approach of reading Scripture at face value could be acceptable for it to be authoritative. Marcion selected books from the New Testament that he believed to be faithful to his guideline of separating the law and the gospel. He cut out the Old Testament altogether. He argued that the Old Testament was tied up in the law, and that faith had superseded it in the gracious new era Christ ushered in. Therefore it was obsolete. Even several New Testament books were not safe from Marcion’s canonical knife….The only books to survive the cut in Marcion’s Bible were a mutilated version of the gospel of Luke and ten of Paul’s epistles. 

With this new Bible completely free from law, Marcion’s version of the gospel emphasized spirituality, faith, and grace. This unknown Father Jesus revealed was kind, forgiving, and gracious, unlike the known Yahweh, who was angry, vengeful, and just. In addition to his assault on the Christian Scriptures, Marcion’s heretical teachings include a destruction of the humanity of Christ.

Orthodox Response

The massive volume of antiheretical literature directed against the Marcionite heresy is a testimony to the heresy’s importance. Marcion’s rejection of Jesus’ humanity caused the church to develop a complete defense of the doctrine... Tertullian saw Marcion’s denial of Christ’s humanity as detrimental to Christianity, because, “The sufferings of Christ will be found not to warrant faith in him. For he suffered nothing who did not truly suffer; and a phantom could not truly suffer. God’s entire work therefore is subverted. Christ’s death, wherein lies the whole weight and fruit of the Christian name, is denied.”…

While Marcion was excommunicated from the church in Rome in 144, because he was a wealthy man he was able to establish a significant following throughout the next several centuries. However, the struggle also provided an opportunity for the church to clarify several major doctrines. For one thing, Marcion and his “New Testament” — the first to be compiled — forced the church to recognize a core canon of New Testament Scripture books: the four gospels and the letters of Paul. The Old Testament was also reaffirmed as Christian Scripture; Tertullian declared the Hebrew Bible is indeed the Word of God, arguing in Against Marcion that the two Testaments of the Bible are not contrary.22 At the same time, the church affirmed that the New Testament books are to be considered as fully authoritative as God’s revelation in the Hebrew Bible.

Contemporary Relevance

Marcion is relevant to the church today because much contemporary teaching about Jesus and the Bible merely restates Marcion’s claims about the struggle between a God of love and a God of justice. Richard Dawkins, in his New York Times bestseller The God Delusion, writes, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” This view is quite similar to Marcion’s and still wreaks havoc in the church today.

Know the Creeds and Councils

Know the Heretics

By Justin S. Holcomb

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