Ancient Heresy Present Today?

Ancient Heresy Present Today?

This piece was originally featured in the Southern Nebraska Register’s “Ask the Register” column on May 26, 2023, which may be found here.

Q. I’ve heard it said that the ancient heresy of Marcionism remains alive and well today. Who was Marcion, and what do people mean when they talk about modern versions of his heresy?

A. This interesting and important question touches on our understanding of how God has revealed himself in Sacred Scripture. Is God tough or tender, full of wrath or full of mercy? Or does this simplistic way of conceptualizing God represent a misreading of the Bible and a misunderstanding of who God is? It does, and that brings us to Marcion.

Marcion of Pontus (a region on the southern coast of the Black Sea, in modern-day Turkey) was a wealthy, second-century shipowner (who probably should have stayed in that occupation instead of dabbling in theology!). The son of a bishop, Marcion was excommunicated by his own father on grounds of immorality; whereupon he connected with some orthodox Christians in Rome, but a few years later was excommunicated a second time for his heretical views.

Twice sanctioned by the Church, Marcion predictably began to work out his own system of religion, gathering some followers and establishing them in compact communities all over the Roman Empire. His movement quickly became a threat to the Church, as evidenced in the widespread attention it received from his opponents, including Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement, and Origen. (His views were eventually absorbed into the Gnostic heresy of Manichaeism, which later attracted St. Augustine, until his conversion.)

Marcion’s central thesis featured a radical discontinuity between the two Testaments. For him, the Christian gospel is a gospel of love to the absolute exclusion of law, and this led him to reject the Old Testament completely, including the God of the Old Testament. Israel’s God and the Church’s God were two different Gods, thought Marcion; they had nothing in common. The former was harsh, judgmental, wrathful, and destructive, whereas the God Jesus came to reveal is gentle, forgiving, gracious, and merciful. 

According to Marcion, only St. Paul fully understood this radical dichotomy between a covenant of law and a gospel of love. The other New Testament writers, he felt, were blinded by remnants of Judaism. Hence for Marcion, the only canonical Scriptures were 10 of Paul’s 13 Letters (excluding 1-2 Timothy and Titus) and an edited version of St. Luke’s Gospel. And, as expected, he encouraged his disciples to read only his cropped Bible, according to his own principles of interpretation.

Does any of this sound familiar? It is not difficult to see remnants of Marcionite influence, for example, in Lutheran theology, which maintains a sharp distinction between “law” and “gospel,” or which, following its founder, has amputated certain Old Testament books from its canon. 
This impulse to de-canonize unwelcome biblical books did not begin with Luther. The heretic Marcion had done so on a grand scale as early as the second century, rejecting the Old Testament in toto and much of the New Testament as well (even as Luther disparaged several New Testament books which did not support his theology).

Again, we might recognize Marcionite tendencies in the popular conceptions of God that permeate our modern society: “I like to think of god as loving and tolerant.” Or, “The god I know and worship is inclusive and accepting.” (The lower-case ‘god’ in each instance is significant.) To be sure, these sentiments contain elements of truth, even as Marcion’s lopsided notions contained a degree of truth; but these are reductionistic representations of God, contortions of God’s actual character.

Related, many Christians continue to hold confused and mistaken impressions about how God has revealed himself in the Bible. They might not assert, with Marcion, that Israel’s God and the Church’s God are two different Gods entirely; but they might assume from some of the harsher passages in the Old Testament (mainly in Joshua, 1 Samuel, and a handful of Psalms) that the God of the Old Testament was angry and vindictive, until Jesus came along and introduced the kind and forgiving God of the New Testament. This is a distortion of the Old Testament and a misreading of the New (we clarify all of this in our Emmaus Institute courses!), but it traces through a long history, with roots as far back as the second century.

Returning to an earlier point, the Bible teaches, and the Church affirms, that God is both tough and tender; in fact, both Testaments reveal God as such. This is not an Old Testament/New Testament issue at all. Moreover, while it is true that God does on occasion express anger toward sin and its destructive and threatening effects, both Testaments highlight the tender side of God as dominant. 

In other words, tough and tender are not equal with God; God’s attributes, we might say, are asymmetrical, with the tender side the more pronounced and “natural.” Tenderness (love, mercy, patience, forgiveness) is God’s primary disposition, even if at times he must act “out of character” (as does any truly loving father).

Marcion got it all wrong. His views were rejected as heresy then, and so they remain today.