Soundings

Marcionism

Jul 2013    

AMIDST THE CONFUSION and chaos of the early Church’s battle against Gnosticism, there emerged the enigmatic figure of Marcion of Sinope, whose father was the Bishop of Pontus.

As a young man, Marcion left Pontus and travelled extensively in Asia, before finally settling in Rome. But in AD 144, he was expelled from the Church in Rome, probably due to his heretical leanings.

Marcion founded a church that sought to be a virulent antagonist to the Catholic or universal Church. According to the historical theologian Justo Gonzalez, this distinguished Marcion from other Gnostic teachers who established schools but never churches. It also made him “one of the most dangerous rivals of orthodox Christianity”.

The question that vexed Marcion was how it could be possible to reconcile the God of love revealed in Jesus Christ with the God of wrath he found in the pages of the Old Testament (OT). The solution that Marcion proposed was to simply drive a wedge between the god of the OT and the benevolent

Deity revealed in Christ. The god of the OT is the creator who brought this world into being, a task unworthy of the true God.

This bifurcation of the God of the Scriptures in turn led Marcion to privilege the New Testament (NT) over the Old. In fact, Marcion blatantly refused to acknowledge the OT as Sacred Scriptures.

Even the NT is not spared from his mutilating censorship, and is reduced to only the Gospel of Luke and the letters of Paul. Furthermore, even the bits in Luke that allude to a wrathful God were also excised.

Marcion’s God is likewise relieved of all perceived contradictions like love and wrath, justice and mercy. According to Marcion, the true God is unbounded love, and He has remained hidden until He was finally revealed in Christ.

But Marcion’s Christ is also not spared from his revisionist theology. Just as there are two gods, so there are two Christs: the authentic Christ is associated with the true God, while the political Messiah issued from the lesser deity, the creator. For Marcion, the authentic Christ could not possibly have taken upon himself human flesh, for that would mean that he would possess a body “stuffed with excrement”.

Marcion’s metaphysical dualism that sees spirit and matter as two distinct and separate entities is surely reminiscent of Gnostic philosophy. Even his idea of two gods – the “unknown” god over and above the creator – is common among Gnostic writers like Cerinthius and Basilides.

This has led the early fathers of the Church, especially Tertullian, to conclude that Marcion was indeed a Gnostic, who promoted his own somewhat idiosyncratic version of the highly malleable and elusive heresy.

But Marcion remains an enigmatic figure in the sense that there are aspects of his teaching that did not fit neatly into the Gnostic system. Marcion did not teach that salvation could only be attained through the acquisition of a secret knowledge, a dogma central to Gnostic soteriology. Neither did Marcion embrace the variegated and often bewildering mythologies, numerologies and astrologies associated with the Gnostic sects.

These important differences led the influential historian of Christian thought, Adolf von Harnack, to conclude that Marcion was an original thinker who developed a unique interpretation of Christianity and its Bible. However, it is perhaps more reasonable to postulate – following Gonzalez – that Marcion promoted a form of Paulinism: a theological and religious system that is based on a peculiar and jaundiced interpretation of Paul. Be that as it may, Marcionism serves as an important reminder to the contemporary Church that the Bible must be read in its entirety.

Christians should avoid Marcion’s mistake of favouring Paul over Matthew, or privileging the New Testament over the Old.

Instead they should follow John Wesley, who famously insisted that “The  Scripture … of the Old and New Testaments, is a most solid and precious system of divine truth. Every part thereof is worthy of God; and all together are one entire body, wherein is no defect, no excess. It is the fountain of heavenly wisdom, which they who are able to taste, prefer to all writings of men, however wise, or learned, or holy”.

Picture by Terry Evans/Bigstock.com

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity College. Hr worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.

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