In this new series we take a look back at some of the most notorious errors and
heresies that have threatened the church over the centuries, as well as the subtle (and not so subtle) ways in
which those false teachings continue to haunt 21st century thought and theology.
When Marcion arrived in Rome in the year 140 A.D. he must have made quite an impression. He had already made himself a comfortable fortune as an armorer and as the owner of a ship. He arrived from Sinope, a city in Pontus, situated on the north shore of modern Turkey. Whether he was a young man of thirty or a well-seasoned man in his fifties seems uncertain. He was the son of the bishop of Sinope, an educated Christian, and he appeared eager to become active in the Roman congregations. He generously gave 200,000 sesterces to the churches in Rome for their charities. That’s one hundred years of a working man’s salary! But all did not remain well.
He began asking questions, such as, “What did Jesus mean when He spoke of new wine and old wineskins?” “What did He mean when He spoke of good and evil trees and their fruit?” He wasn’t satisfied with the answers he received, and a serious rift developed. His generous donation was returned and he was excommunicated in A.D. 144. He formed a rival church which grew rapidly in the heart of Rome and spread widely.
What did he teach? With carefully cherry-picked passages, he sought to show that the Creator-God (the Just-God) of the Old Testament was utterly inferior to the Good-God of the New Testament. This Creator ruled a purely material kingdom, ruled by force and law, and was often arbitrary and angry and cruel. The realm of Marcion’s Good-God was the invisible world of spirit, and was ruled by free grace. In it was no punishment, but only the persuasion of love. Thus, he compared Jesus, Who stretched forth His hands and saved the world, to Moses, whose hands were held up until the enemy was destroyed. Elijah brought fire from heaven upon the soldiers, while Jesus forbade His disciples to do the same. Moses commanded “an eye for an eye,” while Jesus tells us to “turn the other cheek.” By their fruit you will know them. He rejected the “bad fruit” of the Just-God.
In this way, he rejected the entire Old Testament, and all the apostles too, except for Saint Paul. Only Paul rejected the Just-God and his laws. In Marcion’s canon, only ten of Paul’s letters and most of the Gospel of Luke were left of the Bible. Even the Christmas story was removed since, in Marcion’s view, Jesus only seemed to be physical and was not really born!
According to Marcion, Jesus saved us by showing He was stronger than the Just-God, who in retaliation caused His crucifixion. This crucifixion had no atoning power to save, however. We are saved merely by believing in the Good-God.
Followers of Marcion continued to exist for several centuries before slowly dying out.
But the echoes still resonate.
For example, the view that the God of the Old Testament is totally different from Jesus and the God of the New Testament is still very much alive in Mormonism.
The desire for a kinder, gentler God, one who does not justly punish sin, who is never angry, and who loves the sinner just as he is follows Marcion.
So-called “Red Letter Christianity,” with its stress on the words of Christ, easily leads to a devaluing of the Old Testament and flirts with Marcionism.
Gospel reductionism is a theology that teaches that only part of the Bible is God’s Word—the part which directly communicates the Gospel. The rest is a creation of man. This imitates Marcion.
Those who deny the existence of hell, or who deny that the Christian has any need of the Law of God, are following in the footsteps of Marcion.
We were not surprised to find that there is even a web-site proudly promoting modern Marcionism. It would seem that Marcionism is still very much alive among us!
Norman Greve is pastor of St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Iron River, Michigan.