Know Your Heretics: Marcion
The Most Formidable of Heretics
Marcion is one of the most significant heretics in Christian history. His teachings captivated many for centuries after him. Henry Chadwick called Marcion “the most radical and to the church the most formidable of heretics.”
Marcion’s Two Gods and Gutted Bible
Marcion taught that there were two Gods: Yahweh, the cruel God of the Old Testament, and Abba, the kind father of the New Testament. Because of this belief, he eliminated the Old Testament as Scriptures and kept only 10 letters of Paul and two-thirds of Luke’s gospel for his version of the New Testament. He also deleted all references to Jesus’ Jewishness. Marcion’s “New Testament”—the first to be compiled—forced the church to decide on a core of what was considered Scripture: the four Gospels and the letters of Paul.
Making the Bible “More Spiritual”
Marcion’s heretical teachings destroyed the humanity of Christ and assaulted the Christian Scriptures. Because Marcion interpreted Christianity through the lens of a Gnostic philosophy that saw all created things as evil, he wanted to dismiss anything from the Bible that was concerned with the earthly realm. This caused him to cut from the Bible most of the Old and New Testament birth narratives. In his book Antitheses he made a list of what he saw as contradictions between the Old and New Testaments. He saw the God of the Old Testament as the creator of a miserable world, as the author of evil, and as nothing like the Father of Jesus. Because of his disdain for the material world, Marcion argued that any divine redeemer could not be born of a woman. For this reason, he rejected the story of Jesus’ birth.
Tertullian and Irenaeus Lead the Charge Against Marcion
Marcion’s heresy prompted the church to push back and officially recognize the Old Testament as Scripture. Furthermore, his rejection of the humanity of Jesus energized the church to develop a complete defense of it. Tertullian did exactly this in his work Against Marcion in 207-208. Tertullian saw Marcion’s denial of Christ’s humanity as detrimental to Christianity: “The sufferings of Christ will be found not to warrant faith in him. For he suffered nothing [if he] 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.” Irenaeus also challenged Marcion, saying,
- He mutilated the Gospel according to Luke, removing all the narratives of the Lord’s birth, and also removing much of the teaching of the discourses of the Lord wherein he is most manifestly described as acknowledging the maker of this universe to be his father. Thus [Marcion] persuaded his disciples that he himself was more trustworthy than the apostles, who handed down the Gospel; though he gave to them not a Gospel but a fragment of a Gospel.
Irenaeus writes, Marcion “says that salvation will be of our souls only, of those souls which have learned his teaching; the body, because… it is taken from the earth, cannot partake in salvation.” While Marcion was excommunicated from the church in Rome in 144, because he was a wealthy man, he was able to establish quite a following through the next several centuries.
Marcion’s Views Alive Today
Marcion is relevant today because some contemporary wacky teachings about Jesus and the Bible are merely a restating of his ancient heresies. In his book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins 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 that of Marcion and still wreaks havoc in the church today. Tertullian was right that if Christ was not truly human then he could not truly suffer, and if he did not truly suffer, then he cannot be the one who has identified with us as fallen human beings, winning our salvation by his atoning death and life-giving resurrection.