History of Doctrine: Enter the Editor – Marcion

The Shipbuilder who Shipwrecked

Heresy often has the strange result of furthering the truth of God. This, of course, is part of the great wonder of the sovereign ways of God. Just such an occasion is instanced by Marcion, a wealthy shipbuilder who, unfortunately, made shipwreck of his own testimony and that of many others.

It was during the early part of the second century that a respected and prosperous merchant and business man named Marcion made his way from Asia minor to Rome. Here he began teaching and gathering a following. His teaching, however, was so radical and unscriptural that in 144 AD he was excommunicated for heresy. Unfortunately, he took a large number of followers with him and set up his own local churches. Such was the popularity of his teaching that it influenced local churches for almost 200 years.

The Dilemma He Pondered

Around him he saw a world marked by suffering and cruelty. How could he reconcile this with the goodness of God? How could a good God create such an evil world? Certainly, his struggle was not unique to his own mind. The theology he posited to answer the problem, however, was new and unique.

Dualism He Proposed

Similar to the Greeks and the Gnostics of his day, Marcion viewed the entire material world as evil. Whoever created such a world had to be either ignorant or evil. Marcions first step, then, was to propose that the Jehovah of the Old Testament was not the same as the God and Father of the New Testament. The Jehovah of the Old Testament was vengeful. He created the world with all its suffering and evil. The Heavenly Father of the New Testament was marked by goodness, love, and mercy. The Jehovah of the O. T. was linked with Israel, the law, and the material world. The Heavenly Father of the N. T. was linked with the church, grace, faith, and spiritual life.

Doctrine He Propounded

Some may begin to think that Marcion was simply another Gnostic with his own unique twist to his theology. But in fact, other than sharing the dualism idea of two separate powers, his views were very divergent from the Gnostics.

He felt that the church had adulterated the pure doctrine of grace. To him, salvation was not through knowledge (Gnostic teaching) but through faith. What was different from the traditional message of the N. T. evangelist is that it was faith in Gods love and goodness. He viewed the N. T. God as having sent His Son into the world to purchase men from the material world of the O. T. God or demiurge as he was called. Now, men had to believe in the goodness and love of this God to be saved.

Since material is evil, Christ did not defile Himself by taking a real body. He assumed an apparent body. He totally repudiated the law and the Old Testament works. The princes of this world crucified Him, but since He did not have a real body, it did not harm Him.

Since flesh and material things were evil, he advocated celibacy. Marriages were not permitted. This did not bode well for the Sunday School work or the future!

The church was guilty of mixing law and O. T. teaching with the pure grace of God. He had come as a reformer to recall the church to the “pure” gospel of grace.

The Difficulty He Surmounted

By this time, an obvious difficulty has suggested itself to your mind. How did Marcion explain away the clear New Testament references to God as the Creator of the universe (John 1, Col 1, Heb 1, among many others)? He did not stoop to the machinations of the Gnostics but repudiated the wild allegorical interpretations which the Gnostic had used to explain away the teaching of so many passages of Scripture. No, Marcion had a better solution. He simply decided what was to be part of the Word of God.” Paul was his hero, but even that was in limited doses. Marcion considered that the Scriptures consisted of ten of Pauls epistles (minus the Pastorals. He did not even think about Hebrews!), and the Gospel of Luke. But even these were edited carefully to support his doctrine. All references to the Father and creation were removed from Pauls epistles and the birth narrative of the Lord Jesus was excised from Lukes account. Marcion discarded these with the explanation that they were inserted by those who were trying to link Christianity with Judaism again. His theology was the antithesis of the law and the Old Testament.

The Defense He Provoked

To the defense of the truth of God came one of the early fathers named Tertullian. If you think reading this article is difficult, try his Five Books Against Marcion when you have a few spare years. In his first book, he argues against the god proposed by Marcion. He shows the nature of Jehovah and the consistency, yet progression, of revelation of God from the Old to the New Testament. The true humanity of Christ and the reality of His death is defended eloquently. But perhaps his greatest contribution is in showing the intimate relationship between the Old and New Testament Scriptures. He shows clearly how that the prophecies of the Old are fulfilled by Christ in the New. It is virtually impossible to summarize his teaching in any single article. His arguments are detailed and definitive. His remarkable grasp of the Old Testament and its prophecies make his, some of the most spiritual Patristic writings we have. He answers Marcion point by point.

Marcion, however, had an even more significant influence. His doctrine made many believers begin to realize that they had been accepting four gospels as part of the Scripture, and that the writings of Paul and others were being recognized as Scripture. They were now challenged in this assumption. Marcion caused many to examine their acceptance of various books and epistles as being the Scriptures.

Keep in mind that the canon was not decided on by a body of clerics. We do not owe our canon of Scripture to some arbitrary decision of a church council. The books recognized and accepted as Scripture were those that the body of believers had already owned and accepted as being the Word of God. It was heresy such as Marcion promulgated which stirred believers to examine the epistles and Gospel accounts which they possessed and had regarded as the Word of God.