Sanctify Them Through Thy Truth (3): Marcion

The Word of God is vital to the health of His Church. Only by it can she be instructed, directed, and safely guarded through a hostile world. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that very early in her history she faced a serious attack on Scripture. On the results of this conflict much depended. Would the people of God be left with a mutilated Bible, arrogantly trimmed to suit the fancies of one man or a group of men? Or would they go on in testimony, garrisoned and guided by the whole counsel of God, Scripture in all its wealth and fullness?

The attack came in the teachings of Marcion of Sinope. Marcion came from Pontus, a Roman province in what is now Turkey. Around the year 140, he came to Rome where he began to spread a novel – and heretical – teaching that attacked both the Church and Scripture. In doing so, he developed tendencies that had already been at work during the lifetime of the apostles and which had been addressed in the epistles.

One of these tendencies was gnosticism. This belief system was a syncretism between Greek philosophy and Christianity and is addressed, particularly, by the epistles to the Galatians and the Colossians. The most important teaching of the gnostics was that matter was inherently evil. As a consequence, they denied the truth of the incarnation, arguing instead that the physical body of the Lord Jesus was an illusion and that He remained at all times an incorporeal spirit (a view known as doceticism). Marcion added a new twist to this teaching, arguing that the Bible spoke of two Gods: the God of the Jews Who had created matter and the God of the New Testament Who was utterly transcendent, loving, and compassionate. This view had major implications for Marcion’s view of Judaism, the Old Testament, and the gospels.

As the Acts of the Apostles and the epistles make clear, tensions between saved Jews and Gentiles within the church were nothing new – they had been a recurring problem throughout the first century. Now, in Marcion’s teachings, this tension rose, once more, to the surface.

Marcion has been described as a “theological anti-Semite.” And, that anti-Semitism was most clearly seen in his view of Scripture. As the Old Testament spoke of a Jewish God, Marcion entirely repudiated its authority for and relevance to the Christian church. Nor did he stop there. He recognized that much of the New Testament was based firmly on Old Testament Scripture, and set about to “purify” Scripture of this inheritance. He thought very highly of the writings of Paul, but rejected the authority of the other apostles because, as he saw it, their Christianity was corrupted by their Jewish background and inclination. Moreover, the gospels were also not to be trusted; they had been tampered with by Judaizers intent on distorting the life and the message of Christ.

In the light of this there was nothing to be done but to produce a “purified” version of Scripture. This Marcion did. He produced a canon of his own. This consisted of two parts. The first was “The Gospel,” a “de-Judaized” version of the gospel of Luke. The second was called “The Apostle,” and comprised a cleaned up version of the first ten Pauline epistles.

Marcion’s arrogance was staggering. On no authority but his own, he had launched a full-scale attack on the text of Scripture. Only what he deemed suitable could be allowed to take its place in the canon of Scripture, never mind that the end result was a grotesque distortion of both the nature and the content of Scripture.

The response of the churches to this onslaught was decisive. It also provided ample proof of the truth of 1 Corinthians 11:19: “For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you.” Marcion’s attack on truth led directly to truth being more clearly defined and most doughtily defended. His deformed and stunted canon is, in fact, the first such list that we have. There was a virtually unanimous agreement among the churches about which books ought to be regarded as the authoritative Scripture. In spite of this, indeed because of it, no one had previously seen the need to list which books were Scripture. Now, in response to Marcion and his teaching, that commonly accepted canon was explicitly stated and defended. This earliest surviving orthodox canon is usually called the Muratonian Canon, after L. A. Muratori the antiquarian who discovered it in 1740. In addition “anti-Marcionit”’ prologues to each of the four gospels were written, setting out the reasons for their inclusion in the canon of Scripture. They also vigorously defended the importance of the Acts of the Apostles, which was entirely discarded by Marcion.

The response to Marcion’s ideas had a broader and more general implication. His teachings enjoyed considerable success and the evidence available to us suggests that he attracted a large number of followers. As a result, those doctrines that he particularly attacked had to be defined with greater care, and the Scriptural truth about these subjects was set out with greater and more scrupulous accuracy.

Despite its widespread condemnation, Marcionism showed a surprising vitality and continued as a sort of alternative church for several centuries. Even when Marcionism proper died out, some of his ideas endured, and Marcion-like heresies have continued to crop up throughout the history of the church.

The contemporary relevance of this second century attack on Scripture is all too sadly evident. Though many of the claims made by so-called Higher Critics of a past century have been revealed as the unscholarly and unscientific falsehoods that they undoubtedly were, there are not wanting those who would leave us with less than “the faith which was once delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). We need not look as far as the blasphemous excesses of the “Jesus seminar,” where theologians meet to decide, with a supreme arrogance which would be ludicrous if it were not so appallingly blasphemous, to decide which of the words of Christ recorded in the gospels were actually spoken by the Lord Jesus. We find a Marcion-like tendency wherever any portion of God’s Word is placed off-limits, wherever all of the Bible is not allowed its appropriate place of authority. And we need to guard against it in our own lives. While we would never dream of mutilating our Bibles, never dream of drawing a red pen – or a penknife – through the words of Scripture, we need constantly to guard against ignoring or disregarding any portion or part of the Word of God. We need it all, and if we wish to bear faithful testimony to Christ, we must be prepared to take heed to “all the counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).