An Old Heresy Resurfacing: Modern Day Marcionism

by Bill Meuhlinberg on April 21, 2020


“If you return,then I will bring you back, you shall stand before Me;

If you separate the precious from the vile,you shall be as My mouth.."
(Jeremiah 15:19)


Modern-Day Marcionism
By Bill Muehlenberg

If you are not up on your Marcionism, I encourage you to get with the program. More specifically, I encourage you to learn about Marcion and his teachings. And while you are at it, also look into Santayana. The latter is a Spanish philosopher of last century who once famously stated, “Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.”

Thus if a Christian does not know his history – or particularly his church history – he will likely repeat the mistakes of Marcion. So who was he and what was his error? He was a second century bishop who was condemned for his heretical teachings, including his views on God and the Old Testament.

In brief, he regarded the God of the Old Testament as a vengeful, harsh, vindictive and judgmental God, who in fact was not the same as the God of the New Testament. On the other hand, he taught, the God of the NT was a loving, compassionate and gracious God.

He not only posited a radical disjunction between God as found in the two Testaments, but between the OT and the NT itself, and between Israel and the church. His utter rejection of Judaism and the OT was just part of his heresy. He was a major proponent of Paul – or as one historian put it, he had an “Exaggerated Paulinism” – so much so that he chopped the NT canon down to just 11 books: ten epistles of Paul and part of Luke.

In his view the OT God was simply a demiurge, an inferior God, who created the world, and the evil in it. Such a God had to be rejected for the good God of the New, the Father of Jesus Christ. His teaching was denounced as heresy, and was opposed by many, most notably, Tertullian. His five-volume treatise Adversus Marcionem (Against Marcion), written about 208, is where we learn the most about Marcion and his teachings.

His teachings were not unlike some forms of Gnosticism, although he differed in some points from them. Because of his many serious theological errors, he was eventually disfellowshiped in 144. He was not the first heretic the early church had to contend with, nor was he the last.

Now my point in raising all this ancient history is not just to tickle the intellectual palettes of a few church history buffs or theology lovers out there. No, I discuss this because it seems that Marcionism has not disappeared, but can be found in many of our churches today – even in our so-called Bible-believing churches.

Many contemporary Christians act as if they are in fact closet Marcionites. They too have a very low view of the OT, and tend to somehow think that the God of the OT is much different than the God of the NT. They seldom even read the OT, and they tend to shrink away from what they find there when they do read it.

Indeed, we have many believers today trying to resurrect Marcionism. The emergent church often moves along these lines. Many of them assure us that God is not a God of judgement, he is simply into love and acceptance, and probably everyone will be saved anyway. Indeed, according to some popular emergent leaders, hell almost certainly does not even exist.

Then we have the so-called “red letter Christians”. They like to highlight and dwell on the sayings of Jesus in the gospels (sometimes printed in red ink), often to the exclusion of the rest of the Bible. Thus their canon is even more reduced and massacred than that of Marcion.

They seem to forget the words of Paul when he said that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness”
(2 Timothy 3:16). Not just the words of Jesus, but every word. And of course when Paul wrote this, basically only the OT existed for the use of the Christian church.

But the red letter folks want us to have a Jesus who is a bit like someone made in their own image: more of a tree-hugging hippy, flashing the peace sign, than the judge of all the earth. They seem to ignore the fact that there are plenty of red letters found in the book of Revelation, where we read about Jesus the conquering king with blood-covered sword in hand, who executes his just judgments on the wicked – just like the God of the OT in fact.

But these red letters tend to get omitted or overlooked by these folks. That strikes me as another example of Marcionism. When we ignore those parts of Scripture which do not fit in with the trendy social conventions of the day, then we no longer can claim to be biblical Christians.

The simple truth is, God does not change: he is “The same yesterday, today and forever” as Hebrews 13:8 asserts. Nor does Jesus. Jesus is God, and Jesus is unchanging. He is the same and will always be the same. So we have no right to claim that there are two different Gods, or that the God of the OT is somehow radically different from the God of the NT.

Those who actually bother to read the OT will see that the “nice” attributes of God – eg., his love, compassion, grace and forbearance – are just as much in full display there as in the NT. Also, the attributes we tend to shy away from – eg., his holiness, his justice, his wrath against sin, and judgment on evil – are just as much on display in the NT.

In fact we see all these attributes fully displayed at the cross. It is at once a marvellous display of his grace, love and forgiveness, as well as his hatred of sin and his wrath against all that stands against him and his purposes. As D.A. Carson has put it: “Both God’s love and God’s wrath are ratcheted up in the move from the old covenant to the new…. These themes barrel along through redemptive history, unresolved, until they come to a resounding climax – at the cross.”

Quite so. The need to decisively judge sin is plainly demonstrated here. But so too is God’s overwhelming love for us. All these aspects of God make up who he is. We dare not pick and choose those attributes which we feel comfortable with. We either take God just as he is and just as he presents himself to us, or we reject him altogether.

Selective acceptance of the Biblical text is just not an option for the follower of Christ. Marcion clearly had this problem, big time. But of real concern is this: how many contemporary Christians also have this problem? It seems that we need to not only address this issue in our churches today, but we also need to address the historical and theological amnesia affecting so many of us as well.