Beware a Trimmed Down Religion
Posted under The Rectory Bulletin | Sundays
I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen. (Romans 9:1–5).
History is littered with the accounts of wayward sons who bring great shame and disappointment to their parents, but amongst them I think few would have matched Marcion. Born in the early second century, his Christian parents would no doubt have seen his birth as a gift from God. He was brought up on the shores of the Black Sea in Sinope, and his father was well known to the church. In fact he ended up as a bishop, but unfortunately his son did not follow in his footsteps. The story is taken up by Epiphanus (315–403) and it sounds like a second-century forerunner of EastEnders:
In early life he supposedly practiced celibacy, for he was a hermit and the son of a bishop of our holy catholic church. But in time he unfortunately became acquainted with a virgin, cheated the virgin of her hope and degraded both her and himself, and for seducing her was excommunicated by his own father. For because of his extreme piety his father was one of those illustrious men who take great care of the church, and was exemplary in the exercise of his episcopal office. Though Marcion begged and pleaded many times, if you please, for penance, he could not obtain it from his own father. For the distinguished old bishop was distressed not only because Marcion had fallen, but because he was bringing the disgrace on him as well.
Marcion made his way to Rome and began to develop some rather distinctive teachings, which led to a further excommunication in 144AD. But he was unbowed! He continued to organise and teach with the result that small communities of his followers sprang up across the Roman Empire. The church, dismayed by this turn of events, responded with a flurry of writings to oppose Marcion. From Corinth, Lyons, Antioch, Carthage, Rome and Alexandra came treatises which sought to defend the church from the writings of the this twice excommunicated son of a Bishop.
So what was the issue? What was Marcion teaching which caused such problems? At its heart he held that there was a God of the Old Testament and a God of the New Testament. The first was cruel, and the second was love, and the mission of Jesus was to defeat that Old Testament God through his teachings. As a result of this we should get rid of the Old Testament entirely. It is a work dealing with this cruel God and is of no real value. We should also get rid of those bits of the New Testament which show a strong Jewish influence, such at Matthew’s Gospel. In fact, what was left once Marcion had got out his red pen was an edited version of the Gospel of Luke and ten of Paul’s letters.
Centuries later the third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, could be found bending over his Bible and carefully cutting out small squares of text using a razor. These bits of the Bible - the bits he liked - he then pasted into another book so that he constructed a version of the Scriptures which he could live with. Gone were the miracles of Christ, and what was bound between the red leather covers was a teacher of morality alone.
Both the president and the bishop’s son bear witness to a tendency which has long dogged Christianity, the tendency to refashion the faith so that it sits more comfortably with the morality of the day. Extraordinarily, in the 1930s many New Testament scholars under the Nazi regime managed to argue that Jesus wasn’t Jewish at all. He simply was the son of Mary and Roman solder barracked in Galilee!
It is ironic that Marcion kept the Epistle to the Romans in his slimmed down Bible, as in the passage above Paul is reflecting on the history of the Jews which is, of course, the Apostle’s own history. The Old Testament contains a record of the activity and words of God as he begins to reveal himself to the human race. As we read through its pages we discover unfolding the great blueprint of the plan which God will use to reconcile people to himself. The call of Abraham, the giving of the Law to Moses, the Temple, even the very words of the prophets all find their fulfilment in Christ. The Old Testament is the blueprint, and Jesus is the building itself.
Take away the Old Testament, and you lose the plans to the building. You might manage to build something looking roughly like the vision the architect had. Or you might not. In the New Testament, we find Jesus described in words and phrases which have their roots in the Old Testament. Jesus is the Last Adam (1 Corinthians 15:45), his body is the Temple (John 2:21), he is the Lamb sacrificed at Passover (1 Corinthians 5:7) and he is the great High Priest (Hebrews 4:14). The Old Testament is the beginning of a great road which has its destination in Christ. It is necessary.
This is why Paul is in such anguish about the future of the Jews. They have all the guidebooks and maps they need in the Old Testament and he longs for them to see that all this points to Christ. We have a snapshot of how he puts this understanding into practice in Acts 17:2-3, when he arrives in Thessalonica. His first stop is the local synagogue, and Luke takes up the story:
And Paul went in, has was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.”
“He reasoned with them from the Scriptures”.
Marcion’s great error was to create two gods out of the Bible. He failed to see that it is, in fact, a single story. He was too quick to dismiss the things he found uncomfortable, and ironically created a god in his own image. It was this error which led Thomas Jefferson to his razor and glue, and a reconstructed Jesus with the values of an American gentleman.
We can, and should, do better. After all,
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)