The History of Christianity #39
Our Scripture verse today is 1 John 4:1 which reads: “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.”
Our quote today is from Vance Havner. He said: “The early Christians condemned false doctrine in a way that sounds almost unchristian today.”
Today, we are looking at “The Deposit of the Faith” (Part 4) from Dr. Justo L. Gonzalez’s fine book, The Story of Christianity (Volume 1).
Marcion, whose father was a bishop of Sinope on the southern coast of the Black Sea, knew Christianity from an early age. But he profoundly disliked both Judaism and the material world. He thus developed an understanding of Christianity that was both anti-Jewish and anti-material. He went to Rome, around the year 144 AD, and there he gathered a following. But eventually the church at large came to the conclusion that his doctrines contradicted several fundamental points in Christian doctrine. He then founded his own church , which lasted for several centuries as a rival to the orthodox church.
Since Marcion was convinced that the world is evil, he came to the conclusion that its creator must be either evil or ignorant – or both. But instead of positing a long series of spiritual beings, as the Gnostics did, Marcion proposed a much simpler solution. According to him, the God and Father of Jesus is not the same as Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament. It was Yahweh who made this world. The Father’s purpose was to have only a spiritual world. But Yahweh, either through ignorance or out of evil intent, made this world and placed humankind in it — a theme that one finds in many Gnostic writings as well.
This means that the Hebrew scriptures are indeed inspired by a god, although this is Yahweh, and not the Supreme Father. Yahweh is an arbitrary god, who chooses a particular people above all the rest. And he is also vindictive, constantly keeping an account on those who disobey him, and punishing them. In short, Yahweh is a god of justice – and of an arbitrary justice at that.
Over against Yahweh, and far above him, is the Father of Christians. This God is not vindictive, but loving. This God requires nothing of us, but rather gives everything freely, including salvation. This God does not seek to be obeyed, but to be loved. It is out of compassion for us — Yahweh’s creatures — that the Supreme God has sent his Son to save us. But Jesus was not really born of Mary, since such a thing would have made him subject to Yahweh. Rather, he simply appeared as a grown man during the reign of Tiberius, and his body was not made of material flesh. Naturally, at the end there will be no judgment, since the Supreme God is absolutely loving, and will simply forgive us.
All of this led Marcion to set the Hebrew scriptures aside. If the Old Testament was the Word of an inferior god, it should not be read in the churches, nor used as the basis of Christian instruction. In order to fill this gap, Marcion compiled a list of books that he considered true Christian scriptures. These were the Epistles of Paul – according to Marcion, one of the few who had really understood Jesus’ message – and the Gospel of Luke, who had been Paul’s companion. All other ancient Christian books were plagued by Jewish views. As to the many quotations from the Old Testament in Luke and Paul, Marcion explained them away as interpolations – the handiwork of Judaizers seeking to subvert the original message.
Marcion posed an even greater threat to the church than did the Gnostics. Like them, he rejected or radically reinterpreted the doctrines of creation, incarnation, and resurrection. But he went beyond them in that he organized a church with its own bishops and its own scripture. For a number of years, this rival church achieved a measure of success, and even after it was clearly defeated it lingered on for centuries.
Next time, we will look at The Response: Canon, Creed, and Apostolic Succession in The Deposit of the Faith.