Marcion and the Formation of Scripture

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Many people seek to divide the Old Testament from the New Testament. The God of the Old Testament, people claim, is a mean vindictive God who is more about wrath than love. Jesus, by contrast, is a God of love and compassion and forgiveness. This is most likely due to the misrepresentation of Jesus as a fluffy dove who wouldn’t hurt a fly.

While this is wrong, it is not new. In fact, this is one of the oldest plays in the book as far as church history is concerned. I will introduce you to a man named Marcion who advocated many of the charges heard against the bible today, and was roundly refuted by the early church. This shows the importance of church history in the life of a Christian. We stand in a long line of men who have gone through many of the same challenges we have, and have held the line. This controversy also has something to say about the formation of the canon of scripture into the bible that we see today.

Confrontation with the “Shipmaster of Pontus”

Marcion was a rich businessman with an interest in church affairs. As is often true in such cases, his money gave him the opportunity to propagate his own peculiar theology. He was from Sinope, a port city in the region of Pontus along the Black Sea. From that base he made his fortune in international shipping. But even as a young man, his theology was beginning to go astray. Marcion’s Father, who was probably a bishop, was forced to excommunicate his son for heresy. So what was a young, rich, charismatic, excommunicant to do? Go to Rome, of course, and see what doors his money might open there. Marcion did just that. Around the year AD 140 he arrived in Rome and made a huge donation to the church. But when the leaders found out what he was actually teaching, to their credit they returned the sum in full and excommunicated Marcion again. Yet this powerful man did not disappear off the scene. He became the overseer of a widespread network of Marcionite churches—which the orthodox of a widespread network of Marcionite churches—which the orthodox church leaders understood to be the work of Satan. Justin Martyr, who was living in Rome at the time, wrote, “Many have believed this man [Marcion], as if he alone knew the truth; and they laugh at us, though they have no proof of what they say, but are carried away irrationally as lambs by a wolf, and become the prey of atheistic doctrines and of devils.” Likewise we learn that Polycarp once ran into Marcion at Rome but completely ignored him. Apparently Marcion was feeling a little insecure about his reputation that day, for he demanded of the bishop, “Acknowledge me!” “I do acknowledge you,” replied Polycarp. “You are the firstborn of Satan!” This was probably not the reply Marcion was looking for.

What made the church fathers so angry at Marcion? Why would Tertullian take five volumes to demolish this heretic? The nature of his doctrine was so egregious that the orthodox writers—from Justin Martyr to Irenaeus to Tertullian and beyond—all felt compelled to refute him. In a nutshell, Marcion taught that there were two Gods. Playing off Marcion’s former occupation, Tertullian wrote, “The heretic of Pontus introduces two Gods, like the twin Clashing Rocks of his own shipwreck: One whom it is impossible to deny, our Creator; and one whom he will never be able to prove, a god of his own.” The God that Marcion saw in the Old Testament was cruel, arbitrary, petty, warlike, and stupid. He was more than simply a God of strict justice: he was literally a very mean God. This deity even said horrible things such as “I create evil” (Isa. 45:7) In contrast, Jesus came to announce a new or “alien” God. The Father God was loving, kind, and forgiving. According to Marcion, the Jews worshiped the old Creator who had fashioned our contemptible world. But all along there has always been another God. Formerly unknown to humankind, he eventually sent Jesus to tell us that our sins are automatically forgiven without any punishment. Jesus’s purpose was to announce universal salvation. To do this he did not really need a human body; So Marcion (like the Gnostics) was a docetist who denied a real incarnation. Against such nonsense Tertullian fired this sarcastic bullet: “You may, I assure you, more easily find a man born without a heart and brains, like Marcion himself, than without a body, like Marcion’s Christ!” For the orthodox church fathers, Marcionite theology simply was not Christian doctrine.

(105-106)

It is fair to say that Marcion is probably one of the most hated figures in history. He so enraged the early church with his writings that just about every church father we have writings on felt the need to write against him. Some wrote volumes! However, he did not only challenge sound doctrine, he also challenged the scriptures themselves.

Marcion’s dislike for the God of the Jews had profound implications for his understanding of the Bible. He completely rejected the Old Testament as being relevant for Christians. With respect to the New Testament, Marcion accepted only the Gospel of Luke and the letters of Paul. Why these works alone? Marcion saw himself as the true inheritor of Paul. Only the great Apostle to the Gentiles got the message right and remained uninfected by Jewish ideas. Form Marcion’s radical point of view, the law/grace distinction in Paul’s writings became a distinction between two different deities, each with his own set of scriptures. Marcion thought that the letters of Paul and the “Gentile” Gospel of Luke contained many statements that were antithetical to the God seen in the Old Testament. Of course, anything that smacked of high regard for Judaism in Luke and Paul was edited away as a supposed corruption of their actual teaching. By settling on an edited form of the Pauline epistles and the Gospel of Luke, Marcion was one of the first figures to delineate which writings he viewed as “biblical.” For this reason he was an influential figure in the history of the canon of scripture. As I promised in chapter 3, I will now say a few words about that subject.

The Canon of Scripture

The word “canon” comes from the Greek word kanon, which referred to a straight reed used as a measuring rod. Books that are canonical “measure up” to the ultimate standard, thus becoming a measure of truth themselves. The process of canonization for the Old and New Testaments followed different courses. The early Christians had embraced the Jewish scriptures from the very beginning. While they were not always clear about the exact boundaries of some disputed writings, the core books of the law and the prophets invariably possessed authoritative status in the church. However, the ancient Christians did not at first refer to these works as the “Old Testament.” They were simply called “Scripture,” and quotations were often introduced with the formula “It is written…” The earliest believers did not have any awareness of a second “Testament” to compliment the first. For them the scriptures were the sacred writings that Jesus himself had read and interpreted. It took some time for the church to realize that another distinct Testament had been delivered to the human race. In this process of recognition, we can discern four stages:

  1. First Century: Writing of the Biblical Texts. Most evangelical scholars would agree that all twenty-seven books which comprise the New Testament were completed by the end of the first century. It is important to note that from a theological perspective, the inspired books are scripture from the very moment of their writing. So when we discuss the issue of the canon, we are talking about the biblical books being recognized for what they are. This process took several centuries. The ancient church did not create God’s Word, but simply identified it as such over time.
  2. Second Century: Authoritative Core Texts, With Some Dispute. During the second century the core of the New Testament came to have widespread authority throughout the church. This is not to say the biblical writings had possessed no authority before, for they certainly did. But what we find in the early to mid-second century is that Christianity became more of a book-based religion than it had been previously. Back in the apostolic days, the eyewitnesses of Jesus were still alive, so Christianity was spread through verbal proclamation rather than through texts. At that time it was still primarily an oral religion. The situation obviously changed in the second century, and thus the faith became more literary. There was a greater sense that the Christian religion possessed its own central books. During this period the four Gospels and the letters of Paul crystallized as core works. Other important writings such as Acts, 1 John, and 1 Peter were widely viewed as authoritative as well. However, there were some New Testament books that the early believers were unsure about (such as the tiny letters of 2 and 3 John). And there were other uninspired writings, such as an epistle thought to have been written by Barnabas, which some Chrsitians believed might belong in the canon. So the shape of the canon at this time was an authoritative core, with fuzzy edges.
  3. Third Century: Awareness of a Two-Testament Bible. As we said in chapter 3, Irenaeus was the first to use the term “New Testament” in connection with a body of writings. A little later Tertullian was even more clear in his usage of this term. IN fact, he is the church father to whom we assign the honor of giving us the literal term “New Testament” (from the Latin novum testamentum). If Irenaeus was somewhat vague about what he meant, two decades later Tertullian certainly operated with a conception of the “New Testament” as a distinct scriptural corpus. We see, then, that at the dawn of the third century a new awareness arose among the Christian faithful: that their Bible was comprised of both an Old and a New Testament. The church continued to function with this awareness for more than a century, until Emperor Constantine’s imperial acceptance of Christianity finally enabled church leaders to make some official pronouncements about the extent of the biblical canon.
  4. Fourth Century: List-making, Exclusion, and Final Closure of the Canon. When the church found itself no longer persecuted by the Roman authorities, and instead being favored by the emperor, it gained new opportunities to define its sacred canon. Emperor Constantine told his trusted adviser Eusebius to have fifty official copies of the scriptures made for use in prominent congregations. Eusebius took great interest in the matter of the canon, listing out those books he believed to be definitely canonical, possibly canonical, and certainly not canonical. His canon list was one of many written up during the fourth century. The first canon list in all of church history to clearly and unequivocally accept the twenty-seven books of the New Testament was composed by Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria in the year AD 367. Thirty years later, a council at Carthage ratified this same list (except for Revelation, which was added a few years after that). So we must view the canonization of the New Testament as a centuries-long process. It was begun informally as soon as people like Peter started calling Paul’s epistles “scripture” (2 Pet. 3:16). But it wasn’t really completed until around the year AD 400. Form this point on, the church has possessed a closed New Testament canon.

(107-110)

Litfin, Bryan M. Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction. Grand Rapids: Brazos. 2007. Print.

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