Marcionism and the New Mood

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There is a New Mood in evangelicalism. The New Mood can be found in emergent writers like Brian McLaren who speak mockingly about the wrath of God and dismissively about the reality of eternal punishment. The New Mood can be found in Christian academics who marginalize, or even deny, the concept of penal substitution. The New Mood can be found in megachurch pastors who argue that the essence of Christianity is that Jesus “shows us the best way to live.” The New Mood can be found in bestsellers like The Shack with its claims that “The Bible doesn’t teach you to follow rules” (197), God doesn’t need to punish sin (120), and the biblical portrayal of God’s justice is caricatured as an blood-thirsty God who runs around killing people all the time (119).

The New Mood is squeamish about hell and uncomfortable with God’s wrath. The New Mood envisions a Christianity where the attribute of God’s love eclipses all other attributes, especially God’s justice and power. The New Mood tells the Christian story not first of all (or at all) as good news about a Substitute who saves us from the wrath of God, but as a message which means to inspire us to live a life of sacrifice and shalom.

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Marcion was born in Sinope in 85 AD in the northern province of Pontus (in what is now Turkey) right on the coast of the Black Sea. Marcion, the son of a Bishop, was an intelligent, capable, hard, unbending, vain, rich, ambitious man. He made his way to Rome sometime between 135-139 AD and was accepted as Christian into the church there. He even gave a large gift to the congregation–200,000 sesterces (worth over a hundred year’s wages). His stint in the church at Rome, however, did not last long. He was formerly excommunicated in 144 AD and his lavish gift promptly returned.

Marcion was one of the most successful heretics in the early church. He was opposed by everyone who was anyone. For nearly a century after his death, he was the arch-heretic, opposed by Polycarp (who called him the firstborn of Satan), Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement, Tertullian, Hippolytus, and Origen. He was one of the few heretics that the Greek and Latin Christians united in condemning.

After his excommunication, he traveled around the world as a missionary for his version of Christianity. And he won a lot of converts. According to Tertullian, he planted churches as “wasps make nests”, teaching men “to deny that God is the maker of all things in heaven and earth and the Christ predicted by the prophets is his Son.” Marcion’s church was rigorous, demanding, inspiring, well-organized, and for about a century fairly successful.

Marcion’s theological errors (and there were many) came from one main root. He refused to believe that the God of the Old Testament was the same as the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. Marcion could simply not believe in a God full of wrath and justice. So he threw away the Old Testament and took for his Bible a truncated version of Luke’s Gospel and selectively edited versions of Paul’s epistles. When all the cutting and pasting was finished, Marcion had the Christianity he wanted: a God of goodness and nothing else; a message of inspiring moral uplift; a Bible that does away with the uncomfortable bits about God’s wrath and hell. Marcionism was anitnomian, idealistic about human potential, and skittish about dogma and rules.

Here’s how Angela Tilby describes Marcion in Heresies and How to Avoid Them: Why it Matters What Christians Believe (edited by Ben Quash and Michael Ward):

For him, there was a fundamental contradiction between law and love, righteousness and grace. Marcion thought that true Christianity was flawed by the incompatibilities at the heart of its teaching. His solution was radical. Nothing less than a restatement of faith would do, and for Marcion that restatement had to focus on what for him was the essential gospel: the love, mercy and compassion displayed in the life and teachings of Jesus. This, for him, was all that was necessary, it was the blueprint for a new and pure humanity. There was no other truly Christian foundation for belief or morality.

What Marcion couldn’t bear was the note of judgment that went along with the preaching of the Christian message, the warnings that came with the teaching of the law, the call to obedience and the threat of hell. For Marcion, the picture of God given in [Exodus 20:18-20], a God whose presence is manifest in thunder and lightning and smoke on the mountain, was simply unbelievable. A God who makes his people tremble with fear, a God with whom they are afraid to communicate, could not be the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. In fact, passages like this seemed to him to cast doubt on the central claim of the gospel. As he saw it, the Christianity of his day needed purging so that the pure gospel could be received in all its radical simplicity and appeal to the heart (75).

The idea of recasting Christianity for a new day–in softer, gentler hues, more focused on the life of Jesus instead of the death of Jesus–sounds familiar, does it not? Listen to some of the country’s most popular preachers, or to some of the loudest voices in the emergent conversation, or to some of the bestselling Christian books and you will find that Marcionism is alive and well.

The New Mood is not that new after all.

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