Volume 28 - Issue 1
The Marcions Have Landed!By Carl Trueman
When one asks who is one of the most influential thinkers in the modern evangelical church, one might be given names such as Jim Packer, John Stott, and Don Carson. I would like to suggest, however, that there is one whose influence is perhaps much greater than we are aware of, yet whose thinking all but pervades the modern evangelical church: Marcion. He’s the man who gets my vote for the most profound influence on evangelicalism, from canon to theology to worship practices. You never see his books on the shelves in your high street Christian bookshop; you never see him advertised as preaching in your local church; but his spirit stalks those bookshops and pulpits just as surely as I am the editor of Themelios.
Marcion is—or, rather, was—a somewhat shadowy figure, with most of what we know about him coming from the hostile pen of Tertullian. Apparently, Marcion, a native of Pontus (in modern times, the area by the Black Sea), flourished in the middle of the second century, dying circa 160. His major distinctive was his insistence on the Christian gospel as exclusively one of love, to the extent that he came to a complete rejection of the OT and only a qualified acceptance of those parts of the NT which he considered to be consistent with his central thesis (i.e., ten letters of Paul and a recension of the Gospel of Luke).
Marcion, as every first year undergraduate should know, was a heretic and not someone we should particularly wish to claim as a spiritual forebear. Yet, in observing what goes on under the name of evangelicalism today, it is hard not to draw the conclusion that, in the nearly two millennia that have passed since Marcion’s own death, his ideas have more practical influence today than ever before and his followers abound. Indeed, the Marcions have landed: like the aliens in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, they may look normal, indeed, be indistinguishable from the rest, but their agenda will ultimately prove deadly to orthodox Christianity.
What do I mean by this? Well, I think evangelicalism has become practically Marcionite at a number of levels.
First, the emphasis upon God’s love to the utter exclusion of everything else has become something of a commonplace. We see this in the collapse of the notion of penal substitution as an evangelical doctrine. A couple of years ago I was asked by a publisher to provide the jacket commendation for a book on penal substitution by the Oak Hill faculty. This I did, only to find the selfsame publisher misusing my commendation to present a distorted picture of both the book and my own views on its own promotional material. This says something about evangelical market forces which can apparently no longer tolerate a gospel which seeks to do justice not just to John 3:16, but to many of the terrifying acts of God’s judgement which we find throughout the OT and affirmed in the NT. Only by mocking the book and thus its doctrine did the publisher feel it could make a case for selling it to the Christian public. Now, maybe I’m missing something, but of all the things taught in the Bible, the terrifying wrath of God would seem to be among the most self-evident of all. Thus, when I hear statements such as ‘God’s wrath is always restorative’, my mind goes straight to countless OT passages, the Bible’s teaching about Satan, and NT characters such as Ananias and Sapphira. There is not much restoration for any of these folk.—Or was being swallowed alive by the earth, consumed by holy fire and being struck dead for cheating the church actually therapeutic techniques which were intended to restore the individuals, God not realising that such moves would lead to the instant deaths of the victims? And when leading evangelicals (inevitably from the therapeutic context of America and Britain—what a surprise!) tell me that penal substitution is tantamount to cosmic child abuse, I’m left wondering if I should sit down and explain the doctrine to them (as they have clearly never tried to grapple with what it actually claims as opposed to what its opponents claim that it claims), or should I merely tell them to go away and grow up. Do they really expect me to take such claims as serious theological reflection? Such silliness is just one more clear sign that the Marcions have landed. They have landed with their gospel of ditching the bits where God gets angry and keeping the bits that fit with our modern culture of designer victimhood and the trivialization of suffering.
Then, there is the constant tendency to neglect the OT in particular in our theological reflections at an academic and a personal level. I make no bones about being extremely unhappy with many of the great claims being made for the variety of theologies that go under the name ‘The New Perspective on Paul’. I will say in its favour however that it reminds us of the essentially Jewish and OT context for understanding the NT. Reading, for instance, Luther’s prologue to the Letter to the Romans, I find myself in general agreement with what he has to say; yet I also find his failure to have anything substantial to say about Romans 9–11 to be indicative of a lacuna in his thinking. Whether it is a lack of sensitivity to the movement of biblical history or an unfortunate consequence of the way he sets up the law-gospel dialectic, it is certain that his reading of the letter misses the importance of the Jew-Gentile issue and is thus, on this point at least, found to be wanting. Paul must be read against the background of the OT and Judaism, and we miss this point only to our cost.
In addition, our devotional lives also need to take full account of the OT. This is where articles such as that by Simon Gathercole in the last Themelios should be so useful. We need to read the Bible as a whole, to understand each passage, each verse, within the theological and narrative structure of the canon as a whole. As evangelicals we can often err by focusing purely on the straight doctrinal teaching of the letters in the NT and the great passages in John’s Gospel. An NT scholar and friend once said to me that he thought the average evangelical’s life would be pretty much unaffected if the whole Bible, except for the Gospel of John and the Letter to the Romans, simply disappeared. Hyperbole maybe, but probably not by much. We need a solid biblical theology—not one which reduces everything to the level of economy at the expense of ontology (see my last editorial) but one which takes full account of the central narrative of the Bible and seeks to do justice even to those bits of the Bible that we don’t like.
Then, in our church practice, we need to take the OT more seriously. It astounds me, given the overwhelming use of psalms as central to gathered worship in the first four centuries; the absolute importance given to psalmody for the first two centuries of the post-Reformation Reformed churches, and the fact that the Book of Psalms is the only hymn book which can claim to be universal in its acceptance by the whole of Christendom and utterly inspired in all of its statements—it astounds me that so few psalms are sung in our worship services today. And this is not a style point I am making here. Recently I was at an African-American gathering where psalms were sung in African-American style. It was as joyous and as vibrant a presentation of God-glorifying singing as I have ever heard. Moreover, often nothing seems to earn the scorn and derision of others more than the suggestion that more psalms should be sung in worship. Indeed, the last few years have seen a number of writers strike out with vigour against exclusive psalmody. Given that life is too short to engage in pointless polemics, I am left wondering which parallel universe these guys come from, where the most pressing and dangerous worship issue is clearly that people sing too much of the Bible in their services. How terrifying a prospect that would be! Imagine: people actually singing songs that express the full range of human emotion in their worship using words of which God has explicitly said, ‘These are mine!’ No wonder your typical Marcion invader gets upset even at the very thought that this might be happening somewhere in the universe. Back here on planet Earth, however, there is generally precious little chance of overloading on Scripture in song in most evangelical churches as the Marcion invasion is pretty much total and unopposed in the sphere of worship. Yet I for one prefer Athanasius to Marcion as a patristic thinker and, in his letter to Marcellinus, he gives one of the most beautiful and moving arguments for psalms in worship ever penned (available at www.athanasius.com/psalms/aletterm.htm). It is a pity more have not taken his words to heart.
So what will be the long-term consequences of this Marcionite approach to the Bible? Ultimately, I think it will push ‘the God who is there’ back into the realm of the unknowable and make our god a mere projection of our own psychology and our worship simply into group therapy sessions where we all come together to pretend we are feeling great. God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—take that identity away and what do we have left? As the OT is the context for the NT, so the neglect of OT leaves the NT as context-less and more or less meaningless. As our reading, our sermons and our times of corporate worship neglect and sometimes simply ignore the OT, we can expect a general impoverishment of church life and finally a total collapse of evangelical Christendom. Indeed, there are mornings when I wake up and think that the church in the West survives more by sheer force of personality, by hype and by marketing ploys rather than by any higher power. We need to grasp once again who God is in his fullness; we need to grasp who we are in relation to him; and we need teaching and worship which gives full-orbed expression to these things. This will only come when we in the West grow up, ditch the designer gods we build from our pick-‘n’-mix Bible where consumer, not Creator, is king, and give the whole Bible its proper place in our lives, thinking and worship. Think truncated thoughts about God and you’ll get a truncated God; read an expurgated Bible and you get an expurgated theology; sing mindless, superficial rubbish instead of deep, truly emotional praise and you will become what you sing.
I hope I’m wrong; I hope that it is not too late, but let us make no mistake: the Marcions have landed! And, yes, in case you hadn’t noticed, I am very angry about it.
We are sorry for any confusion that may have been caused in the last copy of Themelios due to the fact that it said ‘Spring 2002’ when it should have said ‘Summer 2002’ Unfortunately this was not spotted until after the journal had gone to press. We hope this will clarify any questions that some people may have had.
Carl Trueman is academic dean, vice president of academic affairs, and professor of historical theology and church history at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.