Marcionism-The Forgotten Crisis
An important but frequently forgotten episode in the early church was the movement founded by Marcion near 144 A.D. It is known as Marcionism.
It is important because it explains the two gospels in the current New Testament and why they were tolerated. Marcionism was a split in the church that almost divided Christianity in two. Marcion taught only Paul had the correct gospel of Jesus, i.e., faith alone, but the twelve apostles presented a Jesus who supposedly had a superceded gospel that did not apply to Gentiles. Marcion said the twelve taught a gospel of Law where disobedience caused loss of salvation, especially found in Matthew's Gospel. [Ancient drawing of Marcion]
A prominent leader of early orthodox Christianity was Tertullian. In 207 A.D. Tertullian in Against Marcion rebutted Marcion by attacking Paul. He questioned whether Paul was an apostle of Jesus Christ, saying a self-serving claim, as Paul made of being an apostle of Jesus, does not suffice. Tertullian suggested Paul was a false prophet. He also called Paul the "apostle of the heretics." See immediately below, Marcionism - Excerpt from JWOS]
Marcionism -- Excerpt from Jesus Words on Salvation at pp 578 et seq.
Importance of Protestants Coming to Grips with the Early Heretic Marcion’s Cheap Grace Doctrine
Has the last four hundred years been a waste? Has the descent into cheap grace at odds with Jesus’ doctrine all this time been an unprecedented error? No. This has been a valuable period of cleansing of doctrinal errors. However, our response to those errors ended up in over-reaction. We need to come back to Jesus. It is that simple. We can take encouragement from the fact that this very same error happened once before. Let’s see how the early church escaped, and perhaps we can simply repeat the measures taken back then.
Most Protestants are utterly unaware that Paulinism, in particular faith alone doctrine, previously threatened to overwhelm Jesus’ salvation doctrine and destroy it. In 144 A.D., there arose a ship-builder from Pontus named Marcion. He founded a church system that rivaled in numbers and influence that of the orthodox Christian church. By 150 A.D., Justin wrote that Marcionites had expanded “to the uttermost bounds of the earth.” [Justin, Apology 1.26.] It required three hundred years for the orthodox church to eventually rout out the heresy of Marcion.
Marcion was not battling the Roman Catholic church. It did not yet exist. Instead, there was a large orthodox church led from Jerusalem. The Roman bishop was just one bishop among many throughout the Mediterranean. Even if Peter was in Rome at one point, there was no effort to exercise superiority from Rome until many centuries later.
What happened is that Marcion declared in 144 A.D. that Paul alone was the true apostle for the era of grace; the twelve apostles, in particular their gospel of Matthew, were tainted by legalism; the Jesus of the twelve belonged to the God of the Old Testament; and the Jesus of Paul represented the son of a loving Father who now accepted us by faith alone.
In Marcion’s book known as the Antitheses, which exists only in fragments quoted by others, we find endorsement of everything Pauline, including faith alone. Marcion’s primary antithesis involved faith and law. On one hand, there was the Law given Moses, which the apostolic twelve endorsed in Matthew’s gospel. On the other hand, there was the faith alone doctrine of Paul. To solve this antithesis, Marcion invented the idea that Christ had two personages — the one of the twelve and the one presented by Paul. The Jesus of the twelve represented the Creator-God of the Old Testament. The Jesus of Paul represented the Good God or the Father of the New Testament. The Antitheses of 144 A.D. reads:
18.The Jewish Christ [of Matthew et al] was designated by the Creator [i.e., the God of the Old Testament] solely to restore the Jewish people from the Diaspora; but our Christ [present in Paul’s writings] was commissioned by the good God [of the new testament] to liberate all mankind.
19. The Good [God] [of Paul’s Jesus] is good toward all men; the Creator [God of the Jesus of the twelve], however, promises salvation only to those who are obedient to him [i.e., legalism]. The Good [God of Paul’s Jesus] redeems those who believe in him, but he does not judge those who are disobedient to him; the Creator [God of the twelve’s Jesus], however, redeems his faithful and judges and punishes the sinners.
29. The Christ [of the Creator God represented by the twelve] promises to the Jews the restoration of their former condition by return of their land and, after death, a refuge in Abraham’s bosom in the underworld [i.e., Sheol/hell]. Our Christ [of the Jesus presented by Paul] will establish the Kingdom of God, an eternal and heavenly possession.
(Source: Dr. Peter M. Head (New Testament Research Fellow, Tyndale House), The History of the Interpretation of the Apostle Paul (2001).)
The Jerusalem church previously replied to anti-Law and faith-alone doctrine by saying Paul was an apostate and did not represent true Christianity. As Professor James Dunn notes: “The most direct heirs of the Jewish-Christian groupings within earliest Christianity [i.e., the early Jerusalem church] regarded Paul as the great apostate, an arch enemy,” citing Epistula Petri 2.3; Clem. Hom. 17:18-19. (James D. G. Dunn, The Cambridge Companion to St. Paul (Cambridge University Press, 2003) at 2.)
The Jerusalem church’s response is directly reflected in our New Testament. As Augustine noted in 413 A.D. in his treatise Faith and Works, the epistles of James (the first bishop of Jerusalem), Jude (the second bishop of Jerusalem), and Second Peter were specifically written to destroy “faith alone” doctrine as inferred from Paul’s epistles. (See page 523n supra.) Second Peter even said many would fall from their “steadfastness in Christ” by relying upon “difficult to understand” passages in the writings of Paul. These passages were seen as giving a “liberty” that Second Peter said was foreign to the true gospel. (See pages 500-504 supra.)
Tertullian, an orthodox church member in Carthage, Africa, wrote in 207 A.D. his famous rebuttal to Marcion. In it, Tertullian raised every ground possible to dispute whether Paul was truly an apostle of Jesus Christ. Tertullian even suggested Paul was a false prophet as warned of by Jesus Christ. We previously quoted this daring analysis from Tertullian. (See pages 395-400 Jesus Words Only at this google-books full view link.) In that passage, Tertullian says that Paul’s claim to apostleship is totally self-serving, and by Jesus’ standards is invalid. Scholars generally now recognize this is a valid criticism of Paul’s claims. In the end, Tertullian even suggested “[Paul] is the apostle of the heretics.” (Tertullian, Adversus Marcion 3:5, “haereticorum apostolus”.)
Often, Protestant historians try to obscure the real nature of Marcion’s heresy. They focus on every other dispute than the problem of Marcion’s teaching of faith alone. While it is true that Marcion said there was a different God for the new versus the old testaments, and this claim was battled vigorously by Tertullian, they ignore what was at stake. Marcion’s goal behind that argument was to justify two different salvation doctrines. Once he divided salvation into two dispensations — the old and the new, Marcion could defend the new is by faith alone and the old one is by obedience. Marcion hence was trying to rationalize Paul’s doctrine of faith alone as belonging to a distinct dispensation of Paul’s Jesus. Thereby, it could be valid despite contradicting Jesus’ salvation doctrine in the gospel of Matthew and John (properly translated). As Arthur Cushman McGiffert, in A History of Christian Thought (C. Scribner’s Sons: 1949) at 59 explains:
For the gospel of the free grace of God and salvation by faith alone had been substituted [by the twelve apostles in their gospels], so Marcion believed, [by] a legalism of a genuinely Jewish character.
Hence, to destroy the significance of the different salvation doctrine in the twelve apostles’ gospels, Marcion claimed Paul had the right to proclaim a superseding one.
Thus, Marcion represented a vigorous effort to erase any role of repentance and obedience in the Christian doctrine of salvation.
Marcion expounded his main position in a work entitled Antitheses....[The God of the New Testament] was the God of grace who offered salvation to all by faith alone;.... (T. Alec Burkill, The Evolution of Christian Thought (Cornell University Press, 1971) at 42.)
After Simon Magus, it was Marcion above all whom the Fathers regarded as the arch-heretic:... the law is discarded and salvation depends on faith alone. (Hans Kung, The Church (Image Books: 1976) at 316.)
Tertullian in rebuttal to Marcion conceded that the ceremonial law of the old testament was no longer applicable (the temple was destroyed a century earlier), but the moral commandments in the Law remained. To this end, Tertullian taught repentance and obedience remained absolutely essential to salvation. (See my prior work, Jesus’ Words Only (2007) at 405-425.)
When I encountered this history, I was shocked and in disbelief. David Bercot, a Protestant attorney like myself, was as equally startled by encountering Marcion as I was. After Bercot did a comprehensive survey of the doctrines of the early Church in his exhaustive 705 page Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs (1998), he wrote Will The Real Heretics Please Stand Up (1999). In that work, Bercot admits he discovered that the early church, in “contradiction to many of my own theological views,” taught doctrines that universally rejected teachings which we all recognize as part of modern accepted Pauline teaching. When Bercot discusses Marcion, he expresses the same shock I experienced when I first read what Marcion taught:
As surprising as all of this may be to you, what I’m about to tell you is even more bizarre. There was a religious group labelled as heretics by the early Christians, who strongly disputed the church’s stance on salvation and works [i.e., that salvation depended on works]. Instead, they [i.e., the heretics] taught man is totally depraved. That we are saved solely by grace. That works play no role in salvation. And that we cannot lose our salvation once we obtain it.... (Will The Real Heretics Please Stand Up, supra, at 66.)(Emphasis added.)
It is obvious that Marcionism has revived. Many Protestants likewise today argue a dispensational division exists between old and new, so that Jesus’ contrary salvation doctrine to Paul’s doctrine can be honestly dismissed as irrelevant. (See dispensationalist claims on pages 209-210 supra.)
Jesus and the early church had a solution to prevent Paul’s teachings from overturning those of Jesus. They were:
• The release of the epistles of James, Jude and Second Peter;
• The release of the Revelation of Jesus Christ, with its heavy emphasis on works required for salvation, including a re-affirmation of James’ principles in Revelation 3:1-3; and
• Tertullian’s brilliant examination in 207 A.D. of the lack of authenticity to Paul’s claims of apostleship and even Tertullian’s suggestion that Paul was a false prophet predicted by Christ.
These various attacks on Paulinism were vigorous and well-sustained. Marcion was defeated. These critical analyses must be re-published for a new generation. For four hundred years, we have been entrapped within revived Marcionism. Because Christ’s words were so powerful, Christianity lived on despite this albatross hanging on, weighing down His words in the wrong direction. Yet, by our dereliction of duty, Christ’s message is obscured. How did this happen?
What took place in the early Protestant Reformation is that this history about Marcion was forgotten. It was primarily Erasmus and Tyndale who initially realized that the reformation had made a significant major mistake. It had treated Paul’s doctrines regarding ‘faith alone’ as a necessity to follow even when at odds with the salvation doctrine of Jesus Christ. These two men bravely changed course. They even obviously caused Luther to change course. He too adopted double justification (i.e., salvation begins by faith but requires works and obedience for final salvation) which essentially matches Jesus’ doctrine. [See Preface to JWOS at this webpage.] Unfortunately, Luther’s heroism of 1517-18 was not matched by a later bold declaration that he realized this error. Luther tried to make this change quietly, through an ecumenical conference with the Catholic Church in 1541. Upon Luther’s death, he left it to Melancthon to continue this effort. Melancthon did so, causing the Lutheran church to adopt double justification as an official doctrine. It lasted until a short while after Melancthon’s death. [See Preface to JWOS at this webpage.] And thus the true gospel expired from being present in any major Protestant denomination. It survives primarily only in the Pentecostal and Mennonite churches.
Consequently, we need spiritual and historical revival. We need to repent of the misleading ‘faith alone’ doctrine. We also need to refuse anyone else from taking Jesus/Yeshua’s place as our “sole teacher” (Matt. 23:10). We need to repent from the stain of Paulinism upon Christ’s message.
Marcion Indeed Was Inspired By Paul
The early church found the following were heresies in Marcion, but these all were doctrines taught by Paul. Hence, these parallels to Marcion whom the early church pre-325 AD universally condemned proves the church's antipathy to everything Pauline in doctrine even if having affection for Paul personally.
"Marcion’s ethics err on the side of asceticism. Tertullian claims that he forbade marriage because procreation was the invention of the Demiurge." (Robert Bradshaw, Marcion - Portrait of a Heretic, citing Benjamin Walker, Gnosticism: Its History And Influence (Wellingborough: Crucible, 1983) at 126.) Bradshaw continues:
"Marcion… deemed marriage ‘a filthiness and an obscenity.’ It was a diabolical institution that had upon it the seal of Antichrist and the mark of Satan. It did nothing more than sanction sexual indulgence..." Id.
Paul taught similarly, in contradiction of Christ. In 1 Cor. 10:27-28, Paul says: "Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek marriage."
God of Old Testament Is Supposedly Not The Same As The God of The New
Paul in Romans 7:1-6 cannot be read to be saying anything but that when Christ died, this represented the death of the husband God who gave the Law. But when Christ rose, we were able to marry a new husband -- obviously a new God -- who did not have any link to the former Law given Moses. This disjunction of what Christ represented in His death versus the God he represented in His resurrection is how Paul explains why the Law was dissolved by Christ's death but is not in force after Jesus's resurrection. For a full discussion, see our webpage "Paul Says The God of Sinai is Dead."
This directly fed Marcion the same idea -- a key heresy that Tertullian exploited to say that Marcion believed in two Gods -- one the creator Demiurge (whom was called Yahweh and supposedly died and lives now in Sheol / hell ruling over Israelites in Sheol, when Jesus died) and one for the NT alone -- the Father -- a kindly loving God superior to the Demiurge.
Scholars Observe Marcionism Triumphed In Terms of OT Attention
Dr David L Baker in his book Two Testaments, One Bible (Inter-Varsity Press 1976/1991) at 51-52 says: "There is in the church a habit of simply ignoring the Old Testament.. Bible study groups spend little time on Old Testament passages. It is clear therefore that the modern church, in spite of its official rejection of Marcionism and Neo-Marcionism, has often allowed implicit Marcionism in practice.”
2. Peter Holmes on Marcion's canon alterations in a footnote on page 364 in his translation entitled Tertullian, The five books of Quintus Sept. Flor. Tertullianus Against Marcion (trans. Peter Holmes) (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1868) .This footnote discusses all the various subtle variants that Marcion made to what was otherwise very similar to Luke's Gospel text.
3. In our webpage "Marcionites - Tampering with the Text" we examine how Marcion's view was that Jesus was God, and as such, Jesus could have no brothers or sisters. Marcionites altered the text to remove reference to the same.
4. For more information, see B. Aland, “Marcion, Marcionites, Marcionism,” Encyclopedia of the Early Church (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co. 1992) Vol. 1 at 524.
5. On James & Jude as bishops, see “Appendix to the works of Hippolytus,” The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Fathers of The Third Century (ed. Donaldson, Roberts & Coxe) (1886) Vol. V at 255.
6. On Marcion's work Antithesis trying to prove there is a good NT God v. an evil OT God, see "Antithesis of Marcion" which we preserved at our website.
Many of the arguments of Simon Magus in rebuttal to Peter in Recognitions of Clement (trans. Rufinus 400 AD) sound just like the words of Marcion in favor of faith alone -- 'acknowledge' the Good God and live free versus obedience required by the creator God. For example:
Then Simon: “But the good God bestows salvation if he is only acknowledged; but the creator of the world demands also that the law be fulfilled.” (Recognitions LVIII.)
Peter mocks this plan of salvation as follows:
Then said Peter: “He savs adulterers and men-slayers, if they know him; but good, and sober, and merciful persons, if they do not know him, in consequence of their having no information concerning him, he does not save! Great and good truly is he whom you proclaim, who is not so much the saviour of the evil, as he is one who shows no mercy to the good.” Id.
This raises an interesting question: what was the Ebionite doctrine on salvation -- could a Job-like behavior make one righteous and be granted mercy even if you had no information about the God of the Jews in particular? I think the point more was that mental assent grants mercy in Simon Magus's view while righteous behavior does not, which is absurd. But that does not mean salvation is without faith, but that rather faith alone is absurd as a matter of principle as well as was unjust.
See also Justin Martyr, First Apology (165 AD) at XXV discussion of Marcion at page 35 of the book below -- you can leaf forward to find page 35. There is another discussion at LXXV on pages 70-71, claiming he is a "wolf" teaching another god with another son besides the Creator. They try to seduce man from "God the Creator, and his first-begotten Son."
See also, "Marcionism," Wikipedia (2013).
Split Healed By Joining Paul's Writing To Canon Only As 'Scripture' (A Term-of-Art in that Era)
This split was healed by including Paul's writings alongside the 3d century canon, but treating Paul as "Scripture" which does not mean what we think today. In the OT, the third division after the "Law and Prophets" was the "Writings" section, which translates in Greek as "Scripture."
The "Scripture" or "Writings" section is where Jews put works that were viewed as only sometimes inspired, or which had not yet been determined to be prophetic. For example, in Jesus' day, Daniel was still in the Writings/Scripture section rather than the Prophets section even though Daniel claimed to be a prophet. See Hope for Today Bible (2009) at 951("The book of Daniel is found in the third section of the Hebrew Bible known as the 'Writings,' rather than the second section 'the Prophets.'")
Hence, the term Scripture in those days had one usage to mean edifying material that was not yet recognized as fully inspired. It is a term of art whose meaning is sadly forgotten. Scripture/Writings was a term applied to something that should not be used as the basis for doctrine until more proof allows one to elevate it to fully Prophet-section materials.
Thus, until accepted as 100% inspired, such a writing was kept in the "Scriptures" scroll to show a lesser authority. For a scholarly brief discussion on the "Writings" section of the OT and its lack of 100% inspired status, and that Jesus affirmed the same understanding, see this "Writings Section" article.
Early Church Approach To Third-Tier Writings Permissibly Joined To Canon
In the 3D century Christian church, with that true perception of canon still well-known (unlike now when it is forgotten), the church could carry a Paul-only scroll with the Gospels in another scroll as merely edifying works without causing any misunderstanding that the Paul-only scroll was 100% inspired.
For example, Jerome in 402 A.D. attached the Apocrypha to the official Bible -- the Vulgate Bible. He explained elsewhere his purpose was because it was merely edifying. It was not because it was inspired. The Roman Catholic Church (RCC) forgot this and at the famous Council of Trent in the 1500s the RCC said the Apocrypha too was 100% inspired in every word. More important, this reminds us the standard for joinder was not necessarily inspiration in those earliest days.
Hence, Paul was carried in a Paul-only scroll alongside the Gospels-scroll after the split caused by Marcionism. His loose attachment was evidently designed to bring Marcionites (Paul-only Christians) back into the Orthodox church. As a result, eventually Orthodox Christianity defeated or merged with Marcionism by the end of the 300s.
(The Roman Catholic Church, however, succumbed to accept various doctrines of Marcionism including docetism. See Marcionite Influence Over the RCC.)
Efforts in Reformation To Revive Correct Understanding of Tiers of Authority
Incidentally, this understanding that books in "Scripture" meant third-tier authority was sought to be revived by the co-founder of the Reformation - Andreas Carlstadt. The first book in the Reformation to discuss Canon was Carlstadt's Canonicis Scripturis of 1520. Carlstadt revived the old divisions of the OT, and applied the same to the NT. In doing so, Carlstadt placed Paul inferior to Jesus. Carlstadt analogized Paul to the inferior grade in the OT known as the 'Scripture' (Ketuvim or Writings) section, making Jesus on par with the first tier of the OT (i.e., Law.) (See our webpage on this.) Despite Carlstadt co-founding the Reformation with Luther, Luther turned on Carlstadt and persecuted him for taking Paul down a notch, driving Carlstadt and his followers from the movement.
Here I will provide quotes from my various books that discuss Marcionism for background on this important movement:
Marcionism Similar to Calvinism/Lutheranism
Thomas Scheck aptly states he found “real and apparent similaritiesbetween certain Protestant theological formulae, especially those of Calvinism and Lutheranism, and the assertions of Gnostic and Marcionite exegesis....” (Thomas Scheck, Origen: Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (Washington DC: CUA, 2001-02) at 1.23-4.) [Jesus Words on Salvation at 570 fn. 44.]