When I composed The Jesus Driven Life it was to answer one question: How do we interpret the Bible in light of Jesus’ claims about God? For 2,000 years Christians have struggled to reconcile the portrait of God found in Jesus teaching with that of a violent often retributive deity. Until the late 20th century every single solution to this problem ended up bifurcating God into dispensations or attributes or works. Every single one of these solutions has been found lacking.
Now recently certain fundamentalist Christian apologists (e.g., Andrew Wilson in the UK, but also elsewhere) have termed solutions like mine and others (e.g., Girard) as ‘the new Marcionism.’ What they think they mean is that the way the question of ‘God’s retribution’ is answered by folks like me is similar to the way Marcion answered the question. They could not be more wrong.
Marcion recognized that the God which the Christians proclaimed had a different character than that of the God of the Jewish scriptural tradition. Marcion also believed that a good portion of the apostolic church had managed to assimilate the Gospel message to the meta-narrative of the judgmental god found throughout the Jewish Scriptures. Our new apologists think that the correlation between Marcion and ourselves is to be found in a ‘rejection of the Old Testament.’ They could not be more wrong.
I confess that I weary of the trite attacks of these so-called apologists. It is clear to me that a) they have not really spent any time seeking to understand Marcion, b) they have not carefully read our work and c) they are primarily interested in defending a faux view of the Bible as inerrant or infallible. It is the latter that is in fact at the heart of all they do. What Wilson and Wright have failed to do is to actually engage those whom they perceive as missing the mark. They allege that the solution offered to the this perennial problem by certain of us is the same as that of Marcion, that substantively there is no difference and that what is being offered is in fact a heresy to be labeled and rejected. They could not be more wrong.
Marcion’s (circa 110-150) problem was that he rightly perceived a huge gulf between the message of the apostle Paul and that of Jewish Christianity. Inasmuch as the theology of Jewish Christianity was embedded in the meta-narrative of second Temple Judaism (which Wright correctly notes) it also included eschatological and/or existential judgment often conceived of in terms of retribution, often labeled as divine justice (which went under the rubric ‘dikaiosune theou’). The argument framed thusly focused on God’s holiness and human sin. God was righteous to condemn sinners (usually Gentiles, but also ‘apostate’ Jews’ or the ‘am-ha- eretz’) for they had strayed from the path of holiness or righteousness.
In contrast to this, Marcion perceived Paul as announcing another message, the Gospel of the gracious God who forgives all freely. Marcion’s solution to this problem was not simply to ‘reject’ the Jewish scriptures. Marcion contended that there were two gods; a demiurge who created all things and who inspired the Jewish Scriptures and the God and Father of Jesus who inspired Paul. Marcion, in other words believed in gods plural. It is this henotheism that was rightly rejected by the second century apologists. Marcion, like so many second century ‘heretics’ posited a dualism between creation and redemption, between the created reality and ‘spiritual’ reality. Created reality, the world of the flesh, the world of the material was evil and it was the work of God to deliver us from this evil material world and to rekindle the spark of divine life within the ‘redeemed’ so that they could escape the vicissitudes of the created reality. A part of this thinking is of course Platonic; the real (the eternal and unchanging) could not be found in the temporal changing reality of creation. Thus salvation was the flight to the eternal.
Inasmuch as the god of Judaism was a second-tier god, and Marcion believed that that God existed, for that God had created all things, that god could not be the spiritual God of Paul and Jesus. The god of Judaism, for Marcion, was just like all the other gods of humanity; vengeful and vindictive and was not the superior God, the God above all, the Supreme god. What Marcion rejected then was first, not the Jewish canonical tradition, but the God who was vengeful; only secondarily were the scriptures to be dismissed inasmuch as they testified to this god as the Supreme god. We might ask then whether or not the solution to Marcion’s problem offered by apologists like Justin Martyr and Tertullian was really a solution. We might ask that if we are not afraid to admit to that they too may well have answered this question incorrectly but that would mean we would be criticizing the patristic fathers and apologists are loathe to do that. I argued in The Jesus Driven Life (chapter 4) that Justin Martyr’s solution to the problem framed by Marcion between the ‘two gods’ was not the best answer and one that has left Christianity suffering under the false illusion that God is retributive for 2,000 years.
Our new apologists want so much to believe that they are in fact faithfully representing the ‘orthodox’ position of the second and third century apologists. They may well be but because they simply assume that the patristic fathers were correct in their response to Marcion, they perpetuate the same problems as their alleged forebears. Thus, they end up seeking to bring together that which God had sundered in the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth which Marcion (and Paul) correctly noted, viz., violence and the sacred. And so they continue to contribute to the obfuscation of the Gospel, and the attendant sacrificial hermeneutic which is necessary to justify such a move.
What our new apologists fail to recognize is that those of they call the ‘new Marcion(s)’ are not in fact henotheists but monotheists. What they fail to see is that we do not create a divide between that which is created and that which is redeemed or between Creator and Reconciler. We confess that they are indeed the same God. This alone should shut them up, should stop their false accusations but it won’t. Why is this? Because they cannot see how it is possible that what God has done in Jesus is to deconstruct all religion and that includes the religion that stemmed from the message of Jesus, viz., Christianity. Oh no, they cannot have that. Never mind that they, like Justin Martyr are fundamentally supercessionist. Never mind that they must engage in some trickery in assigning attributes now to this member of the Trinity, now to that one. Never mind that they must break God into dispensations arguing that God acts one way in one period of time and another in another period of time. All of these solutions proposed by Christian apologists are just as bad, if not worse, than that proposed by Marcion, yet they cannot see this. They are blinded to the real questions raised by Jesus and Paul because they have an unconscious need to defend what they think is orthodoxy.
Our new apologists believe that they are faithful to the orthodox heritage of Christianity when they claim to affirm the Nicene Creed. What they do not see is that their affirmation of the Creed is really nothing more than a bait and switch: they claim to be trinitarian monotheists but when one puts their doctrine of the trinity under critical scrutiny, what one sees is in fact a form of Marcionism: the temporalizing of God. In this view only two ways of thinking are possible. Either one must find a way to speak about God changing (e.g., John Crowder, Jonathan Welton, John Howard Yoder and all Mennonite theology, all forms of dispensationalism, most forms of any ‘covenantal’ [sic] theology) or they must make God look like all the other gods, Janus-faced. Of course by the time we get to the 16th century this problem is resolved by the penal substitution theory of the atonement of John Calvin (whose groundwork had already been laid by Anselm of Canterbury who took the problem of second Temple views of sin and God’s holiness and read them through the lens of medieval feudalism).
The desperate need to have a perfect Bible, a perfect revelation has thus ever been the bane of Christianity. Our new apologists cannot see the Gospel for they have been blinded by the god of this age, the god of sacred violence, the god of religion, the god of all human culture. This god is a god made in our own image. The work of René Girard has scientifically critiqued this Christian view of god in the most devastating manner. Unlike all Enlightenment critics who in fact engaged in a form of Marcion by dispensing with the Bible or relegating the Bible to religious fantasy land, Girard insisted that the Bible brought something to the table, a revelation that could not stem from the default juxtaposition of violence and the sacred endemic to all human religion. Our new apologists have yet to even begin to understand heuristic power of a mimetic reading of Scripture and seem satisfied with tossing about labels as though this somehow ended the discussion. They could not be more wrong.
I will only use myself as an example of one whom Andrew Wilson and N.T. Wright would call a ‘new Marcionite.’ What they cannot do is find a single instance where I separate the Creator from the Redeemer in my writing, nor can they find a rejection of the Jewish scriptures. Nor can they find in my writing anywhere that I bifurcate the Godhead into times or attributes. In fact, I would contend that in my writing I am thoroughly orthodox in my doctrine of God (if not in fact Orthodox). There is nothing remotely resembling Marcionism in my writing, nor can one find it in the work of René Girard. Both of us are orthodox to the core. What we do is that which is anathema to them: we recognize that scripture contains revelation but it also contains religion.
The Bible has two voices, that of God and that of humanity and we do not seek to mix them. Of course they will say that we reject parts of the Bible. Such is not the case for we both recognize that both elements, religion and revelation play a role in assisting us to understand the Gospel.
There is one 20th century thinker and one 21st century movement that both make a similar move; Karl Barth and the new apocalyptic theology. Barth sought to ameliorate the problem of violence and the sacred by arguing that God took the violence into the sacred (God’s self). As I argue in my PhD (Must God be Violent?: Religion and Revelation in Karl Barth and René Girard), Barth’s Chalcedonian hermeneutic trumps his trinitarian view of revelation and so while Barth comes close to envisioning God without retribution, he still falls short (and remember that Adolf von Harnack accused Barth of being a Marcionite in 1923).
The current debate in and around Paul between N.T. Wright (a proponent of the New Perspective on Paul) and Douglas Campbell offers us a contemporary window into this debate. Wright thinks he has solved the problem of violence and the sacred by arguing that Paul’s meta-narrative is the same as that of second Temple Judaism replete with some form of cruciform and eschatological judgment. Wright insists on reading Paul’s forensic metaphors through a sacrificial lens.
This has been challenged not only by Campbell but also before him, by J.L. Martyn whom one might style the grandfather of the new apocalyptic reading of Paul. In his commentary Martyn demonstrates that in Galatians 4 Paul in fact argues for two voices in the Torah, a voice of blessing and a voice of cursing and frames the Gospel only in terms of the former which is a rejection of the latter. Campbell’s reading of Romans 1-4 (and 9-11) is an application of this approach to this great epistle.
Consider this: Campbell’s The Deliverance of God published in 2009 completely obliterates Wright’s reading of Paul. So it is that when Wright published his Paul and the Faithfulness of God a few years later his work was already passé and that has to be irksome for someone as brilliant as Tom Wright. This is not to say that Wright’s work on Paul is to be dismissed. No! But it must now be placed in a larger context and critiqued.
The only way the new apologists like Andrew Wilson can even begin to deal with this is to hurl the label of Marcionism hoping that it will stick. But the fact is that it does not because it is not a careful reading of those of us who have proposed a non-sacrificial reading of the Bible. I expect this kind of sloppy reading by anti-intellectuals and would hope for more from someone like an Andrew Wilson, but alas, when defending the doctrine of inerrancy as a first presupposition, one must accept that blindness of someone like Wilson who can only read the Bible through the lens of the god of this age where violence and divinity are merged contrary to what we read in Paul and can recover from Jesus in the Gospel tradition.
This leads me to my last point. Wilson, Wright and others want to contend that Jesus in fact taught eschatological judgment where some go heaven and some go to hell. I suppose if one actually thought that all the red letters in the Gospels were authentic sayings of Jesus one could make such a case but for three hundred years scholars have dissected the Gospels and come to different conclusions. It is not possible to get into all the theories of Gospel criticism or Gospel formation in this post. I would simply observe that even here, if one accepted that a vast majority of the Gospel sayings attributed to Jesus actually came from Jesus, one could still recognize that some sayings did not come from Jesus. To be sure, different scholars attribute different sayings to the historical Jesus. The question is not so much which sayings go back to Jesus although that is an interesting question. The real question which Wright and others argue has to do with Jesus’ Gehenna sayings which predominate in Matthew’s Gospel. How does one account for the element of eschatological retribution in Matthew’s Gospel?
David Neville in A Peaceable Hope has demonstrated that Matthew’s Gospel reflects an attempt to bring Jesus back into line with second Temple Jewish eschatology, an eschatology which the historical Jesus in fact subverted and rejected. I have taken this particular tack and sought to develop a theory of early Christianity as the battle between those who, like Matthew, Jude and the Revelator, would seek to bring Jesus into line with such an eschatology where violence and the sacred were merged and those who like Paul would deconstruct such a viewpoint (which deconstruction we can see in Paul’s own letters by comparing the Thessalonian correspondence of 40-41 C.E. with the letters written between 50-52 C.E.). Of course, our new apologists cannot work within such categories because they have to somehow affirm a perfect inspired inerrant Bible and so seek tortured and twisted ways to exegete Paul so as to bring Paul into ‘harmony’ with Paul! Or for that matter, Matthew into harmony with Mark, Luke and the Fourth Gospel. Spending all their time defending a sacrificial hermeneutic, leaves our new apologists with no time to actually pay attention to the biblical text for they are blind to revelation of God in Jesus.
Enough has been said, I think, to show that there is no such thing as a ‘new Marcionism’ and that if one is going to toss this label about it really sticks to those who cast it! I would go one step further and say that any Christian who affirms the inerrancy of scripture is in fact a heretic for they have created a paper god. Chew on that, you new apologists! Tom Wright only skewers a straw man Mr. Wilson! Or should I say both you and he got skewered?
Copyright 2022 by Michael Hardin. This article has been used by permission and may not be copied or reproduced in part of in full, in any medium.
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