The Ancient Heresy of Marcionism and its Modern Influence

by Carly VanDewark

Many Christians have wondered how the God of love and mercy can also judge and punish sin. It is not always evident how the Old and New Testaments cooperate. This concern is not new; it can be traced back to the second century and the teachings of Marcion of Sinope in Pontus.1 Marcion’s erroneous beliefs and teachings led to his expulsion from the church in Rome in the year 144, at which point he founded his own churches.2 This article will analyze the historical heresy of Marcionism and modern examples of its influence on the American Church in order to equip Christians to recognize it in their own lives and faith communities.

While the term ‘heresy’ conjures memories of the Catholic Inquisition, in Marcion’s day, heresy prompted not execution but clarification of good doctrine. The early church responded to heresy with the adoption of creeds and establishment of the New Testament canon. The idea of heresy is rooted in the Bible: 2 Peter 2:1 tells Christians to expect false teachers with destructive heresies and warns that the consequence is swift destruction.3 It also implicitly defines heresy as anything that contradicts Jesus’ teachings.4 The early church fathers denounced Marcion as a heretic leading Christians astray because his teachings were not consistent with Jesus’. Inversely, true and right theology aids in a Christian becoming more Christlike. This is exemplified in the Gospel of John when Jesus prays for others to be sanctified through the truth and God’s Word.5 Moving forward, Marcion’s doctrine can be analyzed with this working definition of heresy.

One category of Marcion’s erroneous beliefs pertains to the number and nature of gods.6 Marcion taught that there are two gods, a lower and a higher one. The lower god is the “creator” and is revealed in Hebrew Scriptures to be wrathful and focused on the law and judgment. Because flesh was created by this god, Marcion argues that flesh is evil. The higher god was unknown to humankind until he sent his son Jesus to Earth. This god is totally good and devoid of wrath, with a focus on love and peace.7 In response to Marcion, the early theologian Tertullian of Carthage wrote, “This man of Pontus presents us with two gods, as it were the two Clashing Rocks on which he suffers shipwreck: the one the Creator, whom he cannot deny, which is our God: the other, whom he cannot prove, a god of his own.”8 Marcion’s belief arose from his inability to reconcile God’s goodness and love with His judgment and wrath. In reality, as Tertullian argued, God must judge evil actions in order for Jesus’ moral teachings to have any purpose. If Jesus taught against something, it must be against His will and displeasing to Him and will therefore be punished by Him. Otherwise, “an act forbidden without sanctions is tacitly permitted.”9 Jesus speaks clearly of His role as a judge in the Gospel of John.10

The implications of two gods had a ripple effect on Marcion’s theology. He was forced to also teach the existence of two messiahs in order to explain the Messianic prophecies in the Old Testament. In his teachings, the Old Testament messiah was prophesied to reestablish the Jewish kingdom in an earthly sense, while the New Testament Jesus was the son of the higher god who came to introduce that higher god to humankind and save the nations. In response, Tertullian argued that since Jesus administered the creator god’s ordinances and fulfilled his prophecies, he must be connected to the creator god.11 This conclusion demonstrates the incoherence of Marcion’s doctrine, as it contradicts his separation of the two gods.

Another category of Marcion’s erroneous beliefs pertains to the Law and the Gospel. He taught that the principles of the Law of the Old Testament are too different from those of the Gospel of the New Testament for the two to be given by the same god. Therefore, the Law must come from the lower god and the Gospel from the higher god.12 In separating them, Marcion rejected the Old Testament. His Biblical canon included only parts of the Gospel of Luke and ten of the Epistles, aiming to also avoid the New Testament references to the Law that contradicted his theology.13 In response, the prominent theologian Irenaeus of Lyons cited Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”14 Jesus’ words contradict Marcion’s doctrine, warning in subsequent verses of the consequences of relaxing the commandments.15 Tertullian also addressed Marcion’s teachings on this subject, attesting that before Marcion introduced division, there was peace in the Church between the Law and the Gospel.16

Marcion’s use of Galatians 3:13 is a salient example of how he misconstrued the Bible to support his theology. The verse reads, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us — for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’” Marcion interpreted this to mean that the higher god sacrificed his son to end the rule of the lower god.17 Ironically, the verse includes a reference to the book of Deuteronomy in the Old Testament, which Marcion rejected as scripture.18 This is not the only passage that could be interpreted as an abolition of the law. The third chapter of 2 Corinthians is also relevant: “But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ it is taken away.”19 While it is true that there is a New Covenant in Jesus for Christians, the Law is neither irrelevant nor from a lower, evil god. This is eloquently conveyed by the influential nineteenth century preacher named Charles Spurgeon: “To show that he never meant to abrogate the law, our Lord Jesus has embodied all its commands in his own life. In his own person there was a nature which was perfectly conformed to the law of God; and as was his nature such was his life.”20 Therefore, to live like Christ is to conform to the Law, even though salvation is through grace and not works of the law.

            The last main category of Marcion’s erroneous beliefs is his denial of the incarnation of Jesus, which flows out of the previous two categories as well as the influence of Gnosticism and its matter-spirit dualism. Marcion taught that Jesus was not actually born of a woman and only appeared to be a man because flesh and matter are evil creations of the lower god and having flesh would have made Him imperfect.21 In response, Tertullian simply asked, “What is man if not flesh?”22 He later argued that if Christ’s body were fake, then His consumption of food, meetings with people, healing by touch, and physically suffering and dying on the cross were also lies.23 If Jesus were not fully God and fully man, then everything from His miracles to the Last Supper to the atonement for sins would begin to unravel. This is just one example of how heresies create more heresies.

            Marcionism continues to affect the faith of Christians, although more subtly than in the second century. Instead of proposing two separate gods, some Christians mistakenly believe that God’s character somehow changed from wrathful to loving, even while passages from Malachi in the Old Testament to James in the New Testament declare His immutability.24 The idea of a change in character can be enticing to those who struggle with the judgment and violence depicted in the Old Testament. Some Christians, like Marcion, become obsessed with questions about the evil in the world. Around 207 A.D., Tertullian wrote, “For, like many even in our day, heretics in particular, Marcion had an unhealthy interest in the problem of evil — the origin of it — and his perceptions were numbed by the very excess of his curiosity.”25 Even in our day, many wrestle with questions about why God allows evil things to happen, which can become unhealthy when it threatens faith in God’s goodness. Additionally, Marcion’s belief of the irrelevance of the Old Testament in light of the New Testament survives today in a form very close to his original teachings. Many modern Christians would disagree with Martin Luther when he said, “those who know the Ten Commandments perfectly know the entire Scriptures and in all affairs and circumstances are able to counsel, help, comfort, judge, and make decisions in both spiritual and temporal matters.”26 However, as Luther taught, a right understanding of Scripture equips a Christian to live out his calling and glorify God through his actions and decisions.

            While there are many modern examples of the Marcionite heresy, a particularly clear one is the 2018 sermon entitled “Not Difficult” by the Atlanta-area megachurch pastor Andy Stanley. His motivation for the sermon is his concern for those who are leaving or losing the faith due to Old Testament passages that are difficult to accept. Stanley’s solution is to ‘unhitch’ the Old Testament from Christianity, arguing that the foundation for the church is the Resurrection, not the Bible or the Law and Prophets. He believes that “the Old Testament was not the go-to source regarding any behavior for the church” and overall portrays Christianity as a “standalone” religion, “not Judaism 2.0.” This theology allows his congregation to believe in Jesus while avoiding many potentially complex and disquieting parts of Scripture.27

            Stanley’s sermon demonstrates a flawed solution for understanding difficult Bible passages. It requires splitting the Bible in two, as Marcion did when he created a god for each testament. While it is true that the foundation of the church is the Resurrection, Marcion’s line of reasoning eventually discredits even that because the son of a non-creator god would not be truly flesh. Stanley further sows seeds of distrust in the New Testament by portraying its canon as a haphazard, not-God-inspired project: “When I say the New Testament, I’m not saying the Bible. I’m talking about this collection of ancient, first century documents that got put together later on and was called the New Testament.” Stanley ultimately misses the opportunity for an understanding of one consistent, beautiful story of God and His people from creation to redemption.28 Similarly, Marcion could not stop at only “unhitching” the Old Testament from the faith but also had to cut out the many references to it in the New Testament. Both demonstrate that one cannot discredit the Old Testament without also discrediting the New Testament.

            The study of heresy is essential because Stanley’s sermon is far from the only modern example of Marcionism. It is a significant example because of his influence as a pastor, founding 180 churches worldwide, but many more pastors and churches fall into these theological traps.29 Just as the early church fathers such as Tertullian and Irenaeus took much care in refuting Marcion when his churches began to grow, Christians today should watch out for heretical teachings that could lead many astray. 2 Timothy 4:3 warns that “the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” Erroneous beliefs often tell people what they want to hear and therefore spread quickly. Another Biblical caution is found in the Epistle of Jude, which warns that heretics can easily go unnoticed, pervert the grace of God, deny Jesus, and cause the destruction of others.30 Misconstruing or rejecting parts of the Bible is a very slippery slope. One heresy leads to another, as seen by how Marcion’s two gods idea led to his denial of Jesus’ incarnation. As with Marcion’s Biblical canon and Stanley’s comments on Scripture, removing one part causes an unraveling of trust and understanding of the rest.

Heresy contradicts Jesus’ teachings and leads Christians astray, while right teaching supports sanctification. Marcion led Christians astray with his ideas of separate gods, rejection of the Old Testament, and denial of the Incarnation. Similarly, many Christians today believe that God became more loving over time and may dismiss the Old Testament as irrelevant. Historical heresies should be studied not to create division or boast in knowledge but in order to reveal and correct one’s own erroneous understandings. This is with the goal of drawing closer to God and the beautiful truths revealed in Scripture until the day when “we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine,” as said in the Epistle to the Ephesians.31 Through spiritual wisdom and maturity, Christians can grow in their appreciation of both the coherent story laid out in the Bible and the unchanging character of God.


Endnotes

[1] “What is Marcionism?”

[2] Britannica, “Marcionite.”

[3] “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction” (2 Peter 2:1, ESV).

[4] “What is the Definition of Heresy?”

[5] “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17, ESV).

[6] In order to acknowledge that Marcion’s teachings were incorrect, ‘god’ will not be capitalized. This is in the spirit of the early theologian Tertullian, who wrote that the Marcionites “had no accurate view of the one God.”

[7] Hultgren and Haggmark, 101.

[8] Hultgren and Haggmark, 106.

[9] Hultgren and Haggmark, 107.

[10] “For the Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father” (John 5:22-23a, ESV).

[11] Hultgren and Haggmark, 111.

[12] Hultgren and Haggmark, 107.

[13] Hultgren and Haggmark, 101.

[14] Matthew 5:17, ESV.

[15] “Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19, ESV).

[16] Hultgren and Haggmark, 107.

[17] Britannica, “Marcionite.”

[18] Deuteronomy 21:23, ESV.

[19] 2 Corinthians 3:14, ESV.

[20] Charles Spurgeon, “The Perpetuity of the Law of God.”

[21] Hultgren and Haggmark, 105.

[22] Hultgren and Haggmark, 107.

[23] Hultgren and Haggmark, 109.

[24] Malachi 3:6 and James 1:17, among others.

[25] Hultgren and Haggmark, 106.

[26] Luther and Stjerna, 294.

[27] Andy Stanley, “Not Difficult.”

[28] Andy Stanley, “Not Difficult.”

[29] “Communicator, Author, and Pastor.”

[30] Jude 1:4-5, ESV.

[31] Ephesians 4:14, ESV.

Bibliography

Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Marcionite.” Encyclopedia Britannica, December 9, 2014. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Marcionites.

“Communicator, Author, and Pastor.” Andy Stanley. 2022. https://andystanley.com/about/.

ESV Study Bible. 2016. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

Hultgren, Arland J., and Steven A. Haggmark. The Earliest Christian Heretics: Readings from Their Opponents. Fortress Press, 1996.

Luther, Martin, and Kirsi Irmeli Stjerna. The Large Catechism of Dr. Martin Luther, 1529: The Annotated Luther Study Edition. Fortress Press, 2016.

Spurgeon, Charles H. “The Perpetuity of the Law of God.” The Spurgeon Center and Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2017. https://www.spurgeon.org/resource-library/sermons/the-perpetuity-of-the-law-of-god/#flipbook/.

Stanley, Andy. “Not Difficult.” Aftermath. YouTube video, 39:44. April 30, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pShxFTNRCWI.

“What is Marcionism?” Got Questions Ministries, January 4, 2022. https://www.gotquestions.org/marcionism.html.

“What is the Definition of Heresy?” Got Questions Ministries, January 4, 2022. https://www.gotquestions.org/heresy-definition.html.

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