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Marcionism

Dates
144-650

Founder
Marcion (110-160)

Principal Errors

Rejects monotheism and the goodness of God’s creation and denies the compatibility of the Law and gospel.

History

Ostensibly an attempt to recapture “primitive” Christianity, this movement derives its name from Marcion, a wealthy shipowner, son of a bishop, and probably a bishop himself, who arrived in Rome around 140. The Church was still in its infancy, and it can be argued that Marcionism was the most dangerous heresy yet to plague it. Whereas most heresies produce esoteric cliques within the Church instead of new churches, the personality and organizational skills of Marcion led to a schismatic body.

Expounding on Paul’s characterization of the Mosaic Law as the cause of sin, Marcion desired a Christianity untainted by any elements of Judaism. He saw the God of the Old Testament as cruel and vengeful, an embarrassment and a stumbling block in the evangelization of the Gentiles.

How could the God who commanded adulterers to be stoned be reconciled with the God who let them go free? This was overcome by postulating the existence of two gods. Marcion concluded that the tyrannical Creator-God of the Old Testament, Yahweh, was in opposition to the merciful and loving God of the New Testament.

He began to amass a following in Rome, and in July of 144 he was called before the presbytery to explain his teachings. He steadfastly maintained his dualistic beliefs and was promptly excommunicated. He charged that the Church had erred in clinging to the Old Testament, that the gospel had completely superseded the Torah, and that the apostles, except Paul, had allowed their Jewish notions to corrupt the message of the loving God.

Although Marcion’s teaching strongly resembled the good god/bad god dualism that would achieve its full flowering in Manichaeism more than a century later, his theology was neither systematic nor deep. His chief motive in reducing the canon and renouncing the God of the Old Testament was to avoid any connection between Christianity and Judaism. He cared little for the philosophical and theological inconsistencies that his doctrines entailed. He set up his rival sect to purify the Catholic Church of what he considered to be its Judaizing tendencies.

Marcion created a biblical canon of his own by seizing on Paul’s claim to have received the gospel not from man but directly from the Lord (Gal. 1:11-12). He rejected all the books of the Old Testament and retained only those of the New which were clearly authored by Paul, purging any texts which conflicted with his personal beliefs. A version of Luke, minus the infancy narrative, was acceptable to Marcion since Luke was the loyal companion of Paul and faithfully handed on Paul’s words.

Marcion denied the resurrection of the body because “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1Cor. 15:50). He denied that Christ was truly incarnate because flesh, like all matter, was the creation of Yahweh and therefore evil. Jesus only appeared to be human, much the way the angels seen by Abraham appeared to be human (Gen. 18:1-33).

Marcion denied the second coming of Christ and maintained that Jesus was not the Jewish Messiah but a manifestation of the “good” God. He mandated fasting on Saturday in opposition to the God of the Jewish Sabbath. He rejected marriage and would baptize only the unmarried–an attitude that resulted in an understandable tendency to minimize the natural growth of his sect.

Despite elements of rigorism, Marcionism remained a major force in the West for three centuries, and eventually it was absorbed by Mani chaeism, which itself died out in the West in the sixth century. In the East Marcionism’s followers were active into the seventh century.

Orthodox Response

The Catholic Church responded vigorously to the threat posed by the Marcionites. Since Marcion’s argument was dualistic in nature (good vs. bad gods), apologists such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Tertullian insisted on there being only one, perfectly good God. (Tertullian, for example, produced Against Marcion, a five-volume defense of the traditional faith; later Tertullian himself would fall prey to a different heresy, Montanism.)

These writers developed systematic treatises on the chief doctrines challenged by the Marcionites: monotheism, the Trinity, the holiness of marriage (Marcion rejected matrimony and allowed only vowed celibates to be baptized). Many of the Church’s arguments were drawn from Paul’s epistles, especially Galatians, to show that Catholics were not “Judaizing” the faith by accepting the Old Testament and by teaching that the God of the Old and New Testaments is one.

Modern Parallels

In the sixteenth century Martin Luther likewise sensed a conflict between the works of the Law and the faith of the gospel. This led him, like Marcion, to reject canonical books from the Old Testament, to attempt to remove from the New Testament books conflicting with his perception of the gospel, and to mistranslate texts to suit his beliefs. Some of the churches spawned by Luther continue to propagate the attitude he shared with Marcion. Whenever one hears that the Old Testament’s moral law is no longer in force, one is hearing an echo of Marcionism.

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