While many search in vain for the new C. S. Lewis or Fulton Sheen, the real cure for what ails us may be a new Tertullian. Of course, if the average Catholic were asked, “What does the Church need to gain the new energy and zeal for evangelization called for by the Holy Father?”, the answer would unlikely be, “A long-dead North African heretic.”
Still, cures have come from more doubtful places. Although chiefly remembered as the heretic he finally became, Tertullian is more justly renowned as the apologist for the Catholic faith that he was before and, in some ways even after, his lapse. As an early-Church heretic he is only with the greatest injustice thrown into the same dustbin of history as the pretentious Arius or the ridiculous Valentinus. The acknowledged “Father of Latin Christianity,” Tertullian eighteen centuries ago gave the Church in the West an intellectual foundation that endures to this day.
With rhetorical skill equaling or surpassing that of his more widely-recognized pagan counterparts, he may have been the greatest thinker in the Church before Augustine. He is what Cicero might have been had he been a Catholic—a combination of soul and tongue, both afire, that ultimately proved too hot to contain. Montanism, the heresy that carried Tertullian away in his later years, more fittingly deserved to be on the receiving end of his invective. Nevertheless, said historian Christopher Dawson, “unlike other heretics he retained his theological and literary influence on the Church from Cyprian to Jerome, and he has always been recognized as the first of the Latin Fathers.”
A heretic beloved by Jerome is a strange animal. What we need now, awash as we are in the numbing material comforts and spiritual impostures of the waning century, is a Catholic who can match this fantastic old Roman’s fearlessness and intellectual energy, with full rhetorical powers to go along with them. His dismantling of the heretic Marcion of Pontus, tinged as it is with Montanism, is full of enduring lessons.
Fries With That Heresy?
Marcion was a second-century Gnostic popularizer, a McGnostic who repackaged the abstruse speculations of his predecessors into easily digestible Happy Meals of heresy. The Gnostics believed that this world was the evil creation of an evil god and that Jesus Christ was a spiritual emissary of the good god, a bodiless phantom sent to whisper the secrets of life to private meetings of the elite. Not content to stop there, the Gnostics fitted out this framework with wildly complex speculations about the spiritual realm. The heavens teemed with trash (more than ever until the advent of TV satellites): “aeons,” “pleromas,” “emanations,” and more. Among other things, these were personifications of various Gnostic virtues and philosophical concepts. Their intricate interplay was designed to appeal to the forefathers of those who today spend their time translating the Bible into the Star Trek language “Klingon.”
Marcion’s theology, though essentially Gnostic, was simple and clear. God the Creator was evil; hence the world and matter were evil. Jesus was the Savior sent from the good god of the spiritual realm. No multiplications of aeons, pleromas, or emanations for Marcion. He was more interested in cutting than in multiplying. The Old Testament had to go, because of Genesis and the unavoidable fact that the God who speaks and acts there is the Creator. Matthew’s Gospel was out because of its constant quoting of the Old Testament, and Mark’s with it for good measure. John’s was a goner for its identification of Jesus as the One through whom “all things were made” (1:3).
Marcion was perhaps never truly happy without a pair of scissors in his hands. The entire New Testament ended up on his cutting-room floor, except for the Gospel of Luke and the epistles of Paul. Not that he was content to take them whole either: Hebrews, with its beautiful explanation of Christ as the true and perfect Old Testament high priest, was never a big hit in Marcionite circles. Nor were the last two chapters of Romans, probably because Paul declares there that “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (15:4). Luke’s Gospel lost its first two chapters, riddled as they are with Old Testament quotations and other connections, along with the Temptation (the devil, after all, quotes Scripture), the genealogy, and everything else that indicated that the God of Jesus Christ was the Creator of the world.
To those Scriptures that weren’t eaten away by Marcion’s acid test he added writings of his own, collecting in his Antitheses a set of contradictions between the Old and the New Testament worthy of Fighting Bob Ingersoll. These indicated, Marcion declared, the cosmic conflict between the good spiritual god and the evil creator. Information is sketchy on how the easy marks Marcion got to buy this farrago were expected to live in the world, but they were famous as deadly serious champions of asceticism. Along with many of his fellow Gnostics, Marcion forbade marriage, as it would multiply evil material creations. That view was then fashionable in spiritual movements; groups that didn’t take it, such as the Catholic Church, were considered worldly and lax.
Tertullian met all this, in his Five Books Against Marcion, rather like a surgeon who has taken up mugging: His rhetorical blade had an extraordinary capacity to inflict a maximum of precise damage. First he sent the reader to Marcion’s fearful home in what is now Turkey: “The Euxine Sea, as it is called [today the Black Sea], is self-contradictory in its nature and deceptive in its name. The fiercest nations inhabit it. . . . They have no fixed abode; their life has no germ of civilization; they indulge their libidinous desires without restraint. . . . The dead bodies of their parents they cut up with their sheep and devour at their feasts. . . . In their climate, too, there is the same rude nature. The daytime is never clear, the sun never cheerful; the sky is uniformly cloudy; the whole year is wintry; the only wind that blows is the angry north . . . All things are torpid, all stiff with cold. Nothing there has the glow of life.”
In case all that didn’t make the reader revise his travel plans, Tertullian adds a coup de grace:
“Nothing, however, in Pontus is so barbarous and sad as the fact that Marcion was born there, fouler than any Scythian . . . more inhuman than the Massagete, more audacious than an Amazon, darker than the cloud [of Pontus], colder than its winter, more brittle than its ice, more deceitful than the Ister, more craggy than Caucasus.”
Of course, in our gently savage age some might wonder why Tertullian resorted to such attacks. After all, what does Marcion’s birthplace have to do with the theological issues at stake? The poor heretic could have been from Alexandria, Carthage, or Rome. But, of course, Tertullian was a man of an age that valued rhetoric (hence his marshaling of Pontus’ climate on his side) and, even more, valued truth. If Palestine could be the Holy Land because our Lord walked there, Pontus could be the Unholy Land that brought forth Marcion. Only a man who believed and loved more deeply than most could have had such an idea. When Tertullian saw Marcionism, he reacted much the same way Polycarp did when faced with Marcion himself some sixty years earlier: “Do you know me?” asked the heretic. “I do know you, the firstborn of Satan,” replied the saint. With the firstborn of Satan there could be no ecumenism. The truth was at stake.
The truth was that the god Marcion ended up with when he finally put away his scissors was nonsensical. Nonsense, of course, doesn’t stop hordes of devotees from lining the pockets of New Age bookstore owners today, but Tertullian lived in the benighted age when to show that something didn’t make sense was to show that it was false. To worship Marcion’s god would outrage reason; the real God, the Creator of reason, the God who said “I am the truth” amid the dusty winds of Palestine, never could do such a thing. Tertullian based his refutation of the notion that the Creator is evil by appealing to the beauty of creation. He suggested that “natural elements . . . should have been more readily regarded as divine than as unworthy of God.” The Marcionites may have scorned his arguments, for he found nothing to throw at them but trifles—trifles that bear the marks of the love of the Creator: “A single floweret from the hedgerow, I say not from the meadows; a single little shellfish from any sea, I say not from the Red Sea; a single stray wing of a moorfowl, I say nothing of the peacock, will, I presume, prove to you that the Creator was but a sorry artificer!”
Catch the Wind
The same goodness of the creation, moreover, exposes the inconsistency of the Marcionites: “You are an enemy to the sky, and yet you are glad to catch its freshness in your houses. You disparage the earth . . . and yet you extract from it all its fatness for your food. The sea, too, you reprobate, but are continually using its produce, which you account the more sacred diet. If I should offer you a rose, you would not disdain its Maker. You hypocrite, however much of abstinence you use to show yourself a Marcionite, that is, a repudiator of your Maker . . . you will have to associate yourself with the Creator’s material production, into what element soever you shall be dissolved.”
This irrational inconsistency, Tertullian charged, involved the Marcionites in great spiritual wrongdoing. A cardinal feature of modern soft-headedness is the devaluation of dogma: the now popular proposition that it is not so much what one believes that is important but how the believer acts as a result (or, even worse, how good it makes the believer feel). Tertullian disliked Marcionite theology because it steered its adherents away from heaven. He was not afraid to charge the soul of the Marcionite with the consequences of Marcion’s false cosmology: “None I should think more shameless than him who is baptized to his god in water which belongs to another, who stretches out his hands to his god toward a heaven which is another’s, who kneels to his god on ground which is another’s, offers his thanksgivings to his god over bread which belongs to another, and distributes by way of alms and charity, for the sake of his god, gifts which belong to another God.”
Tertullian’s antidote to Marcionism has four books to go after these salvos, and they are good books, full of the same razor-sharp reasoning. He demonstrates that the Creator is good, that Jesus was sent from the Creator, and that the Old and New Testaments do not contradict each other. Ridicule, of course, is the best rejoinder to the overweeningly proud and to their chief, the devil. Tertullian was unafraid to cut Marcion down to size: “What Pontic mouse ever had such gnawing powers as he who has gnawed the Gospels to pieces?”
Any viability Marcionism and Gnosticism in general had as intellectually sound movements, however, was gone after those few paragraphs quoted above from the first book. Tertullian put Marcionites into the same position as modern nihilists who insist that the world makes no sense and take great pains to make their hearers understand the point. Their enterprise is self-contradictory at its very heart. Every time the modern atheist opens his mouth to order another cup of espresso and knows that the waiter will bring him what he wants, he affirms that the universe makes sense and hence bears the marks of design. The Marcionite affirmed the goodness of the earth he reviled every time he walked upon it.
It is because of that self-contradicting atheist that Tertullian’s putting away of Marcion matters today. Marcion is long dead and forgotten, but he is not buried. Daring new thinkers keep picking up sticks to beat Catholicism, not knowing that their fine weapons are just Marcion’s old bones.
The sophisticated line on Christianity all through this dismal century, the real intellectual’s take on religion, has been that God, if he is beyond us, is really beyond us in every way. Paul Tillich and his friends thought that a God about whom one was able to talk was not and never could be the real God. If God is really eternal, unchanging, all-perfect, and all-knowing, then our limited finite minds never could hold any truth about him. He is beyond all human categories, so any sentence beginning with the words “God is . . .” must end in a falsehood. Those who hold this view always sneer at the biblical God who speaks, gets angry, is grieved, and loves. “Primitive anthropomorphism” was the “demythologizing” biblical scholar Rudolf Bultmann’s take on the Scriptures at the beginning of the twentieth century. “Plebeian fables,” sniffed the Marcionites and other Gnostics eighteen centuries earlier.
Tertullian knew where the demythologizing of his day would lead. Marcion’s god was impotent to influence the world Marcion disparaged: “Now, if he is susceptible of no feeling of rivalry, or anger, or damage, or injury, as one who refrains from exercising judicial power, I cannot tell how any system of discipline . . . can be consistent in him. Why does he forbid the commission of that which he punishes not when perpetrated?” In this particular today our land is teeming with Marcionites
Once a society loses the sense that God has spoken, it inevitably loses its sense of right and wrong. Morality is inextricable from religion. God’s anger does not stem from his being subject to passions as a man, as both Marcionites and Modernists thought it must; it is a manifestation of his eternal and unchanging justice. Nevertheless its representation in Scripture, while limited, is accurate and trustworthy.
Without God’s justice, chaos beckons any society. To see what effect Marcionism might have had upon society if it had ever become the prevailing religion, we may examine the United States in the closing years of this century. God’s judgment is practically unheard of. “Hellfire and brimstone” sermons are seldom, if ever, preached, only ridiculed. God is not angry, and he does not punish. And as Catholics blend into an increasingly pagan society, ignoring the moral law (if they are not entirely ignorant of it), we see that evidently he demands nothing either.
Fasting Like a Demon
A God who demands nothing cannot ennoble man, Tertullian complained. Yet Marcion himself had been said to “fast like a demon,” and his people followed suit. Of course, there is a huge gulf between their asceticism and that of the saints, for theirs was motived by hatred, the saints’ by love. The world was evil, said Marcion, so the Marcionites did not use it. World-hatred was foreign to men in the Catholic centuries that gave us Augustine, Dante, and Michelangelo, but it has always lurked at the edges of human thought. Preaching anti-body and anti-material ideas was playing to the galleries in the centuries immediately before and after the birth of Christ.
Today the world may seem to have changed utterly, when actually it is just coming around again to being its old, pre-Christian, self. The impure obsessions of modern society show that world-hatred is back in. Nowadays the world rushes to embrace this ancient notion. This may seem a strange charge. How could a society so drenched in sensuality as ours be said in any way to hate the world? Ah, but it does. At the heart of modern sensuality is the impulse that powered Marcionite asceticism. The aborter and the contracept hate creation. Their hatred may be dressed up with the costume jewelry of rights and overpopulation talk, but for all that it’s still world-hatred. They want to diminish creation, often for their own selfish purposes, because they do not trust God.
The notion that Scripture could be improved by a little editing comes from the same impulse as well. This editorial horseplay seems to be a recurring temptation. On the long jog of history Marcion is joined in his game by lights as bright as Thomas Jefferson and as dim as the scholars of the Jesus Seminar. It is a game because it is purposeless activity: No refashioning or correction of Christ can command any authority. But, as with children engrossed in Monopoly, to the players it is serious. Marcion was no exception. He wielded his scissors in service of his central notion that the Creator was evil. Today it is not precisely the Creator but the Father who is in bad odor.
Self-appointed editors of God’s Word are truly giants among men (and women), breathtaking in their boldness. Their insight into the truth surpasses that of twenty centuries’ worth of Christian thinkers who never noticed that calling God “Father” was exclusionary and insensitive. Yet the new world-haters have blind spots of their own. They ignore the strangeness of their rejection of “Father” but acceptance of “Creator,” although a father is first and foremost a kind of creator.
Could the rejection of God’s Fatherhood be a first step toward a Marcion-style rejection of the Creator? For the present, the de-masculinizers of the Deity are content to have an indefinite, emasculated, mute Creator in place of the Bible’s all-too-definite, thundering Father. Their featureless, comfortably undemanding god bears a family resemblance to Marcion’s doughfaced idol. These cosmic editors would appreciate Marcion’s rejection of the Old Testament as well, for they would prefer to have mercy without judgment and compassion without commandments. Our Lord, of course, never slights judgment or the commandments, but their picture of him is a caricature, as was Marcion’s.
Tertullian proved that the same God spoke throughout Scripture, and that Marcion’s Antitheses did not indicate two different beings but two.aspects of the same Being. “Only take away the title of Marcion’s book,” Tertullian points out, “and the intention and purpose of the work itself, and you could get no better demonstration that the selfsame God was both very good and a judge, inasmuch as these two characters are only competently found in God.” After all, the same apostle writes that in Christ there is no “male or female” (Gal. 3:28) and that there is “one God and Father of all” (Eph. 4:11). Is this a contradiction? If all are equal in Christ, must God be equally Father and Mother? Only to a mind like Marcion’s, anxious to fit divine revelation to a preconceived agenda.
And here we arrive at Marcion’s greatest legacy. Although Marcion was dead by the middle of the second century, Marcionism survived. Tertullian was not the only third-century orthodox writer to take up arms against it. This is really no surprise. It was a populist movement from the start. Marcion’s theology contained features of all the religious fads of the day: secret mysteries (however simpler they were than other Gnostics’), a disdain for the material world, and above all the forbidding of marriage. It pandered to the fashionable Platonism of the day.
Forerunner of Dissent
Marcion was the grand forerunner of all those who are embarrassed by the world’s judgments upon the Church. Everyone who wishes the Church could be a little more up-to-date, everyone who hopes that eventually there will be a Holy Father in Rome who really cares about women’s issues and overpopulation (in other words, who is still waiting for an official cave-in on women’s ordination, contraception, and abortion) every Church leader who believes that the voice of the New York Times editorial page is the voice of the Spirit—all these have a bit of Marcion in them.
It’s always easy to find something more popular than orthodoxy, because orthodoxy is true and unbendable to modern fashion. Today’s Lilliputian Marcions will keep trying to twist orthodoxy into something they can take unashamedly to the next cocktail party. What we need is a modern Tertullian with the strength to take what they have twisted and set it right.