Thursday, March 17, 2011

Avoiding Heresies - Marcionism

We begin the second half of the series on heresies this week with a look at Marcionism. This heresy, like those that will follow, focuses on the human side of the divine-human interaction. While the former half of the series dealt with mistaken understandings of who God is, this half attempts to illuminate those ways in which we have (and still do) fall into mistaken patterns of Christian practice.

Marcionism, though a very early heresy, still plagues us today. It's the errant belief that the God of the Old Testament is inconsistent with Christianity. How often have we heard someone say, "The God of the Old Testament is a God of wrath and judgment. But the New Testament is about love and forgiveness. Those can't be the same god." Well, that's the root of Marcionism.

Marcion of Sinope, the son of a bishop, moved to Rome around 139 CE and began to teach that the God of the Jews could not also be the God of the Christians. To us, knowing that Jesus is Jewish, that sounds ridiculous, but, as Martha Tilby puts it in her sermon on this topic contained in Heresies and How to Avoid Them, he found an itch and a way to scratch it. Christians of Marcion's day and Christians ever since have found it difficult to reconcile the descriptions of God contained in the Hebrew scriptures with the understanding of God that we gain from looking at Christ. And, throughout the years, various attempts have been made to distance the two--and that's Marcionism.

Marcion's solution to this problem is almost comical. He taught that there were actually two gods--the "Demiurge" of the Old Testament (anachronistic reference) that was responsible for creation and the supreme God who reveals himself through Jesus Christ. He quoted several passages of scripture (see PowerPoint slide show below) that made the Demiurge out to be inconsistent, immoral, and ignorant, bolstering his argument for jettisoning the entire Hebrew bible from the Christian tradition. Of course, that won't work.

Jesus' understanding of God was inextricably linked to the Hebrew scriptures. The understanding of salvation that he presents in inseparable from the covenants of the Old Testament. To discard them is to remove from our faith its foundation. But what, then, do we make of the "Old Testament God," whom we find so difficult to worship?

Well, as I see it, there are four options: 1) discard the entire OT as being false (Marcion), 2) to say that the OT God is a different entity than the NT God but to believe in both, 3) to say that the one God changed (matured?) from OT time to the modern era (ridiculous), or 4) to find some way of reading the OT and NT without creating contrary views of God. As you might guess, the latter is the orthodox approach.

What I love about Marcion is his consistency. He was a literalist. He read every word of scripture literally (we know people like that today), and, because he couldn't reconcile a wrathful, vengeful OT God with a loving, forgiving NT God, he decided to discard the OT. And that kind of makes sense. If you must read scripture literally, be honest about the inconsistencies and then get rid of them. **How I wish that modern literalists would embrace the fullness of their approach and make clear and open decisions of how they will reconcile the inconsistencies in their hermeneutical approach. But we, of course, aren't literalists.

We must recognize that scripture is a collection of writings of very different styles, subjects, and eras. It's not fair to hold narrative history and wisdom poetry up to the same scrutiny. They're fundamentally different. But it's scary to let someone decide which parts of scripture are relevant (important?) and which parts aren't. Many would argue that a "liberal" or "soft" reading of scripture is what's wrong with the Episcopal church. Yet we do that all the time. All of us do. We can't read the entire corpus of scripture with one, unitary approach. It takes a range of readings to make sense of that great book, the Bible.

Like Marcion, we can benefit from being open and honest and clear about how we are going to read the bible. When we discard parts (like the command to wear garments woven of only one fabric) or set other parts up to be instructive (like the command not to murder), we need to name why we read the bible the way we do. Otherwise we end up doing something absurd (like Marcion) without ever knowing it.

More on this is found in the slide show below. Enjoy!

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