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Marcion: Heretic or Christian?

Possible Progenitor of Three Famous Christian Communities:
Baptists, Catholics, Gnostics

by Ray Embry 2001

Marcion's place in the history of Christianity is still not very well known. Over the last two hundred years, there has been a growing number of studies that have managed to shed more light on Christianity's first two centuries. Significant breakthroughs have been achieved through means of manuscript discoveries and critical reassessments of some strong traditions.

One such orthodox claim that has lost support among many researchers is the once dominant tradition that describes Catholicism as the oldest form of Christianity (Walter Bauer. Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity).

In the Twentieth Century, the emergence of some significant studies on Marcion has led a variety of Christian thinkers to describe Marcion as the initiator of some important customs and features now found in our modern Christian Faith. Here is a brief list of five things described on the Web as being created by Marcion:

1. The "faith only" movement (solafideism),

2. The theory of dispensationalism,

3. The concept of "New Testament Christianity,"

4. The New Testament itself, as a distinct body of inspired writings,

5. Sola Scriptura, the idea that all Christian teachings should be based solely on the Scriptures (The New Testament).

There are at least eight notable reactions to Marcion that indirectly may be attributed to his early work and mission. After he evangelized the Roman Empire in the Second Century, there began to surface several energetic responses to Marcion's work:

1. The Orthodox began to expand his New Testament,

2. Such ideas as Church Tradition, the Rule of Faith and Apostolic Succession were introduced in order to undermine Marcion's insistence on sola scriptura. These formulations helped crystallize the concept of Orthodoxy (or Catholicism).

3. After Marcion commenced his evangelistic crusade, a significant portion of Christian literature became devoted to apologetics (or polemical defenses) of Orthodoxy (correct doctrines).

4. Forgeries of Christian semi-scriptures mushroomed. Some of these pseudepigrapha (false writings) were composed to counteract some aspect of Marcion's theology.

5. The Apostles' Creed is generally recognized as a forgery. Some scholars, such as Arthur C. McGiffert, recognize it as composed specially to temper Marcion's theism.

6. Even the extra-Biblical and incomprehensible word "Trinity" may be seen as a useful device invented to help fend off Marcionite logic.

7. The Inquisition was originally designed as a mechanism to deal with the dualistic Albigensians who had taken up some of Marcion's ideas.

8. The Rosary, according to Catholic Tradition, was also originally designed as an instrument to aid in the battle against Albigensians.

The following article focuses on an early time in Marcion's teaching career, and it brings to light some aspects of that crucial setting. Marcion enters the scene while a battle was waging for the soul of Christianity. There was a tendency then to see Christianity mainly as a New Israel, and Monotheism was then being put forth as the number one teaching of the Church (Note Clement of Rome's long glorification of the Creator, AD 90).

Marcion was attempting to bring Christianity back to its real roots in Jesus Christ. According to Marcion, faith in our Savior led to the real birth of the family of Christians. Traveling across the ancient world, Marcion spread his message of faith. His great success was due to a number of factors. His personal dynamism may have been important. The staying power of his influence was due in large part to the New Testament that he published. The logic of his thinking was persuasive. His ability to answer the problem of evil made him rise head and shoulders above all philosophers and metaphysicians.

THE GNOSTICS

According to Clement of Alexandria, Marcion preceded in time all the great Gnostic masters: "those that invented the heresies" (The Miscellanies, Book 7, ch. 17. 106f.). That educated scholar from Alexandria (Clement) represents Marcion as an "elder" predecessor to two early Gnostic teachers, Valentinus and Basilides. Another heresiarch, Simon Magus, who is often portrayed as the grand father of Gnosticism, also is described by Clement as succeeding Marcion. "This statement of Clement appears to make Marcion an old man while (Basilides and) Valentinus were still young, and to put Simon Magus posterior to them all in time" (Robert Smith Wilson. Marcion: A Study of a Second-Century Heretic. James Clarke and Co. Ltd. 1932. p. 56). Clement's chronological data is not being so readily dismissed today, and Marcion's career is being dated to an earlier time than before (Marcion: On the Restitution of Christianity - An Essay on the Development of Radical Paulinist Theology in the Second Century. R. Joseph Hoffmann. Scholars Press 1984).

Besides this historical evidence about his priority, Marcion's simple Dualism seems to be the logical antecedent or background for the complex arrangements found in Gnosticism. Indeed, Gnostics are often mistakenly described as Dualists. More correctly, the Gnostic method is essentially an imaginative attempt to give a monotheistic explanation about the rise of evil. (Gnostics seem to be direct heirs of Jewish speculative theology where there was a keen interest in angelology and Logos theories. The Gnostic aethereal matrix was mobilized to counteract the growing influence of Marcion's Antithesis. The Orthodox were less disturbed over the Gnostics than they were over Marcion.) The Gnostics believed they had adequately explained how darkness and corruption could ultimately descend from a singular source of Divine Light.

Between that Perfect Light and our imperfect world, there are (according to the Gnostics) a significant number of stations, events and beings that tend to absorb the attribution of evil away from the highest level of Divine Unity. The various lists of intermediaries found in Gnostic literature identify a number of individuals that seem to be responsible for all the strife and confusion that is so evident in this lower realm. Thus the Highest Cause remains ineffable and unsullied. The Gnostic quest is to return to that great level of Divine Integrity.

Marcion's simple Dualism was not adopted wholesale by any Gnostic system (unless Cerdo was a real Gnostic). All Gnostic theories eventually envision a single source for everything. Sometimes this original point seems to be bipolar and sometimes it is bisected along sexual lines. Even this binary entity acts corporately for the birth or incipience of all else.

All Gnostic theologies seemingly spring forth as ideological children born from the ancient Mosaic idea about an inviolable monotheism. This form of theism sees everything (no matter what) as ultimately deriving from a single Creator. Working within this rigid model of monism, the Judaistic or Mosaic theoreticians could only think in a linear or vertical fashion, where our world lies on one end, while an independent Father of Light stands on the other.

The new Gnostic systems describe every single thing as somehow related, but, due to Marcion's contention, evil is removed as far as possible down the ladder. These semi-Marcionite schemes all attempt to place evil far, far away from the Supreme Being. They make evil seem hardly related to the Most High Entity. In their effort to rebut Marcion's recognition of an independent kingdom of evil, the Gnostics preferred to describe the evil world as an accident or as a disturbance caused by a lack of knowledge. Evil, to the Gnostic, was mostly described as a mixing with Matter which in turn was able to interfere with man's clearness or pureness of vision.

Whenever a sufficient distance is achieved away from the Ultimate Source for Light, then this detached condition seems almost fated to bring about a measure of darkness. By not being directly responsible for an unenlightened world, the Gnostic God of Light and Wisdom was superficially made to resemble Marcion's. However, the Gnostic's ingenious image of divine supremacy was described more in terms of philosophical majesty or profundity. Originally, Marcion's God was known always as the highest example of moral character and civility.

The later Church Fathers loved to describe Marcion as a Gnostic. They could make this allegation effective only at a time when Gnosticism was clearly waning. The original distinction between Marcion and the Gnostics is easily discoverable when the matter of the Christian canon is carefully examined.

Marcion was a man who determined all by the canon (sola scriptura). He did not rely on secret visitations or mysterious documents in order to validate his teaching. He relied solely on the plain message of the Gospel and the Epistles of Paul.

Departing dramatically from Marcion's simple reliance on Scripture, the Gnostics felt no compunction whatsoever about writing down their wild imaginations. They all felt totally justified in this because their holy campaign was looked on by them as a necessary defense of Hebrew monotheism. Many Gnostics alluded to the existence of Jesus, and when they made some such reference, they usually portrayed him as a brilliant Messenger who had been sent to point a way for man to pass back through the great cosmic confusion. A shadow had materialized throughout our world and it managed to obscure mankind's appreciation of pure monotheism.

The Gnostics were generally a scholarly community who tossed around their knowledge of ancient history and traditions. They gleaned much from their library of classics and they mixed legendary and scriptural matters freely. They had pride in mental eccentricity and they gloried in their metaphysical erudition. Their key to the future was their mind's ability to hold onto the secrets of life. Their crowning jewel was their apparent ability to solve Marcion's dilemma without having to abandon monotheism.

Marcion's use of the Christian canon brings him closer to the Scripture-oriented Christianity of the great Councils than it does to the myth-oriented Gnostics. Marcion sponsored an open Christianity that met in churches. The Gnostic affinity or group identity was a secret bond that transcended the local "Christian" congregations. Marcion preached the Gospel to all, while the Gnostics gloried in their elite status by carefully guarding the deepest of their inspired secrets.

Again, the similarity between Marcion and the Gnostics is only superficial. The similarity actually only involves a common vocabulary of a few key words. When the respective usage of these words is taken into consideration, a vast difference slowly emerges. Marcion had a practical and ethical interest. The Gnostic interest was philosophical and argumentative. A Gnostic group could be libertine in its practice, and still it could be recognized as fundamentally faithful to the principles of Gnosticism. Marcion's principles always required the highest degree of morality.

Love, for the Gnostics, was generally only their conscious desire to return to the Highest Heaven, in company with their friends. Marcion recognized Christ's great mission as a journey of compassion to this lost world. Loving our enemies is the heart of this Gospel.

THE ORIGIN OF THE WORD "CHRISTIAN"

The historical records about Marcion's contact with Gnostics is very meager. Accepting Marcion's priority makes sense out of the otherwise mysterious origins of Gnosticism. A more recent review of Marcion's chronology places the beginning of Marcion's ministry several years before that of the supposed "Gnostic" Cerdo. Cerdo (or Cerdon) apparently flourished as a teacher after AD 130, "in the time of Hyginus, who was the eighth bishop" (Robert Smith Wilson. Marcion: A Study of a Second Century Heretic. James Clarke and Co. Ltd. 1932. p.54; quoting Irenaeus. Adv. Haer. III.4.53). Hyginus superintended the Roman Ecclesia AD 136-140.

According to a reasonable interpretation of the chronological evidence, Polycarp (while a bishop of Smyrna) was writing in AD 115 about the extensiveness of Marcion's teachings in Asia Minor (Pol. Phil. 2:18,19). Polycarp styled Marcion as "the first-born of Satan" (Ante-Nicene Fathers [ANF] vol. 1, p. 416), and the object of Polycarp's criticism in his Epistle to Philippi is directed to this same "[son]."

About the year AD 138, Justin Martyr (a resident of Rome) wrote about Marcion's unusually long and effective teaching career. "And there is Marcion, a man of Pontus, who is even at this day alive, and teaching his disciples to believe in some other god greater than the Creator. And he, by the aid of devils, has caused many of every nation to speak blasphemies, and to deny that God is the maker of this universe, and to assert that some other being, greater than He, has done greater works. All who take these opinions from these men are, as we before said, called Christian" (Justin's [First] Apology. I.26. ANF. vol. 1. p. 171). The reason for dating this statement to the year AD 138 is discoverable in Blackman's study (Marcion and His Influence. p. 21).

One of the most startling things in Justin's unfavorable review of Marcion is the surprising appearance of the word "Christians" as a commonly used title to describe the members of Marcionite churches. By AD 138, Marcionites could be found in "every nation." At this early time, there is some confusion about the correct spelling for "Christian." It is known that Marcion preferred to call Jesus the "Chrestos" (which means the Kind or Helpful One). "... [T]he spelling for 'Chrestos' (=the Good one) [is] derived from an ancient inscription to a Marcionite synagogue" (Daniel Jon Mahar. English Reconstruction and Translation of Marcion's version of To The Galatians. p. 1).

Those 'orthodox' believers who were more allied with the Roman Ecclesia were already at this time proudly bearing the title "Catholic." By the time when The Acts of the Apostles was formally published about the middle of the Second Century, the word "Christian" had become very popular as a designation for believers in Jesus. Because of this, there was needed some kind of explanation about its origin.

Not many know that the Sinaiticus manuscript has a peculiar way of spelling the word Christian. Everywhere this title appears, that Fourth Century manuscript spells it "Chrestian." Vaticanus, a manuscript of the same age, utilizes a slightly transitional spelling: "Chreistian."

This surely is strong evidence about Marcion's real role. Not only is Marcion's original spelling for "Christian" still evident in such important manuscripts, this also indicates directly the strength and extent of Marcionite effects on the entire Christian community, including its scholars. There is still some bifurcation between the words "Catholic" and "Christian" today.

In AD 49, Rome experienced disturbances in the Jewish community that had been provoked by the preaching of "Chrestus" (based on the account of Suetonius in J. Steven's New Eusebius. no. 2, p. 1). "[Aquila] and his wife Priscilla had recently left Italy because an edict of Claudius had expelled all the Jews from Rome" (Acts 18:2, Jerusalem Bible). It seems notable at this time (AD 49) that "Jews" in general were expelled, and not simply followers of "Chrestus" or "Chrestians." "Was it because at this early date the Roman authorities did not or could not clearly differentiate between the Christians and the Jews?" (Wilson. Marcion... p. 25). The presence of the Gentile title "Chrestus" in Rome implies also the presence of an accompanying Gentile-oriented Gospel. Some Jews seem to have loudly voiced a degree of intolerance upon hearing this proclamation of "Chrestus."

In Vaticanus and Sinaiticus it is not possible to discover how Jesus' main title (Christ) was spelled. A scribal device called "nomina sacra" was employed as a emphatic technique to highlight special words. The highlighted words were shortened. Because of this, the scribes left out the main vowel every time. Most Greek editions restore the vowel as an iota ("i").

By making a back formation from the Sinaiticus' "Chrestian," the word "Chrestos" appears as the proper title for Jesus. Through this logical method, it can be reasonably argued that Jesus' normal title should be fully spelled "Chrestos" throughout Sinaiticus.

Besides the two oldest Greek New Testaments from the Fourth Century, and in addition to the oldest dated church inscription (AD 318), there is an abundance of ancient testimony that shows that the title "Chrestus" for Jesus was very popular among "common" Christians.

The two titles "Chrestus" or "Chrestian" are referred to in the following written sources: Tertullian (AD 210), The Eighth Sibyl (AD 200), Theophilos of Antioch (AD 170), Marcus (AD 145), Apocalypse of Elijah (AD 100), Suetonius (AD 124) and Tacitus (AD 116). There is even a disputed inscription (now lost) from Pompei (AD 79) that is believed to have contained a reference to this lost title of Jesus.

The ruling theologians of orthodoxy denounced the spelling "Chrestus" as based on ignorance. Lactantius (AD 310) said: "The ignorant are accustomed to call Him 'Chrestus'" (ANF. Vol. 7, p. 106).

To the simple believers in Jesus, He is Christ, the Good Shepherd, who seeks and saves the lost. To the intellectuals, He is Christ, the just King, who casts the sinner into hell.

As a token of His merciful character, Jesus was once honored with the title "Chrestus" (which means benevolent one). This probably was the original meaning (and spelling) for Jesus' title in the oldest New Testament, the one that Marcion published.

The theological reason for the Orthodox scribes carefully and stealthily introducing "Christ" as Jesus' main title is explainable from its etymology. "Christ" in Greek means "anointed" (or royal). This meaning matches that of the Hebrew word "Messiah." The Church Fathers preferred Jesus to be known as Israel's coming King.

"Paul put Jesus Christ in the forefront of his preaching, and they ['the early Gentile churches'] can hardly have done otherwise. It is no accident, indeed, that the adherents of the new faith were early called Christians" (Arthur Cushman McGiffert. The God of the Early Christians. p. 44).

THE BEGINNING OF CATHOLICISM

Adolf von Harnack represented Marcion as the creator of the Catholic Church. This characterization mainly refers to the Roman ecclesia's response to Marcion's evangelism. The rapid growth of Marcionite churches across the Roman Empire in the first two decades of the Second Century motivated the presbytery of the "great" Roman congregation to form a more comprehensive hierarchy and outreach.

Before this time, Christianity was often viewed as indistinguishable from Judaism. Marcion's effort called for a clear distinction. Afterwards, Judeo-Christianity became isolated so that it had to take an independent course. This was predictable because its strong Jewish anchor made it totally incompatible with Marcion's idea of New Testament Christianity.

"... [O]nly after Marcion did those in the great church begin the purposeful work of deriving from heaven the holy church, ... and of combining the congregations here on earth into an actual community and unity on the basis of a fixed doctrine that is rooted in the New Testament, just as Marcion did. This demonstrates that by means of his organizational and theological conceptions and by his activity Marcion gave the decisive impetus towards the creation of the old catholic church and provided the pattern for it" (Adolf von Harnack. Marcion: The Gospel of the Alien God. Labyrinth Press 1990 [1924]. p. 131,132).

"... [C]atholicism is constructed as a defense against Marcion..." (ibid p. ix).

The idea of Christian independence from Judaism became quickly popular. From this point on, Catholicism grew in many ways. Many additional modifications would be made until much of the simplicity evident in Marcion's day became either obscured or entirely lost. By keeping the law about Jewish monotheism as its chief doctrine (as is attested in the creeds), Catholicism opened the door to regain various other features borrowed from the religion of the Old Testament. By following the pattern of ancient Israel, Catholicism began to augment its hierarchy, its ritualism and its animosity towards independent thinkers.

BAPTIST HISTORY

There is an even greater affinity between the Marcionite churches and the Baptist churches. Many Baptist historians trace modern Baptist churches back to the Anabaptists of northern Europe, those who were contemporary with Luther (early Sixteenth Century). The Anabaptist phenomenon is often viewed as a revival of the Albigensian churches of the Fourteenth Century.

The Albigensian Dualists flourished in Languedoc (southern France). The Albigensians, along with the Cathari, are in turn traced by some prominent historians back to the Paulicians of the Ninth Century. These Christian Dualists prospered primarily in Armenia. At last, many view the Paulicians as direct (or indirect) heirs to Marcion's Gospel message. Baptist historians conveniently fail to make this last connection.

The analogy between the Marcionites and the Baptists does not end with this probable evidence of historical lineage. The similar character of the churches is more remarkable. They both were a) simple, b) New Testament oriented, c) non-establishment, d) non-sacerdotal, e) non-sacramental, f) evangelistic, g) faithful to sola scriptura, and h) devoted to Jesus.

On the subject regarding "Marcion's historical position," Adolf von Harnack stated: "It is understandable that Neander could call him {Marcion} the first Protestant. But we may go further. He not only took up again the work and the struggle of Paul, but he also did this in the apostle's understanding and consciousness of faith; for it was his intention to know nothing save Christ the crucified one" (ibid p. 124, 125).

SUMMARY

Prior to Marcion's revival of Paul's theology, Christianity was much identified with Judaism. At that time, the Christian Bible was only the Old Testament. After Marcion openly published the first New Testament in Rome (AD 116), there arose four great divisions in Christianity. These groups were denominated: the Gnostics, the Catholics, the Judeo-Christians and the Marcionites.

Before Marcion published the first truly Christian Bible, Christianity already had been divided into two groups. In Paul's words, there were the "Judaizers" and there were the Pneumatics (the "Spiritual"). The Judaizers were more allied with Peter and James. The Pneumatics upheld Paul's Gospel of freedom.

From http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Ithaca/3827/marcion.html

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