Defending Marcion: Moltmann on “the New”

Apostle John (left) and Marcion of Sinope (right), from Morgan Library MS 748, 11th century (Source: Wikipedia)
Apostle John (left) and Marcion of Sinope (right), from Morgan Library MS 748, 11th century (Source: Wikipedia)

“There are few Christian theologians who refer faith so strictly to God’s revealing work in Christ, who so earnestly try to connect it with Christ alone, as this heretic did.”
– Karl Barth on Marcion (Church Dogmatics III/1, 337)

Heretics are usually remembered most for what they got wrong, not what they got right. Their stories are told as cautionary tales of dangerous doctrinal errors. This is certainly the case with Marcion, the early Christian heretic famous for rejecting the God of the Old Testament as evil, and instead embracing only the God of the New Testament (the Father of Jesus Christ)  as good (that’s right: two Gods). His error, as Karl Barth reminds us, was basically taking an important insight (the finality of the revelation of God in Christ) to a dangerous extreme, which resulted in a distorted picture of Christ: “He purifies the New Testament so drastically that he cannot appreciate its true Christ, and His existence even in Israel, and the connection of the whole of the New Testament with the whole of the Old. He apprehends the witness of Paul the Jew only in a violently distorted form.” (Barth, CD III/1, 338)

Comparing a contemporary theologian or pastor to Marcion or Marcionism in theological conversations is about as helpful as comparing a contemporary political leader to the Hitler or the Nazism: It makes people’s defenses go up, and rarely results in a productive conversation. There has been a tendency to label as “Neo-Marcionite” anyone who reinterprets the pictures of God in the Old Testament in light of the final revelation of God in Jesus Christ. In my view, what these folks (Peter Enns, Greg Boyd, et al) are doing has a lot more in common with the Christocentrism of Barth or cruciformity of Moltmann than with Marcion.

But in all of this, we tend to forget that there is something to commend even in this arch heretic. In Religion, Revolution, and the Future, Moltmann reminds us that without Marcion, the Bible we have today would likely look very different (Marcion even first coined the phrase “New Testament”), and that in rejecting Marcion, the church lost the category of “the new”.

In an age which saw the rise of early Catholicism, Marcion, the most radical disciple of Paul, attempted once more to renew the church. The only work which we know he wrote is called Antitheses. From him comes the expression “New Testament” and the collection of Paul’s letters. While the church of his time considered the Old Testament to be its Bible, it was through Marcion that what we still call today the “New Testament” came into circulation. It was directed antithetically against the Old Testament. It was only after Marcion that the church made the one canon out of both. If we recognize this, we can appreciate that this one canon comprising the Old and New Testaments contains dynamite. Marcion’s Antitheses begins with a cry of astonished exultation: “O miracle beyond miracle, rapture, power and astonishment is it, that one can say nothing at all about the gospel or compare it with anything at all.” For Marcion the new of Christ (Neue Christi) is without analogy. Everything which existed hitherto and was known becomes bad, evil, and pernicious in the face of the new thing which now comes. Marcion speaks no longer, as Paul spoke, merely of the new creation of God, but of the “new God” (Deus novus). Hence for Marcion the God of the Old Testament and of the creation of this world became an evil God. For Paul the history of the Old Testament was past, but not obliterated. He took it up as promise into his gospel. In the Epistle to the Hebrews the old covenant is seen as foreshadowing the new. But for Marcion the division of the old and new runs not only through man, not only through heaven and earth, but also through God himself.

Thus the history of the new gives rise to a metaphysical dualism. The new, strange God of Christ succeeds the old creator of the world and destroys him. Redemption destroys creation, the gospel destroys the law, and faith becomes the enemy of every known reality. But in this antithesis the new cannot bring salvation. It means annihilation. As there is nothing on which it can be predicated, it becomes basically non-appropriable. But, in fact, the new is never wholly new. It is always preceded by a dream, a promise, an anticipation; otherwise we could not grasp and accept it, and it could not be effective in history.

When the universal church excluded Marcion as a heretic, it lost for itself the category of the new. As is always the case with the exclusion of heresies, the church became more united, but also poorer. Since then, God’s revelation has no longer been proclaimed in terms of the claim of the new and of freedom for the future, but it has been proclaimed by the authority of what is old and always true. No longer is the incipit vita nova announced, but instead a restitutio in integrum. The lost paradise, of which even the sinner still has a fragmentary memory, is won back through Christ and the church. The original condition of creation is restored in grace. The old naturalistic notion of the eternal return of the same (die Wiederkehr des Gleichen) dominates Christian hope. We can recall the words of Augustine: “That which is now called the Christian religion was also there among the men of former times. Indeed from the very beginning of the human race until Christ appeared in the flesh it has never been absent. From then on the true religion which already existed began to be called the ‘Christian religion'” (Retractiones, I, 12). Thus it is no longer “the new” but “the old” that now becomes the warrant for the truth of Christianity.

With Marcion, Paul also was lost for the church. It was only because she retained Marcion’s “New Testament” in the canon, that the church stored up for herself her own permanent revolution. Today we must bring about this revolution. We have no right to postpone it further and to live on the basis of this delay. One can ask indeed whether or not Christianity became unfaithful to its origin in neglecting the category of the novum. In any case, we will have to go back quite far in order to discover the role of Christianity in the promissory history of God and to actualize it in the contemporary world.

Religion, Revolution and the Future, 13-15

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