Having just written about Brian McLaren, and his comments about the way the OT relates to the NT, it was fascinating this week to attend the University of Nottingham theology seminar given by Prof Judith Lieu on ‘The Search for Marcion’. She started by pointing out that we have no actual texts of Marcion, and that, if his disciples had passed on any of his teaching, we have no record of it. There is here both a parallel and a difference with Jesus, but it is an instructive one—we have no direct records of the teaching of Jesus, but (unlike Marcion) we do have the records of his disciples who passed it on. The whole question of ‘the historical Jesus’ is about the relationship between these records and what Jesus actually said, taught and did.
What is interesting is that, notwithstanding this lack of information, commentators often feel confident knowing what Marcion said—and knowing it was wrong! We can only reconstruct his teaching from his opponents, which raises significant questions of method, since these records are clearly both rhetorical in nature and polemical in purpose. Justin Martyr’s comments in his Dialogue with Trypho are a case in point.
For some in one way, others in another, teach to blaspheme the Maker of all things, and Christ, who was foretold by Him as coming, and the God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob, with whom we have nothing in common, since we know them to be atheists, impious, unrighteous, and sinful, and confessors of Jesus in name only, instead of worshippers of Him. Yet they style themselves Christians, just as certain among the Gentiles inscribe the name of God upon the works of their own hands, and partake in nefarious and impious rites. Some are called Marcians, and some Valentinians, and some Basilidians, and some Saturnilians, and others by other names; each called after the originator of the individual opinion, just as each one of those who consider themselves philosophers, as I said before, thinks he must bear the name of the philosophy which he follows, from the name of the father of the particular doctrine. (Dialogue 35.5–6)
This passage is often read as though it is describing the different ‘heretical’ groups that exist, and is used as a window into the social reality that Justin lived in, as though these groups had a clear identity and there were fixed boundaries between them. But the evidence suggests that the world of the second century was much less clear and more fluid in terms of beliefs about Jesus. It is better to understand this text as defining rather than describing these groups, and in doing so, Justin is effecting a rhetorical purpose. By naming these groups after their followers, Justin is asserting that they are more like schools of the philosophers than the ‘true’ followers of Christian faith, and by imitating the construction of the term (ending in ‘-ian’), he is asserting that they are distinct groups. This language functions as a speech act, forming these groups and asserting their mutual incompatibility. And this is in the context (especially pertinent to the ‘Marcians’) of understanding Jesus as one ‘who was foretold by his coming’.
A key text from Justin in understanding the teaching of Marcion comes from his First Apology:
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 the 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. (Apol 26.5)
A fascinating insight into the theological significance of this comes from Tertullian a generation later. In Chapter 9 of his Answer to the Jews, he addresses the question of whether Jesus was the ‘Immanuel’ of Is 7:
Well, then, Isaiah foretells that it behoves Him to be called Emmanuel; and that subsequently He is to take the power of Damascus and the spoils of Samaria, in opposition to the king of the Assyrians. “Now,” say they, “that (Christ) of yours, who is come, neither was called by that name, nor engaged in warfare.” But we, on the contrary, have thought they ought to be admonished to recall to mind the context of this passage as well. For subjoined is withal the interpretation of Emmanuel–“God with us”–in order that you may regard not the sound only of the name, but the sense too. For the Hebrew sound, which is Emmanuel, has an interpretation, which is, God with us. Inquire, then, whether this speech, “God with us” (which is Emmanuel), be commonly applied to Christ ever since Christ’s light has dawned, and I think you will not deny it.
Tertullian is arguing that Jesus is the theological (if not the literal) fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy. Similarly, in his Against Marcion he addresses the same passage:
For there is immediately added the interpretation of Emmanuel, “God with us;” so that you have to consider not merely the name as it is uttered, but also its meaning. The utterance is Hebrew, Emmanuel, of the prophet’s own nation; but the meaning of the word, God with us, is by the interpretation made common property. Inquire, then, whether this name, God-with-us, which is Emmanuel, be not often used for the name of Christ, from the fact that Christ has enlightened the world. And I suppose you will not deny it, inasmuch as you do yourself admit that He is called God-with-us, that is, Emmanuel. (Against Marcion Book 3 Chapter 12)
What this suggests is that the issue with both Judaism and Marcion is the separation of the two parts of Scripture. Both agree that they are disconnected: Judaism accepts the first part but rejects the second; Marcion does the reverse. For Tertullian, the root problem in both cases is the separation between the Law and the gospel—between OT and NT.
Marcion’s special and principal work is the separation of the law and the gospel; and his disciples will not deny that in this point they have their very best pretext for initiating and confirming themselves in his heresy. These are Marcion’s Antitheses, or contradictory propositions, which aim at committing the gospel to a variance with the law, in order that from the diversity of the two documents which contain them, they may contend for a diversity of gods also. (Against Marcion, Book 1, 19.4)
It is easy to see why Tertullian considers this such an important issue. I don’t think it is exaggerating to say that the continuity between Jesus and the Hebrew Scriptures is the central question of NT theology. We see it in John the Baptist’s question: ‘Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?’ (Matt 11.3). And we see it equally in Jesus’ reply, where he describes his ministry in (amended) terms from different parts of Isaiah, including Is 61. But most illuminating is what Jesus says after asking some rhetorical questions about John’s ministry:
I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children (Matt 11.25)
In other words, this continuity cannot be seen simply by reading words on the page: it is discerned spiritually. In contemporary terms, we might talk of continuity of theological interpretation. But the continuity is seen in every NT document. In Romans 1, Paul explains ‘the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son’ (Rom 1.2–3). In 1 Cor 15, he sets out the key elements of the gospel: ‘that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures‘ (1 Cor 15.3–4). When Paul claims that ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Cor 5.19), we assume the referent of ‘God’ is a theological notion which might or might not relate to what we read in the OT—but for Paul, the referent was the God of the Scriptures who had delivered Israel from slavery and given them the law. (For the landmark study of the way the OT works in Paul, see Richard Hays’ Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul. Steve Moyise has also written very helpfully on Paul and Scripture: Studying the New Testament Use of the Old Testament.)
The writer to the Hebrews links the ways God has spoken in the past and how he has spoken ‘in these last days by his son’ (Heb 1.2). Reading from a gentile perspective, the tendency is to see contrast here. But from a first century Jewish perspective, the key point was continuity: this was the same God, speaking his consistent word. The same is true for the description of Jesus as ‘the Word’ in John 1. It is most often used (as Brian McLaren does) to emphasis discontinuity—no longer that one, but now this one—whereas John’s claim is at least as much about continuity and unity. This word of God, which spoke the world into being, which spoke the law to Israel to give shape to their life, which spoke through the prophets to bring them back to God—this word is now before us, in a way we can see and hear and touch (1 John 1.1).
But that which God has joined, we have repeatedly put asunder. Like Adolf Harnack (in his study of Marcion), we blame Paul:
The starting point of Marcion’s criticism cannot be missed in the tradition: it was provided in the Pauline opposition of Law and Gospel, malevolent, petty, and cruel penal justice on the one hand and compassionate love on the other.
What Harnack fails to see is that it is not Paul who causes the problem, but a distortion of Paul produced by a Reformation agenda and driven by critical scholarship’s modernist presuppositions. (This is why it is important to get to grips with the ‘new perspective on Paul’; see Mike Thompson’s excellent Grove booklet on the subject.) The consequent division of Old and New Testaments is then picked up by evangelical piety (‘The New is in the Old concealed; the Old is in the New revealed’) which explains why evangelicals often find it so hard to read the OT in its own terms.
A final, fascinating insight into this issue comes from a further comment from Tertullian:
This man of Pontus offers two Gods… The one the Creator, whom he cannot deny, which is our God; the other, whom he cannot prove, a god of his own…for like many these days, especially the heretics, he sickens over the question of evil. (Against Marcion, Book 1, chapter 2).
Marcian’s concern, it appears, is a pastoral one—’the question of evil’. The division of OT from NT in McLaren (and Steve Chalke, and other ‘progressives’) is also often motivated by a pastoral concern. But the solution offered (‘which aims at committing the gospel to a variance with the law’!) leads to an even bigger pastoral problem. When we end up constructing our own view of God by putting some parts of Scripture in opposition to others, we are left with the question: does God keep his word? The unity of the narrative stands or falls with the integrity of God.
I commented last year on the debate between Chalke and Andrew Wilson:
If the writer of Numbers was mistaken, asked Wilson, then what about the other writers of the Bible? What about Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5? If God does not strike people down, what was going on there? Yes, said Chalke, the author of Acts was also mistaken. As of course was Paul (or whoever) in 1 Timothy 2. So it is not just a case of ‘progressive revelation’; any and all of the Bible authors can be mistaken. On what basis? On the basis of the revelation of Jesus as the personification of the love of God. The big question, then (which was not asked in these terms) is: If any of the New Testament writers could also be mistaken, on what basis can we know anything about this Jesus?
That is why the ‘progressive’ agenda, including its agenda on revisionist sexuality, touches the heart of Christian theology.
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