As the old saying goes, Marcion was “the son of a preacher man”. Actually, his father was Bishop at Sinope. But Marcion’s upbringing in the Church did not lead him to accept the orthodoxy of the times. He was a wealthy shipowner and merchant who evidently compared the religion of his father with the religions he saw in the places he traveled to. He made friends with a Syrian named Cerdo who apparently was a follower of the Gnostic Simon Magus.
Marcion didn’t like Jews, and he saw evil in materialism. He was convinced the world was evil, and he blamed the God of the Old Testament for that. That is indicative of Gnostic influence.
Marcion started preaching with success. He was a master church planter. Consequently, the church excommunicated him for his views. Marcion differentiated between the God of the Old Testament and the God and Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Marcion concluded, in simple terms, that the Old Testament was bad, and the New Testament was good.
To Marcion, the God of the Old Testament was cruel. One reason he was cruel is that he selected one people above all the rest. He set his chosen people to massacre other peoples. The penalty for some sins was death. In contrast to that, the Father of Jesus was inclusive, he made Christianity available to everyone. This showed a loving God, full of compassion and mercy.
Marcion concluded that Jesus couldn’t have been born of the genealogies that came out of the Old Testament and that evil god. So he simply appeared as a grown man!
This all may sound obviously off to many of you, but Marcion founded a church that lasted for centuries. He was a persuasive preacher and church builder. One reason was that he taught that there was no judgment; all would be saved.
Now, since to Marcion the Old Testament was bad those books couldn’t be included in the list of books to be read in the churches. That’s why Marcion had to label Old Testament books and New Testament books to recognize which were the good ones to him and his followers. Apparently, our divisions of Old and New Testaments come from Marcion.
Marcion was perhaps the first to make a list of New Testament books. To Marcion, Jesus was the Son of God, and the Apostle Paul was his chief spokesman. So Marcion’s list consisted just of the epistles of Paul and the gospel of Luke. The rest of the books in what we call the New Testament had too much of the Old Testament in them to support Marcion’s view of scripture.
Of course, the more mainline Christian churches of the time had to respond to Marcion’s list (as well as his church). Orthodox churches began to compile their own lists, and uniformly, they included the Hebrew Scriptures. As lists were developed it was common to include more than one gospel because it became common knowledge that no one gospel had the complete story. Other writings were gradually added to various lists compiled by different people.
Gnostic groups also began compiling Scripture lists of their own, but they also claimed books like the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Truth of the Valentinian and other Gnostic writings.
So there was a debate growing among various groups as to which list contained the list of true Scriptures. Orthodox churches, as they made contact, compared lists and slowly began building a consensus that led centuries later to the Canon of Scripture that gave us the 66 books in the Protestant Bible.
And as far as the response to the teachings of these heretical groups, there were several things done. One was the formation of the Apostle’s Creed. This is also thought to be done in Rome circa 150 AD.[i] It was an affirmation of orthodoxy against heresy. The Apostles Creed is something of a misnomer in that it implies and some mistakenly believe that the Apostles wrote the creed. On the contrary, the creed was what mid-2nd century church leaders believed that the Apostles would affirm.
Here is that original creed (notice it is different than modern versions that I have seen) formulated into a trio of questions to be presented to a candidate for baptism:
Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty?
Do you believe in Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was born of the Holy Ghost and of Mary the Virgin, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and died, and rose again at the third day, living from among the dead, and ascended unto heaven and sat at the right of the Father, and will come to judge the quick and the dead?
Do you believe in the Holy Ghost, the Holy Church, and the resurrection of the flesh? [ii]
You can see that this creed is directed against the Gnostics and Marcionites in the use of the word “Almighty”. The word is usually translated “all ruling” and so it rules out the multiple gods of Marcion’s preaching.
Additionally, the creed specifies that Jesus was born, not just living a spiritual existence. This speaks against the heretical influences of Jesus just existing spiritually. It specifies Pontius Pilate to give a historical reference point showing that he lived a physical life in the real world.
Also in response to Marcion and others, several early teachers in the church, including Irenaeus of Lyons, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Origen of Alexandria wrote refutations against the heresies. But in so doing the writings caused a change in perspective. Before the writings of Paul and those in the decades following the writings were more simple and concrete. Now the teachers had to expound on Christian doctrine and show the failings of the heresies. That is certainly a godly enterprise, But, in that same process, some of these refutations made claims that original Christianity would not such as Christians find truth in philosophy as well as the Bible, i.e. there is more than one source for truth. New claims also included that Christianity is a systematic theology with multiple levels of meanings, not just the simple sayings of uneducated men like in the first century, and it is a compatible and comparable philosophy to philosophers like Plato’s writings.
[i] The Story Of Christianity, Volume 1, The Early Church To The Dawn Of The Reformation, Justo L Gonzalez, HarperOne, 2010, p. 73-77
[ii] Ibid, p. 77
THE RISE OF CHRISTIANITY, W.H.C. Frend, Fortress House, Philadelphia, 1984 p. 212-217
© copyright 2023 Mark William Smith, All rights reserved. Last revised 7/11/23