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Now and then someone asks me—actually, a thinly veiled accusation—whether I am a Marcionite, and I find that utterly ridiculous and irresponsible.

Marcionite or Martian?

If some people would bother to do some research, like look into my birth records, they would see that I was born on this planet like everyone else—in Passaic, NJ, to be exact. This assault on my very person assumes an inconceivably elaborate 24-esque terrorist conspiracy scheme involving forged birth records, which would require my German immigrant parents, who knew little English, to have deep government connections. Give me a break.

I hope we can put this to rest so we can move on and…

Oh wait…. I just Googled Marcionism….

OK. I see.

Apparently being a Marcionite means adhering to the teachings of the 2nd-century heretic Marcion, who saw in the Bible two different Gods: the wrathful God of the Old Testament and the happy gracious God of the New.

Which brings me to God’s violence in the Old Testament and how that fits with the New Testament.

To summarize my view as Marcionite, as some have done, is only slightly less convincing to me than saying I was born on the Red Planet.

My view, as I’ve articulated roughly 47 billion times on this blog (start here), is that the New Testament does not share the tribal, insider-outsider, rhetoric of a significant portion of the Old Testament.

The Old Testament exhibits its own internal dialogue about violence (for example, compare Jonah and Nahum on the fate of the Assyrians). Still, I believe there is striking diversity between how the Old Testament presents God and violence and what we read in the New—namely killing off a people group or one’s enemies to acquire land or hold on to it.

In my experience, that difference is one of the more troubling for your average normal adult Bible reader. How many times have I (and many of you) heard someone say, “Gee, it looks like we’re talking about two different Gods here.”

There is a reason people make an observation like that. They’re not just making up the problem. It’s there for anyone to see, and has been on the minds of Christians at least as early as Justin Martyr, Clement, Origen, and others.

Naming this problem for what it is and addressing it head-on is a matter of theological integrity. Minimizing it or calling others “Marcionite” (whether “quasi,” “latent,” “incipient,” or harboring “the ghost of Marcionism”) for trying to think through the issue without beating around the bush is frustratingly irresponsible and not becoming of serious Christian thought.

If we take a step back from the fray, we see that we are dealing here with a fundamental question of faith, namely what God is like in the Bible. You’d think that would be an easy question to answer, but pondering this question biblically reveals to us a perennial theological problem of Christian theology:

the very real presence of continuity and discontinuity between the Testaments.

The Old Testament rhetoric of God-sanctioned (or God-tolerated) plundering of towns and taking captive children and virgin women is, I would dare to suggest, an area of profound discontinuity.

Others are willing to disagree, of course, but to suggest, even remotely, that saying so is Marcionism is a failure to understand what Marcionism is, not to mention a failure to grapple seriously with the theological problem of Scripture: explaining how the story of Israel and the story of Jesus fit together.

I don’t think the Gospel permits, condones, or supports the rhetoric of tribal violence in the Old Testament.

But this does not mean I or others believe that the Old and New Testaments give us different Gods. THAT is Marcionism.

Rather, it seems to me, that the Bible gives us different portrayals of God.

Different portrayals of the one God are self-evident, not simply between the two Testaments but within each Testament. Israel’s Scripture does not present God in one way, but various ways—depending on who is writing, when, and for what reason. Same with the New. This is what keeps theologians so busy, trying to make that diversity fit into a system of some sort.

To say that there are two Gods, one of the Old Testament and one of the New, is Marcionism. I do not believe that, and, now that I think about it, I’ve never met anyone who actually does. So, even if someone says something that might sound like it could possibly be something like Marcionism, it might be best to assume it isn’t and rather engage in dialogue for further explanation and clarification.

Otherwise, the name-calling is simply a way of shutting down discussion, no different from similar debate moves like, “That sounds like something Hitler would say,” or “That sounds just like the snake in the Garden of Eden.”

Instead of, “Wow you’re a Marcionite (so sad), fare-well,” try, “What you are saying here reminds me of something I learned a while back called Marcionism. Do you think there are two Gods? No? Do you think the Old Testament should be tossed in the trash? No? OK, good. So help me understand what you are saying.”

That wasn’t so hard, was it? No, it wasn’t.

To say there are two Gods in the Bible is Marcionism. To say that the one God is portrayed in various—even conflicting—ways are simply a matter of reading the Bible in English and acknowledging that the biblical writers were not always on the same page.

My big concern in all this is that the knee-jerk charge of Marcionism simply deflects from the real theological/hermeneutical problem of Scripture by giving a false sense of having solved the problem.

To be clear, I am not saying that there is no room for debate over where lines should be drawn and stakes should be planted. But labeling someone “Marcionite” is too easy a dismissal of the profound theological problem that has fueled Christian theology since the beginning. It is a sub-Christian, point-scoring, debate tactic that does nothing but perpetuates tribal thinking, animosity, and misunderstanding.

It should just stop.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

No Comments

  • Northwest Photography says:

    If anything you are an Ennsist.

  • Ian Wragg says:

    If it was me that they accused of being a Marcionite, I would destroy them all with the illudium Q-36 explosive space modulator. Lo-Ruhamah!

  • jonnmolina says:

    Whatever you say, E.T.

  • Pete, you are so funny!

    And your commentary is excellent, too. I think you sum it up well: “I believe the Old and New Testaments give us different Gods. They give us, rather, different portrayals of God…To say that there are two Gods, one of the Old Testament and one of the New, is Marcionism. To say that the one God is portrayed in various—even conflicting—ways is simply a matter of reading the Bible in English with both eyes open.”

    Well said!

  • Hardy Steinke says:

    I think a part of the rationale of your critics is that Jesus is not always presented in the NT as being loving. They would argue that there is a thread of punitive justice from the beginning right to the end of the Bible. How much of this violent side of Jesus is put on his lips by Biblical writers and editors is of course what we look to scholars to help us determine. I find John Dominic Crossan most helpful with this. But once again we arrive at the question of the nature of Biblical inspiration and authority.

  • Alex McLean says:

    Always knew your were alien… thanks for clearing that up.

  • Mt Vernon UCC says:

    Great post. I think you’re missing a few words in this paragraph: “To suggest, even remotely, that saying so is Marcionism is a failure to understand not only what Marcionism is ( ) the character of Scripture.

  • Tim Ellison says:

    “Roughly 47 billion times”? Really? I have told you a million times not to exaggerate!

  • Peter Larson says:

    For additional further reading, Greg Boyd’s recent book “Cross Vision” also discusses this issue.

  • pastordt says:

    Sheesh is right. Sheesh!!

  • Tim says:

    Marvin the Marcionite… Hahaha, thanks for that. But a very important point. Thanks for making it (again)!

    “Where’s the Kaboom? There was supposed to be an earth-shattering Kaboom!”

  • JesusMan says:

    I’m glad this has come up.

    I think Jesus followers lose ground in this argument. What is so wrong in saying, in essence, the Bible describes two Gods: 1) a mean, grumpy, warrior, exclusive one and 2) a loving, inclusive, forgiving one. the fact is, we believe one was fabricated and the other was not. Reformers love to cram them into one, and the OT version dominates, and thus we have our modern day, messed up religion where the old way (retribution and vengeance and payment) is alive and well, and Christ just came to die on a cross (must. have. blood…). i personally think Marcion was on to something and I don’t mind the association.

    The real question for me is: do I need to know the God of the OT to be a Jesus follower? I think the answer is no (If you know Me, I will know you and you will know the Father) and for the most part it just confuses the heck out of everything because we try to rationalize the two Gods into one. Last thought, Ennsianism has opened me to the immense value of the OT, but mostly in how to process periods of doubt.

    Proposal: the Bible for Normal People = the Teachings of Jesus.

    • Beau Quilter says:

      Gee, I don’t know … Jesus can be as mean and grumpy as the God of the OT. At the least the God of the OT limited his punishments to this life.

      • Pete E. says:

        You sounds like a fundy.

        • Beau Quilter says:

          I would think a fundy (a fundamentalist) would be the sort of person who caricatures the whole of the OT or NT with a single voice, rather than recognizing the complex voices at play in both collections.

          Unless by fundy, you mean that I’m fun. Because that would be true.

          • Pete E. says:

            No. Your earlier counterpoint reminds me of fundamentalist arguments for why we need to accept OT violence–because Jesus is mean too. No attention to the complexities of NT writings.

          • Beau Quilter says:

            Oh, I see now. No, I don’t think we should “accept” (support as true or exemplary?) any writing, solely on the basis of it’s being ancient or biblical. Nor should we oversimplify positive or negative value judgements on such writings, which seemed to be the direction JesusMan was taking.

            I find that I want to reiterate that I AM fun.

      • JesusMan says:

        Thanks Beau – that’s the compression of OT and NT that I don’t find helpful. We look for ways to connect the two when the truth is he was trying to create a break from the Old Way to the New Way. We don’t want to embrace that he brought a new way, which means he did not come to confirm and live out the old way (as I read it).

        Probably overstepping, but i always remember Jesus only gets really mad twice: 1) temple rage and 2) brood of vipers rage at the lawyer/pharisees. He rebukes a few extra times (Peter, etc.). Importantly – Jesus never gets mean and grumpy over sin and disobedience, which is the defining characteristic of the God of the OT. You sin – I punish. Bad times are here – we must have sinned.

        The people that get Jesus really fired up, as I read it, are those teaching and thinking the old way, even when he gets mad at Peter. So what makes him angry has little to no correlation to what made the God of OT angry.

        • Beau Quilter says:

          There are positive and negative moments for both the God of the OT and Jesus. Jesus did include punishment in his preaching. A common example: the casting out of sinners into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. This happens six times in Matthew and once in Luke.

  • Beau Quilter says:

    As a young man, I was a Marcianite.

    I had a crush on Marcia Brady.

  • Ross says:

    I think the type of “Christian” religious person who feels they have the gift of insight, enabling them to throw stones at other religious people who they believe to be heretics or apostates should first contemplate Jesus’ command not to judge. After prolonged contemplation, if they haven’t changed, then maybe the rest of us can poke them with pointy sticks?

  • Stuart Blessman says:

    Was Marcion just being honest about the Bible? There are so many different gods in the Old Testament that Israel worshipped that have been flatted in the text, especially in English, that it’s really difficult to tell which one Jesus is supposed to be a part of or is his Father. Honesty is always a heretical concept.

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