Robert Rainy
The Ancient Catholic Church.
Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1902. Hbk. pp.119-227.

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Marcion is commonly associated with the Gnostics; he had, in fact, adopted some of their most characteristic positions. He rejected the Old Testament, and he distinguished the God of the Old Testament, who js the Creator of our world, from the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. But the Gnostic elements of his teaching have no special importance: they are not very original, and are not consistently worked out. The moving forces which determined his position came from another quarter. He furnishes, therefore, a distinct illustration of the times, and of the influences then at work in the world.

Marcion came from Sinope in Pontus, where his father,


according to some authorities, was a bishop. He is said to have been himself connected in some way with shipping, and appears to have possessed means. It is also said that before he left the East he spent some time in ascetic retirement. Later writers say that he departed from Sinope under scandal on account of some immorality; but neither Irenaeus nor Tertullian, though they both dislike the man extremely, allege anything of this kind. Marcion’s rule of life was severe, and neither of these writers suggests that his own conduct had been inconsistent with it. It is of Marcion the story is told that meeting Polycarp of Smyrna in Rome, whom perhaps he may have seen previously in the East, he asked Polycarp, "Dost thou know me?" and received the reply, "I recognise thee for the firstborn of Satan."

Probably it was not far from the year 140 that Marcion first appeared in Rome. By 150, about which time Justin Martyr’s first Apology was written, many had joined him; for Justin says, "There is Marcion, a man of Pontus, who is even at this day alive, and teaches his disciples to believe in some god greater than the creator; and he, by the aid of devils, has caused many of every nation to speak blasphemously, and to deny the God of this universe, and to assert that some other being, greater than He, has done greater works." Again, he says, "As we have said, the dæmons put forward Marcion of Pontus, who is even now teaching men to deny that God is maker of all things in Heaven and Earth, and that the Christ predicted by the Prophets, is His Son. And this man many have believed, as if he alone knew the truth. And they laugh at us, though they can produce no proof, but are carried away irrationally, as lambs by a wolf." Marcion’s system spread rapidly, not as a mere opinion, but as embodied in a regular church, organised over against the Catholic; and this church proved durable, for Marcionites were still numerous in the fifth and sixth centuries. After the emperors became Christian, these dissidents had to endure Christian persecution, as before they had endured pagan. Nor did Marcion purchase adherents by conces-


sions; he enforced a stern discipline, and exacted strenuous self-denial.

It is no wonder that Christian writers speak bitterly of a man who held Marcion’s views, and taught them so successfully. And yet there is much reason to believe that Marcion’s impressions were fundamentally Christian. He seems to have been one of those intense natures in whose case one aspect of things takes such vehement possession as to exclude all complementary or compensating considerations. Certain aspects of Christianity seemed to reveal themselves to him as evidently divine, worthy to be for ever asserted and enforced; and the religious value of these impressions regulated everything else. He found it difficult to believe that others could resist the views which came home so forcibly to himself. When he came to Rome, he held conferences with the presbyters: and to the end there are indications that he had not ceased to think it possible the great Church might be reconciled to his view.

Marcion believed that he had discovered the secret of Paul: -an open secret, for to him Paul’s meaning was plain; yet a secret, for Paul seemed to be universally misunderstood. This discovery was not merely a discovery of the Pauline way of thinking, but at the same time, as Marcion felt, an unveiling of the divine genius of the gospel. According to Paul, the gospel was first and essentially a! revelation of grace - of an amazing divine goodwill - which delights in saving and enriching those who have no claim upon it. This breaks out in the gospel as something hidden from ages and generations, but now made manifest. Therefore, the inspiring principle at the bottom of all is faith, conceived as trust in the benignity of grace. In one view this does not make practical Christianity an easier business; it does not open to us a smooth road. The love that saves inculcates the rejection of much that the flesh desires, and sets us on to seek our portion in regions which the flesh dreads to enter. If this involved hardships, these were nothing in the light of what was believed concerning the divine benefits present and future. The hardships in the case of the Mar-


cionites were certainly not small. They shared the persecutions of the Catholic Christians, often enduring martyrdom with equal fidelity; they accepted a rule of life which involved many privations; and they experienced, at the same time, enmity and repudiation at the hands of other Christians. Marcion addresses his followers as "companions in distress and in reproach."

Marcion regarded Christ as the revealer of this divine grace and goodwill, and perhaps (owning no personal distinction) he identified Christ with the good God Himself. Following the Apostle Paul, he owns a special virtue in the crucifixion, as the ransom by means of which the divine goodwill becomes conclusively effectual; and apparently emphasis continued to be laid on this, as the central thing, among his followers. It is a doctrine not easily reconciled with some other parts of Marcion’s teaching. But, as we have said, views which have vividly come home to him are strongly affirmed, without much care to smooth out inconsistencies.

So far, one does not see why a collision should arise between Marcion and the Church. The Church received all the Pauline forms of statement upon which Marcion laid so much stress. He might feel, indeed, that while his mind thrilled to the wonderfulness and the newness of all this, the Church in general apprehended it languidly, and failed to give it due effect. Yet, if that were all, it would hardly explain the breach which followed.

But Marcion’s vivid appreciation of the teaching of Paul expressed itself in a vivid realisation of the contrast it presented to the current Christianity. Christ and Christianity, as described by the apostle, seemed to Marcion to stand in the sharpest opposition to the Old Testament and to Judaism. The one was grace, the other was law. The one wrought by inward attraction and by trust, the other by external authority and constraint. The one aimed at inward freedom and an inward goodness finally made perfect, the other was shut up in earthly conditions and earthly prospects. Had not Paul himself marked this


contrast? Had he not shown what the religion of the law is, and what it comes to, and what a weary yoke it imposes? Had he not brought out over against it the spirituality and liberty of the Spirit of Christ?

The Church held that all these things were, after all, consistent. You could take a view that reconciled them as terms in one series: nay, the Old Testament could be interpreted so as to teach what the New taught, and the New could be taken as only a plainer utterance of the Old. But this way of huddling things up seemed to Marcion to amount simply to evacuating the glory of Christianity. At all events, it was incredible that the God of grace, the author of the gospel, should have gone on for hundreds and thousands of years, in the track of Jewish history, commanding, threatening, punishing, inculcating the yoke of ordinances, administering elements of this world, making nothing perfect. To associate this with the gospel was to shut one’s eyes to that in the second which was incompatible with the first. And then, as Marcion said to the orthodox, "If your system is the true one, what that is new has Christ brought? Has he come only to enforce what, according to you, was in the world long before?"

No doubt, as the authoritative documents stood, even as the Pauline epistles stood, it might seem that this harmonising of old and new had been sanctioned and accepted from the beginning. But to Marcion that seemed impossible; and remarkable passages in the Pauline epistles plainly enough brought out the weakness and earthliness of Judaism, the poverty and fruitlessness of the law. Did not these passages give the clue to the apostle’s real and central view? The reform Christianity needed was to force home on men’s minds this great contrast. But Marcion could not conceal from himself that the Church’s error, if it was an error, did not date from yesterday. It was rooted in her tradition; it ran through all that passed for apostolic literature; it seemed to be as old as the apostles. Yes, but did not some Pauline sayings prove that this was


exactly what Paul himself had found to be the case? He, too, could not agree with the elder apostles. The explanation, after all, was just this, that the apostles themselves had mistaken Christ; they had succumbed to the influence of those tendencies which are apt to prevail over Jews. Their Lord’s teaching was in their minds biassed and misrepresented. This was what made it needful that a new revelation should be made to Saul of Tarsus, in order that the true scope of Christ’s mission and work might be made clear. And yet even after Paul had done his work, the inveterate prejudice had prevailed; it had corrupted the record even of his teaching. The Gospels had been polluted with the evil leaven; and the very epistles of Paul had here and there been tampered with. A real reform must go deep; it must deal with the Christian teaching from the beginning.

Now, if the Old Testament was to be thus resolutely contrasted with the religion of Christ, what view was to be taken of it? Either it was a sheer self-deception from first to last, - a view which for many reasons was not likely to seem either probable or acceptable to Marcion, - or it was the manifestation, the revelation, of a different God. This God is severely strict – just in that sense; of abundant law, regulation, prohibition; always employing force and penalty. That need not hinder many of his rules being good as far as they go. This Being proclaims himself to be the God of creation, and therefore no doubt he is so.[1] Here Marcion is seen, like the other Gnostics, giving up this world without reluctance to the "just" God, whom he distinguishes from the good one. It was the common sentiment of meditative men in that time to regard the material world as something mainly to be surmounted and got rid of. But in this he differs remarkably from the Gnosties, that, taking the Old Testament account as he found it, he supposed human souls as well as bodies to originate in the creative act of the just God. The Gnostics usually maintained that something in men, a


distinct and distinguishable something in the more select men, was derived, not from the Demiurge, but from a higher source. Marcion does not appear to have followed in this track. As men we are wholly the creatures of the God of the Old Testament; and under his government we find ourselves subjected to hard conditions which we cannot meet, and are always on the verge of disappointment and of punishment.

Marcion, as has been said, recognised the Old Testament as a truthful book. For the same reason he believed its promises; and therefore he expected the coming of the promised Messiah of the Old Testament, who should set up an earthly kingdom, and establish it by force.

Having made up his mind to fix the contrast between Christianity and Judaism in this startling form, Marcion carries out the scheme with a certain wilfulness and animosity. The good God, unknown before, resolves at length to interpose and rescue the unhappy subjects of the "just" God from his sway. Suddenly, therefore, in the fifteenth year of Tiberius, Christ appears at Capernaum (Luke iv. 31). His preaching is rejected by those who have succeeded in some degree in commending themselves to the just God; they hope that they have reached his standard of righteousness, or, at anyrate, they are filled with deference for his law. But those who are sinners and transgressors lie far more open to the new message, and become partakers of the new kingdom. So also when Christ, after His crucifixion, appears in the place of departed souls to offer them His benefits, those who were counted pious under the Old Testament do not respond. They do not want to throw away their position with the God whose favour they have gained, and they fear that Christ’s mission may be a device of his to try, and even to ensnare them. They therefore reject the benefit intended for them; while the rebels of the Old Testament, such as Cain, embrace thc offer, and enter Christ’s kingdom. It was not necessary to Marcion’s scheme to imagine all this; and it must pass mainly as a brusque and audacious way


of underscoring the points in his scheme which were most adapted to affront both Jewish and Catholic piety. In the end, the unbelievers are left to the consequences of unbelief: the goodness of the good God is not construed to the effect of disposing Him to save all. The inconsistency between His character, as Marcion himself represents it, and the ruin which falls on unbelievers, is got over (apparently as an afterthought) by various versions of the explanation that unbelievers are left, merely, to the consequences which arise to them from the nature of their own God, or from causes not well defined.

The creatures on whom the good God has compassion, and whom He delivers, belong, as to their origin, wholly, body and soul alike, to the kingdom of the just God. But Marcion follows the common Gnostic conception, by making the Christian salvation apply to the souls only, not to the bodies. The souls are seats of mind and of deliberate action, and so far worth saving; the bodies are not.

Marcion represented Christ as divine, and His incarnation as apparent only, not real. Christ announced a new kingdom, and promised to save His people from the world, and from the God under whose yoke they groaned. All that He did was right contrary to what that God would have done; and at last the friends and servants of the "just" God crucified Him. But in doing so they blindly served Christ’s purpose, for the crucifixion is the ransom which freed His people from the dominion of the Old Testament God. As Christ’s incarnation is docetic only, on Marcion’s showing, the stress laid on the crucifixion is an unexplained inconsistency in the scheme.

Marcion faced the whole question of the documents to which Christianity can appeal: and the way in which he dealt with this question is not the least important nor the least fruitful aspect of his activity. As we have seen, he rejected the authority of the Old Testament: that was in no way the revelation of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Some of the Gnostics had attempted to analyse the Old Testament, with a view to discriminate in


it diverse planes of principle and of moral view, due some to a lower and some to a higher source. Marcion took it as one whole: and the chief hook he wrote, so far at least as argument goes, was the Antitheses, in which he exerted himself to bring out contradictions and inconsistencies between the Old Testament and the teaching of Christ.

As regards Christianity, Marcion had to maintain that, from a date very near the beginning, preverting influences had misled the apostles, and had polluted the documents that might otherwise have passed as authoritative. He undertook, therefore, to criticise the sources, and to bring out a version of them which might serve as a standard for his followers. He produced for this purpose a Gospel and ten Epistles of Paul. The Gospel was a retrenched and altered version of our Luke, beginning with iii. 1[2] and then passing on to iv. 31. The selected Epistles of Paul also were purged of passages which struck Marcion as inconsistent with his view.

Marcion’s rule of life, it has been said, was strict and. ascetic. In particular, he required married persons to separate, and unmarried persons to consent to remain so, as a condition of baptism. Those who could not make up their minds to this, had to remain in the stage of catechumens; and as considerable numbers occupied this position and continued in it, the catechumenate seems to have acquired a greater importance, or a higher rank, in Marcion’s Church, tban in the Catholic. Marcion and his followers were frank and outspoken. Many of the Gnostics adopted an insincere attitude, both towards the Christians and towards the heathens. The Marcionites, on the whole, seem to have been prepared to speak out, and take the consequences.[3]

[1] Various things suggest that Marcion took the apostolic references to the Old Testament as establishing the truth of its historical statements.

[2] Among the Marcionites this was known probably, not as the Gospel according to Luke, hut rather as the ‘‘Gospel of the Lord," or the like and the later Marcionites believed it to have been written by Christ himself.

[3] This sketch of Marcion is in general agreement with time Views of Harnack, Dogmengesch. i. 197 f.; and Loofs, Leitfaden, p. 73. The chief early source is Tertullian, Adv. Marcionem; also Hippolytus, Ref. vii. 17 Dial. Adamamstii de orthocloxa fide, among Origen’a works.

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