Last night was our third week in our series The ABCs of Faith: How Good Theology Leads to Spiritual Maturity Through Actions, Belief and Connections. After discussing a basic understanding of God (God is the infinite, being itself, set apart from all beings in a category his own who creates the universe as separate from himself and has a relationship with this creation) the first week, then a bit about a distinctly Christian view of God the second week (for Christians, Jesus is the human face of God, fully divine and fully human), we moved to two other ideas in the early church which were rejected: Marcionism and Gnosticism.
Marcion was a bishop who, like so many others, struggled with the portrayal of God throughout the Old Testament. His solution was to teach there were two gods. First was the evil God of the Old Testament who created this earth. Second was the good God revealed in Jesus. Marcion created his own New Testament, cutting out anything that appeared too Jewish, which left him with Luke and edited versions of some of Paul’s letters.
Ultimately, the Christians rejected the teaching of Marcion. The first Christians, not to mention Jesus himself (who of course, wasn’t technically a Christian) were Jewish. From the beginning Christians understood Jesus as bringing to a climax the entire story of scripture. Marcion forced the early church to take steps to clarifying which books were recognized as uniquely inspired by God (canon). I think anyone who reads the Old Testament can be sympathetic to Marcion. God does and commands some stuff that does not sound like Jesus! Yet after Marcion, the one option off the table was to simply jettison the Old Testament.
At the same time, and I did not get into this too deeply last night, the other option off the table was a surface level reading of the Old Testament. Some Christians have taken the stories in the Old Testament at basically face value: God commanded it, its in scripture, so be it. Other Christians recognized that there is more going on here and that when held up to the light of Jesus we can still accept the Old Testament as Scripture without affirming such a surface level understanding. The point is that our final authority is God as Trinity, most clearly revealed in Jesus. Jesus, not the Bible, is the second person of the Trinity. Thus, as we affirm that Jesus is the human face of God, the clearest revelation of God ever, then everything else is secondary. Even the Bible. When we come to scripture, we interpret it all in light of Jesus. A surface level reading gives us many pictures of God – so sometimes God commands death and other times God commands forgiveness. A Jesus-centered reading recognizes that God revealed on the cross is always about forgiveness.*
All this to say, while we cannot reject the Old Testament (like Marcion) this does not mean it is easy to understand. Christians have debated what it means for centuries. The most important thing we get from the Old Testament (or at least, one very important thing) is the understanding of God’s creation is good. Marcion was a Christian Gnostic. Gnostics believed there was a high God, far beyond the corruption of the physical realm. Jesus was a messenger of this God, and thus not really human, for God is too pure to take on flesh. Jesus came to give us secret knowledge (gnosis) which will enable us to escape the physical realm to pure spirit.
It makes me wonder, how many Christians are kind of Gnostic? I have met so many Christians over the years, and I remember being taught when I was a kid, that the goal of Christianity is to go to heaven when you die. Heaven was up…somewhere. This world was not our home. We would escape. This is all Gnosticism.
It has no need of the resurrection of Jesus! We could go to heaven after we die without Easter. But Jesus’ resurrection affirms the goodness of creation – God created it good, God took on flesh and Jesus rose in a body. The goal of Christianity is not Escape, it is Restoration.
In the end then, we reject Marcionism and Gnosticism because we need a story that begins with a good God creating a good cosmos. Without this beginning, the rest of the story makes no sense.