Marcionite Missionality

Once upon a time there was a church leader who thought that the Christian cause was much better served without the baggage of the Hebrew tradition. Marcion was a suffragette bishop in the year 140 or so who left his father’s (!) Asia minor bishopric at age 30, with the missional intent to usher in a better Christianity. In his view, only the Pauline epistles were needed for a true knowledge of salvation. He thus proposed the first biblical Canon we know of. The entire Hebrew Scriptures were nixed as mere baggage. He proved to be right in thinking that this would help the growth and mission of the church he envisioned. Well into the fifth century almost every Church Father had to busy himself with explaining that this proposal, though seemingly always promising and tempting to many, was seriously flawed on theological, historical and pastoral grounds.

In the current theological underpinnings of the RCA’s newly cast ‘missiological’ underpinnings I find long shadows of Marcionism, by default.

The Reformed Church explicitly holds itself accountable to reform ‘according to the Scriptures.’ Most of those Scriptures are found in what we call the Old Testament.

I cannot believe that the Reformed Church, even in the form of a denomination, would willfully diminish the Ancient Testament for the sake of making the Newer Testament more palatable to a present culture.

One of the most publically and culturally engaged Reformed theologians of the previous century was A.A Van Ruler. His particular emphasis was on the Missio Deo and the Kingdom of God. Does not every RCA pastor have his little gem, ‘The Christian Church and the Old Testament’ on his or her shelf? I did not come to the USA until the late seventies, and found copies (Eerdmans, 1971; retail price $2.45!!) in a Baptist seminary bookstore. (If you cannot find it, go to Perspectives issue of Nov. 1989 for an article by Eugene Heideman as a quick introduction to the Role of Mosaic Law in Modern Life).

I am writing this just before Holy Week, and the sacrifice of Jesus makes no sense without the theological language and the religious practices of God’s people in the OT.

Of course, Marcion already preferred an atonement without sacrifice and God as a concept without history. But need it to be said that the RCA cannot be part of that line of thought, nor spend any efforts to propagate such an approach to salvation?

I think that the ethos of the Eastern churches by and large has stayed closer to a realization of the values of tested OT theological notions, even though it often is poorly expressed and often articulated as ‘tradition’ and ‘history’ in old-line churches rather than an acutely living daily discipline.

Here is work to do for those who truly desire a Reformed articulation of ‘missionality’ needed for today’s culture and context. But I hope we can avoid the Marcionite trap of skipping the deep reality of the People of God and the Body of Christ and the Fellowship of the Holy Spirit in concrete and continuous corporate forms through space and time.

Our Western culture is like the once fertile land of the Mid-West: the good soil has all but eroded, and the commoditization and mercantalization of values is all but endemic. Both long-time urbanized and more recently established populations recognize the importance of sustainability, especially when contemplating newer ventures.

The East coast RCA churches know a thing or two about sustainability. We need to share it with the rest of the denomination. And I am convinced that a missionality that takes the OT as indispensable has to be part of that.

What say you?

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5 thoughts on “Marcionite Missionality

  1. I say Amen.

    I just watched a powerful documentary on the Huguenot village of Le Chambon, in the massif of France, which sheltered 5000 or so Jews during World War II, right under the eyes of the Nazis. (Their pastor was Etienne Trocme.) I think the documentary was called Weapons of the Spirit.

    Bill Moyers asked the maker of the documentary why these Christians, unlike so many others, did the right thing. One of the reasons he offered was that these French Protestant (Reformed) Christians were so comfortable with the Jewish roots of their Christian faith.

  2. I add my Amen to Daniel’s.

    But i am concerned that US Society, like Marcion, prefers an atonement without sacrifice. We have been told by politicians that we can have the American dream and export democracy forcefully upon others without sacrifice. We are, I’m afraid, told too often by elements of our denomination that we can be the Church without sacrifice (whenever the GSC identifies assessments–the shared costs of the ministries we have covenanted together to carry out–as being too high a price for us to pay). And I don’t see the church in the east being any better, on the whole, at accepting the idea of sacrifice, certainly not many of the folks in the pews.

    I’m in the midst of preparing my Easter Vigil sermon, and am talking about the importance of remembering–remembering what God has done and will do and our part in all of this. But I’m not sure the old formula of “remembrance, communion, and hope” interests us any more. Even the nature of the ten-year goal or the “fastest growing denomination” motto (it always makes me think we’ll have MacDonald’s-type signs in front of our churches saying “Millions and Millions Baptized”) makes it look like we want to skip remembering and forget hoping in favor of “communion and immediate gratification.” Not much of a feast to me.

  3. James,
    thanks for the thoughts.
    At the non-RCA seminary I attended I always had to defend the Reformed view of the Lord’s Supper that included the words and notion of ‘remembrance.’
    Especially the episcopal students thought that their phrase ‘sacrifice of thanksgiving’ was far superior than a ‘sacrifice of remembrance.’ They dismissed the latter as ‘Zwinglian.’
    Given Calvin and Luther’s critique of Zwinglianism on this issue, I understood that, although I sometimes think that Zwingli got a bad rap on this, for his notion of ‘remembrance’ was not a ‘mere’ or ‘cheap’ concept. He personally had the entire NT memorized in Greek: no easy feat!
    Yet there is a difference between a remembrance as a noun, and a remembering as a participle. And it is precisely a special kind of remembering that makes a true acknowledging of being forgiven possible.
    I am with you on the (East coast) malaise of preferring to go from Palm Sunday to Easter without Good Friday and the 40 hours of Silence that follow, including a liturgical Easter vigil.
    Twenty years ago I had a struggle on my hands to get the Service of the Lord’s Table (back) into the Easter service. Now people wouldn’t want to do without it, especially those who also were at the Maundy Thursday Upper Room/Tenebrae communion service, seated at the Table. The latter is something smallish churches can do much more meaningfully than their bigger sisters!
    This coming Sunday is Sunday Hilariter in the Orthodox tradition; I will be preaching on ‘This May Hurt’ (the epistle passage of I Peter), as suggested by the ‘Homiletics’ site.

  4. You don’t understand Marcion at all. He didn’t believe in “atonement without sacrifice.” What atonement? He believed there were two gods, the OT God a genocidal maniac who is inconsistent and partial and yet intends to burn everyone in hell forever, and the Heavenly Father of Jesus who sent Jesus to save us from the OT God. In Marcion’s system, Jesus comes from outside our universe to redeem us from the OT God. He accomplishes this by doing good and healing to make Yahweh jealous so Yahweh will crufify him. Once Yahweh crucifies him, Jesus descends into hell and empties it of all righteous men or all who believe his gospel, for he preaches to the dead! He takes their souls up to his Father in the third heaven. Yahweh is so upset he rends the veil to his temple and blots out the sun. Then Jesus descends again to our world and confronts Yahweh condemning him by his own Law that whoever sheds innocent blood must have his blood shed. Yahweh begs that Jesus not kill him but instead take everyone who believes in him as his own. Jesus leaves him be and goes and reveals the gospel to Paul (Marcion himself) and Paul goes and starts churches all over the world.

  5. Dear rey,
    Huh? I guess we differ in our understanding of atonement as well as sacrifice. As you explained, in Marcion’s tale Yahweh gets off the hook by making a deal with Jesus, i.e. no genuine self-sacrifice. With this Yahweh there is thus no atonement but a parting of the ways.
    But what about Marcion’s Jesus? There is no atonement (for there is no transformation or reconciliation of an iron-clad duality) either, but rather a journey into the third heaven (we don’t need to discuss here the hierarchy of his system….). Thus Jesus’ sacrifice is without atonement, and hence his atonement is an empty category, including sacrifice.
    My critique of some (not all) forms of missionality takes issue with precisely that lack of first humbly seeking the Kingdom of God and only then proclaim reconciliation made posible by a sacrifice of transformation through death.
    Unlike Paul, Marcion was not willing to place himself in explicit koinonia with the deacons and apostles. There is a tendency to rush into apostolicity too quickly. Historically the apostles were the once who stayed at home, and the deacons were the one who were the emissaries (originally a ‘diakonos’ was not a mere servant to the poor and destitute, but in classic Greek an ’emisary’ with a message (in word and sometimes also deed: see the ‘deacon’ Philip in Acts). MArcion was not satisfied to be a deacon in his father’s diocese but wanted to be an ‘apostle.’ Well, he became one, but he was not an apostle, not even in the manner of Paul.
    It is not that I do not understand what MArcion was after,it is that he comes as an apostle of a gospel that is not the one for which the circumcised and bar-mitva’d Jesus died and was raised. His message is not one of atonement but of a radical duality, and not one of sacrifice but of profanization.
    It is true that such a message is quite successful and tempting,then and now. But starting ‘churches’ all over the world is not necessarily the same as making the world fit for God to dwell in among us, or a theater of God’s Glory, or a harbinger of the Kingdom come. Do I need to mention Scientology?
    I have no doubt that Marcion has changed his mind after his death. His followers should have done the same.
    I do understand and actively practice missionality, but not as a mere movement(action) but as a transformative ‘growing’ where you are planted. Again, Apostles are ‘SENT away,’ deacons are ’emissaries.’
    I so wish the missionality of our Boards of Deacons was much more honored and respected in the Church as essential, rather than the more flashy and testosterone driven crusaders. of ‘apostolicity.’

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