Now and then someone asks me—actually, a thinly veiled accusation—whether I am a Marcionite, and I find that utterly ridiculous and irresponsible.
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 it….
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 vis-a-vis Jesus’s non-violence in the New.
My view, as I’ve articulated roughly 47 billion times on this blog (start here), is that the New Testament leaves behind the violent, tribal, insider-outsider, rhetoric of a significant portion of the Old Testament. Instead, the character of the people of God—now made up of Jew and Gentile—is dominated by such behaviors as faith in Christ working itself out in love, self-sacrifice, praying for one’s enemies and persecutors. You know, Jesus 101.
Definitely not killing off a people group or one’s enemies to acquire land or hold on to it.
To speak this way is not Marcionism—not even “quasi,” “latent,” or “incipient” Marcionism, as some have said. Rather, I am simply articulating a perennial theological problem of Christian doctrine: the very real presence of both 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.
To suggest, even remotely, that saying so is Marcionism is a failure to understand not only what Marcionism is but also the character of Scripture.
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 believe the Old and New Testaments give us different Gods. They give us, rather, 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. 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.
My big concern in all this is that the charge of Marcionism simply deflects from the real theological/hermeneutical problem of divine violence by giving a false sense of having solved the problem.