Adolf Von Harnack
History of Dogma, vol. I
Published by Boston, Little,(1901)
Remarks. - The innovations of Marcion are unmistakable. The way in which he attempted to sever Christianity from the Old Testament was a bold stroke which demanded the sacrifice of the dearest possession of Christianity as a religion, viz., the belief that the God of creation is also the God of redemption. And yet this innovation was partly caused by a religious conviction, the origin of which must be sought not in heathenism, but on Old Testament and Christian soil. For the bold Anti-judaist was the disciple of a Jewish thinker, Paul, and the origin of Marcion's antinomianism may be ultimately found in the prophets. It will always be the glory of Marcion in the early history of the Church that he, the born heathen, could appreciate the religious criticism of the Old Testament religion as formerly exercised by Paul. The antinomianism of Marcion was ultimately based on the strength of his religious feeling, on his personal religion as contrasted with all statutory religion That was also its basis in the case of the prophets and of Paul, only the statutory religion which was felt to be a burden and a fetter was different in each case. As regards the prophets, it was the outer sacrificial worship, and the deliverance was the idea of Jehovah's righteousness. In the case of Paul, it was the pharisaic treatment of the law, and the deliverance was righteousness by faith. To Marcion it was the sum of all that the past had described as a revelation of God: only what Christ had given him was of real value to him. In this conviction he founded a Church: Before him there was no such thing in the sense of a community, firmly united by a fixed conviction, harmoniously organised, and spread over the whole world. Such a Church the Apostle Paul had in his mind's eye, but he was not able to realise it. That in the century of the great mixture of religion the greatest apparent paradox was actually realised: namely, a Paulinism with two Gods and without the Old Testament; and that this form of Christianity first resulted in a church which was based not only on intelligible words, but on a definite conception of the essence of Christianity as a religion, seems to be the greatest riddle which the earliest history of Christianity presents. But it only seems so. The Greek, whose mind was filled with certain fundamental features of the Pauline Gospel (law and grace), who was therefore convinced that in all respects the truth was there, and who on that account took pains to comprehend the real sense of Paul's statements, could hardly reach any other results than those of Marcion. The history of Pauline theology in the Church, a history first of silence, then of artificial interpretation, speaks loudly enough. And had not Paul really separated Christianity as religion from Judaism and the Old Testament? Must it not have seemed an inconceivable inconsistency, if he had clung to the special national relation of Christianity to the Jewish people, and if he had taught a view of history in which for paedagogic reasons indeed, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort had appeared as one so entirely different?
He who was not capable of translating himself into the consciousness of a Jew, and had not yet learned the method of special interpretation, had only the alternative, if he was convinced of the truth of the Gospel of Christ as Paul had proclaimed it, of either giving up this Gospel against the dictates of his conscience, or striking out of the Epistles whatever seemed Jewish. But in this case the god of creation also disappeared, and the fact that Marcion could make this sacrifice proves that this religious spirit, with all his energy, was not able to rise to the height of the religious faith which we find in the preaching of Jesus.
In basing his own position and that of his church on Paulinism, as he conceived and remodelled it, Marcion connected himself with that part of the earliest tradition of Christianity which is best known to us, and has enabled us to understand his undertaking historically as we do no other. Here we have the means of accurately indicating what part of this structure of the second century has come down from the Apostolic age and is really based on tradition, and what does not. Where else could we do that? But Marcion has taught us far more. He does not impart a correct understanding of early Christianity, as was once supposed, for his explanation of that is undoubtedly incorrect, but a correct estimate of the reliability of the traditions that were current in his day alongside of the Pauline. There can be no doubt that Marcion criticised tradition from a dogmatic stand-point. But would his undertaking have been at all possible, if at that time a reliable tradition of the twelve Apostles and their teaching had existed and been operative in wide circles? We may venture to say no. Consequently, Marcion gives important testimony against the historical reliability of the notion that the common Christianity was really based on the tradition of the twelve Apostles. It is not surprising that the first man who clearly put and answered the question, "What is Christian?" adhered exclusively to the Pauline Epistles, and therefore found a very imperfect solution. When more than 1600 years later the same question emerged for the first time in scientific form, its solution had likewise to be first attempted from the Pauline Epistles, and therefore led at the outset to a onesidedness similar to that of Marcion. The situation of Christendom in the middle of the second century was not really more favourable to a historical knowledge of early Christianity, than that of the 18th century, but in many respects more unfavourable. Even at that time, as attested by the enterprise of Marcion, its results, and the character of the polemic against him, there were besides the Pauline Epistles, no reliable documents from which the teaching of the twelve Apostles could have been gathered. The position which the Pauline Epistles occupy in the history of the world is, however, described by the fact that every tendency in the Church which was unwilling to introduce into Christianity the power of Greek mysticism, and was yet no longer influenced by the early Christian eschatology, learned from the Pauline Epistles a Christianity which, as a religion, was peculiarly vigorous. But that position is further described by the fact that every tendency which courageously disregards spurious traditions, is compelled to turn to the Pauline Epistles, which, on the one hand, present such a profound type of Christianity, and on the other, darken and narrow the judgment about the preaching of Christ himself, by their complicated theology. Marcion was the first, and for a long time the only Gentile Christian who took his stand on Paul. He was no moralist, no Greek mystic, no Apocalyptic enthusiast, but a religious character, nay, one of the few pronouncedly typical religious characters whom we know in the early Church before Augustine. But his attempt to resuscitate Paulinism is the first great proof that the conditions under which this Christianity originated do not repeat themselves, and that therefore Paulinism itself must receive a new construction if one desires to make it the basis of a Church. His attempt is a further proof of the unique value of the Old Testament to early Christendom, as the only means at that time of defending Christian monotheism. Finally, his attempt confirms the experience that a religious community can only be founded by a religious spirit who expects nothing from the world.
Nearly all ecclesiastical writers, from Justin to Origen, opposed Marcion. He appeared already to Justin as the most wicked enemy. We can understand this, and we can quite as well understand how the Church Fathers put him on a level with Basilides and Valentinus, and could not see the difference between them. Because Marcion elevated a better God above the god of creation, and consequently robbed the Christian God of his honour, he appeared to be worse than a heathen (Sentent. episc. LXXXVII., in Hartel's edition of Cyprian, I. p. 454; "Gentiles quamvis idola colant, tamen summum deum patrem creatorem cognoscunt et confitentur [!]; in hunc Marcion blasphemat, etc."), as a blaspheming emissary of demons, as the first-born of Satan (Polyc., Justin, Irenaenus). Because he rejected the allegoric interpretation of the Old Testament, and explained its predictions as referring to a Messiah of the Jews who was yet to come, he seemed to be a Jew (Tertull., adv. Marc. III.). Because he deprived Christianity of the apologetic proof (the proof from antiquity) he seemed to be a heathen and a Jew at the same time (see my Texte u. Unters. I. 3, p. 68; the antitheses of Marcion became very important for the heathen and Manichaean assaults on Christianity). Because he represented the twelve Apostles as unreliable witnesses, he appeared to be the most wicked and shameless of all heretics. Finally, because he gained so many adherents, and actually founded a church, he appeared to be the ravening wolf (Justin, Rhodon), and his church as the spurious church. (Tertull., adv. Marc. IV. 5). In Marcion the Church Fathers chiefly attacked what they attacked in all Gnostic heretics, but here error shewed itself in its worse form. They learned much in opposing Marcion (see Bk. II.). For instance, their interpretation of the regula fidei and of the New Tesfament received a directly Antimarcionite expression in the Church. One thing, however, they could not learn from him, and that was how to make Christianity into a philosophic system. He formed no such system, but he has given a clearly outlined conception, based on historic documents, of Christianity as the religion which redeems the world.
Literature.-All anti-heretical writings of the early Church, but especially Justin, Apol. 1. 26, 58; Iren; I. 27; Tertull., adv. Marc. I-V.; de ,praescr.; Hippol., Philos.; Adamant., de recta in deum fidei; Epiph. h. 42; Ephr. Syr.; Esnik. The older attempts to restore the Marcionite Gospel and Apostolicum have been antiquated by Zahn's Kanonsgeschichte, 1. c.. Hahn (Regimonti, 1823) has attempted to restore the Antitheses. We are still in want of a German monograph on Marcion (see the whole presentation of Gnosticism by Zahn, with his Excursus, 1. c.). Hilgenfeld, Ketzergesch. p.316 f. 522 f.; cf. my works, Zur Quellenkritik des Gnosticismus, 1873; de Apelles Gnosis Monarchia, T 874; Beitrage z. Gesch. der Marcionitischen Kirchen (Ztschr. f. wiss. Theol. 1876). Marcion's Commentar zum Evangelium (Ztschr. f. K. G. Bd. IV 4) Apelles Syllogismen in the Texte u, Unters. VI. H. 3. Zahn, die Dialoge des Adamantius in the Ztschr. f. K.-Gesch. IX. p. 193 ff. Meyboom, Marcion en de Marcionieten, Leiden, 1888.
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