It's the Same God: On Marcionism, Creeds, Hermeneutics and War

The other day I was reading a blogger who was making a Christian defense of war. As we know this is a contentious debate, and I don't want to wade into it here. I mainly wanted to address the particular argument that this blogger made to point out the problems with it. Given that it is a common move people make it's worth focusing in on this particular issue within the larger debate.

The argument goes like this. Yes, it is granted, Jesus prohibits violence in the Sermon on the Mount. But we also see God acting violently in the Old Testament. Consequently, it is argued, we must remember that "it's the same God." The God of Jesus is the same God in the Old Testament. Thus, we can't assume that God is wholly and always opposed to war.

Further, to make the "it's the same God" argument even stronger (and nerdier) you can go on to accuse pacifists as being Marcionites.


If you don't know about the Marcion heresy a brief primer. Marcion of Sinope was a Christian bishop who lived, give or take, between 85 CE and 160 CE. Marcion was one of the first big heretics. And his heresy was this. Marcion thought that the Jewish god of the Old Testament was a different god from the god revealed to us by Jesus. According to Marcion the teachings of Jesus were incompatible with the actions of the god portrayed in the Old Testament. More, the Old Testament portrays the Jewish god as the Creator god (Marcion called this Creator god the Demiurge) and as seems obvious, this Creator god really made a mess of things. Just look how screwed up this world is.

Christian orthodoxy eventually rejected the Marcion heresy. You see this clearly in the first line of the Nicene Creed:
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth...
We believe in one God, not two gods (one from the Old Testament and a second from New Testament). And we believe that the God who made heaven and earth wasn't the Demiurge but the God confessed by Jesus Christ.

In short, the God of the Old Testament is the same God in the New Testament. If you're an orthodox Christian you have to reconcile with the Old Testament, as hard as that may be.

And here's my point. It is hard to reconcile the Old Testament God with the New Testament God. Marcion wasn't crazy. He was working through a problem we are still struggling with. Personally, I'm very sympathetic to Marcion. I've scratched my head a plenty in reading the Old Testament. And who hasn't read the Sermon on the Mount and wondered about the violence in the Old Testament?

And this brings me to the crux of this post. The creeds didn't really fix this problem. The creeds just affected the shape of the solution. The creeds basically ruled out a metaphysical fix to the problem. You can't reconcile--within orthodoxy--the Old and New Testaments by positing two gods. But that doesn't mean there isn't some hard reconciling still to do. The disjoints between the Old and New Testament haven't gone away. So how to we overcome the contradictions and tensions? The creeds say you can't fix it metaphysically, so you'll have to do it hermeneutically.

That's my point. The creeds don't fix the problem as much as they hand over to us a hermeneutical challenge. We confess that there is one God, Maker of heaven and earth. But how we make sense of that confession, in light of the Old and New Testaments, is hard, hard interpretive work.

(And incidentally, this is one of the beauties of the creeds. The creeds never went in for parsimony and logical coherence. The creeds always opted to make things stranger and harder. This is a point that Rowan Williams likes to make: theology should make conversation about God harder rather than easier.)

Let's now go back to the issue of war and the use of the Old Testament of justify war.

We can see, now, the shape of the Marcion accusation toward pacifists. When pacifists pit Jesus against YHWH in the Old Testament they are of accused of Marcionism because, as the creeds tell us, "it's the same God." The assumption being that you can't use Jesus to say that God is always, unequivocally against war. Because, clearly, God isn't against war in the Old Testament. So God can't always be against war because, again, "it's the same God." To suggest otherwise is to flirt with the Marcion heresy.

So that's the argument. But I'd like to draw attention to the bait and switch going on.

Basically, the thing to note is this. The claim "it's the same God" is, as we've seen, a confessional rather than a hermeneutical assertion. More precisely, the confession "it's the same God"--"We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth"--hands us a hermeneutical conundrum.

The confessional statement "it's the same God" creates rather than solves the hermeneutical problem.

So the problem with the blogger I was reading was that he was using "it's the same God" hermeneutically rather than confessionally. In saying "it's the same God" he was, in effect, flattening out his hermeneutic so that the texts of the Old Testament could be read as equally important to the revelation of Jesus Christ. The blogger slid from confession to hermeneutic. That's the bait and switch.

To be sure, the distinction between confession and hermeneutic isn't as tidy as I've made it out here. But the point holds that the confessional statement "it's the same God" doesn't help resolve the hermeneutical issues. But what clearly shouldn't happen is deploying the confession "it's the same God" to flatten out your hermeneutic so that the war passages in the Old Testament are placed on equal footing with Jesus Christ.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

34 thoughts on “It's the Same God: On Marcionism, Creeds, Hermeneutics and War”

  1. When I am trying to sort out the contradictions and inconsistencies in the Bible, I think of it as going deeper, more in to the center -- the Old Testament is the outer circle, then the New Testament, and at the very center is Jesus and his words and deeds. What Jesus says has less attached to it than the OT and Epistles, and is more directly His word which helps me to figure things out.

  2. To some extent, ISTM, the hermeneutical problem is [attempted to be] solved by Jesus' words: You have heard it said... but I now say...

    Personally, I don't think the OT texts are "on the level". I think a lot of the events and activities in the OT are attributed to YHWH by the writers in a way to justify or exonerate those who participated. IOW, I'm not convinced any god ordained or approved of any of it. The writers, however, needed a divine and moral justification for the invasion and occupation of Palestine. Without it no one would take them seriously... they did have a story to tell.

    In many ways I think NT writers are attempting to set the record straight with Jesus. I guess that is my hermeneutical solution.


  3. ...but we are so good at flattening out our hermeneutic! In fact, a particularly "high" view of inspiration and inerrancy which is common among evangelicals (not sure this applies to the blogger you are citing) practically requires flattening one's hermeneutic. If every word on the page is straight from the mouth of God (in a literal sense) then hermeneutical options are limited.

  4. How about, it's the same God, but we are not the same people. Hopefully we've grown and changed (at least somewhat). God deals with us where we're at and leads us toward where he wants us to go. It's our choice to follow and grow, or stay put and continue doing things the way we always have. It's sort of like a new born. They do some things that are pretty stinky (and wet). We don't want them to continue doing that forever, we want them to grow and develop and to decide to do things differently. We want them to learn to control themselves. It takes time and patience.
    Perhaps, in the Old Testament times we weren't ready. When Jesus gets here, he thinks we are ready, he's trying to get us to the next stage, to stop doing things the way we have been and move forward.
    [full disclosure-I've been reading another bloggers posts about this idea and I'm mulling it around]

  5. The Creed says one God, but then goes on to Highlight the Trinty. Mono-Trinitarianism.
    I believe in One God, The only begotten son, begotten not made being one with the Father through whom all things were made, the Holy Ghost who is worshipped along with the father and the son... and then the Holy Catholic Church (One Church).

    It's important that Jesus was Incarnate, because he was the exact representation of God the Father. We are now not confused about the true Character and Nature of God the Father of the OT... if there were some confusion before. It's probably because there isn't a careful reading of the OT.

  6. An interesting idea, it's just that I fail to see how we are much different then the people of the OT. Are we really less prone to sin then they were? An argument could be made that we are more prone to sin, I think.

  7. . . . or that the difference between the OT and Jesus reflects our limited understanding of the Father.

  8. I like the discernment you make by comparing "confessional" to "hermeneutic". Also of late, I've been wondering whether in our times, that hermeneutics/interpretation is as powerful to us as revelation was in biblical times. For instance, when it comes to god, god is what god is; on the other hand, the god I want reveals and conditions my own human experience...

    What is it to want a God of war? Of peace? Of American prosperity/opulence? G.W.Bush experienced thrilling pride standing on the deck of that aircraft carrier up which a banner exalted victory: If the ultimate destiny of humankind is war then that response was coherent; if it's peace though, then war is a failure of our destiny and humility is in order- not a surprise party. Our interpretations once provided for slavery.

    What if we decided together that war represented failure and breakdown instead of symbolizing greatness- even if the God we worshiped was all about war? Would we be in a state of rebellion?

  9. This is one of the conundrums my atheist and doubting friends always throw at me to point out the inconsistencies in the faith system of "the Church" ," ie., biblical illogicality and inconsistency destroy any basis for belief.

    Dispensationalism partitions these jarring aspects of Biblical data. Disciples heavy Alexander Campbell advocated "starlight," Moonlight," and lastly, "Sunlight" ( Sonlight?) dispensations for hermeneutics which for him was much to be preferred over metaphysics ( the Enlightenment no no). Campbell was a staunch pacifist. For him the weapons of the Christian warfare are those of the apostle Paul in Ephesians.

    Too Bad for Marcion whose metaphysical honesty forced him to rather stark conclusions. Mystery, raise your beautiful head and cover our lack of comprehension! But most of all....peace to all who belittle and condem such faith-based struggles......from a pacifist of the inconsistent stripe. Paul joined the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob with the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. So as "Bible believing" Christians we're sort of stuck with this situation. Happy hermeneutics, Richard!

  10. Even Job had limited understanding, "The Lord gives and takes away." Who took away?
    It's through Jesus and the Cross that we understand the behind the scenes events in Job. The Lord didn't take away.

    We now read the whole OT in light of Jesus Christ.

    Not to mention the word One in the shema, "behold Israel the Lord your God is One," denotes a plurality. Like the beginning of Genesis where it states "Let's make man in OUR image."

    We would say, Behold Israel the Lord you God is One... in three parts.


  11. Richard - I think you have one of the most intelligent readerships on the internet. Such well thought out responses. Well done fellow commenters.

  12. It helps to put words like "Marcionism" and "hermeneutics" in the title. ;-)

    But seriously, I consciously do things like that to knock down trolling. The titles of the posts help with self-selection. Smart and curious readers stay and read. Others click on past looking for the next social media controversy.

    That said, I do try to find a sweet spot between "popular" and "academic" blogging. If you stay to read I'll try to explain stuff. For example, most popular blogs wouldn't wade into Marcionism. But most academic blogs wouldn't take the time to explain, in simply terms like I do in this post, what Marcionism is. As an intellectual writing to other intellectuals that would be beneath them.

    Basically, while I am an academic at heart I'm a teacher. I like to explain stuff. I think it's a challenge to try to take very difficult and technical ideas and explain them in such a way that makes them seems simple, obvious, and easy.

    That's the magic trick. Hide the academic BS to bring out the simple idea. If I had a personal aspiration for my blog writing it would be to be like Malcolm Gladwell, an outsider doing with theology what he as an outsider does with the social sciences.

  13. I think you have definitely found that sweet spot. Thanks for continuing to educate, inform and enlighten.

  14. your Rowan Williams comment is super helpful. Studying theology SHOULD be harder and harder. It gives us permission to go with the struggle.

  15. If you are going to talk about war and peace in the "21st" century you need to fully take into account the on the grounds facts of the human situation with very clear eyes, completely free of the archaic nonsense about Marcionism etc. And the fact that we are now capable of destroying ourselves, and all of Earthkind in a nuclear holocaust. Or by destroying the biosphere upon which all of living-breathing-feeling sentient life depends (which is what we are presently doing in our collective psychosis)

    That having been said these references provide a very sobering clear-eyed assessment of the humanly created world in "2013". The Signs of the Times

  16. Traditionally, Christians have seen Christ throughout the OT (I think here of the demonstration of the apostolic preaching by St. Irenaeus), but the OT is the "shadow" while the fullness of the revelation of God is the incarnate Jesus. Jesus is the image or icon of the godhead. Jesus makes the Father known to us. The OT is not on an even footing as a revelation of God. We read it always in light of Christ.

  17. I question the honesty of those who say they have no problem reconciling the O.T. God and the N.T. God as demonstrated through the teachings of Jesus. I once asked a supposed O.T. scholar about some of the horrendous stories in the O.T. and the requirement for parents to slay rebellious children. His answer was that the Law was much more humane than what previously existed. He asserted the Law actually elevated humanity from a worse previous condition for humankind. So a father killing his son for disobeying his rules was supposedly an improvement! I told him, "I'm sorry; that answer is just not sufficient for me." So I continue on picking and choosing O.T. verses that seem to fit with Jesus. I don't know if that is the right thing to do or not. It is my leap into the dark.

  18. I've been looking into this a bit lately and to be honest after reading something that Michael Hardin wrote, and what some others have talked about too, and also looking back on things I've written and was convinced it was from God, I can honestly say that I don't believe that that everything we call the word of God is the word of God. If Jesus is the living word of God (which I believe He is) I don't think there is a way to reconcile the things Jesus said and some of the things in the old testament. And if it is all the word of God, then I think there has been some gross mistranslation.

    As what was pointed out in something Michael Hardin wrote which I find very interesting is Jesus' first sermon in the synagogue. He reads part of the Isaiah scroll and stops before it gets to the part about vengeance and also talks about what God did with Elijah and Elisha which is about loving, showing mercy to the enemy (Luke 4). I believe there's something to that. My pastor and I were talking about some of these issues a few weeks ago and he also pointed out when Jesus said "You have heard it said..." and did not say "You have heard God say..." or "You have heard that God said..." I believe there's something to that too. I think it was something that I was reading on Kevin Miller's blog where he said that Jesus used the torah to turn the torah on it head. I think there's something to that too.

    There are verses in Deuteronomy for instance that I don't believe the God I know ordered people to do. And this is where I think if it is all the words that came from God's mouth, there has been gross mistranslation. Maybe the parts that read as God saying "And you shall..." aren't orders from God, but God saying these are the things you shall do because this is what's in your heart.

    I do believe God, YHWH is the same God of the old and new testament. I just don't believe all that is written about YWHW in the old testament is true and I believe that's why Jesus came to rectify things so we know the true heart of God. I know I will most likely be accused of heresy and I'm fine with that. If my beliefs are not of God, may He correct me (I truly mean that).

  19. Hi Bob,
    My personal thoughts on that are it keeps the common thought among the christian community that somehow we will never see God the way the people in the bible did. And I don't agree with that thinking. It keeps us today from thinking that God would ever reveal Himself or things of His kingdom to us like He did with Moses, Peter, Paul, etc. Like they attained some higher spiritual place or gifting that we today could ever have. There's theology and doctrine based on that thinking and I don't think it's right.

  20. Even if all the acts of the Old Testament God were taken literally, it is still made very clear in the text that vengeance belongs to God and not people. This doesn't solve the problem of God's violence, but it does mean that WE don't have license to violence. Unless people are claiming that their every violent act is a direct order and revelation from God (with parting-the-Red-Sea, fire-from-a-mountaintop level of certainty/demonstration). Some people claim that, I guess, but I imagine not most of the people you are having these debates with.

  21. As an OT scholar, let me push back: the creeds, by saying "One God," are not necessarily handing us a hermeneutical problem--after all, we could always say "One God--but the OT doesn't describe him." The hermeneutical problem comes from the church's anti-Marcionite decision to consider the OT as Scripture, as a trustworthy guide to knowing about God.

    I think that your questions about "equal footing" flirt with Marcionism. Can we hermeneutically justify putting the two major sections of the Christian Scripture on different footing? As "unequally important"? I would say that everyone who really tries to do this ends up bumping against so many NT passages that imply otherwise (as did Marcion) that they really do end up walking back from the church's historic hermeneutic framework, discernible from the NT and onward, which absolutely does put all of Scripture on the same hermeneutical ground.

    Now, the hermeneutical problem remains--but it is a problem among many views of God, in both Testaments. Some NT views don't look like they have a God who values nonviolence, and some OT views do look like they have a God who values nonviolence. We can work this out many ways.

    But the moment "pacifism" becomes, not a positive "God values nonviolence" statement, but a negative "God cannot and would not ever authorize violence" statement, pacifism does start to look Marcionite. Not in how it answers the how-many-gods question, but in how it sets up the hermeneutical how-do-we-know-about-God question. Because this sort of "hard pacifism" ultimately leads, IMHO, to regarding the OT as a non-trustworthy guide to knowing who God is--not an incomplete guide, not a confusing and multivocal guide (as are both Testaments), but an untrustworthy guide. And that, hermeneutically, is Marcionite.

  22. One thing I find interesting in the Christ Event- especially in this context- is this: the Messiah people wanted was a "Caesar" bigger than Rome's Caesar's; what god sent was a Jewish peasant. God's was a different vision of what could be in human life. Perhaps what I like most in that historical moment though, is that there were people willing to shift their habituated way of thinking, and follow instead, god's vision for us.

  23. Fascinating post and discussion.

    On the subject of how to reconcile the OT and NT portraits of God, I'm very much looking forward to Greg Boyd's upcoming book (due out in 2014, AFAIK) The Crucifixion of the Warrior God. (In fact, I went to his site to look for an article to link to, and I see he's already linked to this one…)

  24. you seem use the word "hermeneutics" differently than richard does here. for him it appears to be connected to a mode of understanding that is textual and located within a community and is distinct from a mode of understanding grounded in discerning "1st principles." you seem to use "hermeneutics" in the more common way as connected to understanding what a text means - which is not wrong, of course, but is different. his is a way of asking questions, yours is a way of answering them. he's not saying, for instance, that because he suggests the creeds hand us a hermeneutical problem that this means (as you suggest) the biblical texts are untrustworthy guides. in fact, what it means is that those texts are and MUST be our guides, b/c they are fundamental to our understanding (of God especially) as Christians. so your push back has left us with richard's hermeneutical question...

    p.s. perhaps you could also explain how Christians can NOT, hermeneutically speaking (N.B. that that does NOT mean "theologically speaking"), treat the two sections of the Christian Scripture as on different footing - as "unequally important." are you proposing that we read the OT as if the God who raised Israel out of Egypt did not fulfill his promises to Abraham by sending his son Jesus to earth and raising him from the dead? b/c i think, hermeneutically, that's precisely how marcion would like us to read the OT as well, so now i'm confused...

  25. There is a popular local church in Seattle, where I live, that takes the triune nature of God to the extreme of always calling God Jesus. I.e. referring to the Jewish families in the Passover narrative as "the families who followed Jesus" (actual example, sadly). In addition to being incredibly culturally insulting to Jews, this tendency blurs over, dangerously in my opinion, that even though the Father, Son, and Spirit are one God, they are quite intentionally one God in three persons. However you resolve the mystery of the trinity or reconcile the testaments, ignoring that they are, in fact, meant to be considered in separate perspectives looses out on much of the richness of the biblical narrative.

  26. Students are often troubled by this. I have used a "slide projector" model of biblical revelation to try to help them make sense of what they are reading. We have a slide showing who God is, but it is dark, so we project the slide, but we have no screen. So instead we assemble a group of people and project the image on them. What would you see? Mostly the people. But if you re-assemble the people over a period of time with shifting arrangements and clothing after awhile you could start to distinguish the image of God from the people on whom it is projected. This is just basic incarnational theology. God chooses and works with and through a particular people with their own needs, fears and cultural outlook. You can start to distinguish trajectories which do not simply grow out of the peoples' cultural background. Finally, as a Christian I would say that Jesus, who is God's new human and the incarnation of God's creative speech, offers us a "flat" screen on which we can truly see God . Of course for hard core innerantists this is objectionable because it implies that the OT story is not a verbatim of God speaking, but God as heard, interpreted and relayed through the limited perspective of a people.

  27. I would add that Jesus too is heard, interpreted, and relayed through the limited perspective of people. This means that we can't just take the person of Jesus to "trump" the teachings of Paul, or of the OT, or of the church's historic readings of Scripture--because we don't have any knowledge of Jesus that is not deeply mediated through the Gospels AND Paul AND the OT AND the church's historic readings of Scripture. I don't mind your "slide" analogy, but I think that the process of making sense of the slide show is more deeply involved in reading texts (all sorts of texts, from both Testaments) than we might (at first) think. Our confession that the revelation is most complete in Jesus doesn't solve everything.

  28. I think you put things in a helpful and constructive manner here, Richard. For what it's worth, your view is more or less where I am coming from, though I also enjoyed reading the varied comments here. As I see it--my elevator pitch--we are dealing with the perennial theological/hermeneutical problem of continuity and discontinuity between the story of Israel and the Gospel. This struggle is already seen in the earliest Christian writings we have--portions of the New Testament, esp. Paul and Luke (in my opinion). To say that the NT transforms, morphs, or even subverts and leaves behind aspects of the OT is not Marcionism, but in my opinion a reflection on the biblical "data." One God, but portrayed differently due to the changing circumstances and experiences of God's people.

  29. "(And incidentally, this is one of the beauties of the creeds. The creeds never went in for parsimony and logical coherence. The creeds always opted to make things stranger and harder. This is a point that Rowan Williams likes to make: theology should make conversation about God harder rather than easier.)"

    I fail to see how logical coherence of necessity must be parsimony. I also see a gaping hole in the theory that "theology should make conversation about God harder rather than easier." That's only true if theology is to be controlled by government, which of course wants to eventually demolish the idea of God altogether so that IT can be worshiped in God's place. Of course the Catholic Church which wanted to become God would want to make talking about God harder, and to make theology "stranger and harder" because this ensures the ultimate demise of the God-idea. The Catholic Church in the early centuries with its creeds consciously began the process of Atheizing society which we seen finally taking root today. It was all a plan from the beginning. We were handed an incoherent canon on purpose so that at the appointed time they could appoint scholars to debunk the book and take God away from us, destroy our nations, and then enslave us to a global society. If one were to believe in Marcion's system of two gods, one would have to say the evil god was behind this plan.

  30. Actually, after I left the site I realized I had hit the solution perfectly in this comment. The Old Testament and New Testament are both about politics in reality.

    In the Old Testament God favors the nation, the self-sustained small nation, never the Empire. Empires are always evil and serve no good purpose, except for that God uses them to chastise and discipline nations. Empires -- that is GLOBALISM -- are of the Devil in the Old Testament, they are pure evil. It is Nations in the plural that God desires, and Israel in particular. Each nation is to be its own tiny sovereign territory. Hence war is allowed and even promoted IN ORDER TO PREVENT GLOBALISM. That's also why the tower of Babel was destroyed and the languages of mankind divided.

    The New Testament is apologetics for Empire and Globalism. All races should be viewed as one, there should be no war, you should not oppose Rome but let them steamroll over your nation and take its sovereignty away because what God wants is for everyone to be one big enslaved family. To this end, everyone should just be nice an get along and go quietly off into slavery together, rather than fighting back against the oppressors.

    Old Testament: War is necessary to prevent globalism because globalism enslaves mankind.

    New Testament: The global enslavement of mankind is wonderful, so turn the other cheek.

    Hmmmmmmmm......did Marcion perhaps have his identifications of the good and bad gods backwards??

  31. Marcion was clearly lied on to discredit his shorter canon, which of
    course did not even support docetism or ditheism that he was accused of
    editing it to support. He was obviously just a publisher from an
    earlier stage in the canonization process, not a heretic. The fact that
    he “retained’ in his canon so many verses that make against the
    doctrines he is accused of, ultimately proves he didn’t hold to any of
    the doctrines that he is accused of (!) and thus he was not heretical at

    But Marcion’s shorter NT canon is not in the end so different from ours
    on the whole. A few omissions of verses here an there in Luke and the
    Pauline Corpus amounts to nothing. We have this in normal manuscript
    variants! The omission of the first two chapters of Luke amounts to
    nothing: we have this in Mark! What amounts to something is that in one
    and only one epistle Marcion “removed” a substantial amount of
    material, namely in Romans he omitted nearly the whole of chapters 3 –
    11. Ah! There it is. He must be discredited and accused of heresy
    because Catholicism needs that material for something…just ask Augustine
    in his controversy with Pelagius over the same material! Marcion was
    the proof that the majority of the material in Romans 3-11 is
    interpolation, so he had to be lied on and discredited. That is all.

    Marcion was an orthodox publisher from an early point in the canonization process, who published the gospel of Luke as it existed then along with the Pauline Corpus as it existed then, and who had to be thrown under the bus when the material in Romans 3-11 was created and added to the Paulina along with the first two chapters of Luke. He's just a cautionary tale for the fact that someone considered wholly orthodox today can be considered a heretic tomorrow, because definitions of orthodoxy are ever-changing.

  32. War in the OT is about preventing Empire from arising and oppressing. The NT by outlawing war has enabled an oppressive one world government to arise. Too prolonged a period of internal peace allows governments to develop doomsday weapons, and then they get to the point where they are unstoppable. The God of the OT knew this, and prevented it by constant war. The God of the NT wasn't quite that smart and has brought us to the point where governments possess Atom Bombs, by pacifying the populace so that nations internally had enough peace to develop Atom Bombs.

  33. And here I thought the Bible was about God's plan for redemption! It turns out it's all about 21st Century politics.

    Perhaps you are reading more INTO the scriptures than you are reading OUT of them?

Leave a Reply