Saturday, December 6, 2014

Wasn't Marcion 'Catholic'? The Protestant Misrepresentation of Marcion

It is worth considering the central overriding point in Wolfram Kinzig's recent biography of Adolf von Harnack (Marcion und das Judentum: Nebst einer kommentierten Edition des Briefwechsels Adolf von Harnacks mit Houston Stewart Chamberlain. Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2004). The book consists of three parts. The first, by far the longest and theologically most challenging part, "Harnacks Marcion," traces the evolution of Harnack's interpretation of Marcion from his prize-winning dissertation as a nineteen-year-old student of theology at the Baltic-German University at Dorpat, today Tartu in Estonia, to his 1921 biography.

Kinzig begins by noting that Harnack's 1870 Preisschrift, while sympathetic to Marcion for allegedly anticipating the Protestant doctrines of salvation by faith alone and the priesthood of believers, was much more reserved about Marcion's importance for Christian theology than his later biography. The young Harnack did not yet embrace Marcion's low opinion of the Old Testament nor his absolute differentiation between the stern creator God of the Old Testament and the good, merciful God of the New Testament.

Kinzig carefully analyzes Harnack's growing valorization of Marcion as a harbinger of the sixteenth-century Reformation in his major works, the multi-volume History of Dogma (1886-89), his widely circulated Das Wesen des Christentums (translated as What Is Christianity?, 1900), and The Mission and Expansion of Christianity during the First Three Centuries (1902). Harnack became increasingly enamored of Marcion's dualistic doctrines of God versus nature, spirit versus matter, soul versus the flesh, and the gospel versus the law as pointing the way to the progressive development of Christian theology.

In Harnack's evolving description Marcion took on more and more traits of Martin Luther. In his culminating biography Harnack praised Marcion for creating the New Testament canon, making the doctrine of salvation the center of Christianity rather than founding Christianity on cosmology, and going beyond Saint Paul in repudiating Judaic residues in Christianity, including the Old Testament. Harnack conceded that the second-century Old Catholic Church had been right not to have discarded the Old Testament, which furnished the necessary historical justification for Christianity in its precarious early years.

He also sympathized with Luther's judgment that the Protestant Reformation could not do without the law as embodied in the Old Testament. But while Harnack insisted that the Old Testament, particularly the prophetic books and the Psalms, should continue to be read as edifying literature today, he declared that one cannot learn from it what it means to be Christian. Hence he concluded that its retention as a Protestant canonical document in the twentieth century was "the result of a religious and ecclesiastical paralysis" (p. 86).

But was Marcion really the forerunner of Luther?  Of course not!  This is the danger of modern scholarship.  Inevitably there is too much of the scholar in the scholarly work, the line between analyst and his analysis inevitably blurred.  The more I think about it the more I am convinced that Marcion's church appeared like a Catholic or Orthodox 'mystery religion.'  Indeed I see no evidence to suggest anything but this.  As such we have to be careful to avoid allowing ourselves to fall into the trap of allowing the 'heretic' branding that Marcion received to define our understanding.  Luther really did break from the Church.  Marcion was only said to have 'broken' from established precedent.  Maybe it was the Roman Catholic Church which broke from the tradition associated with him.  

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