To read part one, go here.
“Did God really say?” According to Genesis 3, this is the question that has haunted human beings from the beginning of time and has contributed to innumerable flights of speculation into God’s very existence. Is there a God, and how do we know? For the writers of the Old Testament, God himself by his self-revelation to Abraham, Issac, Jacob and Moses (to name just a few:) had definitively answered this question. Accordingly, adherence to this revelation—which came in the form of the Mosaic Law—was more a confessional stance than anything else, because like today, the profession that not only is there only one god, but that he has been definitively revealed, is something of a radical profession. So, as is attested to throughout the Old Testament, the history of the ancient Israelites is fraught with conflicts that surround their attempt to witness to their God in a world that did not recognize the validity of their claim.
Fast forward from Moses to 33 A.D and you have a situation where many of the laws contained in the Old Testament—ones that were specifically intended to mark out the uniqueness of the Israelites—were no longer necessary because the purpose for which they had been enacted was fulfilled by the death and resurrection of Jesus. No longer would the people of God’s choosing be marked off by their ethnicity and religious ceremonies, but rather by a profession of faith in the resurrection and lordship of Jesus Christ. (cf. Romans 10:9, Gal. 3:28) However, the relationship between the two testaments remained unclear.
In the first century after Jesus’ resurrection—even after the Apostle Paul’s attempts to clarify the situation in Galatia—there was a man named Marcion who just couldn’t reconcile the two testaments. For him, the God of the Old Testament was clearly an evil, lesser God of hate and violence, whereas Jesus was the kinder, gentler, more powerful God of love. In his great work, the Antitheses, he explains that:
The Creator God is judicial, harsh, and mighty in war.
The Supreme God is gentle and simply good and excellent.
For Marcion, this contrast was so great and so clear that he decided to do away with the Old Testament all together. So, as a precursor to Thomas Jefferson, he took what he considered to be most representative of Jesus and chose the Gospel of Luke and edited Paul’s letters of anything that was reminiscent of the “Creator God,” and sought to emphasize not that the Old Testament was unimportant, but that the God about whom it was written had been defeated. For Marcion, the Old Testament was instructive only in contrast to Jesus, but not in and of itself, and this contrast was most clearly seen and perpetuated by his (misguided!) understanding of the distinction between the Law and the Gospel.
It is important to understand that at this time there was no set canon of scripture. There were many different letters floating around that were in dispute about whether or not they should be considered authoritative for the fledgling Christian church, and Marcion was simply making a theological statement about what should or should not be included. However, inherent to this statement was a notion that has always been a temptation of Christianity, namely, to do away entirely with its connection to the history and people of Israel. At this point, a man named Tertullian entered the dispute, and through his argument with Marcion, he ended up helping the church work out this relationship so that the Old and New would never again be separated. To this we owe him a great debt of gratitude! However, his argument was predicated on an interpretative grid that would–despite his intentions, no doubt–infect the church with a moralism that would only be rooted out at the Reformation.
In his fourth book against Marcion—cleverly entitled The Fourth Book Against Marcion—Tertullian writes:
Every opinion and the whole scheme of the impious and sacrilegious Marcion we now bring to the test of that very Gospel which, by his process of interpolation, he has made his own. To encourage a belief of this Gospel he has actually devised for it a sort of dower, in a work composed of contrary statements set in opposition, thence entitled Antitheses, and compiled with a view to such a severance of the law from the gospel as should divide the Deity into two, nay, diverse, gods— one for each Instrument, or Testament as it is more usual to call it; that by such means he might also patronize belief in the Gospel according to the Antitheses.
Throughout all of Tertullian’s writings against Marcion, he takes great pains to show how Jesus claims not only to be the Messiah, but that he and the Father—Marcion’s “Creator God”—are one. In defense of his assertions, however, he makes an interpretative move with respect to the distinction between law and gospel that would have lasting ramifications.
For Tertullian, what remains of the Old Law and is binding upon the Christian are not the “ceremonial” laws of the Israelite religion, but the precepts of the Ten Commandments, what he calls the sanctissima lex, the holy law. Now, this is certainly consistent with the witness of the New Testament, but in a great irony, by elevating the moral aspect of the Old Testament law to that which was its essential purpose and role, Tertullian helped insure that a central aspect of Marcion’s heretical program would be retained, namely, the sharp divide between the two testaments based on chronology as opposed to content. After Tertullian, and probably as recently as last week if you asked your pastor, the Old Testament came to represent the rules that were broken; it came to represent all of the wrath, anger and reason that Jesus had to die for the sins of the world. While there are some aspects of this that are theologically valid, by limiting the role and power of the law to that which concerns morality, a crucial aspect of the Gospel was lost, because it was similiarly limited to concerns of correcting morally wayward people. As we will see next week, under this scenario, people and philosophies from Aristotle to Kant could be easily appropriated into a religion that reduced Jesus to the one who died because we were bad people, not because we were dead.