Associate Pastor, Agros Church
Introduction - Marcion
One of the most important topics to study as a Christian, outside of your Bible, is historical theology. A basic understanding of church history can guard against all sorts of bad practices and beliefs in your Christian walk. In the second century, one of the first major excommunications from the Christian church was Marcion of Sinope. Marcion could possibly be considered the most notorious gnostic leader with Valentinius close behind him in the early church. His brand of gnosticism, unlike others, was much more prolific and popular, whereas many gnostic sects were localized to various regions, and quite frankly, asinine in what they believed. Though the Marcionites were less insane than some forms of gnosticism, they were still rejected by the early church, and even branded “Satan’s Martyrs” by the orthodox. Unlike many gnostics in the early church, Marcion’s brand was not quite so outlandish and mystic, but it was gnosticism.
Marcion pitted the Old and New Testament against each other, and declared that the god of the Old Testament was the cruel “Demiurge” and completely in opposition to the New Testament god who was gracious and loving. Marcion is famous for his own imagining of the Canon of Scripture, where he accepted only the Gospel of Luke and most of Paul’s letters. Even within his canon, he removed any positive representations of Judaism. Similar to other early gnostics, Marcion was Docetic, which comes from the word that means “to appear as” - this is likely the same type of gnostic heresy that many commentators attribute to causing the schism in 1 John. According to docetic gnosticism, Jesus merely appeared to be man. Additionally, Marcion, like other gnostics, taught that matter, time, and fleshly endeavors were evil.
It is easy to draw parallels between somebody who “unhitches” the Old Testament from the New and Marcion, but we must resist doing this for the sake of Christian charity and productivity in this discussion. Labeling certain forms of New Covenant Theology “Marcionism” is too imprecise and historically inaccurate to bring about any meaningful discussion on the topic. In other words, it is more insult and injury than a valid argument. My goal in this article is to demonstrate that certain corners of New Covenant Theology is not a reiteration of Marcionite doctrine in the hope that the reader will understand what’s really being discussed when people “toss out the Old Testament” due to their covenant structure.
Conservative New Covenant Theology
It must be stated that not all those who describe themselves as “New Covenant Theology” (NCT) readily toss out the Old Testament, though this is common due to the theological framework presented within the system. Here are some fundamental beliefs of NCT:
1. The New Covenant is the Covenant of Grace
2. The Old Covenant is a Covenant of Works
3. The New Covenant is founded in an eternal covenant
4. The only law that remains for Christians is the law of Christ, which is represented by what was republished in the New Testament
In its most conservative iterations, the only practical difference between Reformed Covenant Theology and New Covenant Theology is that NCT believers do not believe there is an obligation to observe the Lord’s Day, the Christian Sabbath, as that has been abrogated. According to NCT, the only command that remains for Christians is to love God, and love neighbor (John 13:34). Most conservative NCT believers understand that loving God and loving neighbor is defined by the general equity of the judicial law of the Old Testament, and the moral law (LBCF 19). Though the Theological underpinnings of NCT is much different than Reformed Covenant Theology, the impact to Christian practice is often not discernable outside of the abrogation of the fourth commandment. This is why Calvinist NCT believers (such as Thomas Schreiner and DA Carson) and Reformed believers typically have no issues fellowshipping.
Not So Conservative New Covenant Theology
Herein lies the main thrust of what I believe to be the confusion in the discussion. Due to the logical implications of believing that the only law in the New Covenant is the “law of Christ”, it is easy for NCT believers to completely abandon the Old Testament and define “love God” in any way they desire. This, along with the heavy emphasis of faith and grace, tends to, at least on the surface, somewhat resemble Marcion’s belief. Marcion did, after all, toss out the whole Old Testament and focus on faith and grace! Yet this would be a tragic oversimplification because Marcion’s heresy went much, much deeper than simply “unhitching” the Old Testament. Marcion’s major distinction was not his chopping up the canon per se, but the reasons he chopped up the canon. He believed the Old Testament was about a cruel, unloving god, which is why he threw it out. He was a docetic gnostic, which has serious implications for crucifixion and resurrection. Marcion’s errors are magnitudes of severity above that of the person who “tosses out” the Old Testament, though tossing out the Old Testament is quite severe.
That being said, there are serious issues with certain forms of New Covenant Theology that can and do impact the doctrine of Scripture, Christian living, ethics, and more. Reformed and non-Reformed believers alike are right to raise an eyebrow when somebody says we need to “unhitch” the Old Testament from the New because of the serious consequences that has to Christian doctrine and living. This is why it is important to be precise in identifying the problem here. It is also important to note that not all NCT believers “unhitch” the Old Testament, and “unhitching” the Old Testament is not exclusive to those who call themselves NCT. Whether or not a Christian identifies as NCT, if they hyper focus on the New Testament and the “law of Christ”, there will be serious implications to how they understand Christianity. This sort of belief is the source of a multitude of errors.
Conclusion - Where to Go from Here
The goal of this article was to inform the reader that there is a difference between Marcion and the person that wants to “unhitch” the Old and the New Testament. Calling somebody a Marcionite is to practically tell somebody that they deny the bodily resurrection and believe that the Old Testament is about an evil middle god. That being said, the doctrine of untethering the Old and the New Testaments and accepting only the “law of Christ” is like planting your feet firmly three feet in mid air. The Old Covenant anticipated the New Covenant, and Christ’s ministry is founded firmly on the promise and prophecies of the Old Covenant. If you take away the Old Covenant, the New Covenant has no foundation and what Christ did makes absolutely no sense.
I believe that understanding the distinction between what Marcion taught and what the “unhitchers” teach is massively important in gaining ground in discussion, especially if the person who is unhitching is familiar enough with Marcion to know that is not what they believe. I believe this does need to be addressed, and many are taking up the mantle of doing so. Recent debates have taken place which have tackled the issue head on, as well as a number of helpful articles online. Our heart should be that our brothers and sisters in Christ “re-hitch” the Old Testament back onto the New so that they might gain a deeper understanding of the grace of God in the Old Covenant. To those that are fighting the battle of defending the love for God’s law, keep on fighting. To those that are on the sidelines, be praying for those that are involved in the dialogue.
For further reading on the dangers of Marcion, I recommend checking out Carl Trueman's article on monergism.org: https://www.monergism.com/marcions-have-landed-warning-evangelicals?fbclid=IwAR0fhmDdNPhX--Q8tazFycGNQvfjmvQuIG5NdFFqbXW0y2BWNIXFlc7Qk14
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