Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
From the beginning of the New Testament church, God’s people have been troubled by heretics. Paul warned the elders in Ephesus that grievous wolves would enter the church (Acts 20:29); he warned Timothy of corrupt men with reprobate minds who resist the truth (II Tim. 3:8); and Christ Himself warned the church at Pergamos of the wrong of keeping in the church those who held the doctrine of Balaam and of the Nicolaitans (Rev. 2:14, 15). The constant presence of heretics and the struggles of the church against them speak of Satan’s relentless attacks against the church, even though he knows that the gates of hell cannot prevail against her.
It is not surprising, then, that almost immediately after the last apostle died, another heretic arose in the church who attempted to bring in the worst kind of false doctrine: he launched his attack directly against the Scriptures by denying that they were the Word of God.
This was a subtle and ingenious ploy of Satan. The Scriptures are the Word of God in which is found the truth of God as God makes Himself known in Christ. The Scriptures are, therefore, the source of all the church knows of God and of His Christ. Take away the Scriptures and the church has nothing. Rob the church of the Bible, and the church ceases to exist. All of the truth that was later to come under attack in one way or another is found only in Scripture. No individual attack has to be made against any one doctrine if the Scriptures themselves are destroyed.
This is what Marcion attempted to do; and he did it in much the same way that higher critics of Scripture still do it today. That is why I call Marcion the first Bible critic.
Although the date of Marcion’s birth is not known, it seems as if he was born within 15 years of the turn of the first century. The apostle John had not been dead very long when Marcion entered the world, and Polycarp, the first martyr of the post-apostolic era and friend of John, knew Marcion. Already in A.D. 139, Marcion is found in Rome spreading heresy.
He was born in Sinope in the province of Pontus in Asia Minor some distance east of Ephesus. He was born into a Christian family, for his father was a bishop. Tertullian, a third century church father, says that Marcion was a pilot of a river boat.
Even though almost nothing is known of his early life, there is some evidence that he himself became a Christian only after long study, but that he was, soon after admission to the church, excommunicated by his own father for teaching wrong doctrines. Apparently his father remained suspicious of Marcion even when Marcion later confessed his wrong, for his father refused him re-admittance when he applied.
In about 139 Marcion went to Rome. There is some dispute among historians as to the precise order of events. Some say that he was refused admission to the church of Rome upon his arrival there. Whether this was because reports from Sinope had reached Rome, or whether it was because Marcion was quick to promote his ideas in this city, it is impossible to tell. Others say that he was a member of the church for a while, but was constantly the center of controversy and was excommunicated once more. They point to a story that Marcion gave the church in Rome 100,000 sestertii (Roman money) when he was admitted to membership, but the whole amount was returned to him when he was excommunicated.
Polycarp, who met him probably while he was still in Asia Minor, called him “the first-born of Satan,” and indeed it was true that his heresies were deadly poison.
He founded a church separate from the apostolic church and had considerable influence on many who flocked to him and joined his movement. In fact, his sect spread throughout the Mediterranean world as far east as Syria and Palestine. His church survived until the 6th century, a strong testimony to his influence.
Marcion was an extremely able man, skillful in presenting his ideas in the best possible light, charismatic in his influence on others, and a sufficiently profound thinker to construct something of a system of thought. But he was extremely bold and forward and was much like many today who think that they alone possess the truth. He was so obviously contrary to the truth that none of the orthodox had any difficulty in detecting his heresy.
It must be remembered that the church was in her infancy and had, as a result, no systematic doctrine, no confessions, no body of truth to which to appeal in its defense of the faith. Not even the Apostolic Confession was in existence as yet. It may have been because of this that the orthodox of his day were more fearful of him and his influence on people than of almost any other enemy of the church, including those who persecuted the church.
The heresy with which we are interested at this point is his open and blatant attack on Holy Scripture. He made it his business to decide what books he considered to be the Word of God and what were not part of the canon of Scripture. He concluded that the entire Old Testament ought to be excluded, and everything in the New Testament which had not been written by Paul. When he had finished with the New Testament, what he had left was only the epistles of Paul and a truncated gospel of Luke, which, he thought, had been written by Paul. In fact, he did not even accept all the epistles of Paul as canonical, for he denied the Pauline authorship of I & II Timothy and Titus.
Of course, there were reasons for this position which he took. He had a certain “theology” which revealed his presuppositions, and on the basis of which he rejected huge parts of God’s Word.
For one thing, Marcion held to some ideas which were Gnostic in character.1 But it was particularly his view of God which was corrupt. He believed that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament were irreconcilable and had to be two different powers in the universe. The God of the Old Testament was the God of the law: harsh, critical, severe in judgment, cruel in punishment. On the other hand, the God of the New Testament was the God of the gospel: kind, compassionate, filled with love, merciful to those who do not measure up to His standards.
Hence the God of the Old Testament was the author of suffering and misery in the world, while the God of the New Testament was the fountain of all that is good.
It is very striking that in some modernistic circles a similar view of God is still taught, and the Old Testament similarly rejected. But it is obvious that whether in the 2nd century or in the 20th century this view is an open attack on Scripture.
God used this attack on Scripture to prod the church into an extremely important aspect of her calling, viz., to define carefully the doctrine of Scripture and set down what books belong to the Bible and what books do not. Up to the time of Marcion the church had not done this. There simply was no reason for doing it.
Because the church had not done this, different opinions were held among the churches and saints. Some held that other books, as, e.g., the epistles of Clement of Rome and Barnabas, were canonical. Others questioned whether some books in our present canon ought really to be there.
This does not mean that the church had no idea of what the canon was. Almost as soon as the gospels were written, they were considered canonical and grouped together as such. Because the book of Acts carried on the history of the gospels, it too was considered canonical. When Paul’s epistles were written, a “Body of Paul’s Writings” was soon circulated in the church as writings inspired by God, and they were accepted as such by the whole church from the time they were written. Very early in the 2nd century I John and I Peter were also accepted as canonical. Revelation, because it had been written by John, was received. But questions remained among some concerning a few other books. No one was sure who wrote the epistle to the Hebrews, and its canonicity was considered doubtful by some. II Peter, II & III John, James and Jude were not universally accepted. But because the canon of Scripture was not a source of controversy, no one gave much thought to disagreements on the matter.
But then along came Marcion and his terrible heresies. He launched his attack at a vulnerable point. But it was as if, through him, God was saying to the church: “It is important that you study this question carefully and determine what books were inspired by Me and what books were not.” This the church had now to do.
A consensus soon developed in the whole church. Marcion was condemned and his followers were excommunicated. By the end of the 2nd century, disagreement over the questions had ceased. In 352 Athanasius, bishop of the church in Alexandria, sent a pastoral letter to all the churches throughout the entire known world, in connection with the date on which Easter was to be celebrated, in which he listed the 66 books of the canon as we confess them today to be the Word of God. And in 393 and 397 the synods of Hippo and Carthage officially fixed the canon for the new dispensation.
Before the canon was finally fixed, the church had to settle a dispute over the question of the criteria by which a book could be judged as canonical or non-canonical. For example, some thought that either an apostle or one closely connected to an apostle had to be an author for a book to be canonical. But the church in fact used the same criteria as are mentioned in our Confession of Faith (Art. 5): the objective testimony of the books themselves, and the subjective testimony of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of His people. The former refers to the fact that the canonical books carry their own evidence in themselves that they are inspired by the Spirit; and the second criterion refers to the testimony of the Spirit of truth whom Christ promised to the church (John 14, 15, 16) as the Spirit who would lead the church into all truth.
Since the 18th century the higher critics of Scripture have followed in the footsteps of Marcion and have troubled the church with similar heresies. They too have their “theology” on the basis of which they pass their own judgments on Scripture. Their theology is a denial, to a greater or lesser degree, of the inspiration of sacred Scripture as the sole work of God the Holy Spirit, and an insistence that Scripture, in whole or in part, is the word of man. If Scripture is, in whole or in part, the word of man, man can judge which parts of Scripture he accepts and which parts he rejects.
That wicked men do this is not surprising. That these views have, more or less, infiltrated almost every seminary in this land and abroad is a sad but undeniable fact.
It was important for the church to establish what books were of God because no possible development or defense of the truth could be made until this was done. God in His wisdom led the church to set down this truth first. It was to be the foundation of all the other truths the church would later confess. God’s Scriptures are the rule of faith and life. Marcion’s heresies were the occasion and the goad for the church’s establishing of its doctrine of Scripture.
1Gnosticism was an early heresy which appeared in the church in the third century, although early forms of it may have been present in apostolic times. We shall have opportunity to discuss this heresy in the next article.