Is Brian Zahnd a Marcionite?

Brian Zahnd’s recently published Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God has been met with reactions that are largely boring in their predictability (spoiler alert: calvinists and the neo-reformed dislike it, arminians and the neo-anabaptists like it). Perhaps equally predictable were the inevitable claims that Zahnd is promoting some form of Marcionism. Since at least Karl Barth, it has been fashionable to label attempts at a Christo-centric hermeneutic as being dangerous reincarnations of this ancient heresy. My graduate studies on Patristic exegesis and the writing of my thesis on Cyril of Alexandria’s exegesis have led me to be skeptical of such claims.

Derek Rishmawy, in his lengthy review/critique of Zahnd’s book, makes a comparison between Zahnd and Marcion:

Here I sense, as the great Jewish scholar Abraham Heschel said of the German historical critics in his own day, “the Spirit of Marcion, hovering invisibly over many waters, has been brought to clear expression” (The Prophets, 390). Zahnd explicitly repudiates Marcion (60). And it’s true, he doesn’t have a total rejection of the Old Testament, he believes in a unity between the God of Israel and the God of Jesus, the Creator and the Redeemer, etc. But let’s be honest, chalking up Old Testament portraits of God, the sacrificial system, etc. to leftover “Bronze Age” religious impulses isn’t a good non-Marcionite move.

Marcionism isn’t just a matter of a strict dichotomy between OT and NT, but also certain judgments about what is fitting for God to do. Go read the church Father Tertullian’s The Five Books Against Marcion or Irenaeus’ Against Heresies. It’s not simply a matter of a Creator God versus a Redeemer God, but rather whether a good God could also be a God who has wrath and executes judgment against sin.

For that reason, it’s appropriate to see Zahnd’s hermeneutic as a sort of cross-Testamental, Neo-Marcionism. Both Marcion and Zahnd tell us that looking at Jesus means massive, sweeping portions of what the prophets and apostles testify about God (in both Testaments) is categorically false.

And to be honest, I am not so sure he can keep the two Gods together cleanly. I’ve argued this before, but in the Old Testament, YHWH just is the God of the Exodus and is known by what he did there, not just the salvation, but the plagues and forceful judgments (including the death of the firstborn). That’s at least as “violent”, if not more so than any Conquest text. And yet, if Zahnd is right, God couldn’t have performed any of those acts of judgment.

In which case, confessing the God of Israel as the God of Jesus Christ becomes a much dicier proposition.

This post is not an attempt to refute Rishmawy’s review of Zahnd’s book (although we would disagree) nor is it an attempt to pick a fight with him (I had not come across his blog before, but am generally impressed with the scope and precision of his scholarship – he seems also to be pretty familiar with the patristics book I quote primarily below). It is simply to make a point about Marcionism and the subsequent conclusions that should follow about labeling particular hermeneutical approaches as “Neo-Marcionism.”

Derek states that Marcionism is about “certain judgements about what is fitting for God to do” especially in relation to God’s goodness vs. his wrath/judgement. This is true, but this is not what led to his outing as the “arch-heretic” as opposed to many of the Church Fathers now revered for defending orthodox theology. Marcion was not alone in the early Church about using criteria about what is “fitting for God to do.” Tertullian himself actually invokes this phrase frequently as an argument for his interpretations of the text. In fact, the majority of early Church Fathers used a criteria of what is “worthy of God” as an interpretive tool. Add to that list: Clement of Alexandria, Origen of Alexandria, Eusebius of Caesarea, Didymus of Alexandria, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Cyril of Alexandria, Diodore of Tarsus, John Chrysostom, Theodore of Mopsuestian, Augustine, and John Cassion. [Mark Sheridan’s Language for God in Patristic Tradition: Wrestling with Biblical Anthropomorphism (quoted frequently below) is a goldmine for a detailed and clear study of these issues along with plenty of primary sources from the early Church Fathers.]

Marcion was also not alone in reaching the conclusion that certain Old Testament texts about God’s anger, wrath, and violent actions needed to be read or interpreted imaginatively because they were unfitting of God. Many of the above names also reached the same conclusions.

The wide range of texts cited in this chapter from both Greek and Latin early Christian writers illustrates a common approach to the problematic texts of the Bible. These writers use the categories of God’s “considerateness,” that is, his adapting himself to human ways of speaking, as well as the technical terminology of anthropomorphism, anthropopathism and what is fitting to or worthy of divinity in order to find an acceptable meaning for difficult and dangerous texts. Especially noteworthy is the exclusion of anger as an attribute of God. – Mark Sheridan, Language for God in Patristic Tradition: Wrestling with Biblical Anthropomorphism, p. 125, (emphasis mine).

“We have heard that the people try to excuse this most destructive disease of the soul (anger) by attempting to extenuate it by a rather detestable interpretation of Scripture. They say it is not harmful if we are angry with wrongdoing brothers, because God himself is said to be enraged and angered with those who do not want to know him or who, knowing him, disdain him.” (John Cassian, The Institutes, ACW, 58, trans. and. anno. Boniface Ramsey, O.P. (New York: The Newman Press, 2000), p. 193.)

The locus of heresy with Marcion was not with his diagnosis of a problem, it was with his prescription for a solution. An abundance of Church Fathers agreed that certain texts seemed incompatible with the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. You can disagree with them on that point, but that does not change the historical fact of their hermeutical approach. The problem for Marcion was his solution: a complete rejection of the inspiration of the Old Testament (among other texts) and his acceptance of a dualism of Gods. In contrast, the Church Fathers affirmed the inspiration of these texts (in fact, Marcion was perhaps the motivation for the beginning of the canonization process) and affirmed the ontological unity between the God of the Israelites and the Incarnate God in Jesus Christ. Many of them still understood there to be a problem of tension, but they solved it differently – through allegorical and figurative readings.  Again, feel free to disagree with them on this point, but it still does not change the historical record.

“The principal Christian response to (the conquest narratives) was to transfer everything on to the plane of the spiritual life through moral or spiritual allegory…The story of the conquest had to be interpreted in such a way that God could not be thought to have commanded such unspeakable cruelty.” – Mark Sheridan, ibid. p. 152, p. 162.

If Zahnd (or any one of other possible theologians) is a Neo-Marcionite, despite his explicit refutation of Marcionism, acceptance of the Old Testament as inspired, and belief in the ontological unity of the God of the Israelites and the Incarnate God in Jesus Christ, then count a large number of the Church Fathers as Marcionites as well. Believing that one’s conclusions are inconsistent is an understandable critique. However, if reading descriptions of God’s wrath and judgement in less than “literal” ways in light of the revelation of God in Jesus is a heresy, then be prepared to call more Church Fathers than Marcion heretical.

The notion of “theological interpretation” should be understood here then as the search for the correct understanding of the biblical texts by the major early Christian writers, especially those in the Greek and Latin traditions. The principal tool used in this search was an understanding of God, of the divine nature, derived in part from the Greek philosophical tradition, particularly the exclusion from the divine nature of anthropomorphic (in human form) and anthropopathic (with human passions) traits, but also informed by the understanding of God as revealed by Jesus Christ, a chief aspect of which was the divine love for humankind (philanthropia). What did not conform to these essential traits had to be excluded from (or distinguished from) the “true” meaning of Scripture, and the text had to be interpreted so as to provide a meaning that both conformed to or was fitting to the divine nature and was useful. – Mark Sheridan, Ibid. p. 20.

Why I Tell Stories When I Preach

2015_03_17-Storytelling-For-Startups

“Profound truth, like the vocabulary of virtue, eludes formulation. It quickly becomes rigid, gives way to abstraction or cliche. But put a spiritual insight to a story, an experience, a face; describe where it anchors in the ground of your being; and it will change you in the telling and others in the listening.” – Krista Trippett, Becoming Wise

If you’ve heard me preach, you’ve probably heard me tell a few stories. Some of them are funny, some of them are personal and vulnerable, and some of them are drawn from history or current events. If you’ve heard me preach at a larger retreat or conference, you’ve likely heard a collection of my very best stories – narratives that I have told hundreds of times and customized in millions of ways until the story is exactly as funny and useful as needed.

At my last retreat, I was getting mic’ed up in the back of the worship hall before the third session began and a group of students walked up to me asking me what fun stories I would be telling that night. I gave them a grin and simply said, “I don’t know, I might have a couple good ones.” Far from feeling like I was just entertaining a few hundred young people with funny stories, that experience affirmed for me that I was connecting with the audience and that as a result I would be able to drive home powerful truths with even more effectiveness.

I believe firmly that the art of story-telling is a crucial skill to learn and practice for the purpose of preaching more powerful sermons. I believe this so strongly that I listen to a new stand-up comedian (I prefer narrative comedians over those who specialize in one-liners) in the car or airplane as I head to my next speaking gig. I do this for many reasons. It’s an entertaining way to pass the time, it builds a fire in me about how powerful the spoken word can be, and it’s a great way to develop speaking skills of timing, tone, and story-telling. Good comedians are experts at these skills and I’ve found that great preachers often have similarly developed instincts for public speaking.

So why do I tell stories?

1) Stories capture attention. 

What I’ve found as a public speaker is that a story doesn’t even have to be all that funny or presented in an organized way to captivate an audience. Those things certainly help, but there is something deeply human about our love for stories. It’s not just children who crave to hear a good story, either. When I’m weaving a good story together I’ve seen hundreds of adults listen with mouths agape, just as entranced as any child has ever been reading a children’s book at night. Stories capture attention, and as a speaker, once I have a group’s attention it is that much easier to drive home transformative truths.

2) Stories build empathy.

Stories connect a speaker far away on big a stage under bright lights – often unknown to the listeners – to the audience in an intimate way in just a manner of minutes. Speaking truth into people’s lives requires that they trust you. Identifying with the audience with a funny or relatable story allows people to tune-in not only to your presentation but also to you as a person. A good story, told correctly, will connect something I have experienced or learned in my life and allow me to pass on that wisdom in the role of a trusted friend, not a irrelevant stranger, boring lecturer, or a heavy-handed moralist. In this way, audiences are able to more deeply receive words of encouragement and challenge.

3) Jesus told stories.

I think it’s a remarkably over-looked fact that the majority of Jesus’ teaching consisted of parables. These powerful narratives were easily relatable, often funny (Jesus is quite the comedian in the Gospels, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear), and consistently challenging and subversive. These stories changed lives. They convinced people to leave their homes and follow Jesus on his path throughout Galilee and towards Jerusalem. We often whitewash the counter-cultural messages in many of Jesus’ parables, but I find it likely that his story-telling was a key contributor to his eventually crucifixion. Jesus told stories because he knew they were powerful and transformative ways to communicate the good news of the arrival of the Father’s loving Kingdom. I’m more that happy to humbly follow in his footsteps.

Mike Skinner
http://www.mikeskinner.org

If you’d like to inquire about booking me for an upcoming speaking event, please email me at booking@mikeskinner.org. I’m currently focusing my speaking events around the following three topics: Christianity, Mental Health, and Education. These topics can easily be combined as well to serve the needs of your group! I look forward to speaking with you about how I can help you and your organization make a greater impact in our world.

Who is this Asenath anyways?

I’ve been reading a lot of ancient texts lately. I mean, it’s my job and that’s pretty cool. A lot of the stuff I’ve been reading is full of familiar people, places, and things. But have you ever wondered about some of the characters from Scripture who seem to only make a brief appearance? How about Joseph’s wife?

“And Pharaoh called the name of Joseph Zaphenath-paneah and gave him Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera, priest of On, as a wife. And Joseph went out over the land of Egypt.” (Gen 41:45, LEB)

I mean, who is this Asenath anyways? She is only mentioned two other times in the Hebrew Bible (Gen 41:50 and 46:20). If you’re really curious and want to know more about Asenath, you’re in luck. As a matter of fact, I got to know Asenath a bit more this summer as I was reading through the Pseudepigrapha. The Pseudepigrapha refers to a number of texts attributed to her.

Why should you read the Pseudepigrapha? Well, for one at least one reason: it’s a whole lot of fun. Another, perhaps more valuable reason, is that the literature of the Pseudepigrapha sheds a lot of light onto the world of the Old and New Testaments.

As a newly-initiated lover of the Pseudepigrapha, I suspect that I am not the only one who has (unfortunately) neglected this body of literature. I mean, I learned about the Pseudepigrapha in school but never thought to actually read any of it! Crazy, I know. In some ways it was often touted as “dangerous” and “unchristian” and many of the same things are said about the Septuagint, which is also really unfortunate. The Pseudepigrapha is a rich (and did I mention fun?!) resource for anyone interested in the Bible, ancient history and culture, ancient Judaism, early Christianity, and so on.

– Jessica Parks (written in 2015)

An Argument Against Academic Elitism from a Young Academic

This is not to discredit biblical scholars and theologians with academic training–these are, after all, the people I look up to as a young scholar. There is obviously a very real benefit to formal scholastic training when it comes to biblical interpretation. If I didn’t think so, I wouldn’t have spent the last decade in an academic setting learning from biblical scholars and theologians shelling out tens of thousands of dollars to do so. I am speaking as an academic (a baby though I might be). However much credibility a Bachelors degree in Biblical Languages and Christianity, a Master’s degree in Biblical Languages, and 15 additional graduate hours in Theological Studies with a half-written thesis might give me, I am speaking as one how has academic training. And from this perspective I still argue that academics do not have a monopoly on the biblical texts. There is no room for academic elitism when it comes to reading the scared scriptures; the spirit of elitism does not exist alongside the Holy Spirit and the work the Spirit does in whom the Spirit desires. So, while formal scholastic training is beneficial to the individual reader of scripture, the lack thereof does not automatically disqualify one from the ability to grasp the biblical texts nor should it automatically disqualify one’s contributions to a discussion or argument or whatever.

Does not the Holy Spirit play the primary role in our ability to read and understand the scriptures?

Despite what some might assume, I would not argue that any and every interpretation is credible. For one, I prefer the language used in theological interpretation of “better” readings rather than correct or accurate. I might even differentiate between plausible and implausible readings. Furthermore, I am not arguing that the best way to read the Bible is alone in isolation with just you and the Holy Spirit. To the contrary, I actually believe that to read Scripture well we need to read it in conversation with tradition and with the church, not alone in a vacuum.

What I ultimately take issue with is the idea that someone can automatically be disqualified not based on their arguments and/or methods, but on their pedigree or lack thereof. This is a shame, it reeks of academic elitism and arrogance, and does not take into account the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the individual believer as well as the wide access we have to information today.

A PhD does not guarantee someone is a good reader of scripture. Unless you’re N.T. Wright, of course.

– Jessica Parks (written in 2015)

 

New Website Address

Hello All,

2016 has been a slow one here at Cruciform Theology – but we are about to pick things up again.

The first step in that process was renewing a proper URL for the blog as the last one had expired.

Here’s the new website address: cruciformtheologyblog.com

Please – update the link in your favorites/bookmarked lists and subscribe to get new posts delivered to your inbox if you haven’t already.

Blessings!

– Mike Skinner