“An Ancient Heresy Incarnate” by Clarence Jordan

We would not accept (Jesus’) humanity if we could prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was not a white man.” – Clarence Jordan

I recently bought a book that contains a series of sermons by Clarence Jordan entitled The Substance of Faith and other Cotton Patch Sermons. Clarence Jordan created an integrated farming community in Americus, Georgia at the height of segregation in the South.  He was an outspoken voice against racism and segregation and translated much of the New Testament in the vernacular of his day.  I would like to share part of a sermon that has particularly impacted me as I and many others have been dwelling on the incarnation this season.

“The greatest danger to Christianity was not when Jesus was a little babe in Bethlehem with old Herod trying to kill him.  That wasn’t the most dangerous point in the life of Christianity.  I think the most dangerous time was in the second century after Christ, with the rise of the gnostic heresy.

It was a heresy which did not, of course, begin in Christianity; but because it had much in common with Christianity, it sneaked in and almost took it over.  It came to its highest apex under the brilliant preaching and teaching of a fellow name Marcion.

The heart of Gnosticism is dualism- that is, the idea that God is all good and all-pure and that the earth and all matter is all-evil….They imposed this philosophy upon Christianity. God couldn’t really become one with us in this evil old world.  So they said that Jesus didn’t really come in the flesh, he just seemed to have flesh…He couldn’t become human because this body is evil and this savior from God couldn’t really have a body because it would be evil for him to have done so.

This fellow Marcion has raised his head time and time again and I think he is walking the streets of this nation daily.  People reject the incarnation by the deification of Jesus…Any attempt to make him human and embarrassingly present is angrily denounced as sacrilegious.  By carefully preserving our image of him as God, we no longer have to deal with hims as the Son of Man.  Preachers by the dozens who vehemently affirm his deity shamelessly deny his humanity if he is black and poor.” (“An Ancient Heresy Incarnate”)

I think we are still doing this to Jesus today.  Perhaps after the horror and genocide of World War II we have finally understood that Jesus is not white.  We get that he is not an American or a Republican or a Democrat.  But I see Marcion rising up again, and I think every generation is called once again to remind us that Jesus is not only fully divine, but fully human.  We also have to work out what that means.  To quote Clarence Jordan once more, “(The humanity of God) establishes that from here on out we can’t deal with God without confronting him in our brother.”  Jesus says as often as you do it to the least of these you do it to me!  He is saying this at the final judgment (Matt. 25).  Because God has now become human, there is no human who has not been affected or touched by this reality.  The image of God has become the image of Jesus.  When we look at our fellow men and women we no longer see simply that person but we should truly believe that we are to treat them as we would Jesus himself.  The incarnation then has some serious implications for how humanity must now interact each other.  To harm another person is effectively harming our creator who is now our brother, who seems to very much share in the sufferings of humanity.

5 thoughts on ““An Ancient Heresy Incarnate” by Clarence Jordan

  1. People reject the incarnation because of the virgin birth story. Isaiah 7 when read in context is clearly a prophecy that had to be fulfilled in Isaiah’s own time for the birth of the child is given to Ahaz as a sign of when the two rival kings (of Samaria and Syria) will be defeated by the King of Assyria who God has promised him will come and defeat these kings thus saving his life. That can’t be fulfilled by Jesus’ birth 700 years later. And indeed, if we bother to read Isaiah 8, we find the child was born in Ahaz’ time.

    The claim that Jesus had to be born of a virgin to fulfill prophecy is therefore NOT credible. And as a result people will react in one of two ways: (1) Denying Jesus’ deity and having him just as a regular human born of the physical union of Joseph and Mary, as the Ebionites and several other Judeo-Christian groups in the 2nd century did. This view might sometimes involve his elevation to something more than human status by the spirit of God joining with him at the baptism by John (as in Carpocrates’ theology). Or: (2) Denying Jesus’ true humanity and birth and featuring him instead simply as a God or other divine being (an angel maybe) who came down from heaven in a pneumatical corporeality or a spiritual body (apparently the view of Marcion), or who made himself a temporary body from stardust as he descended from heaven (as Apelles, Marcion’s understudy, claimed).

    But to expect people to continue to believe the virgin birth yarn, when they can good and well read Isaiah 7-8 for themselves is laughable. In ancient times when the New Testament was itself an expensive FOUR VOLUME SET, and the Old Testament was twice or three times as many volumes, it is understandable that people could be expected to buy into this claim. Its not like the common man could afford to own the whole ENCYCLOPEDIA SET that was the Bible back then, so how the hell would he know what Isaiah 7-8 really said? But now days, when the Bible can be purchased as a whole at the Dollar Store, or read for free online, or on your cellphone, people cannot be expected to any longer pretend that the claim that Jesus was born of a virgin to fulfill Isaiah 7 is anything but a lie.

    As to Marcion, he is too freely classed with the Gnostics and often too freely called an anti-Semite. If you read Tertullian’s five books Against Marcion you will find he interpreted the Old Testament like a Jew. He beleived ISaiah 7-8 was about Hezekiah and that the Old Testament promises a warrior Messiah to re-establish Jewish national power. He told the Jews that the Messiah they await is indeed yet to come. But at the same time he held that Jesus is the Christ of a different God an the savior of the world. Marcion was not an antisemite but was essentially making an attempt at ecumenism, trying to produce a theology that maintains Judaism’s right to exist after the advent of Christ. Tertullian reuses material from his treatise called Against the Jews against Marcion since Marcion’s interpretation of the Old Testament prophets is largely Jewish. But more importantly, in Against the Jews and to some extent in Against Marcion we find Tertullian arguing that the Jews are a bunch of idiots who don’t even understand their own book, that the OT must be interpreted allegorically not literally or historical-grammatically, and that the Jews HAVE NOT RIGHT to the Old Testament any longer for it belongs EXCLUSIVELY to the church, and that Judaism HAS NO CONTINUED RIGHT TO EXIST after the advent of Christ.

    Marcion’s supposed rejection of the Old Testament is overblown. Much of Marcion’s theology requires the Old Testament, for without it, how can he argue that the Creator God is overly punitive? He could not really have simply tossed the OT aside. But his way of dealing with the OT allowed him a certain ecumenism with Judaism that Tertullian’s approach (the one followed throughout the majority of Christian history) does not allow for.

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  2. “I think we are still doing this to Jesus today. Perhaps after the horror and genocide of World War II we have finally understood that Jesus is not white. We get that he is not an American or a Republican or a Democrat. But I see Marcion rising up again, and I think every generation is called once again to remind us that Jesus is not only fully divine, but fully human.”

    Consider the contradiction inherent in your thinking here. Marcion did not claim that Jesus was a white-man. Marcion claimed that Jesus was a God in pretend flesh, not a real man–to Marcion he not born but was a God who descended from heaven in a spirit body that looked like a full-grown 30-year-old man but was really a God.

    The Nazis on the other hand produced for themselves an INCARNATIONAL theology in which Jesus had real flesh, was a real man, was a good German man, who was really born, born of good German Aryan stock. They may have attached Marcion’s name to this theology, but they were perverting Marcion as much as they were perverting Jesus!

    It was in the name of an INCARNATIONAL theology that the Nazis killed. It was in the name of an INCARNATIONAL theology that the Catholic church killed in the Spanish Inquisition.

    The Office of the Inquisition, after all, was created to exterminate the Albigensians or Cathars. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albigensian_Crusade) The Albigensians or Cathars were of course offshoots of Marcionism, who held to a Marcionite spirit body Christology. But they were being killed by followers of a good Orthodox Catholic INCARNATIONAL theology.

    The maintenance of the otherness of God, the otherworldiness of God, and hence the idea of Christian separation from the world (so popular in Marcionite-type theology) has always produced pacifists who get persecuted and killed. Whereas INCARNATIONAL theology has always produced warmongers.

    Of course, the theology that Jesus was “just a man” also tends to produce pacifists who get hunted and killed by the INCARNATIONALISTS. Take for example the Ebionites, and to a lesser extent the Arians and Socinians (since Arians and Socinians make him initially just a man but then exalted to something higher).

    Its always the INCARNATIONALISTS doing the killing. And its the Marcionite-types and Ebionite-types doing the dying.

    If God was incarnate, the logic goes, he was incarnate as my race. The black racists say that Jesus was black. The guy you quoted says this!

    Preachers by the dozens who vehemently affirm his deity shamelessly deny his humanity if he is black and poor.

    The truly born truly incarnate Christ must be the race of his worshipper–they demand it. But if he was God in a spirit body not truly incarnate, then he was no race, and hence stands for all races.

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    1. Thanks for the post. I am a little surprised and I guess saddened that this is what you took away from my article. I agree with your reading of Isaiah 7 & 8 but I also think there is more than one way to read a text. I think we need to start with the historical-grammatical approach, but I don’t see the harm in a christological or theological reading as well. I don’t think Isaiah 14 is about the fall of Satan, it is clearly a taunt against the king of Babylon, but again I don’t have a problem with someone also reading it the other way. The lesson I have learned the more I have been studying theology is that humility is a necessity when reading scripture.

      In regards to Marcion, the reason why I think he needs to be rejected is because we loose the mystery of God truly becoming human. I know that Marcion didn’t think Jesus was white. The point Clarence Jordan was making is that God coming in the flesh forces us to face our racism, because God has now become our brother. God is now mysteriously connected with all of humanity and if you truly understand the incarnation it will most certainly lead to pacifist convictions ( I know it has for me anyway). The problem with Nazi Germany wasn’t that they thought Jesus was human, but that they forgot he was Jewish. Anything can be used and twisted to harm others, but that is not a problem with the doctrine itself. I don’t deny that the church has had some very low moments, but I also don’t lay that at the feet of the incarnation.

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      1. Of course they forgot he was Jewish, as do the black racists as well. His incarnation is more often used to support racism (i.e. “Jesus was MY race and therefore only my race is human, and you are all devils”) than to oppose it. But certainly I don’t think that incarnational theology in and of itself necessarily leads to racism. However, the mentality inherent in incarnational theology is an orthodoxizing mentality (i.e. anyone who doesn’t think about Jesus my way is going to hell, and is therefore of no importance and I can treat them like beasts lower than worms). So from the mindset of most incarnationalists anyone who doesn’t accept the virgin birth is feces who can be disposed of without a second thought. This is why the Catholic church always oppressed and persecuted everyone who didn’t accept the virgin birth. I.e. the doctrine of the virgin birth eventually leads to the belief that belief a rigid system of orthodoxy is what gives human begins worth and that aside from said belief they are nothing. That’s not to say that non-incarnatonal theologies necessarily fix the problem. Certainly non-incarnational theologies that are overly-pauline (denying freewill, believing in original sin, etc.) exacerbate it.

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