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.

6 thoughts on “Is Brian Zahnd a Marcionite?

  1. Mike,

    Thanks for charitable engagement. I want to raise just a couple of quick points.

    You’re right about the broader instinct about fittingness among the Fathers. Even Tertullian and Ireneaus and Lactantius did, which is why they were careful to urge purified notions of wrath, judgment, etc. acknowledging them as anthropomorphisms. So, my problem isn’t with that general principle of analogical revelation. (Incidentally, I thought it odd that Sheridan failed to treat Lactantius given that he wrote an entire treatise on the problem Sheridan’s book was devoted to.)

    My problem comes with using such judgments in order to rule portions of Scripture essentially false and not revelatory of God’s works and ways. Here I think Zahnd and Cassian and Origen part ways. I think Zahnd and these Fathers might agree on the suitability of ascribing certain OT acts to God. (And on that score, I do think they conceded too much to Christianity’s critics, or bought into some general presuppositions which I would question.) But at least Origen and Cassian tried to come up with allegorical readings to try and save the texts and acknowledge God’s wisdom in them. Zahnd goes farther. He may use the term “inspired” with respect to the OT, but it’s not the same sort of inspiration or divine wisdom that these Fathers would have accorded it. He posits direct contradictions, not only in the surface meaning, but in their deeper, spiritual meaning, which changes the shape of his approach to the texts. In this regard, I think his view of Scripture and revelation, as well as some of the shared premises about the suitability of divine judgment (as retributive) place him closer to Marcion than the wing of the Fathers you’re pointing to.

    Well, you have a good day. And thanks again for the thoughtful engagement.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks, Derek. I appreciate your thoughtful and respectful response.

      FWIW – I had a similar thought about Lactantius when I first read/reviewed the Sheridan book. I wonder if it was an omission of time/error/ingorance, or if there was a reason he omitted it? (I have no easy way to get in tough to ask him).


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