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.

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

Historical Peter and Non-Violence: Ignored Evidence

This is a guest post by a recently graduated High School senior, Ryan Money, who served as my Pastoral Intern at First Colony Christian Church for the past year. The following post originates from a writing project he completed on the historical veracity of non-violence for the Historical Jesus movement for an advanced Biblical Studies class at a private college preparatory High School. As we worked this his material, we both were interested in the work that is potentially unexplored regarding the ethical transformation of Peter from a violent Jew to a non-violent follower of Jesus after the Resurrection.

You can follow Ryan on Twitter at twitter.com/@ryan_dinero or on Facebook at facebook.com/ryan.dinero. He will be attending Baylor University to study Religion in the Fall.


 

Since John Howard Yoder’s excellent defense of Christian pacifism in his critically acclaimed Politics of Jesus, the general Christian population has received Yoder’s camp much more willingly in discourse regarding nonviolence, social theory, and ecclesiology. With this acceptance has come many great works in the areas of Paul’s rejection and redefining of Roman imperial politics, as well as the congruency of the Old Testament story with the nonviolent way of Jesus.

As I was researching for a paper, I began researching the nonviolence of Paul and Jesus, references for whom I had no problem finding.

When I began to research the nonviolence of Peter, however, I was startled and amazed that there were almost no resources. No material Catholic, Protestant, or Eastern Orthodox explored the nonviolence of Peter and its relation to Jesus and Paul. It wasn’t until I came to terms with the fact that my Peter section would be lacking resources that I began to wonder why material attempting to prove the nonviolence of Peter was virtually nonexistent. I came to the conclusion that the controversial doctrines of Peter such as the place of women and circumcision have been so greatly debated and contested that we have essentially forgotten the possibility of Peter’s nonviolence.
peterandpaul1

This conclusion is not a laughable realization, but a sad fact that the Church has chosen to focus on issues that both sides agree are not necessary for salvation. For the purpose of this post, we shall set aside these arguments in favor of a new query: Did Peter conform to Jesus’ nonviolent ethic?

Considering the limited scope of resources available to someone attempting to prove Peter’s nonviolence, I think the best starting place is a brief exposition of Peter’s story, the story of a man formerly craving messianic violence for the establishment of a Kingdom, and after realizing exactly how the Kingdom was established, a man who eschewed it.

A few books that explore these topics are:
Gabrielson, Jeremy. Paul’s Non-violent Gospel: The Theological Politics of Peace in Paul’s Life and Letters. Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2013.
Gormon, Michael. Apostle of the Crucified Lord: A Theological Introduction to Paul and his Letters. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2004.
Nugent, John C. The Politics of Yahweh: John Howard Yoder, the Old Testament, and the People of God. Eugene, Or.: Cascade Books, 2011.

Peter is historically the disciple who always spoke too soon, and in the book of John, we see that he is also the disciple who acted too soon.

John 18:10-11

“Then Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant and cut off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.) So Jesus said to Peter, ‘Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?’”

Why Peter cut off the ear seems quite clear: Peter was expecting a violent King to bring his reign, destroying his enemies and striking down evildoers. Peter’s cutting off the servants ear then becomes not an isolated incident, subject to Jesus’ harsh words simply because it was out of the ordinary, but the culmination of Israel’s desperate hope for a violent King who would free Israel from her oppressors, and Jesus’ definitive statement that this hope was in vain. Peter was not necessarily trying to anger Jesus, but the act was instead a desperate plea for Jesus to begin the war against the Romans. Just as soon as Peter fired the “first-shot” in the war against the Romans, it was the King himself who put this violence away. In the same way that the servant’s ear was cut off, so were the violent hopes of zealous Jews like Peter. His violent thoughts and wishes to carry them out against the Romans were sheathed by Jesus, as he declared them not useful to his Kingdom. Peter’s subsequent denial of Jesus and weeping was not simply Peter’s grieving for Jesus’ death, but maybe more profoundly, he was grieving his misunderstanding of the way the Kingdom was to be established, and his realization that his entire political stance was at odds with the mission of the Kingdom of God.

This obvious example of Peter’s dramatic transformation from a proponent of violence to a nonviolent follower is backed by a theme of nonviolence in his letters, to which we will now turn to prove that nonviolence was not a debatable doctrine for Peter.

 

1 Peter 1:14-16

As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he
who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.

These short verses, given to a body of believers by Peter may not seem like much. Their implicit meaning however, is proof that Peter knew (which is no surprise) and taught his followers the Jesus Tradition. Peter here quotes the Sermon on the Mount and references Jesus’ admonition to be holy. This holiness is not a pious hope that one day good deeds will afford someone a trip to heaven, but refers to the believer’s ability to join in the Kingdom praxis, the revolutionary way of Jesus.

It is also to interesting to point out that Peter’s quotation (or paraphrase) of Jesus is the admonition ending the Sermon on the Mount. This is almost as if Peter is implying that his followers should adhere to the entirety of Jesus’ teachings, and should therefore act nonviolently. Just as quoting a line from a famous song would draw the entire song to memory, here Peter is referencing not only Jesus’ admonition to be holy, but all of the teachings that contribute to one’s “holiness.” Bearing this in mind, the “passions of former ignorance” that Peter refers to are the violent ways of the world, and the never-ending desire for power only to be attained by violent coercion. By setting these aside, believers are able to focus on the mission given by Jesus and to do good work for the Kingdom. Urging his followers to refrain from these “former
passions” (quite possibly the same passions that caused him to cut the ear of the servant), Peter calls Christians to put away their violence, and to drop their weapons at the feet of the King who conquered without swords, guns, or bombs.

 

1 Peter 3:13-17

Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.

Suffering is what happens to Christians. Peter acknowledges this and encourages his people with the hope that death has been defeated and nothing can prevail against the believers who know that their King defeated both sin and death. Suffering itself implies nonviolence, for to suffer the violence of another and to not resist is the very definition of nonviolence. Instead of Peter telling the Christians to fight the empire, or loathe it at the very least, he encourages his people to remain faithful to the call of Jesus, to serve, to love, and to be nonviolent.

The theme of nonviolence is furthered from this text when one takes into account the harsh political climate of the 1st century. The Early Christians did not possess any meaningful political standing, as their “strange” beliefs led them to be outcasted from their social circles and down to a class that was persecuted at every corner. These encouraging words meant infinitely more to a people who were persecuted and faced unspeakable violence on a regular basis, and moreover, a people who were tasked to not only bear the persecution, but respond with good.

 

From these three verses we can begin to create a narrative of a zealous Jew, excited for the coming of the Messiah, and who was paradoxically surprised when he refused to act like the Messiah they expected, but instead, taught a new way of life that did not necessitate violence. Despite the scant verses that are able to be used as proof for Peter’s nonviolence, the overall message of 1st Peter is encouragement to a people who are suffering, and calling them back to the nonviolent ways of the King. It is also interesting to note that Peter and Paul disagree on several issues, the main one being circumcision, but there are no recorded disagreements on the overall lifestyle of a believer, that is, loving and nonviolent.

This is just the beginning of what I believe could be a more complete and comprehensive study on the nonviolence of Peter. If anyone has any resources that could help me or anyone who is now curious about this topic please feel free to share them in the comments. If anyone has doubts, rebuttals, or questions please share them. I’m excited to hear y’alls thoughts on this!

The Need for A Christian Dictionary (“Freedom”)

To be a Christian is to re-learn the meaning of some of the most foundational words in our language. Words like freedom, love, justice, wisdom, power, and knowledge.

For too many people Christianity simply adds a few more ideas to a set of already assumed beliefs about themselves and the world.  In reality, the Gospel desires to crucify our previous worldview and replace it with an understanding of the world around us which is saturated in the grace and glory of the Crucified God. Our concepts of things such as justice and wisdom must be re-defined by the Cross and by the Son of God who died on it. The result is that many words than once held simple “obvious meanings” now end up “baptized by the Cross” and with new definitions that are often quite surprising and perhaps complexing.

My suggestion: a Christian dictionary would be a helpful tool for the act of discipleship. 

It’s a big project – but perhaps it can be tackled one word at a time.

Since it is the fourth of July, let’s start with the word “freedom.”

In my experience, “freedom” is often defined in terms such as “the ability to do whatever one wishes” or “the ability to choose from any of the available options.” (Side note: these are actually two completely differing notions of freedom). For Christians however, true freedom is liberation from the self-destructing forces of sin and death which keep humans trapped in a viscous cycle. Thus, freedom involves the potential and ability of acting in new ways that lead to life. These actions we know by words such as obedience. They are characterized by the distinct hints of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. In a world dominated by the cruciform logic of the Triune God – freedom and self-control actually go hand in hand. This is why Paul can describe Christian freedom as a kind of slavery to God’s new way of life in Christ and through the Spirit.

As William Barclay says, “Christian freedom does not mean being free to do as we like; it means being free to do as we ought.”

Thus, Christians are “free” in a way much different than the “freedom” sought after in liberal democracies. Christians are free not to hold on to their rights, but to give them up. Christians are free not to treat people however they like, but to love indiscriminately and without end. Christians are free to give up their lives for the good of even their enemies.

Sound paradoxical? Sound upside-down?

Welcome to the new world… the world of the Cross.
The world of the Kingdom.