Marcion came from Pontus on the Black Sea and was the son of a bishop of Sinope. He was born around A.D. 85 and went to Rome around 140, where he soon found himself excommunicated. He died around 160.
He was a successful organiser of schismatic communities all over the Roman empire, constituting the chief threat to orthodoxy in the last half of the second century, but within a hundred years after that most of the Marcionite communities had been absorbed by the Manichæans, whose doctrine was similar.
He was obsessed with the meaning of Luke 6: 43: ‘For a good tree bringeth not forth corrupt fruit; neither doth a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit,’ a favourite preoccupation of heretics, according to Tertullian. From this he drew a conclusion that led him into dualism—that there are two Gods, a lesser Demiurge who is a God of justice, and a God of love, superior to the Demiurge. The God of justice, who created this world, is the God of the Old Testament, who judges mankind without mercy. Marcion declared him to be ‘the author of evils, to take delight in war, to be infirm of purpose, and even to be contrary to Himself,’ according to St Irenæus of Lyon (Adversus Hæreses [written c. 180], I, xxvii, 2). Marcion was particularly struck by the fact that he had created locusts. The God of love was unknown until he sent Christ into the world, ‘manifested in the form of a man to those who were in Judæa, abolishing the prophets and the law, and all the works of that God who made the world.’ (Ibid.) Christ was in the form of a man but was a sort of angel—his Passion and death were the work of the Demiurge but in them he merely appeared to suffer, since he was superior to the Demiurge.
Marcion rejected the Old Testament entirely as Scripture and also expunged much of the New Testament. Of the Gospels, he accepted only Luke and, of the Epistles, only those of St Paul, both in a truncated form. ‘He considered St Paul to be the only apostle but accepted only ten of his epistles. Besides this, he mutilated the Gospel which is according to Luke, removing all that is written respecting the generation of the Lord, and setting aside a great deal of the teaching of the Lord, in which the Lord is recorded as most clearly confessing that the Maker of this universe is His Father. He likewise persuaded his disciples that he himself was more worthy of credit than are those apostles who have handed down the Gospel to us, furnishing them not with the Gospel, but merely a fragment of it. In like manner, too, he dismembered the Epistles of Paul, removing all that is said by the apostle respecting that God who made the world, to the effect that He is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and also those passages from the prophetical writings which the apostle quotes, in order to teach us that they announced beforehand the coming of the Lord.’ (Ibid.)
The dualism of his views is reflected in his doctrine of Salvation: ‘Salvation will be the attainment only of those souls which had learned his doctrine; while the body, as having been taken from the earth, is incapable of sharing in salvation.’ (Op. cit., I, xxvii, 3.)
These views, which would ever after be known by Marcion’s name, were not in fact original to him. Tertullian, writing around A.D. 205, said that Marcion’s teacher was one Cerdo, active in Rome c. 135–40, who ‘introduces two first causes, that is, two Gods—one good, the other cruel: the good being the superior; the latter, the cruel one, being the creator of the world. He repudiates the prophecies and the Law; renounces God the Creator; maintains that Christ who came was the Son of the superior God; affirms that He was not in the substance of flesh; states Him to have been only in a phantasmal shape, to have not really suffered, but undergone a quasi passion, and not to have been born of a virgin—nay, really not to have been born at all. A resurrection of the soul merely does he approve, denying that of the body. The Gospel of Luke alone, and that not entire, does he receive. Of the Apostle Paul he takes neither all the epistles, nor in their integrity. The Acts of the Apostles and the Apocalypse he rejects as false.’ (Against Heretics, vi.)
St Irenæus, who was a disciple of St Polycarp of Smyrna, recounts an anecdote of an encounter between Polycarp and Marcion when the former was in Rome. ‘Polycarp himself replied to Marcion, who met him on one occasion, and said, ‘Do you know me?’ ‘I do know you, the first-born of Satan.’ (Adversus Hæreses, III, iii, 4.)
Marcionism was thus dualistic (a good God and a bad God oppose each other; the material world is fundamentally evil and radically different from the spiritual) and docetic (Christ only seemed to be a man and did not in fact suffer in his Passion). Although Marcionism as an organised cult was short lived, these two central features of it would continue to haunt Christianity down to our own day and require constant vigilance on the part of the Church.
For Christians, the New Testament is the fulfilment of the Old, but echoes of Marcionism can be found in some present-day scholars who reject on principle the possibility of any connection between them. John Shelby Spong, former Episcopal Bishop of Newark, New Jersey, is merely one example. ‘When it suddenly becomes obvious that the story purporting to describe the crucifixion of Jesus has been built on narratives from the Hebrew scriptures [as he calls the Old Testament], scholars must recognize that the passion story is not based on the eyewitness accounts of those who saw the crucifixion, and that the event therefore probably did not actually happen as described … If there had been eyewitnesses, then surely the story would not have been created based on ancient Jewish texts!’ Bishop Spong is aware that the Church has always considered the New Testament to be the fulfilment of the prophecies of the Old but, of course, this is not possible if you no longer believe in a ‘supernatural heavenly guardian …’ Spong eschews this ‘superstitious way of reading the scriptures …’ and is left with a meaningless tale. (Jesus for the non-religious: Recovering the divine at the heart of the human, New York: Harper San Francisco, 2007, pp. 112–13.)