Practical Marcionism


How many books compose Sacred Scripture? If you’re Catholic, there are 73. If you’re a typical protestant there are 66. If you’re Orthodox… it gets complicated (but most have more than 73).

If there is a weakness I’ve noticed within the Anabaptist community, it’s that we practically speaking reduce the canon even further (this is true of many Christians as well). Here’s what I think the typical canon really looks like:

  • Genesis 1-3
  • Exodus 1-20
  • Some combination of the Gospels (though probably not all 4)
  • Acts of the Apostles
  • Romans
  • A little of Paul
  • James is in there, but we’re pretty sure it’s apocryphal
  • Revelation (but we don’t know what it means)

What’s my point? We don’t read our Bibles. We think we know them, but it’s not because we read them.

Anabaptists are particularly vulnerable because we are so intensely Christo-centric. We view the Sermon on the Mount as a canon within the canon, a guiding star, the hermeneutical key to understanding the rest of scripture. The problem this creates is we tend not to stray too far from writings directly related to Jesus. In particular, as a result, we’re weak when it comes to understanding the Old Testament.

This is practical Marcionism, the early church heresy that among other things, rejected the Hebrew Scriptures. If you don’t read them, you may as well not have them. Marcion has 11 books in his canon (some of which were edited by him).

We really need to work on this. I’ve heard a very well known anabaptist pastor state that if all we had was certain NT books, we’d do pretty well at following Christ. I know what he meant to get across by saying that, but it’s borderline Marcionism. We need better answers and tools to deal with the Old Testament. A common refrain I’ve heard is this: “Whatever the Old Testament is, it’s basically the story of what doesn’t work.” This is simply inexcusable, unhelpful, and subordinates the OT to the rest of Scripture.

Don’t be lazy pastors and as for the rest of you, read your Bibles. Get into the Old Testament. Yes, it’s messy and scary and it can be hard to find Christ, but read it anyway and take it to community. Let the Spirit guide you as your discover God in every line of scripture.

6 thoughts on “Practical Marcionism

  1. Agreed. I’m actually rather challenged with my reading the whole Bible chronologically. Reading books like Jeremiah and such… really rough to read. Kings and Chronicles and Judges all really rubbed this dyed-in-the-wool Menno the wrong way… We’ve gotta take it all in, really, because it all plays a role in the story.

    As for the other 7 books not in the Protestant canon… I take it like this: Even when the canon was decided upon by the church, it was not meant to say “Don’t read anything else spiritual or religiously oriented”… it was meant as “these are the standards”. I’m not sure how much Maccabees adds to the story other than context for the gospels… likewise some of the other books… I have enough trouble, to be honest, with the 66… so… let me wrestle with Hosea a bit, first… then we can talk about Wisdom of Solomon. 😉

    • And I wasn’t intending to argue for or against the differences. Even if you list those 7 books as apocryphal and not deuterocanonical, they have almost always been seen as useful for understanding, but that they are not inspired and must be measured against the “accepted” canon.

  2. Reading NT Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God really helped me for this. Like Anabaptists, it is clear that the centerpiece is Jesus. But in doing so, he does a much better job of explaining why it is still important to pay attention to the rest of it.

    He refers to the 5 Acts of Scripture: Creation, Fall, Israel, Jesus, and Church. One common fallacy is to view all 5 acts as equally authoratitive. Another, as in many cases for Anabaptism, is to say that the first acts just don’t matter. But just as we can’t interpret the first three acts without the climax of the story in Jesus, we can’t fully understand Jesus and Church without knowing how we got here through the first 3 acts.

    I’ve heard the movie analogy a few times. Imagine a movie like this with 5 acts and the climax is a radical reorientation, something like The Sixth Sense or Fight Club. That conclusion does change how we view everything that came before but it would still be a very incomplete story without all those things that came before (now reinterpreted by its ending).

    • Newbigin uses that idea of the “Drama” of scripture in 5 acts as well in the “Gospel in a Pluralist Society”. Another book that REALLY plays on that is by Michael W. Goheen and Craig G. Bartholemew called “The Drama of Scripture”. These view of scripture as laying out the larger story has really helped me form how i read this scriptures… it makes reading things like Hosea MUCH easier because of the lens of the Act in which I live…Although Goheen and Bartholemew give it 6 acts… after the church is the “Return of the King”… and no, no hobbits are involved. 😉

  3. I was watching a video of Scot McKnight today and he said that most evangelicals know Genesis 1-3 and move straight into Romans. And in doing so, we bypass the drama of the narrative in which God draws us into.

    The one thing (slight exaggeration as I have learnt much more) is that the OT proves you cannot command individuals and community to love God and each other. True love of God and each other can only come about the more we reflect on the fact that God first loved us.

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