Monday, March 12, 2012

Rehabilitating Marcion (Part Four): Divinizing Our Estrangement

Note: This entry is not intended as an endorsement of Marcionism, Gnosticism, or any other form of mythical or metaphysical dualism. For a brief historical analysis see Rehabilitating Marcion (Part One).

Marcion's Dilemma strikes at the very heart of what Christians believe about their sacred scriptures, not only because it compelled the early church to define its canon and embrace the old-new dichotomy of the testaments, but also because it imposed upon theologians the persistent task of having to reconcile the picture of the capricious God of the Hebrews with the picture of the all-loving God and Father of Jesus Christ. In Part Three, we briefly considered two approaches to this dilemma, namely the theologies of discontinuity and continuity.

Given these options, we were left with a god who either suffers from multiple personality disorder (discontinuity) or bipolar disorder (continuity). In either case, the Cross is viewed as the "means of satisfaction," the purpose of which is to appease the part of the divine personality that we would rather not face, indeed, that we "could not see and live." Perfect justice, we are told, demands divine retribution, whereas divine love seeks to forgive. What to do? The proffered solution sees God the Father as unleashing punitive justice upon the Son, thereby satiating divine wrath and opening up the way of forgiveness for those who believe. It's a tidy system; the problem is, it is not a just system. There is simply no way to uphold the righteousness of a God who would allow -- nay, demand -- the substitution of an innocent party for a guilty one, even if such a substitution were done voluntarily.

Ironically, the only way out of Marcion's dilemma is to acknowledge it. Marcion was right to point out the differences between the God of the Hebrew scriptures and the God and Father of Jesus Christ, because, in general terms, this is where the greatest differences are to be seen. However, a closer examination would reveal that we are not just dealing with one or two portraits of God, but rather with many different portraits of God, and many different kinds of portraits of God, appearing throughout both testaments. For example:
  • In Genesis 1, God is pictured as a transcendent being who moves like wind over the primordial, dimensionless seas of heaven and earth; speaking forth from the darkness to call the chaotic abyss to order. 
  • By Genesis 2, God appears as a mysterious figure who takes morning walks in a garden, who shapes a man (adam) from the dust of the earth (adamah) and then breathes life into him; later he fashions a woman from the man's rib.
  • God is portrayed in the OT both as a tribal deity who occasionally visits his friends and an inapproachable national deity who must be worshiped at a particular mountain in the desert. 
  • God is the traveler for whom Abraham plays the host and offers a meal; he is the mysterious angel who wrestles the whole night with Jacob and is defeated! 
  • God is the jealous judge who would have destroyed the nation of Israel had it not been for the intercession of Moses, yet relents in the destruction of pagan Ninevah despite Jonah's protestations. 
  • God is the capricious deity who strikes down Uzzah, whose only crime was to touch the ark of the covenant with his hands; yet later he declares through his prophets that he is not nearly as concerned with their temple observances as he is with justice for widows, orphans, and the stranger within their gates. 
  • Supremely, God is portrayed in his Son, Jesus Christ, "who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men" (Phil. 2:6-7).

Indeed, such an examination compels us to go further than Marcion's original observation to admit that Scripture simply does not present us with a coherent picture of God at all. Rather the scriptural testimony of God is equivocal, and, if equivocal, then eminently human. The implications of this admission are startling at first, at least to the traditional-minded, for what this means is that we can no longer consider the Bible in terms of direct divine disclosure to humankind. Rather Scripture constitutes a multifaceted witness of distinctly human experiences of, and encounters with, the divine. Such descriptions of God are inextricably woven into the fabric of the human condition, and thus are anthropomorphic rather than theophanic, analogical rather that literal, poetic rather than propositional, dynamic rather than static, progressive rather than fixed, rudimentary rather than complete.

In this sense the biblical portraits of God tell us more about the human condition than they do about divine nature qua nature. They are not pictures of the way God actually is, but rather are projections of how human beings have encountered the divine in history. These are very human portraits, and yet sacred: human, because they ascribe to God human motives and emotions, even reflecting at times the pettiness and darkness of the human heart; sacred, because they are encounters with the divine, and thus "word of God" enfleshed in human condition, wholly and without qualification.

Often glorious, sometimes crude, but always meaningful, these portraits express and "divinize" our deepest sense of estrangement from what Tillich terms the "Ground of our Being."

Part One
Part Two
Part Three


  1. As a traditionalist who has always struggled with all of this, I am not sure just where to go with it. There is a small part in the core of my inner being that senses your approach rings true, but boy is that a scary and frightening thing, not the least of which because if what you say isn't true...

    Then You and I are both in trouble...

    Question: It seems reasonable to me that Jesus is best understood within the context of 1st century Palestine and 2nd Temple Judaisms. But that means understanding him in the light of the Hebrew scriptures and the god that is presented in them. And if the god that is presented therein is equivocal, multi-faceted, and humanly conditioned, how do we reconcile Jesus as the fulfillment of Israel's expectation?

  2. Actually, I am the one in trouble, because I can only speak about myself. I presumed too much about you...sorry.

  3. Marcion's error was in attempting to divorce Jesus from his religious context, which is how he came up with two gods. So you are right to want to understand him within it!

    Jesus reveals the God who is otherwise hidden or shrouded. The scriptural images we have are the very shrouds that keep him from our view. But, paradoxically, even as shrouded they are revelatory in both positive and negative ways. Positive images impress upon us the majesty of his being, and the possibility (and hope) of our own transcendence. Negative images impress upon us our estrangement from God, our willful disobedience, and utter hopelessness apart from him. Both images are imperfect because they are filtered through human conceptions of reality, but they are nonetheless revelatory of true human impressions of the divine. Jesus is the perfect image of the God that we could only ever see from the dark shadows of our estrangement prior to his incarnation.

  4. When I was a 5-pointer I used to reason that passages involving the genocide of other peoples, including women and children, simply served as a Scripture proof that God predestines only some of us to salvation. From one angle, that works.. maybe.

    Nowadays though, as theologically unsettled and second-guessing as I am lately.. I look at the same sort of passages more this way: if we are made in God's image and likeness, and being in His image and likeness find such passages morally upsetting and disturbing then can it possibly follow that such passages are 100% Spirit-inspired revelation?

    I have to ask that, because I don't know anymore. Maybe I was on the right path as a more Reformed Christian and maybe now I'm just being difficult. I do know that I need Christ.. and the Gospel? Nowhere else do we hear that God reaches down to humanity as one of us. I know I love reading the Bible even with my neat systematic theological maps falling apart. I also know I fear the "slippery slope" and becoming a heretic..

    Even as I read through this series, I found myself going from really excited and hopeful even while also feeling terrified of the theological unknown.. to thinking "well, what is the point of wrestling with Scripture at all, then!?!

    I know there's a point though, but it's just a matter of learning to accept that I didn't have it as neatly pegged down and stuffed in the filing cabinet as I thought I did..

    I don't want to lose Christ. I still believe the Bible helped me find Him, still does..

  5. I am trying to formulate (sorry) your approach into a hermeneutic. Or is that the wrong way to look at it?

    The god presented in the Hebrew scriptures is equivocal, multi-faceted, revealed only through the shadow of human perspective and conception. Hence we must speak of perspectives and conceptions in the plural. Conditioned as they are by human conception, these veiled shades suggest the nature of god in a general way, and not through the specifics of narrative. In fact, we might even say that there is a narrative theology that comes out of these veiled shades. Ergo, the herem warfare passages suggest human estrangement from the creator-god (and that estrangement is catastrophic) by analogy and metaphor, not by literal narrative history.

    At the same time, there are passages which deal with the Hebrew god as creator and these passages suggest transcendent being that inspires hope for reproachment. Just as there are passages which suggest this same god seeks and desires to commune with god's creatures.

    Then we come to Jesus, who, in light of Israel's history and expectations, reveals in clear vision what this god is really like. Through Jesus, we come to understand that this god is the father of Christ Jesus, and it is in Christ that we can really know God (upper case) particularly and specifically as a result.

    This has the advantage of placing the creator-god back into the realm of mystery beyond human understanding and comprehension, and away from the a flattened historical narrative that insists upon literalism. Rather it leads us squarely to Jesus.

    Am I getting close?

  6. Spot on, my friend. I'm actually writing a post now on the Christ hermeneutic. If I lift a few of your lines, I will certainly credit you.

  7. I might add that this requires the priority of apophatic theology over cataphatic, and thus has affinity with Eastern thought. Funny how that works.

  8. Thanks for dropping by, Anonymous. Your comments resonate with my own experience.

  9. One other question: This hermeneutic has a Barthian feel to it. Does Barth play into this at all?

  10. On Barth. From Wikipedia (sorry): "In Barth's theology, he emphasizes again and again that human concepts of any kind, breadth or narrowness quite beside the point, can never be considered as identical to God's revelation. In this aspect, Scripture is also written human language, which bears witness to the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Scripture cannot be considered as identical to God's self-revelation, which is properly only Jesus Christ. However, in his freedom and love, God truly reveals himself through human language and concepts, with a view toward their necessity in reaching fallen humanity. Thus Barth claims that Christ is truly presented in Scripture and the preaching of the church..."

    It feels similar to what you are putting forward.

  11. I have been so immersed in Barth for so many years that I do not know where his thoughts end and mine begin. He is not the only influence, but certainly the theme of the "hidden God" is truly his insight.

  12. Barth provides a partial solution to my Marcion dilemma. His approach to the scriptures certainly grants permission to this recovering fundamentalist to loosen my grip on untenable sacred cows like creationism, biblicism, American nationalism (he had already killed that one in me along with Bonhoeffer), etc.

    But this is all a brave new world for me that has practical ramifications beyond living in my own head...

  13. Dear, Fr. Thomas, et al

    The Barthian solution of locating the primal revelation of the Father in the incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension of God the Son, rather than in the pages of Holy Scripture is a principle which I have believed in for some time. It's eminently biblical and finds corroboration in the history of orthodox Christian exegesis. But it also jumbles up things a bit in relation to the divide between special revelation; the written verbum of God, containing all salvific truths, which cannot be known from the contemplation of nature, and nature, or creation, itself; which only reveals God in terms of his power and divinity (Maintining this divide is an important project in some schools of Reformed Evangelicalism). Anyhow, since the fullest revelation of God comes in a Divine person who, in the fullness of times, was made a creature of the earth, it seems the bifurcation no longer holds. In other words, it pleased God to reveal Himself for our salvation most fully, not in an inspired scroll or codex, but in the flesh and blood of the incarnate Word. If true, there are profound implications here touching on the way we view and use the raw material of the physical creation, especially in the sacramental life of the Church. It makes me wonder why Barth had such difficulty with the Analogia entis.

    -Chickenry Anglicanus

  14. I'm with von Balthasar on this, who argued that the analogia entis could be assumed under an overarching analogia fidei (which Barth had proposed as an alternative to the analogia entis). Barth can sometimes be an example of how adamant Protestantism can be to throw the baby out with the bathwater, like Protestants who continue to argue that the Catholic Mass is a "re-sacrifice" of Christ despite repeated clarifications by the Catholic Church that it is not. Von Balthasar was a great admirer of Barth, whose attempts at rapprochement with the great thinker were on the whole very welcome and insightful.

  15. Yes, von Balthasar is definitely on the money here. I'd go a bit farther than the great man, in all humility, and propose that the analogia entis MUST be assumed under the overarching analogia fidei. I think a Johanine Christology simply crys out for this ( the eternal Word of God, who is the light and life of men, lightens "everyman which cometh into the world." And Pauline Christolgy, which happily bleeds into his astonshing eccesiology-assumes that Christ-I think he is speaking in terms of "the last Adam" here-has become the head of all things for the sake of his body, which is "the fullness of him who fills all in all." Iow, a cosmic theosis, however partial, was inaugurated in Christ, and it will achieve completeness in the new and everlasting eschaton when God will fill all things. What do ya think, Fr T.?

    -Chickenry Anglicanus

  16. Nonetheless, on this subject and on many others, Barth has to be seen as the great "corrective," even if he does at times overstate his case (as I believe he does here). But given the state of theology, particularly medieval theology, can one hardly blame him?

    Another blind spot in Barth is his understanding of Kenosis, which he gets right in dealing with the Incarnation, but does not appear (to me anyway) to see the full implications of in the doctrine of creation.

    Incidentally, I argue in "Theosis Realized" that Christ is both "theosis anticipated and realized" for the entire cosmos.