Last week I witnessed one of the most bizarre things in the Christian-social-media-world (other than Christians dogmatically refusing to acknowledge President Trump’s various moral failures): Andy Stanley (yes, that Andy Stanley) has been deemed a “Marcionite.” Having listened to a decent number of his sermons over the years I found this hard to believe. After listening to the sermon in question, I’m now convinced that calling Stanley a Marcionite is so off the mark that it amounts to slander and so, these Christians should repent of it and ask his forgiveness.
The hot-takes on the sermon are numerous, and I don’t have the energy to address them all. Instead I hope to provide a counter to what seems to be the source of the comparisons to Marcion. That seems to have been an article at First Things by Wesley Hill called, “Andy Stanley’s Modern Marcionism.” (UPDATE: I’ve since learned that this post appeared the day before Hill’s, as did this tweet. So, while Hill may not have been the source of the charge against Stanley, given the prominence of First Things, it seems likely he played a substantial part in it becoming widespread.)
To begin, perhaps we should start with a brief account of Marcion. So, from The Moody Handbook of Theology:
Marcion: A second-century heretic who rejected all Scripture except ten of Paul’s epistles and part of Luke. He distinguished between the Old Testament creator God, whom Marcion considered evil, and the God of the New Testament, who revealed himself in Christ.
The Thiselton Companion to Christian Theology tells us:
Marcion claimed that while the NT taught a gospel of love, the OT was to be rejected as teaching only law. Indeed, the “God” of the OT was a Demiurge, who had nothing in common with the God, the Father of Jesus Christ.
And, finally, the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church says:
Marcion’s central thesis was that the Christian Gospel was wholly a Gospel of Love to the absolute exclusion of Law. This doctrine…led him to reject the OT completely. The Creator God or Demiurge, revealed in the OT from Gen. 1 onward…had nothing in common with the God of Jesus Christ…Utterly different was the Supreme God of Love whom Jesus came to reveal. It was his purpose to overthrow the Demiurge.
I’m sure scores of books have been written on Marcion, but the above should give us enough to capture some key components of his view.
- The God of the Old Testament is entirely different from the God of the New Testament.
- While the the God of the Old Testament was the creator, this God was not the Father of Jesus Christ.
- One of the purposes of the God of the New Testament was to overthrow the God of the Old Testament.
- The Old Testament should be rejected.
- The God of the Old Testament was only concerned with Law, and not Love.
Everyone should be in agreement that Marcion had some pretty substantial problems with his theology. That is, after all, what we seem to mean in calling him a heretic. Given those substantial problems, I was more than a bit surprised to see Hill associate Andy Stanley with Marcion. Let’s consider his argument.
Hill’s Comparison of Stanley to Marcion
Hill says most of the sermon “can really only be described as an elaborate and educated flirtation with the old Christian heresy of Marcionism—the belief that the Old Testament is not authoritative in matters of Christian doctrine and morals.”
Before going any further we should stop here and note two things: (1) Stanley actually never denies that the Old Testament is authoritative and (2) what Hill has just described is a far cry from “the heresy of Marcionism.” Look again at the summaries above. In each we have much, much more than the denial of the Old Testament’s authority in matters of Christian doctrine and morals.
Now, to be fair, Hill doesn’t seem to believe that Stanley literally believes in two different Gods. Instead, he seems to qualify the accusation of Marcionism. He writes,
As the biblical scholar Francis Watson has noted, contemporary versions of the error of the early Christian heretic Marcion don’t usually take the form of positing two ontologically distinct divine beings, as the historical Marcion. They instead involve ‘Christian unease about the status and function of the Old Testament’ and a willingness to entertain the view that ‘the Old Testament is not to be regarded as part of Christian scripture.’
Without the rest of Watson’s argument it’s hard to know what to make of this. What is it that makes “Christian unease about the status and function of the Old Testament” and entertaining the view that “the Old Testament is not to be regarded as part of Christian Scripture” Marcionism? Once you set aside the bit about two Gods, that the Old Testament is to be rejected, that the New Testament God is not the creator of all things (and will destroy the Old Testament God), it’s not clear what’s left of Marcionism.1 Even more puzzling for those wondering how Stanley got mixed up with Marcion is Hill’s claim that Stanley’s error “is more subtle still.” That is, more subtle than the version of Marcionism that sounds hardly like Marcion at all. So, what is this yet even “more subtle” error?
Well, you see, Stanley does affirm that the Old Testament is “divinely inspired.” But Hill objects to Stanley’s reframing “the Old Testament as narrow, exclusive, hidebound.” After citing Stanley’s comment that “God’s arrangement with Israel should now be eliminated from the equation” Hill concludes, “A more complete supersessionism is hard to imagine.”
Supersessionism this may be, but how does that end up being Marcionite? Well, given that Stanley doesn’t accept any of the aspects of Marcionism noted above, it’s clear that it just isn’t. Hill may think this is a “more subtle” version of the error, or that it’s a “Modern Marcionism” (as Hill calls Stanley’s view in the title), but the reality is that we’ve not been given a single reason to think it’s Marcionite at all.
Here I can imagine an objection: “But look, Marcion and Stanley have something in common. Both think accepting the Old Testament as authoritative isn’t necessary for salvation.” Well, that may be true (with qualifications noted below), but that’s a really bad reason for thinking Stanley is a Modern Marcionite.
Two positions can share things in common without being the same. The Allied forces and the Axis powers shared a lot in common. For example, soldiers on both sides fought for their respective countries, and did so wearing uniforms. But it would be a massive mistake to then conclude that the Allies were no different from the Axis. Or, to use a different illustration, it would be grossly wrong to compare a surgeon to a murderer simply because she put a knife in a person’s stomach. Yes, it’s true, both surgeons and murderers sometimes put knives in people’s stomachs, but the reasons for doing so are important.
Marcion’s and Stanley’s reasons for thinking that accepting the Old Testament as authoritative isn’t necessary for salvation are about as far apart as a surgeon’s and a murder’s reasons for putting knives in stomachs. We’ve already seen that Marcion’s reason for rejecting the OT is that he believed it depicted a different God. Given that, of course he wouldn’t think the Old Testament is authoritative. But even Hill seems to admit that’s not Stanley’s view.
Hill has essentially called Stanley a heretic, or perhaps more minimally that he’s “flirting” with heresy. Given the seriousness of that charge, it seems he’d need pretty strong evidence to support the assertion. Unfortunately, the evidence is almost entirely lacking.
A final comment about Stanley’s sermon
Recall that we considered whether Stanley and Marcion both rejected the authority of the Old Testament. This, however, isn’t an accurate picture of Stanley’s view. He hasn’t rejected that the Old Testament is authoritative, but instead he’s rejected that one must first accept that it’s authoritative before coming to Christ. Stanley’s affirmation that the Old Testament is “divinely inspired” strongly hints at this. Since we’re not saying that he’s adopted Marcion’s two-Gods thesis, then that means there’s only one God left to do the inspiring. The God. It would be a rather strange view to say that the same God who inspired the New Testament also inspired the Old Testament, but only the former is authoritative.
What, then, explains this misreading of Stanley? The problem, it seems, is that the initial Chrisitan Post article outlining his sermon was called “Christians Must ‘Unhitch’ Old Testament From Their Faith, Says Andy Stanley.” Now, to be fair, he does say this in his sermon, but it seems too few have bothered to figure out what he meant by it. Listening to the sermon makes it quite clear: Stanley’s concern is with those who are apart from God, or soon might be, because of difficulties they’re having with some part of the Old Testament. So, if that’s not you, then you don’t need to “unhitch” your faith from it. You can continue on just how you have been.
However, in a different sense, Stanley’s comments do still apply to you. You should avoid making others get into the same position you are in (with respect to the Old Testament) in order to become a believer. That is, those people who can’t wrap their heads around the command to slaughter the Canaanites don’t need to first master Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster? before choosing to commit their life to Christ. Not only is this not Marcionism, it’s wholly sensible. How many believers have come to Jesus after going through the “Romans Road”? Yes, Paul relies on a lot of the Old Testament throughout the book of Romans, but none of those new converts needed to know that to see that they were sinners in need of redemption, and that Christ has provided the means for that redemption. That was Stanley’s point.
Let me close to with two final comments. First, nothing I’ve said above requires you to accept Stanley’s exegesis. Hill goes as far as saying that parts of it are just “bad exegesis” (even though the specific passage in question seems rather congruent with F.F. Bruce’s commentary on Acts in the NICNT). Okay, fine. Anytime someone has a different biblical position than you, you’re going to think they’re using bad exegesis.2 We can argue all we want about Stanley’s exegesis without associating him with Marcion. It’s the same guilt-by-association trick that some Calvinists use when calling their Arminian interlocutors Pelagians, and Christians should rise above it.
Finally, because I believe that Stanley accepts the authority of the Old Testament, I also believe he would accept that it’s a vitally important resource for Christians. So, I do wish he would have noted that even if accepting everything in the Old Testament isn’t a prerequisite for salvation, one component of growing to be more like Christ should include the expectation that you’ll eventually come to have the same view of the Old Testament that Christ did. In other words, don’t get hung up on those Old Testament-related issues and come to Christ now. But once you are following Christ, don’t let those issues remain unresolved. Pray and seek answers from the rich resources available within the Christian tradition. I think it would have been better for him to make this clearer, but his failure to do so doesn’t make him a Marcionite, ancient or “Modern.”
UPDATED: May 23, 2018
- I’ve not read Watson on this and so genuinely don’t know the rest of the argument. If there are additional reasons to connect these two ideas with Marcionism, Hill hasn’t provided them. ↩︎
- See, for example, the exchange between my colleague Richard Davis and James White about the exegesis of John 3:16. ↩︎