The heresy of separate worlds: from Marcion to Iraq


Recently, I have been musing on three unrelated items. On Marcion, a shadowed but seminal figure in the early Church; on unsatisfactory recantations by prominent supporters of the Iraq war; on the claim by a local newspaper that light sentences betray babies killed by their parents.

Almost nothing is known about Marcion. So much is attributed to him. He came from Pontus, which was as far from Rome as you could get. He was significant because he offered a radical answer to a searching question.

The question was explicitly about how to reconcile God’s goodness with God’s justice. But Marcion was not only concerned to make sense of God, also to explain the world of his experience. In the working of God’s world, he recognised an iron law of consequences. Drought, for example, was followed by crop failure, which in turn led inevitably to starvation. In the human world, too, human wrong-doing had necessarily to be followed by drastic punishment. This law of necessity, however, left no room for new possibility, and particularly no room for the new possibility he recognised in the New Testament. There, God did not punish sinners, even when they killed God’s Son, but forgave and rewarded them. This was intolerable, an internal contradiction in God.

Marcion’s solution was drastic. He proposed that there are two Gods. The God of the Old Testament was the God of creation, justice, of necessary consequence. The God of the New Testament was the God of Jesus Christ, of goodness, redemption, of surprising possibility. The good God sent Christ to rescue human beings from the God of necessity.

Marcion is of more than theological significance. The separations he made recur in the way people conceive the relationship between the public and private worlds. It is common to separate the public world, in which law and consequence rule, from the private world, which may offer hospitality to an ethic based on faith, on human goodness and human narratives of change and forgiveness. Although the God of the private world may be a God of affirmation, of forgiveness, of unconditional love, the God of the public world is a God of law and consequence. Public morality is therefore a morality of consequence. Public security depends on inexorable recompense for crime.

These separations may underlie attitudes to judicial sentencing and to the Iraq war. If we believe that in the public world, offence must be followed by recompense, then we will insist that the punishment must fit the crime. Killing children must be followed by a matching punishment. When we consider the punishment, it will be inappropriate for us to reflect on the psychological condition or on the spiritual journey of killers. These kinds of consideration belong to the private sphere, and should be kept there. The dead children will indeed be betrayed if their killing is not recompensed. Public order will also be betrayed.

In war making, too, consequences are all that matter. You may redress an unsatisfactory situation by making war to bring about good consequences. If bad consequences follow from your war, you are shown to be wrong for supporting the war, or at least for supporting the people who made it. You may withdraw your support. But in your recantation, as in your initial encouragement of war, wider moral considerations that are based on respect for human dignity and on the claims of truth or justice will be irrelevant. After Iraq you will be ready for Iran.

This is a bleak world. If you do not inhabit it, you may find distressing, or even repelling, such limited remorse for the human and moral devastation suffered by all parties in the Iraq war. You may find distressing the pursuit of long jail sentences for people who are often mentally disturbed. If so, you may respond well to the line taken by Irenaeus, one of the most attractive of the early Christian writers.
Irenaeus, responded to Marcion by insisting that his separations did justice neither to God nor to humanity. Irenaeus linked God to the world by a single story that brought together the making of human beings in God’s image, the brutality of human beings, and their restoration by Christ. In the story, God’s love for the world and for humanity was more powerful than human brutality.

Such a dramatic view would also reject the construction of a public world in which consequences rule and human dignity is made marginal.



submit a comment

Existing comments

Great article. "Marcionists"seem to be on the up,especially up there in the nation's captial.

Eileen Luthi | 07 December 2006

The problem goes deep Andrew. Take the High Court. It can, and does, hand down judgements that ignore the human element as, for example, with that on Industrial relations followed by another on returning refugees to unsafe places.

This is possible because the Constitution is an inhuman document-I do not mean inhumane. It regulates relationships between things- not persons.

Australians who want a republic must also accept that transition to it demands a total rewrite of the Constitution.

Many thanks for Marcion. What an echo of the past to see so many marcionites in our Parliament- so many lawyers including professing Catholics. Dear Iraneus would have swooned!

Happy Christmas,

John Molony- Canberra | 07 December 2006

An interesting article Andrew. This gnostic divide comes up in many ways. I am a school teacher, and I observe, that teachers assume, expect and receive forgiveness for their own transgressions, but when it comes to the public sphere, when students misbehave, teachers with a casuistic certainty, expect consequences. Your discussion on Marcion, gives me a fresh insight into this public / private divide. So thanks.

Peter Burger
Peter Burger | 08 December 2006

While it is better to make the punishment fit the criminal rather than the crime, it is also necessary to make it fit our sense of justice--justice towards the criminal as well as to the victim.
Lenore Crocker | 08 January 2007

The Marcionist partition allows for the elimination of the "God of creation, justice, of necessary consequence" by the Big Bang, evolution, and all that proceeds from that; it therefore allows students of the natural world (scientists) to retain their Christianity.
It also allows professing Christians, to deliberately neglect their Christianity in their work as Ministers of the State. To do so, they make recourse to the "Nuremburg Defence".
David Arthur | 25 April 2007

I love this article
Ayoola | 28 January 2009

Marcionism died out last in Iraq interestingly. In the West it supposedly died out in the 5th century. In the East in the 8th. But it lasted in Iraq till the 10th. Undoubtedly wiped out by the crusades. Iraq After the Muslim Conquest [Google Books Preview]
rey | 15 December 2009

Marcionism doesn't teach that sinners will not be punished but that the Good God will only save the righteous and leave sinners to the Creator who will burn everyone left to him in hell forever (the reason why Jesus Chrestos came to Earth in the first place in Marcionism was to save the righteous from this unjust fate appointed by the Creator indiscriminately for all).
rey | 15 December 2009


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up