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EXAGGERATION OF ST PAUL'S IDEAS—MARCION.
The great peculiarity of Christianity, the fact of a new religion springing from another religion, and becoming by degrees the negation of the one that had preceded it, naturally gave rise to the most opposite phenomena, till the two forms of worship were completely separated. The reaction would be of two kinds amongst those who did not exactly keep their balance on the narrow edge of orthodoxy. Some, going beyond Paul’s principles, fancied that the religion of Jesus had no connection with the religion of Moses. Others, Judeo-Christians, looked upon Christianity as a mere continuation of the Jewish religion. In general, it was the Gnostics who inclined to the former idea, but those dreamers seemed to be attacked by a sort of practical incapacity. An ardent, intelligent man was found to give the necessary cohesion to the divergent elements, and to form a lasting Church, side by side with that which already called itself—
The Universal Church, the great Church of Jesus.
Marcion was a native of Sinope, a city full of 190activity, which had already given the two Aquilas, and would later give Theodation, as participators in the religious disputes of the time. He was the son of the bishop of that city, and appears to have been a sailor. Although born a Christian, he had seriously examined his faith, and had devoted himself to the study of Greek philosophy, especially of Stoicism. To that he joined an ascetic appearance and great austerity. His father, as is alleged, was obliged to drive him from his Church, as he was dangerous to the orthodoxy of his faithful hearers.
We have already remarked several times on the sort of attraction which brought to Rome, under the pontificate of Hyginus and in the first years of Pius, all those whom the phosphorescent lights of growing Gnosticism seduced. Marcion arrived in the eternal city at the moment when Cerdon unsettled the most sincere believers by his brilliant metaphysics. Marcion, like all the sectaries, first of all showed himself a zealous Catholic. The Church of Rome possessed such great importance that all those who felt any ecclesiastical ambition aspired to govern her. The rich Sinopean apparently made the community a present of a large sum of money, but his hopes were disappointed. He had not that spirit which the Church of Rome has always required in her clergy. Intellectual superiority was but little valued there. His ardent curiosity, his vivacity of thought, and his learning, all appeared dangerous. It could easily be seen that they would not allow him to remain quietly within the narrow limits of orthodoxy. Cerdon, like he did, expiated his pretensions to dogmatic originality in isolation. Marcion became his disciple. The transcendent theories of Gnosticism, taught by that master, must have appeared to be the highest form of Christianity to a mind imbued with philosophical doctrines. Moreover, Christian dogma was so little settled as yet that every one of strong 191individuality aspired to impress it with his own seal. That is enough to explain the intricate roads in which this great man lost himself, without it being necessary to put any faith in the everyday calumnies by which ecclesiastical writers strive to show that the leader of every sect, when he separates himself from the majority of the faithful, obeys the lowest motives.
Marcion’s theology only differed from that of the Gnostics of Syria and Egypt by its simplicity. The distinction between the good God and the just God, between the invisible God and the demiurge, between the God of the Jews and the God of the Christians, formed the basis of his system. Matter was the eternal evil. The ancient Law, Jehovah’s work, which was essentially material, interested, severe, cruel and loveless, had only one object: to subject the other peoples, Egyptians, Canaanites, etc., to Jehovah’s people, and it did not even succeed in procuring their happiness, as Jehovah was continually obliged to console them by the promise of sending them his Son. It would have been vain to have expected that salvation from Jehovah if the Supreme God, who was good and invisible and unknown to the world till then, had not sent his Son Jesus, that is to say meekness itself under the apparent form of a man, to combat the influence of the demiurge and to introduce the law of love. The Jews will have their Messiah, son of their God, that is to say, of the demiurge. Jesus is by no means that Messiah; his mission, on the contrary, was to abolish the Law, the prophets, and the works of that demiurge generally; but his disciples understood him wrongly: Paul was the only true apostle. Marcion imposed the task upon himself of finding the ideas of Jesus again which had been obliterated and maladroitly brought back to Judaism by those who succeeded him.
That was already Manichæism, with its dangerous 192antithesis, making its appearance in the field of Christian beliefs. Marcion supposes that there are two Gods, one of whom is good and gentle, the other who is severe and cruel. The absolute condemnation of the flesh led him to look upon the continuation of the human race as only serving to prolong the reign of the evil demiurge; he objected to marriage, and would not admit married people to baptism. No sect sought for martyrdom more, nor reckoned, proportionately, more confessors of the faith. According to the Marcionites, martyrdom was the highest Christian liberation, the most beautiful form of deliverance from this world, which is an evil. Bodies do not rise, only the souls of true Christians are brought back to existence. Besides, all souls are not equal, and only arrive at perfection by a series of transmigrations.
It will be seen that the doctrine of the Epistles to the Colossians and Ephesians, and that of the fourth Gospel, was far exceeded. Everything Jewish in the Church became mere dross which must be eliminated. Marcion looked upon Christianity as an entirely new religion, and one without precedent. In that he was a disciple of Paul who had lost his way. Paul believed that Jesus had abolished Judaism, but he did not mistake the divine character of the ancient Law. Marcion, on the contrary, declared that there was no appearance of God in history till Jesus. The Law of Moses was the work of a particular demiurge (Jehovah) whom the Jews adored, and who, to keep them in the fetters of theocracy, gave them priests, and sought to retain them by promises and threats. Such a Law, without any superior character, was powerless against evil. It represented justice but not kindness. The appearance of Christ was the manifestation of a complete God who was kind and just at the same time. The Old Testament was not only different from Christianity, it was contrary to 193it. Marcion wrote a work called Antithesis, in which the two Testaments were put in flagrant contradiction. Apelles, his disciple, wrote a book to show that Moses had written nothing concerning God but what was false and unbecoming.
A chief objection to that theory arose from the different Gospels which were then in circulation, and which more or less agreed with what we call the synoptic type. The fourth Gospel had as yet but very little circulation, and Marcion did not know it, otherwise he would have preferred it to the others. In the generally admitted accounts about Jesus, the Jewish impress can be seen on every page; Jesus speaks as a Jew and acts as a Jew. Marcion imposed the difficult task upon himself of changing all that. He composed a Gospel in which Jesus was no longer a Jew, or rather, was no longer a man; he wanted a life of Jesus which should be that of a pure won. Taking St Luke’s Gospel as his basis, which may be called Paul’s Gospel up to a certain point, he remodelled it according to his own ideas, and was not satisfied till Jesus had no more ancestors, parents, forerunners, or masters. If Jesus had only been known to us from texts of that nature, one might doubt whether he had really existed, or whether he were not an à priori fiction, detached from any tie with reality. In such a system, Christ was not born (for Marcion, birth was a stain), did not suffer, did not die. All the Gospel passages in which Jesus recognised the Creator as his father, were suppressed. After his descent into hell he took to heaven with him those persons who were cursed in the Old Testament—Cain, the Sodomites, etc. These poor wanderers, interesting, like all those who have revolted under an ancient fallen régime, came to meet him and were saved. On the other hand, Jesus left Abel, Noah, Abraham, who were servants of the demiurge, that is to say, of the God of the Old 194Testament, in the dark places of oblivion, as their only merit consisted in having obeyed a tyrant’s laws. It was that God of the Old Testament who caused Jesus to be put to death, and thus worthily crowned an era which had been the reign of evil.
It would be impossible to take up a position more utterly opposed to the ideas of Peter, James, and Mark. The last conclusions had been drawn from St Paul’s principles. Marcion put no author’s name to his Gospel, but he certainly looked upon it as “the Gospel according to Paul.” Jesus is no more a man at all, he is the first ideal appearance of a good God, nearly like Schleiermacher understood it sixteen centuries later. A very fine system of morality, summed up in a striving after good, resulted from this spiritualistic and rationalistic philosophy. Marcion was the most original of the Christian masters of the second century after the author of the pseudo-Johannistic writings. But the belief in two gods, which was the foundation of his system, and the colossal historical error which it contained in representing a religion which sprang from Judaism as contrary to Judaism, were profound blemishes which must prevent such a doctrine from becoming those of the Catholicity.
Its success was extraordinary at first: Marcion’s doctrines spread very quickly over the whole Christian world, but they met with strenuous opposition. Justin, who was then in Rome, combated the innovator in writings which we have not got any longer. Polycarpus received the new ideas with the most lively indignation. It appears that Meliton wrote against them. Several anonymous priests attacked them, and furnished Irenæus with the weapons that he was to use later. Marcion’s position in the Church was a very false one. Like Valentinus and Cerdon, he wished to be part of the Church, and doubtless to preach in it; now the Church of Rome 195much preferred docility and mediocrity to originality and vigorous logic. Like Valentinus, Marcion made semi-retractations, and retreated; all was useless: the incompatibility was too strong. After being condemned twice, a definite excommunication drove him from the Church. The sum of money which he had given in the first warmth of his faith was refunded to him, and he returned to Asia Minor, where he continued to display immense activity in the propagation of error. It seems that in his latter years he instituted fresh negotiations to attach himself to the Church again, but death prevented their success. Often a certain timidity of character is associated with great speculative boldness, and Marcion seems often to have contradicted himself. On the other hand, such an end answered so perfectly to the wants of orthodox polemics that one must suspect it of having been invented. Apelles restored the Marcionite school to an almost orthodox deism.
In any case, Marcion remains the boldest innovator whom Christianity has known, not even excepting St Paul. He never denied the connection between the two Testaments; Marcion opposed them to each other as two antitheses. He even went so far as to claim the right of' re-making the life of Jesus according to his own fashion, and of systematically altering the Gospels. Even St Paul’s Epistles, which he adopted, were arranged and mutilated by him in order to efface the quotations from the Old Testament, and Abraham’s name, which he hated.
This was the third attempt to make the life of Jesus the life of an abstract being instead of a Galilean reality. The results of different tendencies, which were all equally necessary,—of the wish to idealise a life which became that of a God,—of the desire of denying that that God had a family lineage or country upon earth,—of the impossibility for the Greek Christian to admit that Christianity had anything 196in common with Judaism, which he despised, these three attempts had very different successes. The author of the pseudo-Johannistic writings set to work in an inconsistent and incoherent manner, but which possessed the advantage of letting an historical biography of Jesus subsist side by side with the theology of the Logos. His attempt was the only one that succeeded, for, whilst looking upon modern Judaism as an evil, and imagining that Truth had descended from heaven with the Logos, he admits that the true Israel has had its mission, and that the world, far from being the work of a demiurge who was hostile to God, was created by the Logos. The Gnostics drowned the Gospel in metaphysics, eliminated every Jewish element, dissatisfied even the Deists, and so destroyed their future. Marcion’s speculations were of a more sober kind; but Christianity was already too much formed, its texts were too settled, its Gospels too much valued, for Catholic opinion to be shaken. Marcion then was nothing but the mere head of a sect, though it is true it was by far the most numerous before that of Arius. The rage with which orthodoxy pursued him is the best proof of the profound impression that he made on the minds of his contemporaries.
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