Skip to main content

Patience and Hermeneutics: On Brian Zahnd, Marcion, and Origen

August 28th, 2017 | 9 min read

By Guest Writer

I’m pleased to publish this guest essay from Dr. Mark Randall James.

Brian Zahnd’s new book, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, has invited comparison with one of the greatest of early heretics, Marcion. In a long and measured review, Derek Rishmawy makes the case that Zahnd’s hermeneutic is “a sort of cross-Testamental, Neo-Marcionism.” Both Zahnd and Marcion are convinced that the goodness of God is inconsistent with his wrath, and so both conclude that “looking at Jesus means massive, sweeping portions of what the prophets and apostles testify about God (in both Testaments) is categorically false.”

This evaluation of Zahnd’s book seems quite right to me, though Zahnd resists the label (no one likes being called a heretic!). And Zahnd has his defenders. In his response to Rishmawy’s review, Mike Skinner argues that Rishmawy is wrong–on historical grounds.

The locus of heresy with Marcion was not with his diagnosis of a problem, it was with his prescription for a solution. An abundance of Church Fathers agreed that certain texts seemed incompatible with the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. You can disagree with them on that point, but that does not change the historical fact of their hermeneutical approach.

The problem for Marcion was his solution: a complete rejection of the inspiration of the Old Testament (among other texts) and his acceptance of a dualism of Gods. In contrast, the Church Fathers affirmed the inspiration of these texts (in fact, Marcion was perhaps the motivation for the beginning of the canonization process) and affirmed the ontological unity between the God of the Israelites and the Incarnate God in Jesus Christ. Many of them still understood there to be a problem of tension, but they solved it differently – through allegorical and figurative readings.  Again, feel free to disagree with them on this point, but it still does not change the historical record.

As a matter of historical fact, it is undoubtedly true that proto-orthodox church fathers often shared Marcion’s sense that much of the Old Testament seemed to contradict the New; that Marcion provoked the church’s condemnation because he rejected the inspiration of the Old Testament and posited a second god; and that many church fathers solved these problems instead through allegory. So far so good.

But when Skinner concludes that “the locus of heresy with Marcion was not his diagnosis of a problem, it was with his prescription for a solution,” and hence that Zahnd is no Marcionite, he has gone beyond what “the historical record” determines. Part of the problem is that Rishmawy’s argument is primarily theological, not historical. To call Zahnd’s hermeneutic a form of Marcionism is to discern a significant analogy or trajectory between the two; but obviously between any ancient and modern thinker, there will be differences as well as similarities. Unless Rishmawy is wrong about Marcion in matters of fact (he isn’t), the question at issue can’t be settled historically, despite what Skinner says.

But Skinner also neglects another decisive historical contrast between the hermeneutics of Marcion and the church fathers. For Marcion, what seemed to be contradictions in scripture were really contradictions, a view that he demonstrated with gusto in his lost work Antitheses. It is this hermeneutic assumption that required him, for the sake of consistency, to cleave the scriptures in two. It also invited (it surely did not require) his dualism, which follows if you also assume that both Old and New Testament still speak truly of some “god,” just not the same God. (In an odd if implausible way, Marcion is still trying to affirm the truth of the Old Testament.)

Now no church father of whom I am aware would grant Marcion’s premise that apparent scriptural contradictions are really contradictions. Even Origen, who could be especially ruthless in expositing apparent scriptural contradictions (see the 10th book of his Commentary on John) would never have granted that such contradictions are genuine. Rather, he always assumed they were an impetus to further interpretation that should, in the end, show that every sentence of scripture could be interpreted in a manner appropriate to the one God confessed in the church’s rule of faith and consistent with the rest of scripture.

What about Brian Zahnd? On this point, he clearly agrees with Marcion against the church fathers: the apparent contradictions are really contradictions.

We also need to keep in mind that the Old Testament doesn’t give us just one portrait of God but many. It’s impossible to make the Old Testament univocal… (13)

No orthodox church father would ever have said this. At most, they would say that it is difficult to discern the unity of scripture, but that if rightly interpreted, it presents a unified portrait of the one God who inspired it all.

Nor would the fathers ever say, as Zahnd does:

Does God require animal sacrifice? The priests and Levites say yes, and that’s what we find in the Torah. But eventually the psalmists and prophets begin to challenge this. David says, “Sacrifice and offering you do not desire…Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required [Ps. 40:6].” In this psalm David brashly contradicts the Torah’s unambiguous laws requiring animal sacrifice! Later Hosea claims that God doesn’t want sacrifice but mercy [Hos. 6:6]. Eventually Jesus will weigh in and affirm the position of Hosea [Mt. 9:13, 12:7]. Does that mean that the Torah is wrong about animal sacrifice? That would be to put too fine a point on it. Rather, the Old Testament is a journey of discovery…The Old Testament begins with a primitive assumption that God requires ritual sacrifice but eventually moves away from that position. We simply can’t make Moses and Hosea agree perfectly. If we want to just pluck a verse here and there to proof-text something, the Old Testament gives us many (and often contradictory) options. There are plenty of angry-God texts in the Old Testament, but we also find Jeremiah’s tenderhearted Father longing for sinful Ephraim. In the Old Testament God is portrayed as both quick to anger and slow to anger [Ps. 2:12 v. Ex. 34:6]. It’s Jesus who settles the dispute. (13-15, emphasis added)

What Marcion called ‘antitheses,’ Zahnd calls an internal ‘dispute’ between opposing and irreconcilable pairs: sacrifice v. mercy, angry v. tenderhearted. Both Marcion and Zahnd also feel an obligation to account for both elements of the antithesis. Marcion refers them to real but opposed deities, while Zahnd (with greater restraint and catholicity) sees them as opposing human perspectives on the one God. And both of course see Jesus as taking sides in this dispute and intend to side with him.

Undoubtedly the church fathers condemned Marcionism primarily in its full flower as dualism; but Marcion’s doctrine was rooted in deeper hermeneutic assumptions to which the fathers also strenuously objected. Zahnd shares these assumptions with Marcion against the fathers; and in this light, it is reasonable to call him a neo-Marcionite (or perhaps, a ‘semi-Marcionite’), bearing in mind that this is a theological discernment of an analogy and a trajectory, not a historical discernment of an identity.

Now among the church fathers, it was especially Origen who traced Marcionism to its hermeneutic roots. He was troubled that many members of his own proto-orthodox community shared Marcion’s assumptions about interpretation, making them vulnerable to Marcionite teaching. Similar assumptions are discernible in many evangelicals and post-evangelicals like Zahnd. (Since Zahnd’s critics are frequently neo-Calvinists, it’s worth noting that Origen is about as far from a Calvinist as an orthodox-ish Christian can be!)

Origen called this problematic tendency of interpretation “kata lexin”. This phrase is sometimes translated “literal” interpretation, but it means something more like interpretation that “takes the text at face value,” that refuses to question its apparent meaning. This refusal is often undoubtedly motivated by a desire for honesty, a concern to face up to the text on its own terms rather than twisting it to fit one’s own preconceptions, as Origen has always been accused of doing. But like all appearances, the apparent meaning of a text is the product of a subjective relation between the text and ourselves–subjective, at least, so long as it remains unexamined. Origen saw that what Marcion intended as honesty was at root a failure to reason, a refusal to examine himself and criticize his own understanding.

In opposing a hermeneutic that takes the text “at face value,” Origen doesn’t say it never means what it seems to mean, only that it doesn’t do so reliably. Nor is allegory his only strategy for dealing with difficult texts. (For this reason, Skinner’s summary of patristic hermeneutics is too reductive). Origen has a lot of other hermeneutic advice focused on correcting narrow and uncritical assumptions about how language works. Much of what he says remains relevant to Zahnd and his ilk.

For example:

  1. The same word may have different senses when used in different contexts. (So God might be slow to anger in one sense and quick to anger in another.)
  2. A sentence may omit words and leave it to the reader to supply them. (So Hosea’s “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” might mean, “I desire mercy, not merely sacrifice.”)
  3. We may grasp different aspects of God in relation to our spiritual maturity. (So those persisting in sin might know God primarily as wrathful, while those who have repented might know him in his tender-hearted mercy as well.)
  4. God might give a command only to a particular people, or for a particular time, or to serve a particular purpose. (So there is no intrinsic contradiction in the fact that God brings to an end a system of sacrifice commanded to the Jews in the Torah.)

These insights have a common pattern: they assume scripture’s words must be understood relationally, that is, in relation to different contexts and different readers. And for Origen, this relationality was in turn a consequence of scripture’s supreme wisdom. The wise person knows that there is no contradiction in applying one word to one time and place and a different word to another time and place. The book of Proverbs taught this by example:

Do not answer fools according to their folly,
   or you will be a fool yourself.
Answer fools according to their folly,
   or they will be wise in their own eyes. (Prov. 26:4-5)

Is this advice contradictory? Of course not: the point is that you should speak to fools in one way in one context and in another way in other contexts–if you have the wisdom to discern them.

So too the words of scripture have their times and their places, but discerning them requires a wisdom that is not satisfied with what they seem to say on their face. Zahnd, like Marcion, divides the scriptures into antithetical opposites because he can’t place the scriptures in their proper context. Rishmawy’s review, by contrast, is a good example of what holistic scriptural wisdom looks like in action.

Mark Randall James is an adjunct professor of religion at Fordham University and Hunter College and an editor of the Journal of Textual Reasoning. He teaches Scriptural Reasoning and serves as co-chair of the Scriptural Reasoning Unit at the American Academy of Religion. He earned his Ph.D. in Religious Studies at the University of Virginia with a focus on ancient scriptural interpretation. Follow him on Twitter and read his blog on State of Formation.