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From Adolf Von Harnack, History of Dogma

Adolf Von Harnack
History of Dogma,
Vol. I (pp. 266-281).
Translated by N. Buchanan.
Published by Boston, Little (1901).


MARCION cannot be numbered among the Gnostics in the strict sense of the word.1  [Editorial note:  More recent scholarship generally disagrees with Von Harnack's opinion here about the Gnostic nature of Marcion. See the essay by Mead another view]  For (1) he was not guided by any speculatively scientific, or even by an apologetic, but by a soteriological interest. 2 (2) He therefore put all emphasis on faith, not on Gnosis. 3 (3) In the exposition of his ideas he neither applied the elements of any Semitic religious wisdom, nor the methods of the Greek philosophy of religion. 4 (4) He never made the distinction between an esoteric and an exoteric form of religion. He rather clung to the publicity of the preaching, and endeavoured to reform Christendom, in opposition to the attempts at founding schools for those who knew and mystery cults for such as were in quest of initiation. It was only after the failure of his attempts at reform that he founded churches of his own, in which brotherly equality, freedom from all ceremonies, and strict evangelical discipline were to rule. 5 Completely carried away with the novelty, uniqueness and grandeur of the Pauline Gospel of the grace of God in Christ, Marcion felt that all other conceptions of the Gospel, and especially its union with the Old Testament religion, was opposed to, and a backsliding from' the truth. 6 He accordingly supposed that it was necessary to make the sharp antitheses of Paul, law and gospel, wrath and grace, works and faith, flesh and spirit, sin and righteousness, death and life, that is the Pauline criticism of the Old Testament religion, the foundation of his religious views, and to refer them to two principles, the righteous and wrathful god of the Old Testament, who is at 'the same time identical with the creator of the world, and the God of the Gospel, quite unknown before Christ, who is only love and mercy. 7 This Paulinism in its religious strength, but without dialectic, without the Jewish Christian view of history, and detached from the soil of the Old Testament, was to him the true Christianity. Marcion, like Paul, felt that the religious' value of a statutory law with commandments and ceremonies, was very different from that of a uniform law of love. 8 Accordingly, he had a capacity for appreciating the Pauline idea of faith; it is to him reliance on the unmerited grace of God which is revealed in Christ. But Marcion showed himself to be a Greek, influenced by the religious spirit of the time, by changing the ethical contrast of the good and legal into the contrast between the infinitely exalted spiritual and the sensible which is subject to the law of nature, by despairing of the triumph of good in the world and, consequently, correcting the traditional faith that the world and history belong to God, by an empirical view of the world and the course of events in it,9 a view to which he was no doubt also led by the severity of the early Christian estimate of the world. Yet to him systematic speculation about the final causes of the contrast actually observed, was by no means the main thing. So far as he himself ventured on such a speculation he seems to have been influenced by the Syrian Cerdo. The numerous contradictions which arise as soon as one attempts to reduce Marcion's propositions to a system, and the fact that his disciples tried all possible conceptions of the doctrine of principles, and defined the relation of the two Gods very differently, are the clearest proof that Marcion was a religious character, that he had in general nothing to do with principles, but with living beings whose power he felt, and that what he ultimately saw in the Gospel was not an explanation of the world, but redemption from the world, 10--redemption from a world, which even in the best that it can offer, has nothing that can reach the height of the blessing bestowed in Christ. 11 Special attention may be called to the following particulars.

1.  Marcion explained the Old Testament in its literal sense and rejected every allegorical interpretation. He recognized it as the revelation of the creator of the world and the god of the Jews, but placed it, just on that account, in sharpest contrast to the Gospel. He demonstrated the contradictions between the Old Testament and the Gospel in a voluminous work (the antithesis). 12 In the god of the former book he saw a being whose character was stern justice, and therefore anger, contentiousness and unmercifulness. The law which rules nature and man appeared to him to accord with the characteristics of this god and the kind of law revealed by him, and therefore it seemed credible to him that this god is the creator and lord of the world (kosmokratos). As the law which governs the world is inflexible, and yet, on the other hand, full of contradictions, just and again brutal, and as the law of the Old Testament exhibits the same features, so the god of creation was to Marcion a being who united in himself the whole gradations of attributes from justice to malevolence, from obstinacy to inconsistency. 13 Into this conception of the creator of the world, the characteristic of which is that it cannot be systematized, could easily be fitted the Syrian Gnostic theory which regards him as an evil being, because he belongs to this world and to matter. Marcion did not accept it in principle, 14 but touched it lightly and adopted certain inferences. 15 On the basis of the Old Testament and of empirical observation, Marcion divided men into two classes, good and evil, though he regarded them all, body and soul, as creatures of the demiurge. The good are those who strive to fulfil the law of the demiurge. These are outwardly better than those who refuse him obedience. But the distinction found here is not the decisive one. To yield to the promptings of Divine grace is the only decisive distinction, and those just men will shew themselves less susceptible to the manifestation of the truly good than sinners. As Marcion held the Old Testament to be a book worthy of belief, though his disciple, Apelles, thought otherwise, he referred all its predictions to a Messiah whom the creator of the world is yet to send; and who, as a warlike hero, is to set up the earthly kingdom of the "just" God. 16

2.  Marcion placed the good God of love in opposition to the creator of the world. 17 This God has only been revealed in Christ. He was absolutely unknown before Christ, 18 and men were in every respect strange to him. 19 Out of pure goodness and mercy, for these are the essential attributes of this God who judges not and is not wrathful, he espoused the cause of those beings who were foreign to him, as he could not bear to have them any longer tormented by their just and yet malevolent lord. 20 The God of love appeared in Christ and proclaimed a new kingdom (Tertull., adv. Marc. III. 24. fin.). Christ called to himself the weary and heavy laden, 21 and proclaimed to them that he would deliver them from the fetters of their lord and from the world. He showed mercy to all while he sojourned on the earth, and did in every respect the opposite of what the creator of the world had done to men. They who believed in the creator of the world nailed him to the cross. But in doing so they were unconsciously serving his purpose, for his death was the price by which the God of love purchased men from the creator of the world. 22 He who places his hope in the Crucified can now be sure of escaping from the power of the creator of the world, and of being translated into the kingdom of the good God. But experience shows that, like the Jews, men who are virtuous according to the law of the creator of the world, do not allow themselves to be converted by Christ; it is rather sinners who accept his message of redemption. Christ, therefore, rescued from the underworld, not the righteous men of the Old Testament (Iren. I. 27. 3), but the sinners who were disobedient to the creator of the world. If the determining thought of Marcion's view of Christianity is here again very clearly shown, the Gnostic woof cannot fail to be seen in the proposition that the good God delivers only the souls, not the bodies of believers. The antithesis of spirit and matter, appears here as the decisive one, and the good God of love becomes the God of the spirit, the Old Testament god the god of the flesh. In point of fact, Marcion seems to have given such a turn to the good God's attributes of love, and incapability of wrath, as to make Him the apathetic, infinitely exalted Being, free from all affections. The contradiction in which Marcion is here involved is evident, because he taught expressly that the spirit of man is in itself just as foreign to the good God as his body. But the strict asceticism which Marcion demanded as a Christian, could have had no motive, without the Greek assumption of a metaphysical contrast of flesh and Spirit, which in fact was also apparently the doctrine of Paul.

3.  The relation in which Marcion placed the two Gods, appears at first sight to be one of equal rank.23 Marcion himself, according to the most reliable witnesses, expressly asserted that both were uncreated, eternal, etc. But if we look more closely we shall see that in Marcion's mind there can be no thought of equality. Not only did he himself expressly declare that the creator of the world is a self-contradictory being of limited knowledge and power, but the whole doctrine of redemption shows that he is a power subordinate to the good God. We need not stop to enquire about the details, but it is certain that the creator of the world formerly knew nothing of the existence of the good God, that he is in the end completely powerless against him, that he is overcome by him, and that history in its issue with regard to man, is determined solely by its relation to the good God. The just god appears at the end of history, not as an independent being, hostile to the good God, but as one subordinate to him, 24 so that some scholars, such as Neander, have attempted to claim for Marcion a doctrine of one principle, and to deny that he ever held the complete independence of the creator of the world, the creator of the world being simply an angel of the good God. This inference may certainly be drawn with little trouble, as the result of various considerations, but it is forbidden by reliable testimony. The characteristic of Marcion's teaching is just this, that as soon as we seek to raise his ideas from the sphere of practical considerations to that of a consistent theory, we come upon a tangled knot of contradictions. The theoretic contradictions are explained by the different interests which here cross each other in Marcion. In the first place, he was consciously dependent on the Pauline theology, and was resolved to defend everything which he held to be Pauline. Secondly, he was influenced by the contrast in which he saw the ethical powers involved. This contrast seemed to demand a metaphysical basis, and its actual solution seemed to forbid such a foundation. Finally, the theories of Gnosticism, the paradoxes of Paul, the recognition of the duty of strictly mortifying the flesh, suggested to Marcion the idea that the good God was the exalted God of the spirit, and the just god the god of the sensuous, of the flesh. This view, which involved the principle of a metaphysical dualism, had something very specious about it, and to its influence we must probably ascribe the fact that Marcion no longer attempted to derive the creator of the world from the good God. His disciples who had theoretical interests in the matter, no doubt noted the contradictions. In order to remove them, some of these disciples advanced to a doctrine of three principles, the good God, the just creator, of the world, the evil god, by conceiving the creator of the world sometimes as an independent being, sometimes as one dependent on the good God. Others reverted to the common dualism, God of the spirit and god of matter. But Apelles, the most important of Marcion's disciples, returned to the creed of the one God (mik arke), and conceived the creator of the world and Satan as his angels, without departing from the fundamental thought of the master, but rather following suggestions which he himself had given. 25 Apart from Apelles, who founded a Church of his own, we hear nothing of the controversies of disciples breaking up the Marcionite church. All those who lived in the faith for which the master had worked-viz., that the laws ruling in nature and history, as well as the course of common legality and righteousness, are the antitheses of the act of Divine mercy in Christ, and that cordial love and believing confidence have their proper contrasts in self-righteous pride and the natural religion of the heart, -those who rejected the Old Testament and clung solely to the Gospel proclaimed by Paul, and finally, those who considered that a strict mortification of the flesh and an earnest renunciation of the world were demanded in the name of the Gospel, felt themselves members of the same community, and to all appearance allowed perfect liberty to speculations about final causes.

4.  Marcion had no interest in specially emphasizing the distinction between the good God and Christ, which according to the Pauline Epistles, could not be denied. To him Christ is the manifestation of the good God himself. 26 But Marcion taught that Christ assumed absolutely nothing from the creation of the Demiurge, but came down from heaven in the I5th year of the Emperor Tiberius, and after the assumption of an apparent body, began his preaching in the synagogue of Capernaum. 27 This pronounced docetism which denies that Jesus was born, or subjected to any human process of development, 28 is the strongest expression of Marcion's abhorrence of the world. This aversion may have sprung from the severe attitude of the early Christians toward the world, but the inference which Marcion here draws, shows, that this feeling was, in his case, united with the Greek estimate of spirit and matter. But Marcion's docetism is all the more remarkable that, under Paul's guidance, he put a high value on the fact of Christ's death upon the cross. Here also is a glaring contradiction which his later disciples laboured to remove. This much, however, is unmistakable, that Marcion succeeded in placing the greatness and uniqueness of redemption through Christ in the clearest light and in beholding this redemption in the person of Christ, but chiefly in his death upon the cross.

5.  Marcion's eschatology is also quite rudimentary. Yet he assumed with Paul that violent attacks were yet in store for the Church of the good God on the part of the Jewish Christ of the future, the Antichrist. He does not seem to have taught a visible return of Christ, but, in spite of the omnipotence and goodness of God, he did teach a twofold issue of history. The idea of a deliverance of all men, which seems to follow from his doctrine of boundless grace, was quite foreign to him. For this very reason, he could not help actually making the good God the judge, though in theory he rejected the idea, in order not to measure the will and acts of God by a human standard. Along with the fundamental proposition of Marcion, that God should be conceived only as goodness and grace, we must take into account the strict asceticism which he prescribed for the Christian communities, in order to see that that idea of God was not obtained from antinomianism. We know of no Christian community in the second century which insisted so strictly on renunciation of the world as the Marcionites. No union of the sexes was permitted. Those who were married had to separate ere they could be received by baptism into the community. The sternest precepts were laid down in the matter of food and drink. Martyrdom was enjoined; and from the fact that they were "palaipwoi kai misoumenoi" in the world, the members were to know that they were disciples of Christ. 29 With all that, the early Christian enthusiasm was wanting.

6.  Marcion defined his position in theory and practice towards the prevailing form of Christianity, which, on the one hand, showed throughout its connection with the Old Testament, and, on the other, left room for a secular ethical code, by assuming that it had been corrupted by Judaism, and therefore needed a reformation. 30 But he could not fail to note that this corruption was not of recent date, but belonged to the oldest tradition itself. The consciousness of this moved him to a historical criticism of the whole Christian tradition. 31
Marcion was the first Christian who undertook such a task. Those writings to which he owed his religious convictions, viz., the Pauline Epistles, furnished the basis for it. He found nothing in the rest of Christian literature that harmonized with the Gospel of Paul. But he found in the Pauline Epistles hints which explained to him this result of his observations. The twelve Apostles whom Christ chose did not understand him, but regarded him as the Messiah of the god of creation. 32And therefore Christ inspired Paul by a special revelation, lest the Gospel of the grace of God should be lost through falsifications. 33 But even Paul had been understood only by few (by none?). His Gospel had also been misunderstood nay, his Epistles had been falsified in many passages, 34 in order to make them teach the identity of the god of creation and the God of redemption. A new reformation was therefore necessary. Marcion felt himself entrusted with this commission, and the church which he gathered recognized this vocation of his to be the reformer. 35 He did not appeal to a new revelation such as he presupposed for Paul. As the Pauline Epistles and an authentic "evangelion of the Lord" were in existence, it was only necessary to purify these from interpolations, and restore the genuine Paulinism which was just the Gospel itself. But it was also necessary to secure and preserve this true Christianity for the future. Marcion, in all probability, was the first to conceive and, in great measure, to realize the idea of placing Christendom on the firm foundation of a definite theory of what is Christian- but not of basing it on a theological doctrine-and of establishing this theory by a fixed collection of Christian writings with canonical authority. 36He was not a systematic thinker; but he was more, for he was not only a religious character, but at the same time a man with an organizing talent, such as has no peer in the early Church. If we think of the lofty demands he made on Christians, and, on the other hand, ponder the results that accompanied his activity, we cannot fail to wonder. Wherever Christians were numerous about the year 160, there must have been Marcionite communities with the same fixed but free organization, with the same canon and the same conception of the essence of Christianity, pre-eminent for the strictness of their morals and their joy in martyrdom. 37 The Catholic Church was then only in process of growth, and it was long ere it reached the solidity won by the Marcionite church through the activity of one man, who was animated by a faith so strong that he was able to oppose his conception of Christianity to all others as the only right one, and who did not shrink from making selections from tradition instead of explaining it away. He was the first who laid the firm foundation for establishing what is Christian, because, in view of the absoluteness of his faith, 38 he had no desire to appeal either to a secret evangelic tradition, or to prophecy, or to natural religion.


The innovations of Marcion are unmistakable. The way in which he attempted to sever Christianity from the Old Testament was a bold stroke which demanded the sacrifice of the dearest possession of Christianity as a religion, viz., the belief that the God of creation is also the God of redemption. And yet this innovation was partly caused by a religious conviction, the origin of which must be sought not in heathenism, but on Old Testament and Christian soil. For the bold Anti-judaist was the disciple of a Jewish thinker, Paul, and the origin of Marcion's antinomianism may be ultimately found in the prophets. It will always be the glory of Marcion in the early history of the Church that he, the born heathen, could appreciate the religious criticism of the Old Testament religion as formerly exercised by Paul. The antinomianism of Marcion was ultimately based on the strength of his religious feeling, on his personal religion as contrasted with all statutory religion That was also its basis in the case of the prophets and of Paul, only the statutory religion which was felt to be a burden and a fetter was different in each case. As regards the prophets, it was the outer sacrificial worship, and the deliverance was the idea of Jehovah's righteousness. In the case of Paul, it was the pharisaic treatment of the law, and the deliverance was righteousness by faith. To Marcion it was the sum of all that the past had described as a revelation of God: only what Christ had given him was of real value to him. In this conviction he founded a Church: Before him there was no such thing in the sense of a community, firmly united by a fixed conviction, harmoniously organized, and spread over the whole world. Such a Church the Apostle Paul had in his mind's eye, but he was not able to realize it. That in the century of the great mixture of religion the greatest apparent paradox was actually realized: namely, a Paulinism with two Gods and without the Old Testament; and that this form of Christianity first resulted in a church which was based not only on intelligible words, but on a definite conception of the essence of Christianity as a religion, seems to be the greatest riddle which the earliest history of Christianity presents. But it only seems so. The Greek, whose mind was filled with certain fundamental features of the Pauline Gospel (law and grace), who was therefore convinced that in all respects the truth was there, and who on that account took pains to comprehend the real sense of Paul's statements, could hardly reach any other results than those of Marcion. The history of Pauline theology in the Church, a history first of silence, then of artificial interpretation, speaks loudly enough. And had not Paul really separated Christianity as religion from Judaism and the Old Testament? Must it not have seemed an inconceivable inconsistency, if he had clung to the special national relation of Christianity to the Jewish people, and if he had taught a view of history in which for paedagogic reasons indeed, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort had appeared as one so entirely different?

He who was not capable of translating himself into the consciousness of a Jew, and had not yet learned the method of special interpretation, had only the alternative, if he was convinced of the truth of the Gospel of Christ as Paul had proclaimed it, of either giving up this Gospel against the dictates of his conscience, or striking out of the Epistles whatever seemed Jewish. But in this case the god of creation also disappeared, and the fact that Marcion could make this sacrifice proves that this religious spirit, with all his energy, was not able to rise to the height of the religious faith which we find in the preaching of Jesus.

In basing his own position and that of his church on Paulinism, as he conceived and remodeled it, Marcion connected himself with that part of the earliest tradition of Christianity which is best known to us, and has enabled us to understand his undertaking historically as we do no other. Here we have the means of accurately indicating what part of this structure of the second century has come down from the Apostolic age and is really based on tradition, and what does not. Where else could we do that? But Marcion has taught us far more. He does not impart a correct understanding of early Christianity, as was once supposed, for his explanation of that is undoubtedly incorrect, but a correct estimate of the reliability of the traditions that were current in his day alongside of the Pauline. There can be no doubt that Marcion criticized tradition from a dogmatic stand-point. But would his undertaking have been at all possible, if at that time a reliable tradition of the twelve Apostles and their teaching had existed and been operative in wide circles? We may venture to say no. Consequently, Marcion gives important testimony against the historical reliability of the notion that the common Christianity was really based on the tradition of the twelve Apostles. It is not surprising that the first man who clearly put and answered the question, "What is Christian?" adhered exclusively to the Pauline Epistles, and therefore found a very imperfect solution. When more than 1600 years later the same question emerged for the first time in scientific form, its solution had likewise to be first attempted from the Pauline Epistles, and therefore led at the outset to a one-sidedness similar to that of Marcion. The situation of Christendom in the middle of the second century was not really more favorable to a historical knowledge of early Christianity, than that of the 18th century, but in many respects more unfavorable. Even at that time, as attested by the enterprise of Marcion, its results, and the character of the polemic against him, there were besides the Pauline Epistles, no reliable documents from which the teaching of the twelve Apostles could have been gathered. The position which the Pauline Epistles occupy in the history of the world is, however, described by the fact that every tendency in the Church which was unwilling to introduce into Christianity the power of Greek mysticism, and was yet no longer influenced by the early Christian eschatology, learned from the Pauline Epistles a Christianity which, as a religion, was peculiarly vigorous. But that position is further described by the fact that every tendency which courageously disregards spurious traditions, is compelled to turn to the Pauline Epistles, which, on the one hand, present such a profound type of Christianity, and on the other, darken and narrow the judgment about the preaching of Christ himself, by their complicated theology. Marcion was the first, and for a long time the only Gentile Christian who took his stand on Paul. He was no moralist, no Greek mystic, no Apocalyptic enthusiast, but a religious character, nay, one of the few pronouncedly typical religious characters whom we know in the early Church before Augustine. But his attempt to resuscitate Paulinism is the first great proof that the conditions under which this Christianity originated do not repeat themselves, and that therefore Paulinism itself must receive a new construction if one desires to make it the basis of a Church. His attempt is a further proof of the unique value of the Old Testament to early Christendom, as the only means at that time of defending Christian monotheism. Finally, his attempt confirms the experience that a religious community can only be founded by a religious spirit who expects nothing from the world.

Nearly all ecclesiastical writers, from Justin to Origen, opposed Marcion. He appeared already to Justin as the most wicked enemy. We can understand this, and we can quite as well understand how the Church Fathers put him on a level with Basilides and Valentinus, and could not see the difference between them. Because Marcion elevated a better God above the god of creation, and consequently robbed the Christian God of his honour, he appeared to be worse than a heathen (Sentent. episc. LXXXVII., in Hartel's edition of Cyprian, I. p. 454; "Gentiles quamvis idola colant, tamen summum deum patrem creatorem cognoscunt et confitentur [!]; in hunc Marcion blasphemat, etc."), as a blaspheming emissary of demons, as the first-born of Satan (Polyc., Justin, Irenaenus). Because he rejected the allegoric interpretation of the Old Testament, and explained its predictions as referring to a Messiah of the Jews who was yet to come, he seemed to be a Jew (Tertull., adv. Marc. III.). Because he deprived Christianity of the apologetic proof (the proof from antiquity) he seemed to be a heathen and a Jew at the same time (see my Texte u. Unters. I. 3, p. 68; the antitheses of Marcion became very important for the heathen and Manichaean assaults on Christianity). Because he represented the twelve Apostles as unreliable witnesses, he appeared to be the most wicked and shameless of all heretics. Finally, because he gained so many adherents, and actually founded a church, he appeared to be the ravening wolf (Justin, Rhodon), and his church as the spurious church. (Tertull., adv. Marc. IV. 5). In Marcion the Church Fathers chiefly attacked what they attacked in all Gnostic heretics, but here error showed itself in its worse form. They learned much in opposing Marcion (see Bk. II.). For instance, their interpretation of the regula fidei and of the New Tesfament received a directly Antimarcionite expression in the Church. One thing, however, they could not learn from him, and that was how to make Christianity into a philosophic system. He formed no such system, but he has given a clearly outlined conception, based on historic documents, of Christianity as the religion which redeems the world.


All anti-heretical writings of the early Church, but especially Justin, Apol. 1. 26, 58; Iren; I. 27; Tertull., adv. Marc. I-V.; de praescr.; Hippol., Philos.; Adamant., de recta in deum fidei; Epiph. h. 42; Ephr. Syr.; Esnik. The older attempts to restore the Marcionite Gospel and Apostolicum have been antiquated by Zahn's Kanonsgeschichte, 1. c.. Hahn (Regimonti, 1823) has attempted to restore the Antitheses. We are still in want of a German monograph on Marcion (see the whole presentation of Gnosticism by Zahn, with his Excursus, 1. c.). Hilgenfeld, Ketzergesch. p.316 f. 522 f.; cf. my works, Zur Quellenkritik des Gnosticismus, 1873; de Apelles Gnosis Monarchia, T 874; Beitrage z. Gesch. der Marcionitischen Kirchen (Ztschr. f. wiss. Theol. 1876). Marcion's Commentar zum Evangelium (Ztschr. f. K. G. Bd. IV 4) Apelles Syllogismen in the Texte u, Unters. VI. H. 3. Zahn, die Dialoge des Adamantius in the Ztschr. f. K.-Gesch. IX. p. 193 ff. Meyboom, Marcion en de Marcionieten, Leiden, 1888.