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Tom Wright Skewers the New Marcionism

Of all the things I was looking forward to about spending the day with Tom Wright last week, the thing I was looking forward to the most was interviewing him, and asking him about all sorts of biblical-theological stuff that I’ve never heard him talk about. I wanted to ask about whether he believed in a historical Adam, how he held together being complementarian in marriage and egalitarian in ministry, how his personal experience of the Holy Spirit worked, and so on. But the biggest question, for me, was how he responded to what I call the New Marcionism (a loaded phrase, of course, but then they all are).

Marcion, of course, was a second century bishop who taught that the Old Testament God, a jealous and retributive tribal deity, was incompatible with the God revealed in and through Jesus, who is an entirely benevolent God of love and compassion. Almost nobody today is saying that they believe this – at least, not in so many words. But a number of postconservative evangelicals in the US (I’m thinking of people like Peter Enns, Karl Giberson and various others), seeing a radical discontinuity between the God of parts of (say) Joshua and the God revealed in Jesus, are arguing that the picture of God in various Old Testament texts is not the real God at all. Perhaps the real God, understood christocentrically, did not in fact threaten Moses with death for failing to be circumcised, nor tell the Levites to kill people after the golden calf, nor order Achan to be stoned, nor command the destruction of Canaanite cities – since if he did, it would be irreconcilable with the example and teaching of Jesus – and therefore we should regard the narratives here as primitive theologising that seriously misunderstands the true nature of Israel’s God.

I was keen to find out what Tom thought about all that. His answer was my personal highlight of the day, and is to be treasured for its wisdom and insight (not to mention quotability):

AW: I wondered if we could start with the continuity and discontinuity thing, which you were talking about before. Obviously there’s a sense in what you’re writing, and a sense in Paul, that something brand new has happened in Christ, and also a sense that the ongoing story of Israel has continued. How does that play out when it comes to who you think God is, and how he is perceived? I’m asking this in the face of (what I call) a New Marcionism in some circles in the US, where you have a bit more of an angry God who smites people in the Old Testament, but that’s not who Christ is, so we have to deconstruct the Old Testament God and say that’s not who we’re dealing with now. How have you handled that retributive side of the Old Testament God, in the light of what Jesus demonstrates at the cross?”

NTW: There’s two different questions there, so let me deal with the “retributive versus merciful” one first. It’s a common answer, and I’m sure many of you pastors use this in your congregations, that actually the fiercest statements of warnings about judgment are on the lips of Jesus. And some of the most dramatically, spectacularly, extraordinary statements about overflowing mercy are in bits of the Old Testament, like Isaiah and the Psalms and so on. So there’s much more of a rich mixture, and you can only sustain the either/or of the Marcionite vision by blinding yourselves to quite a lot of what is there in the gospels. And of course some scholars will say, “The gospels were written by the early church, and the early church put back a lot of the angry stuff that Jesus didn’t have”, but this looks like a put-up job, to be honest.

“I think the reality of the world, and the reality of Scripture, go interestingly together. When people are talking about science and religion they often talk about the two books that God has written (the book of nature and the book of Scripture), but it’s true of the book of human life as well: human life is full of all kinds of things which are just gloriously, wonderfully celebratory, and other things which are just terrifyingly, awfully horrible – and we shouldn’t be surprised when we meet them in Scripture as well. And then you say, what does God think about, or do with, the stuff which is horrible? And the answer is, if he’s a good God, he must utterly reject it, and must hate it, and must ultimately destroy it ... If God is a good God, he must react extremely strongly against that which destroys, corrupts or defaces human life. So the whole thing about the one versus the other is ill-conceived ...

“The thing which it all comes back to, of course, is Romans 9-11. There, the whole question is, “Has God changed his mind?” And the answer is, “Emphatically not!” What has happened is what God always intended to happen. Holding onto this idea – that what has happened in Christ is what God always intended to happen – is very difficult; one of my graduate students summed it up brilliantly when he said, “God has acted shockingly, surprisingly, startlingly, as he always said he would.” You’ve got to have both halves together ...

“I hold this within the framework I articulated this morning, which is to say: from the call of Abraham onwards, what God is committing himself to do is to act to bring about the restoration of the world, but to act through deeply flawed human beings, who constantly need to be reminded that they’re deeply flawed. That then produces all kinds of (to our mind) ambiguities. And I see all of it coming together in the cross. The cross is the moment when I see Israel’s God performing the salvific event, which is simultaneously the worst and most blasphemous act of judicial, theocidal murder than one can ever imagine. And somehow the cross itself says: these things are now reconciled.”

AW: So when faced with the everyday, street-level challenge – that God seems to do these big bad things – you wouldn’t deny that God does those things? You’d say that that’s all part of a plan that God is moving forward?”

NTW: There are many many things that God does, has done or will do which are not waiting for my approval or sanction before he does them. You know that line, “Many people want to serve God, but usually only in an advisory capacity.” Bonhoeffer said that putting the knowledge of good and evil before the knowledge of God is the primary sin in Genesis 3. They go for the knowledge of good and evil rather than what God says. Now that could just be an escape; it could just be throwing up our hands and saying we don’t know anything about God (when the whole point of the gospel is that we do know who God is, because of Jesus). However, if it’s the crucified Jesus, and if the cross means what it means in the light of the whole history of Israel, which is focused onto that, then ... these narratives are the way in which all of those horrible, puzzling ambiguities, and all the awful things that happen – like Jesus saying, “what about those eighteen on whom the tower of Siloam fell?” – there’s a sense that the cross gathers up all those puzzling, tragic horrible fragments of life, and says swoosh this is where it’s all going. The one thing you can’t do about all that is theorise about it. To theorise about it is to say, “We’re standing back as good enlightenment people, and we’re going to say whether it was appropriate or not.” The only thing when faced with a narrative like that is get down on your knees.”

You can download the whole interview here.

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    By Derek Rishmawy on 29/05/2013 at 15:05

    Andrew, thanks so much for sharing this. This is an excellent question to ask because the New Marcionism, or as I’ve been calling it “Crypto-Marcionism”, is the big theological trend gaining traction among the post-Evangelical set. Leave it to Wright to leave us with a picture of an utterly faithful God who is good enough to actually do what he said he would do in the face of human evil: judge it and save us.

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    By David on 29/05/2013 at 20:56

    I’ve got such a theology crush on Tom Wright, it’s not funny, but I’m not quite making sense of his response. Is he trying to say that the acts attributed to God in the Old Testament that we would consider morally wrong somehow wrapped up in Jesus’ work on the Cross? I would agree with this line of logic, as it would mean that the cruciformity of Christ’s kenotic love, which is the perfect revelation of the changeless God, is actually what’s behind some of those OT actions that look bad on the outside.

    Also, I don’t know if Enns would necessarily qualify as a Marcionist. I’m a pretty big fan of Enns’ and have had short e-discussions with him from time to time, and I know that he does affirm the Old Testament scriptures as the inspired Word of God alongside the New Testament. The qualification he seems to seek to make is that the OT’s status as the Word of God does not come at the cost of the human element in its authorship—i.e., the culture, the worldview, the author, et al.

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    By Anonymous on 30/05/2013 at 00:05

    This is a very helpful article. Thank you for the interview. I am hoping that you will also write a post about the egalitarian / complementarian issue. I’ve read Wright’s paper supporting women in ministry—and even in leadership:
    http://ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Women_Service_Church.htm
    And I am very curious as to the response he’s gotten on this.

  • Andrew Wilson Photo

    By Andrew Wilson on 30/05/2013 at 10:39

    @Derek: thanks!
    @David: I think you’re right, yes. And I’m not saying Pete Enns is a Marcionite; I’m saying that his view that various retributive acts of judgment and violence in the OT (which are attributed to God) are incompatible with the love of God in Jesus, resembles Marcionism in some important ways.
    @Anonymous: if you use the search function above, you’ll find a series I wrote here on that subject eighteen months ago, which I hope might help.

  • Default user Photo

    By Scott on 30/05/2013 at 19:09

    Hi Andrew -

    Thanks for posting the interview. I’ve got a link to here and the full audio posting on my blog.

    Just a comment on the neo-Marcionism concept discussed in the interview. I know it’s very hard to get too in depth in a 13-minute portion of the interview, but I wanted to flesh out some more thoughts about the portrayal of God in the OT as opposed to the portrayal of God in Jesus Christ in the NT. I like Tom’s reminder about such beautiful passages on the mercy of God in the OT and such harsh passages of judgment found in the NT.

    But, even noting that God is a God of judgment across both testaments, and I believe he is, it is HOW that judgment is specifically commanded within the Scripture. Or let’s start with slavery. I’d say that, in the revelation of God in Christ, we come to realise that slavery is not something that God favours. Right? Yet we find commands in the OT to make certain people slaves, if they didn’t fall in the category of those who were to be put to death (the Canaanites). So we find COMMANDS for slavery. At this point, I cannot imagine God commanding slavery, at least as I think about the ultimate revelation in Christ. We can talk about how God allows certain things. But commanding is another.

    So with the aspect of judgment, it’s not that some would ever deny that God can and will judge. I believe this is part and parcel - God must judge, which means ultimately that he will make things right, which also means he must deal with what is wrong. But the question comes in regards to the VEHICLE by which that judgment is dispensed. Humans, even Israel, proclaiming that God had ordered them to slaughter certain peoples - that’s the challenge to think through. Now, interestingly enough, we have the OT prophets proclaiming that the pagan nations that have overrun Israel are an expression of God’s judgment. It cuts both away - God’s people towards others and others towards God’s people. So somehow this all falls within the scope of God’s sovereign oversight, though I am still not sure he is responsible as COMMANDING it. But for certain people or groups to basically proclaim - ‘God told us to put you to death.’ - this is what causes people to rethink some things. Would God command slavery? I’m thinking not. Would God command the Romans to slaughter the Turks? I’m thinking not. The revelation of God in Christ helps me conclude this.

    But - would God directly command Israel to enslave people and slaughter others? Hmm. It’s something that we might need to reconsider.

    So, Christ proclaims judgment is coming. No doubt. But Christ never empowers his followers to go about an dispense God’s judgment. Judgment is something for God alone to carry out. The judgments of Christ are Christ’s alone. Imagine someone or some group today saying that God has commanded me/us to be his instrument of judgment on you. Well, people do that today. And we all shutter at such a thought.

    Some have argued - Well, this is now the NT and Christ has come. We don’t do it that way any longer.

    But if Christ is the expression of who God, the exact thumbprint, and both God & Christ are the same yesterday, today and forever, then did God really in a ‘BC era’ directly command such slaughtering?

    Can God judge? Yes. Can Christ? Yes. Are we to? That’s another whole question.

    I hope you see what I’m highlighting here in regards to the dispensing of judgment as found in the OT text. In Christ, the unchanging Christ who reveals the unchanging God, we can ponder that God might have never commanded Israel to do such atrocious acts.

    I’d love your thoughts.

  • Scott Lencke Photo

    By Scott Lencke on 30/05/2013 at 19:11

    Hi Andrew -

    Thanks for posting the interview. I’ve got a link to here and the full audio posting on my blog.

    Just a comment on the neo-Marcionism concept discussed in the interview. I know it’s very hard to get too in depth in a 13-minute portion of the interview, but I wanted to flesh out some more thoughts about the portrayal of God in the OT as opposed to the portrayal of God in Jesus Christ in the NT. I like Tom’s reminder about such beautiful passages on the mercy of God in the OT and such harsh passages of judgment found in the NT.

    But, even noting that God is a God of judgment across both testaments, and I believe he is, it is HOW that judgment is specifically commanded within the Scripture. Or let’s start with slavery. I’d say that, in the revelation of God in Christ, we come to realise that slavery is not something that God favours. Right? Yet we find commands in the OT to make certain people slaves, if they didn’t fall in the category of those who were to be put to death (the Canaanites). So we find COMMANDS for slavery. At this point, I cannot imagine God commanding slavery, at least as I think about the ultimate revelation in Christ. We can talk about how God allows certain things. But commanding is another.

    So with the aspect of judgment, it’s not that some would ever deny that God can and will judge. I believe this is part and parcel - God must judge, which means ultimately that he will make things right, which also means he must deal with what is wrong. But the question comes in regards to the VEHICLE by which that judgment is dispensed. Humans, even Israel, proclaiming that God had ordered them to slaughter certain peoples - that’s the challenge to think through. Now, interestingly enough, we have the OT prophets proclaiming that the pagan nations that have overrun Israel are an expression of God’s judgment. It cuts both away - God’s people towards others and others towards God’s people. So somehow this all falls within the scope of God’s sovereign oversight, though I am still not sure he is responsible as COMMANDING it. But for certain people or groups to basically proclaim - ‘God told us to put you to death.’ - this is what causes people to rethink some things. Would God command slavery? I’m thinking not. Would God command the Romans to slaughter the Turks? I’m thinking not. The revelation of God in Christ helps me conclude this.

    But - would God directly command Israel to enslave people and slaughter others? Hmm. It’s something that we might need to reconsider.

    So, Christ proclaims judgment is coming. No doubt. But Christ never empowers his followers to go about an dispense God’s judgment. Judgment is something for God alone to carry out. The judgments of Christ are Christ’s alone. Imagine someone or some group today saying that God has commanded me/us to be his instrument of judgment on you. Well, people do that today. And we all shutter at such a thought.

    Some have argued - Well, this is now the NT and Christ has come. We don’t do it that way any longer.

    But if Christ is the expression of who God, the exact thumbprint, and both God & Christ are the same yesterday, today and forever, then did God really in a ‘BC era’ directly command such slaughtering?

    Can God judge? Yes. Can Christ? Yes. Are we to? That’s another whole question.

    I hope you see what I’m highlighting here in regards to the dispensing of judgment as found in the OT text. In Christ, the unchanging Christ who reveals the unchanging God, we can ponder that God might have never commanded Israel to do such atrocious acts.

    I’d love your thoughts.

  • Default user Photo

    By Roger Voss on 31/05/2013 at 02:09

    Before accepting the opinion on this matter as expressed by Write, one might be advised to first go read some of Bart Ehrman’s books, such as “Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible” and particularly on the subject matter specific to this blog posting, Bart Ehrman’s book, “God’s Problem”.

    What Bibical literalist need to ask themselves is if they were in the position of the ancient Israelis - would they go and kill other human beings because that is what their religious leaders tell them is desired by their deity?

    (And one has to wonder why the presumed creator of the universe can’t manage to do his/its own homicidal decimation - but has to enlist human agency to murder on his/its behalf.)

    The problem with the the orthodox/fundamentalist/literalist approach to Christianity is that it requires one engage in Orwellian Double Think - i.e., hold contradictory ideas simultaneously.

    There is a consistent way to come to understand God and Yeshua but one doesn’t get there by taking the Bible at literal face value - it has way too many conceptual problems that are resultant from its all too human multitude of authors.

  • Andrew Wilson Photo

    By Andrew Wilson on 31/05/2013 at 07:07

    @Scott: that’s really well put, thanks. Could I clarify: you seem to be saying that it would be OK (that is, consistent with his character as revealed in Jesus and in Scripture) for God to judge others directly (plagues, fire from heaven, etc), but that it would not be OK for him to judge others using human agents (slavery, wars, etc). Am I reading you right there? And if so, why do you say that, since the OT, quoted and affirmed by Jesus and the apostles, describes both as being acts of divine judgment?

  • Scott Lencke Photo

    By Scott Lencke on 31/05/2013 at 07:52

    Andrew -

    Thanks for the interaction. I appreciate it. I’m not sure I’d ever caveat anything with this: ‘I would say it would be OK for God to…’ Nothing about me saying it’s OK for God to do A or B. :)

    As Tom reminded us in the interview, God can do anything he so desires. I don’t want simply an advisory role with God, putting the knowledge of good & evil above the knowledge of God. Of course, I’d also say that simply side-stepping deep questions by saying, ‘God can do whatever he wants,’ is not very helpful as well. I find that wanting in much reformation-based, evangelical thought as well. But I’m not trying to approach it by saying I think it’s OK for God to do A or B.

    To be honest, this is only something I’m thinking through at this point. I’ve traditionally held to a more reformed, Calvinist approach to God’s sovereignty and judgment/wrath. But over the past few years, I’ve been re-engaging with other thought outside my box in regards to hell, judgment, atonement theory, violence in Scripture, etc. I don’t have any solid, set-in-concrete views established yet. But I know I have moved away a bit from where I used to stand.

    In regards to the specific question you asked: And if so, why do you say that, since the OT, quoted and affirmed by Jesus and the apostles, describes both as being acts of divine judgment?

    Nothing is coming to mind at this moment, though there might be, but is there a specific place where Jesus or the NT writers refer to an OT case of ‘slaughter’ via the Israelites as God’s direct judgment being dispensed? I do know Jesus refers to things being worse for Chorazin & Bethsaida than for Sodom & Gomorrah. But, at least the way the OT text describes this judgment, this was something God did alone.

    In the end, I recognise what the OT text communicates - the Hebrews declaring, possibly via specific prophets, that the killing of people was God’s direct judgment through them. Basically saying: ‘God told us to do that.’ But I’d say this is part & parcel to an ancient understanding of God/the gods. There is still quite a bit of progressive revelation to be unfolded, which culminates in Christ. They had an understanding of God that was very much in line with the ancient near eastern peoples of the day. I’d expect them to believe such. Now, God still worked within that context, as he continues to work within our petty framework in the 21st century. But I still think it worth rethinking this. It doesn’t mean we disregard the Scripture text as ‘false’ (as that is a Cartersian, modernist approach that many evangelicals in my homeland of America would approach it). It’s not false because certain statements/actions, couched in language of being directly from God, were not really in line with God’s intent. Again, think of commands for slavery. Does God command slavery? But there is a bit of a brokenness to the revelation in the OT. We are headed somewhere, but we are not quite there. Christ puts on those full lenses to see God, though we still don’t see him fully.

    Again, imagine Christ saying - ‘Ok you 12. The apostate Jews have sinned for 4 generations now. My mercy has been ever-present. But now it’s time to deal with them, by the sword. And then after that, we can move to these pagan Romans whose ways disgust me.’

    My paradigm doesn’t see Jesus communicating these kind of statements. And Jesus is the exact thumbprint of who God is. We finally see what God is really like in Christ. So why do we not imagine Jesus saying such direct statements, but we imagine his Father saying such? It’s at least worth rethinking of how to approach this.

    Now Christ can still proclaim that the judgment that would come in the near future, which I take to be that of the Roman destruction in the Jewish war of AD 66-73, falls under the oversight of God. It seems the obvious context, though he never says - ‘God’s going to bring direct judgment through the Romans.’ However, God’s oversight does not have to be seen as detailed control over every minute situation. And we still, as far as I can remember, never find statements in the NT like, ‘God told us to destroy you via the sword.’

    By the way, I’ve come to know Jonathan LeTocq from Guernsey. Hope to meet up with again in the near future on his next visit to Brussels.

  • Andrew Wilson Photo

    By Andrew Wilson on 31/05/2013 at 11:55

    @Scott: thanks for your response! Two clarifications on my question: (1) I’m asking what makes you say that it would be consistent with God’s character in Scripture to judge people directly in the OT (fire, sulphur, plagues) but not for him to do so indirectly (through human agency). If it is consistent with God’s character to use earthquakes, snakes, angels and diseases to judge his people in Numbers, then why not human agents? That’s the heart of my question. (2) I don’t think any NT passages refer to the conquest of Canaan as an act of divine judgment; what I said was that the OT narratives do, and the OT narratives are cited and apparently confirmed by Jesus and the apostles (see the examples here: http://thinktheology.co.uk/blog/article/the_wrong_answer_to_the_destruction_of_cities). I hope that helps.

  • Scott Lencke Photo

    By Scott Lencke on 31/05/2013 at 17:30

    Andrew -

    These are all good questions. I’m still working through what I feel might be a more robust theology. But here are some thoughts to your first question:

    1) God is the right, holy & perfect. We are far from it, even the redeemed. So the redeemed, broken & sinful that we are, still don’t get the opportunity of displaying wrath through slaughter.

    2) I would expect the ancients to have such a view of God. There is still a bit of a trajectory that needs to be worked out flowing from the NT (they didn’t have it all ‘set in stone’ either). But the Mesopotamian ancients had a view of God/the gods that was very vengeful. We still needed to head down the progressive trajectory that we see more fully in Christ.

    3) What are your thoughts on this: Do you see Jesus commanding his followers to slaughter people? If we don’t see this in Christ, the exact thumbprint of God, what shall we think of our Father?

    On your second question, I’m fine with what you are saying. Somehow I’m not sure that such affirmations of the Hebrew Scripture (Law, Prophets & Writings) were meant to say - Well, we completely affirm that the slaughtering of pagans was God’s intended desire. I’m not here to toss Scripture aside. But taking the affirmations of the OT in the NT need to be taken in context of what is being communicated, which I cannot recall anytime an affirmation that slaughtering pagan unbelievers is the context. Judgment is affirmed. The slaughtering of our enemies, not so much. Hence why the God-in-flesh man, Jesus, said love your enemies & pray for them.

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    By Melvyn Reader on 04/06/2013 at 18:38

    A good question from Andrew matched by a equally good answer from Tom.

    Two books I personally found helpful in thinking through some of the issues raised in the posted comments are: Paul Copan’s “Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God” and Christopher Wright’s, “The God I Don’t Understand: Reflections on Tough Questions of Faith”.

  • Default user Photo

    By Christopher Kou on 12/06/2013 at 03:29

    Thanks for posting.  I do think Wright has some . . . right things to say.  I just wanted to point out that God did not threaten Moses for not BEING circumcised.  He threatened him for not circumcising his son.  Anyway.  Blessings!

  • Jez Bayes Photo

    By Jez Bayes on 12/06/2013 at 16:36

    For info, a good companion piece to this, and in which NTW himself references this post, is found here:
    http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/ask-nt-wright-response


    [NB: Apologies to all strict Complementarians, who may not feel free to read that post as it’s hosted by a woman.]

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