Just a few decades after Jesus’ resurrection, a wealthy shipbuilder from the southern coast of the Black Sea in modern-day Turkey stretched the insights of his favorite Christian teacher — the apostle Paul — toward what he understood to be their logical, magnificent conclusion: that the God and Father of Jesus Christ was purely, exclusively gracious, without one iota of wrath or judgment to his name. Enamored with what John Barclay has called “the singularity of nothing-but-benevolence,” the shipbuilder set out to reform the church in Rome in accord with his radical “perfection” of grace. The shipbuilder’s name was Marcion, and he was eventually condemned as one of the first and greatest Christian heretics.
Standing where most of us do, centuries later, Marcion’s condemnation may seem counterintuitive, even ill-begotten. Doesn’t the New Testament stress God’s moral purity and singularly good nature too? “No one, when tempted, should say, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one,” says the epistle of James (1:13). The first letter of John agrees: “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” (1:5); and then adds, more simply, “God is love” (4:8). It was affirmations like these that prodded the early church toward a doctrine of divine simplicity: that God isn’t a bundle of sometimes-jostling attributes but is, rather, sheer Goodness Itself (the capital letters seem unavoidable), unalloyed by any of the mercurial character flaws of the Greek pantheon. Furthermore, some of our most widely read and respected contemporary theologians assure us that the violent judgments attributed to God in the Old Testament were misattributed, being prejudicial projections of vindictive human impulses onto a God whose character is their diametric opposite, and that, in fact, God will graciously save every last human being in the end.
So why, again, did Marcion earn the heretic label? Was he really so misguided to deplore the God of the Old Testament — who “preserves all those who love him, but … destroys all the wicked” (Ps 145:21) — as “judicial, harsh, mighty in war,” as he put it? Was Marcion ultimately wrong to prefer instead the God proclaimed by Jesus, a God who is, in Marcion’s words, “mild, placid, and simply good and excellent”?
Leaving aside the fact that Marcion could only arrive at that character description of the God of Jesus by excising large chunks of the four Gospels (the Jesus of the Gospels talks about judgment in no less scathing terms than the boldest of the Old Testament prophets), it’s worth asking what we lose if we accept Marcion’s theology as a faithful description of the Christian God.
For starters, we lose the assurance that God is able to right the world’s wrongs, to call evil by its real name and to guarantee its eradication. As one recent book on the Bible’s depiction of God insists, “For God to be truly and finally good to his whole creation he must remove from it whatever spoils and destroys its goodness.” If God only shows tenderness and never fierceness and wrath, then what do we say to the 4 million Yemenis who are, at the time I’m writing this, without aid in the midst of a famine, made inescapably lethal by a war now in its sixth year? Will God do — can God do — what the revolutionary Virgin from Nazareth said he would do: “cast down the mighty from their thrones, and … [lift] up the lowly” (Lk 1:52)? To say that God is pure goodness seems to require us also to say that that goodness, when projected onto the rubbish-heap screen that is our world, looks like radical opposition to all that would thwart God’s good purposes for his creatures.
But there’s more. In what has become a justly celebrated passage of his book Exclusion and Embrace, the theologian Miroslav Volf claims that “in a world of violence it would not be worthy of God not to wield the sword; if God were not angry at injustice and deception and did not make the final end to violence God would not be worthy of our worship.” Modern heirs of Marcion who find this idea repugnant should reflect, Volf suggests, on how fashionable talk about “God’s nonviolence” often serves as a covert shelter for human violence: “They deem the talk of God’s judgment irreverent, but think nothing of entrusting judgment into human hands, persuaded presumably that this is less dangerous and more humane — and perhaps more reliable — than to trust in a God who judges!” Then Volf asks us to imagine giving a lecture in a war zone:
Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love. Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home — protected by police and military force! — for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.
Marcion’s message of God’s singular benevolence may seem like good news, in other words, until you find yourself one of the bloodied ones under the altar crying out, “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” (Rev 6:10). Even Marcion’s beloved Paul — whose writings, he argued, weren’t entirely reliable owing to theological corruptions — motivated his hearers to refuse to take up the sword by pointing to God’s promise to deal decisively with evil: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Rom 12:19).
The ultimate reason the “singularity” of God’s grace isn’t as good a message as it first seems, though, has to do with the heart of Paul’s understanding of what Barclay calls “the gift.” If you are captivated by St. Paul’s message of “incongruous grace” — Jesus Christ as God’s gift to the unworthy, to those who could never make themselves fit recipients of it if they tried — then you must also accept the necessary entailment of that message: that God is a righteous judge who does not wink at injustice or immorality, that God’s law names all of us as unworthy, as having fallen short of God’s righteousness (Rom 3:23-26). It is the scandalous and, finally, joyous teaching of Paul that at the same time that God calls us what we really are, without whitewashing the gravity of our rebellion and lostness, God gives us his own Son to be our “righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor 1:30). God is benevolent, yes, but at real cost — a cost God bears himself on our behalf.