Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Marcion: The first "Christian-Deist"?

The Enlightenment theology that drove the American Founding had a number of distinctive attributes: 1. religious liberty, a God who granted an unalienable right of religious conscience; 2. hatred of tyranny, a God who gave people a right to if not revolt or rebel, implacably resist tyrannical rulers; 3. naturalistic rationalism, a God who endowed men with reason to understand "the nature of things" such that these discoveries were "truth" on par with direct revelation; 4. a hatred of creeds, and strong distrust of ecclesiastical authority, leading to embrace of Arianism, Socinianism, unorthodox understandings of the Trinity, and otherwise downplaying the importance of that doctrine; and 5. a focus on God's benevolent nature as a lens through which to understand Him.

One criticism I get when noting these points is that each of the 5 is nothing "new" in that they all predated the Enlightenment in Christendom. I concede such. I think what was novel was the convergence of these 5 during the period historians describe as "the Enlightenment," i.e., when America was founded in the late 18th Century. I don't think you get a religious figure or movement who had all 5 before that.

For instance, for attribute #1. you get Roger Williams and the Quakers, though they didn't speak in the language of "unalienable rights"; for that, turn to John Locke; for # 2. you get the Calvinist resisters (though not John Calvin himself); ditto with the prior point on Locke; #3. you get the Thomists, though America didn't cite Thomas Aquinas, rather they would cite Locke who in turn cited Richard Hooker; but America did cite Aristotle whom Aquinas incorporated into Christendom; #4. you get Arius of Alexandria (256-336 A.D.), the guy against whom the Nicene Creed was written; and #5. it's argued that "benevolence" hardly accurately describes Calvin's God; but many traditional orthodox Christians note not only is their God benevolent, but also point to pre-Enlightenment figures and movements to prove such (I'll leave such examples open to the floor).

But who had all 5 before the Enlightenment? Take, for instance, #2. It's argued the notion of a right to revolt against tyrants (what the Declaration of Independence posits) is from "the Enlightenment." The counter argument is to look to the Calvinist resisters, i.e., Rutherford et al., as the originators. They may have been good on #2, but, as they supported Calvin executing Michael Servetus, they were woefully deficient on #1.

With that, let me focus on #4. Arianism was the form of unitarianism that predominated in both England and New England during the Enlightenment era when America was founded. Jonathan Mayhew and Samuel Clarke were some kind of Arians. Richard Price and James Burgh were distinctly Arians. I can't tell whether John Adams or Ben Franklin were Arians or Socinians. Thomas Jefferson was not an Arian; he rejected that Jesus had any kind of divine nature, though, with Joseph Priestley Jefferson believed in Jesus' divine mission making them both "Socinian."

Socinianism was considered a more radical form of theological unitarianism. The Arians believed in Jesus' divine nature. He was, to them, someone, though not God (but rather created by and subordinate to Him), who preexisted all other creation. Arian Jesus as the Son of God, but not God the Son, first born of all creation and higher in power, nature and authority than the highest of angels, was second only to God.

The Socinians, on the other hand, held Jesus was not at all divine in his nature. His nature was 100% human, 0% divine. But rather a uniquely special Messiah on a divine mission. 

Jefferson has been described as a "deist," even though he didn't call himself one. Jefferson's personal definition of "deism" was simply belief in "One God." Jews, Muslims, Unitarians, Trinitarians, among others, were all "deists" according to this broadest understanding of the term. (Though Jefferson, sometimes frustrated while arguing against the doctrine of the Trinity, accused Trinitarians like Calvin of worshipping three gods.)

Jefferson, like the Socininan Unitarian Joseph Priestley and the Deist, Henry St. John, First Viscount Bolingbroke seemed more radical than what prevailed among the unitarians of the Enlightenment era. Bolingbroke, as a "Deist" was not, from what I can tell, a "strict deist" who believed in an absentee landlord God to whom prayers were ineffective and Jesus was a nobody.

Bolingbroke rather seemed some kind of "Christian-Deist." Admittedly, I have much to learn on him. From what I've seen, his and Jefferson's theology reminds me of that from one of the earliest and most important early Church Fathers: Marcion. (85-160 A.D.).

Marcion was important largely because of his efforts in compiling the New Testament canon. But he was one of the first and most notable heretics. He fit Jefferson's broad understanding of "a deist" because he believed in the "One True God." But he also rejected that the attributes the prophets of the Old Testament ascribed to their deity accurately reflected the benevolent nature of Jesus' heavenly Father. Marcion thought the jealous tribal god of the Jews was a different being than Jesus' Father, the One True God. Though the Jews' lower, imperfect deity, somehow found himself in a position of authority to create and have power over at least parts of the material world. (That is what's known as the concept of the Demiurge.)

Jefferson, Bolingbroke and perhaps Ben Franklin held analogous religious views. Though I can't tell whether Bolingbroke, Jefferson and Franklin would endorse Marcion's precise notion of the Demiurge.

(Franklin at one point in his life endorsed the concept of the Demiurge, but believed the subordinate created deity who governed our solar system was worthy of worship because he was more personal and therefore accessible than the Infinite.)

Jefferson viewed the Jews as "deists" because they believed in "One God." He thought Jesus' role was to reform and correct the errors in their deism. Jefferson held the Jews "had presented for the object of their worship, a being of terrific character, cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust." 

Likewise with Franklin, it's hard to pin him down on the OT. He once said "that the[re are] several Things in the old Testament impossible to be given by divine Inspiration, such as the Approbation ascrib’d to the Angel of the Lord, of that abominably wicked and detestable Action of Jael the Wife of Heber the Kenite. If the rest of the Book were like that, I should rather suppose it given by Inspiration from another Quarter, and renounce the whole."

Jefferson, Franklin and Bolingbroke (if I understand Bolingbroke right) all believed Jesus, regardless of His exact nature was "from God" in some kind of inspired sense. Likewise, I don't know where Marcion stood on the Trinity (I think he predated the formulation of that doctrine). Or, on the question of Jesus' full divinity.

I am not aware of Jefferson or Franklin citing Marcion. Likewise with the English Deists, I'm not aware they cited him; but there is much I don't know there, that for instance Dr. Joseph Waligore could help me with. 

But, as I read what he stood for, Marcion could aptly be described as the first "Christian-Deist." The Christian-Deism of the American Founding that was even more radical than the Arian Unitarianism of that era is traceable to an even older source. To a figure who lived in the first and second centuries and played an instrumental role in formulating the canon of the New Testament.

Marcion and Arius thus were indispensable figures as heretics of the early church. They were the first and most notable of them and laid the path for much to come. The Enlightenment understanding of the dissident theological thought that inspired among others America's key Founders can be traced to them. (Even if Marcion's influence was more "accidental" than named.)

Very old sources indeed.

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