Today we are pleased to share the latest post in our weekly series, Beyond the Book. This month David Wilhite discusses the development of orthodox Christology in light of early heretical movements.
Is Christianity a heretical sect that broke from Judaism? Or, did the religion of Israel effectively end with the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, resulting in two sister religions? Questions about the parting of the ways have proved to be some of the most difficult in the field of early Christian studies. Two heresies in particular bring this question to the forefront: the Marcionites and the Ebionites.
Marcion (allegedly) denounced the God of the Old Testament; thereby rejecting the Jewish scriptures, and sharply dividing Christianity from Judaism. Marcion’s teachings, therefore, represent a form of supersessionism. Marcion’s opponents, however, accept that Jesus is Yahweh incarnate who fulfills the Law both physically and spiritually, so that Yahweh’s word in the Old Testament must be embraced as well (e.g. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho).
God’s people were to offer clean hands and a pure heart; the circumcision was always to be understood as indicating a circumcision of the heart; the whole nation of Israel itself was to be a kingdom of priests, for not all Israel according to the flesh is truly Israel. The key in all of these interpretations is to listen to the Word of God, whether he spoke to the prophets of old or in the flesh.
No supersessionist reading is permissible in light of the belief that there is but one God whose fullness is revealed in Christ. Marcion’s allowance for the Creator to be “superseded” by a second god, Christ, results in a radical departure from what the majority of Christians had known in their faith and practice. In this light, Christology and Christianity as a religion were understood very differently by most early Christians: Christianity is not merely a sect within Judaism, although it was so according to a sociological model; it is an affirmation of the God of Judaism, now said to be known in Christ. That at least is the response to Marcion. What about the Ebionites?
The Ebionites (allegedly) taught that Jesus was a godly prophet. God in a sense adopted Jesus as a son. After Jesus was crucified, God raised him, carried him to heaven, and seated him in the seat of honor. But Jesus was not God. Ironically, even though the Ebionites differed drastically from Marcion by adhering to the Old Testament, they still made the same mistake as Marcion by saying that Jesus was not the Creator-God. Marcion thought the Creator was evil, but that Jesus was a different God. The Ebionites believed the Creator was good, but that Jesus was merely a man.
The Ebionites’ opponents rejected this adoptionistic Christology (real or rumored), along with its implications about the religion of Israel. For the wider Christian movement – even though it consisted mostly of “gentiles,” Jesus fulfills the Law (Matt. 5:17) because he is “more than” a mere prophet or earthly king (Matt. 12:41-42). The LORD himself promised to save us in person (e.g. Isaiah 49:7-26), and Jesus saves because Jesus is LORD (Phil. 2:11).
One last point that can only be mentioned here: a parallel set of questions will arise in the sixth century with the emergence of Islam. How did the earliest Christians and Muslims understand each other in terms of their religion? That is a question that is addressed in the tenth chapter of this work, and the answers given by Christians at that time were far different than the way most Christians think of Muslims today.
David E. Wilhite (PhD, University of St. Andrews) is associate professor of theology at George W. Truett Theological Seminary, Baylor University. He is the author of Tertullian the African: An Anthropological Reading of Tertullian’s Context and Identities and coauthor of The Church: A Guide for the Perplexed. He is the coeditor of Tertullian and Paul and The Apostolic Fathers and Paul in the Pauline and Patristic Scholars in Debate series.