Throughout his papacy, Pope Francis has warned of the return of the ancient heresy of Pelagianism. Pelagius was a fourth-century monk who believed that the human will is capable of attaining perfection apart from God’s grace. In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis writes of the “self-absorbed promethean neo-pelagianism of those who ultimately trust in their own powers.” The Holy Father makes a valid point, to be sure. In my experience as a priest, however, there is another heresy equally prevalent but more hidden which needs to be brought to the light: Marcionism.
Marcion (85–160 A.D.) was a heretic who taught that the God of the Old Testament is a God of anger, while the God of the New Testament is a God of love. Today, the belief is quite common—even among Catholics—that the God of the Old Testament is a wrathful deity, but that Jesus in the New Testament reveals a merciful one, and that the two are somehow distinct.
Who exactly is this God of the Old Testament? In our imagination, we associate the God of the Old Testament, not with Jesus or the Holy Spirit, but with the Father. Therefore, if we misunderstand the God of the Old Testament, we will misrepresent the Father. The most damaging effect of this new Marcionism is the completely distorted view that God the Father is a God of wrath—a God who is not good and who cannot be trusted.
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Some argue that the God of the Old Testament is harsh, angry and punishing. What is their evidence for this view? A highly selective reading of the Old Testament. Proponents of this view adduce arguments drawn from the Hebrew Bible of the severe punishments meted out by God to those who broke his covenant or transgressed his law.
Yet, in the Old Testament, God’s anger was actually an expression of his mercy. His wrath was always directed against sin, evil, and idolatry. For instance, God states in Deuteronomy 13 that if anyone should tempt a person to idolatry, saying, “Let us go and serve other gods,” that person should be stoned to death. It sounds severe, but God has a greater good in mind. The idolatry of the nations included the ritual immolation of babies and other acts of human sacrifice. Would it be better to allow the whole people of God to fall into this kind of idolatry, and that many more people die? By issuing such a warning to a primitive people, God is actually working to save his people from a greater evil. “Purge the evil from your midst,” he commands them.
The sociology of religion also helps us understand the supposed wrath of God in the Old Testament. Religions evolve because people grow in their understanding of God. God does not evolve, but he reveals himself to his people gradually over time, training them over centuries to grow in love for his law. It isn’t God who changed between the Old and New Testaments. Rather, as the people of God learn to trust in a God of mercy, it is they themselves who become more merciful.
An honest reading of the entire Old Testament also dispels the myth of the God of wrath. There are many more passages in the Hebrew Bible where God is revealed as a God of mercy than not. For instance, God definitively reveals himself to Moses in the following words from Exodus: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.”
Of the three Persons of the Trinity, God the Father is the most misrepresented and maligned. We need to restore a true image of the Father. Jesus came for this purpose: to reveal the Father and reconcile us to him. We can almost hear a tearful cry from the heart of Jesus as he prays: “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you.” He longed to make the Father known and loved. The essence of the mission of Jesus was to reveal the Father and to lead prodigal sons and daughters back home to the Father’s heart.
Many unbelievers and lapsed Catholics like to tell their friends that they honor and respect Jesus, but that they have a problem with “God” and religion. Their position is logically inconsistent, as Jesus himself states, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” It isn’t surprising that Marcionism includes a rejection of Christ’s true identity. Marcion did not believe that Jesus was a Jewish Messiah, but rather a spiritual entity sent by the Supreme Being called the Monad. Like Marcion, those who reject the Father unwittingly end up denying Jesus in his true identity as the Son who reveals the Father.
Accordingly, one practical means of rehabilitating the image of the Father is a better understanding of Jesus Christ. I would recommend a reading of the Gospel of John and the many passages in which Jesus speaks of the relationship between the Father and the Son, and their inseparable unity. If it is true that people feel closer to Jesus than to the Father, then let them enter into a deeper relationship with Jesus and allow Jesus to lead them to the Father. He is indeed a God of mercy, first revealed in the Old Testament, then perfectly revealed in the New Testament, the Good News of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.