In the Footsteps of Marcion: Notes Toward an Understanding of John Yoder’s Theology

John W. Miller

The Conrad Grebel Review 16, no. 2 (Spring 1998)

John W. Miller is Professor Emeritus in Biblical Studies at Conrad Grebel College. He continues to teach at Blenheim Retreat and Bible Study Center and Waterloo Lutheran Seminary.


In the process of learning from and coming to terms with John Yoder’s vibrant, complex theological legacy, I have found it helpful to pay attention to what he has to say about Marcion, the second century Christian leader, in his Preface to Theology, Christology, and Theological Method.1 This was, I believe, Yoder’s only published work in systematic theology and thus affords us a unique window into the substructures of his thought. Yoder’s comments here are especially illuminating because of Marcion’s critical role in the formation of the church’s scriptures. To begin, I will give a brief sketch of the more traditional views of this historic figure, since Yoder’s comments about him diverge from these in ways that are significant and illuminating.

Through his reading of Paul’s letters, especially the letter to the Galatians, Marcion came to the startling conclusion that the punitive, lawgiving creator God of the Jewish scriptures (his perception) was not the same God as the non-judgmental, non-violent God of love who had revealed himself in and through Jesus Christ.2 To be faithful to this revelation, Marcion concluded, the churches must divest themselves of the Jewish scriptures (still in use in the churches) and replace them with a canon-codex made up of only authentic texts that faithfully represented this new revelation.3 His specific recommendations were that this new codex should consist of Luke’s Gospel and ten letters of Paul, edited to eliminate the Jewish accretions. In preparation for such a momentous undertaking, Marcion wrote a treatise entitled Antitheses in which he systematically identified the differences between Israel’s God and scriptures and the God who had revealed himself in Christ. Following the abrupt rejection of his proposals by the elders of the church of Rome to whom he had carefully presented them, Marcion turned elsewhere and began propagating them throughout other regions of the church–and with such success that, for a time during the second half of the second century, historians believe “in numbers alone the Marcionites may have nearly surpassed non-Marcionites.”4

In the midst of this volatile situation people alarmed by these developments wrote major, watershed treatises opposing Marcion and others of similar persuasion (Irenaeus’s Against Heresies and Tertullian’s Against Marcion are among them). Marcion’s position, they pointed out, was a novelty. Nothing like this had ever been thought or promulgated before by any of the church’s apostolic leaders. What an honest, open-minded reading of the church’s apostolic scriptures will reveal is that the God whom Jesus called Father is not a new God, but “one and the same” as the God of Israel known through Israel’s scriptures (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 4, 32.2). Believing this to be so, church leaders opposing Marcion’s ideas produced and published a new canon-codex, one that included four Gospels, the book of Acts, several general letters, additional letters of Paul, and the book of Revelation, plus a full collection of Israel’s scriptures (the very ones that Marcion had wanted rejected), making this by far the largest single-volume codex (or book) ever produced.5 As it turned out, this proved to be the church’s most effective “instrument” (Tertullian’s term) in its life-and-death struggle with Marcion’s ideas and with others of similar persuasions.6


I will turn now to what Yoder says about Marcion in his Preface to Theology. There Marcion is introduced as the man who developed the first canon, but not for the reasons generally attributed to him.7 While Marcion did want “to distinguish clearly between Paul and the rest of the contemporary writings and between the Old Testament and the New,” Yoder states, this was not because he was “against the Old Testament” or that he was “anti-Jewish.” True, Marcion “wanted to contrast the God of the Old Testament with the God of the New.” True, “he wanted to get all the Jewish traces out of the New Testament as well.” But Marcion’s chief concern was “to get some solid footing amidst the growing pluralism.” Where “it started” with Marcion, Yoder continues,

was simply that in this vast mass of literature which was developing, he wanted to know where the court of appeal was. What is the criterion which can show us the truth in this pluralistic mess of many kinds of literature, saying many kinds of things, even contradictory things? How is the church to find its way? Well, Marcion says, let us do it by distinguishing between the authoritative literature–mostly the writings of Paul–and the rest.8

This is a radically different picture of Marcion’s thought and motives than the one usually painted. What we know about Marcion is almost entirely derived from the writings of those who opposed him, and they, as noted, express alarm over his stark bifurcation of the church’s God and the church’s scriptures from Israel’s God and scriptures, and over his rejection of those scriptures. So, in attributing other motives to Marcion, Yoder appears to be shaping a picture of these developments that is expressive of his own theology. This seems evident as well in how he characterizes the church’s response to Marcion. The “so-called orthodox church” which rejected Marcion’s proposals, he states, “still had to respond to him in the same language. This meant drawing up their list, which in addition to Paul had the other epistles and the Gospels.”9 Yoder does not mention that “their list” also included all the very scriptures of Israel that Marcion had wanted excluded, nor that the church opposing Marcion went on to publish an alternative canon-codex in which books later called the New Testament were added to this full edition of these older Israelite scriptures. All this is simply passed over.

Instead, in his further discussion of these developments, Yoder emphasizes that the church’s canonical list continues to be fluid, and states that such was the case until the sixteenth century. Until then, he says, “there were variations [in canonical lists], and there still are between Protestants and Catholics.” In fact there never was “a ruling on the Old Testament. We have no Christian statement on the Old Testament Canon except by taking over Jewish traditions. It was never decided by any church.”10 So, “the Canon is a very human, very historical thing,” he concludes, “never decided by any church.” These latter statements are especially noteworthy. For Yoder the status of the Old Testament part of the Bible was, is, and remains undecided. That the church of the second and third centuries produced a Bible with these scriptures in it and that this Bible was subsequently accepted by churches worldwide does not count for him as a “ruling” or “decision.”

Yoder’s concluding references to Marcion occur a few pages later where he addresses the need “in this vast mass of literature” for a line of interpretation by which to differentiate orthodoxy from heresy. Here the initial point made is that we do in fact need such a line of interpretation “which would represent the norm” and by which “every group” which “wiggles and wanders and gets more or less unfaithful” can be called to faithfulness.11 “Then,” Yoder explains, “there would be points at which that erring position is called back to the norm”–and adds: “Back to the norm means restitution, renewal.” At this point he states again his belief that this is what Marcion was trying to do. “He said, ‘our church is getting confused, it is getting paganized, it is getting mixed up with several concepts of God, so we will have to go back to the norm which is the preaching of the apostles, and slough off, or pare off, everything that is not a part of that.’” Yoder continues:

When the second and third century churches said, “No, Marcion, your Canon is too small, we have the right Canon,” they were still doing the same thing. They were getting back to the norm, to the standard, from which the deviations were to be judged.12

So here again Yoder thinks of Marcion as someone who is simply calling the church to be faithful. Indeed, his statement suggests that Marcion was a pioneer in the quest for a norm of faithfulness, not the heretic he has been made out to be. Yoder concludes his discussion on this note. Throughout church history, he says, there have been times of wandering and times of renewal. He rejects the notion that all streams of interpretation are right: “It is not simply a matter of a line going on and being right or all the lines going on and being right together.” Yoder was opposed to “ecumenical pluralism, where you say ‘we need all these lines.’” Rather, in his view, “the church is either unfaithful or restored to faithfulness”–and “there is one thing God is continually doing and that is calling the church back to faithfulness.”13

After making this point Yoder identifies those who have been instruments of such renewal and return to faithfulness. “If what God does is continually to restore the church to faithfulness–it happens in the Reformation, it happens in the Anabaptists, it happens in John Wesley, it happens in Marcion, it happens in between in Francis of Assisi–then that pattern of reaching back to the norm is a fundamental element of our church history, of our theologizing.” Thus Marcion was not the heretic Irenaeus and Tertullian made him out to be–far from it. He was the first in a long line of church reformers whom God has raised up to call the church to faithfulness.


Yoder’s words about Marcion seem descriptive of how he viewed himself and his own calling. He too felt called to summon the church back to a norm of faithfulness as this had come to expression in the Anabaptists, in Wesley, in Francis, in Marcion. Yoder of course did not speak out against the Old Testament as Marcion did. However, he did believe that the church had never declared itself with respect to the canonical status of this part of the Bible and viewed “the story of Jesus” as a “canon within the Christian canon” that stands in judgment over later decisions of the church as to what should or should not be included in its Bible.14 He also shared Marcion’s conviction that the revelation of God in Christ superseded all others. In Yoder’s theology, as in Marcion’s, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the subsequent mission of those disciples who were truly loyal to his mission, marks the beginning of a wholly new aeon in human history.

The rationale for this theological perspective is set forth and emphasized in Yoder’s Preface to Theology, the subtitle of which is Christology and Theological Method. Theology begins with Christology, the author points out there, since this is what was central to Christ’s first disciples.15 What they were supremely concerned about was the revelation that broke into their lives through Jesus Christ. This superseded everything else, as can be seen from John 1, Hebrews 1, Colossians 1.16 There we learn that Jesus Christ is over and above everything. This too is what the Apostle’s Creed is about, rightly understood–its opening statement about “God the Father, almighty creator of heaven and earth” is “really not much more than a prologue to the statements about the Son.” It was this second article about the Son which was “the nucleus around which the rest of the creed gradually developed.”17 There is “no independent doctrine of the Father, or of the Spirit . . . . The earliest creeds of the church were simple statements about Jesus,”18 and what these assert is that the revelation of God in Jesus Christ supersedes and transcends all other revelations.

Yoder specifies that this is even true with respect to the God of Israel. What proved so offensive to the Jewish people about the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, he believes, was this very issue. They were not prepared to accept these messianic claims of total authority over everything else. For the Jews, he explains, their creator God was supreme. “‘No,’ the apostles say, ‘Christ has fulfilled the expectation of the old monotheism which says there is only one God, and he has revealed in His own person the working of God in our time.’” “Thus,” Yoder declares, “in addition to a doctrine of preexistence to place Christ above pagan worship of creation, we must also have a doctrine of fulfillment to place Christ above the Old Testament story.”19 It is on this foundation of the solitary absoluteness of the revelation of God through Christ that Yoder erects his theological, social, and political vision and ethic.

What is it that God has revealed through Jesus Christ, according to Yoder? This unprecedented revelation has to do with one thing primarily: the incarnation of how God deals with evil. “The cross,” writes Yoder in one of his many essays on this theme, “is the extreme demonstration that agape seeks neither effectiveness nor justice and is willing to suffer any loss or seeming defeat for the sake of obedience.” Then he adds: “But the cross is not defeat. Christ’s obedience unto death was crowned by the miracle of the resurrection and the exaltation at the right hand of God.”20 Furthermore, “The same life of the new aeon that was revealed in Christ is also the possession of the church, since Pentecost answered the Old Testament’s longings for a ‘pouring out of the Spirit on all flesh’.”21 With the coming of Christ, with his call to non-violent love as the way of confronting evil, with his demonstration of that way through the cross, with the vindication of that way in the resurrection and its empowerment through the Holy Spirit, a new aeon has begun in the life of the world in which non-violent love is the norm, and growing numbers of people are enlisting in this way in the midst of the old aeon now passing away.

Seen in this light, nations which enforce laws in the old vengeful pre- Christian manner epitomize the old aeon that is passing. Paradoxically, Yoder recognizes the need for such states but sees them as part of a fallen structure which Christ as Lord is “harnessing” for the sake of the church. “Vengeance is not thereby redeemed or made good,” he writes; “it is nonetheless rendered subservient to God’s purposes, as an anticipation of the promised ultimate defeat of sin.”22

There are ambiguities in Yoder’s thinking at this point. On the one hand, with the New Testament Yoder affirms “the necessity of orders and organization based on power in social relations”23 and can say that “when God’s will is communicated to man or men in their rebellion, neither God nor His ultimate will changes, but His current demands take into account the nonbelief of the addressee . . . and therefore stay within other limits of possibility.”24 This would suggest not only that the state with its use of force to order society is needed, but that God’s will is manifest in the actions of this institution. But more typically Yoder writes that the ordering of society through the state “is the result not first of God’s having willed that it be so, but only of human sin.”25 Seen in the light of God’s revelation in Christ, “any use of the sword to enforce justice is intrinsically self-glorifying and a part of human fallenness.”26 Thus, “we cannot say that God has any ‘proper’ pattern in mind to which unbelief should conform . . . .”27 Christian thinking about the state will not therefore “be guided by an imagined pattern of ideal society such as is involved in traditional conceptions of the ‘just state,’ the ‘just war,’ or ‘the due process of law.’ An ideal or even a ‘proper’ society in a fallen world is by definition impossible.” This is not, Yoder explains, “because definite and knowable understandings of God’s will do not exist, but because such insights are known only in Christ and their application is therefore possible only mediately.”28 Yoder believes that the church can think about and speak to the state only on the basis of “middle axioms” drawn from the teachings and actions of the non-violent Christ. However, “this does not mean that if the criticisms were heard and the suggestions put into practice, the Christian would be satisfied; rather a new and more demanding set of criticisms and suggestions would then follow.” Yoder’s conclusion is that “there is no level of attainment to which a state could rise, beyond which the Christian critique would have nothing more to ask; such an ideal level would be none other than the kingdom of God.”29


I have found many of Yoder’s ideas about the nature and form of the Christian mission to be stimulating and helpful. As one who does not share his beliefs about the Old Testament, I will close with a few thoughts in critique of his theology specifically in this regard. Marcion believed that the God revealed in Christ was pure compassionate non-violent love. Yoder’s beliefs were similar: through Jesus Christ a new understanding of God’s compassionate non-violent way for overcoming evil was revealed to humanity. In both cases these convictions resulted in supersessionist beliefs and attitudes toward Israel’s story, Israel’s scriptures, and Israel’s God. The point at which this supersessionism on Yoder’s part becomes most evident is in his teachings about God’s will for the nations. As we have seen, his views regarding nationstates are fraught with ambiguity and negativity. While acknowledging “the necessity [in this fallen world] of orders and organizations based on power in social relations,” Yoder’s christology (which might be described as a monotheism of the Son) prevents him from according the state a positive role in God’s redemptive concern for and dealings with humanity. As just noted, Yoder rejects even trying to imagine what an ideal state would be like. An ideal or ‘proper’ society is impossible by definition.

The contrast is stark between a statement like this and the witness to God’s will for the nation-states of the world in Israel’s scriptures. There, Israel’s teachers articulate a very different vision and understanding of God’s will for the nations. One notable example is the account of God’s decrees for the nations in Genesis 9:1-6. There God is portrayed as “blessing” Noah and his descendents and instructing them to draw a distinction between killing an animal and killing a human being made in his image. The life of human beings must be accorded the utmost protection. Whoever sheds the blood of a human by a human shall that person’s blood be shed, for in his own image God made humankind (Gen. 9:6). Israel viewed its own history with God (Gen. 12-Neh. 13) as beginning in the midst of existing nations (Genesis 10) to whom a decree like this had been issued centuries earlier. The forceful restraint of violence in the world’s nation-states was thus viewed positively as evidence that a decree of their God was in effect in a world he had determined to care for and sustain despite the evil still lurking in the human heart even after the great flood (Gen. 8:21).30 It was in fact, in their eyes, only when the peoples of the world had begun to implement such decrees that human civilization became possible. Only now could the prior anarchy that had brought the world to the brink of destruction be surmounted, and nations and civilizations arise and spread abroad over the face of the earth (Gen. 10f.).

This theological sketch of the wider world (Gen.1-11) was articulated in its present form in the era of the Persian Empire, during and following the reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah (Neh. 8-10), when Israel’s scriptures were compiled in the form we now have them in the Jewish Tanakh (Law, Prophets, and Writings).31 Since at this time Israel’s kingdom had not been restored, Israel understood its calling not as a nation destined to displace or conquer these nations but as a covenant people who through their walk with God would be blessed and bring “blessing” (Gen. 12:1-3) and a witness (Isa. 49:6) to these nations. When church leaders opposing Marcion added the newer Christian apostolic scriptures to these Israelite scriptures in a single canoncodex (as in our Christian Bible), they thereby codified the church’s story as a continuation of Israel’s story and calling. Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the spiritual empowerment of his disciples, a missionary movement was born that understood itself not as a replacement for Israel’s mission of blessing for the nations, but as its activation and extension (Acts 15:13-21). As Irenaeus among others discerned, there is a vast difference between a view of the Christian story that sees it in these terms and one like Marcion’s that does not.

John Howard Yoder’s theological legacy is compelling the church to reconsider these issues afresh. Indeed, his last published book of essays, For the Nations, indicates that right up to the end he himself was deeply engaged in exploring these very issues in new and creative ways.32 My sense is that the substructure of his theology remained firm and unchanged throughout his long academic career, but he kept continuously building and elaborating in an attempt to clarify and highlight its relevance for church and world past, present, and future.


1John H. Yoder, Preface to Theology, Christology, and Theological Method (Elkhart, IN.: Goshen Biblical Seminary; distributed by Co-op Bookstore, 3003 Benham, Elkhart, IN 46517). This volume “brings together the bulk of the instructional content of a semester course offered . . . from the early 1960’s through Spring of 1981”(1).

2Still the most authoritative account of Marcion’s life and career is that of Adolf von Harnack, Marcion, The Gospel of the Alien God (Durham: The Labyrinth Press, 1990; original German edition, 1924). For a more recent analysis and assessment of Marcion’s teachings, see Stephen G. Wilson, Related Strangers, Jews and Christians 70 - 170 CE (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 196-221. Hans von Campenhausen, The Formation of the Christian Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972) is still the unsurpassed account of Marcion’s role in the formation of the Christian canon; further to these issues, see also my Reading Israel’s Story, A Canon-history Approach to the Narrative and Message of the Christian Bible (Kitchener, ON.: Blenheim Retreat and Study Centre, 1998).

3Edgar J. Goodspeed, Christianity Goes to Press (New York: Macmillan, 1940), believes that when putting his plan for a new canon for the church into effect, Marcion “probably . . . put forth the new scriptures . . . in a single codex” (80). On the invention and burgeoning use of codices (books) in the Christian churches at that time, see note 5 below.

4John J. Clabeausx, “Marcion,” Anchor Bible Dictionary, IV (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 515.

5On this important technological development and its impact on the theology and culture of the churches, see Goodspeed, Christianity Goes to Press; Colin H. Roberts and T.C. Skeat, The Birth of the Codex (London: Oxford University Press, 1983); Harry Y. Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995). The oldest survivng exemplars of these first giant codices are Codex Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus, and Vaticanus. For evidence of the existence of such codices as a distinguishing feature of the Christian churches already in the third century, see my Reading Israel’s Story, 76-78.

6In his Prescriptions Against Heretics, 38 (written about 200 CE), Tertullian credits the church at Rome with having taken the initiative in this monumental endeavor, describing it as follows: “the Law and the Prophets she [the church at Rome] unites in one volume with the Evangelists and Apostles, from which she drinks in her faith.”

7Yoder, Preface to Theology, 115.



10Ibid., 117.

11Ibid, 119.



14On this aspect of his thought, see John Howard Yoder, “The Authority of the Canon,” in Essays on Biblical Interpretation, Anabaptist-Mennonite Perspectives, Text-Reader Series, Vol. I, Willard M. Swartley, ed. (Elkhart, IN.: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1984), 265-90 (especially 284f.).

15Ibid., 7.

16Ibid., 79.

17Ibid., 103.

18Ibid., 76.

19Ibid., 80.

20John Howard Yoder, The Royal Priesthood: Essays Ecclesiological and Ecumenical, Michael G. Cartwright, ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 147.

21Ibid., 148.

22Ibid., 149.

23John Howard Yoder, The Christian Witness to the State, Institute of Mennonite Studies, 3 (Newton, KS: Faith and Life Press, 1964), 31.

24Ibid., 32.

25Ibid., 31.

26Ibid., 38.

27Ibid., 32.



30On the role of these decrees in rabbinic thought, see ‘Noachide Laws,” Encyclopedia Judaica, 12 (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1971), 1189f.

31I have written about these developments in The Origins of the Bible: Rethinking Canon History (New York: Paulist Press, 1994), and more recently in Reading Israel’s Story, Part Two, “The Narrative and Message of the Tanakh,” 17-38.

32John Howard Yoder, For the Nations: Essays Public and Evangelical (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997); see especially ch. 3, “‘See How They Go With Their Face to the Sun,’” 51-78.