Marcion and the first ecumenical councils

Often people have thought that the councils like that of Nicea 325AD were all about exclusion and making a narrower definition of Christianity because they usually condemned some teaching as heretical, and the first council is no exception because of its opposition to Arianism. But it is my suggestion that these first councils were more about opposing people like Marcion of Sinope who tried to cut Christianity down to something smaller, rejecting the majority of the Bible, for example. After all, the councils did bring together the patriarchs of the church from around the known world to see what they could all agree Christianity was about. It certainly seems to me that the creeds they came up with were pretty minimalist.

To be sure this is not what the later councils were about. Starting with the council of Ephesus in 431 AD branches now grouped in what is called Oriental Orthodoxy were cut off from the rest of Christianity starting with the Church of the East also known as the Eastern branch of the Syriac church over the objections of Nestorius to the idea that Mary is the “mother of God.” Next it was the council of Chalcedon 451 AD which cut off the rest of Oriental Orthodoxy over the teaching of Cyril of Alexandria that human and divine natures were united in Jesus. This trend reaches its ultimate end when the patriarch of Rome decided the opinions of the other patriarchs were no longer needed and we have the Great Schism 1054 AD separating Roman Catholicism from Eastern Orthodoxy over the adoption of the filoque clause into the creed. From then on the RC held its councils by itself to decide what to be considered Christian and to call them ecumenical is rather laughable.

It has been mentioned to me that others have some sympathy for Marcion because so much of the OT is downright nasty as well as hard to swallow. But I think there is much of value in the OT and we simply need the caution that Jesus should be our gold standard and lens through which the OT should be read.

1 Like

I no nothing about such topics, but watched a few of the other videos (not knowing how to judge the substance) from this channel and wanted to know what you thought about them. He did one on Marcion:

This video makes Marcion practically sound like a Gnostic and I am not sure whether even that should be taken seriously. All I know for sure is that he didn’t like the OT and he may very well have compared the God of the OT to the Gnostic idea of a demiurge. He only favored the gospel of Luke with portions taken out and ten of Paul’s epistles.

If he really was as much of a Gnostic as critics claim then I cannot have much sympathy for him. But even just his effort to cut away so much of Christianity down to just what he liked is enough reason to see him as a bad example which greatly needed some opposition. And it is also a reason to applaud the ecumenical councils and the much larger canon they accepted.

I love the OT so much that I did a reverse Marcion and became a B’nei Noach. It’s true that there are many things in the Tanakh that are hard to swallow. For me this includes animal sacrifice, the Cherem, and racism, but even these facts are contrary to the core principles of the text. The Tanakh has many great lessons which should not be dismissed, including, avoiding selfish intentions (Genesis 11), avoiding lust (Genesis 6:1-4) and remaining steadfast to God in the face of all adversity (Book of Job). There are also many great hero stories, such as Samson and David, who alongside being great heroes, are also flawed heroes we can relate to.


There is no doubt that I like the NT more, with Romans, Matthew, and John being my favorites. Though it also has some parts I like least such as 1 Tim 2:11-15. In the OT my favorites are Isaiah, Genesis, and Job. However I must also admit that I tend to be somewhat suspicious and even disproving of those who dwell too much on OT law (Deuteronomy and Leviticus) or in the NT Revelation, for I don’t think this reflects a good understanding of the essence of Christianity.


I have read a very compelling minority report that says how impactful these councils were, especially Nicea. This is a series of books from Robert Sträuli starting with “Solomo Die Koenigsquelle”, “Paulus Der Wiedergeborene Saul” and finally “Origines Der Diamante” He explains how the councils were responsible for the fragmentation that we have in Christianity today.

Sträuli reports that Marcion was the first to make the trinity a part of Christianity and made the teaching of everything else illegal. By the 5th century, all of the documents conflicting the trinity had been “corrected” to reflect the doctrine. Since it was illegal for a scribe to copy anything the conflicted with the trinity doctrine, the courter points were erased by omission.

Thank you for the posts above, @mitchellmckain, which taught me somewhat but are also over my head in some details about church history!

Here’s a note by Pete Enns that helped me too. It’s interesting as well because Andy Stanley, a popular evangelical pastor whose satellite congregations span a huge territory, reportedly has been de emphasizing the OT. Folks at my church (which tends to take the cherem pretty seriously and, with discomfort, accept it as God’s will–though I don’t) were concerned about it and discussing it last Sunday.

It must be a good day. Learned two new words alien to me : Marcionite and cherem. Make that three, when I googled cherem, I misspelled it cherum and now know that is a cross between a cherry and a plum. Why that fruit was an issue at church had me confused until I corrected the spelling.


Oh, that’s the pits! (sorry for the pun). Quite ap-peeling note, though.
I never knew about the “cherum.” Neat.

I didn’t know of the cherem spelling either, except I figured it was like challah spelling with the glottal ch instead of H!

addendum: others say Stanley is definitely NOT Marcionite.:slight_smile: Here’s the sermon which I’m still listening to
and here is a rebuttal saying he is NOT. I have sympathy to that.

And honestly, Marcion probably meant well (though Michael Bird called him a “fruitcake” in “Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy”)–it was a big part of the early NT church to believe this. The “rule of faith” wasn’t written down and, I think, meant that you acknowledged Jesus as Lord and not Caesar. It’s later that the creeds got more confusing.

Marcion was excommunicated around 144 AD. The council of Nicea didn’t address his teachings. Marcion taught that the Old Testament god was mean, jealous, nasty, violent, and tribal. But there also existed a different god-- the kind, benevolent god of the New Testament. The God of Jesus was the latter God, of course. And like Thomas Jefferson on steroids, Marcion excluded from the Bible the parts he didn’t like-- the Old Testament and some other books, cutting it down to manageable size. The problem is, The Bible of Jesus was the Old Testament. And there is grace in the Old Testament and judgement in the New Testament.

All in all Marcion was wonderful! My favorite Marcion, in fact.


These controversies are interesting because they are two ends of a spectrum. Nestorius seemed to be saying that the God-nature and human-nature were so separated that the baby in Mary’s womb was only human, while with Cyril of Alexandria they were going to the other extreme of saying there was no separation at all. Personally I would tend to agree a little with both. Calling Mary the “mother of God” doesn’t seem right to me but neither is it correct to say the baby in the womb was only a human part of Jesus, so I would tend to agree with Cyril that there was no separation, though I would tend to explain the whole thing a bit differently.

Limitations are a part of human nature as living beings. We start very small, from next to nothing and we grow and learn to become more. This is an essential part of what we are. But God has no inherent limitations, not even ones which make limitations impossible. Therefore, there is an incompatibility which only goes one way. Human beings cannot be God – not ever, but God can be a human being if chooses – completely and truly 100% human with all of our limitations. I am not sure that talking about this in terms of a separation between natures is helpful.

Frankly, I think that in all of this, these theologians were in way over their heads and in trying to nail these things down they were like ants trying to understand General Relativity. So the fact that they would get so upset about their little pet theories and excommunicate people on that basis was a bit infantile. And it is hardly surprising that the official accepted position went back and forth from one extreme to another.

1 Like

I wouldn’t call sincerely held beliefs “little pet theories.” Also, in what way did the official accepted position go back and forth from one extreme to another?

Since you don’t seem to trust anything I say, you can look up the story of Nestorius and Cyril of Alexandria for yourself. First Cyril condemned Nestorius in the council of Ephesus 431 but then others became angry with Cyril claiming Nestorius was condemned improperly and thus it was the teachings of Cyril which were condemned in the in the council of Chalcedon 451.

It takes much more than just “looking up the history” on wikipedia to understand what happened at the early councils. You have to remember that those who were declared heretics have little to no evidence left so we can see their points of view. All we know is that a majority were against their teachings. How often has the majority been wrong in history or now? Just look at the cost that Galileo had to pay to demonstrate a scientific fact. Without his close friend, they would have executed him for saying the sun is center of solar system.

Please read the minority reports of all those who were summarily declared heretic before being quick to accept “the history”. Origen of Alexandria is the perfect example. He is a heretic, declared in 543 AD by the emperor himself. But he is also widely recognized as one of the most brilliant church fathers. Joan of Arc is another medieval example misuse of church power. It is easy to sit back today and search the web for answers, but very few seem to understand what was at stake. It wasn’t the Word of God that was at stake, it was God’s power on Earth that was at stake - who would wield it. Not even the savior of France would stand in its way.

1 Like

I don’t have to look up this on the internet, as we had classes on the formation of orthodoxy at church. Things could indeed get nasty and even violent at these ecumenical councils. The 4th ecumenical council, the Council of Calcedon in 451, rejected the monk Nestorius and his teaching, and Nestorius and his followers got kicked out.

However…the Nestorians were recognized by the Islamic Caliphate in Persia, and were even allowed to send missionaries to China and India!!! There are archaeological remains of a Nestorian church in China.

Most Christians today recognize the first 4 ecumenical councils , including Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, and probably some Evangelicals.

1 Like

Bart Ehrhman has an interesting chapter (“At Polar Ends of the Spectrum: Early Christian Ebionites and Marcionites”) in his book Lost Christianities. Ehrman makes it clear that Marcion not only rejected the Jewish Scriptures, he rejected pretty much everything Jewish, including the Jewish God and Jesus’ own Jewishness.

Marcion’s revised canon consisted of only eleven books: 10 letters ascribed to Paul plus a revised version of Luke. Mark, Matthew, and John weren’t in his canon. Marcion also removed all references from Paul’s letters that “affirm[ed] the material world as the creation of the true God,” as these references inconveniently contradicted the anti-Jewish theories Marcion was putting forward.

There are strong grounds for putting Marcion in the Gnostic camp.


Interesting. I’ve never seen this said about Marcion. William G. Rusch’s The Trinitarian Controversy includes some of the earliest writings that laid the groundwork for the Trinitarian doctrine, but among the earliest theologians he mentions, Marcion isn’t among them. Perhaps this is because Marcion was declared a heretic very early on.

I, Sträuli and others are of the opinion that you should not disregard any of the heretics. In today’s courts we would have a copy of the evidence against the accused. From these early councils we do not have the evidence because the “heresy” was destroyed. Have a look at Mark Twain’s Joan of Arc to get an idea of the flimsy evidence that was used to burn the savior of France at the stake. It wasn’t any different during any medieval times.

Hi Shawn,

A lot of the evidence about those whose theological positions were rejected can be inferred – at least in a partial way – through the writings of those who argued against the positions that were eventually rejected. Historians use this technique all the time. So a major reason we know about the Marcionites is that Tertullian wrote five volumes to attack Marcion and his theories, and we still have what Tertullian wrote. So historians have a pretty good idea what Marcion was saying, though you always have to take polemics with a hefty dose of salt.

The early Christian writings – both those that were accepted as orthodoxy and those that weren’t – make for fascinating reading because they show us the questions people were asking about God. As far as I can see, most of the questions haven’t changed much over the centuries.

1 Like

Yes, since Origen of Alexandria, no new questions or theories have come into Christianity because he was so thorough and complete in his analysis of all of them. Of his 6,000 works, very few survived the council in his original Greek. You have to understand that most of the remaining ashes were dogma adjusted. So even though we can read his works today, his core augments are gone. Only hints of the teachings that convinced so many followers can only be found in the Anathematisms against him.

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

This is a place for gracious dialogue about science and faith. Please read our FAQ/Guidelines before posting.