Marcion and Arius: American Political Theology’s Roots
I wrote a longer piece on which this is based at American Creation found here. The overall context explores the notion that the “deism” and “unitarianism” that prevailed among the elite “key Founders” and the philosophers and divines who influenced them was nothing novel to the “Enlightenment period” when this occurred. Perhaps that’s true. Just as the prevailing politics of the American Founding revived the Roman Stoics whose surnames they used when they wrote anonymously, they also revived the theology of Arius (who was named) and Marcion (who tended not to be named) from the early Church period.
Here, I focus on how Marcion relates to such political theology.
Thomas Jefferson has been described as a “deist,” even though he didn’t call himself one. Jefferson’s 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 [Arian theology]. Bolingbroke, as a “Deist” was not, from what I can tell, one 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 is reminiscent of 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. From my limited knowledge of Bolinbroke’s theology it recaptured Marcion’s “up with the God of the New Testament, down with the God of the Old” notion.
(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.”
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 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 don’t think Jefferson or Franklin cited Marcion. The English Deists who influenced them may have. That’s a question I would pose to Dr. Joseph Waligore.
But, as I read what he stood for, Marcion could aptly be described as the first “Christian-Deist”. Ironic. The Christian-Deism of the American Founding, even more radical than the Arian Unitarianism of that era, was anticipated by an even older source. A figure who lived in the first and second centuries and played an instrumental role in formulating the canon of the New Testament.
Marcion. A very old source indeed.