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.

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Jon Rowe is a full Professor of Business at Mercer County Community College, where he teaches business, law, and legal issues relating to politics. Of course, his views do not necessarily represent those of his employer. ...more →

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7 thoughts on “Marcion and Arius: American Political Theology’s Roots

  1. I recently developed an interest in Panentheism, as it most closely mirrors my own beliefs. There is some evidence to support this was the more specific brand of religion practiced by some of the Founding Fathers.

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    • Intellectually, I’m more of a Deist, ever since I wrote a paper on it in college(*). But when I watch something like Cosmos, I do feel the tug of pantheism. Panentheism seems like a High Church kind of compromise – with a place for both the logical and the ecstatic.

      (*) I saved the reading until too late and ended up getting my thesis exactly wrong. This spurred me to go back and do the reading with even more care than would have been necessary to do the paper right in the first place.

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      • Intellectually I am more of a pantheist but after being raised in the Church my heart feels better as a panentheist. It’s definitely a compromise and I fully acknowledge it may be a placebo effect, or as you say, a sort of compromise between rationale thought and my Catholic guilt.

        It’s interesting how much societal pressure makes Panentheism difficult to admit. It’s almost as though many people in the U.S. are more accepting of atheism than a non-denominational belief in God without Jesus.

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  2. It’s odd that my strongest reaction is to want to rebut Ben Franklin condemning Jael so forcefully. After all, what she did really can only rationally be characterized as “murder,” and perhaps worse, murder in the cause of mere tribalism. But she was a patriot if nothing else, and was celebrated by the Hebrews as such. Wouldn’t we Americans similarly celebrate a Federal-era Jael who had done the equivalent to Lord Cornwallis? Why, then, would Franklin condemn her so?

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  3. Separate comment for a separate subject.

    I’ve seen the term “demiurge” elsewhere but never come across so cogent a definition as here. What it suggests to me is that if the concept was valid at the time, the line between polytheism and monotheism was more than a little blurry in the Bronze Age. The demiurge was not God, exactly, but at the same time kind of was God, just in a lesser form. Not an angel or The Son in a pre-incarnation manifestation, because this is a Unitarian concept, but an individual facet if the somehow more perfect and greater divine entity. Which makes sense and may even be necessary if you’re trying to reverse-theologize your way into justifying something that looks like Unitarian Christianity as it existed in the late Enlightenment.

    …or have I missed something?

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    • There is no question that the line between monotheism, polytheism and henotheism can be blurry.

      In scripture, it’s not presented as “God” on the one hand humans on the other. There is a court in Heaven and God is surrounded by other divine entities.

      “Demiurge” is one of those big words that most people don’t know. In fact I think I may have just learned it this year. (From my research on the Yazidis.)

      I admit I may be playing with the definition. I understand it as some kind of divine intermediary who interacts with man, but is lesser than the Infinite God.

      Arian Jesus could qualify. In researching James Burgh’s Arianism, he argues that Jesus in fact was the Creator of man, but still not fully God. He argued something like God created the matter like clay and Jesus then took the clay and turned it into pieces.

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  4. On another note, I’ll reconfirm my nod towards Chaosium’s ancient game “Credo”. Frankly, it’s not that great of a game as such, kind of a primitive version of Steve Jackson’s “Nuclear War”. It’s just such a brilliant idea – the players compete as the various factions trying to influence the Council of Nicaea, and the end result of the game is the creed that defines Christianity moving forward. Modified from the one in our reality by how successful the Arians or Gnostics or a few sects even more obscure might have been. Some of the smaller cults live or die on a single sentence. It’s brilliant. But I’d rather play Cosmic Encounter.

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