Learning to Love the OT in a Marcionite Church

The commenter Walmart Episcopalian has made a great comment down below that shouldn’t get lost. Here it is:

I know the discussion has moved on to the Bishop-elect of Northern Michigan, but I wanted to continue our discussion about the Liturgy of the Word.

I spoke with my Rector about the Liturgy of the Word, following our discussion here. His experience as a lay person and then as a priest tells him that most people are bored by the O.T. and Epistle and perk up during the Gospel because they have a greater sense of connection to it.

I was wondering if the Liturgy of the Word has lost its punch/relevance in a literate, information-saturated society where story-telling is not an exciting break in routine but something against which we learn to defend ourselves. I even wondered, to my shock and surprise, if returning to the proclamation of the Old Testament in the Liturgy was a good thing.

As the first reading, often the most difficult linguistically and most distant culturally, perhaps it causes shut-down among the people and by the time for the Epistle they’ve already glazed over and turned inward.

Also, the majority of Episcopalians I’ve met are crypto-marcionites, or maybe just marcionites. In Adult Ed. I constantly hear about how the God of Love would never countenance the killing of the Hivites, Jebusites, Perrizites, Egyptians, Amalekites et. al. and they simply don’t believe God had anything to do with it. They don’t believe the God of the Holiness Code is the God of Jesus.

They generally like the psalms, however, because most of the psalms address experiences in ways that are comprehensible to them. Except for the ones where the Psalmist curses his enemies or demands death, those make them uncomfortable.

Perhaps adding the OT was a bad idea for our marcionite church. Maybe the Hebrew Scriptures can only come back when the people again believe that the God of Hebrew Scriptures is the God of Jesus.

On the other hand, maybe we need to keep the OT so that we combat the marcionite tendency through proclamation if not in fact. (I would suspect the Bishop-elect of Northern Michigan would not be a big fan of the God of the Old Testament, the God who struck down Uzzah is not a God who trifles with his ‘otherness’ from humanity)

But there’s my current thought, boredom and Marcionism have gutted the liturgy of the Word. I don’t know how this could be addressed in practice. Any thoughts?

Indeed, I think this is of a piece with the issues surrounding the bishop-elect on Northern Michigan. Our people simple don’t know the Scriptures as well as they ought. This is especially true for the Old Testament.

Part of the issue is scope. The New Testament was written in and is concerned with events that happened within a fifty year span and many of the writings—especially the epistles—are focused enough an theological issues that they can be read without a whole lot of appeal to historical context. (Although I’d would never recommend divorcing them from said context.)

The OT is completely different. The events of which it speaks spans over a thousand years and involves a lot of odd places and things done by people with strange names.

I’ve recently come to some conclusions about how biblical teaching should be done in our parishes. I’m still working out how these will look in practice, but here’s the core of my thinking.

Proposal for Teaching the OT to Anglicans

Because of the issue of scope, clergy and congregations need a set of master narratives within which they can locate any particular OT text. These master narratives are:

1. Historical (I.e., an easily understandable grand sweep of Ancient Near Eastern history and Israel/Judah’s place in it.)

2. Geographical (Where the heck is Edom anyway? Or Babylon, Assyria, Carmel, Samaria (which Samaria!), etc.? We need a basic sense of what’s where.)

3. Literary (I.e., what are the major literary divisions on the OT [TaNaK is a good start…], what are the major genres, and what can we expect from these genres?)

4. Theological (I.e., what are the top 5 major themes running through-out the books that help us locate any particular text we read?)

Yes, these are a bit reductionistic—but any big picture view is. As fond as I am of adding nuance, people need a sense of the whole befgore nuance makes any sense.

The way into the whole of the OT is through the Psalms. It’s been observed by ancients and moderns alike that the Psalter is a microcosm of the OT as a whole. One the above four master narratives are in place, select psalms can be used to help familiarize people with how these things look on the ground. You start with the psalms, then move to the other books.

Does that make sense as a start?

15 thoughts on “Learning to Love the OT in a Marcionite Church

  1. Tobias Haller

    Good thoughts, but it seems to me the neglect of the OT begins in seminary. Our present day curriculum comes from a time when the average seminarian had at least gone to Sunday School. I was astonished, over a decade ago, to discover that many of my seminary classmates had no exposure to the Hebrew Scriptures apart from attendance at the Eucharist.

    The death of the daily office as a clergy discipline (let alone for the laity!) is also a part of this neglect. The D.O. brings the psalter and the course reading of Scripture together.

    Hoping not to sound to curmudgeonly… but I see the problem as global, and wonder if we shouldn’t have some kind of pre-seminary basic training to heal this gap.

    I am also setting great store by the quantity of snowballs in Sheol… ;-)

  2. Derek the Ænglican

    I totally agree, Fr. Haller! From my years of teaching seminary, my colleagues and I have observed time and again that most students lack basic catechesis when they come to us.

    We need to:
    1) continue to emphasize the Office for all, and
    2) teach the basics of the Scriptures and doctrine to all.

    Right now, I’m trying to figure out how to consolidate these points into a clear and concise format to teach to clergy who can then teach it to their congregations.

  3. Vicki McGrath

    I couldn’t agree with both of you more, Tobias and Derek. Having those over-arching narratives in place make a huge difference. for instance, in a youth confirmation class, I have the kids make a timeline of Jesus’ life. I ask them to tell me what events they know about/remember and then we put them in their correct place on the time line — and then fill in a lot of gaps! I do the same sort of things for adults, depending on what the particular group or study is. Currently we are doing the patriarchal cycle with the mid-week Bible study, a result of a question someone had about fate vs. faith. We are doing a chapter a week, and I can’t tell you how often I do a mini-refresher (with maps) about where Abraham came from and traveled, etc. But the class is really enjoying it (although this particular group of retired women have some very scathing things to say about Abraham’s treatment of Sarah!).

    I also think that another way to comabt the marcionite tendency is to preach on the hebrew Scripture lesson for the day. I do this ofte, especially in the Season after Pentecost where (at least in the RCL, Track 1) we get an attempt at semi-continuous readings week to week. when this happens, I’ll often follow that track in preaching for two or three weeks. I know there are some who feel that since preaching is supposed to be about proclaiming the Gospel that it means you always preach on the Gospel text, but that only feeds into that marcionite tenendency (to my way of thinking). Preaching the Gospel means that you preach the Good News of God in Christ, which certainly includes the OT witness – otherwise, why ARE we reading it?

    It’s interesting to think that the quotation in the post suggests we don’t know what to do with story, when my homiletics training (admittedly 18 years ago) was all about narrative preaching. We do know what to do with stories, we just haven’t been using them properly – right back to making sure small children are read and told Bible stories from the earliest age (even though that skips over the question of what to do with people who come from a completely unchurched background).


  4. Tobias Haller

    I am blessed — nay, spoiled — by being vicar to a congregation mostly consisting of West Indian and West African Anglican immigrants (some first, many second generation) and a sprinkling of PhD candidates from Fordham! It is such a joy to be able to preach biblically and make allusions without having to stop to explain who King David was. It is also a pastoral joy, especially when doing “sick calls” to have people begin to recite Scripture passages from memory, or finish my sentences when I quote something.

    In the long run I don’t think there is any quick course in biblical literacy — which is why I join in commending the D.O. for all (not just clergy, as the rules still supposedly require in England!) — that daily immersion is an ideal manner of life, or one aspect of it.

    And I concur with V.McG on the use of narrative — and which narratives and metanarratives form and shape our being and doing.

  5. Caelius Spinator


    I think Walmart Episcopalian is making a deeper point. No matter how well you educate people about the OT, they’re still going to be put off by it. The problem is that Marcionism has become a far more vital heresy in the radical democratic societies that have experienced the 20th century. You really can’t go around thinking that its ancient refutations work these days. And this affects the clergy, too, no matter their education. My Rector is a former Baptist. He knows the Bible extremely well and loves the OT prophets, but certain things the God of the OT does clearly do not jive with who he understands the God of Jesus to be.

    I tried to explaining why on my own blog on Saturday and what the theological solution to it is, but my solution started sounding a little extreme.

    Here the Intro:
    When I teach about the symbols of Holy Baptism, I say this concerning water:

    “The baptismal liturgy puts a positive spin on water. It says, “Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of time. Through it, you led the children of Israel out of their bondage in the land of promise…” It does not say “In it, the primeval chaos monster was vanquished. Through it, you drowned Pharaoh and his army.” But we have to remember that water is most fundamentally a symbol of new life emerging from death. We shouldn’t forget the death.” I also talk about how the baptism of infants is a reminder to me of Nicodemus’s question to Jesus about going into the womb a second time and how appropriate it is that birth and creation narratives through salvation history strongly mirror human development and childbirth, culminating in God Himself being born in such a way. But this is neither here nor there.

    What I say about the waters of baptism should be disturbing to my audience. While atheists and agnostics are uncomfortable with the possibility of an omnipotent God who permits death and exclusion, progressive Christians are uncomfortable with the possibility of a God who actively works through death and exclusion. Therefore, progressive Christian theology as a whole tends to excise whatever content of the Faith proclaims such a God. To some extent, I have to applaud the discomfort, for it leads to substantial critique of those who traduce the rights of God and kill and exclude in His name. But if this kind of theology too far, it will become a stumbling block to us, for by forgetting and denying the works of God through death and exclusion, we will seriously misunderstand who he is, his plans for us and creation, and find many stumbling blocks to deep and genuine relationship with Him.

  6. bls

    Caelius’ post explains why I think that liturgy – i.e., the Daily Office and the Eucharist – won’t be enough; that there has to be some teaching about context and culture.

    I am not put off by the OT anymore, although I once was. The key, I do think, was EFM – but also the fourfold exegesis of Gregory the Great, et al., that seems never to be offered anyplace.

  7. Matt Gunter

    Like Tobias, I was appalled to find that many fellow-seminarians were reading whole swaths of the Old Testament, and for that matter chunks of the New Testament, for the first time. I was never more grateful for my Presbyterian/evangelical upbringing – “sword drills”, memory verses, and all.

    A couple of questions come to mind.

    1.To be fair, Marcion wasn’t the only one who found some of those OT passages difficult to reconcile with Jesus as presented in the Gospels and explicated in the rest of the NT. Reading allegorically was one way to make gospel sense of some of those texts. It seems Marcion’s mistake was rejecting the OT and Israel outright and inventing the distinction betwen Yahweh and the One Jesus called Father. But, even the catholic tradition has had to wrestle with how to relate OT to NT. Would a reclaiming of allegorical reading of the OT help?

    2. I wonder if the current practice of referring to Genesis -Malachi as the Hebrew scriptures does not add to the problem. Once they are bound with the New Testament, have the “apocraphal” writings included, and are read publically in the contxt of the Eucharist, do they not become Christian scripture? Which is not to forget that most of what we call the Old Testemant was given to Israel first and continue to be the Jewish scriptures.

  8. Christopher

    Interesting. I hadn’t given this much thought before because as a child, I feasted on the OT, reading the stories over and over again. The best and juciest stories are to be found therein! By comparison, St Paul was boring. In addition to the psalms, I would add the many canticles.

    What this suggests again is that we cannot place all of the educational emphasis on our liturgies, so we need more and regular formation in this regard AND that we do need to emphasize the liturgies we do have–Office and Mass coupled with solid preaching in the latter.

    I might add that Marcionism is deadly because it can contribute to anti-Judaism, and that the Nicene Creed implicitly denies Marcionism:

    “who spake by the prophets.”

  9. bls

    I knew I had posted on the fourfold exegesis before, but couldn’t remember when; here it is.

    I’d like to point out here that everybody – all moderns – read the Bible with a literal eye. Liberals, too; that’s at least part of why they do what they do. That’s what Spong is all about: Biblical fundamentalism.

    I’m not sure if this is a problem specifically of the modern world, or if things have been like this for a long time. (It sometimes seems the latter, to me; otherwise, Enlightenment Deism wouldn’t have come to exist, I don’t think.)

    Granted, there are many areas in which a literal understanding of texts is very important. Medicine, for instance, and in other areas in science. Literalism has been a great aid to the the world in many cases – but literalism in religion doesn’t work and always seems to cause great problems.

  10. Tim Cravens


    Interestingly enough, medieval Jewish exegetes also had a fourfold biblical method of interpretation, even if it wasn’t identical to Christian fourfold interpretation. But recovering the Christian form gives a link to our Jewish heritage and combats Marcionite heresy. Thanks for bringing this up!


  11. Vicki McGrath


    You are right about Biblical literalism being the hallmark of many who are theological liberals. In Bishop Spong’s case (as with others) he traded the conservative Biblical literalism of his childhood for the liberal version. The writer and popular Biblical critic/scholar Bart Ehrman did the same thing. And this is exactly a hallmark of modernism. Its roots lie in the Enlightenment period when the idea that rationality (as opposed to Reason) and the scientific method, broadly speaking, trumped all other methods of inquiry. It took a long time for this Enlightenment perspective to become dominant in the fields of Biblical scholarship and then in theology, and there have been many variations on it, but it does go directly back to the Enlightenment.

    My question is – and I think this has been underlying much of the discussion here in the last few days – how do we proclaim and teach the central theological and spiritual tradition of the Christian faith and the Anglican vocation to it (++Michael’s Ramsey’s phrase)without being dragged down by the weight of social and political conservatism? There are those of us, even on this discussion thread (e.g. women, gay men)who have benefited from the social and political results of the liberal movement. I certainly would not want the Church to turn her back on those benefits. Instead, I think, we need to be doing our theological reasoning from a place of open faithfulness to the tradition which very often does lead to liberative social teaching. Derek’s piece about gay marriage a little while ago (first at the Cafe and then here) is a good example of this.

    Sorry to be so long-winded lately.


  12. bls

    I think you are very right about “open faithfulness to the tradition which very often does lead to liberative social teaching,” Vicki+.

    That’s what Fr. Bill was talking about in the comments on the other thread: Christianity is utterly radical. The problem comes in, I think, when people try to create the faith in their own image, rather than being “open” to the real radical truths it teaches. The thing, I think, is to “supend disbelief” in all sorts of ways – something quite difficult to do, actually! – and start from the beginning again.

    I say this from my own viewpoint as a recovering alcholic in A.A.; that’s what you have to do – stop pretending you know, and start listening – or you just won’t make it. Jesus said this, too: “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”

    The whole point, to me, is that (as I found in my beginning in A.A.), the spiritual life is is “a journey without end.” And who wouldn’t be ecstatic to find that such a journey exists – and to be part of it? Rumi says this:

    “Come, come – whoever you are –
    Wonderer, worshipper, lover of leaving.
    It doesn’t matter.
    Ours is not a caravan of despair.
    Come, even if you have broken your vow

    a thousand times
    Come, yet again, come, come.”

  13. Robb (LP)

    There are already a plethora of resources that do this well. I was always amazed at the folks I led through the CrossWays program who actually began to engage the both testaments, but especially OT material with which they were either unfamiliar or uncomfortable. It is dry to teach at times, but effective.

  14. paulos

    Numbers 31:17-18 “Now therefore kill every male and every woman that is not a virgin. But all the young virgin girls, keep them alive for yourselves!” How can you love that unless you are a murderous paedophile?

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