Is the Church Christian?

The late Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote:

“Despite the efforts of Marcion and others to detach Christianity altogether from its Jewish roots, it proved impossible to make sense of the Christian message without connecting it to the history and sacred books of Israel.”

Marcion of Sinope was a 2nd century theologian who believed that Jesus had come not to fulfil the prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures, but to preach a completely different God. This was a loving heavenly Father, radically different from the belligerent, judging God named Yahweh. Christianity therefore was completely discontinuous from Judaism, and so the Hebrew Scriptures could have no place in the Christian canon.

Marcion was denounced as a heretic by the great Church Fathers of the 2nd century, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and Tertullian, and was excommunicated by the Church in Rome in 144 CE; but his teachings were in large measure a catalyst which helped lead to the formulation of the canon which came to be accepted by the orthodox Church. As a result, Christians have always read the Scriptures of both the Old and the New Testaments, making connections backwards and forwards in order to make sense of the whole of God’s revealed Word.

The Reformation in the 16th century enabled people to read the Old Testament in their own language, and this on turn led to a greater interest in learning biblical Hebrew and reading the Hebrew Bible in the original. The writings of the Old Testament were formative not only in the religious thinking of Protestant Europe, but also in their political thinking. The Puritans who drove the English Revolution and the moves towards constitutional monarchy, and in the following century the Founding Fathers of the independent American republic, were all inspired by the Hebrew Scriptures. It is impossible to imagine modern democracy without this biblical foundation.

Yet in the late 20th and early 21st century, developments in Church life and worship have led many churches to pay less and less attention to the Old Testament. The Parish Communion movement first brought about a decline in the services of Morning and Evening Prayer, both of which had included readings from both Testaments. The Eucharist became the main service, and often the only service, that many Christians now attend. Although the Lectionary encourages the use of three readings, Old Testament, Epistle and Gospel, many churches have found this unpalatable. It makes the service unacceptably long. People don’t want to listen to that much Bible. The sermon would have to be shortened, or we would have to leave out a hymn or a ‘time of worship’, and we can’t have that. I’ve heard all these ‘reasons’ put forward. Although many cathedrals still use all three readings, in the church I attend we hardly ever hear a reading from the Old Testament.

What effect will this have on people’s faith, in the long term? If Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is right, it will mean that the Christian faith will become incoherent, it will no longer make sense. Is this why more and more people are simply walking away? In the Evangelical churches, which are often reckoned to be the most ‘popular’, ‘successful’ and ‘growing’, there is an increasing tendency to be almost exclusively Jesus-centred. Instead of worshipping God the Father, we worship Jesus. We pray to Jesus, we sing to Jesus, often calling him our God, we ask Jesus for forgiveness, we use a form of Creed (in which we ‘affirm our faith in God’) which makes no mention of creation or the Father or the Holy Spirit, but only of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

This sickness may very well prove terminal. Because Marcion has won. Many parts of the contemporary Church are not Christian at all: they are Marcionite.

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