Niebuhr On The Marcionite Character Of Theological Modernism

A God without wrath bought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.

H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (New York: Harper, 1937), 193. (HT: David Chin)

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. The Marcionite character of theological modernism is the Satanic lie, from the pit of hell, that denies dependence on God in Christ, and claims that we are acceptable on our own merits because we are not sinners when there is no law that must be obeyed perfectly, and therefore no need of Christ as mediator,

    • Angela,
      Studying the Heidelberg Catechism, Part III (LD32-52), I am reminded of God’s Plan in Christ; His Authority rules and orders the believer’s life in Christ. Because of Him we enjoy the assurance of His Grace while seeing the horror of Ps 91, the warning of Pr 14:12, and the blessed submission of Ps 131. His Word teaches believers that we could not enjoy God and worship Him forever, on His terms, if He had not chosen us for a relationship with Him based on the gift of His Son’s Righteousness.

    • You are absolutely right. You must be born again of water and the Spirit before you can see the Kingdom of God. Those who are born again are reborn or made spiritually alive by God’s Holy Spirit so that they can believe like Abraham, their father in the faith.

  2. Hello Dr Clark, sorry I didn’t understand the above quote from Niebuhr. Please can you summarize it so an 18 year old simpleton who’s starting his first year at uni can understand?

    • Toluwan,

      Niebuhr was himself, with his brother Reinhold was an influential theologian in the the USA from 1931-62. He was “neo-orthodox,” i.e., a follower of Karl Barth. This means that he was much more “neo” (new) than orthodox. His most famous book was Christ and Culture but he also published The Kingdom of God in America where he characterized the liberals with the quote above. From the perspective of historic Christian orthodoxy it’s a devastating quote because it so brilliantly describes what the old liberals did. They removed all the offense from Christianity. They stripped out the supernatural. They re-made Christ in their own, “enlightened” image.

      The quote, however, also describe the Marcionite theology from the 2nd century. Marcion set the OT God (Yahweh) against the NT theology of love. He was a radical dualist, who rejected many of Paul’s letters and all of the OT. Influenced by the Gnostics, he remade Christ in his own image. Marcion is recognized as a heretic by all orthodox Christians everywhere. What is amazing is how similar the liberals were to Marcion and how much Marcionite ideas have influenced modern evangelicals too.

      Ironically, even though, as a Barthian, Niebuhr opposed the old liberals, he did not escape their influence. All the Barthians are, in my view, essentially liberals who have a little more sympathy with aspects of historic Reformed theology.

      This essay is a good place to start with Barth:

  3. It seems to come down to what you believe about the bible. The confessions of Reformed theology are the church summarizing and stating the objective truths of God’s Word, which is the bible. Theological modernism is the exact opposite of this approach. It denies that the bible is God’s Word, insisting that the bible is simply the subjective opinion of certain people who wrote down their thoughts about God. You read their thoughts to help you formulate your own subjective opinion about what is true religion. The only constant in this belief system is that it reduces Christ to a good example, and Christianity to moralism, the social gospel, which is a covenant of works for making a better life in this world possible by our works and efforts. Our “salvation” is through loving our neighbor, by making this world a better place. Christianity then has no special status, it is just one in a universe of religions based on moral improvement. Spiritual, eternal salvation by grace, through faith in crucified Savior is foolishness. Why, the very idea that God’s Son would die to propitiate God’s wrath against sinners is a ridiculous form of cosmic child abuse.

    • Angela,
      Isn’t the condition displayed by Marcion and the modernists even more basic than not believing the Bible. They seem neither to have been chosen by God in Christ to believe God and His Word nor to be saved by Grace. They have rejected our LORD, His Law and His Provision of Salvation, and His Spiritual Comfort. Seeing this condition in real time increases my dependence on our Lord for His Will Ps 91:7-8.

      • Catherine,

        Marcion and his followers were condemned by the ecumenical councils so that’s never a good thing. Still, as Angela said, who is and isn’t elect isn’t known to us. The church speaks, when it is being faithful, according to the Word about what is and isn’t so. What the Lord has decreed from all eternity belongs to him. There’s a short list of people whom we know from Scripture (e.g., Judas) to have been reprobate. I would not want to be in Marcion’s shoes but I don’t know the Lord’s hidden decree (Deus 29:29).

    • It all comes down to Spirit enabled believing the Word of God, because of being born again. The Word is the means through which God reveals Himself to us, and the sacraments confirm that He applies its promises to us personally. The church is the vehicle through which it is administered. We are totally dependent on God’s Word to know the truth about Him. That is what is so destructive about modernism and liberalism, it undermines the the truth of God’s Word, the only means by which we can legitimately know God. As Dr. Clark points out, the modernists and liberals substitute a subjective Christ, in their own image, for the Christ God reveals in His Word. They do it by Satan’s old trick, they undermine the Word by asking, “Has God really said?”

    • As far as judging the proponents of modernism and liberalism, only God knows who is elect and who is reprobate. But we can judge that their teaching is in error because it does not accord with the Word.

  4. Dr. Clark,

    Would you say that Barth, H. Richard and Reinhold Niebuhr, et all, throughout the ages, are followers of God’s enemy? Are they stating the message of darkness so that all those who reject God, the Creator, Author and Perfector of Life in Jesus Christ, get to where they are headed without the only God who saves?

    • I see my critical heart is exposed and my view corrected about Scripture and its use. He trains us even to use His Word to edify and limit. Where another’s name is written is not mine to know. This is a blessing.

      Thank you

Comments are closed.