Heretics: The Other Side of Early Christianity

Heretics: The Other Side of Early Christianity

Dackson, Wendy

Heretics: The Other Side of Early Christianity. By Gerd Ludemann, translated by John Bowden. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1996. xvi + 335pp. $24.00 (cloth).

Gerd Ludemann has expended considerable energy in exploring the hearesies of the early church in the more than twenty years since the appearance of his 1975 work on Simon Magus. In the present study, the author once again takes up a challenge that was issued in 1934 bv Walter Bauer that te early Christians who acquired the label of “heretic” deserve to be considered in light of their own time, and not judged lav the criteria of (usually) later “orthodox” thinkers to determine the value and acceptability of the doctrines they promoted (9). In stronger terms, Ludeman challenges the rE ader to reject the previously commonplace notion that heresy is inevitably a rebellion against orthodox; instead, any attempt at a “liing -view of religion” is bound to result in a judgment of heresy (216).

Ludemann insists that in the first two centuries of Christian history, there was a high level of uncertainty concerning what would eventually emerge as acceptable doctrine, and that the early heretics actually made significant contributions to the emergence of orthodox teaching and practice. This assertion is supported through his consistent application of what appears to be a sociological definition of heresy that which “denotes deliations from a view or norm of behaviour which is generally declared to be valid`(citing Schindler)”(8). Bv adhering to this definition, the author can claim that the apostle Paul and his followers were also heretics, in that they deviated from the norms of Jewish custom (circumcision, dietary laWS and the like) embraced In the first generation of Christians in Jerusalem. There is actually some rationale for using a definition such as this to indicate what is meant when the ‘ord “heresy” is applied to the earliest Christians. If a more “theological” terminology is used, such as “formal denial or doubt of any defined doctrine of the [Catholic] faith” (as in the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church), heresy is a barely applicable category: one can hardly deny, doubt or even deviate from a doctrine which has not yet been defined, and a judgment of heretical thinking can only be made retrospectively. Ludmann therefore requests the reader to refrain from using the term “heresy” or “heretic” when referring to the earliest Christian controve.rsialists, is he believes the terms are anachronistic, misleading, and dismissive of any positive contributions that such thinkers have made to the continuation of the faith.

Perhaps the most controversial proposal in Ludemann’s book is contained in Chapter 6. The Arch-Heretic Marcion and his Time.” The author argues that without the influence of Marcion, the Pauline letters would not have survived in the New Testament canon, and indeed, that the more “orthodox” authorities of the early Church may never have been prompted to define a canon of Christian scripture at all (lfi i ). Largely on the basis of this contribution, Ludemann asks the reader to repeal the judgment of heresy against Marcion, and indeed, to repeal such a judgement that has been made against any of the heretics up until the end of the second century (219).

There is a value in challenging some of the previously held assumptions concerning the chronological priority of orthodoxy over heresy, as well as in the call to examine the historical and social setting of the early heretics to determine what problems they were attempting to address. However, difficulties remain in ihc motives and methods which both undergird and undermine Ludemann’s text. The most notable among these is the author’s insistence upon removing any doctrinal or ecclesiastical influence from the examination of the heresies and heretics, as it is his opinion that this is antithetical to responsible historical study: “The historian who constantly puts a dogmatic weight in the scales in order to weigh his historical object lacks any real historical understanding” (7). In other words, the Church must not be judged by the Church’s own criteria, aud centuries of theological reflection and articulation of faith must not enter into judgments concerning the history of the Church The notion that God, in the person of Jesus Christ, is present and active in the Church by faith, must at all costs be rejected in the interest of academically responsible historical reflection. What is called for is a profane history of Christianity as a social phenomenon, one which accepts only those aspects of Christian belief and teaching which can be based on the “reconstructed picture of the historical Jesus” (213).

Ludemann’s text is heavily documented, with nearly a third of the volume dedicated to appendices, extensive end-notes, and indices. The book is likely to be of interest to a scholarly audience in early Christian history, but owing to the polemical tone, should be balanced by study of more moderate writings on the subject of heresy and its role in Christian origins.


Marquette University Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Copyright Anglican Theological Review, Inc. Summer 1998

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