I was answering an email in great haste earlier today, which contained the assertion that heretics like Marcionites or Valentinians (there was no specific) referred to themselves as Christians. I think that I sort of assented, or at any rate did not disagree, in the rush to disagree with other parts of the email.
But I found myself wondering. Do we know that this is true? Did they, in fact, using the word for themselves?
We are accustomed to different church groups all identifying themselves as Christians. We are accustomed to modern heretics — liberal clergy who endorse unnatural vice and don’t believe in God — demanding indignantly to be referred to as Christians (to the amused cynicism of everyone else). But … do we know that the same was true in antiquity? For antiquity was a different world, and anachronism is always our enemy.
Modern heretics demand the Name, because the name of Christian has a residual positive image in the modern western world: what was once Christendom. But in ancient times, was this the case? After all, “christianus” was the name of an illegal cult: non licet esse vos, — you are not allowed to exist, the pagans jeer in the pages of Tertullian’s Apologeticum.
The heresies essentially were pop-pagan philosophical schools, which is, of course, why the early Christians referred to them by the word “haereses”, used, with no pejorative context, for those schools. But every philosopher made his living by teaching pupils for pay. And what he had to teach was his own special teachings. If he was the disciple of some famous earlier philosopher, he would innovate, unless he inherited the school from his master, in order to attract pupils and distinguish himself from other pupils. To such people, a fresh source of ideas, such as Christianity, was just grist to the mill. It is telling that the same is true of gnostic groups. The disciples of Valentinus, such as Apelles, did not teach classical Valentinianism, but their own flavour of it.
In each case, the members of the heresy were not a church in the way that a modern church is organised. They were more like “hearers”. The loose organisation of these groups is commented on by Tertullian in De praescriptione haereticorum, who in chapter 6 lists the old-time philosophies from which the new heretics draw their teaching, and towards the end remarks on this lack of structure and definition.
Someone following a school would usually take, I believe, the name of his master, or of the school. Thus we have the cynics, the Stoics, the Epicureans, and so forth.
Likewise in Corinth, Paul has to tell the Christians not to do the same. “I follow Paul … I follow Apollos …” is perhaps the same tendency.
So … do we know that heretical groups generally did not do the same?
When I read Ephraim the Syrian’s Madrasha 22 against heresies, I do not find that the Marcionites are saying “We are the Christians”. What they are saying to the Christians is, “You are the followers of Palut”, an early Bishop. And Ephraim spends a lot of time telling the Christians of the 4th century NOT to name themselves after anyone but Christ. Do other patristic writers witness to this sort of thing, I wonder?
Did the Valentinians generally call themselves “Valentinians”, perhaps? Or the Marcionites “Marcionites”? What is the data, I wonder?
Of course the heretical groups of this period mainly sought to influence Christians, to persuade them to sacrifice and to take on board pagan teachings of one sort of another. So perhaps it is possible that they found it useful to claim the Name. I don’t know. What we need to see, as always, is evidence.
As ever, we need to be so wary of an unconscious anachronism.
UPDATE: See the comments for a couple of examples. The most interesting is that in the Life of Persian Syriac saint, Mar Aba.