Ketzer-Historie and Ketzer-Lexikon

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Ketzer-Historie and Ketzer-Lexikon was a literary type produced in the 16th century -- the "Catalog of heretics," created out of the utmost hostility against all non-orthodox, primarily non-Catholic Christian groups (including the Lutherans and Reformed). These often voluminous and most uncritical enumerations of heretics were intended to fight all those stigmatized as heretics and if possible to eradicate them. The public should be warned, and to dramatize the danger, the encyclopedic technique of listing all the hundreds of "false" teachers and "damnable" groups of heretics was used. One should remember that liberty of conscience and toleration were yet generally unknown ideas, abhorred and considered as being against all common sense.

Only a few exceptions to this attitude are known: a few humanists (like Sébastian Castellion), then the Anabaptists whose idea of a believers' church presupposed voluntarism and a free decision of each individual, and finally the lonely figure of Sebastian Franck, the "spiritual reformer," whose Chronica, Zeytbuch und Geschichtsbibel (1531) for the first time dared to justify, if not actually to glorify, the otherwise greatly slandered "heretics" as persons who genuinely sought and found their own answer in matters of theology and doctrine. The intolerance of the century, however, prevailed and the heretics were persecuted all the same.

This spirit or attitude changed altogether toward the end of the 17th century, in the period commonly called the "age of reason" or from the point of view of church history the "age of Pietism." Christianity now became a matter of subjective experience (lnnerlichkeit) while all questions of doctrine were submitted to a rational scrutiny and considered of secondary significance. Thus the picture changes almost to the opposite of the earlier century. Rationalists and pietists alike devaluate orthodoxy (and with it the "traditionalist" viewpoint of the church, e.g., the position of a Luther or Calvin), and discover so to speak the particular attraction of all sectarians, medieval and modern, and vindicate the "heretics" as the true orthodox (i.e., right believers), and vice versa.

The man who more than anyone else achieved this change of historical viewpoint is Gottfried Arnold, mainly through his justly renowned Unpartheyische Kirchen- und Ketzer-Historie (Frankfurt, 1699). Erich Seeberg devoted a 600-page study to this book (see Bibliography) in which he traces the major roots of this historical viewpoint or historical evaluation. They are in the main threefold: (a) humanistic-rationalistic (example, Castellion), (b) legalistic: natural-law school (example, Grotius), and (c) mysticism and mystical theology (example, Jacob Böhme). Arnold himself stands halfway between mystical theology and Pietism, the religion of subjectivity. All these trends have one trait in common: the idea that the Church has fallen ever since Emperor Constantine became the very patron of the church in A.D. 312 or 313. Seeberg contraposes the "idea of tradition" (both in Catholicism and Protestant orthodoxy) to that of the "Fall" (Verfallsidee) of all sectarians, spiritual reformers, and the three afore-mentioned groups. According to the latter interpretation of church history, the "heretics" are the true representatives of the church of the spirit, who continue the genius of both Jesus Christ Himself and the apostles, but they are persecuted by the representatives of the "Anti-Christ," be they officials of the Roman or of the new Protestant state churches. Here the idea of vindication of what in recent times has often been called "the Left Wing of the Reformation" is the great theme of rewriting the history of the church. Like Jacob Böhme, Arnold considers as the "true heretics" not the poor sectarians but all those whom he calls "the non-regenerated nominal Christians" (Seeberg, 391). Arnold characterizes his own historiography by the new term unpartheyisch, that is non-partisan, by which he means the direct outlook at the Master Jesus Christ Himself, not through the eyes of any theological faction but straight through the eyes of the "pure spirit" as it is experienced in the rebirth of the soul. That Arnold actually was anything but "non-partisan" in his writing needs hardly to be mentioned. His sympathies lie clearly with the "Left-Wing" people, the Anabaptists and related groups.

There is of course no dependency of Arnold upon Franck, but we might agree with Seeberg's remark that one cannot help feeling "as if Arnold stretches out his hand to his lonely brother in the spirit across a period of one century and a half" (Seeberg, 517). Arnold's technique in writing his Ketzer-Historie "unpartheyisch" is to quote profusely from the writing of all "heretics," including the Anabaptists, thus letting them plead for themselves, and paying little attention to the usually cited opinions and reports of the official churchmen who naturally were biased against all these nonconformists. The fact that the book by Johann Heinrich Otte or Ottius, Annates Anabaptistici (Basel, 1672), had been published not long before might point to the renewed interest in Anabaptist source publications and their general evaluation. Arnold got his material, however, from many different sources, and one is amazed how much factual knowledge was available for the searching scholar already at the end of the 17th century; it needed but to be read with a friendly understanding.

Only as a footnote to this discussion on Arnold it should also be remarked here that Arnold's famous contemporary, Christian Thomasius, jurist and philosopher, in many regards depended on Arnold. Otherwise a lover of the "natural-law" idea, he published in 1697 a tract with the characteristic title, Ob Ketzerey ein strafbares Verbrechen sey, quite in line with Arnold's position, namely, that heresy is no crime at all but the personal right of each individual, upon which no government should infringe.

After Arnold this literary type of Ketzer-Historie flourished for almost a century, but the spirit of the 18th century changed the emphasis again, this time in favor of greater "objectivity" (not yet present in Arnold) and historical relativism. The good church historian, thus the opinion now runs, should not judge at all but collect and in a matter-of-fact fashion present the sources and facts just as they are. Needless to say that in this "age of enlightenment" the appreciation for the sectarians, above all for the "primitive-Christian" Anabaptists, was rather poor and inadequate. But the same was also true for the understanding by orthodoxy. In any case, at long last the term Ketzer lost its sting and received more the character of a technical term (somewhat like today's term "Left Wing of the Reformation"). But it should also be stressed that all the authors presently to be quoted were equally opposed to both the defenders and the accusers of the "heretics." In no case can they be called their friends or sympathizers as Arnold and some of his friends had been.

Here is the list of books related to this type of church-historiography:

(1) Anonymous: Gottfried Arnold, Fortsetzung und Erläuterung der Unpartheyischen Kirchen- und Ketzer Historie, Frankfurt, 1715, i.e., vol. II, part 3, and vol. III (also new editions 1729 and 1740). (Gottfried Arnold had died in 1714.)

(2) Johann Georg Walch, Historische und Theologische Einleitung in die Religions-Streitigkeiten, welche sonderlich ausser der evangelisch-lutherischen Kirche entstanden. 5 v., 1724-1736 (some of the volumes saw a 3rd edition).

(3) Johann Lorentz von Mosheim, (a) Versuch einer unpartheyischen und gründlichen Ketzergeschichte (Helmstädt, 1746, 2nd ed. 1748), treating only the history of the Ophites and the Apostel-Brüder, and (b) Anderweitiger Versuch einer vollständigen und unpartheyischen Ketzergeschichte (Helmstädt, 1748), treating exclusively the history of Servetus in great detail.

(4) Johann Conrad Füsslin, (a) Neue und unpartheyische Kirchen und Ketzer Historie der Mittleren Zeit. 3 v. (Frankfurt and Leipzig, 1770-1774) and (b) Beyträge zur... Kirchen... Geschichte des Schweitzerlandes. 5 v. (Zürich, 1741-1753). Its subtitle states: Enthaltende authentische bishero zum theil ungedruckte, zum theil gantz rare Urkunden... darinnen die Zwistigkeiten der Römisch-Catholischen, der Lutheraner, und der Reformirten, wie auch der Wiedertäuffer und anderer Sectierer... an den Tag gelegt werden—a truly nonpartisan program.

To this list of objective Ketzer-Historien belong also several more encyclopedic works of that kind and period, namely,

(1) John M. Mehlig, Historisches Kirchen- und Ketzerlexicon, 2 v. (Chemnitz, 1758)

(2) J. G. H., Compendieuses Kirchen- und Ketzer-Lexicon (Schneeberg, 1733, 1734, 1744, and 1756). A fifth edition came out in 1789 at Stendal under the title, Kurtzgefasstes Kirchen- und Ketzer-Lexicon. The initials J. G. H. stand for Johann Gottfried Hering (M. Holtzmann, Deutsches Anonymen Lexikon VI, 1911, No. 6159). Either out of modesty or for the fun of anonymity, J. G. H. disclaims any credit for the compilation of this seemingly popular encyclopedia; he claims only to be the editor concerned with the publication as such. (Mennonitisches Lexicon II, 496, erroneously gives 1731 as the date of the first edition, and takes Schneeberg, the place of publication, for the name of the editor.)

(3) Ketzer-Lexicon, oder: geschichtliche Darstellung der Irrlehren, Spaltungen und sonderbaren Meinungen im Christenthume..., translated from the French of V. de Perrodil and edited by Peter Fritz (3 volumes, Würzburg, 1828-1829), had the French title, Memoires pour servir à l'histoire des égarements de l'esprit humain par raport à la religion chrétienne: on Dictionnaire des Hérésies, des Erreurs et des schismes. . . (Paris, 1764). The first part of this encyclopedia deals with the "heresies" from the beginning of the church to the 16th century. The second part treats all "heresies" in an alphabetical order. Among them are found the Anabaptists (Vol. II, pp. 67-90), Mennonites, Karlstadt, Müntzer, etc. The presentation is biased and from a Catholic point of view.

(4) Ketzer-Lexicon... (Würzburg, 1828) is an alphabetical treatment in three volumes of all groups which had separated from the main body of the Catholic Church throughout the centuries. It first appeared in the French language and was translated into German by Peter Fritz. The treatment is from a Catholic point of view and includes the Anabaptist and Mennonite groups.

Again as in the case of church historiography also these volumes represent the complete reversal of the spirit of the "Ketzer-Catalogs" of former centuries. Now a sort of curiosity prevails; one just wants to get information about these strange outsiders and their peculiarities. That the general theme of the "Fall of Christianity" since Constantine found sympathetic ears in this century may be easily understood.

This spirit, however, did not continue for too long. With the coming of the period commonly called "Romanticism," the pendulum swings again in the opposite direction. Traditionalism and orthodoxy become dominant again, and with them that kind of church historiography which condemns (and even slanders) sectarianism, and in particular Anabaptism. When one hundred years later (20th century) a more sober viewpoint eventually succeeded, the old term Ketzer was dropped altogether. The book by Walter Nigg, Das Buch der Ketzer (Zürich, 1949), is too broadly conceived to be of value for the present discussion.


Bainton, Roland H. "The Left Wing of the Reformation." Journal of Religion 21 (1941): 124-134.

DeWind, Henry. "A Sixteenth Century Report on the Religious Conditions in Moravia." Mennonite Quarterly Review 28 (1955).

Dilthey, Wilhelm. (titles not available in English).

Friedmann, Robert. "Conception of the Anabaptists." Church History 9 (1940): 349.

Kohler, Walther. "Kirchengeschichtsschreibung" and "Philosophie der Kirchengeschichte" in Die Religion in Geschichte and Gegenwart, 2nd ed., Vol. 3. Tübingen: Mohr, 1929.

Quiring, Horst. "Mennonisten-Lexikon." Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe: Schneider, 1913-1967: v. III, 95.

Seeberg, Erich. Gottfried Arnold, die Wissenschaft und Mystik seiner Zeit, Studien zur Histographie und zur Mystik.Meerane i. Sa., 1923.

Troeltsch, E. Social Teaching of the Christian Churches. 1930: 788. This volume emphasizes the idea of natural law in relation to the judgment concerning the heretics.

Author(s) Robert Friedmann
Date Published 1957

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Friedmann, Robert. "Ketzer-Historie and Ketzer-Lexikon." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1957. Web. 27 Feb 2024.

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Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, pp. 169-171. All rights reserved.

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