Montanus and Montanism
Montanism was the earliest of many major restoration movements in the history of the Christian church. The movement began in Phrygia after a.d.155 as an attempt to combat the problems of formalism and moral laxity in the church. It also challenged the church’s dependence on human leadership and organisation rather than on the guidance and leadership of the Holy Spirit. Its adherents favoured spontaneity, participation and conformity to the New Testament practice of church life and practice.
Unfortunately, Montanism’s notoriety is based on his pneumatology rather than his ecclesiology. The movement was condemned for its charismatic excesses and ecstatic manifestations rather than its doctrinal orthodoxy, like the Gnosticism and Marcionism of the day. On the contrary, the movement was orthodox in its faith, accepting all the books of the Canon as well as the Rule of Faith. Montanists were not officially considered heretics so much as they were seen as schismatics, diverging from mainstream practices.
Montanus was born in Phrygia during the first half of the second century and became a pagan priest before converting to the Christian faith. We have no details of his conversion but his subsequent orthodoxy, his perseverance in times of persecution and his defense of accusations of schism, together with his Puritan-like teaching and lifestyle, leave us in no doubt that he was a true and dedicated believer. Even his enemies confessed that “both his life and doctrine were holy and blameless.” He called for “a return to the vigorous faith and simple life of the early days of Christianity.”
“In view of the increasing worldliness in the Church, and the way in which among the leaders learning was taking the place of spiritual power, many believers were deeply impressed with the desire for a fuller experience of the indwelling and power of the Holy Spirit, and were looking for spiritual revival and return to apostolic teaching and practice.” (Broadbent)
Montanus soon gained a following and somewhere between A.D. 155 and A.D. 172 the group he led in Phrygia, Asia Minor, experienced an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Speaking in tongues appeared common and the gift of prophecy, particularly, became a hallmark of their meetings. The group obviously gave credence to these manifestations of the Spirit as divine and authoritative. There are no records of these prophecies contravening or challenging Scripture – rather they appear to have fulfilled the Scriptural guidelines of 1 Corinthians 14:3 ‘But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort.’
The group’s orthodoxy, vitality, simplicity and spontaneity, in contradistinction to the formal and worldly orthodox church, attracted many believers. The movement spread rapidly throughout Asia Minor, North Africa and Europe, reaching even to Rome. There is evidence that it maintained its popularity and influence into the late 5th century, despite widespread persecutions and resistance and accusations from orthodox church leaders. Kenneth Scott Latourette writes that the movement persisted in Asia Minor down, at least, into the eighth century. (A History of The Expansion of Christianity (Volume I) The First Five Centuries, p346.
Prisca and Maxmillia
These two ladies joined Montanus’ team in the early days of the movement and, together with Montanus, they became an awesome and effective means of communicating God’s grace and encouragement to believers. In the absence of any particular examples, we can confidently conclude that their ministries were overwhelmingly positive, leaving their hearers with the distinct impression that God was with them and was speaking through them. They were clearly proficient in exercising their gifts and conducting themselves in a godly and acceptable way. They preferred to be called ‘The New Prophecy’ because they believed that God was renewing the prophetic ministry of the church through them.
This prophetic emphasis and the prominence of Prisca and Maxmillia raised two issues with the mainline church. Firstly, if God was speaking authoritatively through prophetic words, how did that square with the leaders’ authority in orthodox churches. These leaders had ever-increasing authority within their congregations. Was prophecy a challenge to their authority? Secondly, the ministry of women. Women in ministry could not be found in the orthodox churches but they were prominent in the Montanist gatherings. Was this anointing or gifting of women above the authorized and properly installed ministry of the mainline churches? This writer believes these two issues, amongst others, became the litmus paper for accusations against the Montanist movement, which will consider next.
Montanism: Harmful Heretics or Radical Restorationists
The problem with researching Montanism is that most of the ancient writers were enemies of the Montanists and readers get a very negative and one-sided view. Unfortunately, any primary documents of the Montanists themselves, including Tertullian’s seven books on the Montanist’s ecstatic prophecy, have not survived. They were either lost or destroyed by their enemies.
This writer believes that the accusations against Montanists were from those threatened by the exposure of their ecclesiastical malpractices, whether functional, moral or doctrinal. The churches were becoming worldly, discipline was not thorough, anointed leadership was replaced by ecclesiastical ordination, the church had become an institution, dependent upon human skills rather than upon the Holy Spirit. Local church leaders (i.e. bishops) gained ascendency over the laity. With the absence of apostles, it seemed sensible to ascribe ecclesiastical authority to the bishops, safeguarding the church from heretical teachers. As the successors of the apostles, these educated ecclesiastical leaders became the sole arbiters of intrusive heresies and the sole defenders of the faith – the highest authority in all things spiritual.
Montanus, on the other hand, objected to the rising rank of the bishops, who by this time had become the sole leaders of local churches, superseding the plurality of elders that the New Testament proscribed. The churches were now under the control of a single individual for whom the title ‘bishop’ was exclusively reserved.
“The followers of Montanus endeavoured to restore what they imagined to be a feature of the Apostolic age, by making authority yield to spiritual illumination. They resembled the Quakers in their refusal to recognise that any spiritual gifts are conferred by ordination, and in seeking the guidance of direct inspiration on all occasions.” (Foakes-Jackson)
Montanus believed that the freedom of the Spirit was being replaced by ceremonial ritual and ecclesiastical order, that a New Age of the Spirit had come. His goal was to restore the truth and practices of the apostolic church to his contemporary church, where these were gradually being eroded and replaced by leaders who were neither anointed nor appointed by God.
These were the reasons behind the accusations and charges against Montanus. Are there any reasons for coming to these conclusions? Let’s briefly enumerate three here:
1. There was never watertight evidence that Montanism was heretical.
On the contrary, the general impression history books leave us with, is that the movement was theologically orthodox. Tertullian claims the bishop of Rome initially “acknowledged the prophetic gifts of Montanus, Prisca and Maximilla” and “bestowed his peace” upon the Montanist churches of Asia and Phrygia, underscoring his acceptance and approval of them. Later, one Praxeas convinced the bishop that Montanism was a heresy (although he was himself an advocate of the heresy called monarchianism!) Subsequently the bishop withdrew his letters of peace and the Montanist’s were outlawed once more.
There is a great possibility that the orthodox church, which was on the slippery slope of diversion from Biblical orthodoxy in its growing pursuit of non-biblical practices, hierarchical control of the churches, developing traditions and inventing new spiritual practices to attain merit with God, found it more convenient to view Montanism as a thorn in its side which could be eradicated by their excommunication as heretics.
Praxeas was an early anti-Montanist, and is known only through Tertullian’s book “Adversus Praxean”. His name appears in Tertullian’s list of heresies appended to the “De Praescriptionibus” Tertullian strongly refuted Praxeas’ heresy and Praxeas gave a recantation, in writing. Nevertheless, the damage was done and it became traditional to follow Praxeas’ lead for centuries, even though he proved to be an unreliable and misguided theologian. There is a great possibility that the orthodox church, which was on the slippery slope of diversion from Biblical orthodoxy in its growing pursuit of non-biblical practices, hierarchical control of the churches, developing traditions and inventing new spiritual practices to attain merit with God, found it more convenient to view Montanism as a thorn in its side which could be eradicated by their excommunication as heretics.
2. Notable Christians supported Montanist orthodoxy.
Support for Montanus and his followers was widespread in his day. Eusebius indicates that Irenaeus was sent to Rome by the Gallic Christians to intercede on behalf of the Montanists. (Eusebius, The History of the Church, 206. Schaff, Ante-Nicene Christianity, vol. 2 of History of the Christian Church.)
Tertullian, is the ideal contemporary witness to call on. He was arguably the greatest theologian of his times, laying a substantial theological base which Augustine was later to build upon. ‘He was a prolific early Christian author from Carthage in the Roman province of Africa and the first Christian author to produce an extensive corpus of Latin Christian literature. He was an early Christian apologist and a polemicist against heresy, including contemporary Christian Gnosticism. Tertullian has been called “the father of Latin Christianity” and “the founder of Western theology”’. (Wikipedia)
Tertullian originated new theological concepts and advanced the development of early Church doctrine. He is perhaps most famous for being the first writer in Latin known to use the term trinity (Latin: trinitas).
Tertullian’s exemplary qualifications, experience and theological expertise, make him an ideal person to seek out a reliable assessment of Montanism.
Not only did Tertullian accept the theological position of Montanists but also, he enthusiastically joined their ranks in around 207 A.D., becoming their principal advocate and defender. He found their practices appealing and concurred with their dependance on the Spirit of God rather that the orchestration of men. He also embraced their holiness stance as well as their condemnation of remarriage and of fleeing from persecution, rather than embracing it for Jesus’ sake.
John Wesley, another proven man of God, also accused of ‘enthusiasm’ as if it were a disease, was an advocate of Montanus’ orthodoxy. Wesley wrote the following in his journal on August 15, 1750:
“By reflecting on an odd book which I had read in this journey (“The General Delusion of Christians with Regard to Prophecy”), I was fully convinced of what I had long suspected, (1) That the Montanists, in the second and third centuries, were real, scriptural Christians; and, (2) that the grand reason why the miraculous gifts were so soon withdrawn, was not only that faith and holiness were well-nigh lost, but that dry, formal, orthodox men began even then to ridicule whatever gifts they had not themselves, and to decry them all, as either madness or imposture.”
Neander, in his “Church History,” also speaks of the Montanists of the second century: “The Montanists looked upon it expressly as something characteristic of this last epoch of the development of the kingdom of God that, according to the prophecies of Joel then in course of fulfilment, the gifts of the Spirit should indifferently be shed abroad over all classes of Christians of both sexes.” “It appears also to have been the doctrine of the Montanists that the season of the last and richest outpouring of the Holy Spirit would form the last age of the church, and precede the second coming of Christ, and be the fulfilment of the prophecy of Joel.” Rose’s Neander, pp.330,332.
3. It was the content of various prophecies and the manner in which they were delivered, that became the main contention
The so-called ‘Anonymous,’ quoted by Eusebius, (c.260-339) accused Montanus of ‘prophesying contrary to the manner which the church had received from generation to generation by tradition from the beginning.’ ‘He fell into a state of possession, as it were, and abnormal ecstasy, insomuch that he became frenzied and began to babble and utter strange sounds.’ The two women (Prisca and Maxmillia) ‘chattered in a frenzied, inopportune and unnatural fashion’ (Eusebius, HE 5:16:7, 9).
These kinds of complaints are common in modern pastoral life. ‘It’s not what she’s doing, but how she’s doing it that concerns me.’ It’s not what he said, but how he said it that I have an issue with.’ Such statements often belie alternative motives, as if the accusers can’t nail their victims with reasonable offenses they invent other speculative possibilities.
It has to be said that the accusations of Montanist heresy and the allegations of wildly ecstatic and frenzied prophetic utterances seem to have been untrue, since such matters would never have escaped the eagle-eyed Tertullian. He even uses the argument of the powerful and effective use of prophecy and other ‘charismatic’ ministries, to expose the non-spiritual clergy in the orthodox church. Tertullian wrote seven books defending ecstatic prophecy, all of which were either lost or destroyed, which underscored his belief in, and commitment to, the New Prophecy.
This writer has heard similar accusations in modern times. Simple ‘enthusiasm’ has often been described as ‘ecstatic’ or ‘emotional’ by the unsympathetic or uninitiated. Similarly, when an authentic prophecy is presented, it is often in the first person, and could be interpreted as if the speaker is claiming to be God (eg. ‘I say unto you, My people…). Similar claims were made in Montanus’ day.
In the second century there were concerns that Montanist’s were claiming prophetic utterances superseded the authority of the Bible. This is another modern concern and one which the Montanists defended, as we have to today. The Bible is the authority and it is the plumbline by which we are to determine and interpret any authentic gift of prophecy.
Montanists were the first restorationist group of the Christian era and they should be noted as such and emulated by believers in the church today. They perceived the growing apostacy of the organised church in its faith and practices and made a decision to follow the teachings of the Scriptures rather the teaching of men. They believed the gradual decaying of the faith posed a threat to the entire life of the church and sought to be a model of biblical orthodoxy.
“It is not altogether difficult to enter into something of the Montanist groups, their passion for morality, their warmth of fellowship, their contagious enthusiasm, their warmth of fellowsip and their zeal for the Lord” (John W. Kennedy, Torch of the Testimony, p. 84)
Their experience of the Spirit was in stark contrast to the ‘organised’ church which appeared to be running on bureaucracy, rituals and control. To Montanists, the orthodox were stifling the Spirit and locking him out of the church. Men produced bishops and formalism. The Spirit produced prophets and the presence of God.
It is interesting to note that the rejection of the Montanists marked the beginning of the end of spiritual gifts and the ministry of the Spirit in the churches. It would be another seventeen hundred years before this situation was reversed by the God-sent Pentecostal revival at the beginning of the twentieth century.
“It is not altogether difficult to enter into something of the Montanist groups, their passion for morality, their warmth of fellowship, their contagious enthusiasm, their warmth of fellowship and their zeal for the Lord” (John W. Kenedy, Torch of the Testimony, p. 84)
The Montanists had no intentions to be schismatic or to begin a new church. They began as a spiritual movement of restoration within the church. They met in small groups as members of the church, but it became clear that the new wine of the Spirit could not be contained in the old and dry wineskins of formal religion. There had to be a break if they were to survive.
This was not a decision of division but an essential act to safeguard their future and maintain a light for generations to follow. They maintained their separation from the orthodox church until the 6th century in Phrygia, when they were forcibly destroyed by the Emperor Justinian, who had assumed authority over the Catholic Church. The bishops in attendance at the Council of Constantinople (536) recognized that nothing could be done in the Church contrary to the emperor’s will and command. Justinian protected the purity of the church by suppressing heretics – including the Montanists.
Nevertheless, the truth will always prevail and once Montanism was destroyed, there were thousands of other’s who would pick up the baton and seek a pure New Testament church again.
May we be among that number!