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H.N. Bate, History of the Church to 325, 2[nd] edn. London: Rivingtons, 1924. Hbk. pp.63-65.

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influence of Gnosticism was in fact strictly negative. In using the faith and the apostolic writings against heresy, the Church became more clearly aware of its creed and its Scriptures. The Gnostics preached a false spiritualism and made war on the Old Testament: the only result was a clearer doctrine of the Incarnation and an increase of interest in Jewish prophecy. They sought to discredit the current expectations of our Lord’s Second Advent, and encouraged their followers to make terms with Paganism in time of persecution; they only succeeded in stimulating and popularising the movement of enthusiasm and rigorism which took its name from the Phrygian prophet Montanus.

Montanism.—At the time when the ferment of Gnosticism was beginning to subside, a movement within the Church began to re-assert the very elements of Christian life which the Gnostics had depreciated. Montanus was a Phrygian, an ex-priest of Cybele, it was said, and about 186 he began to proclaim the beginning of a new era. The Father, he said, had been known to the Jews; the Incarnation revealed the Son; the last age, that of the Paraclete, was now to come. A new revelation was to be given: the Spirit would take possession of the prophets, His mouthpieces, in such a way that their ecstatic utterances would reveal His will directly. Such a passive organ of the Spirit, Montanus, with the prophetesses Prisca and Maximilla, claimed to be. His ideal was to dissociate the Church from the world, and to form a community of true saints who should reject all secular ties and await the near approach of the Second Advent In Pepuza and Tymion, two villages of Phrygia, this ‘new Jerusalem’ was organised.

Montanism came at an opportune moment. The severity of persecution seemed everywhere a presage of the coming end, while the expansion of the Church had brought with it enough moral laxity to pave the way for a Puritan reaction. The ‘new prophecy’ was therefore not slow to find adherents outside Phrygia in Asia Minor, Thrace, Rome, Gaul, and Africa. But the Church had not forgotten the prophetic charisma of the apostolic age; in Asia the gift had been exercised by Quadratus

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and Ammia as late as the end of Trajan’s reign. The frenzied utterances of the Montanists were felt to infringe the precept, ‘the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets.’ Accordingly, their claim to possess a new and paramount authority was at once challenged. Some of the clergy attempted to expel the ‘new spirit’ by exorcism: it was discussed by synods of bishops (a new institution), and combated by eminent writers, such as Apollinarius of Hierapolis, Miltiades, and Melito of Sardis. In A.D. 177, news of the disturbing influence of the Montanists caused the imprisoned brethren of Lyon to write a letter to the churches of Asia and Phrygia, and to send Irenæus as their messenger to Eleutherus, bishop of Rome. But although Montanism was widely felt to be irregular, it was not formally repudiated; those who sympathised with it were not forced into schism before the beginning of the third century. If the disorders of Pepuza and Tymion had disfigured the movement elsewhere, the breach with the Church must have come much sooner. But the influence of the Montanists in the west was greatest after A.D. 130 when the last of the Phrygian prophets was already dead: Montanism was then little more than a zealous reforming movement, which seemed more likely than common Christianity to promote spiritual freedom and purity of life. To this promise it owed its greatest convert, Tertullian of Carthage (A.D. 160-230), the first great African Father. Tertullian was a vehement and uncompromising enthusiast, who felt deeply the need of a militant and purified Church which would make no terms with heathenism without or human frailty within. In A.D. 202, the Roman bishop Zephyrinus, after some hesitation, refused to communicate with the Asiatic Montanists; not long after this Tertullian, whose sympathies had long been with the zealots, seceded from the Church, and the Montanists of Carthage became a separated sect. The sect was orthodox in doctrine, and apart from its respect for the ‘new prophecy’ and its disrespect for the clergy, differed from the Church only in the strictness of its observances. Thus it refused to allow absolution for deadly sins committed after baptism, treated

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second marriages as sinful, required scrupulous abstinence from contact with heathen customs, forbade its members to escape from persecution. To the ordinary fasts on Wednesday and Friday it added other compulsory times of fasting. The Church had come to see a distinction in these matters between what was necessary for all and what was good in special cases, arid to enjoin a stricter rule on the clergy than on the laity. The Montanists rejected this distinction, and their ideal of the Church was hostile to clericalism. They made, in fact, a vigorous attack on the established Church order, setting up a ‘Church of the Spirit’ and ‘spiritual men’ in opposition to the existing clergy: divine grace, they said, comes not through bishops and priests as such, but through the unfettered descent of the Spirit upon individuals. Thus they were far from denying the Church’s authority to declare absolution, but they held that it could be exercised only by men, whether clerical or lay, who had direct relation with the Spirit as prophets.

The seriousness and fervour of the Montanists taught the Church a useful lesson at a critical time. They were moved by the same desire for perfection that has created all the great movements of reformation. But at a certain point they ceased to be true reformers: they began by trying to lift the Church, but ended by despairing of it. They started as apostles of freedom: prophecy was to save the Church from a stereotyped tradition, to substitute the liberty of the Spirit for the rule of an official class, to put the genuine voice of conscience in the place of a conventional moral code. Yet their new order brought not liberty so much as a change of masters; it subjected men to the arbitrariness of prophetic ecstasy and to a rigour that made no allowances for human weakness. The result was, that whatever was really novel in Montanism soon ceased to exercise real influence upon the Church.


London School of Theology