EarlyChurch.org.uk


Charles Bigg,
The Origins of Christianity, T.B. Strong, ed.
Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1909. Hbk. pp.185-196.


[185]

CHAPTER XV

MONTANISM

SHORTLY after the middle of the second century Montanism made its appearance. The sect was known also as that of the Phrygians or Cataphrygians, for it arose in that land of Phrygia which had been the home of Cybele and Attys and the Corybantes. Enthusiasm had always been at home in that district. But it should be noticed that the Montanists spoke of themselves as the New Prophets, or the Spiritual.

Montanism has been regarded as an attempt at a resuscitation of the primitive Church, a violent protest against the way in which the prophets had been made to run in harness by the growing authority of their bishops. There is some truth in this, yet it is not the right point of view. The sect called itself the New Prophecy because it regarded the work to which it was appointed not as a reaction but as a step in advance. It preached not the kingdom of Christ but the reign of the Paraclete, to which the Gospel had been the prologue and the imperfect prologue. Christ had introduced a New Law, but sparingly and with reserve out of compassion for the weakness of mankind. Now the time had come for a great forward movement, and the whole counsel of God must be declared with unflinching severity.

Montanism was in fact one of those outbreaks of mysticism which from time to time have visited the Church, giving it new life yet threatening it with destruction. The earliest was that which occurred at Corinth, and probably in other of the Pauline churches. Later on we read of the Fathers of the Desert, of Glycerius the Deacon in the time of St. Basil, of Priscillian in Spain; again in the thirteenth Century of the Fraticelli and of Joachim of Flora and his Eternal Gospel. In the fifteenth century we find the Friends of God, in the sixteenth the Zwickau prophets

[186]

and Anabaptists, in the seventeenth Madame de Guyon and the Quietists in France, and in England the Ranters and the Quakers, in the eighteenth the prophets with whom John Wesley was at one time familiar. There have been many similar movements, some of them even in our own time. Mysticism is the very heart and soul of religion, but it frets against any restraint and is apt to revolt. The revolt assumes different forms, of which the most remarkable are antinomianism and asceticism. Montanism took the latter direction, as was indeed natural, for it was occasioned by belief in the near approach of the end of the world and a fiery desire for the crown of martyrdom. It was the answer of the zealots of the Church to the persecution of Marcus Aurelius. The object of its rigorous discipline was to train athletes for the arena, men and women so hardened to endurance that prison and torment no longer seemed dreadful.

We read of a ‘Phrygian’ who was probably a Montanist in the account of the martyrdom of Polycarp about 156 A.D. Twenty years later on we find two others, Alexander and Alcibiades, among the martyrs of Lyons. In the interval Montanus of Ardabau, a village in Mysia, had given the movement a leader and a name.[1] He first attracted notice about 165, or even as early as 155; the name of the unknown proconsul Gratus, in whose time, according to one authority, he began his work, may be, as Bonwetsch supposed,[2] a clerical error for Quadratus, and may denote either the Quadratus who governed Asia in 155, or the other who held the same office in 165. There are, however, other reasons which are thought to make the latter date preferable. Montanus was himself a prophet, but little is known of him; he appears to have vanished quickly from the stage, and the work was carried on by two remarkable women, first by Prisca (or Priscilla), and afterwards by Maximilla. Maximilla is thought to have died about 179. Prisca some few years before. Maximilla proclaimed that she was to be the last of the prophets, and she is the last known to us by name. But there were others, for instance

[187]

the sister of whom Tertullian speaks. The prophets, whether men or women - they were mostly women - do not appear to have been regarded as the leaders of the sect, though they were highly venerated and implicitly obeyed. But the Montanists retained the usual hierarchy, and we may suppose that those men who appear as their champions, managers, and literary representatives, Alcibiades, Theodotus, Themison, Asterius, Tirbanus, Proculus, Aeschines, were all presbyters.

The appearance of the new sect filled Asia Minor with anger and alarm. It was the first distincy schism. For the first time it was openly maintained by Christians that the Catholic Church was not holy and did not really believe in the teaching of the Spirit. The authority of the bishops was set at naught, and an ignorant band of Phrygian peasants was flouting the intelligence, the learning, and even the religious character of their pastors and masters, and this at a time when the unity of the Church was absolutely necessary to its existence. At the same time Montanism had many sympathizers within the Church, its main principles were indisputable, and even its legalism and asceticism were only an exaggeration of tendencies that were rapidly coming into favour. The only point upon which it lay obviously open to attack was its notion of Inspiration, a word which never has been and never can be accurately defined. What is a True Prophet? what is a False Prophet The natural and usual test of conformity to the creed of the Church could not be applied, for the Montanists were strictly orthodox. Accordingly other methods were tried. A band of self-appointed inquisitors set out to Pepuza to try Priscilla. They watched her as she fell into the prophetic trance, and then proposed to use exorcism and cast the devil out of her. Her friends naturally resisted this proposal. There must have been a scene of the wildest excitement, as we may judge from the oath which Julius of Debeltum appended to the Catholic report of the Proceedings[3]: ‘As God liveth in heaven the blessed Sotas of Anchialos wished to cast the wicked spirit out of Priscilla,

[ 188]

and the hypocrites would not let him.’ A little later a similar attempt was made upon Maximilla by Zoticus of Oumane and Juhianus of Apamea with the same result.[4]

The most furious charges were levelled against the sect. Montanus and Maximilla were said to have hanged themselves like the traitor Judas. Theodotus is said to have been raised into the air by the spirit of deceit, and then dashed down like Simon Magus. Montanist martyrs, it was argued, could not be martyrs at all because they were not of the Church: one of them, Alexander, was said to have been executed by the proconsul Aemilius Frontinus on a well-attested charge of brigandage. Nay, before the end of the second century it was currently believed that the Montanists celebrated their Eucharist with the flesh and blood of a murdered child.[5] The Catholics themselves had been charged with this horrible crime by the heathen, and now they were neither ashamed nor afraid to assert that some Christians were guilty of it.

The Montanists were condemned and excommunicated by several Asiatic synods before 193. These are probably the first Christian synods known to us. It may be noticed that, according to Tertullian, the custom of assembling in periodical synods was at this time peculiar to the Greek Churches. About the same time, perhaps a year or two later, the sect invaded Rome and was condemned by the reigning Pope (most probably Victor), who had been inclined to regard them with tolerance, but allowed himself to be persuaded by the Sabellian Praxeas. But earlier Popes, of whom Soter was one, seem to have expressed disapproval of the New Prophets. The West was much less hostile to Montanism than Asia Minor. The martyrs of Lyons pleaded earnestly for toleration, though they did not approve the extravagances of the sect. Irenaeus does not mention it in his list of heresies, and Tertullian did not forfeit the respect of the Church by his secession.

[189]

From the date of these condemnations the Montanists organized themselves as a separate Church. At first they appear to have made some headway. Tertullian, their most distinguished convert, was captured in 207, and the Christians of Thyatira went over to them in a body. A synod held at Iconium in the time of Firmilian ordered that converts from Montanism should not be received into the Church without re-baptism,[6] in spite of their orthodoxy. Hippolytus wrote against them, but briefly and with good sense. Clement of Alexandria proposed to make them the subject of a treatise, but did not fulfil his intention. In the fourth century there were numbers of Montanists to be found in Cappadocia, Galatia, Phrygia, Cilicia, and even in Constantinople.[7] But with the establishment of the Christian Empire the old hatred breaks out against them as furiously as ever. Constantine persecuted them. Cyril of Jerusalem renews the wicked accusation of child-murder, and adds other enormities unspeakable in the presence of women.[8] Basil of Caesarea charges them with blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.[9] Epiphanius[10] again repeats the infanticide myth, and regards them without doubt as heretics. The so-called seventh canon of the Council of Constantinople affirms that they are not to be regarded as Christians at all, and a glance at the index of the Theodosian Code will reveal a number of cruel laws directed against this harmless and maligned sect, whose main offence was that they were foolish enough to prefer a prophet to a bishop.

What was it that the Montanists did or taught? The writings of their apologists were not thought worthy of preservation, indeed they were probably not very valuable additions to knowledge. But we still possess a handful of their prophecies, and in the later treatises of Tertulhian we find a tolerably complete account of the New Prophecy / given by a convinced and intelligent believer.

They established a new Church modelled upon the lines of the old, but with certain significant modifications. The new Church had what the old Church had not, a Holy Place;

[190]

indeed it had two sanctuaries, Pepuza and Tymium, a couple of obscure villages in the, wilds of Phrygia. Pepuza was the abode of Prisca; there, as she affirmed, Christ had visited her in the form of a woman clad in shining raiment, given to her the gift of prophecy, and promised that on that spot the New Jerusalem should descend from heaven to earth. Tymium was possibly the home of Maximilla. To these two places pilgrims resorted from every quarter.

The Montanist Church, possessed a central fund. Our knowledge of their financial arrangements is scanty and obscure, but we may gather that they had regular collectors and paymasters, that the members of the Church were expected to make regular and definite contributions, that the clergy received fixed salaries, and also even the prophets and confessors.[11] To us with our modern notions this is familiar, and seems not unreasonable, but it occasioned grave scandal. The Catholic Church had as yet no source, of income except the offertory and occasional gifts. Donations of either kind were, or were supposed to be, purely voluntary; the free alms of the faithful were delivered to the bishop, and by him distributed among the clergy, the poor, and the sick. It was thought especially wrong that prophets should receive direct payment for the exercise of a special gift of the Holy Spirit—though in some of the Catholic churches there were widows whose special duty it was to wait for a revelation, and these no doubt were supported. Upon the whole the offence of the Montanists was that they set the words the labourer is worthy of his hire’ above the command of our Lord, ‘Freely ye have received, freely give,’ but in practice all churches have been driven to do the same.

The most remarkable feature of Montanism is its moral rigorism. This was the conclusion drawn from several axioms. ‘That is good and best,’ says Tertullian, ‘which God commands. I count it audacity to question the goodness of a divine precept. We are not bound to observe it because it is good, but because God has enjoined it.[12] Again he tells us that ‘What is not expressly allowed in Scripture

[191]

is forbidden’. This iron, unhistorical rule of exegesis was adopted by the Puritans of Hooker’s time, but only as regards ritual and Church government. Further, he held that Christ’s revelation was not complete, that even in the Gospel something had been kept back because of the hardness of men’s hearts, but that now the time had come when the full rigour of the Christian law might be proclaimed.

In many points the uncompromising rigour of Tertullian’s opinions was shared by numerous teachers in the Catholic Church. If he insists upon the veiling of all unmarried women, on strict avoidance of Gentile amusements, on the sinfulness of flight in times of persecution, and of second marriage, on the duty of renouncing every trade or vocation which was in the remotest degree connected with idolatry - even teaching in school, service in the army, the acceptance of any kind of office under the State; if again he maintains that for ‘death sins’, by which he means apostasy, homicide, and sexual impurity, there is no forgiveness after baptism, he is saying only what many others said. Singularly enough the Montanist practice which gave the greatest offence was that of excessive fasting.

At the end of the second century the Church regarded no fast as obligatory except that which they believed to be ordained by our Lord Himself in the words, ‘The days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then shall they fast.[13] Accordingly the whole Church kept Lent upon Good Friday and Easter Eve. Further, they fasted commonly upon the ‘stations’, that is to say, on all Wednesdays and Fridays, but these fasts were regarded as voluntary. But any bishop might order his flock to fast on such days as he chose to appoint when any great affliction was hanging over the Church. In all cases it seems to have been the custom to fast only till the ninth hour, which was the usual time of the cena: the earlier meal, the prandium, was dropped, and it appears to have been usual to pay the cost of this meal into the treasury of the Church.[14] The Montanist fasts were much more frequent, were all compulsory, and were prolonged to nightfall, to the time when

[192]

our Lord was laid in the tomb.[15] Even at this late hour no food was taken except water, dry bread, and the driest kinds of vegetables, nor was the believer allowed to take a bath in the course of the day.[16]

The Montanists retained the hierarchy, but assigned to them a much lower position than that which they already claimed for themselves. They held that the Church was the whole body of believers, that the clergy were made by the laity, that the functions of the clergy were created by the law of the Church, that the priesthood lay dormant in every believer, and that, if pressing necessity arose, every act of the priest could be performed by the layman. The power of the bishop must have been further restricted by the existence of special officers of finance, and by the severe restraints imposed upon the bestowal of absolution. Their power of teaching, again, was greatly circumscribed by the veneration with which the prophets were regarded.

The prophet was no new apparition. We have seen Hermas uttering his visions in Rome, and in the East the seers of the New Testament had had many successors, Ammia of Philadelphia, Quadratus, Ignatius, and in a limited sense Polycarp. Nor does there seem to have been anything novel in the mode of the Montanist prophecy. When the ecstasy came upon Prisca she put her face between her knees, like Elijah, and heard voices. Often the vision came during the worship of the Church. Tertullian tells us[17] of a gifted sister who fell asleep whilst he was preaching about the nature of the soul. When service ended she declared the vision that had come to her, how she had seen a soul just as he had described it, soft and bright, coloured like the sky, and in form exactly like a man. It may have been the same sister who saw in a vision the Holy Trinity, again in some kind of material semblance which very aptly illustrated the teaching of Tertullian. We may suspect that these hypersensitive women derived the substance of their visions largely from the teaching of their spiritual director. When another prophet cried aloud in the name of the Paraclete, ‘The Church can forgive sin, but I will not

[193]

do it, lest they should sin again’, we may perhaps apply the same explanation.[18] We may guess that Montanism made the prophets rather than that the prophets made Montanism.

It was said that Prisca and Maximilla dyed their hair, painted their eyelids with the black pigment known as stibi,and dressed like great ladies. It might be that these poor Phrygian women were dressed up like dolls to express the veneration of their peasant devotees, but probably the statement is only one of the many slanders with which they were pelted. We may be sure that the sister in Tertullian’s Church was not al1owed~ to indulge in any such feminine vanity.

The Montanist theology was generally regarded as quite correct. Even Epiphanius, a keen and hostile judge, acquits them on this indictment. Hippolytus indeed, early in the third century, asserts that some of them were Noetians and confounded the Persons of the Father and the Son.[19] Was there any ground for this charge?

Hippolytus brought the same charge of Noetianism or Sabellianism against two Popes, Zephyrinus and Callistus.[20] Probably he was wrong in both instances. Tertullian about the same time was speaking of the Persons of the Trinity as ‘of the same substance’, a phrase which by the middle of the third century appears to have been generally adopted by the theologians of Rome. But in the East this expression was regarded as Sabellian by that Council of Antioch which condemned Paul of Samosata, and even at Nicaea by those divines who, though they rejected Arianism, objected vehemently to the insertion of ‘homoousion’ into the Creed. It is possible that Zephyrinus and Callistus used the same language as Tertullian, and that this is why Hippolytus calls them Sabellians.

At the same time it is to be noticed that Tertullian himself may in one respect be called Sabellian, for, though he insisted very strongly upon the personal distinctions in the Trinity in this dispensation, he yet believed that the Word only became personally distinct at Creation, and probably also that He ceases to be personally distinct when all things

[194]

have been finally put under His feet.[21] It was the doctrine afterwards of Marcellus of Ancyra, who was for some time supported by Rome and even by Athanasius. It is possible that Hippolytus was thinking of this point, and it is likely enough that Zephyrinus would not have regarded this particular opinion as heretical.

But if Tertullian may be taken to represent the general doctrine of his fellow believers, it may be maintained, not merely that the Montanists were orthodox, but that they contributed greatly to the formation of the later creed. As far as our documents enable us to form a positive conclusion, they were the first to enunciate the ‘homoousion’, and they were also the first to bestow the title ‘God’ upon the Holy Spirit[22]nearly two centuries before the so-called Creed of Constantinople. Thus in doctrine as well as in discipline these despised and hated sectaries were pioneers, whose main offence was that they were before their time.

It was a natural consequence of the authority allowed to the prophets that the Montanists did not regard the Bible as complete. This was evidently the main question involved; and, as the New Prophets claimed authority to deal with both doctrine and discipline, it is also evident that the whole future of the Church was imperilled.

But the question is also one of infinite difficulty. All Scripture is inspired by God. May we invert this proposition and say that every utterance inspired by God is equivalent to Scripture? The Holy Spirit guides the Church into all truth. But does He impart new truths, or does He merely bestow a clearer understanding of the old? Is He a Higher teacher, or is He simply the interpreter of Christ? All parties agreed that there had been false prophets, and that other false prophets were yet to come. But what were the tests by which the false could be distinguished from the true?

The test directed by our Lord is contained in the words, ‘By their fruits ye shall know them.’ By this rule the Gnostic prophets had been condemned; their doctrines and their moral axioms were not those of the Church. But

[195]

there was the greatest difficulty in applying the rule to the Montanists. How could it be said that these also were convicted by their fruits?

Some said that no true prophet would accept payment. There is some truth in this. A clairvoyant who holds a séance, answers questions, and charges for admission, is clearly not an oracle of God. But even prophets must live; and fees, free but customary alms, regular ecclesiastical allowances, run into one another, and are not easily distinguished. The case of the Prophet is analogous to that of the Priest.

Some again maintained that a prophet ought not to speak in ecstasy.[23] But St. Paul certainly saw visions in trance, and the same thing is true of St. Peter. It was argued again that the Montanist ecstasy was parecstasy, simulated, that is to say, or artificially induced. There have been instances of this. Some of the heathen seers helped themselves into their trances by means of the fumes of hot springs, and there have been plenty of impostors in ancient and in modern times. Again, some of the oracles of the New Prophets were regarded as blasphemous; on one occasion Montanus exclaimed, ‘I am the Lord God Almighty coming down in man,’ where God is represented as speaking not through man, but in man. But even to this analogies might be found in the Old Testament.

Others again assailed, as we have seen, the moral life of the prophets, and were led into assertions that we must regard as odious calumnies.

The Catholics were on much safer ground when they maintained that the Bible was complete. From this time begins the fixation of the Canon, a critical sifting process by which certain books that had almost obtained a place in Holy Scripture, such as Hermas, Clement, Barnabas, Enoch, the Gospels according to the Hebrews and according to the Egyptians, were relegated to a lower place, not allowed to be read in church, though still treated with respect, while others were wholly rejected as forgeries. Henceforth we may say that the right of a document to a place in the New

[196]

Testament was decided by two tests, not that of inspiration alone, but that of apostolicity as well. Of these two tests the latter was the decisive one. Christ and His Apostles had delivered to the Church not only the truth but the whole truth.

Scripture understood in this sense continued to be for a long time regarded as the sole arbiter of the faith of the Church. It needed interpretation, as do all written documents, and this was looked upon as the task of the Church, discharged by the clergy, especially by the bishops, as the only qualified exponents of the Bible.

At first they were believed, and they believed themselves, to teach nothing but what was expressly or by undeniable inference contained in the Sacred Books, and their ‘tradition’ consisted merely of the Creed. But tradition grew and developed; its contents increased, and each new accretion claimed the same authority as the original deposit. Thus tradition eventually stepped into the place that had been claimed by the Montanist prophets, and added to revelation in precisely the same way as Prisca and Maximilla. Here also the Montanists were only before their time.


[1] Eus, H.E. v. 16.

[2] Bonwetsch, Gesch. d. Montanismus, 152.

[3] Eus. H. E. v. 19.

[4] Eus. H. E. v. 16, 17.

[5] The charge was refuted by Tertullian in his treatise De Ecstasi, written in answer to the charges made by Pope Soter and Apollonius Praedestinatus

[6] Bonwetsch, 170.

[7] Bonwetsch, 171.

[8] Cat. Ill. xvi. 8.

[9] Epp. 188; Migne, 664.

[10] Haer. 48.

[11] Eus. H. E. v. 18.

[12] De poenitentia, 5.

[13] Matt. ix. 15; Mark ii. 20; Luke v. 35.

[14] De Iei. 13.

[15] De Iei. 10.

[16] De Iei. 1.

[17] De An. 9.

[18] Tert. Dc Pud. 21.

[19] Phil. viii. 19; x. 26.

[20] Phil. ix. 11.

[21] Adv. Prax. 4. 5, 6.

[22] Adv. Prax. 3. 13.

[23] Eus. II. E. v. 17; Epiphanius, Haer. 48.


London School of Theology