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Robert Rainy, The Ancient Catholic Church. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1902. Hbk. pp.128-139.

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CHAPTER VII

MONTANISM

In connection with discussions of Tübingen theories, Schwegler directed particular attention to Montanism, Nachapostol. Zeita1ter, Tüb. 1846. On the other side, A. Ritschl, A1tkaholische Kirche, 2nd ed., Bonn, 1857. Prophetic utterances in Hilgenfeld, Ketzergesch,p. 591; Bonwetsch, Gesch. d. Mont., Erl. 1881.

MONTANISM appeared first at the town of Pepuza, in Phrygia, about the year 156. A Christian called Montanus (who is said to have been a heathen priest before his conversion) claimed to be a prophet, and, indeed, to be the representative of a new prophetic gift; for in him appeared the Paraclete whom Jesus had promised to His disciples; and this was to be the closing revelation pre paring the Church for the coming of Christ and the last things. Two women, Prisca and Maximilla, were associated with him as prophetesses; and utterances were given forth with great enthusiasm about the Lord’s expected return, and about the preparation the Church must make with a view to it. For the standard of Christian life was to be strained to a higher pitch; more fasting was required, and more careful separation from the manners and enjoyments of the world; celibacy and martyrdom had great value set upon them, and second marriages were prohibited. A stricter discipline was announced, in virtue of which Christians who fell into offences of the graver class must not hope for restoration to communion; God could forgive them, on their penitence, but did not authorise the Church to do so. It was not denied that this system of Christian administration, taken altogether, involved elements

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that went beyond the practice of apostolic times. But the Spirit of God was free to prescribe new rules in new circumstances; and the time had come for calling the Church to assume the responsibilities of riper age. In general, Montanism aimed at regaining what it conceived to be the genuine and original spirit of Christian life, only in an intenser form and with additional guarantees. In this connection various things which had heretofore been discretionary were now to become imperative and universal.

The Montanists did not teach any doctrines opposed to the general views of the Church(1) for though they were accused of identifying Montanus with the Holy Spirit, that seems to rest only on their owning him as the Paraclete - whom they understood to be an inspired personage that should arise in the Church under the influence of the Holy Spirit. But the whole movement seemed so dangerous and unsettling that many churches in the East, under the influence of their pastors, broke off communion with the followers of Montanus, and expelled them from their fellowship. On the other hand, whole congregations in some places, indeed the whole Christianity of considerable districts, especially in Phrygia, would seem to have adhered to Montanus. Besides this, a large number of Christian people throughout the Church showed a disposition to think favourably, or at least gently, of Montanism. This suggests that Montanism is not to be accounted for from mere local circumstances. The churches of Lyons and Vienne, not far from the time of the terrible persecutions which they endured under Marcus Aurelius, sent letters both to the East and to Rome (the latter carried by Irenaeus, then a presbyter), deprecating extreme action against the Montanists. According to Tertullian, a bishop of Rome, perhaps Eleutherus, perhaps Victor, was on the point of interposing on their behalf, when he was withheld by the influence of Praxeas, who brought unfavourable

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accounts of them. Afterwards the same bishop became their resolute opponent.

Montanism established a footing elsewhere than in Asia Minor, especially in the African province, no doubt because some of the tendencies out of which Montanism had sprung were strong there. At first we find it as a form of view and feeling within the Church. The Acts of Perpetua and Felicitas reveal those sufferers as probably Montanists, or tinged with Montanism, although they were within the Church, and have always ranked as Catholic martyrs. Here too, however, perhaps as a consequence of the prevalence of adversaries at Rome, it ceased to be possible, or men could not count it possible, to live together in one church; and the Montanists became a separate community. It is not easy to decide how far claims to inspired utterance existed among these Montanists of the West. At all events, they believed in the revelations given to Montanus and his associates; and they possessed written records of the utterances of these Phrygian prophets. They regarded these as revelations, supplementary to those of the Old and New Testaments. The African Montanists found a spokesman in one of the most remarkable Christians of the time, Tertullian. In addition to his works, a certain amount of Montanistic literature appeared, which perished early.

The method or form in which this movement displayed itself was in some respects new, and yet in others not so. The_exercise of prophetic gifts in congregations was not new. In all probability fhe general sense of the churches at that time was in favour of the existence, or certainly of the possibility, of genuine Christian prophecy, although some began to maintain that, if genuine, it must be calm and conscious, not—like the Montanistic prophesying—ecstatic; and others still, carried away by the spirit of controversy, appear to have rejected the idea of prophecy altogether, and along with it the writings of the Apostle John, which seemed to them to foster it. Prophecy was not new. But it was new that a man claiming to be a Christian

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prophet should assert for himself such a presence of the Holy Spirit as to constitute him the Paraclete promised by Christ, and should claim to bring in a new dispensation, in advance of the apostolic one. So also the points announced as characteristic of the new dispensation and imperative on those who lived under it, were new only in so far as rules, formerly reckoned discretionary, were now to be peremptory. Chiliastic expectations of Christ’s return were no novelty. The importance of great strictness of life and abstinence from various pleasures and indulgences was a familiar thought. The principle that certain sins should not receive the Church’s testimony of forgiveness was probably no novelty at all, but had been applied in various churches; perhaps, however, with no strict consistency.

To complete this sketch it is necessary to keep in view what the Montanists felt it needful to oppose. They were in conscious opposition to Gnosticism and everything connected with it. They were opposed to the authority which office-bearers, especially bishops, were attaining in the churches, or, at least, to the manner in which that authority was exercised. They were opposed to the adjustment of Christian life to worldly ease and convience, which they believed was prevalent in the Church; and they set themselves against the tendencies to relaxation of discipline. Finally, they were, of course, opposed to every mode of view and feeling that was content to postpone indefinitely the prospect of the Lord’s return.

Such, in general, was Montanism. The phenomenon is best understood as a reaction against a condition of the Church, and of the Christian life, which seemed to the Montanists to be pitched too low, and also to have decayed from an earlier and purer standard. It is likely, in fact, that in the Christian congregations features appeared that suggested a falling off from an earlier and intenser time. Probably, in spite of the persecutions which Christians had to bear, there were symptoms of worldliness of life, and of accommodation to Gentile notions. There might be coming

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into the modes of worship and into the method of Church management something of a mechanical order of things, contrasting sensibly enough with the freedom, the vivacity, the spiritual impulse of an earlier day. Probably enough, also, the Montanists were predisposed to exaggerate what might truthfully be set down under these heads.

Suggestions have been offered from various points of view as to the state of the churches at this time and as to the Montanist impression of it; and, indeed, various influences might conspire to produce the situation. One may be noticed which, perhaps, has been too much overlooked. The mere natural progress of human affairs tends to bring about a situation such as Montanism presupposes. In any great religious movement a stage is by and by reached at which a natural cause begins to operate as a source of change. And this has repeatedly received conspicuous illustration in the history of Christian churches.

The advent of a new religion, making serious and impressive claims to embody a new revelation from on high, is not a frequent occurrence. But frequently enough great religious awakenings have attended the advent into a country or district of a new sect, which breaks in on a conventional or slumbering Christianity, and claims to republish authentically and effectually the original Christian message. The awakened become partisans of the new sect; the new sincerity and devotedness of many of them enhance the general impression and give a fresh impetus to the progress of the movement. At the same time, such persons are found to lay stress on the ecclesiastical peculiarities, or, still more, on the points of Christian practice, self-denial, and the like, which happen to characterise the movement. Perhaps certain forms of emotion, or of expressing emotion, come to have particular value attached to them. Perhaps, also, stress is laid on the principle that Church fellowship should be pure, that is, that it should be confined to persons who afford individual and substantial evidence of adherence to Christ and of separation from the world. So there arises and grows a new embodiment of Christianity.

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But Time has his office to discharge, testing, moulding, adjusting, in many ways which need not be dwelt on here. The thing to be especially noted is that a point is reached at which the composition of the body begins to change. Time was when the accessions to it were almost entirely in the form of persons, who, as the result of inward conflict and crisis, broke with their old ways, with the associations and habits of previous life, and gave in that way a sufficiently impressive pledge of the earnestness of their profession. But by and by it comes to pass that the bulk of the accessions, or a very large portion of them, are from the children of the members. Of these, some, after consciously standing out alike against the Christian influences and the sectarian peculiarities of the body, come distinctly, by a great change, to new views of things, and give themselves up consciously and freely to the fellowship of the saints as their fathers did. Some - far more - are cases of another kind. They have been nurtured in Christian homes; they have been sheltered as much as may be from undesirable influences; they have manifested on occasion tokens of seriousness and upright purpose; and they are willing, as their friends are willing, that they should take their place as believers. Nor has anyone a right to form an adverse judgment of the reality and sincerity of their profession; theirs may often be the more consistent and reliable type of religion; and yet certainly very many of them will differ in their development from the old type. Instead of the question being how far they ought to go in the way of defying and renouncing fellowship with a world they have known too well and are now forsaking, the question will often rather be, why restrictions should be accepted, and whether this or that indulgence, which the society conventionally reckons worldly and unbecoming, might not be adopted without any real harm or danger.

When this new element begins to form a large proportion of the whole, and when the new tendencies begin to operate strongly, a crisis is apt to take place. For there will be many who cling not only to the old faith, but to

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the old ways of embodying it. Those on the other side will be for moderating the ancient rigour, for broadening the platform, and for freer accommodation to what they reckon simply human in the world and its ways.[1]

Turning back now from modern sects to the undivided Church, one sees that the same thing must have occurred there. In the various countries in which it was settled there came a time, earlier here, later there, when the recruits from among the children of Christians, trained up to be Christians, came to bear a very sensible proportion to the accessions from the outside and to the general mass of the membership. It is impossible to fix an exact date for this; but probably in the countries where Christianity made its beginnings under the influence of apostles, some time about the middle of the second century may be as near an era as it is possible to assign. Of course the case of the Christian Church planted among the nations must differ, in various ways, from that of any sect forming in connection with religious awakening in a territory of professing Christianity. But the one case illustrates the other. There might well be a perceptible difference of tone and tendency between the time when the churches were chiefly composed of, and were generally led by, men who had themselves passed over from heathenism by a memorable act of personal decision, and the time when Christianity was largely represented by persons who were in the Church because they had been brought up to it, who had always looked forward to life as to be lived in a Christian profession, who had from the first foreseen all life’s experiences as necessarily taking shape under that influence.[3] Many of these might indeed be intensely,

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irrationally, loyal to all the old traditions. But many also would be of another type. A tendency could not but arise to reconcile with Christian profession a good many modes of life, enjoyments, occupations, social actions and customs, from which the first Christians had recoiled. In their minds these were associated with secularity anti idolatry, while their successors might come to regard them as not necessarily evil, but simply neutral and human. And in times and places where there was not much persecution, people could become and continue Christians who neither were nor professed to be very devoted persons.

When these tendencies became operative, tension would set in. Many would be vexed. Was this Christ’s promise of the Spirit? Was this the power and presence of the Church’s head? With these good people might join many who were not so really under the spiritual power of Christianity, but with whom religion stood very much in the observance of the accepted peculiarities. These, too, would bewail the change, and vote for holding on to the old ways.

Presently this feeling would express itself in another direction: it would lay hold of the discipline of the Church. Has not Christ qualified the Church to keep herself pure? Can she not frame such rules, and so apply them, as to keep out and put out this lazy, self-indulgent, worldly-minded style of Christianity? Here would set in, by a fatal necessity, a collision between this party and the majority, the great majority of the rulers of the Church. It would prove so, for this reason among others, that those who have permanent responsibilities in connection with discipline acquire an experimental knowledge as to what discipline can do and what it cannot; in particular, they learn that discipline must proceed not upon wishes and impressions, but upon definite rules and conclusive proofs.

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Further, such persons could not overlook, nor afford to overlook, the elements of conscience and of Christian character among those who took the milder view. Hence would come mutual suspicions on the one hand, a tendency to regard church rulers as not alive to the necessities of the Church, as perceived by spiritual men; and, on the other hand, the tendency on the side of church officers to regard those we speak of as insubordinate and disorderly.[4]

The same tendencies might come into collision in another field, that of the public teaching and the public worship. The earlier practice of the Church had been more or less to employ in worship under the presidency of the pastor or pastors, the gifts of the congregation. This feature was now retiring. Things were falling into a set order, and public utterance was being restricted to those who. were regarded as having special aptitudes to edify the people, and who were called to office on that ground. If so, we may well believe that some would impute to the methods so coming in, the lack of vitality and the failure of power which they were disposed to recognise as prevailing evils.

On lines like these one can understand the spread, here and there, in the Christian churches, - especially perhaps among the humbler members, so far as these were earnest and clung to memories of earlier days, - of a feeling of dissatisfaction and distrust. It would aim at having room made and effect given to impulses and convictions which the Spirit of God inspires in Christian hearts, as against secularity and worldly conformity, as against set methods that turn Christianity into a mechanical system going on of itself, as against worldly wisdom and philosophy; finally, as against the hierarchy and the centralised ecclesiastical authority which seemed to leave no room for the

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free upburst of the Christian heart to assert its desires and make good the result it longed for.

There might be a great deal of prejudice and shortsightedness at the bottom of all this; probably there was also a great deal that was worthy and sincere. Dangers did lie before the Church against which it would have been well to guard. But the dissatisfied section were too apt to assert as the true marks of real Christianity - of the Spirit’s presence and power - certain approved forms of self-denial and methods of work righteousness; and they were apt to drive at these by what seemed to them the readiest means; as if when they got these things to he required and to be complied with, they would then have real and satisfactory Christianity. Thus, they too went astray with their own forms of externalism. And they deprived themselves by so doing of all durable influence; for it could with perfect truth and fairness be maintained against them, that no such yoke as they would impose had been laid by the Lord upon His Church.

Such feelings existed and operated, most likely, in all parts of the Church, and very many of those who shared them never became Montanists; but the mood of mind described, furnished the materials to which Montanism appealed. In its special form Montanism was a Phrygian phenomenon, due, no doubt, to tendencies to religious exaltation and excitement, which had characterised the Phrygian people for ages; and it availed itself of the elements of awe and wonder suggested by the expectation of the coming of the Lord. Hence feelings and convictions, which existed in many quarters, there found expression in persons who had been looked on as prophets before, or who appeared in that character now, hut who claimed at all events to have received a quite new mission. They spoke in a remarkably ecstatic manner. No doubt the epidemic nervous excitement was present, which has often manifested itself in connection with religious enthusiasm.[5]

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The conclusion was drawn at once that a special visitation of spiritual power bad been vouchsafed to authorise and to emphasise the new teaching. When this stream of ecstasy and prophecy began to run, to certain minds it seemed conclusive. Here, men said, is a new era and a new power. Now we see the secret of our vexations and our disappointments. The era of the Paraclete had not come, and so things could not be set right. But now he has come. Now at last, not through bishops or synods, but by the Spirit Himself, the Church will become a society worthy of its calling; and Christians, shaking themselves clear of entanglement and compromise, will be raised to the posture that becomes them, as disciples awaiting the coming of the Lord.

This seems thoroughly to explain the various phenomena of Montanism. It explains how Montanism kept clear of new doctrine, excepting the modification of the idea of the Paraclete; and how its whole energy was directed to disciplinary preparation for the coming of the Lord. It explains also how ecclesiastical authorities in the neighbourhood of its first appearance, saw in it a dangerously subversive movement that required to be instantly checked; and also how it came to pass that large-minded bishops in regions farther off, seeing in it what it had in common with the feelings of many good Christians everywhere,—feelings which they respected, and perhaps partly shared,—were slow to commit themselves to a collision with it, and were anxious to treat it in a tolerant spirit as long as they could. That plainly implies that they saw mixed up with it Christian aspirations which deserved to be regarded.

From the human point of view, it must be regarded as a calamity that the assertion of the Church’s dependence on the Spirit, in those ministrations of His which are not limited to clerical character or standing arrangements, but belong to all believers, was made in a form so indefensible and fanatical. That soon blew over, as all fanaticisms do; Montanism as a concrete thing fades away early

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in the third century, although its influence lasted longer. Meanwhile the Church more and more provided for the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, by practically chaining His influence to the hierarchy and the sacraments.

The mood of mind above referred to as diffused through the churches, and as existing in places where it refused to accept the form of Montanism, reappears from time to time, especially in the disputes regarding discipline, of which Novatianism and Donatism are conspicuous instances. With respect to the local Phrygian conditions which gave to Montanism its sensational features, it will be useful to read Professor Ramsay’s account of Glycerius the deacon.[6] The incident falls two hundred years later, and belongs to Cappadocia; but it is not the less illustrative and suggestive.


[1] Some Montanists at a later stage are represented as accepting Patripassian views.

[2] This process has been exemplified a hundred times. There are congregations scattered over our country, arising out of the religious awakenings of the end of last century and the beginning of the present, in which the process has visibly been accomplished. On a larger scale one may refer to the Mennonites of Holland, to the Society of Friends, in some degree also to the Wesleyan Methodists, and various other bodies.

[3] A very good instance is supplied by the Christian expectation of the Lord’s return, with the great events it was to bring with it. To many early Christians, who brought with them from heathenism sad memories, and materials of much inward conflict, and whose conversion broke many ties of friendship and kindred, the conviction that Christ would soon come might be animating and cheering. But young persons, born in the Church, and looking forward to life and its experiences, might regard the prospect in a different way.

[4] One point of difference was the way of dealing with those who, by common consent, ought to be subjected to discipline. In this point, also, extreme rigour was more apt to commend itself to those who theorised from a distance, thau to those who had to deal with the actual sinners.

[5] See Hecker’s Epidemics of the Middle Ages -Publications of Sydenham Society.

[6] Church in Roman Empire, p. 443.


London School of Theology