EarlyChurch.org.uk


B. Sherratt, "Montanism," The Pentecostal. Vol. 1, No. 1: 27-30.

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MONTANISM arose in Phrygia among the disciples of Montanus, who claimed a transcendent inspiration as a prophet. Phrygia was the breeding-ground of Christian enthusiasm, using the word in the sense of surrender to a divine indwelling spirit; the man is ‘en-theos’; a god is in him. The Phrygians, an emotional race, had previously worshipped Cybele, the mother of the gods with wild music, the shedding of blood and other barbaric rites. Their priests were emasculated, since the goddess must be worshipped by ‘half men’. Writers have been at pains to emphasise the location of the heresy, Milman writes that "the land of heathen orgies was the natural birth place of that wild Christian mysticism; it was the Phrygian fanaticism speaking a new language". And according to Père Prat "c’était la patrie de tout les fanatismes et de tous let excés". The inhabitants of Phrygia, even in the second century, were decried, together with the Carians, as barbarians. This is perhaps an exaggeration but no doubt Montanus was, to some extent, the product of his environment. His preaching dates from about A.D. 130 but all that can be said of him with certainty is that he existed. The prophet is said to have lived in the village of Ardabau and, according to Jerome had been a Driest of Cybele. His enemies declared that he pretended to be the Paraclete himself. He taught that the dispensation of the Spirit had dawned and that he was himself the fulfilment of Christ’s promises concerning the Paraclete. At his baptism Montanus "spoke with tongues" and began prophesying, announcing that was the mouthpiece of the Holy Spirit, but the testimony of the Fathers on this point is extremely contradictory, and Tertullian in his treatise against Praxaes, written after he became a Montanist, is orthodox on the subject of the nature of the Holy Ghost. Montanus is supposed to have left writings, but that which remains has more the appearance of oral tradition. His opponents asserted that he was mad, that he had led an immoral life, and that he committed suicide, "after the manner of Judas", Jerome accuses him of corrupting by bribery. Another accuses him of adultery and infanticide, but this hardly tallies with Jerome’s reproach of his being "abscissus et semi-vir". Two wealthy ladies, Priscilla and Maximilla, left their husbands to follow Montanus as prophetesses and leaders and the charges of immorality and

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suicide were brought against them also. The Catholic bishops of Asia considered them to be demon-possessed. It was said that they were fond of taking up collections ‘and there were rumours about hair-tinting, pencilled eyebrows and gaming tables. The most prominent features of Montanism were fasting and asceticism, the seeing of visions, the hearing of voices and possession by the Spirit. A prophet was subject to ecstasies and transports: he would lose his own individuality; the spirit would speak through him: he was ‘beside himself’ and could neither control nor remember what he uttered. He was subject to another mind: it was the Word of God, or the Spirit, or the Almighty who spoke. This influx of supernatural power was its own final authority. Montanus thought that when he was in an ecstatic condition the entire deity gave utterance through him at that moment. He spoke with authority having knowledge like a medium. Human personality was in abeyance. "I am God Almighty", he prophesied, "dwelling in man; I am neither angel nor envoy; I am the Lord God and Father, and have come myself".

Hermas believed that a prophet’s inspiration was dependent on an ‘angel’ from the divine Spirit. Montanus believed he was directly inspired by God. "Behold the man is as a lyre, and I fly over it like a plectrum. The man sleeps, and I remain awake. Behold it is the Lord that stirs the hearts of men, and gives men hearts."

The simile of the musical instrument was not a peculiarity of Montanism. It was used by Athenagoras of Athens and Theophilus of Antioch with reference to the Old Testament prophets. Ecstasy and music also played an important role in early Hebrew prophecy. The prophets went around in bands, frenzied and prophesying to the sound of music (1 Sam. 10:5-13; 19:18-24). Their ecstasies fired men with zeal for Yahweh. The voice of the Lord God could now be heard in the valleys of Phrygia.

But the fasts of the Montanists, their special regulations, were not unlike those which orthodox ascetics had long practised. Those who led a life of rigorism and those who thought that the Second Coming was not far off, felt drawn by the new movement. The difference lay in the fact that Montanus and his disciples asserted that the revelation they had received from God was supplementary to that given by Christ and His apostles. Literal and exclusive acceptation of the promise of the Paraclete was the basis of Montanism. Tertullian evidently believed that this new prophecy was superior to any previous revelation. "If Christ abrogated what Moses commanded, because from the beginning it was not so… why should not the Paraclete alter what Paul permitted?" (De Monagamia 14). Although Tertullian is here referring specifically to second marriages, most authorities agree that this is a general axiom in question form. Tertullian stresses the superior insight experienced by those who followed the teaching of the Paraclete through the prophets and prophetesses. Ordinary Christians were ‘psychic’ or ‘animal’ but were considered members of the Visible Church. Tertullian says that he is the pupil not of man but of the Paraclete. (Ad. Prax. 13).

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Irrespective of Montanism the early spiritual gifts were still operative in the Church of the second century. Clement, Ignatius, Hermas, Justin Martyr and Irenaeus all affirm their belief in, and even their experience of these charismata.

Athenagoras presented his Apology to Aurelius and Commodus in A.D. 176. The Montanist teaching was already known, yet he describes the inspiration of the prophets as follows—"Moses, or Isaiah, or Jeremiah, or the other prophets who, lifted in ecstasy above the natural operation of their minds by the impulses of the Divine Spirit, offered the things with which they were inspired, the Spirit making use of them as a flute player breathes into a flute." A1so, Justin Martyr denies that the prophet plays any part as an individual apart from producing the actual words; he uses the image of the lyre struck by the plectrum: the prophets prophesied in a state of ecstasy. It is evident that both Athenogoras and Justin held views on prophecy compatible with those of the Montanists. Only late in the third century was the view held by Athenagoras. Justin and Montanus rejected it. Epiphanius was probably the first to lay down as the criterion for prophecy that it must be conscious and intelligent. And it is Epiphanius who says of the Montanists that "they receive the whole of the Scriptures, both old and New Testament. and believe the resurrection of the dead; also concerning the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, they agree with the Holy Catholic Church". In Adversus Praxeam Tertullian says that the Montanists have always believed the Creed and more especially since they have been instructed by the Paraclete, who leads men into all truth. Hippolytus shows that they were orthodox with regard to the Trinity, i.e. anti-Monarchin, and neither Philaster nor Augustine accuse them of deviation on this point. They received the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper with the same belief in their nature and efficacy and with the same rites as the Catholic Church.

The Montanists whole-heartedly embraced the doctrine of the chiliad or millennium. The prophecy that the martyrs and those who had not worshipped the Beast should rise from the dead and reign on earth with Christ for a thousand years (Rev. 20:4) was interpreted literally.

It seems that Maximillia thought of herself as the last of the prophets, giving the impression that Christ’s Second Coming was imminent. But belief in the early Second Coming was neither a new idea nor was it exclusive to Montanism. Tertullian appears to have held these views both before and after becoming a Montanist. Epiphanus reports that, while sleeping, Priscilla received an important revelation: Christ came to her and slept with her, "in the likeness of a woman, clad in a bright robe, and he planted wisdom in me and revealed that his place (Pepuza), is holy, and that here Jerusalem comes down from heaven". It is generally thought that Montanists expected to see the New Jerusalem appear in the sky and descend at Pepuza but there is no evidence to suggest such a literal belief. Tertullian thought that the holy city would come down on the site of the old Jerusalem. Perhaps Pepuza was given

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the name of Jerusalem because the Montanist prophets lived there. It is not as if they thought of the town of Pepuza as the precise location of the Parousia.

Orthodox Catholicism must have received a shock when Tertullian, the outstanding western theologian, joined the Montanists: "It was as if Newman had joined the Salvation Army" (R.A.Knox). Later Tertullian probably formed his own sect in Africa.

It is often argued that the eccentricities of Montanism, can be explained by its background of Phrygian heathenism, and if it is believed that Montanus was a convert from heathenism and had been a priest of Cybele the argument has considerable force. But when the phenomena of Montanism are examined, collectively the inadequacy of this hypothesis is apparent. It is difficult to explain how the amalgam of prophecy, ecstasy, asceticism and chiliastic hope became so fused together. Perhaps the Montanists were not innovators but preservers of a pure tradition; country folk who did not take to the legalising trend of the Catholic Church. To some extent their movement was a reaction against the intellectualist tenor of Gnosticism. The Montanists were something like Quakers in their dependence on the Holy Spirit, like the Puritans in their rigorism and like Pentecostals in their expectations. The movement was well intentioned seeking revival, but produced discord and schism.


London School of Theology