Montanism (1)

This continues a short series on ancient church heresies

To his “little children,” the apostle John said, “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world” (I John 4:1). This prophetic word of the Holy Spirit through John would quickly be proven genuine, as false prophets began to multiply even before his death. From Bar-Jesus of Paphos to the Jezebel of Thyatira, these “spirits” attempted to draw the church away from Jesus Christ. Always, the devil comes as an “angel of light” to show signs and wonders to deceive men. The “Great Deceiver” is found working though self-proclaimed prophets in every age of history, all the way up to the present-day Pentecostals. 

The church’s calling is to try these spirits, whether they are of God. One of the very first tests of the ancient church was to determine if the “New Prophecy,” or Montanism, was indeed the truth of God or a perversion of it. The Spirit had been poured out, and the Bible does speak of extraordinary gifts in the early church. But what was to keep any man or woman from claiming for themselves the gift of direct revelation by the power of the Holy Spirit? A standard needed to be applied, and so these tests were necessary for the church to develop the doctrine and the canon of the Scriptures. Having applied that Word of God to the Montanists, the post-apostolic church judged it to be “sacrilegious” and “heresy.”[1] This paper considers the origin of Montanism, its teachings, and its condemnation by the church.  

Around the middle of the second century, a new prophet was found in Phyrgia of west-central Asia-Minor. On account of the location of their origins, his followers were first known as Cataphrygians, but later took on the name of their founder, Montanus. Little is known of the man, but according to Jerome, he was a “castrated and mutilated” former priest of the Phrygian goddess, Cybele.[2] Upon his conversion, he began prophesying and gathered a base of support in the towns of Pepouza and Tymion. Montanus was joined by two women, Priscilla and Maximilla, who left their husbands to become prophetesses alongside Montanus. These were the “Big Three” of Montanism, and it is from the women that we have most of the prophecies that have been preserved through history.

Montanism did not remain an entirely local movement. It spread, often in the face of significant opposition, to Rome and North Africa.[3] Others are named in positions of leadership, but the most significant of the later Montanist leaders was Tertullian. He was its greatest convert and apologist, and he gathered support for the movement in and around Carthage of North Africa. Tertullian never left the church and remained respected by many more orthodox men, but from him comes much of the Montanist teachings as well as its only positive evaluation.

Montanism was called the “New Prophecy” because its primary teaching was that the Spirit, or the Paraclete, was still giving revelation directly through chosen vessels. They believed that the development of the revelation continued through the word spoken by their prophets and prophetesses. This new revelation was necessary for the church, for only by it could the church come to a greater understanding of the truth of God. They could find many examples of prophecy in the writings of the apostles, and some even believed that Maximilla and Priscilla were direct descendants of Agabus and the daughters of Philip[4] “which did prophesy” in Acts 28. Because the Paraclete spoke directly through them, they often spoke their prophecy as the Holy Spirit in the first person. Tertullian claimed that opponents of Montanism raised “controversy with the Paraclete.”[5]

From this doctrine of the Spirit arose every other unique teaching of Montanism. They had a strong legalistic tendency as a reaction to what was perceived as corruption in the church. This manifested itself in asceticism and strict church discipline, as they attempted to create a church of only the truest believers, free from any corruption of the flesh. They called themselves Spiritualists, while the common Christian was only a Psychic. Tertullian often wrote against the Psychics, as he did in his treatise, “On Fasting.” According to his account, those who condemned Montanism did so not because they “preach another God,” but because they “plainly teach more frequent fasting than prayer.”[6] The Montanist doctrine was that the Paraclete was manifesting himself to be the “restitutor”[7] of the proper Christian life. By multiplying fasts, regulating clothing, condemning flight from persecution, rejecting the repentance of the lapsed, and various other extreme practices, they bound the conscious of the believer.

All of this emphasis on purifying the church through the direct revelation of the Paraclete was to prepare for the imminent coming of Christ and the establishment of the new Jerusalem where the town of Pepouza stood. It was to be a glorious kingdom established by Christ in this world, and it was near at hand. Maximilla declared, “After me there is no more prophecy, but only the end of the world.”[8] They prepared for this kingdom by calling all true Spiritualists to come to Pepouza. Only those who rejected all the excesses of the Psychics, would be fit for such a kingdom of spiritual living.

[1] Eusebius, Eusebius: The Church History, trans. Paul L. Maier (Grand Rapids, Kregel, 2007), 170.

[2] William Tabernee, Montanist Inscriptions and Testimonia: Epigraphic Sources Illustrating the History of Montanism, texts, trans., and comm., William Tabernee (Macon, Georgia: Mercer, 1997), 17.

[3] Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 2, Ante-Nicene Christianity, 5th ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 1984), 418

[4] Tabbernee, Montanist Inscriptions and Testimonia, 19

[5] Tertullian, “Tertullian” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 4, Tertullian (IV), Minucius Felix, Commodianus, Origen, ed. by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1885), 102.

[6] Tertullian, 102.

[7] Tertullian, 61.

[8] Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 425.

By Bruce Feenstra

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