Montanism (2)

This continues a short series on ancient church heresies.

The church condemned Montanism. “The believers in Asia met many times in many places to investigate the recent utterances, pronounced them sacrilegious, and rejected the heresy… Then at last [the Montanists] were excommunicated and ejected from the church.”[1] These meetings were likely some of the first synods in the post-Apostolic age.[2] Apollinarius of Hieropolis, Miltiades, Apollonius, and Serapion are a few of the earliest opponents of Montanism. Some even tried to cast out the demons they assumed were possessing the new prophets and prophetesses.[3] Emperors from Constantine to Justinian in the sixth century enacted laws against the Montanists. Pseudo-Dionysius wrote that after exhuming the bodies of Montanus, Priscilla, and Maximilla, John of Asia “burned them with fire, and he uprooted their temples unto the foundations.”[4]

The church of that day did not necessarily condemn the main tenets of Montanism. Many a church father wrote of wonderful works of the Spirit still being manifested in the church of that age. The church had not fully developed even the basic doctrines the Trinity or of Christ. The canon had not been fully recognized. And Montanism was recognized even by its opponents to hold to the rule of faith in its essential parts.[5]

It was first the Montanist manner of prophesying that made it unique and brought upon it the ire of the church. Eusebius records an anonymous source saying, “Montanus… became obsessed and, in his frenzy, fell into a trance. He began raving, chattering, and speaking nonsense.”[6] He also quotes Miltiades who claims, “But the pseudoprophet speaks in ecstasy, without shame or fear. He begins with intentional ignorance but ends in unintentional madness. They cannot show that any prophet, either in the Old or New Testament, was inspired in this way.”[7] They claimed that the Paraclete took full possession of their bodies and senses, so that they prophesied not knowing what they were prophesying, a manner foreign to the inspiration of Scripture. The early church saw in their antics not the Holy Spirit, but the spirit of Satan.

While the manner of prophesying first brought condemnation, their teachings were also rejected by the church. While the Montanists did not directly contradict the rule of faith, in their ecstatic states they began to add to the revealed Word. Hippolytus condemns them for alleging “that they have learned something more through these (the new prophecies), than from law, and prophets, and the Gospels.” [8] To the Montanists, the Word of God revealed by the prophets and apostles was not enough, so they added new legalistic laws and teachings. This is seen in their ascetic principles, as well as in their chiliastic teachings. Their teaching of a near and sudden end was proven false by the first test of prophecy: it did not come to pass.

There were also reports of abuses in power among the Montanists for which they are condemned. Although these reports were spread by its opponents, it is easy to believe that a sect led by a few men and women trusted to possess the power of divine revelation yielded many abuses. They had an efficient system of agents to collect offerings, bringing the condemnation that they preached to “advance through gluttony.” [9] A Montanist martyr named Alexander was apparently a robber and a thief. [10]

Finally, the church distrusted the Montanist movement also because it was inherently disestablishmentarian. If anyone spoke with the authority of the paraclete, their authority superseded that of bishops and councils. For this reason, women were leaders and often took ecclesiastical offices in defiance of church policy and the Bible. Tertullian was not afraid to challenge the bishop of Rome. Rather than submitting to the authority of the church, Montanism was an attempt to create a “church within a church.”

As was stated, the church condemned and eventually eradicated Montanism. Today there are no Montanists. Yet there has been a plethora of movements throughout history that find their spiritual ancestors in Montanus, Priscilla, and Maximilla. The Zwickau prophets of Luther’s Germany, the Irvingites of Anglican England, and the Pentecostals of the present-day all share fundamental principles with the Montanists. Again and again, the teaching of new, direct revelation had to be repudiated by applying the infallible standard of Scripture. Yet today Pentecostalism is rampant, and the church has largely grown unwilling to “try the spirits.” One wonders what Eusebius would have written about the Azusa Street Revival. The church must recall its history when contending for the faith and repeat the warning of Revelation: “If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book” (Rev. 22:18).

[1] Eusebius, 170.

[2] Schaff, 418.

[3] See the letter of Serapion regarding Sotas attempt to “drive the demon out of Priscilla.” Eusebius, 175

[4] Tabbernee, 29.

[5] Schaff, 421.

[6] Eusebius, 170.

[7] Eusebius, 172.

[8] Hippolytus, “The Refutation of All Heresies,” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 5, Hippolytus, Cyprian, Caius, Novatian, Appendix, ed. Rev. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 123.

[9] Eusebius, 173.

[10] Eusebius, 174.

By Bruce Feenstra

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