Sometime in the 160’s on the borders of Mysia (western Turkey) a believer named Montanus broke onto the scene. He testified that he had experienced an ecstatic visitation of the Paraclete (the Holy Spirit) and, along with two women (Maximilla and Priscilla), had the ability to deliver prophetic messages from God.
The Montanist message, whether spoken or delivered in ecstatic utterance, consisted of: the promise (or warning) of the immanent return of Jesus and the apocalyptic end of the world, a new outpouring of the Spirit announcing this message, and an encouragement to embrace persecution and martyrdom.
The church had not discouraged these messages up to this point, and indeed, did not immediately disagree with Montanus. Unfortunately, other messages existed behind these to form a three-part subtext.
- First, two of the primary characters were women. There are some modern scholars who seize upon this as evidence for a patriarchical stronghold that would deny any leadership to women. There are good arguments against this position, but the early church was a male dominated movement and women certainly did not have equal access to leadership roles.
- Another subtext was the over-zealous approach to martyrdom. We have already covered the problems with what can be called “the cult of the martyrs.” It is highly likely that Montanists were among the martyrs in the famous persecution scene of Lyons in the year 177.
- Probably the most problematic aspect of the Montanists was the view that their prophecies carried the authority of the gospels, and of apostolic teaching.
- Montanus and his two prophetesses did not see themselves in need of the authority of the church. The leading bishops did, however, prevail even after Tertullian defected from the church and joined the Montanists.
- Around 179 AD Maximilla complained of the treatment she had received, “I am driven as a wolf from the sheep. I am not a wolf. I am word, spirit and power.” (Eusebius, History V.16.17)
- In the end, Montanism was rejected more for being fanatical than for being heretical.
David Wright concludes his study on Montanism by saying, “The reaction against Montanism brought upon the church impoverishment more detrimental than the upset caused by the unbalanced excesses of the New Prophecy.“ (Wright, David, “Why Were the Montanists Condemned?”, Themelios 2:1, pp.15-22; also www.earlychurch.org.uk/article_montanists_wright.html).
Monarchian beliefs enjoyed a great vogue around the turn of the second and third centuries. Their refutation engaged the full vigor of giants like Origen and … the Montanist Tertullian!
Was not Praxeas, the arch monarchian demolished by Tertullian in his most significant work on the Trinity, the very one who had at Rome not only ‘introduced heresy’ but also ‘banished (the New) Prophecy’?
Tertullian is unequivocal that Montanus and his associates were not condemned for any transgression of the ‘rule of faith and hope’, and professes that the direction of the Paraclete commits him ever more confidently to his exposition of the Trinity.
Tertullian records a prophetic oracle which is entirely catholic:
‘God brought forth the Word as a root brings forth a tree, and a spring a river and the sun a ray’ (Sources, pp. 44, 37, 45). ‘
Tertullian helped to rescue the catholic church from theological heresy precisely because he was a Montanist’ (Barnes, op. cit., p. 142).
Opponents accuse Montanus of ‘prophesying contrary to the manner which the church had received from generation to generation by tradition from the beginning.‘ ‘He fell into a state of possession, as it were, and abnormal ecstasy, insomuch that he became frenzied and began to babble and utter strange sounds.’ The two women ‘chattered in a frenzied, inopportune and unnatural fashion‘ (Eusebius, [p.17])