Volume 2 - Issue 1
Why were the Montanists condemned?By David F. Wright
Damnatio memoriae is both the fate of the heretic and the frustration of the historian. The history of Montanism suffers from the loss of both Montanist and anti-Montanist writings. Most of the extant sayings of Montanus and his colleagues Prisca (Priscilla) and Maximilla are preserved for us by Epiphanius, the late fourth-century heresiologist. The surviving oracles amount in all to no more than twenty.1 Hippolytus of Rome, writing in the early third century, speaks of ‘boundless books’ by the Montanists, although the primitive Roman ‘index’ in the Gelasian Decree (fifth/sixth century) knows only ‘some minor works’, opuscula (Sources, pp. 57, 226). Detailed evidence of Montanist writings is not plentiful, and they have all disappeared with remarkably little trace. Several works written by Tertullian in his Montanist period are of strictly limited value; their more or less incidental references to Montanist differentiae would pale into insignificance had the world not lost his ‘seven books written against the church in defence of Montanus’, as Jerome somewhat tendentiously describes his On Ecstasy (Sources, p. 171).
More extensive remains of Montanist works would no doubt be extant if catholic refutations had displayed a greater aptitude for survival. The disappearance of so many of the latter is far more surprising than the loss of the former, and is perhaps without parallel in the early church. (It may even merit an explanation bearing upon the story of Montanism.) Eusebius was much better off, having at his disposal ‘the amplest supply of historical material’ (HE 5:16:1), from which he preserved invaluable extracts from the works of ‘the Anonymous’, a contemporary of Montanus, and Apollonius, who wrote some four decades later, about 210. But the list of lost catholic ripostes to the New Prophecy (the self-designation of ‘the Montanists’—a title not attested before the middle and late fourth century; cf. Sources, pp. 89, 153) is much longer, including writings by Miltiades, Alcibiades, Claudius Apollinarius, Rhodo, Soter, Eleutherus, Melito, Gaius, Serapion and Clement of Alexandria, as well as the monarchian heretic Praxeas.
One consequence of this paucity of documentary evidence is uncertainty why the Montanists were condemned, as undoubtedly they were by the bishops of the province of Asia. The Anonymous records that ‘When the faithful throughout Asia had met frequently and at many places in Asia for this purpose, and on examination of the newfangled teachings had pronounced them profane and rejected the heresy, these persons were thus expelled from the Church’ (Eusebius, HE 5:16:10). Similar action may well have been taken in other regions of Asia Minor and even further east (cf. Serapion of Antioch’s letter ‘exposing the same heresy’ and bearing numerous episcopal signatures, ibid. 5:19:2–4). The synods of Iconium and Synnada (in eastern Phrygia), which about the year 230 resolved that Montanist baptisms were futile and Montanists had to be (re)baptized into the catholic church, probably spoke for most of Asia Minor if not beyond (Sources, pp. 62, 65; Eusebius, HE 7:7:5). In the western church the official fortunes of the movement are less clear. The adverse judgments of the Roman bishops, whether Soter and Eleutherus or their successor (Victor? Zephyrinus?) whom Praxeas persuaded to ‘put to flight the Paraclete’, apparently did not amount to formal censure or excommunication (Sources, pp. 43f.; Eusebius, HE 5:3:4–4:2). The brethren in Gaul represented by Irenaeus were not inhibited from advocating a more sympathetic attitude than Rome, and the African bishops appear to have felt no obligation or pressure to expel Tertullian and others who espoused the New Prophecy. Indeed, the grounds for speaking of a straightforward schism of Tertullian’s group from the Carthaginian church are much less clearcut than is often assumed. A weighty case has recently been made out for the view that in his lifetime, and most likely until after Cyprian’s episcopate, the Tertullianists remained a Holy Club within the catholic church, ecclesiola in ecclesia, neither excommunicated nor excommunicating.2
Allegations of monarchianism
Eusebius’s extracts from the Anonymous provide no precise information concerning the terms of the Asian synods’ verdict against the Cataphrygians, as their catholic opponents regularly called the Montanists. If later writers are to be believed, the Montanists presented an open-and-shut case of heretical error. In the later fourth century the opinion prevailed that their chief fault lay in their monarchianism, that is, their rejection of permanent personal distinctions between Father, Son and Spirit in the Godhead. The Council of Constantinople in 381 condemned Montanists in these terms (canon 7), and Jerome placed their Sabellian (i.e., monarchian) breach of the ‘rule of faith’ at the head of his catalogue of their aberrations (Sources, pp. 167–168). Didymus the Blind of Alexandria (died c. 398) did likewise in explaining why the church refused to recognize Montanist baptisms. Didymus mistakenly appealed to a prophetic utterance of Montanus, ‘I am the Father and the Son and the Paraclete’, while Basil of Caesarea even supposed that the ‘Pepuzians’ baptized in the threefold name of Father, Son and Montanus or Priscilla (Sources, pp. 155f., 113). Basil’s predecessor in Caesarea in the midthird century, Firmilian, attributed the Iconium synod’s disapproval of Montanist baptisms to the bishops’ judgment that the Cataphrygians’ error concerning the Spirit automatically robbed them also of their possession of Father and Son (Sources, p. 61).
Yet Firmilian could not conceal the synod’s acknowledgment that the New Prophecy seemed to acknowledge the same Father and Son as the catholic church. Indeed, any connection between Montanism and the various brands of monarchianism was only accidental; there was no inherent affinity between the two. This is not to deny that some Montanists in the late second or early third century (and perhaps more in the later decades, finding themselves impelled into more blatant heterodoxy by repeated ecclesiastical and secular ostracism) were guilty of monarchian error. Hippolytus of Rome charged some of them with being Noetians (from Noetus of Smyrna, one of the earliest Monarchian teachers), and the treatise Against All Heresiesascribed wrongly to Tertullian, which is probably based on Hippolytus’s lost Syntagma against heresies, divided Montanists into two camps, one headed by Aeschines who asserted that Christ was both Father and Son (Sources, pp. 58, 51). But Hippolytus accepted that in the main the Montanists were orthodox regarding the Father and Son, a verdict that was extended to cover the Spirit also by Epiphanius, a later writer dependent on much earlier sources (Sources, pp. 57, 115).
It must not be forgotten that monarchian beliefs enjoyed a great vogue around the turn of the second and third centuries. Their refutation engaged the full vigour of giants like Origen and … the Montanist Tertullian! Was not Praxeas, the archmonarchian 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). Most decisively of all, the primary critics of Montanus and the prophetesses cited by Eusebius are silent about any heretical notions concerning the Father and the Son; Eusebius’s failure to quote them on this subject argues their own lack of reference to it.
Ecstasy and frenzy
What faults, then, do Eusebius’s chief sources find with the Montanists? Are they such as to explain their rejection as heretics? The Anonymous accuses 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, HE 5:16:7, 9). Appealing to another writer Alcibiades, who had demonstrated that a prophet ought not to speak in ecstasy, the Anonymous claims that the New Prophecy ‘cannot indicate any prophet under either the Old or the New [Covenant] who was moved by the Spirit after this manner, neither Agabus nor Judas nor Silas nor the daughters of Philip nor Ammia in Philadelphia nor Quadratus’ (ibid., 5:17:1, 3).3
This line of attack was developed at great length by Jerome and Epiphanius (Sources, pp. 171, 175, 176, 179–180, 119–127). The latter seeks to demonstrate seriatim that ‘every prophet in the Old and New Testaments knew what he was saying’ and ‘spoke in full possession of his senses’. He also examines the occurrences of the word ekstasis in the Greek Bible, evidently countering Montanist appeals to these precedents. His argument is not inconsistent with his subsequent scrutiny of the content of the Montanist prophecies by comparison with the teaching of Scripture. His treatment implies what the account of the Anonymous does not obviously allow for, that ecstasy may issue in the utterance of comprehensible, meaningful messages. There was clearly more to Montanist prophecy than unintelligible glōssolalia, if that is what, inter alia, ecstasy denotes.
There can be little doubt that the allegation of ecstasy, however loosely advanced, sticks against the Montanists. Two questions must then be faced. In the first place, was ecstasy unknown in the prophetic tradition? Modern Old Testament scholarship is unlikely to endorse Epiphanius’s case without qualification, even with respect to the major writing prophets. Possession by the Spirit or the Logos likened to the playing of a musical instrument is predicated of biblical prophets by orthodox writers from the second century onwards,4in full harmony with Montanus’s celebrated utterance, ‘Beheld, man is a lyre, and I hover over (rush upon) him like a plectrum,’ which Epiphanius stigmatized as wholly alien to the prophetic Spirit. The New English Bible’s rendering of glōssolalia as ‘ecstatic utterance’ indicates that the Anonymous and perhaps also the Asian bishops may have been on shaky ground in supposing that Christian prophets never spoke in ecstasy. The second question that arises here simply asks whether the manner in which Montanus prophesied could really have loomed as large as the Anonymous suggests. At this early stage there was apparently no attempt to damn the New Prophecy by alleging that Montanus had been involved in frenzied Phrygian religion. One wonders whether concentration on prophetic style points to a deeper discord.
The endeavours of the Anonymous to demonstrate the falsity of the New Prophecy entangle him in self-contradiction on the issue of martyrdom. His rhetorical question whether the Montanists’ ranks have produced a single martyr reflects the widespread view of Christian antiquity that martyrdom is a signal manifestation of the life of the Spirit, a view which has roots in the Revelation of John and multiple ramifications in the primitive church. After thus assuming that the Montanists’ lack of martyrs exposes the hollowness of their pretensions to the Spirit, however, the Anonymous later undercuts the appeal to the martyrs by acknowledging that the Marcionites, for instance, have numerous martyrs, ‘yet surely we shall not for this reason give them our assent, nor acknowledge that they possess the truth’ (Eusebius, HE 5:16:10, 20–22). This ‘Heads I win, tails you lose’ form of argument is a plain admission that the Montanists cannot be faulted on the score of martyrdom, even if, as later African experience may suggest, attitudes to persecution and martyrdom could have featured among the charges at the Asian synods.
There is in reality abundant evidence to show that the New Prophecy was anything but lukewarm on this front. Tertullian believed that the Paraclete summoned men to martyrdom and condemned Flight in Persecution as well as the evasion of any rightful action which might incur punishment (cf. The Soldier’s Garland). Two Montanist oracles preserved by Tertullian are exhortations to endure gladly the reproaches of persecutors and to hope for a death not ‘in bed or in abortion or in languishing fevers but in martyrdom, that he who suffered for you may be glorified’. The martyrs at Lyons in 177 almost certainly included some influenced by Montanism, as the narrative suggests in the case of Vettius Epagathus: ‘Having confessed in a very clear voice, he also attained to the inheritance of the martyrs, being called the paraclete of the Christians, but having the Paraclete in himself, the Spirit of Zacharias (Lk 1:67), which Spirit he showed in the fullness of his love, in that he was well pleased to lay down even his own life for the defence of the brethren’ (Eusebius, HE 5:1:10). Furthermore, epitaphs recovered from one part of Phrygia reveal a boldness and explicitness in confessing Christianity which are elsewhere unexampled in tombstone inscriptions in the pre-Constantinian era. The location points to a Montanist community. A literary tradition represented by the Philadelphian letters of John and Ignatius commends to Christians in the same area steadfastness in persecution until the End.5
Prophecy—fulfilment and succession
For the Anonymous catholic writer the spurious character of the New Prophesy is further demonstrated by the non-fulfilment of specific predictions. Maximilla had foretold ‘wars and tumults’, but she had been dead thirteen years and ‘there has been neither a partial nor a universal war in the world’ (Eusebius, HE 5:16:18). Maximilla also predicted according to Epiphanius, ‘After me there will be no more prophecy, but the consummation.’ As the years ‘after Maximilla’ elapsed, the emptiness of her expectations became more and more patent. But how long an interval had to intervene before non-fulfilment could have been alleged in conciliar proceedings? It is unlikely to have functioned as an indictment in the earliest anti-Montanist measures.
Maximilla’s prediction of the cessation of prophecy, perhaps uttered towards the end of her life in response to an imminent break in the prophetic line (cf. Powell, art. cit., p. 43), was not in itself at variance with the criterion established by the Anonymous: ‘The apostle lays it down that the prophetic gift ought to continue in the whole church until the final coming.’ It was not only the delay of the End but also conjointly the failure of the prophetic succession that exposed the falsehood. None of the catholic writers, it should be noted, claimed that the prophetic gift no longer belonged in the church. Origen, Epiphanius and Jerome all assert in different ways the church’s recognition of the authentic charisma of prophecy (cf. Sources, pp. 55–56, 116, 167). After showing a proprietary interest in the earlier Asian prophets the Montanists were merely hoist with their own petard when they were unable to maintain the succession (cf. Eusebius, HE 5:17:4).
The fruits of the prophet
We have exhausted the specific allegations of the Anonymous writer against the New Prophecy as recorded by Eusebius. The extracts from Apollonius, who, Eusebius informs us, wrote four decades after Montanus began to prophesy, i.e. c. 212, and may therefore be describing partly later developments, amount largely to an exposé of the conduct of various Montanist figures (Eusebius, HE 5:18:1–11). The argument is based on the axiom that a prophet is known by the fruits of a prophet, which accords with the Didache’srecommendations for distinguishing between the true prophet and the false. (Apollonius may have the Didachein mind in asserting that Scripture forbids a prophet to receive gifts and money.) But it is doubtful whether much weight should be attached to Apollonius’s colourful allegations, any more than to the more outrageous charges, including child-sacrifice, levelled against the Montanists from the time of Cyril of Jerusalem, who described Montanus himself as ‘full of impiety and inhumanity … reeking of every impurity and licentiousness’ (Sources, p. 89; cf. pp. 138f., 151, 189 for Epiphanius, Filaster and Augustine).
There would of course be nothing unusual in self-seeking charlatans and showmen taking advantage of an enthusiastic movement like Montanism. If we may believe pagan critics like Lucian and Celsus, Montanists were not the only second-century Christians to offer fair game to impostors on the make,6 while long before Cyril of Jerusalem’s day cannibalistic and incestuous mysteries were charged against Christians indiscriminately. The Anonymous as reported by Eusebius lays no moral failings to the Montanists’ account, Tertullian does not bother to rebut the kind of accusations Apollonius makes, while Hippolytus mentions only their ascetic regulations (Sources, pp. 57f.). Apollonius briefly notices their demanding fasts and their ‘dissolutions of marriages’, which were a common feature of the encratite varieties of second-and probably first-century Christianity. Some of Apollonius’s objections may be directed against nothing more blameworthy than ‘a financial scheme for regularising offerings to the Church and apostolic maintenance for preachers’ (Powell, art. cit., pp. 50f.). It is both disappointing and suggestive that Apollonius should have concentrated so much fire on this front. If there were Montanist rascals and dilettantes, there were also ethical rigorists like Tertullian and heroic martyrs like Perpetua and Felicitas.
The directness of the Anonymous and Apollonius in specifying the Montanists’ failings we have considered thus far contrasts markedly with their vagueness concerning their fundamental heterodoxy. They speak generally of ‘heresy’ and ‘newfangled teachings’, of the falsity of the New Prophecy’s predictions and the prophets’ blasphemy against the church for refusing to recognize their charismata. But they drop no hint of extravagant claims on the part of Montanus to a special relationship to, if not identity with, the Paraclete. (In the context it is Eusebius who refers to ‘the Paraclete Montanus’, HE 5:14.)
The Paraclete in the prophets
The success of Montanus and the prophetesses in attracting a following is granted by the Anonymous, in conformity with the exaggerated personal prominence given to the trio in virtually all the sources. Hippolytus’s chief complaint is the Montanists’ excessive reliance upon these three leaders: ‘They allege that they have learned something more through these than from the law, prophets and Gospels.… They magnify the women above the apostles and every gift of grace, so that some presume to assert in them a something superior to Christ.… They attach themselves more to the speeches of Montanus than to the Gospels.’ Yet of the trio themselves Hippolytus merely says that Montanus was considered a prophet and that the Paraclete Spirit had departed into (come into, kechōrēkenai) Maximilla and Priscilla, which does not go beyond a biblical model of prophetic indwelling by the Spirit (Sources, pp. 57–59).
Heterodox claims about the Holy Spirit first come to light in Pseudo-Tertullian’s Against All Heresies, which, as we have noted, is probably indebted to a lost work by Hippolytus. The common blasphemy of the Montanists asserted that ‘the Holy Spirit but not the Paraclete was in the apostles. The Paraclete said more things in Montanus than Christ set forth in the Gospel—not only more, but better and greater’ (Sources, p. 51). Here we have a distinction between the Spirit in the apostles and the Paraclete in the (Montanist) prophets, which does not, however, reappear in Epiphanius’s extended examination of Montanist prophecies, although he too is commonly believed to have used Hippolytus’s lost Syntagma among other early sources. The nearest Epiphanius comes to recording such aberrant pretensions occurs in his citation of Montanus’s utterances, ‘I am the Lord God Almighty dwelling in man,’ and, ‘I am neither angel nor envoy, but I, the Lord God, the Father, it is I who have come.’
These oracles, together with a third, ‘I am the Father and the Son and the Paraclete,’ raise in an acute form the question of the first-person structure of several of the Montanist sayings. When Montanus said, ‘I am the Lord God …’ was he doing anything more outrageous than assuming a prophetic stance familiar from the Old Testament, perhaps without the preface ‘Thus says the Lord’? That he was misunderstood to be laying claim to some unique relationship to the Paraclete, the divine person as whose mouthpiece he must most often have spoken, suggests that Christian prophecy was not normally presented in this form, although it would be difficult to imagine that it never took this form.7
The concentration of the Montanists on the designation ‘Paraclete’ for the Holy Spirit is readily intelligible in terms of the future role assigned by Jesus to the promised Paraclete in John’s Gospel. Tertullian explains at considerable length what he understands by the Paraclete’s making known through the New Prophecy ‘more, yea greater and better things’ than in Christ. It is immediately obvious that it has nothing to do with supplementing the rule of faith, or presenting new revelation.8 It belongs more to development of ethics than of doctrine. Tertullian provides no basis whatsoever for the popular misconception that the New Prophecy threatened the apostolic Scriptures by canonizing freshly revealed doctrine, and there are inadequate grounds for it elsewhere in our sources. The Montanist rank and file may have been guilty of extravagant reverence for the teachings of their prophetic leaders, treasuring them and even appearing to exalt them above the Scriptures themselves. A similar attitude to human teachers is observable in first-century Corinth, in twentieth-century evangelical church life and no doubt in every intervening century. It does not justify the ascription to Montanus, Priscilla and Maximilla of claims that their prophecies should enjoy parity with or pre-eminence over the apostolic writings.9 Apollonius accuses Themiso, possibly successor to Montanus as head of the movement, of ‘aping the apostle by daring to compose a catholic epistle’, but in itself this was hardly a criminal offence. The eminently orthodox Dionysius of Corinth wrote several, and since his ‘catholic epistles’ were letters addressed to individual Christian communities, Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp and many others had also written some (Eusebius, HE 5:18:5, 4:23:1–12). The ‘fear and extreme caution’ which held back the Anonymous from writing down his refutation of the New Prophecy, ‘lest perchance I might seem to be adding a new article or clause to the word of the New Covenant of the Gospel, to which no one who has purposed to live according to the simple Gospel may add, from which no one may take away’, have often been interpreted as anxiety not to appear to commit the same offence as the Montanists (Eusebius, HE 5:16:3). If this were the case, one wonders what he thought of all the other second-century Christians who wrote books, such as his contemporaries Miltiades and Alcibiades, whose anti-Montanist treatises he knew (ibid., 5:17:1). If the Anonymous’ fear was well founded, the New Testament canon must have been still subject to boundless fluidity, which his own words here are normally understood to rule out (although, as we have noted, when listing ‘those who prophesied under the New Covenant’ he makes no distinction between prophets in the New Testament and in later decades). If his fear was unreal, he can hardly be taken as a reliable witness to the intentions of the Montanist prophets.
The Muratorian Canon debars books by Miltiades, perhaps the Montanist mentioned by the Anonymous, and Montanus, if the text may be depended upon,10 and the Roman writer Gaius sought in a disputation c. 210 to ‘curb the audacity of the Montanists in composing new Scriptures’ (Eusebius, HE 6:20:3). It defies reason to suppose, as Eusebius implies, that the Montanists were still, forty years after Montanus began to prophesy, producing ‘new Scriptures’—unless, that is, they had only recently begun to do so. Gaius, it should be remembered, evinced such animosity against the New Prophecy that he ascribed the Johannine Gospel and Apocalypse, on which it heavily relied, to the heretic Cerinthus (cf. Grant, op. cit., pp. 104–108).
Jerusalem in Phrygia
Furthermore, if the Montanists expected the imminent descent of the New Jerusalem at an unimportant site in Phrygia, they are unlikely to have been concerned with providing Scriptures for the needs of the church. Whether they entertained such an expectation, however, is also more questionable than is normally imagined.11 The descent of Jerusalem on Pepuza was declared in a vision seen by ‘either Quintilla or Priscilla, I cannot precisely say which’, reported by Epiphanius in his description of a group of Montanists which emerged out of the parent body, probably after the death of Montanus and perhaps also Maximilla (Sources, pp. 139f.). There is good reason to assign the vision to Quintilla, not one of the original trio. The translation of the saying is variable; it may speak of a present rather than a future descent. The former rendering would accord better with Apollonius’s account of Montanus naming Pepuza and Tymion Jerusalem ‘in his desire to gather to them people from all quarters’ (Eusebius, HE 5:18:2). In view of the fact that, according to Quintilla, the descent takes place because Pepuza is holy, Montanus probably named the two towns ‘not in the context of the heavenly Jerusalem, but rather in that of the Jerusalem of Acts—the re-creation of the highly organized but Spirit-directed primitive Church’. The important point is his designating the places ‘Jerusalem’ by virtue of their present character or function, whether in pious or self-important advertisement or by pentecostal precedent,12 rather than in the context of a future event. Tertullian adhered to the standard second-century expectation of the descent of the New Jerusalem in Palestine and believed the New Prophecy confirmed this hope.
Whether Montanism should be regarded as announcing the imminent parousia is not open to a simple answer. Maximilla, as we have seen, expected the consummation after her death, but presumably did not exclude some interval before it ensued. The various ways of dying which Montanus envisaged in encouraging the hope of martyrdom did not include being overtaken by the coming of the Lord. The Fathers throw no further light on the subject. It would be reasonable to suppose that the Montanists nourished intensified eschatological hopes which at least, or perhaps solely, in Maximilla assumed broad chronological specification. In any case, it is again doubtful whether Montanist convictions about the time (or location) of the End could have significantly influenced the decisions of the Asian synods, although they could readily have contributed to a general impression of outrageous audacity.
Fanatical, not heretical
The conclusion imposes itself that ‘in the early Montanist controversy scriptural or ecclesiastical criteria for condemnation of the movement were not easily to hand’ (Vokes, op. cit., p. 320). In a nutshell, the New Prophecy was fanatical rather than heretical.13 By the style of their prophecy, the eccentricity of their ascetic demands, their pique at the catholic bishops’ repudiation of their charismata and perhaps by facets of their personal demeanour and predominance, the prophetic trio displayed an overbearing self-importance of which bishops in the catholic church of that day could hardly fail to take notice. Their claim to be the organs of the Spirit’s instructions to the church involved an imperious summons to recognition and obedience which bishops could not tolerate in a new convert and two women companions. The church of the 170’s and 180’s had reached a sensitive, even prickly, stage in its development. It was emerging from the confusions of the Gnostic crisis and recovering from the harsh confrontation with Marcion, but was still feeling after a clear consensus on the terms of its apostolic charter. If we read the Anonymous aright, it could be very touchy about the ark of the New Covenant Scriptures as its construction advanced. A magnetic revival of Christian prophecy14 might divide rather than unite, foment excitement and disturbance when stability was the need of the hour.
Tertullian does not bother about ‘meals of parched food (xērophagia) and repasts of radishes’ (Hippolytus; Sources, p. 57). His advocacy of the New Prophecy moves on a more sophisticated level,15 and yet the Paraclete’s perfecting of the discipline of the church requires not only unflinching acceptance of persecution but also the veiling of virgins, the redoubling of fasts, a total ban on remarriage and the slamming of the door of penitence against remission for serious post-baptismal sin. Such extremism was shocking rather than impious, and it provoked its own damnation (‘three Lents instead of one’, according to Jerome!).
But if the rejection of the New Prophecy in the late second and early third centuries is quite comprehensible, the judgment of hindsight may reckon it damaging and regrettable. The most attractive face of Montanism is glimpsed in the prologue and epilogue of the Passion of Perpetua, an eye-witness account of a group martyrdom at Carthage in 202:
‘If the patterns of faith in ancient days bear witness to the grace of God and make for the edification of man, and for that reason have been collected in writing that their reading, rendering the events present, should honour God and strengthen man, why should not recent examples be collected in like manner, seeing that they serve both these ends equally well? Some day these too will become ancient in their turn and familiar to posterity—even if in the present they are accorded less esteem because of the prejudice that favours antiquity. But let note be taken by those who take account of different epochs in assessing the one (unchanging) power of the one (unchanging) Holy Spirit. It is the more recent happenings that are to be regarded as the greater, because they are last of all, in conformity with the superabundance of grace decreed for the final stages of the world’s history. ‘In the last days, says the Lord, I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh.…’ And so we who recognize and honour alike the new prophecies and visions which were promised, and regard the other powers of the Spirit as sent for the better equipment of the Church (for which the same Spirit was sent to dispense all his gifts in all in accordance with the Lord’s distribution to each man), we feel ourselves compelled to compile the facts and to provide that they shall be read to the glory of God, in order that a feeble or despairing faith may not suppose that the grace of God dwelt only with the men of old time, whether in the glory of martyrs or of revelations. Whereas God is always working as he promised, for a testimony to those who do not believe and for the good and faithful. Therefore we too declare to you also what we have heard and seen and handled, brethren and little children, in order that you who were present may remember to the glory of the Lord, and you who learn through hearing the account may share communion with the holy martyrs.’
As the writer concludes in the epilogue,
‘These new manifestations of virtue will bear witness to one and the same Spirit who still operates’ (Sources, pp. 9–11; H. Musurillo, The Acts of the Christian Martyrs, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972, pp. 106–109, 130).
This narrative’s vivid sense of the immediacy of the power of the Spirit in the contemporary church, no less, indeed greater than in the past, suffered the same fate as the New Prophecy. There is much in Tertullian to similar effect.
‘What kind of supposition is it that, while the devil is always operating and adding daily to the ingenuities of iniquity, the work of God should either have ceased or else have desisted from advancing?’
The Paraclete prophesies even to the present day, not only of old.
‘The reason why the Lord sent the Paraclete was that, since human mediocrity was unable to take in all things at once, discipline should, little by little, be directed and ordained and carried to perfection, by that vicar of the Lord, the Holy Spirit. [He cites John 6:12–13, 14:26.] What then is the Paraclete’s administrative office but this: the direction of discipline, the revelation of the Scriptures, the re-formation of the intellect, the advancement towards the “better things”?’ (Sources, pp. 13–15).
Impoverishment of the church
In testing such spirits and rejecting them, the spirits of the Fathers must themselves stand trial. The Montanists’ renewal of prophecy suffered at the hands of a church preoccupied with closing the ranks, drawing clear lines of demarcation and safeguarding its heritage, an exercise in which apostolic was often synonymous with traditional. The condemnation of Montanism was a decisive point in the evolution of that kind of churchly Christianity which cherished office and order and had little room to ‘welcome the charismata’. Despite the catholic writers’ protestations that authentic spiritual gifts had the church’s blessing, the life of the Spirit was for centuries, even millennia, to come to flow in well-regulated and largely clerical channels. The reaction against Montanism brought upon the church impoverishment more detrimental than the upset caused by the unbalanced excesses of the New Prophecy.
1 Most are collected in English in R. M. Grant, Second-Century Christianity (London, 1946), pp. 95f. and E. Hennecke, W. Schneemelcher and R. McL. Wilson, New Testament Apocrypha, II (London, 1965), pp. 686f. P. de Labriolle, Les Sources de l’Histoire du Montanisme (Fribourg, 1913), hereafter cited as Sources, does not present them at one place.
2 Douglas Powell, ‘Tertullianists and Cataphrygians’, Vigiliae Christianae 29 (1975), pp. 33–54. Cf. G. Salmon in Dictionary of Christian Biography, III (London, 1882), p. 944; T. D. Barnes, Tertullian (Oxford, 1971), pp. 42–47.
3 Note that the Anonymous does not differentiate between biblical and post-biblical prophets under the New Covenant.
4 Cf. G. W. H. Lampe, A Patristic Greek Lexicon (Oxford, 1968), s.vv. lura, organon (2), plëktron.
5 Cf. W. M. Calder, ‘Philadelphia and Montanism’, BJRL 7 (1923), pp. 309–354.
6 Cf. J. Stevenson, A New Eusebius (London, 1957), pp. 133–136, 140.
7 Cf. H. B. Swete, The Holy Spirit in the Ancient Church (London, 1912), p. 70; Powell, art. cit., p. 51.
8 ‘The rule of faith is irreformable.’ He denies that ‘the Paraclete has taught any such thing as can be changed with novelty in opposition to catholic tradition’, and argues that the Paraclete is recognized by his ‘emphatic witness to Christ together with the whole order of God the Creator’, and that the integrity of his preaching ‘on the ground of the cardinal rule of faith commands credit’ for his prophecies (Sources, pp. 12f., 30f.).
9 See F. E. Vokes, ‘The Use of Scripture in the Montanist Controversy’, Studia Evangelica, V (Texte und Untersuchungen, 103; Berlin, 1968), ed. F. L. Cross, pp. 317–320.
10 Stevenson, op. cit., p. 146. In HTR 66 (1973), pp. 1–41, A. C. Sundberg has made out a case for ‘Canon Muratori: A Fourth-Century List’ which calls for close scrutiny, even if some of his arguments, e.g., on the meaning of temporibus nostris, fail to carry immediate conviction. The Canon’s curious vagueness in excluding ‘the Asian founder of the Cataphrygians’ is more comprehensible in late second-century Rome than in the East in the fourth century. The whole paragraph on the rejected heretics has a primitive ring, e.g., in its references to the obscure Arsinous and to Miltiades, if he is the Montanist leader mentioned elsewhere only by the Anonymous. In claiming that the Muratorian list is without parallel until Eusebius, Sundberg omits to consider the writer Gaius who espoused a closed three-Gospel collection and listed thirteen Pauline Epistles.
11 For what follows see Powell, art. cit., pp. 43–46.
12 Montanus does not very readily fit a restitutionist model. It is noteworthy that all the later patristic authorities refer simply to Montanus’ naming Pepuza (alone) Jerusalem. The received tradition fused Apollonius/Eusebius and Epiphanius, excluding both Tymion and the descent from above. Augustine records an explanation that Pepuza earned the title Jerusalem because it was where the trio lived. See Sources, pp. 89, 150, 189, 190, 212, 215, 241.
13 For a similar assessment of an enthusiastic movement cf. R. Murray, Symbols of Church and Kingdom(London, 1975), p. 35: ‘Messalianism was probably no sect, but a “movement”, characteristic of Syrian asceticism, which (like Montanism before it and numerous medieval movements after it) laid too much stress on experience of the Spirit for the liking of ecclesiastics in the institutional Church.’ Origen knew that some debated whether the Montanists were heretics or merely schismatics (Sources, p. 56).
14 Cf. Schneemelcher in Hennecke, etc., op. cit., II, pp. 688f.
15 Yet the differences between Phrygian and African Montanism have often been exaggerated, e.g., by H. J. Lawlor, ‘The Heresy of the Phrygians’, JTS 9 (1908), pp. 481–499. See Powell, art. cit.
David F. Wright
David Wright is the Professor of Patristic and Reformed Christianity at New College, Edinburgh University. Amongst his specialist areas for teaching and research are infant baptism, Augustine and the Reformation.