The Montanists

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Montanus lived in the Phrygian area of Asia Minor at the back end of the 2nd Century AD. He declared that the Holy Spirit was giving new revelations to the church, and named himself and two women, Priscilla and Maximilla, as prophets, although there were others. This was referred to as the New Prophecy. In the west, among the Montanist leaders was Proclus, with whom the Roman presbyter Gaius published a Debate.4

The emphases of the New Prophecy seem to have been on resisting persecution, fasting, and avoiding remarriage, together with hostility to any compromise with sin. Few of these points were controversial when judged against the ascetism of the next century. Tertullian tells us (in the quote by 'Praedestinatus' and in De Ieiunio) that the Spirit proclaimed no innovation in doctrine, but only gave directions about matters of church discipline, which were coming to be the prerogative of the bishop. It would seem that the Montanists were orthodox in all matters of doctrine.3

Responses to this were quite mixed in the church. After all, prophecy was a genuine gift of God, according to the New Testament.  A reading of the anti-Montanist writers in Eusebius' Church History reveals a great deal of uncertainty among Christians at all levels as to whether the new prophecy was genuine or not. It seems also possible that Montanism in its homeland may have been heretical, but that it masked a genuine move of the Holy Spirit which in other places was entirely orthodox, and would today be regarded as pentecostal. In reality, it is very difficult to tell from the surviving remains, which include some wild rumours of the sort that circulate, albeit in good faith, where there is little real information and no means to check what is going on.

In Africa there was a lot of interest in the new prophecy, and Tertullian came to believe that it was genuine, accordingly mentioning it and defending it strongly in his later works.  Unfortunately his work in defence of it, De ecstasi, in 7 books is lost. Tertullian fiercely attacks those who condemned the new prophecy, and in attacking the church authorities as more interested in their own political power in the church than in listening to the Spirit, he foreshadows the protestant reaction to papal claims.

Eventually Montanism was condemned by the bishop of Rome, and the Montanists were pushed out6. They lingered on in Asia Minor for some centuries, some growing definitely heretical. Later fathers of the church wrote an occasional polemic against them. 

At the end of the 3rd Century AD, a group known as the Tertullianistae may have marked a brief revival in the west of this group.

Some modern pentecostals see the Montanists as the last flicker of the apostolic gifts of the spirit, although it seems that the apostolic age was already over before the Montanists began.. Whether they were or not, thereafter no-one claiming to have the gift of prophecy was likely to be well-received in the church, and any genuine move of the spirit was certainly quenched.

Currently archaeological work is going on at the site of the Montanist New Jerusalem, the towns of Pepuza and Tymion in Phrygia.  Dr. William Tabbernee has for the first tim definitely identified the site.7

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NOTES

1. Ancient authors: Eusebius, Church History; Epiphanius, Adversus Haereses; Tertullian, Adversus Praxean.

2. Heine, Ronald E, The Montanist Oracles and Testimonia, Patristic Monograph Series 14. Macon, GA: Mercer UP, 1989. (Not Checked) This collects and translates the vast literature of oracles and testimonia up to the ninth century, though most of these are early. The selections are grouped mainly by geographical area. This is the sourcebook for scholars of Montanism. Reviews of this: BORING, CBQ 52 (1990): 562-564; FERGUSON, RQ 32 (1990): 246-247; HALL, JTS 41 (1990): 643-644; WILLIAMS SC 8 (1991): 57-59. (From Thomas A. ROBINSON, The Early Church: An annotated bibliography of literature in English, 1993).

3. P. DE LABRIOLLE, Les sources pour l'histoire de Montanisme, 1913. (From Barnes, p.42,n.7) This apparently backs the conclusion of orthodoxy, and gives a full collection of evidence. (Not checked).

4. Eusebius, Historia Ecclesia, II,25; III, 31; VI, 20. Penguin Edition. (Checked)

5. There is an excellent article on Montanism in the Catholic Encyclopedia, on the net at  http://www.knight.org/advent/cathen/10521a.htm.

6.  There is an important article on this subject by D. POWELL, Tertullianists and Cataphrygians, Vigiliae Christianae 29 (1975), pp. 33-54.

7.  William TABBERNEE, Portals of the Montanist New Jerusalem: the discovery of Pepouza and Tymion, Journal of Early Christian Studies 11:1 (2003), pp. 87-93.  A fascinating article on the discovery -- and more is to come.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Claudio MICAELLI, Tertulliano e il Montanismo in Africa.  Africa cristiana: storia, religione, letteratura 20. p. 15-49. (Details from CTC 2002).
Christine M. THOMAS, The scriptures and the New Prophecy: Montanism as exegetical crisis.  Early Christian Voices in Texts, Traditions and Symbols: Essays in Honor of François Bovon, ed. David H. WARREN, Ann Gr. BROCK, David W. PAO.  Boston-Leiden: Brill (2003), pp.155-165. (Details CTC 2003, 58).

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