Montanism was a heresy that originated around the middle of the second century in Phrygia, in central Asia Minor, spread to many parts of the empire although its adherents never became very numerous, and persisted for several centuries before dying out.
Although the sect was reputed to have produced many writings, none have come down to us. Our knowledge of it depends on what we learn from St Irenæus of Lyons, St Hippolytus Romanus and Tertullian, who wrote around 80 years after the origin of the sect, and from Eusebius of Cæsarea’s history, written 150 years after its origin but based on contemporary documents. Tertullian is an interesting case, as he began as a pagan convert to orthodox Christianity around A.D. 200, became a Montanist, and then went on to found his own sect on Montanist lines.
By the year 150 the original apocalyptic vision of the followers of Christ, anticipating his imminent return to judge the living and the dead and establish his kingdom, had begun to fade and the lives of many Christians had become more routine, more like that of their Jewish and pagan neighbours. Pelikan has described the environment that gave rise to the Montanist heresy thus: ‘… when the apocalyptic vision became less vivid and the church’s polity more rigid, the extraordinary operations of the spirit characteristic of the early church diminished in both frequency and intensity.’ (The Christian Tradition, I, p. 98)
For some of the faithful, this was an intolerable scandal, and at that time, in a town in Phrygia called Ardabau, one Montanus began to make prophecies that he ascribed to Jesus’s promise in John 15:26–27: ‘But when the Comforter [ὁ Παράκλητος in Greek, the Paraclete] is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall testify of me: and ye also shall bear witness, because ye have been with me from the beginning.’ At first these prophecies condemned what Montanus perceived as the slackening penitential discipline of the Church, permitting the widowed to remarry, mitigating the fasts and tolerating those who evaded martyrdom. Later they appear to have gone much further but we will stick to the early years of the sect for the moment.
Montanus was soon joined by others who prophesied, and in particular by two women, Priscilla and Maximilla, who seem to have taken over the leadership of the sect after Montanus passed from the scene. There is evidence that Maximilla lived to about the year 180. The sect, at first called ‘the new prophecy’ and later named after its founder, attracted those drawn to ecstatic experiences, both in Phrygia and in other parts of the empire, but aroused the suspicion of many Christians, in particular because of the manner in which the prophecies manifested themselves. Eusebius, quoting a document contemporary with Montanus, said that Montanus ‘fell into a frenzy and convulsions. He began to be ecstatic and to speak and to talk strangely, prophesying contrary to the custom which belongs to the tradition and succession of the church from the beginning … the Christians of Asia after assembling for this purpose many times and in many parts of the province, tested the recent utterances, pronounced them profane, and rejected the heresy,—then at last the Montanists were driven out of the church and excommunicated.’ (Ecclesiastical History, V, xvi, 7 and 10, trans. Kirsopp Lake, Loeb Classical Library ed. (1926), I, pp. 475, 477.)
The Montanists set up a schismatic church in Phrygia, making the village of Pepuza into a sort of new Jerusalem, with a hierarchy imitating that of the Church. St Hippolytus described the situation thus: ‘These have been rendered victims of error from being previously captivated by two wretched women, called a certain Priscilla and Maximilla, whom they supposed to be prophetesses. And they assert that into these the Paraclete Spirit had departed; and antecedently to them, they in like manner consider Montanus as a prophet. And being in possession of an infinite number of their books, the Phrygians are overrun with delusion; and they do not judge whatever statements are made by them, according to the criterion of reason; nor do they give heed unto those who are competent to decide; but they are heedlessly swept onwards, by the reliance which they place on these imposters. And they allege that they have learned something more through these, than from law, and prophets, and the Gospels. But they magnify these wretched women above the Apostles and every gift of Grace, so that some of them presume to assert that there is in them a something superior to Christ. These acknowledge God to be the Father of the universe, and Creator of all things, similarly with the Church, and receive as many things as the Gospel testifies concerning Christ. They introduce, however, the novelties of fasts, and feasts, and meals of parched food, and repasts of radishes, alleging that they have been instructed by women.’ (Refutation of All Heresies, VIII, xii, trans. J.H. MacMahon, Ante-Nicene Fathers, V, from the New Advent website.)
The Montanists were claiming that the spirit of prophecy promised in John’s Gospel trumped the subsequent witness of the apostles and of the Church, and even the words of Christ in Scripture. This claim led them further and further from orthodox doctrine. Although it was never clear that Montanus had actually claimed to be more than the mouthpiece of the Paraclete, it seems that as time went on his followers had come to regard him as the third person of the Trinity incarnate, and some at least were baptizing in the name of the Father and of the Son and of Montanus. Also, as they swerved further into heresy, St Hippolytus said that the Montanists of his day had espoused the Noetian heresy, one that emerged in the third century and that claimed that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit were one person in different manifestations at different times.
Tertullian even as an orthodox Christian had inclined to rigorism and to apocalypticism, and it is perhaps not surprising that he should have been tempted by a rigorist sect like the Montanists, joining after about 210. However, he never accepted the Noetian variety of Montanism. In his treatise against the anti-Montanist Praxeas, whom Tertullian suspected of saying that the Father and the Son were the same person, he first accuses him of preventing reconciliation of the Montanists with the Church: ‘after the Bishop of Rome had acknowledged the prophetic gifts of Montanus, Prisca [Priscilla], and Maximilla, and, in consequence of the acknowledgment, had bestowed his peace on the churches of Asia and Phrygia, he [Praxeas], by importunately urging false accusations against the prophets themselves and their churches, and insisting on the authority of the bishop’s predecessors in the see, compelled him to recall the pacific letter which he had issued’; and then goes on to say, ‘By this Praxeas did a twofold service for the devil at Rome: he drove away prophecy, and he brought in heresy; he put to flight the Paraclete, and he crucified the Father.’ (De Praxeas, i, trans. Peter Holmes, Ante-Nicene Fathers, III, from the New Advent website.)
Tertullian later left the Montanists and formed a rigorist sect of his own, which was finally reconciled to the Church by St Augustine early in the 5th century, long after Tertullian’s time.
Uncertainty as to what claims the Montanists made regarding the Trinity led the Church to reject the baptism of the Montanists. The regional Synod of Laodicea, held at that city in Phrygia around the middle of the 4th century, provided by its Canons VII and VIII that those baptized in certain heresies and returning to the Church should be received by chrismation only but those baptized by the Montanists should be baptized anew. These canons were repeated in Canon VII of the 2nd Œcumenical Council held at Constantinople in 381. (Henry R. Percival, ed., The Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Church, 1994, pp. 127–128, 185.)
St Basil the Great, writing on the canons to St Amphilochius, Bishop of Iconium, in 374, after the Synod of Laodicea but before the 2nd Œcumenical Council, commented, ‘Now the Pepuzeni [as he calls the Montanists] are clearly heretical, for they have blasphemed against the Holy Ghost, unlawfully and shamelessly giving the name of Paraclete to Montanus and Priscilla. Therefore, either on the ground that they are making men partakers of the divine nature, are they to be condemned, or on the ground that they are mocking the Holy Ghost by comparing Him to man, and thus are liable to everlasting punishment because blasphemy against the Holy Ghost is without forgiveness.’ (Letter 188, trans. Roy J. Deferrari, Loeb Classical Library ed. (1930), III, pp. 13, 15.)
St Jerome gives us a glimpse of the Montanists in Rome in the 4th century. He is writing to his patroness, St Marcella, in 385. She had been approached by a Montanist missionary and had afterward asked the saint’s opinion of their doctrines.
‘As regards the passages brought together from the gospel of John with which a certain votary of Montanus has assailed you, passages in which our Saviour promises that He will go to the Father, and that He will send the Paraclete—as regards these, the Acts of the Apostles inform us both for what time the promises were made, and at what time they were actually fulfilled. Ten days had elapsed, we are told, from the Lord’s ascension and fifty from His resurrection, when the Holy Spirit came down, and the tongues of the believers were cloven, so that each spoke every language. Then it was that, when certain persons of those who as yet believed not declared that the disciples were drunk with new wine, Peter standing in the midst of the apostles, and of all the concourse said: ‘You men of Judæa and all you that dwell at Jerusalem, be this known unto you and hearken to my words: for these are not drunken as you suppose, seeing it is but the third hour of the day. But this is that which was spoken of by the prophet Joel. ‘And it shall come to pass in the last days,’ says God, ‘I will pour out of my spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams …’.’
‘If, then, the apostle Peter, upon whom the Lord has founded the Church, has expressly said that the prophecy and promise of the Lord were then and there fulfilled, how can we claim another fulfilment for ourselves? If the Montanists reply that Philip’s four daughters prophesied at a later date, and that a prophet is mentioned named Agabus, and that in the partition of the spirit, prophets are spoken of as well as apostles, teachers and others, and that Paul himself prophesied many things concerning heresies still future, and the end of the world; we tell them that we do not so much reject prophecy—for this is attested by the passion of the Lord—as refuse to receive prophets whose utterances fail to accord with the Scriptures old and new.’
He mentions that they have fallen into the Noetian heresy, then continues, ‘We, while we do not encourage them, yet allow second marriages, since Paul bids the younger widows to marry. They suppose a repetition of marriage a sin so awful that he who has committed it is to be regarded as an adulterer. We, according to the apostolic tradition (in which the whole world is at one with us), fast through one Lent yearly; whereas they keep three in the year as though three saviours had suffered. I do not mean, of course, that it is unlawful to fast at other times through the year—always excepting Pentecost—only that while in Lent it is a duty of obligation, at other seasons it is a matter of choice. With us, again, the bishops occupy the place of the apostles, but with them a bishop ranks not first but third. For while they put first the patriarchs of Pepusa in Phrygia, and place next to these the ministers called stewards, the bishops are relegated to the third or almost the lowest rank. No doubt their object is to make their religion more pretentious by putting that last which we put first. Again they close the doors of the Church to almost every fault, while we read daily, ‘I desire the repentance of a sinner rather than his death.’ … Their strictness does not prevent them from themselves committing grave sins, far from it; but there is this difference between us and them, that, whereas they in their self-righteousness blush to confess their faults, we do penance for ours, and so more readily gain pardon for them.
‘[They] say that God first determined in the Old Testament to save the world by Moses and the prophets, but that finding Himself unable to fulfil His purpose He took to Himself a body of the Virgin, and preaching under the form of the Son in Christ, underwent death for our salvation. Moreover that, when by these two steps He was unable to save the world, He last of all descended by the Holy Spirit upon Montanus and those demented women Prisca and Maximilla; and that thus the mutilated and emasculate Montanus possessed a fullness of knowledge such as was never claimed by Paul …’ (Epistle 41, trans. W.H. Fremantle, G. Lewis and W.G. Martley, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, VI (1893), from the New Advent website.)
A century and a half before St Jerome wrote this letter, the Church had already determined its response to Montanus and his claim to new prophecies. Pelikan says that St Hippolytus was the first we know of to express the mind of the Church on the question. ‘Apparently he recognized that the weakness which Montanism had discovered in the church lay in the church’s concept of a continuing prophecy … in opposition to Montanism he defended the process by which the church was beginning to reconcile itself to the delay in the Lord’s second coming. As he pushed the time of the second coming into the future, so he pushed the time of prophecy into the past.’ (The Christian Tradition, I, p. 106)
In his letter to Theophilus on the second coming of Christ and on the Antichrist, St Hippolytus restricts himself to the Old Testament prophets and, in the New Testament, to St John the Baptist and to St John the Theologian only. They are the last prophets to speak the words of the Logos. ‘And hence we, too, who are rightly instructed in what was declared aforetime by them, speak not of our own capacity. For we do not attempt to make any change one way or another among ourselves in the words that were spoken of old by them, but we make the Scriptures in which these are written public, and read them to those who can believe rightly.’ (On Christ and Antichrist, ii, trans. J.H. MacMahon, Ante-Nicene Fathers, V (1886), from the New Advent website.)
But more fundamentally, the Church was realising that the challenges to its integrity represented by the great heresies of the 2nd century, Marcionism, Gnosticism and Montanism, reflected breaks with the apostolic tradition, and began to clarify what was meant by apostolic authority. This task was accomplished by St Irenæus, and we will turn to it next.