Montanism and the Episcopate
Perhaps of all the accounts which have been given of its origin, that which connects it with the disturbances engendered by Montanism is the most satisfactory. While the church was governed in the manner described above, a wave of religious excitement passed over it, connected doubtless in some way with the striking phenomena of Montanism and the new prophecy, and characterized by an overstrained zeal for enforcing discipline in all cases of departure from a high standard of Christian life. It was the peculiar characteristic of Montanism to set forward its prophets as successors of the apostles, having the same gifts from the Holy Spirit, and sent on a similar message of instruction to the Christian church. They uttered prophecies which were deemed supplementary to the revelation contained in the Old and New Testaments, and they did not scruple to set aside the authority of the regularly ordained officials of the church in order to execute the behests of a supposed spirit of prophecy. And thus the Christian communities were everywhere burdened by the presence of ignorant intolerant fanatics, who insisted that all their fellows should follow the dictates of their narrow and ignorant conscience, and who backed up this unwarranted interference with Christian liberty and responsibility by claiming to hold the place and exercise the powers of inspired successors to the apostles. It was at this juncture, according to a not improbable theory, that Cyprian of Carthage was able to popularize and gain acceptance for a theory of Christian organization which had been slowly growing up within the church, and which is now known as Episcopacy. Cyprian, bishop of a church which more than any other had suffered from the consequences of Montanist excesses, was the founder of a revolution of a kind which has been frequently repeated in the political world. Montanism and its after wave had influenced in an especial way the minor clergy and the more fanatical laity. Cyprian, like many a succeeding absolutist seems to have subverted the aristocracy of a presbyterate infected with Montanism by persuading the people to make common cause with the bishop. He promised deliverance from arbitrary and unofficial successors of the apostles by boldly setting forth the episcopate as the true successors of the apostles, He transferred, in all sincerity, to the episcopate all the powers and gifts laid claim to by the Montanist prophets, and at the same time showed the people how easy the yoke of a legitimate monarchy was when compared with the lawless rule of a mob of self-anointed tyrants, From Cyprian's time onwards the whole constitution of the church became changed, and the foundations of what ultimately became Ultramontanism were laid. The episcopate claimed and exercised as part of its official duties all those gifts of rule and special inspiration which the Montanist prophets had laid claim to. The bishops laid claim to powers of rule over the Christian community not as chosen representatives of the Christian people, but as the official representatives of the apostles.
Read the rest of this article:
Christianity - Table of Contents