1902 Encyclopedia > Montanism


MONTANISM is a somewhat misleading name for the movement in the 2d century which, along with Gnos-ticism, occupied the most critical period in the history of the early church. It was the overthrow of Gnosticism and Montanism that made the " Catholic " church. The credit of first discerning the true significance of the Montanistic: movement belongs to Eitschl.

In this article an account will be given of the general significance of Montanism in relation to the history of the church in the 2d century, followed by a sketch of its origin,, development, and decline.

1. From the middle of the 2d century a change began, to take place in the outward circumstances of Christianity The Christian faith had hitherto been maintained in a few small congregations scattered over the Roman em-pire. These congregations were provided with only the most indispensable constitutional forms, neither stricter nor more numerous than were required by a religious, bond resting on supernatural expectations, strict discipline,, and brotherly love (" Corpus sumus de conscientia re-ligionis, de unitate disciplinae, de spei fcedere"). This-state of things passed away. The churches soon found numbers within their pale who stood in need of super-vision, instruction, and regular control. The enthusiasm for a life of holiness and separation from the world, the eager outlook for the end of the world, the glad surrender to the gospel message, were no longer the influences by which all minds were swayed. In many cases sober convictions or submissive assent supplied the want of spontaneous enthusiasm. There were many who-did not become, but who were, and therefore remained,. Christians,—too powerfully attracted by Christianity to' abandon it, and yet not powerfully enough to have adopted it for themselves. Then, in addition to this, social distinctions asserted themselves amongst the breth-ren. Christians were already found in all ranks and occupations—in the imperial palace, among the officials,, in the abodes of labour and the halls of learning, amongst slaves and freemen. Were all these to be left in their callings ? Should the church take the decisive step into-the world, consent to its arrangements, conform to its customs, acknowledge as far as possible its authorities, and satisfy its requirements ? Or ought she, on the other hand, to remain, as she had been at first, a society of religious devotees, separated and shut out from the world by a rigorous discipline and working on it only through a direct propaganda? This was the dilemma that the church had to face in the second half of the 2d century : either she must commence a world-wide mission in the comprehensive sense by an effective entrance into Roman society—renouncing, of course, her original peculiarities and exclusiveness; or, retaining these peculiarities and clinging to the old modes of life, she must remain a small insigni-ficant sect, barely intelligible to one man in a thousand, and utterly incapable of saving and educating nations. That this was the question at issue ought to be obvious, enough to us now, although it could not be clearly per-ceived at the time. It was natural that warning voices, should then be raised in the church against secular tendencies, that the well-known counsels about the imita-tion of Christ should be held up in their literal strictness before worldly Christians, that demands should be made for a restoration of the old discipline and severity, and for a. return to apostolic simplicity and purity. The church as a. whole, however, under pressure of circumstances rather than by a spontaneous impulse, decided otherwise. She marched through the open door into the Roman state, and settled down there for a long career of activity, to Christianize the state along all its thoroughfares by imparting to it the word of the gospel, but at the same time leaving it everything ex-cept its gods. On the other hand, she furnished herself with everything of value that could be taken over from the world without overstraining the elastic structure of the organiza-tion which she now adopted. With the aid of its philosophy she created her new Christian theology; its polity furnished her with the most exact constitutional forms; its juris-prudence, its trade and commerce, its art and industry, were all taken into her service; and she contrived to borrow some hints even from its religious worship. Thus we find the church in the 3d century endowed with all the resources which the state and its culture had to offer, entering into all the relationships of life, and ready for any compromise which did not affect the confession of her faith. With this equipment she undertook, and carried through, a world-mission on a grand scale. But what of those believers of the old school who protested in the name of the gospel against this secular church, and who wished to gather together a people prepared for their God regardless alike of numbers and circumstances? Why, they joined an enthusiastic movement which had originated amongst a small circle in a remote province, and had at first a merely local importance. There, in Phrygia, the cry for a strict Christian life was reinforced by the belief in a new and final outpouring of the Spirit,—a coincidence which has been observed elsewhere in church history, as, for instance, in the Irvingite movement. The wish was, as usual, father to the thought; and thus societies of "spiritual" Christians were formed, which served, especially in times of persecu-tion, as rallying-points for all those, far and near, who sighed for the end of the world and the excessus e sxculo, and who wished in these last days to lead a holy life. These zealots hailed the appearance of the Paraclete in Phrygia, and surrendered themselves to his guidance. In so doing, however, they had to withdraw from the church, to be known as " Montanists," or " Katapkrygians," and thus to assume the character of a sect. Their enthusiasm and their prophesyings were denounced as demoniacal; their expectation of a glorious earthly kingdom of Christ was stigmatized as Jewish, their passion for martyrdom as vainglorious, and their whole conduct as hypocritical. Nor did they escape the more serious imputation of heresy on important articles of faith; indeed, there was a disposi-tion to put them on the same level with the Gnostics. The effect on themselves was what usually follows in such circumstances. After their separation from the church, they became narrower and pettier in their conception of Christianity. The strict rules of conduct which in a former age had been the genuine issue of high-strung religious emotion were now relied on as its source. Their asceticism degenerated into legalism, their claim to a monopoly of pure Christianity made them arrogant. As for the popular religion of the larger church, they scorned it as an adulter-ated, manipulated Christianity. But these views found very little acceptance in the 3d century, and in the course of the 4th they died out. Begardless of the scruples of her most conscientious members, and driving the most earnest Christians into secession and the conventicle, the church went on to prosecute her great mission in the world. And before she was able, as church of the state and of the empire, to call in the aid of the civil power to suppress her adversaries the Montanistic conventicles were almost extinct.

2. Such is, in brief, the position occupied by Montanism in the history of the ancient church. The rise and progress of the movement were as follows.

At the close of the reign of Antoninus Pius—probably in the year 156 (Epiphanius)—Montanus appeared at Ardaban in Phrygia, bringing revelations of the "Spirit" to Christendom. It is unnecessary to seek an explanation of his appearance in the peculiarities of the Phrygian temperament. The Christian churches had always held that prophecy was to be continued till the return of Christ, although, as a matter of fact, prophets had not been parti-cularly numerous. Montanus claimed to have a prophetic calling in the very same sense as Agabus, Judas, Silas, the daughters of Philip, Quadratus, and Ammia, or as Hermas at Rome. At a later time, when the validity of the Mon-tanistic prophecy was called in question in the interest of the church, the adherents of the new movement appealed explicitly to a sort of prophetic succession, in which their prophets had received the same gift which the daughters of Philip, for example, had exercised in that very country of Phrygia. The burden of the new prophecy was a more exacting standard of moral obligations, especially with regard to marriage, fasting, and martyrdom. But Mon-tanus had larger schemes in view. He wished to organize a special community of true Christians to wait for the coming of their Lord. The small Phrygian towns of Pepuza and Tymion were selected as the headquarters —the Jerusalem, as the prophet called them—of his church. He spared no effort to accomplish this union of believers. Funds were raised for the new organization, and from these the leaders and missionaries, who were to have nothing to do with worldly life, drew their pay. But the ecstasy of the prophet did not prove so contagious as his preaching. Only two women, Prisca and Maximilla, were moved by the Spirit; like Montanus, they uttered in a state of frenzy the commands of the Spirit, which spoke through them sometimes as God the Father, sometimes as the Son, and urged men to a strict and holy life. This does not mean that visions and significant dreams may not have been of frequent occurrence in Montanistic circles. But, as chosen and permanent organs of the Paraclete, only three persons were recognized—Montanus, Prisca, and Maximilla; by their side, however, Alcibiades and Theo-dotus, from a very early date, played an active part as missionaries and organizers.

For twenty years this agitation appears to have been confined to Phrygia and the neighbouring provinces. How could it be otherwise? To assemble the whole of Christendom at Pepuza was a rather impracticable pro-posal. But after the year 177 a persecution of Christians, from some unexplained causes, broke out simultaneously in many provinces of the empire. Now in these days every persecution was regarded as the beginning of the end. It quickened the conscience, and gave more strength to eschatological hopes; it was a call to observe the signs of the times and the intimations of God's presence. It would seem that before this time Montanus had disappeared from the scene; but Maximilla, and probably also Prisca, were working with redoubled energy. And now, through-out the provinces of Asia Minor, in Borne, and even in Gaul, amidst the raging of persecution, attention was attracted to this remarkable movement. The desire for a sharper exercise of discipline, and a more decided renuncia-tion of the world, combined wdth a craving for some plain indication of God's will in these last critical times, had prepared many minds for an eager acceptance of the tidings from Phrygia. There the Spirit, whom Christ had promised to His disciples, had begun His work; there, at least, there were holy Christians and joyful martyrs. The oracles of the Phrygian prophets became household words in distant churches, and it was always the more serious-minded who received them with undisguised sympathy. And thus, within the large congregations where there was so much that was open to censure in doctrine and con-stitution and morals, conventicles were formed in order that Christians might prepare themselves by strict discipline for the day of the Lord.

Meanwhile in Phrygia and its neighbourhood—especially in Galatia, and also in Thrace—a controversy was raging between the adherents and the opponents of the new prophecy. Between 150 and 176 the authority of the episcopate had been immensely strengthened, and along with it a settled order had been introduced into the churches. It need hardly be said that, as a rule, the bishops were the most resolute enemies of the Montanistic enthusiasm. It disturbed the peace and order of the con-gregations, and threatened their safety. Moreover, it made demands on individual Christians such as very few could comply with. But the disputation which Bishops Zoticus of Cumana and Julian of Apamea arranged with Maximilla and her following turned out most disastrously for its promoters. The " spirit" of Maximilla gained a signal victory, a certain Themison in particular having reduced the bishops to silence. Sotas bishop of Anchialus attempted to refute Prisca, but with no better success; he too had to retire from the field in disgrace. These proceedings were never forgotten in Asia Minor, and the report of them spread far and wide. In after times the only way in which the discomfiture of the bishops could be explained was by asserting that they had been silenced by fraud or violence. This was the commencement of the excommunication or secession, whichever it may have been, of the Montanists in Asia Minor. " I am pursued like a wolf," exclaimed the spirit that spoke through Maximilla; and her admonitions about the end became more emphatic than ever:—" After me there will come no other prophetess, but the end." Not only did an extreme party arise in Asia Minor rejecting all prophecy and the Apocalypse of John along with it, but the majority of the churches and bishops in that district appear (c. 178) to have broken off all fellowship with the new prophets, while books were written to show that the very form of the Montanistic prophecy was sufficient proof of its spuriousness.

In Gaul and Rome the prospects of Montanism seemed for a while more favourable. The confessors of the Gallican Church were of opinion that communion ought to be maintained with the zealots of Asia and Phrygia; and they addressed a letter to this effect to the Roman bishop, Eleutherus. Whether this is the bishop of whom Ter-tullian (Adv. Prax., 1) relates that he was on the point of making peace with the churches of Asia and Phrygia— i.e., the Montanistic communities—is not certain ; it was either he or his successor Victor. It is certain, at any-rate, that there was a momentary vacillation, even in Rome. Nor is this to be wondered at. The events in Phrygia could not appear new and unprecedented to the Roman Church. If we may believe Tertullian, it was Praxeas of Asia Minor, the relentless foe of Montanism, who succeeded in persuading the Roman bishop to with-hold his letters of conciliation.

Early in the last decade of the 2d century two consider-able works appeared in Asia Minor against the Kataphry-gians. The first, by a bishop or presbyter whose name is not known, is addressed to Abircius bishop of Hierapolis, and was written in the fourteenth year after the death of Maximilla, i.e., apparently about the year 193. The other was written by a certain Apollonius forty years after the appearance of Montanus, consequently about 196. From these treatises we learn that the adherents of the new prophecy were very numerous in Phrygia, Asia, and Galatia (Ancyra), that they had tried to defend them-selves in writing from the charges brought against them (by Miltiades), that they possessed a fully-developed independent organization, that they could boast of many martyrs, and that they were still formidable to the church in Asia Minor. Many of the small congregations had gone completely over to Montanism, although in large towns, like Ephesus, the opposite party maintained the ascendency. Every bond of intercourse was broken, and in the Catholic churches the worst calumnies were retailed about the deceased prophets and the leaders of the societies they had founded.

In many churches outside of Asia Minor a different state of matters prevailed. Those who accepted the message of the new prophecy did not at once leave the Catholic Church in a body. They simply formed small conventicles within the church ; in many instances, indeed, their belief in the new prophecy may have remained a private opinion which did not affect their position as members of the larger congregation. Such, for example, appears to have been the case in Carthage (if we may judge from the Acts of the martyrs Perpetua and Felicitas) at the commencement of the persecution of Septimius Severus about the year 202. But even here it was impossible that an open rupture should be indefinitely postponed. The bishops and their flocks gave offence to the spiritualists on so many points that at last it could be endured no longer. The latter wished for more fasting, the prohibition of second marriages, a frank, courageous profession of Christianity in daily life, and entire separa-tion from the world; the bishops, on the other hand, sought in every way to make it as easy as possible to be a Christian, lest they should lose the greater part of their congregations. The spiritualists would have excluded from the church every one who had been guilty of mortal sin; the bishops were at that time specially anxious to relax the stringency of the old disciplinary laws. And lastly, the bishops were compelled more and more to take the control of discipline into their own hands, while the spiritualists, appealing to the old principle that God alone can remit or retain sins, insisted that God Himself— i.e., the Spirit—was the sole judge in the congregation, and that therefore all proceedings must be conducted according to the directions of the prophets. On this point especially a conflict was inevitable. It is true that there was no rivalry between the new organization and the old, as in Asia and Phrygia, for the Western Montanists recognized in its main features the Catholic organization as it had been developed in the contest with Gnosticism; but the demand that the " organs of the Spirit" should direct the whole discipline of the congregation contained implicitly a protest against the actual constitution of the church. Even before this latent antagonism was made plain, there were many minor matters which were sufficient to precipitate a rupture in particular congregations. In Carthage, for example, it would appear that the breach between the Catholic Church and the Montanistic con-venticle was caused by a disagreement on the question whether or not virgins ought to be veiled. For nearly five years (202-207) the Carthaginian Montanists strove to remain within the church, which was as dear to them as it was to their opponents. But at length they quitted it, and formed a congregation of their own, declaring that the Catholic Church was henceforth only a body of " psychic " Christians, because she would not acknowledge the Spirit whom God had at last poured out on His people.

It was at this juncture that Tertullian, the most famous theologian of the West, left the church of which he had been the most loyal son and the most powerful supporter, and wdiose cause he had so manfully upheld against pagans and heretics. He too had come to the conviction that the church at large was given over to worldliness, that she had forsaken the old paths and entered on a way that must lead to destruction. The writings of Tertullian afford the clearest demonstration that what is called Mon-tanism was a reaction against secularism in the church, and an effort to conserve the privileges of primitive Chris-tianity. At the same time, they show no less clearly that Montanism in Carthage was a very different thing from the Montanism of Montanus. Western Montanism, at the beginning of the 3d century, admitted the legitimacy of almost every point of the Catholic system. It allowed that the bishops were the successors of the apostles, that the Catholic rule of faith was a complete and authoritative exposition of Christianity, and that the New Testament was the supreme rule of the Christian life. How, then, one may well ask, was it possible to separate from the Catholic Church? On what ground could the separation be justi-fied 1 How could it be said that a new era of the Spirit had come in when the Spirit had already given all neces-sary instructions in the Scriptures of the New Testament ? And what claim could be thought to exceed the legitimate rights of the successors of the apostles ? Montanus himself and his first disciples had been in quite a different position. In his time there was no fixed, divinely-instituted congrega-tional organization, no canon of New Testament Scriptures, no anti-Gnostic theology, and no Catholic Church. There were simply certain communities of believers bound to-gether by a common hope, and by a free organization, which might be modified to any required extent. When Montanus proposed to summon all trueChristians^to Pepuza, in order to live a holy life and prepare for the day of the Lord, there was nothing whatever to prevent the execution of his plan except the inertia and lukewarmness of Chris-tendom. But this was not the case in the West at the beginning of the 3d century. At Borne and Carthage, and in all other places where sincere Montanists were found, they were confronted by the imposing edifice of the Catholic Church, and they had neither the courage nor the inclination to undermine her sacred foundations. This explains how the later Montanism never attained a posi-tion of influence. In accepting, with slight reservations, the results of the development which the church had "undergone during the fifty years from 160 to 210 it reduced itself to the level of a sect. For, if the stand-point of the Catholic Church is once acknowledged, then Montanism is an innovation; and if the canon of the New Testament is accepted the doctrine of a new era of the Spirit is heresy. Tertullian exhausted the resources of dialectic in the endeavour to define and vindicate the relation of the spiritualists to the " psychic " Christians; but no one will say he has succeeded in clearing the Mon-tanistic position of its fundamental inconsistency.

Of the later history of Montanism very little is known. But it is at least a significant fact that prophecy could not be resuscitated. Montanus, Prisca, and Maximilla were always recognized as the inspired authorities. At rare intervals a vision might perhaps be vouchsafed to some Montanistic old woman, or a brother might now and then have a dream that seemed to be of supernatural origin; but the overmastering power of religious enthusiasm was a thing of which the Montanists knew as little as the Catho-lics. Their discipline was attended with equally disap-pointing results. In place of an intense moral earnestness binding itself by its own strict laws, we find in Tertullian a legal casuistry, a finical morality, from which no good could ever come. It was only in the land of its nativity that Montanism held its ground till the 4th century. It maintained itself there in a number of close communities, probably in places where no Catholic congregation had been formed; and to these the Novatians at a later period attached themselves. In Carthage there existed down to the year 400 a sect called Tertullianists; and in their comparatively late survival we have a striking testimony to the influence of the great Carthaginian teacher. On doctrinal questions there was no real difference between the Catholics and the Montanists. The early Montanists (the prophets themselves) used expressions which seem to indicate a Monarchian conception of the person of Christ. After the close of the 2d century we find two sections amongst the Western Montanists, just as amongst the Western Catholics,—there were some who adopted the Logos-Christology, and others who remained Monarchians.

Sources.—The materials for the history of Montanism, although plentiful, are fragmentary, and require a good deal of critical sifting. They may be divided into four groups. (1) The utterances of Montanus, Prisca, and Maximilla1 are our most important sources, but unfortunately they consist of only twenty-one short sayings. (2) The works written by Tertullian after he became a Montanist furnish the most copious information,—not, however, about the first stages of the movement, but only about its later phase, after the Catholic Church was established. (3) The oldest polemical works of the 2d century, extracts from which have been preserved, especially by Eusebius (Hist. Ecclcs., bk. v.), form the next group. These must be used with the utmost caution, because even the earliest orthodox writers give currency to many misconceptions and calumnies, (4) The later lists of heretics, and the casual notices of church fathers from the 3d to the 5th century, though not con-taining much that is of value, yet contain a little.2

Literature.—Eitschl's investigations, referred to above, supersede the older works of Tillemont, Wernsdorf, Mosheim, Walch, Neander, Baur, and Schwegler (Der Montanismus und die christliche Kirche des 2ten Jahrhunderts, Tübingen, 18 AI). The later works,
of which the best and most exhaustive is that of Bonwetsch, Die Geschichte des Montanismus, 1881, all follow the lines laid down by Ritschi. See also, Gottwald, De Montanismo Tcrtulliani, 1862 ; Reville, "Tertullien et le Montanisme" in the Revue des Deux Mondes, 1st November 1864 ; Stroelin, Essai sur le Montanisme, 1870 ; Do Soyres, Montanism and the Primitive Church, London, 1878 ; W. Cunningham, The Churches of Asia, London, 1880; Renan, " Les Crises du Catholicisme Naissant" in Rev. d. Deux Mondes, 15th February 1881; Möller, art. "Montanismus" in Herzog's Theol. Realencyklop., 2d ed. Special points of importance in the history or Montanism have been quite recently investigated by Lipsius, Overbeck, Weizsäcker (Theol. Lit.-Zeitung, Nr. 4, 1882), and Harnack (Das Mönchthum, seine Ideale und seine Geschichte, 2d ed., 1882, and Z. f. Kircheng., iii. pp. 369-408). Weizsäcker's short essays are extremely valuable, and have elucidated several important points hitherto overlooked. (A. HA.)

The above article was written by: Prof. Adolf Harnack.

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