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Is Montanism Heretical?

I often come across statements by cessationists to the effect that Montanism is heretical. Personally, I find this use of the word “heretical” to be historically misguided and unnecessarily inflammatory. A heretic is not simply someone who has a different understanding of secondary doctrines. Heresy is not simply a view of some biblical truth that you find objectionable. A heretic is not a Christian. Heresy is the denial of a foundational doctrine of Christianity, a denial of something essential to the faith as set forth in the ecumenical creeds of the early church. Embracing heresy puts a person outside the kingdom of God.

That being said, although there were elements in Montanism with which I disagree, the consensus of the early church, when Montanism was flourishing, is that they were genuine, born-again believers. Here is their story.

[The most helpful and fair-minded treatment of Montanism is the book by Christine Trevett, Montanism: Gender, Authority and the New Prophecy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996).]

Montanism arose in Phrygia in about a.d. 155, although Eusebius and Jerome both date the movement to a.d. 173. What did the Montanists believe and teach that had such a significant impact on the ancient church and its view of spiritual gifts? Several items are worthy of mention.

First, Montanism at its heart was an effort to shape the entire life of the church in keeping with the expectation of the immediate return of Christ. Thus, they opposed any developments in church life that appeared institutional or would contribute to a settled pattern of worship. Needless to say, those who held official positions of authority within the organized church would be suspicious of the movement.

Second, Montanus himself allegedly spoke in terms that asserted his identity with the Paraclete of John 14:16. The prophetic utterance in question is as follows:

“For Montanus spoke, saying, 'I am the father, and the son and the paraclete.’” (Found in the writings of Didymus On the Trinity, 3:41).

However, many have questioned whether Montanus is claiming what his critics suggest. More likely he, as well as others in the movement who prophesied, is saying that one or another or perhaps all of the members of the Trinity are speaking through them. For example, in yet another of his prophetic utterances, Montanus said,

“You shall not hear from me, but you have heard from Christ” (Quoted in Epiphanius, Panarion, 48:12; col. 873).

Third, Montanus and his followers (principally, two women, Prisca and Maximilla) held to a view of the prophetic gift that was a departure from the apostle Paul's teaching in 1 Corinthians 14, insofar as they practiced what can only be called “ecstatic” prophecy in which the speaker either lost consciousness or fell into a trance-like state, or perhaps was but a passive instrument through which the Spirit might speak. One of the prophetic utterances that survived (there are only 16), found in Epiphanius, confirms this view:

“Behold, a man is like a lyre and I pluck his strings like a pick; the man sleeps, but I am awake. Behold, it is the Lord, who is changing the hearts of men and giving new hearts to them.”

If this is what Montanus taught, he would be asserting that, when a person prophesied, God was in complete control. The individual is little more than an instrument, such as the strings of a lyre, on which God plucks his song or message. The man or woman is asleep, in a manner of speaking, and thus passive during the prophetic utterance.

This concept of prophecy is contrary to what we read of in 1 Corinthians 14:29-31 where Paul asserts that “the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets.” The Montanists cannot be charged with having originated this view, for it is found among the Greek Apologists of this period. Justin Martyr and Theophilus both claimed that the Spirit spoke through the OT prophets in such a way as to possess them. Athenagoras says of Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah and other OT prophets that they were

“lifted in ecstasy above the natural operations of their minds by the impulses of the Divine Spirit, [and that they] uttered the things with which they were inspired, the Spirit making use of them as a flute player breathes into a flute” (A Plea for the Christians, 9).

The point is that, at least on this one point, the Montanists were not espousing a view of prophecy that was significantly different from what others in the mainstream of the church of that day were saying.

Fourth, the gift of tongues was also prominent among the Montanists, as was the experience of receiving revelatory visions. Eusebius preserved a refutation of Montanism written by Apollinarius in which the latter accused these “prophets” of speaking in unusual ways. For example, “He [Montanus] began to be ecstatic and to speak and to talk strangely” (quoted in Kydd, Charismatic Gifts in the Early Church, 35). Again, Maximilla and Prisca are said to have spoken “madly and improperly and strangely, like Montanus” (ibid.). Finally, he refers to the Montanists as “chattering prophets”. We cannot be certain, but the word translated “chattering”, found nowhere else in all of Greek literature, may refer to speaking at great length in what sound like languages, i.e., speaking in tongues.

Fifth, Montanus did assert that this outpouring of the Spirit, of which he and his followers were the principal recipients, was a sign of the end of the age. The heavenly Jerusalem, said Montanus, will soon descend near Pepuza in Phrygia. They also stressed monogamy and insisted on chastity between husband and wife. They were quite ascetic in their approach to the Christian life (which is what attracted Tertullian into their ranks). They strongly emphasized self-discipline and repentance.

Finally, although Montanism is often treated as heresy, numerous authors in the early church insisted on the overall orthodoxy of the movement. Hippolytus spoke of their affirmation of the doctrines of Christ and creation and the “heresy hunter” Epiphanius (a.d. 315-403) conceded that the Montanists agreed with the church at large on the issues of orthodoxy, especially the doctrine of the Trinity (see Kilian McDonnell and George T. Montague, Christian Initiation and Baptism in the Holy Spirit: Evidence from the First Eight Centuries (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991), 136-37).

Epiphanius wrote that the Montanists were still found in Cappadocia, Galatia, Phrygia, Cilicia, and Constantinople in the late 4th century. This assessment was confirmed by Eusebius who devoted four chapters of his monumental Ecclesiastical History to the Montanists. Didymus the Blind (a.d. 313-98) wrote of them, and the great church father Jerome (a.d. 342-420) personally encountered Montanist communities in Ancyra when he was travelling through Galatia in 373. The point being that Montanism was alive and influential as late as the close of the 4th century.

Ironically, and tragically, one of the principal reasons why the early church became suspicious of the gifts of the Spirit and eventually excluded them from the life of the church is because of their association with Montanism. The Montanist view of prophecy, in which the prophet entered a state of passive ecstasy in order that God might speak directly, was perceived as a threat to the church's belief in the finality of the canon of Scripture.

Other unappealing aspects of the Montanist lifestyle, as noted above, provoked opposition to the movement and hence to the charismata as well. In sum, it was largely the Montanist view of the prophetic gift, in which a virtual “Thus saith the Lord” perspective was adopted, that contributed to the increasing absence in church life of the charismata.

But were the Montanists genuine Christians? Yes. Were they misguided in some of their theological beliefs and practices? Yes. Were they heretics? No.

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