Montanism was an early Christian movement of the late 2nd century that arose in Phrygia, a province of Asia Minor, and emphasized prophetic utterances believed to come directly from the Holy Spirit. The movement held that the Paraclete, the Spirit of Truth promised in the Gospel of John, was speaking through the movement’s prophets to guide the church into all truth. It saw itself as bringing about the age of the Holy Spirit predicted by the Apostle Peter.
Named after its founder Montanus, the movement spread rapidly to other regions in the Roman Empire during the lifetimes of Montanus and his followers. Followers of Montanus believed that the Holy Spirit was working through prophets in the church in a way the Apostles had experienced at Pentecost. The prophetic movement was controversial for its emphasis on direct revelation, and the established church opposed it for a perceived threat to the authority of the bishop.
Montanism held little in common with mainstream Christianity and was repeatedly condemned. The ecstatic prophesying in the movement was seen as getting out of control, especially among the women prophets. While the prophets Montanus, Priscilla and Maximilla claimed divine inspiration, church authorities accused Montanism of attempting to drive the church in a different direction, under the influence of unauthorized revelations.
At the heart of Montanism was an expectation of the imminent return of Christ and a conviction that the power of the Holy Spirit was working through prophets and prophetesses to guide the church. With its suspicion of ecclesiastical authority and its expectation of an idealized imminent Second Coming, Montanism has been compared by modern scholars to aspects of contemporary charismatic Christianity.
History of Montanism
Montanism originated around 172 AD in Phrygia, a province in the western region of Anatolia, in what is now Turkey. Phrygia had a long tradition as a center of goddess worship and Dionysian frenzy. The Christian congregation there had recently suffered a wave of persecutions, which may have contributed to an expectation of the end times.
The movement was founded by a man named Montanus and two female prophets, Priscilla and Maximilla. Little is known about the life of Montanus before he began prophesying in the village of Ardabau in Phrygia. According to a few dubious reports, Montanus may have been a priest of Apollo or Cybele. He converted to Christianity and soon began speaking in ecstatic visions and prophecies. Montanus proclaimed the village of Pepuza in Phrygia to be the New Jerusalem, the site of the promised coming of Christ and his kingdom.
Followers flocked to Pepuza and the nearby village Tymion, expecting the return of Christ. They gave away their possessions to the common purse. Both women and men held positions of authority as prophets and teachers. The movement spread rapidly through Anatolia and the Roman world, especially attracting women and lower-class converts. Within a few decades, Montanists were active in Gaul, Spain, Italy and North Africa.
The response of the Catholic Church to Montanism was at first cautious. Around 177 AD, Aviricius Marcellus, bishop of Hieropolis, held a synod which condemned the prophecy of Montanus, but hesitated to excommunicate the movement. The novelty and popularity of Montanism kept the church from an immediate condemnation. However, prophesying and speaking in tongues came to be forbidden in many Christian congregations.
As Montanism continued spreading, ecstatic prophesying caused disruptions in more and more congregations. Councils at Rome around 179 AD and at Lyons and Vienne in 177 AD had formally condemned the teachings of Montanus. After an initial period of tolerance, Pope Eleutherius declared Montanism heretical around 177-178 AD. The 6th canon of the Council of Constantinople in 381 AD formally declared Montanism a heresy.
Beliefs and Practices of Montanism
Montanists believed that the Holy Spirit was ushering in a new era with the movement and its prophecies. The Roman bishop Praxeas accused Montanus of believing the Holy Spirit was fully incarnate in him. While Montanus never made this claim, he did proclaim that the Holy Spirit was speaking through him and other prophets to guide the church. Followers believed the Holy Spirit was using Montanus in a way similar to the Apostles at Pentecost.
The Montanist prophets claimed a succession of direct revelations by the Spirit. Prophecies were delivered in an ecstatic state of possession by God, just as the ancient Jewish prophets had experienced. The Holy Spirit was seen as directly inspiring their prophetic utterances and instructions for the church. This emphasis on continuing revelation was controversial, as bishops argued that revelation in the church was given through them as the successors of the Apostles.
In contrast to the hierarchical authority claimed by bishops, Montanism believed that truth came through the prophets that the Spirit inspired, whether male or female, upper or lower class. With its charismatic revelation, Montanism appealed to those seeking a more mystical experience of God. Montanus taught that God’s supernatural revelations did not end with the Apostles, but continued to be revealed through prophecy.
The Montanist prophets delivered repeated predictions about the imminent end of the age and return of Christ or a New Jerusalem in Phrygia. Montanism spread an expectation of a final millennial reign to soon be inaugurated by the Spirit through the prophets. The movement called for radical asceticism in preparation for this. Montanus argued for strict fasting and celibacy, pending the imminent coming of the kingdom of God. He forbade remarriage and flight from persecution. The movement’s female prophets were celibate, contrary to the expectations for women in that era.
Montanus proclaimed Pepuza, Phrygia to be the site of the New Jerusalem and transfiguration. The prophets taught pacifism and passive resistance in expectation of God soon avenging the suffering of martyrs. Montanists continued to practice healings, exorcisms, and other spiritual gifts. Prophets traveled from site to site performing miracles and delivering revelations, seen as signs ushering in the new prophetic age of the Spirit.
The Montanist movement spread an enthusiasm and expectation of the supernatural gifts of the Spirit to revive the church. Montanus was regarded as a heretic by opponents in the Catholic Church for acting as if God were still revealing truth in a way that challenged the authority of church officials.
Reasons the Church Opposed Montanism
While not denying the Holy Spirit or gifts of prophecy, bishops in the Catholic Church became increasingly suspicious of the practices and revelations coming out of Montanism. There were several reasons the church ultimately condemned and rejected the movement:
– Emphasis on New Revelation: Montanist prophets claimed to deliver new revelations from God beyond those given by Christ and the Apostles. The church ruled that public revelation ended with the Apostolic Age.
– Undermined Church Authority: Prophecies were given by lower class women and men without approval of clergy. The church maintained only bishops could guide congregations as the successors of the Apostles.
– Potential Financial Abuses: Critics accused the prophets of taking gifts and concentrating wealth at Pepuza. The church was suspicious of the common fund the movement established.
– Excessive Asceticism: Montanist teachings called for extreme fasting, celibacy and rejecting remarriage. The church believed such excessive rigorism went beyond the gospel.
– Apocalypticism and Martyrdom: Montanism spread an expectation of Christ’s imminent Second Coming and the New Jerusalem in Pepuza. The church distrusted apocalyptic enthusiasm to abandon life for martyrdom.
– Frenzied Prophesying: The ecstatic utterances and visions of Montanist prophets were seen as excessive and dangerous. The church argued prophecy had to be rational.
– Persecution Fears: Critics charged the movement with stirring up zeal that could provoke more persecution. The church sought respectability in Roman society.
While Montanism shared the faith of the early church, bishops viewed its practices and revelations as disruptive. They believed Montanism could divide congregations and undermine episcopal authority as successors to the Apostles. The church ruled the age of prophecy had ended and public revelation was closed.
Decline of Montanism
After early attempts to reconcile with the church, Montanism was declared heretical in the late 2nd century. Bishops increasingly insisted prophetic gifts had ended and revelations required approval through church officials. This allowed bishops to tighten control and claim succession to the Apostles as the source of authority in the church.
Montanism persisted into the 4th century in spite of vigorous opposition and condemnation. Followers of Montanus refused to compromise with the established church and continued claiming direct revelations from the Spirit. The 6th century church father Jerome records that remnants of Montanism continued on for centuries in remote areas. Montanist writings were ordered to be burned by the church, wiping out much direct record of their prophecies.
Persecution and suppression drove Montanism into decline. Imperial decrees in the late 4th century ordered the destruction of Pepuza and persecuted remaining followers. Many of the movement’s followers were reconciled with the Catholic Church, while others persisted in remote regions. Montanism essentially vanished or was absorbed into the wider church.
While Montanist practices were pushed out of mainstream Christianity, the movement did help instill a lasting expectation of the Holy Spirit’s supernatural gifts in the church. Montanism served as an inspiration for later Christian mystics seeking deeper spiritual experiences. Movements emphasizing spiritual gifts, miracles, and prophecy continued to emerge in the church, evoking the memory of Montanism.