by Adam Christensen
The Montanists were a Christian sect that arose towards the close of the second century and well into the third century. This schism is most remembered for their stand of continuing revelation after the Gospels and after the apostolic reign of the Church. It’s most famous member, Tertullian, a revered Church Father by his own right, is all that is left for us in a “Pro” argument for the group, himself a convert, as the congregations that followed this “New Prophecy” as they were sometimes dubbed, are all but dismissed as heretical from the fragments we have from that period and all that is left possess a very negative feel. That said, although Montanist scripture remains in few and scattered pieces today (mostly from Tertullian’s letters and discourses), thus giving us only an Apologetics description, the “Con” side of the argument is also very unclear (Eusebius uses as the bulk of his text an author whose name is lost even to Eusebius).1 For this reason a good, well rounded critical analysis is lacking in realistic formulation until more ancient records may surface from the dust. Even the negative commentators of the time were not in agreement as to just how, in one consensus, the Montanists were in particular heretical.
A document surfaced around the end of the 19th century that revolutionized our perceptions of this early Christian period, however, one that sheds a little more light on the differences this group posed to the Universal Church at the time. We are given a glimpse into the workings of the Church. Keeping in mind that the Church in the first century was not as it would become three centuries later, nor was the end of the first century the same as the Church we find in the middle of the first century. The re-surfaced writing, called the “DiDache” was found in Constantinople in 1873 by Philotheos Bryennios. This Greek text has been dated to the close of the first century, and thus, is the oldest text known in existence that post-dates the New Testament.2 The DiDache shows that the Office of Bishop had not become the leading governing body of the Church but in fact Apostles were still “general authorities” whereas Bishops had local authority – a contrast to the Popes line of succession dating back to James the Just who served as Bishop before this time.3
How does this help the case to the Montanists? It throws down much of the argument against this group that we interpret today – that of being yet another “heresy” that “replaces” the Gospels with new Revelation, and focuses in on the question: what was so awful about the revelations and Montanus (and his successors) themselves? With the light of the DiDache, we can place a more critical look on the antagonists of that day, and weigh in on their opinions of the group that one scholar concluded “aroused a general distrust of prophecy…the Church soon came to the conviction that prophecy had entirely ceased” and “the necessity of emphasizing the historical…over against the Montanistic claims of a constantly developing revelation, and thus to put great emphasis upon the Scripture cannon.”4
Whether or not the DiDache is 100% accurate with what the Apostles and Christ himself taught,5 this ancient text shows that Prophecy was in fact accepted even after the New Testament time frame. Eusebius’s unknown author points out that they were “prophesying in a manner contrary to the constant custom of the Church handed down by tradition from the beginning”6 and in another text, the same statement is translated: “as handed down from early times and preserved from thence forward in a continuous succession”.7 The state of ecstasy of these revelations which was being called into question takes second place here to our knowledge in that it wasn’t a matter of having revelation, but that they did it contrary to custom, a fact that revelation itself in Church History, is supported by the DiDache past the Apostles we know of in the New Testament.
Besides the state of mind had during these revelations, how and why did this group itself become heretical? And at what point did councils of learned men choose the fate of how spiritual matters were to be conducted or as one Baptist author commented “when Christ was dethroned”?8 Perhaps the latter question must await a greater treatise on the subject of early Christianity, but a better understanding of both sides in other matters won’t hurt our understanding. In hopes to present the arguments of both sides, I will attempt to show a “Con” argument, followed by a “Pro” rebuttal, the pro arguments drawn by Tertullian, but where our records are limited; I will attempt to be a witness in hopes to balance our views of the subject. My only personal qualifications for this come from my own religious beliefs of being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In no way will I claim to represent my Church, nor do I pretend to be a Montanist (which by my reading I would dismiss it’s eccentric revelatory frenzies as “contrary to the custom” of my Church as well) but hold a positive side to continuous revelation as an essential feature of God’s Church.
On the setting aside the old for replacement
Irenaeus (ca. 180 C.E.)
“Others, (the Montansists), that they may set at nought the gift of the spirit, which in the latter-times has been, by the good pleasure of the Father, poured out upon the Human Race, do not admit that aspect presented by John’s Gospel, in which the Lord promised that He would send the Paraclete [The Holy Ghost – see John 14:16 – Irenaeus seems to be referring to the Day of Pentecost]; but set aside at once both the Gospel and the prophetic Spirit. Wretched men indeed! Who wish to be pseudo-prophets, forsooth, but who set aside the gift of prophecy from the Church”9
Tertullian (ca. 213 C.E.)
“For after the Bishop of Rome had acknowledged the prophetic gifts of Montanus, Prisca, and Maximilla, and, in consequence of the acknowledgement, 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 [authority], compelled him to recall the pacific letter which he had issued”10
Though perhaps not an exact rebuttal, I’ll add that what John’s Gospel didn’t say was that it was to be a one time thing, and, as Tertullian shows, the aim was not to “set aside the gift of prophecy from the Church” but were anxious to find grace with the Bishop of Rome.
Also, Tertullian once after re-telling a humorous story (whether fiction or not)11 of a presumed Christian martyr named Pristinus, rendered a cook in a prison, who was too drunk to deny Christ during torture to save himself (only burps and hiccups could be made out) thought it difficult to hear arguments against Montanist beliefs of sobriety declared as “heretical”, he reasoned how Montanists were denied possession of the Holy Ghost yet this one who was too drunk to save himself died a martyrs death and was honored presumably as such. “Why then hesitate to believe that the Paraclete, whom you deny in Montanus, exists in an Apicius [a cook]?”12
On getting more revelation beyond John?
Hippolytus (ca 225 C.E.)
“[T]hey allege that they have learned something more from these [“an infinite number of their books”], than from law, and prophets, and the Gospels.”
It is said the last one standing writes the History, and for us there is little left from just what doctrinally was said to have been differing from the scriptures, but an overall bias was taken to the teachings, that led the followers into “delusions” even to “magnify these wretched women [Prisca and Maximilla – Montanus’ successors] above the Apostles and every gift of Grace, so that some of them presume to assert that there is something in them superior to Christ.”13
Tertullian (ca 207 C.E.)
“For what kind of (supposition) is it, that, while the devil is always operating and adding daily to the ingenuities of iniquity, the work of God should either have ceased, or desisted from advancing? Whereas the reason why the Lord sent the Paraclete was, that, since human mediocrity was unable to take in all things at once, discipline should, little by little, be directed, and ordained, and carried on to perfection, by the Vicar of the Lord, the Holy Spirit.”14
The teaching that the Prophetesses were believed to be superior to Christ are not in existence for us today, only to say that our antagonists said so. Ironically, many say that Mormons worship Joseph Smith which is false and un-supported.
Just what changes then were so frowned upon?
Hippolytus (ca 225 C.E.)
(Continued) “These acknowledge God to be the Father of the Universe, and Creator of all things, similarly with the Church [then why say they think of themselves superior to Christ?], and (receive) as many things as the Gospel testifies concerning Christ. They introduce, however, the novelties of fasts [Hippolytus using “novelties” to give distinction between what the Monatanists hold as commandment vs. what is really just a novelty, or, an option], and feasts, and meals, of parched food, and repasts of radishes, alleging that they have been instructed of women.”15
Tertullian (ca 207 C.E.)
After defending certain fasts the Montanists were following, and after saying that these which were instituted through the Law of Moses were viewed by their opponents as novelty, and “of choice, not of command,”16 Tertullian later defended the “[t]he question, however, still lies before us, that some of theses observances, having been commanded by God to man, have constituted this practice legally binding”.
We see from Tertullian, and even Hippolytus, that the teachings were not new per say but were in fact arguing a reformation to Law of Moses practices.
In researching this topic I was amazed with the similarities of Tertullian and Latter-day Saint figures, Joseph Smith in particular. Tertullian, in commenting of a closed-belief of thinking of God still directing man’s affairs by his opponents, he commented: “you again set up boundary-posts to God,…you thus deny that he still continues to impose duties, because, in this case again, ‘the Law and the prophets (were) until John.’ It remains for you to banish Him wholly.”17 Similarly, Joseph Smith commented on the Creeds that would eventually replace continuous revelation once and for all in the next century to Tertullian: “I cannot believe in any of the creeds of the different denominations, because they all have some things I cannot subscribe to, though all of them have some truth. I want to come up to the presence of God, and learn all things; but the creeds set up stakes, and say “Hitherto shalt thou come, and no further;’ which I cannot subscribe to.”18
Certainly by the second century there were corruptions that had sunk deep with the loss of apostolic revelation and Church structure that was intended for the “unity of the faith.”19 Whether you take the stance of Roger Williams, Pastor of the oldest Baptist Church in America: “There is no regularly-constituted church on earth, nor any person authorized to administer any Church ordinance: nor can there be, until new apostles are sent by the great Head of the Church, for whose coming I am seeking.”20 Or whether you share the sentiments of the Catholic Church as viewing this Montanist episode as necessary, either way God’s workings do not happen overnight with His Church, nor can we expect that they have come to an end.
1 Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Second Series. Volume 1 pp. 229-237. The Church History of Eusebius. An on-line source for the Nicene Fathers can be found at: www.ccel.org/s/schaff/?show=worksBy
2 Ante-Nicene Fathers. Volume 7 pp. 371-382. The Teachings of the Twelve Apostles.
3 For a more complete treatise on the subject, see Apostles and Bishops in Early Christianity. The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley: Volume 17
4 The Church History of Eusubius. p. 229 fn. 1.
5 For instance, see The Teachings of the Twelve Apostles: p. 379 where baptism is discussed. Running water is preferred but if this is not available, pouring water on the head three times was an acceptable alternate.
6 The Church History of Eusubius. p. 231
7 Ante-Nicene Fathers. Volume 7 p. 335. the Extant Writings of Asterius Urbanas.
8 See James Carroll’s “Landmarkism” work entitled “Trail of Blood”. Available electronically at:
www.lovejesus.org/books/tob/tobndex.htm (January 17, 2009). This pamphlet is where the Montanist group first came to my attention. Ironically, the attempt to link Baptists chronologically to the original Church of Christ in the first century has little sustaining effect. Of the first five hundred years of history, Dr. Carroll attributed this family chain with this paragraph:
The course followed by the loyal churches soon, of course, incurred the hot displeasure of the state religionists, many, if not most of whom, were not genuine Christians. The name “Christian,” however, was from now on denied those loyal churches who refused to accept these new errors. They were robbed of that, and called by many other names, sometimes by one and sometimes by another, “Montanist,” “Tertullian’s,” “Novationists,” “Paterines,” etc., and some at least because of their practice of rebaptizing those who were baptized in infancy, were referred to an “Ana-Baptists”
Most of these groups were well into the second century before forming, and in their original conception, none are found today. Montanists dating as the oldest is, by concept of continuing revelation, in stark contrast to the teachings of the modern-day Baptist Church , let alone the argument that the original “Ana-Baptist” Church is also at odds with the modern in many doctrinal matters. This is a research that is worthy of it’s own for as the modern looks more like Lutheranism in it’s core “Justification by Faith – Alone” zeal, a drive to remove all works, including Baptism to which their name is derived, is really separate form the testimonies of the Ana-Baptist martyrs we know about today. This argument is difficult to cite in that Baptist belief is independent itself and interpretation may vary with as many members as ascribe its tenants.
9 Ante-Nicene Fathers. Volume 1 p. 429. Irenaeus Against Heresies.
10 Ante-Nicene Fathers. Volume 3 p. 597. Against Praxeas.
11 Tertullian. p. 184. Timothy David Barnes. Retrieved from: books.google.com (January 17, 2009).
12 Ante-Nicene Fathers. Volume 4 pp. 110-111. On Fasting.
13 Ante-Nicene Fathers. Volume 5 p. 123. The Refutation of All Heresies.
14 Ante-Nicene Fathers. Volume 4 p. 27. On The Veiling of Virgins.
15 Ante-Nicene Fathers. Volume 5 p. 123. The Refutation of All Heresies.
16 Ante-Nicene Fathers. Volume 4 pp. 102-103. On Fasting.
17 Ante-Nicene Fathers. Volume 4 pp. 110 (emphasis added). On Fasting.
18 History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Volume 6, p. 57 (emphasis added).
19 KJV: Ephesians 4:13 (11-15)
20 Picturesque America, or the Land We Live In, ed. William Cullen Bryant, New York : D. Appleton and Co., 1872, vol. 1, p. 502. as cited on:
www.fairlds.org/Apostasy/Apostasy_Recognized_by_Reformationists.html (January 17, 2009).