Montanism was a heretical movement that originated about 156 and was named after its founder Montanus. It flourished mostly in and around the region of Phrygia in Asia Minor, where early on its followers were called Cataphrygians. It spread to other regions in the Roman Empire. This heresy arose at a time before Christianity was generally tolerated or legal in the Roman world. With the mainstream of the Orthodox Church prevailing against Montanism, the movement died out within a few generations although the sect persisted in some isolated places into the eighth century.
While claiming a conversion to Christianity, Montanus preached and testified what he purported to be the Word of God as he traveled among the rural settlements of his native Phrygia and Asia Minor. In these travels he proclaimed the village of Pepuza as the site of the New Jerusalem). The Orthodox Christians, however, regarded his teaching to be heretical. He claimed not only to have received a series of direct revelations from the Holy Spirit, but personally to be the incarnation of the paraclete mentioned in the Gospel of John 14:16. Montanus was accompanied by two women, Prisca, sometimes called Priscilla, and Maximilla, who likewise claimed to be the embodiments of the Holy Spirit that moved and inspired them. As they traveled, "the Three" as they were called, spoke in ecstatic visions and in the first person as of the Father or the paraclete. They urged their followers to fast and pray, so that they might share these personal revelations. His message spread from his native Phrygia across the Christian world of the second century, to Africa and Gaul.
Prisca claimed that Christ had appeared to her in female form. When she was excommunicated, she exclaimed "I am driven away like the wolf from the sheep. I am no wolf: I am the word and spirit and power."
It is generally agreed that the movement was inspired by Montanus' interpretation of the Gospel of St. John — "I will send you the advocate paraclete, the spirit of truth" (Heine 1987, 1989; Groh 1985). The response to this continuing revelation split many Christian communities of the second century, and the Orthodox clergy fought to suppress it. Bishop Apollinarius found the church at Ancyra torn in two, and he opposed the "false prophesy" (quoted by Eusebius 5.16.5). But there was real doubt at Rome. Pope Eleutherus even wrote letters supporting Montanism, although he later recanted them (Tertullian, "Adversus Praxean" c.1, Trevett 58-59).
The most widely known defender of Montanists was undoubtedly Tertullian, onetime champion of orthodox belief, who believed that the new prophecy was genuine and began to fall out of step with what he began to call "the church of a lot of bishops" (On Modesty).
Although the Orthodox Christian church prevailed against Montanism within a few generations, elements of Montanism persisted. Inscriptions in the Tembris valley of northern Phrygia, dated between 249 and 279, openly proclaim their allegiance to Montanism. A letter of St. Jerome to Marcella, written in 385, refutes the claims of Montanists who had been troubling her (letter 41). A group of "Tertullianists" continued to exist at Carthage. The anonymous author of Praedestinatus records that a preacher came to Rome in 388 where he made many converts and obtained the use of a church for his congregation on the grounds that the martyrs to whom it was dedicated had been Montanists. He was obliged to flee after the victory of Theodosius the Great who supported the Orthodox belief. Augustine records that the Tertullianist group dwindled to almost nothing in his own time, and that the remnant of the group finally was reconciled to the church and surrendered their basilica. It is not certain whether these Tertullianists were Montanist or not.
In the sixth century, John of Ephesus, at the orders of the emperor Justinian, led an expedition to Pepuza to destroy the Montanist shrine there, which was formed around the tombs of Montanus, Priscilla, and Maximilla.
Differences between Montanism and Orthodox Christianity
The beliefs of Montanism contrasted with Orthodox Christianity in the following ways:
- The belief that the prophecies of the Montanists superseded and fulfilled the doctrines proclaimed by the Apostles.
- The encouragement of ecstatic prophesying, contrasting with the more sober and disciplined approach to theology dominant in Orthodox Christianity at the time and since.
- The view that Christians who fell from grace could not be redeemed, in contrast to the Orthodox Christian view that contrition could lead to a sinner's restoration to the church.
- The prophets of Montanism did not speak as messengers of God: "Thus saith the Lord," but rather described themselves as possessed by God, and spoke in his person. "I am the Father, the Word, and the Paraclete," said Montanus (Didymus, De Trinitate, III, xli); This possession by a spirit, which spoke while the prophet was incapable of resisting, is described by the spirit of Montanus: "Behold the man is like a lyre, and I art like the plectrum. The man sleeps, and I am awake" (Epiphanius, "Panarion", xlviii, 4).
- A stronger emphasis on the avoidance of sin and on church discipline than in Orthodox Christianity. They emphasized chastity, including forbidding remarriage.
- Some of the Montanists were also "Quartodeciman" ("fourteeners"), preferring to the celebration of Pascha on the Hebrew calendar date of 14 Nisan, regardless of what day of the week it landed on. The Orthodoxy held that Pascha should be commemorated on the Sunday following 14 Nisan. (Trevett 1996:202)
Jerome and other church leaders claimed that the Montanists of their own day held the belief that the Trinity consisted of only a single person, similar to Sabellianism, as opposed to the Orthodox view that the Trinity is one God of three persons which Tertullian also had held. There were some who were indeed modalistic monarchians (Sabellians) and some that were closer to the Trinitarian doctrine. It is reported that these modalists baptized mentioning the name of Jesus Christ as opposed to mentioning the Trinity. Most of the later Montanists were of the modalistic camp.
- Eusebius of Caesarea, Historia ecclesiae, 5.16–18
- Tabbernee, William, 1997. Montanist Inscriptions and Testimonia: Epigraphic Sources Illustrating the History of Montanism (Macon [GA], Mercer University Press) (North American Patristic Society Patristic Monograph Series, 16).
- Groh, Dennis E. 1985. "Utterance and exegesis: Biblical interpretation in the Montanist crisis," in Groh and Jewett, The Living Text (New York) pp 73 – 95.
- Heine, R.E., 1987 "The Role of the Gospel of John in the Montanist controversy," in Second Century v. 6, pp 1 – 18.
- Heine, R.E., 1989. "The Gospel of John and the Montanist debate at Rome," in Studia Patristica 21, pp 95 – 100.
- Trevett, Christine, 1996. Montanism: Gender, Authority and the New Prophecy (Cambridge University Press)
- Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Christian Doctrine. Vol. I The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition, 100-600. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977.