ONE OF THE MOST INFLUENTIAL heterodox movements that exploded onto the scene in Asia Minor in the second century is Montanism. Named after its founder Montanus, a former pagan priest and recent convert to Christianity, this heresy is also known to its adherents as the New Revelation and the New Prophecy.
In his village of Phygia Mysia (north-western part of modern Turkey), Montanus was suddenly seized with ecstasy and began to prophesy, uttering wild declarations that were radically at odds with the teachings of the Catholic Church. He genuinely believed that the Church of his day was spiritually dead, and sought to revive it to its former glory.
While some clearly rejected his pronouncements as heretical, others were deeply impressed by his uncompromising asceticism and his sharp critique of the moral failures of the Church. Two prophetesses, Priscilla and Maximilla, joined Montanus, and together they were able to exert an influence over members of the Church, even as the movement they started spread across Asia Minor.
Most of the information we have about Montanus and his teachings came from the writings of the Fathers of the Church and Eusebius, a fourth century Church historian. This is because, unlike the Gnostics, Montanus and his followers did not leave behind a library of their works.
From these sources, it is quite clear that Montanus and his followers were in many ways quite orthodox in their theology. They accepted the full canon of Scriptures, and the Trinitarian faith of the Church.
But they added to the Bible and the Rule of Faith their own prophecies that were deemed to be equally authoritative because they were allegedly inspired either by Christ or the Holy Spirit. In addition, Montanus accused the leaders of the Church of his day of excessive intellectualism and of quenching the Spirit by imprisoning Him in their rational interpretation of the Bible.
Montanism was therefore a charismatic movement that emphasised the Spirit’s gifts and His extraordinary work in the community: miracles, healing, prophesy, etc. But above all, it was a prophetic movement (hence the name “New Prophecy”) that claimed to have special insights into the divine plan for the future of the world. Before long, the Montanists began to make heretical and outlandish claims about themselves and their special authority.
Montanus repeatedly claimed to be the “Mouthpiece of the Holy Spirit”, who alone was able to provide authoritative guidance to the Church. At one point, he even made this declaration to his admiring followers: “I am the Lord God, born among men. I am neither an angel nor a priest. I am God, the Father, come to you.”
His prophetesses followed suit. Maximilla declared that she is “word, spirit and power” and claimed to possess the ability to control the minds and behaviour of her followers. And Priscilla claimed to have slept with Christ who told her that Pepuza would be the site for the heavenly Jerusalem.
The Montanists believed that Christ would return during their lifetime. This belief provided Montanus and his followers the added incentive to embrace a rugged asceticism as they waited eagerly for the Parousia (Christ’s second coming).
The Montanists therefore urged believers to devote their lives to prayer and fasting, and to be willing to suffer and even die for their faith. Their emphasis on the rigours of the spiritual life and their willingness to courageously embrace martyrdom deeply impressed one of Latin Christianity’s most illustrious theologians, Tertullian, who eventually joined their ranks.
But because Montanism was also a spiritual and prophetic movement, it gradually became strongly anti-clerical, and rejected the authority of the bishops and their claim to apostolic succession. It was a movement that was at once heretical and divisive, threatening to split the infant Church with its corrosive teachings.
What lessons can the modern Church learn from the ancient Montanist heresy? The historian of Christian thought, Roger Olson, has this to say: “Wherever and whenever prophesy is elevated in theory or practice alongside or higher than Scripture, Montanism rears its head. Like Gnosticism, Montanism challenged the early church and challenges the church in modern times to think and respond theologically in order that Christianity may not become anything and everything and thus nothing in particular.”
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity College. Hr worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.