1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Montanism

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MONTANISM, a somewhat misleading name for the movement in the 2nd century which, along with Gnosticism, occupied the most critical period in the history of the Early Church. It was the overthrow of Gnosticism and Montanism that made the “Catholic” Church. The credit of first discerning the true significance of the Montanistic movement belongs to Ritschl.[1] In this article an account will be given of the general significance of Montanism in relation to the history of the Church in the and century, followed by a sketch of its origin, development and decline.

1. From the middle of the 2nd century a change began to take place in the outward circumstances of Christianity. The Christian faith had hitherto been maintained in a few small congregations scattered over the Roman Empire. These congregations were provided with only the most indispensable constitutional forms (“Corpus sumus de conscientia religionis, de unitate discipline, de spei foedere”). This state of things passed away. The Churches soon found numbers within their pale who stood in need of supervision, instruction and regular control. The enthusiasm for a life of holiness and separation from the world no longer swayed all minds. In many cases sober convictions or submissive assent supplied the want of spontaneous enthusiasm. There were many who did not become, but who were, and therefore remained, Christians. Then, in addition to this, Christians were already found in all ranks and occupations—in the Imperial palace, among the officials, in the abodes of labour and the halls of learning, amongst slaves and freemen. Should the Church take the decisive step into the world, conform to its customs, and acknowledge as far as possible its authorities? Or ought she, on the other hand, to remain a society of religious devotees, separated and shut out from the world? That this was the question at issue is obvious enough now, although it could not be clearly perceived at the time. It was natural that warning voices should then be raised in the Church against secular tendencies, that the well known counsels about the imitation of Christ should be held up in their literal strictness before worldly Christians. The Church as a whole, however, under pressure of circumstances rather than by a spontaneous impulse, decided otherwise. She marched through the open door into the Roman state, and settled down there to Christianize the state by imparting to it the word of the Gospel, but at the same time leaving it everything except its gods. On the other hand, she furnished herself with everything of value that could be taken over from the world without over straining the elastic structure of the organization which she now adopted. With the aid of its philosophy she created her new Christian theology; its polity furnished her with the most exact constitutional forms; its jurisprudence, its trade and commerce, its art and industry, were all taken into her service; and she contrived to borrow some hints even from its religious worship. With this equipment she undertook, and carried through, a world-mission on a grand scale. But believers of the old school protested in the name of the Gospel against this secular Church. They joined an enthusiastic movement which had originated in a remote province, and had at first a merely local importance. There, in Phrygia, the cry for a strict Christian life was reinforced by the belief in a new and final outpouring of the Spirit—a coincidence which has been observed elsewhere in Church history—as, for instance, among the early Quakers and in the Irvingite movement. These zealots hailed the appearance of the Paraclete in Phrygia, and surrendered themselves to his guidance. In so doing, however, they had to withdraw from the Church, to be known as “Montanists,” or “Kataphrygians,” and thus to assume the character of the sect. Their enthusiasm and their prophesying were denounced as demoniacal; their expectation of a glorious earthly kingdom of Christ was stigmatized as Jewish, their passion for martyrdom as vainglorious and their whole conduct as hypocritical. Nor did they escape the more serious imputation of heresy on important articles of faith; indeed, there was a disposition to put them on the same level with the Gnostics. The effect on themselves was what usually follows in such circumstances. After their separation from the Church, they became narrower and pettier in their conception of Christianity. Their asceticism degenerated into legalism, their claim to a monopoly of pure Christianity made them arrogant. As for the popular religion of the larger Church, they scorned it as an adulterated, manipulated Christianity. But these views found very little acceptance in the 3rd century, and in the course of the 4th they died out.

2. Such is, in brief, the position occupied by Montanism in the history of the ancient Church. The rise and progress of the movement were as follows.

At the close of the reign of Antoninus Pius—probably in the year 156 (Epiphanius)—Montanus appeared at Ardabau in Mysia, near the Phrygian border, bringing revelations of the “Spirit” to Christendom. Montanus claimed to have a prophetic calling in the very same sense as Agabus, Judas, Silas, the daughters of Philip, Quadratus and Ammia, or as Hermas at Rome. At a later time, when the validity of the Montanistic prophecy was called in question, the adherents of the new movement appealed explicitly to a sort of prophetic succession, in which their prophets had received the same gift which the daughters of Philip, for example, had exercised in that very country of Phrygia. The burden of the new prophecy seems to have been a new standard of moral obligations, especially with regard to marriage, fasting and martyrdom. But Montanus had larger schemes in view. He wished to organize a special community of true Christians to wait for the coming of their Lord. The small Phrygian towns of Pepuza and Tymion were selected as the headquarters of his church. Funds were raised for the new organization, and from these the leader and missionaries, who were to have nothing to do with worldly life, drew their pay. Only two women, Prisca and Maximilla, were moved by the Spirit; like Montanus, they uttered in a state of frenzy the commands of the Spirit, which urged men to a strict and holy life. This does not mean that visions and significant dreams may not have been of frequent occurrence in Montanistic circles.[2]

For twenty years this agitation appears to have been confined to Phrygia and the neighbouring provinces. But after the year 177 a persecution of Christians broke out simultaneously in many provinces of the Empire. Like every other persecution it was regarded as the beginning of the end. It would seem that before this time Montanus had disappeared from the scene; but Maximilla, and probably also Prisca, were working with redoubled energy. And now, throughout the provinces of Asia Minor, in Rome, and even in Gaul, amidst the raging of persecution, attention was attracted to this remarkable movement. The desire for a sharper exercise of discipline, and a more decided renunciation of the world, combined with a craving for some plain indication of the Divine will in these last critical times, had prepared many minds for an eager acceptance of the tidings from Phrygia. And thus, within the large congregations where there was so much that was open to censure in doctrine and constitution and morals, conventicles were formed in order that Christians might prepare themselves by strict discipline for the day of the Lord.

Meanwhile in Phrygia and its neighbourhood—especially in Galatia, and also in Thrace—a controversy was raging between the adherents and the opponents of the new prophecy. Between 150 and 176 the authority of the episcopate had been immensely strengthened, and along with it a settled order had been introduced into the Churches. As a rule, the bishops were resolute enemies of the Montanistic enthusiasm. It disturbed the peace and order of the congregations, and threatened their safety. Moreover, it made demands on individual Christians such as very few could comply with. But the disputation which Bishops Zoticus of Cumana and Julian of Apamea arranged with Maximilla and her following turned out disastrously for its promoters. The “spirit” of Maximilla gained a signal victory, a certain Themiso in particular having reduced the bishops to silence. Sotas bishop of Anchialus attempted to refute Prisca, but with no better success (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. v. 19). These proceedings were never forgotten in Asia Minor, and the report of them spread far and wide. In after times the only way in which the discomfiture of the bishops could be explained was by asserting that they had been silenced by fraud or violence. This was the commencement of the excommunication or secession of the Montanists in Asia Minor. Not only did an extreme party arise in Asia Minor rejecting all prophecy and the Apocalypse of John along with it, but the majority of the Churches and bishops in that district appear (c. 178) to have broken off all fellowship with the new prophets, while books were written to show that the very form of the Montanistic prophecy was sufficient proof of its spuriousness.[3] In Gaul and Rome the prospects of Montanism seemed for a while more favourable. The confessors of the Gallican Church at Lyons were of opinion that communion ought to be maintained with the zealots of Asia and Phrygia; and they addressed a letter to this effect to the Roman bishop, Eleutherus. There was a momentary vacillation even in Rome. Nor is this to be wondered at. The events in Phrygia could not appear new and unprecedented to the Roman Church. If we may believe Tertullian, it was Praxeas of Asia Minor, the relentless foe of Montanism, who succeeded in persuading the Roman bishop to withhold his letters of conciliation.[4]

Early in the last decade of the 2nd century two considerable works[5] appeared in Asia Minor against the Kataphrygians. The first, by a bishop or presbyter whose name is not known, is addressed to Abircius bishop of Hierapolis, and was written in the fourteenth year after the death of Maximilla—i.e. apparently about the year 193. The other was written by a certain Apollonius forty years after the appearance of Montanus, consequently about 196. From these treatises we learn that the adherents of the new prophecy were very numerous in Phrygia, Asia and Galatia (Ancyra), that they had tried to defend themselves in writing from the charges brought against them (by Miltiades), that they possessed a fully developed independent organization, that they boasted of many martyrs, and that they were still formidable to the Church in Asia Minor. Many of the small congregations had gone completely over to Montanism, although in large towns, like Ephesus, the opposite party maintained the ascendancy. Every bond of intercourse was broken, and in the Catholic Churches the worst calumnies were retailed about the deceased prophets and the leaders of the societies they had founded. In many Churches outside of Asia Minor a different state of matters prevailed. Those who accepted the message of the new prophecy did not at once leave the Catholic Church in a body. They simply formed small conventicles within the Church. Such, for example, appears to have been the case in Carthage (if we may judge from the Acts of the martyrs Perpetua and Felicitas) at the commencement of the persecution of Septimius Severus about the year 202. But even here it was impossible that an open rupture should be indefinitely postponed. The bishops and their flocks gave offence to the spiritualists on so many points that at last it could be endured no longer. The latter wished for more fasting, the prohibition of second marriages, a frank, courageous profession of Christianity in daily life, and entire separation from the world; the bishops, on the other hand, sought to make it as easy as possible to be a Christian, lest they should lose the greater part of their congregations. And lastly, the bishops were compelled more and more to take the control of discipline into their own hands, while the spiritualists insisted that God Himself was the sole judge in the congregation. On this point especially a conflict was inevitable. It is true that there was no rivalry between the new organization and the old, as in Asia and Phrygia, for the Western Montanists recognized in its main features the Catholic organization as it had been developed in the contest with Gnosticism; but the demand that the “organs of the Spirit” should direct the whole discipline of the congregation contained implicitly a protest against the actual constitution of the Church. Even before this latent antagonism was made plain there were many minor matters which were sufficient to precipitate a rupture in particular congregations. In Carthage, for example, it would appear that the breach between the Catholic Church and the Montanistic conventicle was caused by a disagreement on the question whether or not virgins ought to be veiled. For nearly five years (202-207) the Carthaginian Montanists strove to remain within the Church, which was as dear to them as it was to their opponents. But at length they quitted it, and formed a congregation of their own.

It was at this juncture that Tertullian, the most famous theologian of the West, left the Church whose cause he had so manfully upheld against pagans and heretics. He too had come to the conviction that the Church had forsaken the old paths and entered on a way that must lead to destruction. The writings of Tertullian afford the clearest demonstration that what is called Montanism was, at any rate in Africa, a reaction against secularism in the Church. There are other indications that Montanism in Carthage was a very different thing from the Montanism of Montanus. Western Montanism, at the beginning of the 3rd century, admitted the legitimacy of almost every point of the Catholic system. It allowed that the bishops were the successors of the apostles, that the Catholic rule of faith was a complete and authoritative exposition of Christianity, and that the New Testament was the supreme rule of the Christian life. Montanus himself and his first disciples had been in quite a different position. In his time there was no fixed, divinely instituted congregational organization, no canon of New Testament Scriptures, no anti-Gnostic theology, and no Catholic Church. There were simply certain communities of believers bound together by a common hope, and by a free organization, which might be modified to any required extent. When Montanus proposed to summon all true Christians to Pepuza, in order to live a holy life and prepare for the day of the Lord, there was nothing whatever to prevent the execution of his plan except the inertia and lukewarmness of Christendom. But this was not the case in the West at the beginning of the 3rd century. At Rome and Carthage, and in all other places where sincere Montanists were found, they were confronted by the imposing edifice of the Catholic Church, and they had neither the courage nor the inclination to undermine her sacred foundations. This explains how the later Montanism never attained a position of influence. In accepting, with slight reservations, the results of the development which the Church had undergone during the fifty years from 160 to 210 it reduced itself to the level of a sect. Tertullian exhausted the resources of dialectic in the endeavour to define and vindicate the relation of the spiritualists to the “psychic” Christians; but no one will say he has succeeded in clearing the Montanistic position of its fundamental inconsistency.

Of the later history of Montanism very little is known. But it is at least a significant fact that prophecy could not be resuscitated. Montanus, Prisca, and Maximilla were always recognized as the inspired authorities. At rare intervals a vision might perhaps be vouchsafed to some Montanistic old woman, or a brother might now and then have a dream that seemed to be of supernatural origin; but the overmastering power of religious enthusiasm was a thing of which the Montanists knew as little as the Catholics. Their discipline was attended with equally disappointing results. In place of an intense moral earnestness, we find in Tertullian a legal casuistry, a finical morality, from which no good could ever come. It was only in the land of its nativity that Montanism held its ground till the 4th century. It maintained itself there in a number of close communities, probably in places where no Catholic congregation had been formed; and to these the Novatians at a later period attached themselves. In Carthage there existed down to the year 400 a sect called Tertullianists; and in their survival we have a striking testimony to the influence of the great Carthaginian teacher. On doctrinal questions there was no real difference between the Catholics and the Montanists. The early Montanists (the prophets themselves) used expressions which seem to indicate a Monarchian conception of the person of Christ. After the close of the 2nd century we find two sections amongst the Western Montanists, just as amongst the Western Catholics—there were some who adopted the Logos-Christology, and others who remained Monarchians.[6]

Sources.—The materials for the history of Montanism, although plentiful, are fragmentary, and require a good deal of critical sifting. They may be divided into four groups: (1) The utterances of Montanus, Prisca and Maximilla[7] are our most important sources, but unfortunately they consist of only twenty-one short sayings. (2) The works written by Tertullian after he became a Montanist furnish the most copious information—not, however, about the first stages of the movement, but only about its later phase, after the Catholic Church was established. (3) The oldest polemical works of the 2nd century, extracts from which have been preserved, especially by Eusebius (Hist. Eccles. bk. v.), form the next group. These must be used with the utmost caution, because even the earliest orthodox writers give currency to many misconceptions and calumnies. (4) The later lists of heretics, and the casual notices of Church fathers from the 3rd to the 5th century, though not containing much that is of value, yet contain a little.[8]

Literature.—Ritschl's investigations, referred to above, supersede the older works of Tillemont, Wernsdorf, Mosheim, Walch, Neander, Baur and A. Schwegler (Der Montanismus und die christliche Kirche des 2ten Jahrhunderts, Tübingen, 1841). The later works, of which the best and most exhaustive is that of N. Bonwetsch, Die Geschichte des Montanismus (1881), all follow the lines laid down by Ritschl. See also Gottwald, De montanismo Tertulliani (1862); Réville, “Tertullien et le montanisme” in the Revue des deux mondes (Nov. 1, 1864); Stroelin, Essai sur le montanisme (1870); De Soyres, Montanism and the Primitive Church (London, 1878); W. Cunningham, The Churches of Asia (London, 1880); Renan, “Les Crises du Catholicisme Naissant” in Rev. d. deux mondes (Feb. 15, 1881); H. Weinel, Die Wirkungen des Geistes und der Geister im nachapostol. Zeitalter (Freiburg, 1899); G. G. Selwyn, The Christian Prophets (London, 1900); Bonwetsch, art. “Montanismus” in Hauck-Herzog's Realeneyklopädie. Special points of importance in the history of Montanism have been investigated by Lipsius, Overbeck, Weizsäcker (Theol. Lit.-Zeitung, Nov. 4, 1882), Harnack, Das Mönchthum, seine Ideale und seine Geschichte, 2nd ed., 1882; Eng. trans., 1901; and Z. f. Kirchengesch. iii. 369-408), and H. J. Lawlor. Weizsäcker's short essays are extremely valuable, and have elucidated several important points previously overlooked.  (A. Ha.) 

  1. Entstehung der altkatholischen Kirche, 2nd ed. Bonn. (1857).
  2. Theodotus, “the first steward of the New Prophecy,” was a fellow-worker with Montanus, and almost certainly a prophet. Later on, Firmilian, writing to Cyprian, mentions a prophetess who appeared in Cappadocia about A.D. 236, and Epiphanius (Haer. 49) tells of another called Quintilla.—(Ed.)
  3. Miltiades, περὶ τοῦ μὴ δεῖν προφήτην ἐν ἐκστάσει λαλεῖν. At the same time as Miltiades, if not earlier, Apollinaris of Hierapolis also wrote against the Montanists.
  4. It was Zephyrinus in A.D. 202 who took the decisive step of refusing to communicate with the Asiatic Montanists.—(Ed.)
  5. Quoted in Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. v. 16-18.
  6. It is evident that Montanism was by no means homogeneous. Too often the primitive “heresy of the Phrygians” has been studied in the light of the matured system of Tertullian. One great divergence is manifest: Tertullian never himself deviated from orthodox and vehemently asserts the orthodoxy of all Montanists, but both Montanus (“I am the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost”) and Maximilla (“I am Word and Spirit and Power”) used language which has a distinctly “monarchian” flavour. There were really divided views on the question of the Divine Monarchy among the Montanists as among the Catholics. The orthodox party were known as the Cataproclans, the heterodox as Cataeschinites, and both appealed to the oracles of their prophets. Other influences tending to diversity were the rise of later prophets and visionaries, the personality of prominent members of the sect (like Tertullian himself, who gave to Montanism much more than he received from it), and the power of local environment. An examination of Phrygian as distinct from African Montanism leads to the following conclusions: (1) The Phrygians claimed to have received the prophetic gift by way of succession just as the bishops traced their office back to the apostles; Tertullian seems to ignore the intermediate steps between the apostles and Montanus; (2) the “ecstasy” of the African section was much more restrained than the ravings of the Phrygians; (3) the original Montanists followed the example of the Phrygian native cults in assigning a prominent place to women, Tertullian on the other hand (De virg. vel. 9) says, “It is not permitted to a woman to speak in church, nor yet to teach, nor to baptize, nor to offer, nor to assume any office which belongs to a man, least of all the priesthood;” (4) while both sections gave to prophets the power of absolution, the Phrygians extended it to martyrs also—at Carthage the Catholics did this contrary to the views of Tertullian. There is also good reason to doubt whether the Phrygian Montanists were anything like so ascetic and desirous of martyrdom as has been generally considered. Apollonius (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. v. 16) accuses them of covetousness and tells us that Themiso purchased his freedom from imprisonment by a considerable payment. Sir William Ramsay has also shown that martyrdom's in Phrygia were rare during the end of the 2nd and the whole of the 3rd century, a spirit of religious compromise prevailing between the Christian and pagan populations (see a paper by H. J. Lawlor in the Journal of Theological Studies for July, 1908, vol. ix. 481).
  7. Collected by Munter and by Bonwetsch, Geschichte des Montanismus, p. 197.
  8. On the sources see Bonwetsch, pp. 16-55.