Montanism / Theology Like Many Early Heresies  Book Report

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Montanism / Theology

Like many early heresies, Montanism has not left behind much in the way of written testimony: only one Montanist writer, Tertullian, has works that survive, and it is primarily in his work that the statements of the Montanist movement (Montanus, Prisca and Maximilia) survive in quotation. Gonzales notes that, among many differing interpretations of Montanism, one view sees them as something like "an early Pentecostal group." [footnoteRef:0] It is clear from accounts of Montanism that it included the emphasis on the Holy Spirit, including manifestations of glossolalia, that are seen in contemporary Pentecostals. But overall, Montanus seems to have combined several contradictory impulses into his schismatic movement. The first hinged upon greater involvement of women in ministry: the heresy of Montanus is seldom mentioned without reference to "those demented women Prisca and Maximilia," as Saint Jerome calls them in his letter to Marcella refuting the Montanist heresy.[footnoteRef:1] The second impulse is toward a greater asceticism. And the third is a millenarian belief (similar to Pentecostalism) that Montanus was living in the end times, and a dispensationalist belief that those end times were governed by the Holy Spirit. It is worth examining each of these separate aspects of the Montanist heresy independently, to arrive at a fuller understanding and summary judgment of the thought. [0: Gonzales, Justo and Gonzales, Catherine. Heretics for Armchair Theologians.] [1: Saint Jerome, Letter XLI. Accessed online at:]

Twenty-first century readers might be tempted to see, anachronistically, a hint of modern feminism in the centrality of Prisca (or Priscilla) and Maximilia to the Montanist movement. This is presumably due to the idea that their role among the Montanists was analogous to contemporary women undertaking a more central position within church hierarchy in terms of preaching, evangelizing, or the ministry. But this overlooks entirely what was heretical about the Montanists in this respect: Prisca and Maximilia were not ministers but prophetesses. The heretical nature of their role was not due to the fact that they were women aiming at a greater active role in church life -- it is heresy by its similarity to Pagan priestesses, like the Oracle at Delphi. In fact, a standard charge against the Montanists is that their beliefs carried more than a whiff of Paganism -- opponents of Montanus claimed that he had been a castrated devotee of the mystery-cult of the goddess Cybele before approaching his own version of Christianity. Indeed the appeal of Montanus, Priscilla and Maximilia for believers in the first century must have depended upon the similarity of their Pentecostal ravings to the statements made by countless Pagan Sibyls and oracles. Saint Jerome notes that they offered scriptural justification for their prophetesses, pointing to "passages in which our Saviour promises that He will go to the Father, and that He will send the Paraclete" -- but St. Jerome dispenses with their interpretation of the passages noting that "as regards these, the Acts of the Apostles inform us both for what time the promises were made, and at what time they were actually fulfilled." In other words, Montanism surely did not strike the early church fathers as any form of feminism (which would be an anachronistic designation one way or the other) -- rather, its emphasis on female participation must have resembled a dangerous backsliding toward paganism. There is, after all, a reason why the Sermon on the Mount contains a warning about false prophets. Nonetheless it is possible to imagine a church community that was faced with constant outbursts of strange belief at such a time: this is, after all, why the church hierarchy emerged. Tertullian claims that the Montanist prophetesses had been given official endorsement at some point. In his letter Against Praxeas, Tertullian writes:

For after the Bishop of Rome had acknowledged the prophetic gifts of Montanus, Prisca, and Maximilla, and, in consequence of the acknowledgment, had bestowed his peace on the churches of Asia and Phrygia, he, 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, compelled him to recall the pacific letter which he had issued, as well as to desist from his purpose of acknowledging the said gifts.[footnoteRef:2] [2: Tertullian, Against Praxeas. Accessed online at]

This sounds like an emergent church hierarchy trying to contain an evangelical movement based on the personal charms of two women issuing prophecies. Perhaps their early prophecies were sufficiently miraculous as to attract church attention, but it becomes clear that the removal of episcopal approbation must have been due to the rapid growth of the Montanist movement, and the peculiar emphasis it gave to female prophets claiming to speak direct from inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

The second impulse within Montanism was an aggressive asceticism, with a greater emphasis on celibacy for all members of the church. It can be hypothesized that in some sense this aspect of Montanism may very well have derived from the first: given the centrality of Prisca and Maximilia in the social movement of Montanism, it must have been necessary to deny that there was any sexual license or libertinage on the part of the Montanist community in Phrygia. It is worth recalling that, in the years when the Montanist heresy was active, Christians were by no means immune from the charge of being sexual libertines. The First Apology of Saint Justin Martyr notes that this was one of the difficulties of heretical sects in the time period -- their wild excesses permitted critics to tar all Christians with the same brush. In reference to the Marcionites, St. Justin Martyr writes:

All who take their opinions from these men, are, as we before said, called Christians; just as also those who do not agree with the philosophers in their doctrines, have yet in common with them the name of philosophers given to them. And whether they perpetrate those fabulous and shameful deeds -- the upsetting of the lamp, and promiscuous intercourse, and eating human flesh -- we know not; but we do know that they are neither persecuted nor put to death by you, at least on account of their opinions.[footnoteRef:3] [3: Saint Justin Martyr, First Apology XXVI. Accessed online at:]

It is noteworthy that the chief extant Montanist writer -- Tertullian -- devotes a great deal of time to the refutation of Marcionism (which resembles Manichaeanism or Zoroastrianism in its emphasis on a second coeternal deity of evil). Tertullian is also greatly concerned with the allegations of sexual license against Christian sects: it is Tertullian who records "the vile calumny about Onocoetes" which circulated in Northern Africa, hinting that the Christian God had sanctioned the most outrageous sexual acts.[footnoteRef:4] But again we must understand the Montanist community as being susceptible to this type of libel. The inclusion of women as prophetesses, and the possible status of Montanus as a castrated pagan priest before conversion to Christianity, suggested a millenarian community in which men and women would share close quarters, and certainly being an eunuch may prevent fathering children but it certainly does not preclude committing sex acts altogether. Additionally pagan priests and priestesses often took place in ritual sexuality, not unlike that is described in Genesis 38:15-24. Certainly this is the time period when Origen would castrate himself, based on a reading of Matthew 19:12, better to approach a desirable state of Christian chastity. But in some sense, we can understand the very extreme Montanist doctrine of ascetic removal from all sexuality -- which Saint Jerome finds to be in contradiction to various scriptural injunctions -- to be perhaps a case of "protesting too much." Given the prominent role played by women in the Montanist movement, the rumors of pagan priesthood on the part of Montanus himself, we may imagine that the excess of chastity identified by St. Jerome was a reaction to possible perceptions by outsiders of what the Montanists might be doing in their Phrygian community. [4: Tertullian, "To the Nations." In Ante-Nicene Christian Library, Volume XI: The Writings of Tertullian. Roberts, Alexander and Donaldson, James (eds.) Edinburgh: Clark, 1869. 451. (Tertullian's claims here are validated by the discovery in Rome of the Alexamenos graffito.)]

It is the millenarianist and dispensationalist aspects of the Montanist heresy that are most easily recognizable to a 21st century theologian. The Montanist view of women as Christian-inspired prophetesses would be hard to find outside of pseudo-Christian "New Age" circles; and a Montanist view of celibacy would be hard to find outside of weird fringe groups like the now-defunct "Heaven's Gate" cult. But the pneumaticist and dispensationalist aspects of Montanism are alive and well in various Christian sects that are well-represented in America. The pneumaticist aspects are what Gonzales refers to in claiming "it is possible to see Montanism as an early sort of Pentecostalism." [footnoteRef:5] But Pentecostalism is a fairly recent phenomenon, based largely on a form of evangelism that promises direct firsthand experience of God. Montanist pneumaticism is probably more closely related to…

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