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§ 110. External History of Montanism.


All the ascetic, rigoristic, and chiliastic elements of the ancient church combined in Montanism. They there asserted a claim to universal validity, which the catholic church was compelled, for her own interest, to reject; since she left the effort after extraordinary holiness to the comparatively small circle of ascetics and priests, and sought rather to lighten Christianity than add to its weight, for the great mass of its professors. Here is the place, therefore, to speak of this remarkable phenomenon, and not under the head of doctrine, or heresy, where it is commonly placed. For Montanism was not, originally, a departure from the faith, but a morbid overstraining of the practical morality and discipline of the early church. It was an excessive supernaturalism and puritanism against Gnostic rationalism and Catholic laxity. It is the first example of an earnest and well-meaning, but gloomy and fanatical hyper-Christianity, which, like all hyper-spiritualism, is apt to end in the flesh.

Montanism originated in Asia Minor, the theatre of many movements of the church in this period; yet not in Ephesus or any large city, but in some insignificant villages of the province of Phrygia, once the home of a sensuously mystic and dreamy nature-religion, where Paul and his pupils had planted congregations at Colossae, Laodicea, and Hierapolis.759759    Neander first pointed to the close connection of Montanism with the Phrygian nationality, and it is true as far as it goes, but does not explain the spread of the system in North Africa. Schwegler and Baur protested against Neander’s view, but Renan justly reasserts it: "La Phrygie était un des pays de l’antiquité les plus portés aux rêveries religieuses. Les Phrygiens passaient, en général pour niais et simple. Le christianisme eut chez eux, dès l’origine un charactère essentiellement mystique et ascétique. Déjà, dans l’épitre aux Colossiens,, Paul combat des erreurs où les signes précitrseurs du, gnosticisme et les excès d’un asétisme mal entendu semblent se mêler. Presque partout ailleurs, le christianisme fut une religion de grander villes; ici, comme dans la Syrie au delà du Jourdain, ce fut une religion de ourgades et de campagnards."59 The movement was started about the middle of the second century during the reign of Antoninus Pius or Marcus Aurelius, by a certain Montanus.760760    The chronology is uncertain, and varies between 126-180. See the note of Renan in Marc-Aur. p. 209, Hefele (I. 85), Soyres (p. 25-29 and 157), and Bonwetsch (140-145). Eusebius assigns the rise of Montanism to the year 172, which is certainly too late; Epiphanius is confused, but leans to 157. Soyres dates it back as far as 130, Hefele to 140, Neander, Bonwetsch, and Möller (in Herzog, new ed. X. 255) to 156, Renan to 167. The recent change of the date of Polycarp’s martyrdom from 167 to 155, establishes the fact of persecutions in Asia Minor under Antoninus Pius. Hefele thinks that the Pastor Hermae, which was written before 151 under Pius I., already combats Montanist opinions. Bonwetsch puts the death of Montanus and Maximilla between 180 and 200. The name Montanus occurs on Phrygian inscriptions.60 He was, according to hostile accounts, before his conversion, a mutilated priest of Cybele, with no special talents nor culture, but burning with fanatical zeal. He fell into somnambulistic ecstasies, and considered himself the inspired organ of the promised Paraclete or Advocate, the Helper and Comforter in these last times of distress. His adversaries wrongly inferred from the use of the first person for the Holy Spirit in his oracles, that he made himself directly the Paraclete, or, according to Epiphanius, even God the Father. Connected with him were two prophetesses, Priscilla and Maximilla, who left their husbands. During the bloody persecutions under the Antonines, which raged in Asia Minor, and caused the death of Polycarp (155), all three went forth as prophets and reformers of the Christian life, and proclaimed the near approach of the age of the Holy Spirit and of the millennial reign in Pepuza, a small village of Phrygia, upon which the new Jerusalem was to come down. Scenes took place similar to those under the preaching of the first Quakers, and the glossolalia and prophesying in the Irvingite congregations. The frantic movement soon far exceeded the intention of its authors, spread to Rome and North Africa, and threw the whole church into commotion. It gave rise to the first Synods which are mentioned after the apostolic age.

The followers of Montanus were called Montanists, also Phrygians, Cataphrygians (from the province of their origin), Pepuziani, Priscillianists (from Priscilla, not to be confounded with the Priscillianists of the fourth century). They called themselves spiritual Christians (πευματικοί), in distinction from the psychic or carnal Christians (ψυχικοί).

The bishops and synods of Asia Minor, though not with one voice, declared the new prophecy the work of demons, applied exorcism, and cut off the Montanists from the fellowship of the church. All agreed that it was supernatural (a natural interpretation of such psychological phenomena being then unknown), and the only alternative was to ascribe it either to God or to his great Adversary. Prejudice and malice invented against Montanus and the two female prophets slanderous charges of immorality, madness and suicide, which were readily believed. Epiphanius and John of Damascus tell the absurd story, that the sacrifice of an infant was a part of the mystic worship of the Montanists, and that they made bread with the blood of murdered infants.761761    Renan says of these slanders (p. 214): "Ce sont là les calomnies ordinaires, qui ne manquent jamais sous la plume des écrivains orthodoxes, quand il s’agit de noircir les dissidents."61

Among their literary opponents in the East are mentioned Claudius Apolinarius of Hierapolis, Miltiades, Appollonius, Serapion of Antioch, and Clement of Alexandria.

The Roman church, during the episcopate of Eleutherus (177–190), or of Victor (190–202), after some vacillation, set itself likewise against the new prophets at the instigation of the presbyter Caius and the confessor Praxeas from Asia, who, as Tertullian sarcastically says, did a two-fold service to the devil at Rome by driving away prophecy and bringing in heresy (patripassianism), or by putting to flight the Holy Spirit and crucifying God the Father. Yet the opposition of Hippolytus to Zephyrinus and Callistus, as well as the later Novatian schism, show that the disciplinary rigorism of Montanism found energetic advocates in Rome till after the middle of the third century.

The Gallic Christians, then severely tried by persecution, took a conciliatory posture, and sympathized at least with the moral earnestness, the enthusiasm for martyrdom, and the chiliastic hopes of the Montanists. They sent their presbyter (afterwards bishop) Irenaeus to Eleutherus in Rome to intercede in their behalf. This mission seems to have induced him or his successor to issue letters of peace, but they were soon afterwards recalled. This sealed the fate of the party.762762    Tertullian, who mentions these "littteras pacis jam emissas " in favor of the Montanists in Asia (Adv. Prax. 1) leaves us in the dark as to the name of the "episcopus Romanus" from whom they proceeded and of the other by whom they were recalled, and as to the cause of this temporary favor. Victor condemned the Quartodecimanians with whom the Montanists were affiliated. Irenaeus protested against it. See Bonwetsch, p. 173 sq.62

In North Africa the Montanists met with extensive sympathy, as the Punic national character leaned naturally towards gloomy and rigorous acerbity.763763    This disposition, an ἧθος πικρόν, σκυθρωτόν, and σκληρόν, even Plutarch notices in the Carthaginians (in his Πολιτικὰ παραγγέλματα, c. 3), and contrasts with the excitable and cheerful character of the Athenians.63 Two of the most distinguished female martyrs, Perpetua and Felicitas, were addicted to them, and died a heroic death at Carthage in the persecution of Septimius Severus (203).

Their greatest conquest was the gifted and fiery, but eccentric and rigoristic Tertullian. He became in the year 201 or 202, from ascetic sympathies, a most energetic and influential advocate of Montanism, and helped its dark feeling towards a twilight of philosophy, without, however, formally seceding from the Catholic Church, whose doctrines he continued to defend against the heretics. At all events, he was not excommunicated, and his orthodox writings were always highly esteemed. He is the only theologian of this schismatic movement, which started in purely practical questions, and we derive the best of our knowledge of it from his works. Through him, too, its principles reacted in many respects on the Catholic Church; and that not only in North Africa, but also in Spain, as we may see from the harsh decrees of the Council of Elvira in 306. It is singular that Cyprian, who, with all his high-church tendencies and abhorrence of schism, was a daily reader of Tertullian, makes no allusion to Montanism. Augustin relates that Tertullian left the Montanists, and founded a new sect, which was called after him, but was, through his (Augustin’s) agency, reconciled to the Catholic congregation of Carthage.764764    De Haeresibus, § 6.64

As a separate sect, the Montanists or Tertullianists, as they were also called in Africa, run down into the sixth century. At the time of Epiphanius the sect had many adherents in Phrygia, Galatia, Cappadocia, Cilicia, and in Constantinople. The successors of Constantine, down to Justinian (530), repeatedly enacted laws against them. Synodical legislation about the validity of Montanist baptism is inconsistent.765765    See Hefele, Conciliengesch., I. 754. He explains the inconsistency by the fact that the Montanists were regarded by, some orthodox, by others heretical, in the doctrine of the Trinity.65



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