Whenever there is a wave of experience of the less "natural" gifts of the Spirit, and particularly when the gift in question is prophecy, the spectre of Montanism is raised. "What about Montanism?" as if this question must certainly be answered with, "Then we must curb, if not totally reject, prophecy!" What is it about this movement which started in the mid-second century which appears to have sterilised much of the church to prophetic gifting? To understand this is perhaps to avoid some of the same problems today. Unfortunately, when we come to actually examine Montanism, we have a problem. No documents which come from the Montanists themselves exist, except perhaps the writings of Tertullian, who lived a distance from Asia Minor, the centre of the movement. This means that much of our information comes from writers hostile to the Montanists. Thus we must keep in mind that we probably have distortion in what we believe we know about the movement.
The Image of Montanism
Montanism has traditionally been viewed as a heresy. That would be true only if by "heretical" one means "sectarian". That is, the Montanists certainly were not following the leadership of the bishops of the established church and thus were sectarian. They "marched to the beat of a different drummer". What, then, do we know about them?
If our information is correct, around AD 156 in a village on the border between Mysia and Phrygia in Asia Minor, a newly baptised convert named Montanus experienced a Spirit filling during which he spoke in tongues and prophesied. (By this period the two gifts were not differentiated; only descriptions can indicate whether intelligible speech or glossolalia is being described.) Later Montanus was joined by two female disciples, Priscilla and Maximilla, who also prophesied. The movement spread through Asia Minor and jumped the Mediterranean to Carthage and other areas of North Africa, continuing after the death of both Maximilla (AD 179) and Montanus (AD 180). Its most famous defender was the church father Tertullian (AD 153-222), who appears to have been attracted more because of Montanism's strict ethic than because of the specific predictive prophecies made by its prophetic leaders. While it was stamped out elsewhere, Montanism continued in Asia Minor until at least the fifth century.
Despite being called a heresy, "Montanist preaching apparently offered nothing that could be seized on as contrary to the doctrine of the Church and to the Canon of Scripture." This is certainly true if the sixteen clearly authentic oracles collected by Kurt Arland are a good sample of Montanist prophecy. When it comes to orthodoxy, the Montanists appear to pass the test, as even those who opposed the movement agreed.
Montanism has also traditionally been viewed as an example of what happens if the Spirit is appealed to for guidance. It is assumed that the Spirit gets out of hand and trouble results. There is some truth in that, because of its expectation of the end of the age and its views on sex and fasting, Montanism apparently viewed the rest of the church as too lax and so formed separate churches. Furthermore, part of the problem with Montanism was that the Spirit fell on women as well as on men, on the unordained Montanus rather than on properly ordained presbyters. This separatism, and the claim to direct access to God, did not go down well with the properly consecrated male bishops of the church. It is therefore important to look carefully at what we know of Montanist teaching.
The Teaching of Montanism
If Montanism was not a heresy, then, what did it teach? Montanism was strongly apocalyptic. Montanism developed in an age when the church was getting increasingly nervous with apocalyptic scenarios, because, despite persecution, it was getting more comfortable with the world. In contrast with this attitude, the Montanists believed that the end of the age was coming soon. As Maximilla said, "After me there will be no longer a prophet, but the consummation." They appeared to believe that the new Jerusalem would be established in Pepuza in Asia Minor. One of the female prophets said, "In the form of a woman arrayed in shining garments came Christ to me and set wisdom upon me and revealed to me that this place is holy and Jerusalem will come down hither from heaven." This prophecy was not an attempt to create such a city, but represented a belief that God would establish such a city in that place. Also, Montanism was closely associated with both the Gospel of John and Revelation, so the images in the latter of the coming Christ were very much a part of their thinking and vocabulary. Montanism, then, saw itself as God's end-time prophetic movement
A Radical Movement
Montanism developed during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, a persecuting emperor. However, it was not an attempt to escape persecution but to face into it. In one saying, the Spirit is said to say, "Desire not to die in bed, nor in the delivery of children, nor by enervating fevers, but in martyrdom, that He may be glorified who has suffered for you." Likewise, there was a radical commitment to righteousness as they understood it. This radical side of Montanism was frightening to some in the church, who allowed people to flee martyrdom, if possible.
Montanism was a formal protest against the growing formalism. Partly due to organisational development and partly due to the need to combat heresy, the church was becoming more structured during the second century. Prophetic people like the Montanists stood outside of these structures and were, in a sense, a protest against them. In one sense, such prophetic people were not new, for before the end of the first century, one had Revelation which prophetically corrected the church and called for righteousness. Later, but earlier in the second century than Montanus, there were Quadratus and Ammia functioning as prophets in Philadelphia (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 5.17.4; note that Ammia is a female prophet approved of by Eusebius and his source). Yet despite such precedents, Montanism knew that it was new for its day, and thus called itself the "New Prophecy". What the church found objectionable in Montanist prophecy was (1) it was not authorised through the structures of the church, and (2) it was ecstatic in that the Montanist prophets fell into visions and trances, and apparently exhibited other unusual phenomena as well. All of this was considered objectionable, for it upset the developed order of the church.
Apparently the Montanists were not concerned that the church authorities were upset. They felt that the presence of the Spirit upon them was authorisation enough. Since the authorities resisted them, they were obviously also resisting God. Maximilla said, "I am chased like a wolf from the sheep; I am not a wolf; I am word and spirit and power." This polarisation from the church made them unable to be corrected (nor the church by them).
It would be false to contrast Montanism as a legalistic movement with an image of the mainline church as not legalistic. By the second century, the whole church was relatively legalistic, partly due to its need to hold the line against paganism and apostasy. Yet it is true that Montanism was stricter than the rest of the church in that it banned second marriages (after the death of a spouse), and required more fasting and the like. It was this "higher" level of "holiness" that attracted Tertullian, who had his own strict views on these matters. He commented in "On Fasting", "The New Prophecy is rejected because Montanus, Maximilla, and Priscilla plainly teach more frequent fasting than marrying."
The Seriousness of Sin
Another point at issue was whether there was forgiveness for serious sin. Already in the "Shepherd of Hermas", a prophetic work from Rome earlier in the century, we find discussions of whether serious sins after baptism could be forgiven (especially adultery and similar sexual sins). Hermas is told in a vision that they could be, but only once. The general answer of the church would be that they could be forgiven, but only through a process of repentance and restoration, which would eventually come to take years. Montanism appears to be even stricter. The Paraclete (Holy Spirit) in the new prophets says, "The Church can forgive sins, but I will not do it, lest they sin again." Likewise Priscilla proclaimed, "A holy minister must understand how to minister holiness." The point is that the mainline church was not, in the view of the Montanists revelation, maintaining holiness. It was forgiving sins too easily. Their revelation lead them to a harder line against sin, which rejected the absolution granted by the mainline church.
Challenging Church Structure
Prophetic movements challenge the structures of the church in several ways. First they break the boundaries of the normal clergy. The Spirit often chooses to fall on unordained people rather than sticking within the boundaries of the ordained ministry. This, of course, fits with what Peter in Acts 2 claimed was a sign of the new age of the Spirit, but it is disturbing to the church to the degree that it has developed fixed structures. Second, they often break the boundaries of who is viewed as qualified to become a minister. In Montanism, not only was Montanus not clergy, but he was a new convert. Furthermore, the Spirit spoke through women not just men. Third, they often break the boundaries of the forms of divine communication. While Montanism accepted Scripture and engaged in teaching, revelation also came through visions and what was interpreted as ecstatic experiences. Surely some of these looked or sounded unusual. However none of the phenomena associated with Montanists were unprecedented in either the Old or New Testaments.
The Church Response
The church can respond to such breaking of the boundaries in one of two ways. It can maintain its boundaries rigidly and expel the prophetic movement, which is what happened with Montanism, or it can examine its boundaries. It would have been healthier, for both the church and Montanism, had the church rediscovered both lay ministry and her trans-rational heritage (with appropriate discernment) rather than rejecting it out of hand. It is probable that some prophecy was not well tested because it did not grow up in a context in which it was accepted and yet disciplined. This statement needs to be judged by the reader, of course, but the latter part of it is clearly the case. The separation between Montanists and the mainline church was not healthy for either side. At this distance we cannot judge who made the break first--ie., whether Montanus withdrew from the church before it rejected him or vice-versa--but the break was made, and rejection produced rejection on both sides. Yet a church losing its eschatological edge needed the freshness of Montanism, and the prophetic movement needed the sober judgement of the church.
There is a tendency in prophetic movements for prophecy to over-ride Scripture. What we hear about Montanism is their new revelation. We do not hear of them as expounding Scripture, although it is clearly asserted that they accepted it. Certainly they, along with much of the church, missed significant teaching on grace and mercy (eg. Paul on the law in Galatians and Romans). Certainly it is possible that we have this impression of a neglect of Scripture because only the unusual teachings of Montanism were selected for recording. At the same time, however accurate our observation may be, it reminds us that the excitement of new revelation often does lead to a neglect of Scripture by prophetic movements. This may be compounded if the prophetic leaders are relatively untaught in Scripture. What is clear is that a solid foundation in Scripture is needed if prophetic revelation is to be properly tested and disciplined.
The Search for Holiness
Prophetic movements can become elitist and legalistic in their search for holiness. If one believes that they have the new revelation, then it is easy to believe that they are in some way a better, higher, or more holy people of God. Obviously, the assumption goes, the church as a whole is "missing it", since God had to send this new revelation to us. It is not unusual for prophetic movements to stress holiness in a legalistic manner, based on their revelatory understanding. Nor is it unusual for them to believe they are the end-time people of God, and that this is what calls them to their "higher level" of holiness.
Prophetic movements need to remember that this is a trap that they easily fall into. All that is needed for life and godliness is revealed in Scripture (c/f. 2 Peter 1:3). Furthermore, Scripture speaks of only one people of God, not of higher and lower status believers. Thus, Christians should be immediately suspect of anything that creates elites or distinctions among them, or tends to legalism.
Prophetic movements often believe they are the end of an age. The Montanists clearly believed that they were the end of the end. After them would come no others, but only the consummation. They were in their own eyes the "End-time Prophets". However, they were not the last prophetic movement in the church to believe this. We can look back over history and note this tendency in many prophetic movements, for the freshness of prophetic revelation often makes them believe that this time, it must be the end. Yet history has passed, and the Lord has not come, and the prophetic movement has died away. Obviously, one prophetic movement will likely have the good fortune of coming at the very end of history and thus, if so inclined, will be right. Prophetic movements need to look at history and realise that they are not the first to believe that they are the "End-time Prophets". This should sober them and make them ask whether they too are mistaking vividness for nearness.
Montanism was a prophetic movement which had its warts, like the warts which many prophetic movements (and often the mainline church as well) would have. Yet it was orthodox and not heretical. Significant amounts of revelation were likely from God, although the interpretation and application were likely distorted by the same tendencies and human failings which distorted the teachings of the whole church. In its split with the church, Montanism lost and was eventually consigned to be uncritically listed as a heretical movement. In its rejection of Montanism, the church lost and ended up marginalising the voice of prophecy for centuries. Furthermore, it easily dismissed later prophetic movements with the warning, "What about Montanism?" The muffling of the prophetic voice and the diminution of lay ministry surely crippled the church in its ongoing life and ministry throughout the centuries.