Enthusiasm in Asia: the New Prophecy

Montanus was a second-century convert to the Christian faith in ancient Phrygia (now part of central Turkey). He may previously have been a priest of the popular pagan goddess, Cybele, who was worshipped in wild excitement and raving frenzy.

In about AD 170, Montanus became the leader of a movement known as the ‘New Prophecy'. (It was actually opponents who called the group ‘the Phrygians', and later ‘the Montanisis'.) He was joined by two prophetesses, Prisca and Maximilla. Montanus was inspired by the belief that he was living in the age of the Holy Spirit. Christians should not look back nostalgically to the age of the apostles, but allow the Spirit to lead them in the present. Montanus normally referred to the Holy Spirit as the Paraclete (the title Jesus used in John’s Gospel). He was strongly influenced by Jesus’ promises about the future work of the Paraclete, and sometimes claimed to be the direct mouthpiece of the Spirit, speaking in the first person, rather like the Old Testament prophets: ‘I am the Father and the Son and the Paraclete'; ‘I am neither angel nor envoy, but I, the Lord God, the Father, it is I who have come.'

But the Montanist prophets were attacked not for what they said, but for how they said it. They prophesied, it was claimed, in a manner unheard of among Christian prophets. They were ‘filled with spiritual excitement and fell into a kind of trance and unnatural ecstasy'. This probably did not mean speaking in tongues, but rather prophesying in a state of intense excitement.

The burden of Montanus’s message was that the end of the world was near. Maximilla predicted: ‘After me there will be no more prophecy, but the End.’ In order to prepare for the coming crisis, Montanus gathered his followers in the Phrygian villages of Pepuza and Tymion. They called these communities ‘Jerusalem', probably because they hoped to recreate the Spirit-filled life of the first community of Christians.

The lifestyle of the Monlanists was regulated according to strict standards: they were to fast often, eat only dry food and abstain from sexual intercourse, even within marriage. At the same time Montanus himself ran a well-organized scheme - far ahead of its time- for paying preachers from the gifts of Christians.

Montanus was a colorful and forceful personality, and his teaching won wide support. The New Prophecy spread ~ especially lo Rome and North Africa, where, in Carthage, [he famous theologian Tertullian became its most distinguished representative. In his view, the Paraclete summoned Christians to a much stricter way of life than before. He urged Christians never to try lo escape from persecution and death.

Martyrdom was very important for the Montanisls. They believed the Paraclete told Christians to hope for a death ‘not in bed but in martyrdom, so that he who suffered for you may be glorified'.

A group of Christians died as martyrs at Carthage in Tertullian’s time. The report of their experiences is a very moving document. It records their visions in prison and their sufferings in the amphitheatre, and presents such happenings as the promised work of the Spirit, and a sign that they were living in ‘the last days': ‘The more recent events should be considered the greater, being later than those of old, and this is a consequence of the extraordinary graces promised for the last stage of lime. These new manifestations of power bear witness lo one and the same Spirit who is still at work.’ These words express the most important aspect of the-New Prophecy, and strongly suggest that these martyrs were Montanists.

Tertullian wrote about a woman who was blessed with ‘various gifts of revelations’ and received visions and secret communications by the Spirit during the church’s services of worship. She reported these afterwards, when they were all examined with the greatest care. (Women played an important role in Monlanism.) But the movement was not charismatic in the modern sense. There is no mention of Spirit-baptism and no emphasis on speaking in tongues.

Montanism was soon outlawed by the mainstream church of the day. At a time when the church was settling down and developing stable patierns of leadership and order, the popularity of the prophets and their teachings were seen as threatening the growing authority of the bishops. The New Prophecy’s messages appeared to be given greater importance than the writings of the apostles. Moreover, the movement was marked by extremism and fanaticism, and its intense religious excitement aroused suspicion.

Yet the condemnation of the Montanists was damaging, because no one else in the early church had such a vivid sense of the contemporary work of the Holy Spirit. Their excommunication left the church more orderly but less dynamic. CH


By David Wright

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #9 in 1984]

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