Testing the Prophets

WE FEEL A SPECIAL SENSE of connectedness when we discover a spiritual ancestor who looks like us. For example, those suffering for the faith today draw inspiration from the early martyrs. Others, longing for Spirit-filled worship and “charismatic” witness, find their attention drawn to the enthusiastic, second-century Christian movement called Montanism.

In this example, however, there lies a problem: Montanism, which on the surface looks like modern Pentecostalism, was widely rejected as heretical in the early church. Why?

Inspirational Beginnings

Sometime around the year 157, in the Roman province of Asia Minor known as Phrygia, a professing Christian named Montanus began to prophesy ecstatically. Claiming the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he was soon joined by two prophetesses, Maximilla and Priscilla (Prisca). They paid special attention to the biblical teachings about the Paraclete, and they claimed to be the last in a succession of prophets that included the daughters of Philip (Acts 21:8–9). They said they were called to summon all believers to righteous preparation for the heavenly descent of the New Jerusalem.

By the 170s, this “New Prophecy” movement, as it was known, spread. The heart of Montanist activity was always in Asia Minor, although converts were eventually won in missionary outposts such as Rome, Byzantium, and Carthage. What attracted scores of early Christians to Montanism? Perhaps the answer lies in three words: authority, vitality, and discipline.

Montanist prophets claimed direct revelations from God, and their utterances (“oracles”) were treasured and preserved as authoritative teaching by the faithful. Here was fresh truth, Spirit—given, for these last days!

Moreover, such revelations, springing as they did from a trancelike ecstasy, were electric experiences for prophet and congregation alike.

Finally, there was a renewed, rigorous emphasis on practical holiness, with prophetic teachings on issues like fasting, marriage, asceticism, and spiritual healing.

In his treatise On the Soul, Montanism’s most famous convert, Tertullian, illustrates the movement’s attraction:

“We have now amongst us a sister whose lot it has been to be favored with gifts of revelation, which she experiences in the Spirit by ecstatic vision amidst the sacred rites of the Lord’s Day in the church. She converses with angels and sometimes even with the Lord. She both sees and hears mysterious communications. Some men’s hearts she discerns, and she obtains directions for healing for such as need them. Whether it be in the reading of the Scriptures or in the chanting of psalms or in the preaching of sermons or in the offering up of prayers—in all these religious services, matter and opportunity are afforded her of seeing visions. . . . ”

So What Was Wrong?

Not everyone was so enamored with the movement. In 192, Serapion, bishop of Antioch, declared that “the working of the lying organization called the New Prophesy is held in abomination by the whole brotherhood in the world.”

Another bishop, who wrote anonymously about the same time, spoke of regional synods in Asia Minor convened to address the controversy, resulting in Montanists’ being excommunicated. He was animated by a recent trip to Ancyra, in which the church was “ringing with the noise” of the New Prophecy.

He and other writers objected to Montanism on five main grounds:

1. “Abnormal ecstasy.” Montanus prophesied in a frenzy, without engaging the rational mind, “contrary to the manner which belongs to the tradition and succession of the church from the beginning.”

2. No controls. When respected bishops and church leaders sought to practice discernment with Montanist prophets, the prophets refused to submit.

3. Worldliness. Some questioned the Montanist financial dealings. Others worried about their lifestyle: “Does a prophet dye his hair, paint his eyelids, love adornment, play at gaming tables and dice, lend money at interest?”

4. Extra—scriptural revelation. Many were concerned that people would hold the oracles of the New Prophecy in higher esteem than the Scriptures.

5. False prophecies. Maximilla declared that there would be wars and tumults and, after her death, no more prophets but “The End.” Yet, some thirteen years after her death, there was peace.

On the other hand, a few orthodox teachers, though they didn’t join the movement, refused to condemn it. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon, for example, was concerned that those attacking the Montanists would drive the authentic gift of prophecy from the church. Those who did so, he wrote, “do not admit that aspect presented by John’s Gospel, in which the Lord promised that he would send the Paraclete, but they set aside at once both the Gospel and the prophetic Spirit.”

Even the fourth-century heresy hunter Epiphanius could find no serious fault with the movement. Still, the way Montanists practiced the faith made most Christians wary.

The End of a Movement

Early in this century, French historian Pierre de Labriolle showed how Montanism in Asia Minor lasted well into the Middle Ages, though widespread enthusiasm for the movement was over by the fourth century. Tertullian (d. 225), who wrote seven books defending Montanus, was the movement’s last major figure.

Historians continue to debate how the early Christian church handled its twin stewardship of church authority and spiritual power. Some argue that the church, by condemning the movement, squelched a schismatic party that would have created even more dissention. Others say Paul’s admonition was ignored: “Do not put out the Spirit’s fire. Do not treat prophecies with contempt” (1 Thess. 5:19– 20).

Much of the literature of the controversy (such as Tertullian’s On Ecstasy) is lost or has perished. What remains, however, is an issue of vital interest not only to historians of doctrine but to Spirit-led Christians today. CH

By Jim Smith

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #51 in 1996]

Jim Smith is pastor of Clairemont Emmanuel Baptist Church, adjunct professor at Bethel Theological Seminary West (both in San Diego, California), and an editorial adviser for Christian History.
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