Early Christian History

Heresies: Montanism

The earliest serious heresy that cropped up in Christian history, was Montanism. It appeared rather suddenly in the middle of the second century, in central Anatolia, where it remained popular for quite some time.

Montanus the Prophet

Montanism was founded by a man named Montanus, who suddenly announced that he was a prophet, speaking with the voice of the Paraclete, the “helper” that Christ had promised to send. We know little about who he was, prior to this. Ancient rumors (perhaps started by his opponents so as to discredit him) claimed that he had been a priest of the Anatolian godman, Attis. If this were the case, then he would have been well-schooled in the “mystery religions” of the time, and may have entered Christianity with Gnostic leanings.

Whatever his origin, Montanus managed to acquire a sizable following, going from town to town, spreading his “prophecies” to all who would listen. Almost in the manner of Jesus himself, he gathered a small cadre of disciples.

The Teachings of Montanus

We have no direct record of Montanus’s teachings, either from him or one of his followers. Any such records have long since been destroyed. All we can go on, is what others said about it. However, this is enough to give us a good picture of what Montanism entailed.

Montanus taught that, ultimately, any believer at all, could become a “prophet” as he was, for Christ had promised the Paraclete or Holy Spirit to all believers. Next, he taught that all believers are equal, men as well as women. Two of his most trusted disciples, who became prophets in their own right, were women!

Montanist worship services included prophetic declarations, and could be presided over by women as well as men. A Spartan lifestyle was encouraged, one which minimized entanglements with the physical world (though Montanists were not ascetics or hermits). There were no clergy in Montanism — although only senior members taught doctrine to junior members.

One can see there is some overlap between Gnosticism and Montanism, however, in its time, Montanism was seen as something rather distinct; additionally, Gnosticism generally did not rely on “prophets” making declarations — something which was absolutely central to Montanism.

Montanism & the Church

When Montanus came on the scene, the Church as an organization was still in its infancy, and unable to do anything about it. Besides, as long as it remained a central Anatolian phenomenon, it was hardly worth worrying about.

Montanism branched out, though, with communities popping up in large eastern cities, and as far away as north Africa. A number of Syrian and Anatolian bishops met and denounced it, several times, on the grounds that Montanists allowed women to speak in church (something that the Pauline epistles prohibited). With little political or economic clout, though, they couldn’t really do much more.

So the mainstream Church began a campaign of propaganda. Christian cholars wrote tracts explaining in great detail the doctrinal errors of Montanism. Sermons were preached against it. Christians with Montanist sympathies were harassed or ostracized.

Perhaps the most notable opponent of Montanism, was the Church Father, Tertullian. He wrote extensively against the movement, especially since there were Montanists in his own backyard of Carthage. Oddly, however, he joined that very same Montanist community! Ultimately, he found the personal involvement of Montanism to be compelling.

Montanism Dies

After the great Councils of the early- to mid-4th century, the mainstream Church’s campagin against Montanism became more heated. With some political clout, they were able to have Montanist churches razed, and Montanists themselves driven from their homes.

After a brief attempt at resisting, the late 4th century Montanists went into hiding. They kept their services secret, attending mainstream Churches so as to keep up a “veneer of respectability.” But over the years, this was hard to keep up, and the movement withered slowly over two more centuries. It died out, last, where it had begun.

Montanism’s “Great Flaw”

The fundamental flaw of Montanism, which it shared with Gnosticism as well as many other heretical movements, was its rejection of the notion of clergy. Montanus taught “the Priesthood of the People,” and this was a threat to the existing Church clergy. Much of the history of Christianity has been determined by this repetitive struggle between the clergy of the Church and those who would do away with it.

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