Church History for Dummies #3: The Montanists

The Montanists were a group of individuals named after a movement that was begun by Montanus of Phrygia. Montanus declared that the Holy Spirit was giving new revelations to the church and thus the term “New Prophecy,” a self-designation, was coined. The substance of this “New Prophesy” was hardly heretical, as it called for resisting persecution, fasting, avoiding remarriage, as well as zeal for the fight against sin.

Historians admit that an accurate rendering of Montanism and the resulting polemics against it are left wanting. Mere fragments remain from the once ‘boundless books’ by the Montanists. Additional ambiguity exists in the exact reasons for this movement’s rejection, especially from the church in the West.

As far as historians can tell, the reaction from the churches were initially of a varying nature. Reading the writers of some early Christians proves that there were many questions raised about this “New Prophesy” and whether or not it constituted as a legitimate form of prophesy, the type we read about in the New Testament. Since the Montanists fall within orthodoxy elsewhere, it would be best to identify them with their modern-day counterpart, Pentecostalists, who today see the Montanists as the final glimmer of the apostolic gifts of the spirit.

These mixed reactions toward the Montanists continued, with Tertullian believing that it was in fact a genuine work of the Spirit. Tertullian is by some himself described as a Montanist. For Tertullian, the “New Prophesy” did not ascribe new revelation in respects to the rule of faith, but instead as supplementing the development of ethics. That being said, Montanism was finally condemned by the bishop of Rome. The now discharged remnant persisted for some time in Asia Minor, with some individuals certainly growing heretical. From this point on, anyone claiming to have the gift of prophecy would not have been welcomed in the church.


For Tertullian, the “New Prophesy” did not ascribe new revelation in respects to the rule of faith, but instead as supplementing the development of ethics.


But what was the precise reason for its exclusion? According to a forth century opinion, the principal error of the Montanists rested in their Monarchianism, that is, in their rejection of Trinitarianism. They insisting on the Oneness of God to the exclusion of his three in one-ness. This much was declared at the Council of Constantinople (AD 381). However, as already stated, this decision was questioned by some, as certain individuals (e.g. Tertullian) believed that this connection to Monarchianism was merely incidental.

Beyond the debatable subject of the Montanists relationship to Monarchianism, several other faults and accusations were laid at their feet by an anonymous writer as recorded by Eusebius: first was the manner of the prophecies that Montanus and his delegates engaged in. According to Eusebius, the Montanists engaged in ecstatic and frenzied behavior, which was unparalleled in the church. Secondly, some raised the issue of Martyrdom and those following Montanus. The idea that martyrdom accompanied orthodoxy was prevalent in the early Christian writings. It must be said, however, that this charge doesn’t hold much water since both heretics and those orthodox have lost their lives for their causes. Plus, there is record of those who did hold to Montanus’ teaching on “New Prophesy” that were probably martyred in Lyons in AD 177. Third, questions arise over the authenticity of the prophecies endemic to the “New Prophesy,” with many of the predictions, such as the descent of the New Jerusalem in Phrygia, failing to be realized or ascertained.


In the context of rising Gnosticism, the church made a decision to stamp out rival theologies that even hinted at confusing the Gospel message, or threatening division.


Finally, the Montanist movement historically brings into question several other matters: allegations surrounding the moral character of Montanus; the prominence given to the trio that lead the Montanus movement, prominence even over the apostolic writings in some cases; their seeking to add to the canon of Scripture; as well as outrageous eschatological hopes. In the end, retrospect endows us with the ability to see that the Montanists were, perhaps, at worst, fanatical and not heretical. In the context of rising Gnosticism, the church made a decision to stamp out rival theologies that even hinted at confusing the Gospel message, or threatening division. This decision would for centuries, and indelibly, chart the course of the church—a course marked by little room for charismata.

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