Cult or Church? The Enigma of Montanism

In the late second century AD, a charismatic reform movement emerged in the Phrygian region of Asia Minor. Named by its critics after its leading figure, Montanus, the movement was to create controversy throughout the Empire and remains a subject of disagreement among church historians to the present day.

The facts as far as we can deduce them are limited in their scope. Montanus, about whose background we know next to nothing, was a Christian who attempted to reform and purify the churches by preaching a message of moral and spiritual purity, paying particular attention to practical holiness, prayer, fasting, resisting persecution and, more controversially, avoiding remarriage.

Believing that the Holy Spirit was still speaking to the church, the movement acquired a prophetic dimension, with two women, Priscilla and Maximilla, exercising the gift of prophecy along with other un-named individuals. This aspect of the group's life led to its preferred name - the new prophecy.

Tertullian (150 - 225 AD), bishop of Carthage in North Africa, eventually came to believe that the new prophecy represented an authentic spiritual movement and strongly defended it in his later writings. Unfortunately his work in defense of it, De ecstasi, has been lost, though was known and referred to by several ancient writers. Tertullian himself is perhaps better known for his works on the nature of God (he coined the term Trinity) and the person and work of Christ.

Other ancient church leaders were less sympathetic. Jerome wrote a letter at the end of the 4th century refuting the movement and it was declared heretical by the bishop of Rome.

Beyond these facts, a number of claims and counter claims have been made about Montanism. Bearing in mind the difficulty in reading church history through the texts of those who opposed the movement, it is hard to know what to make of these competing claims. They include:

  • the suggestion that Priscila and Maximilla described themselves as logos and paraclyte
  • the description by Montanus of a town on Phrygia as the site of the New Jerusalem
  • the claim that the movement were orthodox in their doctrine of the Trinity
  • that its leading figures were Sabellians (believers in modalistic monarchianism)
  • an expectation on the imminent return of Christ
One view of Montanism is that the personalities whose names survive to this day may indeed have been heretical in some regards but that this controversy masks a deeper movement of spiritual life and renewal that was indeed taking place at this time.

Current archaeological work lead by William Tabbernee at the site of the Montanist New Jerusalem in modern-day Turkey represents an exciting development in our understanding of this early Third Stream Christian movement. [See William TABBERNEE, Portals of the Montanist New Jerusalem: the discovery of Pepouza and Tymion, Journal of Early Christian Studies 11:1 (2003), pp. 87-93. ]-----------------------------

Reading Between the Lines - the Problem of Early Sources

When examining the history of third stream Christian movements before the Reformation, we have an immediate historical problem. Up to about the 15th Century, the primary sources that exist for many of these groups and movements originate with those who opposed them. Primarily, these sources are from the Catholic and/or state churches, though official documents also exist from courts and other government records, especially towards the latter part of the Middle Ages and, of course, during the Reformation itself.

This problem requires us to try and decode some of the sources. When, for instance, we read of an individual described in a historic source as a "heretic", there is every possibility that we are reading about a Bible-believing Christian with a saving faith and an evangelical doctrine. The term, in that sense, can be compared with the second century use of the word "superstition" or "atheism" by the Roman authorities to describe the emerging Christian movement.

The case of the Montanists is a classic case in point. To this day, Christian historians remain divided over whether to regard these fourth-century zealots as heralds of radical Biblical church reform or misguided fanatics with unorthodox views on core Christian doctrines.

More on them to follow.....


Early Moravians in America

Moravian women taking part in the sacrement of foot washing; engraving from David Cranz, Kurze, Zuverlässige Nachricht, von der, unter den Namen der Böhmisch-Mährischen Brüder Bekannt, Kirche Unitas fratrum, Halle: 1757

Common Features

Third stream Christian movements tend to have a number of similar features, emphasised in varying degrees and expressed in different ways. These include:

1. An evangelical theology of salvation

2. The best of the Catholic mystic tradition

3. A radical attempt to recapture New Testament expressions of church life

4. An emphasis on practical discipleship of members

5. A non-hierarchical leadership structure

The other striking feature of such movements is that, more often than not, they tend to be short-lived. One of three things tend to happen to them. Either they succumb to heresy and gradually lose their way doctrinally; or they are crushed under the force of external persecution; or, finally, such movements gradually change into second stream movements.


Introduction to Third Stream Christianity

Among students of church history, some have sought to identify three distinct expressions of church life over the centuries.

The first stream has grouped together Roman Catholicism, the various branches of Eastern Orthodoxy and the Coptic churches of the middle east and Asia.

Second stream Christianity refers to historic Protestantism, both "State" and "free" churches.

Third stream Christianity is an attempt to describe those forms of church life which have existed outside of the other two streams. Broadly speaking, they include those groups which have attempted to rediscover and live out "simple" forms of New Testament church life outside of the mainline historic denominations.

This blog will attempt to identify, describe and analyse such groups and movements, both in the past and the present. The approach will be both historic and theological and will include consideration of some of the ideas, beliefs and values of such groups, as well as some of the wider issues involved in their existence, survival, decline and transformation over time.

Please feel free to forward articles and links relevant to this blog. I will incorporate what I can.