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Montanism is named after a man named Montanus who became a convert to Christianity around A.D. 170. He lived in Asia Minor, and, prior to his conversion, he was a priest in an Asiatic cult called Cybele. He claimed that he had the gift of prophecy, prophesying in an ecstatic state. Eusebius, a church historian born around A.D. 260-270, wrote the following of Montanus: “In his lust for leadership, he became obsessed and would suddenly fall into frenzy and convulsions. He began to be ecstatic and speak and talk strangely, and prophesied contrary to that which was the custom from the beginning of the church. Those who heard him were convinced that he was possessed. They rebuked him and forbade him to speak, remembering the warning of the Lord Jesus to be watchful because false prophets would come” (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 5.16.1). Montanus was joined by two women, Priscilla and Maximilla, who also claimed to have the gift of prophecy and also prophesied in an ecstatic state.
It was not the idea of prophecy that caused a great disturbance in the church. It was the manner in which they prophesied. They had departed from the biblical norms of prophecy, both in content and in the manner in which they expressed their prophesies. They as a trio believed that they had received revelation from the Lord while being in an ecstatic state. This style of prophesying was likened to the same irrational, ecstatic prophetic style that was a part of Montanus' life prior to his conversion when he was a priest of Cybele. One of his more serious and obviously heretical prophesies was that an apocalyptic spirit was abroad and that Christ was to soon return and set up the New Jerusalem in the vicinity of the town of Pepuza in Phrygia, Asia Minor. This, of course, never happened and proved again that they were false prophets (Deuteronomy 18:20-22).
The early church rejected Montanus and the prophetesses and their prophecies. The rejection was based on the biblical examples of other prophets. While Montanus, Priscilla, and Maximilla were irrational when prophesying, prophets of the Bible were rational in their thinking and actions. Old Testament prophets spoke an understandable message; they were always in control; they always spoke with reason and understanding. The church expected New Testament prophets to follow the same pattern as Old Testament prophets. If they did not, they were rejected as false prophets. Montanus argued that he was being persecuted just as Jesus said His true followers would be in Matthew 23:34. However, those that opposed Montanus pointed out that neither he nor his followers had ever endured any persecution or martyrdom because of what they taught. Those that opposed Montanus again appealed to Matthew 7:15, where Jesus warned of the coming of false prophets. The prophetic claims of Montanus were rejected by most of the early church because they did not meet the biblical example and criteria of a true prophet.
Some today see in the actions of Montanus, Priscilla, and Maximilla justification for ecstatic utterances or speaking in tongues. Yet, tongues was NOT the issue; rather, prophecy was the issue. However, tongues were never ecstatic utterances; they were usable, understandable languages (Acts 2:7-11). Either way, whether prophesying or speaking in tongues, the Lord’s purpose in giving gifts was for the edification of the church (Ephesians 4:11-13). Prophecy was meant to be understood for the edification of the church. Tongues were meant to be translated so they could be understood, again for the edification of the church. If this did not happen, those speaking were to be silent (1 Corinthians 14:28). These gifts were to be used properly and in an orderly manner (1 Corinthians 14:40), again a requirement that Montanus and his followers failed to meet.
What is Montanism?
The Moody Handbook of Theology by Paul Enns
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