Montanism is named after a self-styled prophet named Montanus who lived in Asia Minor in the second century AD. Montanism, also called the Cataphrygian heresy or New Prophecy, taught that the Holy Spirit was continuing to give new revelation through Montanus and his followers and that Jesus would soon bring the New Jerusalem to a place in Phrygia.
Montanus had been a priest in an Asiatic cult called Cybele. He joined the church and claimed to have the gift of prophecy. Eusebius, a third-century church historian, 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” (Ecclesiastical History, 5.16.1). Montanus was joined by two women, Priscilla and Maximilla, who also prophesied in trance-like or ecstatic states.
Montanus insisted that the Holy Spirit was speaking through him in his ecstatic utterances. In fact, he claimed to be the embodiment of the Spirit of Truth sent by Jesus in fulfillment of John 14:26. Followers of Montanism also claimed inspiration for themselves, saying that their words of revelation were as authoritative as anything in Scripture. Often, they could not even be understood. They were known for speaking in tongues, prattling, and chanting nonsense.
The Montanists differentiated themselves from “ordinary” Christians in that they were “Spirit-filled,” and other Christians were not. The Montanists saw themselves as possessing a more advanced form of Christianity, having received a special baptism of the Spirit that enabled them to live a life of holiness.
Montanus and his two prophetesses, who together called themselves “the Three,” taught a strict moral code. Lengthy fasts were required. Marriage was discouraged, and second marriages were prohibited outright. Montanists refused any compromise with Roman authority, and many Montanists died as martyrs. Montanus himself urged his followers to “seek . . . to die the martyr’s death, that He may be glorified who has suffered for you” (Tertullian, De Fuga in Persecutione, 9).
Montanism taught that the Holy Spirit had come (in the form of Montanus) to purify the church in preparation for the soon return of Jesus Christ. They looked for the New Jerusalem to descend from heaven to a plain in Phrygia near Pepuza, the Montanist headquarters in Asia Minor. To better prepare for the coming kingdom, many Montanists migrated to that area.
Starting about AD 177, about twenty years after Montanus began promoting his charismatic gifts, the church rejected him and his two prophetesses. A notable exception was Tertullian, who defended the movement and became a leader of the Montanists in Carthage. Various local synods began to condemn Montanism for its divisive nature and its teaching of new revelation. The Three maintained the genuineness of their prophecies. When Maximilla was excommunicated, she said, “I am driven off from among the sheep like a wolf; I am not a wolf, but I am speech, and spirit, and power” (quoted in www.newadvent.org/cathen/10521a.htm, accessed 11/28/22).
The early church did not reject all prophecy, but it expected New Testament prophets to follow the pattern of earlier prophets of God. The prophets of the Old Testament were rational in their thinking and actions. They spoke an understandable message; they were always in control; they spoke with reason and understanding. In contrast, Montanus, Priscilla, and Maximilla were irrational when prophesying. Also, the Montanist teaching of a two-tiered Christianity (those with the Spirit and those without) was unbiblical. And troubling claims from Montanus such as “I am the Father, the Word, and the Paraclete” (ibid., accessed 11/28/22) added to the need to separate the church from Montanism.
Montanus argued that he was being persecuted just as Jesus said His true followers would be in Matthew 23:34. However, those who opposed Montanus pointed out that neither he nor his followers had ever endured any persecution or martyrdom because of the peculiarities of their doctrine. The Montanists who died as martyrs died for a biblical refusal to bend the knee to Caesar and the Roman gods.