Montanism Revisited: A New Controlling Narrative


Sometime around AD165 a man named Montanus, a recent convert to Christianity from Phrygia in the mountains of Asia Minor, began announcing new prophetic revelations from the Holy Spirit about the imminent consummation to world history. Two charismatic women named Maximilla and Priscilla quickly joined his cause and the three of them began to attract a huge following. But the three prophets also attracted sharp criticism throughout the church, and around 177 the movement was condemned by an assembly of bishops as heretical.[1] Like many early heresies, most of what we know about Montanism—or the New Prophecy, as it was called by its adherents—comes from the point of view of its opponents, which makes it difficult to form an accurate and balanced view of the movement. One of the unique features of Montanism, however, is that there didn’t seem to be much consensus amongst its detractors on why it was condemned in the first place.

Many of the more outrageous charges leveled against the movement in the generations after its peak are no longer taken seriously by scholars.[2] An older generation of historians tended to fixate on one or two doctrinal issues, like their formulation of the Trinity or the ecstatic nature of their prophetic experiences.[3] The more recent trend is to seek an underlying sociological explanation—a clash of authority between the rural prophets and the urban establishment, for example.[4] Cessationists like to draw parallels between Montanism and present day Pentecostalism or charismatic movements.[5] Here it will be argued that, ultimately, the New Prophecy was condemned not because of any single doctrine or practice that was manifestly at odds with orthodoxy, or because it posed a threat to existing authority structures, but because it had substantially displaced the controlling narrative of the rest of the church with its own special narrative, enforcing a new shared identity which set it apart from the larger community of Jesus’ followers. This proposal provides a more holistic way of reading the evidence that incorporates the best elements of other theories while setting them in the context of a more persuasive overall hypothesis.

Worldviews and Stories

In his monumental work The New Testament and the People of God, N. T. Wright investigates the historical context and theology of the earliest Christians by employing the category of “worldview”. This approach, Wright argues, has the advantage of addressing historical questions in a more holistic fashion, avoiding the reductionist paradigms which have plagued scholarship.[6] Worldviews, he says, are “the basic stuff of human existence, the lens through which the world is seen, the blueprint for how one should live in it, and above all the sense of identity and place which enables human beings to be what they are.”[7]

One of the primary things worldviews consist of are stories. “Narrative is the most characteristic expression of worldview, going deeper than the isolated observation or fragmented remark.”[8] The stories we tell express our view of reality and our answers to all of life’s biggest questions, including questions related to our own identity and place in the world. These stories and the implicit answers they provide to life’s big questions are in turn expressed through our cultural symbols (festivals, architecture, art, etc.) and praxis (our particular way of living in the world).[9] Analyzing a movement like Montanism from this vantage point—i.e., not just in terms of isolated statements or practices but in terms of the larger narrative and worldview expressed by those statements and practices—should provide a much more fruitful avenue for explaining its condemnation by the wider church of the period.

The church is an international community whose shared identity is based primarily on the good news of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. That is our controlling narrative. It’s not just a set of credal affirmations to which we give mental assent. It’s our origin story, like the story of the Exodus for Israel or the story of Romulus for Rome. It tells us who we are. So the test of authenticity for any would-be Christian community is not ultimately whether they have the right “statement of faith” with the right boxes checked for this or that doctrine, but whether the story of Jesus is the primary source of their shared identity. The key question is not whether the Montanists deviated from orthodoxy on this or that point in their doctrine or practice, but whether the larger narrative which stood behind that doctrine and practice deviated from the central narrative of the rest of the church.

A New Controlling Narrative?

The underlying narrative of Montanism can perhaps be seen most clearly in one of the most well known fragments, attributed by a man named Epiphanius to Priscilla or Quintilla, about the eschatological significance of the movement’s headquarters: “Christ came to me in a bright robe and put wisdom in me, and revealed to me that this place is holy, and that it is here that Jerusalem will descend from heaven.”[10] According to Appolonius, Montanus himself had given the name “Jerusalem” to Pepuza and Tymion, wanting people to gather there from everywhere.[11] These reports are generally believed to be authentic, and corroborative archeological evidence for their accuracy has recently been advanced by the prominent Montanist scholar William Tabbernee.[12] However, several other scholars have recently disputed their authenticity on the grounds that Tertullian, who became a very vocal advocate for the Montanists, never spoke of eschatological events involving Pepuza, but only Jerusalem.[13] If they are authentic, then they provide a striking window into what surely would have been a central feature of the Montanist worldview.

Perhaps a more fruitful avenue for our inquiry, however, would be to analyze statements made by Tertullian himself in support of Montanism. This would have the twofold advantage of (a) starting on solid historical ground and (b) giving appropriate weight to the testimony of a supporter of the movement who wished to present it in the most favorable light. In Tertullian’s work On Monogamy, in which he argues for the unprecedentedly strict Montanist ethic related to marriage and sex, he seeks to rationalize the discontinuity between that ethic and the instruction of Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 by appealing to Jesus’ relationship to the Old Covenant: “If Christ abrogated what Moses commanded because from the beginning it was not so... why should not the Paraclete alter what Paul permitted?”[14] This extreme ethic, and the rationalist hermeneutic which Tertullian employs to support it, tells us something crucial about the underlying Montanist narrative.

In many ways Tertullian held a very high view of the Scriptures, but he also wasted no opportunity in declaring the superiority of the new revelations given to the leaders of Montanism through the Paraclete. For him the Spirit was a restorer rather than an innovator, and this new dispensation of revelations was even foretold by Christ in John 16:13.[15] While Tertullian clearly sought to root these revelations in continuity with the Scriptures, however, he also believed firmly in their transcendent quality:

“What, then, is the Paraclete’s administrative office but this: the direction of discipline, the revelation of the Scriptures, the reformation of the intellect, the advancement toward the ‘better things?’ Nothing is without stages of growth: all things await their season... Look how creation itself advances little by little to fructification... So, too, righteousness... advanced, through the Law and the Prophets, to infancy; from that stage it passed, through the Gospel, to the fervor of youth: now, through the Paraclete, it is settling into maturity.”[16]

Erich Nestler points out the inherent danger in this hermeneutic, that it opens the door to all kinds of new doctrines and practices that have no basis in Scripture.[17] But the more basic problem, beyond any potential danger, is that it tells a narrative in which the New Prophecy has functionally superseded the New Testament as the final authority for life and godliness.[18]

This same implicit narrative can be observed in several fragments generally believed to be authentic sayings of Maximilla. “After me there will no longer be a prophet,” she declares, “but the end.”[19] Stewart-Sykes rightly cautions against seeing too much of a contrast between the eschatological orientation of the Montanists and that of the wider Asian church of the period, as seen, for instance, in the writings of Papias and the Epistula apostorum.[20] But the more alarming detail of this fragment, beyond the overly confident note of imminence, is the position in which it places Maximilla herself as the last prophet, the final voice from God to humanity before the consummation. The underlying story is one in which the Montanist leadership are at the center and climax of God’s great eschatological program. Like Tertullian, Maximilla tries to root her oracles in continuity with the words of Christ, giving an appearance of humility: “Hear not me, but hear Christ.”[21] And yet she presents herself as the final interpreter of Christ: “The Lord has sent me as partisan, revealer, and interpreter of this suffering, covenant, and promise.”[22]

If the statements of Tertullian and Maximilla can be taken as representative, then it appears that the Montanists developed a new interpretive framework in order to legitimate their new revelations; they rationalized the areas of discontinuity between their experiences and the New Testament by treating the New Testament in the same way that the New Testament treats the Old Testament, believing that they stood in a new and greater phase of redemptive history comparable to Jesus’ position in relation to the law and prophets. Instead of submitting their ecstatic experiences to the authority of Scripture, those experiences became the rod by which everything else was measured. In other words, it wasn’t as much the fact of ecstatic prophecy in the Montanist movement that made it heretical as it was the function which that prophecy served to create a new shared identity on a basis other than the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. As Hippolytus observed,

“They allege that they have learned something more through these [the three main leaders of the movement] than through the law, prophets and Gospels... They attach themselves more to the speeches of Montanus than to the Gospels.”[23]

Summary and Conclusion

When the charges leveled against the Montanists are investigated each as an isolated case, they all appear somewhat forced and the condemnation of the movement looks like either an overreaction or a conspiracy. But when each charge is investigated as part of a larger whole—that is, when each is viewed as a small window into a distinct and comprehensible worldview—then a coherent picture emerges and the wisdom of history is justified. For followers of the New Prophecy, the self-aggrandizing narrative of an imminent consummation to world history—a narrative which focused on their own headquarters as the center of God’s eschatological activity, a narrative confirmed by the charismatic authority of their founding leaders and reinforced by measures of extreme asceticism—this narrative had functionally eclipsed the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection as the primary source of their peculiar shared identity. This is what ultimately set them apart from the emerging Catholic church of the late second century. This is why they came to be identified more with the name of Montanus than the name of Christ.

The condemnation of Montanism thus stands as a cautionary tale to many would-be Christian movements throughout the world today. Prophecy is a gift to be earnestly desired, and the church desperately needs revival. But true revival is not about discovering something new and different. It's not about moving beyond what God did in the past to something more, something fresh and unprecedented. True revival is about coming back to life. As the word implies, it assumes that the new thing God did already, once and for all through Jesus, is the great turning point of history and the lifeblood at the heart of every Spirit-breathed movement from Pentecost to the Parousia.

[1] William Tabbernee, Prophets and Gravestones: An Imaginative History of Montanists and Other Early Christians (Ada, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 11-23.

[2] Erich Nestler, “Was Montanism a Heresy?,” Pneuma (Spring 1984): 70-71.

[3] David F. Wright, “Why Were the Montanists Condemned?,” Themelios 2.1 (1976): 16-17.

[4] Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (New York: Viking Penguin, 2010), 138.

[5] See, e.g., John MacArthur, Charismatic Chaos (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 88. It should be noted that none of the early opponents of Montanism claimed a cessation of prophecy in the church, and many of the fathers explicitly affirmed its continuance. Cf., D. F. Wright, “Why Were the Montanists Condemned?,” 18.

[6] N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 122.

[7] Ibid., 124.

[8] Ibid., 123.

[9] Ibid., 123-24.

[10] Fr. 11. All Montanist fragments are cited following the numbering of The Montanist Oracles and Testimonia, ed. Ronald E. Heine (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1989).

[11] Eusebius, Church History, 5.18.2.

[12] William Tabbernee, “Portals of the Montanist New Jerusalem: The Discovery of Pepouza and Tymion,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 11 (2003): 87-93.

[13] See, e.g., D. E. Groh, “Utterance and Exegesis: Biblical Interpretation in the Montanist Crisis,” in The Living Text, ed. D. E. Groh and R. Jewett (New York: University Press of America, 1985), 80-81.

[14] Tertullian, On Monogamy, 14.

[15] Ibid., 3-4.

[16] On the Veiling of Virgins, 1

[17] Erich Nestler, “Was Montanism a Heresy,” 74.

[18] I am using the phrase “New Testament” here in the same broad sense as Hippolytus when he says, in the early third century, that the church is steered like a ship by “the two Testaments” (On Christ and Antichrist 58-59).

[19] Fr. 6.

[20] Alistair Stewart-Sykes, “The Original Condemnation of Asian Montanism,” The Journal of Ecclesiastical History 50 (1999), 3.

[21] Fr. 7.

[22] Fr. 8.

[23] D. F. Wright, “Why Were the Montanists Condemned?,” 19.