By Jim Liang
Pentecostalism has certainly lit a fire in the evangelical Christian world! With an emphasis on the immediacy of the Spirit and the practice of spiritual gifts such as tongues and prophecy- some see it as God bringing about something new “in these last days.” However, if church history has taught us anything it is that “there is nothing new under the sun.” Oftentimes what appears novel is simply an old, forgotten debate repackaged for a new generation. To that end, we look to a movement called the “New Prophecy” or Montanism, which occurred over 1700 years ago.
Following are 5 points about this ancient prophetic movement which sound surprisingly contemporary and equally controversial to us today.
1.) Charismatic Leader
Montanism derives its name from its founder, a man named Montanus who converted to Christianity from paganism in A.D. 155. Shortly thereafter, he began prophesying and delivering oracles, teaching that the Paraclete, or Holy Spirit, was speaking through him and delivering new teachings in line with Jesus’ promises in John 16:12-15. Along with his oracles was activity which Eusebius describes: “he fell into an ecstasy and began to speak and utter strange words . . . prophesying in a way which was against the tradition and custom of the church.” We today would describe this as glossolalia.
From the beginning, the New Prophecy was very open to women leaders. Two other women rose to leadership alongside Montanus named Priscilla and Maximilla. They also prophesied and delivered oracles which their followers regarded as direct revelation from God. Hippolytus writes: “They magnify these females above the Apostles and every gift of Grace, so that some of them go so far as to say that there is in them something more than Christ.” There is also some evidence of women priests, presbyters and bishops in the Montanist churches. Their scriptural evidence was Joel 2:28-29 in which both men and women would receive the Spirit “in the last days.” They also cited the precedent of women prophets throughout Scripture.
3.) Against Formalism and Laxity
The atmosphere of the early church was quite different than it is today. “Orthodoxy” was loosely defined. The councils and creeds had not yet occurred. The Canon of Scripture had not been officially established. However, as heretical threats such as Gnosticism arose, the churches and bishops saw the need to “formalize” their theology. There needed to be standards!
What happened afterwards was a period of doctrinal and liturgical shaping, and it was against this formalism that Montanism can be seen as a reaction. They argued for the freedom of the Spirit to speak, rather than relying solely on the Scriptures. They fought for an ascetic lifestyle in a church which had become lax and comfortable. Tertullian was likewise attracted to their rejection of laxity in the church, and converted to Montanism somewhere between the years A.D. 203-207.
4.) Eschatologically Motivated
Montanism was eschatologically motivated from the start. They drew much of their thought from Joel 2:28-32 which said that God would pour out His spirit “in the last days.” Although this had begun with the Apostles at Pentecost, it was ultimately fulfilled in the Paraclete’s work through the Montanist prophets, ushering in the age of the Spirit.
The Montanists also emphasized an imminent, premillennial eschatology. While this apostolic expectation for Jesus’ return was not new (Mark 9:1), the general feeling had been lost by the second century Christians who felt that the stability of the church would be lasting. The Montanists recaptured the eschatological longing and hope of the earliest disciples. They even went so far as to predict the site of the heavenly Jerusalem- a nearby city named Pepuza.
5.) Reception and Rejection
Eusebius writes that some Christians in Gaul wrote a letter to Rome asking for a reception of the New Prophecy for the sake of peace in the church. This letter was carried by Irenaeus, a presbyter in the church of Lyons at the time. The bishop of Rome, Eleutherus (A.D. 174-189), did not condemn the Montanists. His successor, Victor (A.D. 189-199) initially welcomed them, issuing an edict that acknowledged their prophetic gifts.
However, he later changed his mind under the influence of a man named Praxeus. The Synod of Iconium (A.D. 230) officially rejected the movement and excommunicated them. Montanist worship places were seized by an edict of Constantine. Their property was confiscated, fines imposed and leaders killed. By the 6th century, Montanism had virtually disappeared as Emperor Justinian massacred the remaining Montanists.
Reflecting on these brief points about Montanism, we see many of the same themes and arguments that still divide us today: Continuationism vs. Cessationism; the Role of Women in Ministry; High-church vs. low-church; Premillenial vs. Amillenial. We are reminded that these are issues which the church has struggled with for centuries. And we are humbled that we still do not have all the answers. Therefore, let us learn the lessons of church history, diligently search the Scriptures, and be sensitive to the Spirit as we continue to find our place in the story of God’s people.
Jim, a ThM student at Western Seminary, is currently living in Kent, WA which is a suburb of Seattle. He serves as an Assistant Pastor at Seattle Formosan Christian Church, working with the various student ministries there and preaching in the English congregation. In his spare time he enjoys keeping up with technology, watching movies, and reading good books.