Sanctify Them Through Thy Truth (4): Montanus

In the previous article in this series we saw how Marcion’s heresy had attempted to prune the Bible, to leave God’s people shorn of the Word of God in its fullness. That offensive was repelled, but Satan is nothing if not a flexible enemy. Marcion’s assault had scarcely been beaten back before the direction of the attack shifted dramatically. It was not now a subtraction from Scripture that troubled the churches, but addition to it by prophets who claimed that their utterances had an authority equal to that of the Word of God.

It is clear from the New Testament that prophecy had played an important part in revealing the will of God in the first decades of the church age. Before the canon of Scripture was complete, those with the gift of prophecy were used by God to communicate with believers. However, that gift was time limited. Even in the earliest of the books of the New Testament, we are told that prophecy was “about to cease,” rendered superfluous by the arrival of “that which is perfect” (1Cor 13:8-10), the complete Word of God.

Church history confirms this – the gift of prophecy appears to have scarcely outlived the apostolic era. Thus, the emergence, towards the end of the second century, of a self-proclaimed prophet who presented his utterances as the authentic Word of God was met by widespread concern and condemnation.

The prophet in question was a Phrygian named Montanus. Soon after his conversion from paganism, he moved among the churches in Asia Minor, claiming to be a prophet in receipt of direct revelation from God. These prophecies came, he claimed, through the inspiration of the Paraclete. This title drew on Christ’s promise regarding the Holy Spirit in John 14:16: “I will pray the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter [Paraclete].” However, Montanists seem eventually to have regarded the Paraclete as a separate entity from the Holy Spirit. The manner of his prophecies was spectacular – first, he fell into a trance and then progressed to an ecstatic frenzy, in which he spoke as God. These utterances, he claimed, superseded the content and teaching of Scripture. Those records of his prophecy that are recorded suggest that Montanus himself was not especially interested in doctrinal innovation, though he did lay great emphasis on the importance of an ascetic mode of life.

Crucially, though, Montanus taught that Scripture could be added to. He soon built up a following of others who claimed to be inspired with revelations from God. Most prominent among these were two women, Priscilla and Maximilla, who travelled with Montanus. As his teaching spread, it quickly became clear that Montanism was an attack, not just on Scripture, but also on the authority of the leaders of individual churches. As the seriousness of this challenge became clear, Montanus and his leaders were excommunicated as heretics. A contemporary report suggests that Montanus and Maximilla ultimately hanged themselves. After their deaths, the heresy that they had initiated continued to grow, with ever more prophets offering ever more extravagant prophecies and ever less Scriptural teaching. So, for example, one prominent follower argued that “the Paraclete published through Montanus more than Christ revealed in the Gospel, and not only more, but also better and greater things.” Montanism would ultimately become more than a niche heresy. It even counted among its members Tertullian, who had been a prominent orthodox theologian in the early church. It continued to trouble the church up to the sixth century when the emperor Justinian ordered the destruction of the tombs of Montanus, Maximilla, and Priscilla which had become a shrine to their heretical teaching.

Without doubt, Montanism was a serious heresy. It was, however, most serious, not for the content of the prophecies, but for the place it gave to prophecy. Montanus and his followers were explicitly saying that Scripture was not enough, that further additional revelation was essential to understanding the will of God. These revelations were not only additional to Scripture, but both in content and delivery they were in emphatic contradiction to it.

As such, the emergence of Montanism posed a major challenge to the believers of the second century. Had the door to additional revelation been opened, faithful testimony for God would have become almost impossible. The emphatic and unified rejection of Montanus and his teachings, in spite of the prominent teachers who propagated them, was of crucial importance in the history of the church.

Sadly, the fight was not over. Satan is a persistent and flexible opponent. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw the emergence and the alarming spread of erroneous teaching that bears more than a passing resemblance to that of Montanus. We do not have to search too hard or too long to find those who purport to receive special prophetic revelations from God, and who communicate these revelations in the throes of ecstatic frenzy.

If, in conversation with these individuals, we point out the unscriptural nature of their experience and practice, they will very likely accuse us of limiting the Spirit of God. His sovereign power, they contend, means that He can act as He chooses, move as He wills. In reality, the net result of their doctrine is not to glorify the Spirit: it is to undervalue – and indeed to devalue – the Word of God. The Holy Spirit cannot be glorified where the Scriptures that He inspired are set aside, disregarded, or added to.

The sufficiency of God’s Word is a remarkable truth. It means what it says – that the Bible is a sufficient guide for our Christian lives. Wonderfully, God inspired His Word in order that it might meet every need of His people. The words of the apostle Peter are germane here: “According as His divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him that hath called us to glory and virtue: whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust” (2Peter 1:3-4). God has provided His people with everything that “pertains to life and godliness,” and the “exceeding great and precious promises” of His Word are central to that great provision.

We can, then, learn much from the example of the second century believers who recognized in the teaching of Montanus an intolerable heresy. We ought to be grateful that, by the grace of God, they stood firmly for the truth of God. In our day we cannot afford to do less.