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The Rise of the Montanists in the Second Century

Julian Spriggs M.A.

The Montanist movement rose around 156, led by Montanus, who came from Phrygia in Asia Minor. Because of this, they were often referred to as Phrygians.

At his baptism, Montanus claimed to have received a special revelation from the Holy Spirit, which involved speaking in tongues and prophesying. Two female followers of Montanus, Prisca and Maximilla, also claimed to be prophets. There was an emphasis on receiving dreams and visions.

Montanus and his followers claimed to have received a revelation from the Spirit concerning the imminent return of Christ and the end of the world. They predicted that the New Jerusalem would come down to earth, as predicted in the Book of Revelation, but it would be located in a village in Phrygia. They also taught that Christ would rule for a thousand years on earth, before the final judgement.

The Montanists declared that the church was becoming much too legalistic, too formal and institutionalised. They made a positive attempt to recover the inspiration and power of the Holy Spirit which had been so dynamic in the church in the early decades of the first century, particularly the gift of prophecy. Montanus said: “Churches have lost inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and need visions, dreams and prophecies".

They were particularly concerned at the increasing power being given to the clergy in the established church, which led to the exclusion of lay people, and particularly women, from being involved in ministry.

Because they taught that the return of Christ and the final judgement was so imminent, they demanded a strict and rigorous lifestyle from their followers. Celibacy was encouraged, frequent fasting was required, and martyrdom was held as the highest honour. There were many martyrs, including Perpetua and her slave girl Felicitas who were martyred in 207 by being tortured and thrown to the lions.

The most eminent convert to Montaism was Tertullian of Carthage, who joined them around 200, in the later years of his life. He was an outstanding theologian, who first used the word ‘Trinity’ to describe the God-head. He too was concerned that the church was losing their first love and life of the Spirit which characterised its early years.

The Montanists continued to exist in North Africa until the fifth century, and in Asia Minor until the sixth century.

The Montanists were rejected by the church as heretics. However, they should perhaps be seen as being on the fringe of orthodoxy, rather than being condemned as total heretics. Like many such groups, they began as a result of a genuine move of the Holy Spirit, but partly as a result of being rejected by the mainline church they became marginalised and took on some heretical teaching, particularly about the second coming of Christ. It is ironic that the efforts of the Montanists and other groups against the centralised power of the established church actually had the opposite effect to that which they intended.