Lent: Day 6 of 40 - Montanus

If the Spirit is in me, then you’re not the boss of me!

Montanus claimed the Spirit was in him, and also in his associates like Priscillia and Maximillia. The boys, the bishops, didn’t like his attitude, but he was very popular in Asia Minor, central Turkey. This was charismatic authority, with the Pentecostal bonus of ecstatic gifts of speech and miracles and healing. Perpetua, early martyr of the 3rd century, was another follower – have you notice the gender pattern yet?

The boys and the book said inspiration had ended, and we had to rely on the recorded and the chain of apostolic succession from the original inspired apostles in unbroken line to the bishops, backed by the book. Montanists resisted this patriarchal repression. They lost, institutionally, but these heretics like us shaped the character and heart of the movement.

Was it the Holy Spirit, or human spirits, that drove Montanism? Paul had already fought with charismatic factions in the 1st century – appealing to unity in Christ in the Corinthian correspondence. The records are less clear about these 2nd century heretics, many of whose writings were destroyed once they lost the ecclesiastical struggle.

Montanist heresy is not Gnosticism – these folks are affirming the gift of spirit available to women and marginal people, rather claiming secret special knowledge available to an elite only. It’s a religion of the heart and emotion, not just the mind and head. Each group know they are not the other, even if the ‘orthodox’ lump them together.

Montanus preached ‘end times’ ethics of self-denial, celibacy, fasting, abstinence from meat. It challenged the worldliness of some in the Christian movement. Through the influence of Tertullian (coming up this Friday), the movement continued in North Africa around Carthage to the days of Augustine and on to the rise of Islam, still moved by the Spirit.

The rise of Pentecostal movements in our generation also appeals to the Spirit against the organized patriarchs and books. The affirmation of the charismatic spirit can enfranchise women and marginalized people to challenge social norms. The promise that revelation is not closed, and prophecy is not ended, is revolutionary in many parts of the world, with dash of ‘end times’ ethics. Are these heretics like us? Do they like us?

We have roots in the ‘holiness movement’ of Methodism, and a millenarian sensibility, which developed into secularized versions of ‘social gospel’ in the past century. We may have lost touch with socially marginalized people in our embarrassment with the enthusiasm of such movements – to our discredit, and our spiritual loss.

The risks of sensational self-indulgence, confusing Holy Spirit with human spirit, or making excessive claims to pure leadership, weakened these heretics over time. They relied upon supporters unable or unwilling to attain to the same ascetic piety, over time, a challenge to recurring versions of this heresy. The risks of anarchy, and self-serving action by leaders beyond communal control, led to spectacular salacious scandals.

What could we learn from the Montanist heresies? 

Who do you know who would feel at home with them?