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THE DEHERETICIZING OF MONTANISM

By K. Neill Foster, Ph.D.
Evangelical Theological Society
Colorado Springs, CO, November, 2001
Copyright 2001

One of the curious events of the twentieth century has been the well-illustrated academic passion to restore the Montanist heresy of the second century to orthodoxy in the twentieth and the twenty-first. This current propensity flies in the face of the persistent habit of the ancient Church to anathematize the Montanists.

Obliquely under consideration in all discussion of the Montanists is the validity of the Montanistic-like movements of this generation. That is why any discussion of Montanism rivets many of us. The implications are vast. And we shall not escape this subtext as this paper proceeds.

Both Marcion and Montanus were famous as heretics of the early Church. Marcion would have cut away offending passages of Scripture, whereas Montanus seemed to want to expand the body of inspired text through “New Prophecy.” These erosive currents still plague the Church today.

This paper will probe several sectors of data that seem to converge. Hopefully, we will emerge with 1) an understanding of the heresy label as it applies to Montanism, and 2) the exorcistic character of the early Church. Finally, 3) we will briefly discuss exorcism as applied to the psuedo-charismata today as a modern rationale for reasserting the heretical label for Montanism. Full elaboration on all that the Montanists believed is beyond the scope of this paper.

Also, the exegetical work I have done elsewhere is too extensive to be included here (1988:152-175), but the texts of First Corinthians 12:3; First Thessalonians 5:19-22 and First John 4:1-4 lend plenty of credence to the concept of exorcism as an applied remedy for the Corinthian excesses. And, rightly or wrongly, we are assuming that the Montanistic phenomena matched the phenomena of the Pentecostal/charismatic/third wave of the current era.

I. THE HERESY LABEL

Montanism predated the formal creeds of the Church. It emerged about A.D. 160, in an era in which the Rule of Faith was the standard by which the Church orthodoxy was determined. Tertullian in his defense of the heresy thought that the Rule of Faith ruled the Montanists in, not out (Evans 1948:131). They seemed so orthodox that for a time, the Bishop of Rome opted in their favor, only to repudiate them later (Evans 1948:76). Ultimately, the Montanists did gain the heresy label and the predictable attacks of many of the early writers.

Not everyone agreed. John Wesley was convinced that the Montanists “were real Scriptural Christians” (Curnack 1938:vol. 3:490).

I had the privilege of asking Dr. H.O.J. Brown (Heresies, 1984) whether he thought the Montanists were heretical and if so why. He was a resource person at the April 2001 regional gathering of the Evangelical Theological Society at Philadelphia. My recall of his immediate response was: “They were heretical because they were unscriptural.” During the Ritter lectures at Evangelical School of Theology at Myerstown, PA, in November, 2001, he denied that Montanism might be affirmed by the Rule of Faith or the creeds.

In the nineteenth century John De Soyres was the major advocate for the rehabilitation of the Montanists. After a thorough though brief investigation of Montanism, De Soyres assesses the orthodoxy of the second century Corinthians as follows:

Our conclusion is that [among the Montanists] there is nothing opposite to an article of creed (1878:132).

In Christine Trevett’s monograph, she does not seek to rehabilitate them but admits their ultimate heretical nature.

Montanism had time and opportunity to change its form. Time and opportunity to become heresy. It did (1996:214).

Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology mentions the Montanists in passing but again the intimation of the text is that the Montanists were not really heretical. Grudem suggests that Montanism was a “minor” division in the Church (1994:878).

Seeberg states flatly, “The orthodoxy of the Montanists is acknowledged—their acceptance of the rule of faith . . .” (1977:106).

These sources argue divergently. That the Montanists did not contravene the formal creeds (which they preceeded), that did they did not at first contravene the Rule of Faith which determined orthodoxy and heterodoxy in their times, is questionable (Evans 1948:130). Tertullian was, of course, defending that which he had come to embrace. Yet certainly, finally, the Montanists were heretical.

Their difficulty lay, in part, in the nature of their “New Prophecy” (Seeberg 1977:107). It was “pronounced a psuedoprophetism, inspired by the devil” an analysis supported by the church fathers [Eus. v. 16. 4, 7, 8; 17. 2ff, Apollon., ib. 18. 1, Ephiph. H. 48. 1-8. Cf. Origin de princ. Ii. 7. 3.], (Seeberg 1977:107).

The Church confronted the new prophetism in two ways, with ecclesiastical suppression and exorcistical power (Trevett 1996:104). My premise, from this distance, is that the exorcistic realities demanded, finally, that Montanism be considered heretical.

Further, as Church history illustrates, the Montanists could not escape the heretical label despite their near orthodoxy.

PENTECOSTALISM AND MONTANISM

When Pentecostalism/Montanism first burst upon the American scene it too gained the heretical label (Irvine, n.d.: 193-199). Heresies Exposed is introduced by Louis T. Talbot, a leader of the fundamentalist movement. This volume includes chapters on Mormonism, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, British Israelism and Seventh Day Adventism. Tongues-speaking is included in the list of heresies.

It is fair to assume that Pentecostalism gained the heresy label early and was having a difficult time shedding it as late as the 1930s. (Irvine’s undated book does include a footnote on page 123, dated 1930, hence the assumption of the 30s.)

Of that era, R.A. Torrey, another public figure, had nasty things to say about the Pentecostal movement. “[Pentecostalism] is emphatically not of God and founded by a sodomite” (Brown 1977:197-198). G. Campbell Morgan, a well-known Bible teacher and commentator, called the Azusa Street events “the last vomit of Satan” (Brown 1977:197-198). Needless to say, the views of Torrey and Morgan were not prevailing in 1943 when the Assemblies of God first achieved formal orthodoxy when they were welcomed into the National Association of Evangelicals (Foster 2001:104). Some branches of Pentecostalism such as the non-trinitarian Jesus Only groups still are heretical.

II. THE EXORCISTIC CHARACTER OF THE EARLY CHURCH

The Gospels and the book of Acts demonstrate some common characteristics not commonly exhibited today. Jesus drove out evil spirits and gave authority to His disciples to do the same (Luke 10:1-20). The prevalence of exorcism continued in the book of Acts with Philip going down to Samaria and behaving as the disciples had earlier, casting out demons (Acts 8:5-8).

In speaking of the prevalence of these phenomena elsewhere in the New Testament, my comments were as follows.

Throughout the entire scriptural account, evil spirits are malevolent powers who

are in constant collision with the kingdom of God. These personages were not only consistently confronted by Jesus Christ but also by the seventy disciples He sent forth. They too discovered that the spirits were subject to them through the name of Jesus. . . (2001:233).

The early Church continued to exhibit this tendency in ministry. Most historians of the Church would concur with Latourette that exorcists were part of the hierarchical ecclesiastical structure (1975:vol. 1:133).

MacMullen further asserts that a key ingredient of the explosive growth of the Church in the years A.D. 100 to 400 was the exorcistic tendency of the early Church. By way of illustration, he cites Justin as follows:

how many persons possessed by demons, everywhere in the world and in our own city, have been exorcised by many of our Christian men (MacMullen 1984:27).

And MacMullen adds:

The manhandling of demons—humiliating them, making them howl, beg for mercy, tell their secrets, and depart in a hurry—served a purpose quite essential to the Christian definition of monotheism: it made physically (or dramatically) visible the superiority of the Christian’s patron Power over all others (1984:28).

My point here is that Montanism emerged in a Church context where exorcism was part of the mind-set, part of the liturgy and part of how Montanus and his prophetesses were perceived. The Church clearly identified Montanism with the subterranean manifestations of the spirit world with which they had already wrestled in other kinds of situations.

One unnamed writer who argued with the Montanists verbally, (Don’t miss this—a verbal, face-to-face confrontation), has left this record.

[A] recent convert named Montanus, . . . in his unbridled ambition to reach the top laid himself open to the adversary, was filled with spiritual excitement and suddenly fell into a kind of a trance and unnatural ecstasy. He raved, and began to chatter and talk nonsense, prophesying in a way that conflicted with the practice of the Church handed down generation by generation from the beginning. Of those who listened at that time to his sham utterances some were annoyed, regarding him as possessed, a demoniac in the grip of a spirit of error (Hultgren and Haggmark 1996:133).

The Church had other struggles with Montanism. The appointment of women leaders did not go well with Tertullian or anyone else for that matter. Montanus speaking of himself in the first person as the Parclete was a scandal. Pronouncing prophecy that did not come to pass produced a very negative result. Worst of all, the Montanists indulged in what was called “New Prophecy.” It was not the same as the prophecy they had enjoyed and were used to. These are the essential and obvious reasons why the Church would not embrace the heretics.

Wand also offers a significant commentary on why the Montanists were heretical.

The former [the Montanists] were the first Christian thinkers to bring the question of the Holy Spirit into vigorous debate. They believed that they were specially inspired by Him—indeed there are indications that Montanus regarded himself as an incarnation of the Holy Spirit just as Jesus was the Incarnation of the Word. Their Christology only comes into question because they thought that the new dispensation of the Spirit had superseded that of Christ (1961:25).

I believe there is another major reason why the Montanists were rejected. In a Church thoroughly acquainted with the demon world, they saw in the Montanists manifestations that were identical to those manifestations they found repeatedly among the demonized pagans.

The various complaints against the Montanists, however valid, pale in significance when attention is given to the number of references to spirits, i.e., evil powers, that the Church considered to be loose among these heretics.

Let me illustrate. Seeberg writes, “An attempt was made to reclaim Maximilla by exorcism” (1977:107). An unknown friend of Appolonius writes as follows: “But I came to Ancyra [Ankara?] in Galatia and found that the local church was torn apart by this new craze—not prophecy, but rather false prophecy. . .” (Maier 1999:188). Appolonius’ friend continues describing his battle with Montanus in the following terms. “[H]is bastard utterance,” “considering him possessed by a demon,” “a spirit of error,” “a spirit that harmed and deluded the mind,” “women whom he infused with the spurious spirit so that they babbled madly, and grotesquely, like Montanus,” “that arrogant spirit of false prophecy,” “the false spirit” and finally “the spirit in Montanus and the women” (Maier 1999:188-190).

Anonymous also writes extensively about the spirit-nature of Montanism, perhaps copying from Appolonius’ friend (or vice versa) and adding details, for example, explaining that at Ancyra he found “the local church ringing with the noise of this new . . . prophecy” (Grant 1957:87).

Familian of Caesarea describes a prophetess (circa A.D. 200 and certainly in the Montanistic era) who “was so driven by the impetus of the chief demons that for a long time she deceived and disturbed the brotherhood by performing certain marvelous and portentous deeds,” and “that exorcist [unnamed], inspired by the grace of God, bravely stood his ground and showed that spirit, which was previously thought to be holy to be most wicked” (Trevett 1996:171). Trevett’s view is that the prophetess cited here succumbed to exorcism and that the exorcist successfully delivered the prophetess from her evil spirit (1996:158). Other incidents could be cited.

Pervasive exorcism was part of the Montanistic scene. The Church was doing the exorcising and the Montanists were being exorcised (De Soyres 1878:72).

III. EXORCISM AND THE CHARISMATA TODAY

To pursue this theme further requires some affirmations. I believe in the gifts of the Holy Spirit. They are for today, and when authentic, and afloat on a sea of love and truth, are beneficial to the Church. I am an ardent, though hopefully discerning supernaturalist, not a cessationist.

My focus here is to relate the discussion to this point with the theme of this paper, namely the dehereticization of the Montanists. The unanswered question thus far is this—if the Montanists supposedly offended no creed, and if as Tertullian avers, they supposedly were in compliance with the Rule of Faith, why then were they deemed heretical?

Trevett, in her thorough work on the Montanists, says, to repeat, that they were defeated by two things—ecclesiastical [polemics] and exorcistic [power] (1996:104).

When exorcism and the authority of the believer (MacMillan 1997) are brought to bear upon psuedo manifestations of the charismata, unusual things still result. My belief is that then, as today, the psuedo charismatic phenomena broke down under pressure, a pressure that was exerted when the Body exercised its believers’authority. Thetroublingrealityisthattoday, asinMontanus’day, thesamethingshappenwiththesamekindsofmanifestations.

There is enlarging literature on these phenomena (McGraw, Dickason, Brotherton, Birch, McLeod, King, Murrell, etc.). But let me begin with Irvingism, a Montanistic-like movement from the 1800s in Great Britain.

On one occasion when someone was prophesying, the spirit of the prophecy was directly challenged with the question, “Wilt thou not confess that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh?” The spirit responded loudly, “I will not.” The demon was cast out and never returned (King 2001:274).

Early in the nineteenth century, Archie Ruark began a pilgrimage that is chronicled by Dorothy Brotherton (1991). Beginning with an initial confrontation with a tongues-speaking student at Prairie Bible Institute in the 1940s, Ruark began a life-long ministry of deliverance. Moreover, he kept succinct records which revealed that many of his hundreds of deliverance experiences involved the extrication of believers from their tongues experiences. By his count, at least ninety percent of the tongues he encountered in exorcistic context were spurious. (Before seizing these statistics, note please the deliberate qualifiers I have attached to them.)

There were also some, before Ruark who followed a pattern, which has been called the Ruark Procedure. J.A. McMillan, Paul Rader and R.A. Jaffray to name a few (King 2001:274-287).

In my own ministry in this area, stretching over many years, I too witness that in testing situations, (note again the qualifiers), perhaps ninety percent of the tongues manifestations have proved spurious.

During a Sunday school class a young man heard me discuss First John 4:1-3 and the possibility of testing manifestations. He had received the tongue at a Pentecostal camp and was hopeful for a positive response. We met privately after the class and I asked him to speak in the tongue. He did. I then posed this question, “You spirit that is now manifesting, did Jesus Christ come in the flesh?” Instantly his face contorted grotesquely and the confession was not made. His tongue was false.

Incidents such as these can also be repeated, relentlessly and endlessly. They occur whenever the exorcistic process is brought to bear on the Montanist-like manifestations of today. In Sorting Out the Supernatural I record two incidents in which both true and false tongues have been found in the same individual, the false being exorcised in both cases (2001:124-126).

IV. CONCLUSION

Case studies alone are not necessarily portraits of truth, but when buttressed with the writings of credible authors, along with the exegesis of passages such as First Thessalonians 5:23 and First John 4:1-4, and when sustained as we are, and as we are doing here, by postulating exorcism as an applied remedy among the Montanists, then we may have arrived at a significant conclusion.

This may be the first time that the Ruark Procedure has been juxtaposed to the Montanist manifestations evident in that movement in a formal academic setting such as these ETS lectures. Undoubtedly, much can be learned.

The hereticization of the Montanists, given the persistent application of exorcism to their cases, with the resulting deliverances apparently taking place, is understandable. After all, they had to pass through exorcism to get back into the Church (De Soyres 1858:72).

Today’s passion to dehereticize the Montanists stems in part from the lack of awareness about exorcism as an applied process in the retrieval of the Montanists.

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