Bible Study on the Holy Spirit
Who is the Holy Spirit?
That the Holy Spirit is not merely a divine attribute or power, but a person, is evident from those passages of Holy Writ that predicate of him what can be predicated solely of a person, e.g. being the Comforter or Advocate who is to take the place of Christ, continuing and completing his work (John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:8, 13 sq.); bearing witness and interceding for the children of God (Rom. 8:16, 26), from whom he is distinct as a person (Acts 15:28); becoming grieved (Eph. 4:30); being on a level with Father and Son (Matt. 28:19; 2 Cor. 13:14; comp. 1 Cor. 12:4–6; Eph. 4:4–6; 1 Pet. 1, 2). And also that he is God in truth and essence follows from 2 Cor. 13:14 and especially Matt. 28:19, where the Holy Ghost is made equal with the Father and the Son both as to revelation (“name,” which word is put only once, referring to all three persons) and as to relation to a baptized person, which is that of the most intimate union and communion (“baptizing into”). He is also called God (Acts 5:3 sq.; comp. 1 Cor. 3:16 with 6, 19 and 2 Cor. 6:16), and divine attributes are ascribed to him (1 Cor. 2:10; 12:8–11).
His Relationship to the Mission of Christ
This movement was named for Montanus (c. 170), a self-proclaimed prophet from Phrygia who believed that his revelations fulfilled the promises of the New Testament and heralded the imminent end of the world. Montanus was a gifted organizer and he attracted a considerable following among the peasants of Asia Minor. His movement was based in the villages of Pepuza and Tymion, which were not far from Laodicea and Colossae, although they have resisted all attempts at locating them precisely. Almost everything we know about Montanus comes from hostile sources and has been contested, though most scholars agree that he was a charismatic figure who proclaimed the coming of eschatological perfection in Christian communities which would resemble the heavenly city of Jerusalem.
In its own day Montanism was called the ‘new prophecy’, and there is no doubt that it had a charismatic flavour about it which probably reflected a grass-roots reaction to the increasing bureaucratization of the official church. The Montanists were accused of speaking in ecstasy and may have practised glossolalia, but we cannot be certain. It is certain, however, that the vehicle of the Montanist revelations was the ‘Paraclete’, who is normally equated with the Holy Spirit, following John’s Gospel. The content of the prophecies was not really exceptional in the context of its time, being largely concerned with matters of moral discipline and the coming end, both of which were widespread themes in the late second-century church Nevertheless, the mainline church refused to accept the genuineness of the prophetic claims made by Montanus and his followers and denounced their sayings as false. The Montanists were apparently unusually rigorous in their demands for a strict regime of fasting, and they also advocated sexual continence within marriage and celibacy after the death of a partner. This may seem extreme to us today, but in its own context it was a normal, even moderate, line to take in such matters and compares well with what came to be the accepted norm in the mainline church
Montanism spread to Rome and from there to other parts of the Mediterranean world, notably to North Africa, where it attracted the attention of the great *Tertullian who saw in the Montanists spirits akin to his own. Montanism seems to have lingered on until the fifth century, though by then it was far removed from its charismatic origins and in many places cannot have been more than a vestigial remnant of its former self. Its most lasting effect seems to be that it hastened the fixing of the New Testament canon. An official statement that prophecy of the Montanist type had effectively ceased in the Christian church accompanied the fixing of the canon.
It has frequently been postulated that Tertullian’s ‘conversion’, about the year 207, took place within the Montanist sect. It would be better to say, however, that he welcomed it as an authentic manifestation of the kind of Christianity that he was already advocating. In moral terms Tertullian no doubt reflects Montanist rigorism reasonably well, but it is difficult to say how far his writings can be used as evidence of original (or authentic) Montanist beliefs. It is also not clear whether he joined an already existing Montanist group at Carthage or whether he founded one, which was subsequently known as ‘Tertullianist’ and which survived until it was reintegrated into the Catholic Church in 388.
A special feature of Montanism was the prominence that it gave to women. Two women in particular, Priscilla and Maximilla, played a major role in the original prophecies and may well have been the prime movers of the sect. It is unclear to what extent the influence of women spread beyond Asia Minor, but if Perpetua and Felicitas can be regarded as Montanists, then the North African church also experienced an important female ministry under the Montanist umbrella. It is of course clear that female ministry was procured at the price of sexual continence, and that it would not have been tolerated otherwise. The enemies of Montanism frequently accused them of debauchery because of the prominence of women in the sect, and had such accusations been true there is little doubt that Montanism’s claims to a higher form of spirituality would have suffered an irreparable blow. In fact, the Montanists do seem to have lived exemplary moral lives and it appears that the opposition was motivated mainly by the fact that the church establishment felt threatened by their apparent extremism.
Montanism was not a heresy in the doctrinal sense, though it was later condemned as such. As far as we can tell, its adherents remained fully orthodox, even if occasionally their theological formulations were inadequate or archaic in relation to the Christological and Trinitarian controversies that tormented the mainline church. It is possible that some Montanists pictured Christ in a female form. If so, they would have strayed beyond the bounds of theological orthodoxy, but it all depends on how the evidence is interpreted and who is included in the Montanist category.
In later centuries Montanism was generally regarded as an early example of the kind of chiliast sect which sprang up in the later middle ages, and *John Wesley imagined that it was the last remnant of authentic New Testament Christianity. Today, however, such views have been generally discounted and Montanism is treated as a charismatic movement which was rooted in the circumstances of its own time and which died out without leaving any trace beyond the end of the ancient world.
FURTHER READING: W.H.C. Frend, ‘Montanism: Research and Problems’, in Archaeology and History in the Study of Early Christianity, VI (London, 1988); R.E. Heine, The Montanist Oracles and Testimonia (Macon, GA, 1989); W. Tabbernee, Montanist Inscriptions and Testimonia: Epigraphic Sources Illustrating the History of Montanism (Macon, GA, 1996); C. Trevett, Montanism (Cambridge, 1996).