The influence of “non-theological factors” on the rise of Montanism

“Non-theological factors” always play a role in the rise of reform movements in the church.  By “non-theological factors,” I mean social, economic, political, and cultural elements that are not directly derived from received interpretations of the truth of the Gospel.   Political, cultural, and economic factors can play a very significant role in shaping the direction a given movement takes, as well as the way the movement is received by the church.

Sometimes interpretations of popular movements which lean heavily on the importance of these non-theological factors can be dismissive of substantive Christian convictions.  However, this need not be the case.  We should expect that reform movements are influenced by social forces, and indeed that they should form their particular Christian convictions in dialogue with social forces at play in their time.

This is an important part of the church’s missionary engagement with the world.  There are no “purely” theological convictions, because theology is always worked out in the course of the church’s life in history, and it is bound to be affected by social, political, and cultural factors.  Therefore, we should not fall into the trap of assuming that non-theological factors determine of the rise and shape of reform movements, but we should examine the way that Christian convictions interact with non-theological factors in the history of particular movements, and evaluate the role of non-theological factors on the basis of this interaction.  It is the interaction of specifically Christian convictions with non-theological influences that produces the vitality and volatility of the reform and renewal movements.

Montanism, a popular second century movement which upheld a rigorous vision of Christian discipleship, and was marked by prophetic spiritual gifts, is an interesting case-in-point.

A number of non-theological factors played a role in the history of the Montanist movement. The movement took root in Phrygia in the late second century, where it would seem that the tradition of prophecy had continued to exist alongside the priestly office (Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. V.17).   The continuing existence of a prophetic office made it difficult for the bishops and clergy of that region to deny the Montanist prophecies, in spite of the eccentricities and excesses of the Montanists.  W. H. C. Frend suggests that the Montanists were a threat to the clergy, and as such the rivalry between priest and prophet caused the Montanists to be resented, and contributed toward their rejection by the established church (Saints and Sinners in the Early Church, 69).  No doubt the prominent role played by women would have also created concern among clerics.

It seems that the Montanists raised no serious doctrinal challenge to the established church, but their somewhat strange and extreme positions and their threat to established leadership led the church to push them out of its fellowship. While it is difficult, on the basis of the evidence, to evaluate the established church’s decision, it does seem that the church might have benefited from the continuing vitality of Montanism, and its excesses might have been kept in check, had the Montanists been given a continuing place in the established church’s life.

After the movement was officially rejected by the clergy, it continued to flourish in the Phrygian countryside, but also spread to North Africa.  This move was aided by the fact that the movement found fertile soil for a rigorist morality in that context.  A significant political factor inNorth Africawas the persecution of Christians, which led to a spirit of defiance and apocalyptic hope among the Christians there, even before the spread of Montanism.  The persecutions inNorth Africaled to an anti-imperial protest ethic among the Christians, with martyrdom and confession being valued above all else.  In this political environment the strict Montanist discipline appealed to Christians like Tertullian, who had faced the prospect of dying for their faith.  The rigorist morality also reinforced the social distinctions between the Montanists and the rest of North African society, distinctions which again were made quite apparent during times of persecution.

Thus we can see that some non-theological factors influenced the Montanist movement in various ways.  The tension between prophetic and priestly roles in the Church caused difficulties with the clergy which influenced the rejection of Montanism.  The rural regions ofPhrygiaproved more fertile soil culturally for the rigorist morality of Montanism, and the persecutions inNorth Africaalso supported the rigorist and apocalyptic currents of the movement, leading Montanism to grow specifically in those regions.

However, it is also obvious that such non-theological factors alone cannot be credited with bringing about the rise or Montanism, or determining its character.  Ultimately the Christian convictions of the Montanists themselves were more significant in shaping the movement’s existence.

First of all, the conviction that the Spirit was speaking directly through the Montanist prophets led members of the movement to embrace a radical obedience and adherence to the discipline that was derived from their prophetic utterances.  So Tertullian ridicules the Catholic criticism of Montanist fasting by noting that Catholics will fast at the request of the Bishop, yet the Montanists fast at the direction of the Spirit (On Fasting, XIII).  Further, after the movement was rejected by the church, one can understand why many members continued to adhere loyally to their leaders, since they believed that the church had rejected the Spirit in rejecting the Montanists.  Likewise, the apocalyptic anticipation of living on the cusp of a new age would encourage radical adherence to the movement and generate a significant following.

Finally, we can note that a strong conviction concerning the holiness of the church shaped the Montanist relation to other Christians.  In On Modesty, Tertullian is enraged that the “Pontifex Maximus” has issued an edict indicating that the sins of adultery and fornication could be forgiven with proper repentance.

“But it is in the church that this (edict) is read, and in the church that it is pronounced; and (the church) is a virgin!  Far, far from Christ’s betrothed be such a proclamation!” (On Modesty I).

The pardoning of adulterers is parallel to the pardoning of idolaters in Tertullian’s mind.  The Church’s holiness is seen in the integrity of her discipline, and it is this conviction concerning the Church’s holiness that drives Tertullian’s adherence to Montanism.

I would argue that, while the non-theological factors certainly played a supporting role in Montanism’s rise, the leading role in shaping the movement came from the central theological convictions that its members embraced.  More specifically in North Africa, it was the encounter of these strong convictions about the divine origin of Montanist discipline and the integrity of the Church with the political condition of government persecution which produced the enthusiasm and vitality of the Montanist movement.