Montanists, Mormons, and Early Christian Doctrines

This is part 3 of Heresy and Orthodoxy. I’ve been listening to class 5 from the Covenant Theological Seminary on Ancient and Medieval Church History. They have talked about Gnosticism and Marcionism. I’d like to talk about a little known movement in early church history called Montanism and compare this to Mormonism.

Montanism began in Phrygia, Turkey around 170 AD. It was quite different from Gnosticism and Marcionism. It had a huge emphasis on the Holy Spirit. By this time the miracles and prophecies that are so familiar in the NT period had disappeared . A man by the name of Montanus said miracles had ceased because of the worldliness of the church. He said the ‘Dispensation of the Fulness of the Son’ had been replaced by the ‘Dispensation of the Holy Spirit.’

Now, doesn’t this sound very similar to Joseph Smith and his ideas? Joseph referred to the ‘Dispensation of the Fulness of Times’. Joseph said that miracles were occurring once again through him, as evidenced by all the visions, miracles, and the golden plates.

Montanus claimed that the Holy Spirit still speaks, just as it did to Paul; that it’s speaking through Montanus, and that it also speaks to a couple of his associates; female prophetesses, Prisca (or Priscilla), and Maximilla.

Montanus is said to have been quoted to say, ‘I am the Lord God Omnipotent’ but in reality, he wasn’t claiming to be God, but rather speaking for God. Joseph Smith would have prefaced similar remarks with ‘thus saith the Lord.’

Montanus also believed that Christ was imminently returning, similar to Joseph Smith. Montanus also believed that the New Jerusalem was going to be in Phrygia. Joseph Smith made similar claims about the New Jerusalem being on the American continent. Montanus also stressed holiness and asceticism.

In Turkey, many congregations entirely converted to Montanism, and the movement spread to North Africa. It lasted through at least through at least the 7th century AD. His most famous convert was Tertullian, who coined the term trinity. It is interesting to note that both men were later termed heretics. Bible scholar FF Bruce referred to a conversation with a dominican scholar who remarks that it was amazing that such an intelligent man as Tertullian would allow himself to be led astray be Montanus. The instructor notes that there must have been something of more solid worth to Montanism than has generally been supposed to have attracted such an intelligent man as Tertullian.

Additionally, the pope in Rome endorsed Montanus for a time, but later recanted. Of course, the pope was much more of a pastor than head of the entire church at this time.

Ok, now you see some differences. Of course mormons don’t support women having the priesthood, but there is some evidence that women were teachers in the early church. The PBS series called The First Christians talks about women in the early church. It appears that there were many influential women in the early church, punctuated by Mary Magdalene, who was known as ‘the apostle of the apostles’, and holds the distinction of being the first person to see the resurrected Lord. There is a book called ‘the Gospel of Mary Magdalene which venerates Mary Magdalene.

The church was just beginning to embrace the concept of the trinity, though it was far from universal at the early period, especially when one considers the strange views of the Gnostics. It is unclear if Montanus shared Tertullian’s views on this concept.

Speaking of Gnostics, one author has compared the New Age movement to the Gnostics belief in self-deification. While this is not perfectly compatible with mormons beliefs of eternal progression, there are obvious similarities.

Montanus also claimed that his revelations superceded the apostles and that his words should be considered scripture. Of course mormons have the D&C, and hold similar views about Joseph Smith. This all leads to the question, should mormons be called non-Christians or rather Christian heretics? I’m not sure which term is better, but obviously the term heretic has some appeal to me.


15 comments on “Montanists, Mormons, and Early Christian Doctrines

  1. This got me thinking some more. There is a lot of diversity in the early Christian church and even more now as time goes on. There weren’t really any splinter groups in the Book of Mormon. There were times that the lord’s people fell to the “pride cycle”, but there wasn’t that much diversity within the followers of Christ in the Book of Mormon lands.

    When people fell into apostasy in the Book of Mormon, they either completely lost faith in Jesus and was usually went against the church or were just puffed up in pride and didn’t want to hear anything about the message. It is very dichotomic literature. Where in the Book of Mormon are the apostate groups that proclaim to be the true followers of Jesus?

  2. 3 Nephi 1:24-25 attests a sectarian belief, quickly mediated, over whether Nephite “Chistians” ought to keep the Mosaic Torah.

  3. Robert- Thank you for the reference.

    “it came to pass that they soon became converted, and were convinced of the error which they were in”

    Of course, that is exactly what usually happens, right? ūüėČ

  4. Zelph,

    Scripture is always a one-sided proposition. Biblical and Book of Mormon prophets are never going to report on arguments they lose, but are rather going to ignore them (just like bloggers.) So, it is important to realize this.

    Even Conference talks are going to be biased. One rarely hears any references to Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism, etc. If one were to read these talks in 2000 years, one might conclude erroneously that these movements did not exist.

    So, I think it is a superficial reading of the Book of Mormon to assume that these movements did not exist. The Lamanites talked about “the traditions of our fathers.” Now this vague reference is most often thought of as political–that Laman and Lemuel felt that Nephi usurped the leadership. However, it could also be religious. After all, Laman and Lemuel did grow up as jews, did have a father for a prophet, etc, so they were not unacquainted with religion. It makes perfect sense that they probably would have established a religion. Even King Lamoni believed in a “great Spirit”. They question is, was this “great spirit” descended from Laman’s belief, or was it a completely pagan belief? The scriptures are unclear on this matter.

    There are well-publicized encounters with Korihor, Zeezrom, and others. I don’t have my scriptures in front of me, so I can’t speak authoritatively on these matters at the moment, but as I recall, especially when the light appeared all night, there were some Nephites who said they didn’t need to obey the Law of Moses anymore, while others said they needed to wait for the 3 days of darkness. This certainly implies the sort of more advanced (and less dichotomous) sort of religious complexity that you say is lacking in the Book of Mormon.

    Anyway, remember that scripture is innately biased, whether it is for the Bible or BoM. So, it is important not to let that lens color everything you read. Often, there is more complexity than meets the eye.

    Anyway, I’m curious as to your feelings on the trinity. What do you think of Tertullian joining the Montanist movement? Are both of these men heretics? Do any represent “true Christianity”? What is your overall belief in “true Christianity?” Does it even exist?

  5. MH– Interesting points. There is no doubt that early Christianity existed. It is my opinion that there was no such thing as the “true Christianity” in the sense of only one group having all the truth. It is my opinion based on the little knowledge I have learned that early Christianity was very diverse, much like the way current mainstream Christianity is diverse. Perhaps that was always the way God intended it.

  6. Zelph, sorry I have so many questions for you, but I’m just trying to understand you better.

    What is your whole take on Christianity? Do you lean more agnostic, jewish, none of the above?

    Also, what do you make of the similarities I am making between Joseph Smith and Montanus? Are these intriguing to you? Is it interesting that Joseph might be walking in steps Montanus walked previously?

  7. MH- Lately I have been leaning towards agnosticism although I still believe in a divine creator, I have come to believe that all religions are man made. Or maybe we are all divinely inspired and some people choose to take this inspiration and organize religions. Perhaps truth is not absolute, but relative and that is why there are so many different paths to choose from.

    A little off the subject, but the word “Phrygia” stuck out at me because I am a musician and there is a diatonic mode called the “phrygian mode” named after Phrygia. I know that has nothing to do with anything, but I thought it was cool when I saw the word “phrygia”

    I find the similarities intriguing, but I can’t help but think that according to LDS doctrine, early Christianity was already in apostasy at this time.

  8. Zelph, you said, “according to LDS doctrine, early Christianity was already in apostasy at this time.” I think that LDS doctrine is gray in this area. I think that it could allow for a Montanus to be preaching some truths. The apostasy is a process, not a moment in time.

    As for your reference to Phrygia, remember that Marcionism also took root in Sinope, Turkey. Paul preached in Ephesus, Turkey. It seems a great center of Christianity existed in Turkey, in what is now a highly muslim country.

    North Africa was highly Christian as well, and held some great christian scholars in the early days of the church. Yet today, Africa is highly muslim. It is interesting to me that there were so many scholars outside of Israel, where Jesus originated.

  9. The Montanism is so very different than the mormon faith. Montanists claimed “ecstatic prophetic revelations”. They claimed that prophets spoke in “unconscious ecstasy” similar to many charismatic movements found through out the world today. According to the records available to us today about the Montanists, which are few, the person speaking under the influence of the Holy Ghost lost control of himself and would have different types of bodily contortions , fainting, emitting noises and could speak in unknown tongues.
    With the death of the apostles around 100 AD.,and the loss of the gifts of the spirit given to those who received the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of the apostles hands, the christian church by the time of Montanus some 70 yrs. later, wanted very badly to have what the early church once had: living prophets with gifts of the spirit. With out the apostles revelations to guide them, the church at large had only opinions of the different bishops through out the church, about what was if fact correct doctrine and truth. (As an aside, the apostasy began during the life of the apostles.) That is why this sect’s beliefs had such a long run. “Montanism continued to be mentioned in writers through the seventh century and later, but these references tend to be secondary notices about the origins of the movenment” all quotes are from encyclopedia of early christianty. pg 622, 523
    Joseph smith’s revelations and those shared by Oliver Cowdrey and Sidney Rigdon were never “estatic” in nature. They never lost control of their bodily functions. The other difference was that as we use the scriptures as a standard to measure how the Lord has interacted with his children since Adam, he does this through a prophet who holds the priesthood. “My house is a house of order”. He either sends an angel to bestow the authority, another priesthhood holder, or he bestows this himself. Montanus never claims any such bestowal.

  10. David,

    You bring up some good points, as I am sure there are differences. I look at the Kirtland Temple experience as a very “ecstatic”, or at least pentecostal experience. It seems to me that the early mormon church (especially in JS day) is much different than our current church experiences. Certainly we don’t experience the same kind of pentecostal experiences that Smith and his followers did.

  11. It is curious that you would say that anyone who has received the gift of the Holy Ghost bestowed upon them do “not experience the same kind of pentecostal experiences that Smith and his followers did.” Has God changed? Nephi received the same vision that his father did because he asked, and the Lord has said “ask and ye shall receive, knock and it shall be opened unto you”. The question is the source of the “ecstatic” experiences. Does anyone who receives revelations from the Lord lose control of their bodily functions to some other source? I know I never have, and I do not remember ever seeing or hearing of any general authority in the church since its inception doing so. I know of no source in the scriptures where a prophet flails himself all over the ground or runs around mumbling or having contortions while claiming to talk to God. There are descriptions of this kind of behavior found in the scriptures but the people so described had demons cast out of them.
    I truly am interested in your thoughts about this.

  12. David,

    It seems to me we’re operating with a different definition of “ecstatic”. If you’re definition is “lose control of their bodily functions”, then yes, I don’t believe Mormons have ever done so. But earlier you said in comment 10 that it is “similar to many charismatic movements found through out the world today”, of which I concurred the Kirtland Temple experience is similar. So, I don’t have a really good understanding of your definition, as it seems to be changing.

    If you want to talk strange, certainly Old Testament prophets did strange things. Ezekiel ate the scriptures, and I Isaiah walked naked through the streets of Jerusalem, and named his children really odd names. Is this an “ecstatic” experience in your definition?

  13. […] 2 years ago, I did a post on Montanism which dates to about 170 AD. ¬†Briefly Montanus was a¬†Christian¬†prophet from Turkey, and I […]

  14. […] posted previously on the topics of Gnosticism, Marcionism, and Montanism in my previous three posts. While discussing Marcionism, there was a debate about the apostasy. The […]

  15. […] to learn more about these movements.¬† Here’s another post on Gnosticism and another on Montanism.¬† (My 2 gnostic posts are ranked #2 and #8 of my most viewed posts–funny because there […]

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