Schisms Connected With Questions of Discipline -- Montanism


The schism of Novatus and Felicissimus, which arose in Carthage in the time of Cyprian, was due mainly to the spirit of faction. There was no very deep conviction back of the plea put forth by the schismatics for a less rigid discipline. They seem to have maintained themselves but a short time. The Novatian schism at Rome, near the same time, was born of much more earnest sentiments; Novatian and his followers having a hearty attachment to a stringent discipline, and accusing the Catholic party of unchristian laxity. The Novatian sect showed great persistence. It spread in various regions, and traces of it appear as late as the sixth century. The Meletian schism, which arose in Egypt in the early part of the fourth century, was precipitated by a disagreement between Meletius, Bishop of Lycopolis, and his metropolitan, Peter of Alexandria. Meletius is said to have championed the cause of strict discipline in the spirit of aggression and insubordination. The schism lasted upwards of a century. The separatists affiliated with the Arians.

The most interesting and important of the parties which fell into a sectarian position on account of their views of church discipline were the Montanists. This party derived its name from Montanus, a native of Phrygia in Asia Minor, who assumed the rôle of a prophet and reformer in that region in the last half of the second century. Two female associates, Prisca (or Priscilla) and Maximilla, claimed likewise to be organs of the Divine Comforter promised of Christ.

Among the causes which contributed to the inauguration of Montanism, were the imaginative and enthusiastic temper characteristic of the Phrygians, the excitements of persecution, the memory of the glorious charisms of the apostolic age, and a reaction against the growing ecclesiasticism or exaltation of official rank. As these causes, with the exception of the first, were more or less operative in the Church at large, they gave to Montanism a degree of prevalence much in excess of the importance of its founders. It soon numbered adherents in widely separated regions. The Church became much agitated on its account, and, after treating it with varying degrees of severity, finally assumed an attitude of decisive hostility. In Asia Minor, Montanism resulted in a separate sect (Cataphrygians, Priscillianists, or Pepuzians). In Rome, it was repressed, though not with entire success, since some of its principles found harborage among the Novatian schismatics. In North Africa, it was temporarily a considerable power, and after its apparent decline re-asserted itself inlarge part under new names. It found here also its one illustrious theologian, Tertullian. That he espoused Montanism with great heartiness, is entirely certain; but how this affected his local church relations, is largely a matter for conjecture. Ritschl thinks there is insufficient ground for the conclusion that he became a schismatic, and favors rather the verdict that the contemporary church authorities in his region were so far favorable to Montanism that there was for the time being no need of a separation. [Die Entstehung der alt katholischen Kirche. Ritschl find evidence for this view in a paragraph of Cyprian, Epist., li. (lv.) 21.] Augustine, to be sure, found in his day a schismatic party bearing the name of Tertullianists; but, as Neander states, there is no adequate evidence that this party existed as a schismatic party in the days of Tertullian. They might very naturally claim him as their founder, had he given them simply their principles and not their separate organization. Whether he died a schismatic or not, Tertullian was certainly held in high honor in the Catholic Church shortly after his death.

Montanism has sometimes been classed among the heresies. Its divergence, however, from the Catholic theology of the first centuries was not extensive, and was more in the line of addition than of rejection. The exhibition of its animating spirit was quite as much in the department of discipline, morals, and life, as in that of dogmatics proper; though here, too, it differed from the Church at large more in a quantitative than in a qualitative respect. Its distinguishing features may briefly be described as an ultra super naturalism and an ascetic morality.

Montanism affirmed that a continuance of the charisms of the apostolic age was to be expected as the normal possession of the Church. "The fundamental error," says Pressensé " which marred this grand inspiration, was the failure to comprehend the operation of Christianity except under the form of permanent miracle." [Heresy and Christian Doctrine, Book I., chap. iv.] The Montanists laid great emphasis, not only upon the fact that they were living under the dispensation of the Spirit, but also upon the extraordinary workings of the Spirit. Especially did they regard prophesying as the means appointed by God for the edification and guidance of the Church; and the true condition for prophesying was in their view that form of ecstasy in which all self-control is lost, and the soul rendered utterly passive in the hands of God, --the condition of one in absolute trance. As regards the subject-matter of their prophesying, the Montanists claimed the right to enter every region, even to the rendering of decisions upon questions of speculative theology. Their claim was really an open door toward the unsettling of existing revelation in the name of additional and supplementary disclosures of divine truth. The prophetic theme relished among them, perhaps more than any other, was that of the coming judgments of God, and the introduction of the millennial reign of Christ upon earth. The first Montanists believed that title day was already at hand when the Redeemer would appear to set up his kingdom. Said Maximilla, "After me will be no prophet, but the end will follow." [Epiphanius, Hær., xlviii.] As the Montanists laid the chief stress upon the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit, and considered these gifts equally open to all classes, they were opposed to priestly exclusiveness and hierarchical pretension. At the same time, in their exaggerated preference for their prophets and those who acknowledged their authority, they introduced class distinctions of a very formidable character. The Montanist prophet was made to take the place of the bishop as respects dignity and authority, and the Montanists were ranged around the prophet as a superior caste. Indeed, one is almost reminded of the Gnostic classification, when he finds Tertullian stigmatizing as "psychics" the great body of Christians who refused to accept Montanism, and reserving the name of "spirituals" for the adherents of that system. [See in particular his treatises on Monogamy, Modesty, and Fasting.]

In pursuance of its ascetic morality, Montanism urged an unsparing renunciation of the world, entire abstinence from public offices, and a rigid church discipline. It exalted the virtue of martyrdom, opposed all use of prudential means to escape the persecutor's rage; affirmed the obligation to fast till evening on every Wednesday and Friday, and to abstain from the eating of flesh and luxuries for two weeks in each year; denounced second marriages, and, while allowing the legitimacy of a first marriage, expressed more or less preference for celibacy, Regarding the Church as properly the assembly of the holy, the Montanists argued for a stern treatment of those who violated its sanctity. For lesser sins, committed after baptism and reception into the Church, there must be a show of radical repentance; while mortal sins, such as adultery and apostasy, committed by one in these holy relations, must be punished by irremediable excommunication. God may, perhaps, pardon one thus sundered from Christian fellowship; but the Church is not authorized to proclaim His pardon by restoring the culprit to its communion. In all this, great moral earnestness may be discerned, but also an excessive rigor and spirit of legality.

Through repelling Montanism, the Catholic Church reproduced some of its peculiarities. The infallibility claimed for the Montanist prophets came finally to be asserted of the episcopal hierarchy, and practically was credited in the latter, as much as ever it was in the former, with the power to add to the Scripture revelation. Again, the ascetic tendencies of Montanism found a parallel, or rather were transcended, in the wide-spread system of Monasticism, which came to be treated by the Catholic Church as a favored child.