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The Canon: Thoughts on the First-Generation Christian Literature


8. Montanus and the Canon

Another movement that prompted the church to think about what constituted legitimate Scripture was Montanism.

In 172, Montanus, Prisca, and Maximilla (a man and two women) appeared in Phrygia (a region of Asia Minor) and began to prophesy. Here was their message:

(1) The gift of prophecy had been given to them, and the age of the Spirit had come.
(2) The world would end, and the New Jerusalem would descend at Pepuza (a village in Phrygia). The end was near, too, for Maximilla said that after her there would be no more prophecy, only fulfillment.
(3) Get ready, and getting ready meant fasting and ascetic practices and eating radishes and not having sex.
(4) After baptism there was no more forgiveness for sins, except perhaps for the ones that daily beset us, and certainly no forgiveness for having sex.
(5) Martyrdom was the only glorious death, and it served as an exception clause to Number 4: if you were martyred as a Christian, this remitted any sins you may have done after your baptism.

Because the Montanist prophets claimed to speak a direct message from God mediated by the Holy Spirit, their oracles were written down and were viewed by their followers as having the authority of the other scriptures. 

The response of the wide church was initially confused.

A well-meaning soul named Zoticus found Maximilla in Pepuza and tried to cast the demon out of her. She resisted the effort.

The bishop of Rome thought that from the standpoint of fundamental doctrine and teaching, the Montanists seemed little different from other Christians. But when he wrote a letter stating this, it met with such disapproval that he rescinded the letter.

Some people accepted Montanist teachings, including the great scholar Tertullian in northern Africa, as well as people who were not scholarly inclined at all. Hippolytus said that these people did not evaluate Montanist teachings with reason, but alleged that they had learned something more through the Montanist prophets than they had from the law, the prophets, and the Gospels! (Refutation of All Heresies 8.12. Note the summary reference to the Christian literature, consisting of Old and New Testaments.)

A turning point in the story came when the Phrygian prophets died and nothing happened. Maximilla had said that after her would come wars and anarchy. One ancient Christian writer (we do not know his name) remarked that thirteen years had passed after Maximilla had died and the world remained at peace.

Another turning point was a public discussion in Rome between Caius and a Montanist leader named Proclus, who was apparently Montanus’ successor. Caius objected that the Montanists wrote “new scriptures” (καινὰς γραφάς). Caius meant the recorded oracles of the Montanist prophets, and his objection implies that the body of scripture was by now thought to be closed. In the same debate Caius argued that Hebrews did not belong to scripture (apparently because of Hebrews 6:4–6, which seemed to support Montanus’ Rule Number 4) and Caius’ opinion about Hebrews persisted in Rome during the next hundred years. (The reception of another book, the Book of Revelation, was apparently affected by the Montanist controversy as well: Revelation was not received in the East for several hundred more years, and even then did not find a place in the lectionary of the Eastern church.)

From our distance (and from our almost complete lack of first-hand knowledge) we may think that when the wide church rejected Montanism it squelched a vibrant spiritual renaissance. A more careful way to view it is that the wide church knew the difference between apostolic times and their own times and realized that the first-generation literature was central to the message of the gospel, not whatever was spoken by a later generation even claiming to be the voice of the Spirit.


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Perhaps a dozen Montanist sayings survive. Here are examples:
“I am neither an angel nor an envoy, but I the Lord God, the Father, have come” (Epiphanius Panarion 48.2).
“I am the Father and the Son and the Paraclete” (Didymus De trinitate 3.41.1).
“Behold, man is as a lyre and I hover over him as a plectrum. Man sleeps but I watch. Behold, it is the Lord who removes the hearts of men and gives them [other] hearts” (Epiphanius Panarion 48.4).
Cited in Bruce Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance (Oxford: Clarendon  Press, 1987), p. 101. The references in parentheses refer to the patristic sources that have preserved them.

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