Dr. Thomas Armitage on Tertullian and the Montanists

Armitage, Thomas (1887). The Third Century In A history of the Baptists: traced by their vital principles and practices from the time of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ to the year 1886 (pp. 174-177). New York: Bryan Taylor and Co. Retrieved online.

A brief sketch of Tertullian may aid in throwing light upon the Montanists, who held some peculiarities in common with modern Baptists. He was the greatest of the Latin fathers, except Augustine, being pre-eminently the father of his day and class, A. D. 160-240. He was born at Carthage, North Africa, where his father was a Roman Proconsul, and carefully educated his son to be a lawyer. Little is known of Tertullian’s conversion, which is generally supposed to have dated about 190. He possessed a powerful mind, was an original but violent thinker, earnest in his convictions, intense in his enthusiasm, and destitute of fear; his fire and independence made him worthy of his Punic blood and Roman training. As forceful with the pen as Tacitus, he was too brief, warm and vigorous to be his equal, either in lucidity or elegance; but he was the most eloquent advocate of the early Churches. He was strong and acute, with a powerful imagination, a quick and vivacious mind; his style was learned but not rhetorical, nor was it always harmonious; yet, his severe, angular fruitfulness presented the truth in a new dress, and made him fascinating, because he was austere in his piety and spotless in his purity. Early in his Chris tian career, he became deeply moved at the indifference which had fallen on the Churches; and the fear that they were relapsing into paganism, stirred his sanctified genius to a keen and dexterous activity. When he became pastor of the Church in his native city, he threw all his might into the battle with paganism, Judaism, and heretical Christianity. As he exceeded all his contemporaries in intelligence, vigor and sturdy character, his opponents soon looked upon him as stern and censorious. Believing that the Churches had drifted from their primitive state, his puritanical zeal dealt tremendous blows in every direction. His opponents feared him, for he exposed all the baseness of heathenism, and protested against all looseness in Christianity. In his Apology to the rulers, his stirring letter to Scapula, the Prefect of Africa, and his more popular appeal to the people, he heaped scorn and contempt on the ancient gods in a style peculiar to himself; and few did more to overthrow the godless system of Polytheism.

About A..D. 200, he became a Montanist, amongst which sect he ranked as the leader, and at Carthage first launched his famous work on Baptism against Quintilla, who held that faith saves without baptism. He insisted that Christ ‘imposed the law of immersion,’ and that Paul submitted to it, ‘as the only thing’ then wanting in him; and as a dispute had arisen in his day about the need of going to the Jordan for baptism, he gave this decision : ‘ There is no difference whether one is washed in the sea or in a pool, in a river or in a fountain, in a lake or in a canal; 178 nor is there any difference between those whom John dipped in the Jordan, and those whom Peter dipped in the Tiber.’

The Montanists, with whom he identified himself, sprang from Montanus, a native of Phrygia. He was orthodox in his views, except on the doctrine of the ‘ Holy Catholic Church,’ as it began to be held at that time. Some, however, attribute to him a tinge of the doctrine of Sabellius, which affected his later followers. He taught a gradual unfolding of revelation, and looked for further communications of the Spirit than those given in the New Testament; yet, Cardinal Newman thinks that : ‘ The very foundation of Montanism is development, not in doctrine, but in discipline and conduct.’ Certainly, he introduced no new doctrine, but held to the continued inspiration of the Spirit until the corning of Christ, which he thought near at hand. He labored hard to rekindle the love of many who had waxed cold, and to restore the spirituality of the Churches; but was so extremely rigid in the matter of fasting and other acts of self-denial, that he caught the ascetic side of religion in its demands for a pure life. In his aim to restore Christians to their normal Gospel condition, he associated their decline with the lack of special revelations given to individuals, which should supplement the New Testament, and thought himself commissioned of God to bring them back to this high standard of perfection. This dangerous doctrine led him into ecstasies, which he mistook for new revelations, and which have been unjustly ascribed to deception. Hence, the Montanists called them selves ‘ spirituals,’ to mark themselves from lax Christians, whom they denominated ‘ carnal; ‘ not only because they demanded a pure life, but also because they sought a thoroughly spiritual religion, unmixed with the perversions of philosophy. Montanus taught that men should not flee from persecution, and insisted on the rebaptising of the ‘lapsed;’ not because they had been improperly baptized in the first place, but because they had denied Christ, and on re-professing him, ought to be baptized afresh. For this cause only, were they called ‘ Anabaptists.’

The one prime-idea held by the Montanists in common with Baptists, and in distinction to the Churches of the third century was, that membership in the Churches should be confined to purely regenerate persons; and that a spiritual life and discipline should be maintained without any affiliation with the authority of the State. Exterior Church organization and the efficacy of ordinances did not meet their ideal of Gospel Church existence, without the indwelling Spirit of Christ, not in the bishops alone, but in all Christians. For this reason, Montanus was charged with assuming to be the Holy Spirit himself; which was simply a slander. His mistake lay in pushing the doctrine of the indwelling Spirit so far, as to claim that men and women are as directly under the special inspiration of the Spirit as were the Apostles themselves. For this reason, also, he claimed exact equality amongst them in all respects, and women as well as men were pastors in the Montanist Churches. Woman was held in light esteem both in Church and State in his time, and so, this doctrine was specially odious. History has not yet relieved the Montanists of the [text missing]. They excluded themselves from society, were harsh in their treatment of weak and erring Christians; instead of cherishing the forgiving spirit of Christ toward the ‘lapsed,’ they were bitter against them, with that bitterness which is often the chief sin of high sanctity. Sin after baptism was regarded by them as almost unpardonable, second marriages were wicked in the extreme, matter itself was an unmixed evil ; and the world, being as bad as it well could be, was ripe for destruction. In consequence, they were decided Pre-Millenarians. They believed in the literal reign of Christ upon the earth, and longed for his coming, that he might hold his people separate by the final overthrow of sin and sinners, and then his saints would reign with him here in his glory. They regarded every new persecutor on the imperial throne as the Antichrist of the Apocalypse; and made so much of that book, that the Alogians thought it a Montanist forgery.4 They hoped by preaching these things to purify the Churches, without founding a new sect, and for a time, things tended in that direction. Many returned, in part, to the Apostolic ideal, and in hopeful minds there was promise of recovering a purely spiritual membership.

Their doctrines took deep and wide root in Africa and Gaul, and even the Church at Home was more than inclined to adopt them, but hesitated. The set of the tide toward worldly conformity and aggrandizement was too strong, however, for this re action, and the reform largely failed; yet that Church was slow to condemn this hon est attempt of the reformers. About A. D. 192, her pastor branded them, but the Council of Nicea did not put them under the ban. The local Council of Laodicea did, however; and the General Council of Constantinople, A. D. 381, required converts from Montanism to be immersed anew, and treated in all respects as converts from paganism, before their re-admission into the Catholic Church.

They had no controversy with the Catholics on the subject of triune immersion, for it was not in dispute, but was practiced by both parties. As to the immersion of unconscious babes, we have nothing which distinctly sets forth their views, because it was not yet practiced by any party. It was just beginning to appear in this century, as a necessary measure of salvation from original sin by sacra mental grace. ‘ As a matter of history, it must be admitted by candid students, that a false conception of the Church and the sacraments was the direct cause of a change in the Apostolic order, and of the admission of infants to baptism and the Supper, designed only for adults. The same cause induced both changes, and for centuries infant communion co-existed with infant baptism.’ 3 Both the opposition of Tertullian, and the open denial of the Montanists that baptism is the channel of grace, renders it unlikely that they adopted this practice. They insisted so radically on the efficacy of the Holy Spirit in regeneration, that to have immersed unconscious babes would have nullified their basic doctrine of the direct agency of the Spirit, and have thwarted their attempts at reform, in the most practical manner. As to the independency of their Churches, the facts, that they maintained a separate Church life, and that women filled the pastorate in some of their congregations, under the direction, as they thought, of the Holy Spirit, indicate that they believed this direction was given through the local body when choosing pastors; and also, that their ‘superintendents’ were but the ‘presidents’ of Justin Martyr, and the ‘elders’ of the New Testament.

With the other perversions of the faith, there came the Gnostic heresy, substituting knowledge for faith. The term Gnostic (man of knowledge) first denoted the initiated into a secret science unknown to the vulgar. It revolved around the origin of all things, and Tertullian denounced it vehemently. Montanism was looking for the end of all things, and he cried: ‘Away with all attempts to produce a motley Christianity, compounded of Stoicism, Platonism, and dialectics.’ Gnosticism produced two extreme classes of men, fantastical visionaries, noted for formal asceticism, and those who fell into indulgence and licentiousness. Montanism meant to protest against both, specially resisting pagan worldliness. Many Christians traded with the temples as workmen in constructing them, carving their statues, selling them frankincense and sacrifices. ‘Nay,’ says Tertullian, ‘idol makers are chosen into the ecclesiastical order.’ Others served as officers or private soldiers under the heathen standard, all of which the Montanists resisted, so that Harnack calls them ‘ The old believers, the elder legitimate party, that demanded the preservation of the original Christianity, and the return to Apostolical simplicity aud purity.’



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