The Struggle For a Pure Church – Montanism, Novations, Donatists, Arianism, Athanasius – by Charles Vedder 1907

Vedder, Henry Clay (1907). The Struggle For a Pure Church. In A Short History of Baptists (pp. 57-70). Philadelphia: The American Baptist Publication Society. Retreived online.



THIS degeneration in the church, whose stages we traced in the preceding chapter, was a gradual process, whose completion occupied several centuries. It did not occur without resistance, determined, prolonged, and frequently renewed. Many attempts were made at a reformation of the church, a return to the simplicity and purity of the apostolic churches. The truth was not totally eclipsed at first, only obscured; from time to time men taught anew the spiritual nature of Christ’s church, the necessity of regeneration in order to membership in a church of Christ, salvation by grace and not by sacraments and penances. At times these reactions promised to be successful, but they all in turn failed to effect their object. Some failed by their own inherent weakness, others were suppressed by force, and in the end the Holy Catholic Church triumphed over them all. It is instructive to consider the causes of the partial success and the final failure of these attempts to restore an evangelical Christianity.

The first of these protests against the corrupt teachings and life that had come to be prevalent in the church, even in the second century, was Montanism. Little is positively known about the origin of the Montanists, and even the existence of their reputed founder has been denied. Montanus is said to have been a native of Phrygia, a converted priest of Cybele, and began his teachings about 150. He soon gathered about him many followers, among whom were two women of rank, Maximilla and Priscilla (Prisca), who left their husbands to become evangelists of the new sect, among whom they were soon esteemed prophetesses. The new teaching spread with great rapidity, and for a time met with little opposition. We are more fortunate in regard to the Montanists than in the case of many “heretical” sects, for we are not dependent solely on their Catholic opponents for a knowledge of their teachings; a large part of the writings of Tertullian, their ablest adherent and advocate, are also available for our instruction in this matter. From these and other sources we gather that the characteristic doctrines of Montanism were three.

First, they clearly apprehended the fundamental truth that a church of Christ should consist of the regenerate only. As a result of the doctrine of sacramental grace, large numbers were becoming members of the church who, in the judgment of the most charitable, could not be regarded as regenerate. This was true of the adults baptized on profession of faith, and the case became continually worse as the practice of infant baptism extended. Montanus advocated a return to the principle of the New Testament—a spiritual church. His immediate followers called themselves “spiritual” Christians, as distinguished from the “carnal” who were found in the Catholic Church in great numbers. The Spirit of God has not only regenerated every Christian, they taught, but dwells in an especial manner in every believer, even as Jesus promised the Paraclete (John 16: 13).

So far the Montanists were strictly scriptural. But they went on to teach that by virtue of this indwelling of the Paraclete the “spiritual” not only received an illumination that enabled them to apprehend the truth already revealed, but were given special revelations. The gifts of prophecy and divine inspiration were therefore perpetual in the church. The Montanistic prophets spoke with tongues, with accompaniments of ecstasy and trance. Montanus himself seems to have brought over to his Christian faith not a few of his heathen notions. Soothsaying and divination, accompanied by ecstasy and trance, were characteristic of the Cybele cultus; and though the Montanists rejected the soothsaying and divination as Satanic, they believed the ecstasy and trance to be marks of divine communications. The revelations thus received by these prophets were held to be supplementary, and in a sense superior, to Scripture. A special sanctity was attributed to the sayings of Montanus, Maximilla, and Prisca; but the few examples that have been preserved seem in nowise remarkable.

This was perhaps the gravest departure of Montanism from the model of New Testament Christianity on which it professed to be formed. This single note shows a complete separation in spirit between Montanists and those whose fundamental belief is that in the canon of Scripture we have a complete and authoritative revelation from God, and that whatever contradicts the written word is of necessity to be rejected as untrue. One may trace a curious correspondence in many things between this Montanistic teaching and the doctrine regarding the “inner light” held by the Society of Friends; and an equally curious correspondence between the history of Montanism and the rise in our own day of the sect known as Irvingites, though they prefer to call themselves the Catholic Apostolic Church. It has often happened in the history of Christianity that a sect or party, beginning with the object of restoring the doctrine and practice of apostolic times, has fallen into fanaticism and false teaching, because, like Montanism, it failed to keep closely to the word of God, as the sole and sufficient rule of faith and practice, not to be supplemented by pretended new revelations any more than by the traditions of men. The supreme authority of the New Testament is the only safe principle for a reformation of religion; if the history of the church teaches anything it teaches that.

The second of the chief features in Montanism was a belief in the speedy coming of Christ to reign with his saints a thousand years. The fragmentary sayings of their prophets that have come down to us, the writings of Tertullian, and the testimonies of the Catholic writers against Montanism combine to make this certain. This chiliastic doctrine was then, as often in the later ages of Christianity, tinged with fanaticism. Wherever it has been held by any considerable body of Christians, it has been associated with grave errors and serious disturbances.

This teaching regarding the second coming of Christ doubtless gave a great stimulus to the ascetic spirit among the Montanists, which was their third leading characteristic. Their idea of a regenerate church naturally necessitated a strict discipline, but by no means discipline on an ascetic basis. The Scriptures teach the need of self-control, temperance, subduing the lust of the flesh, keeping the body under; but this victory is to be won by spiritual, not by physical means. Keeping the body under does not mean starving or macerating the body. The New Testament honors the body, and does not teach that it is the essential enemy of the spirit. That is a heathen notion, probably derived from the Manichseans, or possibly from the Gnostics, who also taught the essential evil of matter.

From some such source, certainly not from the Scriptures, the Montanists obtained the notion that to mortify the flesh is the road to heaven; and among them fasts and vigils were commended, if not commanded, as productive of the bodily state most conducive to holiness. In similar spirit they forbade the use of ornaments. They exalted virginity above marriage, as a state of greater purity, and forbade second marriage as equivalent to adultery. Seven sins were regarded as peculiarly deadly or mortal (pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, sloth), which when committed after baptism, might be forgiven by God, but should forever cut the sinner off from communion with the church.

At first Montanism was rather a party than a sect, an ecclesiola in ecclesia, and for a time it was tolerated by the bishop of Rome and seemed likely to prevail in the church. The Roman bishop finally rejected Montanism as a heresy, and his already recognized primacy in the West, at least, caused this decision to be generally accepted. Professor Moller 1Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia, article “Montanism.” is simply just when he says:

Soon the conflict assumed such a form that the Montanists were compelled to separate from the Catholic Church and form an independent or schismatic church. But Montanism was, nevertheless, not a new form of Christianity; nor were the Montanists a new sect. On the contrary, Montanism was simply a reaction of the old, the primitive church, against the obvious tendency of the church of the day—to strike a bargain with the world, and arrange herself comfortably in it.

Much nonsense has been written by historians about Montanism, because they could not or would not grasp this idea. The Montanists were in general rigidly orthodox, and no serious aberration from the Catholic faith is alleged against them by their opponents. No council formally condemned them, and they were treated as schismatics rather than as heretics. For their schism the Catholic Church was responsible; they did not go out, they were driven out from the church. The church at large resisted and rejected the reformation that Montanism attempted, but it adopted precisely those features in Montanism that were least scriptural—namely, its asceticism, and its belief that the written revelation admits of supplementary revelations. There is this difference, however, that Rome makes the Spirit dwell in the church at large, not in each believer, so that his revelations are made through the church, and especially through its head, both church and pope being preserved from error by this indwelling Spirit.

Of course the Montanists immersed—no other baptism, so far as we know, was practised by anybody in the second century. There is no evidence that they baptized infants, and their principle of a regenerate church would naturally require the baptism of believers only. In their polity they seem not to have differed from the Catholics; for, though Tertullian speaks as if the idea of the priesthood of all believers was prevalent among them, he also speaks of “bishop and clergy,” and the “ecclesiastical order.” The only natural conclusion, from his undoubtedly Montanistic writings, is that the Montanist bishop was like the Catholic, an officer above the presbyter in rank and authority.

Montanism declined rapidly after the fourth century, though traces of it are found as late as the sixth. It has seemed worth while to set down thus fully the ascertained facts concerning this party, because many writers have claimed that the Montanists were Baptists in all but the name. Nothing has been said concerning them except what is abundantly proved by their own literature; and every intelligent reader will be able to judge for himself in what respects they held the views of modern Baptists and how far they diverged from what we hold to be the teachings of the Scriptures.

Another partial reformation of the church was attempted by the Novatians about the middle of the third century. Novatian was the man whose clinic baptism has already been described. He recovered from his supposed mortal sickness and was ordained a presbyter by Fabian, bishop of the church of Rome. When Fabian died, in 250, there was a vacancy in the office for about a year. The terrible Decian persecution was then raging, and many Christians, overcome by the prospect of death, denied the faith and sacrificed to the emperor. The question soon arose, What should be done with these faithless Christians (lapsi) when they afterward professed penitence, and desired to be readmitted into the church?

Two views prevailed, and soon two rival parties in the church advocated them. One party favored a strict discipline; those who had lapsed had committed mortal sin through their idolatry and should remain perpetually excluded from the church—though even the stricter party conceded that if one of the lapsed were sick unto death he should be absolved. The other party held that perpetual exclusion of the lapsed from the church and its sacraments—in which alone salvation could be found— was to anticipate the judgment of God. They, therefore would take a more merciful view of the infirmity of those who had yielded under the stress of persecution, and would restore the lapsed to the communion of the church, after a public confession and a period of probation.

During the vacancy in the Roman episcopate, Novatian was the leading man in the church, and strongly inclined toward the stricter discipline. The laxer party seem, however, to have been in the majority, and in 251 they elected Cornelius as bishop. His election appears to have been entirely regular, but the stricter party would not acknowledge him, and chose Novatian, who was consecrated by three obscure Italian bishops. A synod held at Rome, probably in October, 257, excommunicated him and his followers. Thereafter they constituted a separate sect, called by their opponents Novatians, but themselves preferring the title of Cathari (the pure). The Novatians were the earliest Anabaptists; refusing to recognize as valid the ministry and sacraments of their opponents, and claiming to be the true church, they were logically compelled to rebaptize all who came to them from the Catholic Church. The party gained great strength in Asia Minor, where many Montanists joined it, and in spite of persecution, the Novatians survived to the sixth or seventh century. In this case, as generally, persecution stimulated what it would have destroyed.

The Donatist party in Africa, like the Novatians in Rome, seemed to originate in a mere squabble over an office. Two parties were formed in the church of Carthage regarding the treatment of those who had surrendered the sacred books to be burned during the Diocletian persecution (303-311). These traditores, as they were called, incurred great odium. When Caecilian was elected bishop of Carthage in 311, it was as the representative of those who favored the readmission of traditores to the church on easy terms. He was consecrated bishop by Felix of Aptunga, instead of Secundas of Tigisis, the primate of Numidia. This was irregular, yet not in itself invalid; but the stricter party refused to recognize Caecilian, on the ground that Felix was a traditor, and even Caecilian himself was not above suspicion on this score. The real issue at stake was not who should be bishop of Carthage, but what should be the character of that church, and of the Christian churches of Africa generally. Dr. Schaff says of the controversy, writing with a candor and insight not common among church historians:


The Donatist controversy was a conflict between separatism and catholicism; between ecclesiastical purism and ecclesiastical eclecticism; between the idea of the church as an exclusive community of regenerate saints and the idea of the church as the general christendom of State and people. It revolved around the doctrine of the essence of the Christian church, and, in particular, of the predicate of holiness. . . The Donatists . . . laid chief stress on the predicate of the subjective holiness or personal worthiness of the several members, and made the catholicity of the church and the efficacy of the sacraments dependent upon that. The true church, therefore, is not so much a school of holiness, as a society of those who are already holy; or at least of those who appear so; for that there are hypocrites, not even the Donatists could deny, and as little could they in earnest claim infallibility in their own discernment of men. By the toleration of those who are openly sinful, the church loses her holiness, and ceases to be a church.2History of the Christian Church,” Vol. III., p. Ms.

Unfortunately, the Donatists made one capital error: they appealed to the civil power to decide the question that was in its essence spiritual. Donatus himself, who was chosen bishop of Carthage by the stricter party in 315, seems to have been opposed from the first to the intermeddling of the emperor with religious questions, but his party was not controlled by him in this matter. Constantine referred the dispute first to a select committee of bishops, then to the synod of Aries, and finally decided the question himself on appeal. All these decisions were against the Donatists; and after the case had irrevocably gone against them, they came out as stanch defenders of religious liberty, and denied the right of the civil power to meddle in matters of faith and discipline. Their disinterestedness in taking this stand would have been less open to suspicion if they had professed it in the first instance and abstained from all appeals to the imperial power against their opponents. One who appeals to a court for redress is estopped in honor, as well as in law, from afterward denying its jurisdiction.

Like the Novatians, the Donatists were Anabaptists, but their rebaptizing seems to have been based on a false idea, namely, that in baptism the chief thing is not the qualifications of the baptized, but those of the baptizer. The Donatists and Novatians both rebaptized those who came to them from the Catholic Church, not because they did not believe these persons regenerate when baptized, but because they denied the “orders” of the Catholic clergy. These ministers had been ordained by traditores, by bishops who were corrupt; they were members of a church that had apostatized from the pure faith, and therefore had no valid ministry or sacraments; and for this reason their baptism could not be accepted.

Neither of these attempted reformations was sufficiently radical. Novatians and Donatists seem to have shared the errors of the Catholic Church regarding sacramental grace; their episcopacy cannot be distinguished from that of the Catholic Church, and was certainly far from the simplicity of apostolic order. The Donatists, at any rate, seem to have practised infant baptism; on any other supposition the arguments of Augustine, in refutation of their errors, are unintelligible. Both sects grasped the great truth of the essentially spiritual nature of the church, the necessity of regeneration and a godly life to membership in it; but they failed to follow this truth to its logical implications and to return to the New Testament faith and practice in all things.

Many writers have treated this period as if the truth were only to be found with the so-called heretics, assuming that the Catholic Church must necessarily be always in the wrong. But such is by no means the case; we are, on the contrary, often compelled to admit that as between the heretical sects and the Catholic Church the truth was with the latter. Wrong doctrine and practice were by no means uniformly triumphant. This was especially evident in the notable controversies regarding the doctrine of the Person of Christ. Corrupt as Christianity was fast becoming, it had kept close to the Scripture in the fundamentals of Christian theology until the beginning of the fourth century. Then Arius, a presbyter of Alexandria, taught a doctrine, the germs of which may be found in the teachings of his predecessors (notably, Origen), but was first fully elaborated by his logical and acute mind. His teaching was that the Father alone is God, unbegotten, unchangeable. The Son is the first of created beings, who existed before the worlds were and created them; he is the Logos, the perfect image of God, and may be called God in a sense; but he is not eternal, for he had a beginning, and is not of the same substance as the Father. Arius was an adroit, fascinating man, and propagated his doctrine industriously. It obtained great currency in Palestine and Nicomedia, and spread to all parts of the empire, threatening to displace the orthodox faith.

This spread was accompanied by much bitter controversy, and this fact moved Constantine to interfere. He was anxious, for political reasons, to preserve the peace and unity of the church, otherwise its value to him as an instrument of governing was gone. He therefore summoned a council of the bishops of the church, who, to the number of more than 300, assembled at Nicaea in 325. When he accepted Christianity, he made it the religion— or, at least, a religion—of the State. The emperor was the Pontifex Maximus of the old religion, its official head and high priest; and though but a layman in the new faith, he nevertheless aspired to a similar position of authority. Constantine, though at that time not even baptized, presided in his robes of State at the council of Nice, took an influential part in its business and greatly influenced if he did not practically dictate its findings. This council decided against the Arians and adopted the orthodox creed that, with some later changes, still bears its name.

Under Julian the apostate, orthodoxy suffered a reverse and Arianism again seemed about to triumph; but when Theodosius I. became emperor—he having been trained under Nicene influences—he used all his power, and successfully, to suppress the heresy. The conflict was practically ended with the council of Constantinople (381), which readopted the Nicene creed, and from that time Arianism gradually disappears as a dangerous heresy, though it often reappeared in later ages. For a time, indeed, a form of semi-Arianism lingered in the church. The orthodox maintained that the Son is of the same substance with the Father (homo-ousion); the Arians that he is of a different substance (hetero-ousion); the semi-Arians that he is of a like substance (homoiousion). Like most compromises, semi-Arianism could not be permanently acceptable to either party; to the orthodox it seemed as objectionable as Arianism itself, while to the Arians, though they were at first willing to accept it as a compromise (indeed, it came near getting into the Nicene creed), it seemed to concede too much to orthodoxy.

Athanasius, the leader of the orthodox party, in its struggle against Arianism, was born in Alexandria about 298, received a good education and entered the ministry. At the time of the council of Nice he was not more than twenty-seven years of age, and only an archdeacon, but he was one of the most prominent of the orthodox party and had a large share in the definition of the creed adopted. A similar and even more remarkable case of theological precocity is that of Calvin, who published his immortal ” Institutes ” at the age of twentyseven. In June, 328, Athanasius was chosen bishop of Alexandria, but was fiercely opposed from the first by the party of Arius. Three times they succeeded in driving him from the city, twice by order of the emperor and once by violence. At one time it seemed a case of Athanasius contra mundum—this one man against the world; but with the victory of the orthodox party, he was suffered to return to Alexandria and there to pass his remaining days. He died in May, 373, before the council of Constantinople registered the final triumph of the orthodox faith.

Athanasius saw clearly that a true doctrine of God was the only foundation for the absoluteness of Christianity. He defended Christianity as truly divine, the highest revelation, an absolute and final revelation; clearly seeing that, if the Arian doctrine were true, Christianity could be merely relatively true, and might be superseded by a more perfect revelation, or even by a higher human philosophy. He rightly contended, therefore, that the religion of Christ would be empty and meaningless if he who is set forth in the Scriptures as the one who unites God and man in real unity of being is not the absolute God, but merely the first of created beings. There could be no mediation between God and man by such a being, and the heart is therefore taken out of Christianity by Arianism. Athanasius was a doughty champion of the truth. His exegesis of Scripture is often faulty, but his dialectical skill was great, and in his extant writings he shows the philosophic contradictions and absurdities of the Arian system in a masterly way. Selections from these writings have been translated into English, and may be found in Vol. IV. of the “Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers” (second series). The so-called Athanasian creed, though long confidently attributed to him, is certainly not his composition, and cannot be positively traced to an earlier period than the eighth century. This creed was expunged from the prayerbook of the Episcopal Church in the United States in 1785, but it is still required to be said or sung thirteen times a year in every parish of the Church of England.


1 Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia, article “Montanism.”
2 History of the Christian Church,” Vol. III., p. Ms.

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