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Quakers and Montanists

I wrote earlier about Paul Tillich's comments on Montanism, mystics, and Quakers, where Tillich speculated about the flames of ecstasy dwindling into rationalism. Jaroslav Pelikan's The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition doesn't compare Montanists and Quakers directly, but his description of this very early group (~150 AD) echoes the story of early Quakerism:

Nathanael Bonwetsch defined primitive Montanism as follows: "An effort to shape the entire life of the church in keeping with the expectation of the return of Christ, immediately at hand; to define the essence of true Christianity from this point of view; and to oppose everything by which conditions in the church were to acquire a permanent form for the purpose of entering upon a longer historical development...."

In the explication of his thesis, Bonwetsch placed the principal stress upon Montanism's attitude toward questions of the Christian life in relation to the world, and he saw it as the first outstanding movement to be called forth by a concern with these questions....

the explanation of the origins of Montanism lies in the fact that when the apocalyptic vision became less vivid and the church's polity more rigid, the extraordinary operations of the Spirit characteristic of the early church diminished in both frequency and intensity. The decline in the eschatological hope and the rise of the monarchical episcopate are closely interrelated phenomena worthy of special treatment; both indicate a process of settling already at work in the second-century church, and perhaps earlier, by which many Christians were beginning to adjust themselves to the possibility that the church might have to live in the world for a considerable time to come. Part of that process of settling was the gradual decline, both in intensity and in frequency, of the charismata that had been so prominent in the earlier stages of the Christian movement.... (98-99)

Reading this reminded me of the excitement Doug Gwyn conveys in Apocalypse of the Word when he talks about the impact of Fox's announcement that "Christ is come to teach His people himself", and the battles Fox had with those who by the 1650s seemed to reject 'charismata' completely, as something long since past. Early Christians didn't make that claim, particularly, against the Montanists.

It therefore seems to be correct to note that this type of prophetic speech was at home in the Montanist sect and in the greater church. But the tone of this insistence on the part of the critics of Montanism seems to indicate a certain amount of embarrassment on their part in practice if not in principle the charismata were becoming rarer and rarer. Despite their assertion of the theoretical possibility of prophecy in the church, the other guarantees of the presence and work of the Spirit in their midst were becoming so firm in their minds that when Montanism claimed to actuate this theoretical possibility with a vengeance, they were put to a severe test. (100)

Montanism laid claim to supernatural inspiration by the Holy Spirit as the source of its prophecy, and it pointed to the moral decline of the church as the main reason for having lost this power of the Spirit. Most orthodox writers in the second and even in the third century maintained that such inspiration by the Holy Spirit was not only possible, but present and active in the church. In meeting the challenge of Montanism, they could not, for the most part, take the approach that the age of supernatural inspiration had passed. Among the earliest critics of Montanism, there was no effort to discredit the supernatural character of the new prophecy. (105-6)

This is deeply different from most of the responses Fox received - by 1650 the focus was on scripture, even the old traditions of the church in various degrees cast off by reformers. Like Montanism's opponents, however, Quakerism's opponents found dark causes for Quaker inspiration:

Instead, these critics affirmed that the ecstatic seizures of the Montanists were indeed supernatural in origin, but claimed that the supernatural involved was not the Holy Spirit of God but demonic spirits.

I'll have more to say later on some of the connections between the areas that produced Quakerism and stories of witchcraft, but these kinds of questions still arise for any kind of supernatural message, along with the questions of insanity.

The impact of the Montanists would create problems for later mystics and prophets, however, as Hippolytus of Rome, first antipope but eventual saint, established a new path:

Yet the decline of genuine prophecy and of the extraordinary functioning of the Spirit among the ranks of the catholic church tended to reduce the effectiveness of this charge that the prophecy of the Montanists was a pseudoprophecy because its supernatural source was demonic.

There was another way to meet the doctrinal implications of the Montanist challenge, and in the long run that was the way orthodoxy took... [Hippolytus] recognized that the weakness which Montanism had discovered in the church lay in the church's concept of a continuing prophecy. This concept was of a piece with a vivid eschatology; for apocalyptic has always, as suggested by its very name, which means "revelatory", brought with it the notion of supplementary revelation, by which among other things, the apocalypticist is convinced that the end has truly come.

More consistently than most of the anti-Montanist writers were willing to do, Hippolytus subjected to question the very foundations of the Montanist movement. He was franker than most of his contemporaries in admitting that the church was not necessarily living in the last times, and in opposition to Montanism he defended the process by which the church was beginning to reconcile itself to the delay in the Lord's second coming.

As he pushed the time of the second coming into the future, so he pushed the time of prophecy into the past. It had ended with the apostle John, whose Apocalypse Hippolytus maintained was the last valid prophecy to have come from the Holy Spirit. And though John was entitled to claim the inspiration of the Spirit for his prophetic work, later so-called prophets had no such right....

As Schepelern has summarized the situation, "A half century earlier such a movement could still count on ecclesiastical recognition. Between the preaching of judgment by John and that by Montanus, however, there lies the decisive phase in the development of the church's organization and ministry, and the free manifestations of the Spirit protest against their authority in vain"...

In this way, the apostles became a sort of spiritual aristocracy, and the first century a golden age of the Spirit's activity. The difference between the Spirit's activity in the days of the apostolic church and in the history of the church became a difference not only of degree but fundamentally of kind, and the promises of the New Testament on the coming of the Holy Spirit were referred primarily to the Pentecost event and only through that event, via the apostles, to the subsequent ages of the church.

The promise that the Spirit would lead into all truth, which figured prominently in Montanist doctrine, now meant principally, if not exclusively, that the Spirit would lead the apostles into all truth as they composed the creed and books of the New Testament, and the church into all truth when it was build on their foundation. Here too, the transition was gradual, and it was not complete. The history of the church has never been altogether without the spontaneous gifts of the Holy Spirit, even where the authority of the apostolic norms has been most incontestable. In the experiences of monks and friars, of mystics and seers, as well as in the underground religion of many believers, the Montanist heresy has carried on a sort of unofficial existence. (106-8)

I'd always wondered why the sense I had of "church" felt so hard to square with what I actually read in the New Testament. The Gospels, Acts, and Letters describe people caught up in the Lord, experiencing Christ even when, as with Paul, they never actually met him in the flesh, but rather through the spirit. Hippolytus seems to be the writer who takes the (perhaps inevitable) step of declaring their experience completely different from ours, leaving us merely to be inspired by their writings but not to share the experience... that they invite us to share.

Though Quakerism (definitely) varies from Montanism in the details of what it finds in the Spirit, it's hard not to see the early Quakers rebelling not just against their fellow Protestants but against a line of argument that extends back to the second century. Early Quakers' fondness for "primitive Christianity" and their insistence on experience brings them back to expectations set before Hippolytus and a church that needed order.

Quakers have faced a similar problem of an end that hasn't arrived, and haven't spent much time as a movement proclaiming the nearness of the end since the 1650s, despite that perspective having helped define Quaker testimonies. 350 years later, however, Quakers still gather to listen for Christ, here to teach his people himself.


So it was Hippolytus! Funny, but I never thought it would have come down to a single person like that. (And I even have Pelikan's book, but never thought to look in it for the answer.)

Thanks for sharing the insight, Simon!