Montanism and the Toronto Blessing

A friend of mine was once praying before an event with a woman from the Toronto Airport Church. They formed a huddle, as you do before a football game, and were praying. The lady said that the Holy Spirit was going to give them the gift of holy laughter. Now, this woman was … large and well-endowed. And as they prayed, she began to laugh. And as she laughed, she shook up and down, jostling and rubbing against the people on either side of her. They began laughing because it was, well, awkward and amusing. And so did the rest of the huddle.

There was no Holy Spirit in that laughter.

My other Toronto Airport Church story is about a friend who went to hear a visiting preacher there. The preacher got barely more than ten minutes in when the cacophony began — the holy laughter, the barking like dogs, the clucking like chickens, the rolling on the floor. The noise was so loud and disruptive that the preacher was unable to continue. My friend said that it moved across the auditorium from right to left, moving like a contagion.

People who are acquainted with the Toronto Airport Church and the Toronto Blessing, as well as others from the depths of the charismatic/Pentecostal movement, are always interested to discover the second-century group of Christians known as Montanists. The opponents of these charismatic manifestations tend to be equally pleased. The former group find legitimacy in Montanists while the latter proclaim that the Church has already dealt with this and moved on.

Our sources for Montanism are sparse. Many of them come from Tertullian, but using Tertullian as a source for Montanism is dangerous for a variety of reasons. First of all, his alleged ‘Montanist’ period is about fifty years after Montanus — is Tertullian’s experience and witness viable evidence for second-century Montanism? Second, he is in Carthage, not Phrygia — many of the rigorist elements common to Montanism are also popular in ‘mainstream’ North African Christianity. Third, he is idiosyncratic anyway; could some of his teachings attributed to Montanism be simply because he was a grumpy old man?

Our other main source is called ‘Anonymous’, for the obvious reason that we don’t know who wrote it. You can find the ‘Anonymous’ in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, Book 5. ‘Anonymous’ was clearly writing about Montanism after the fact. It is also a hostile source. Some of what ‘Anonymous’ relates the author even admits may not be true. Furthermore, could not Eusebius have chosen those bits of ‘Anonymous’ that were best for his worldview? Could he not have consciously not introduced others that opposed him?

Third, we have the evidence of Epiphanius of Salamis, Cyprus. What can we say about him? Like Eusebius, he writes in the fourth century. As well, he has a habit of making up early heresies. This is not to say that Montanism never existed, but should cast some doubt about how reliable Epiphanius is as a source.

Nevertheless, what seems to be the case in Montanism is that people of any sort — women, the uneducated, people who are not priests — would be overcome by the Spirit. They would then, in the state of ecstasy, make utterances, some of them described as babbling, others of them prophetic. And unlike other prophets, they would speak in the first person as the Spirit, rather than, ‘The Spirit says …’

Here  are some purported Montanist sayings:

Behold a man is as a lyre, and I fly over it like a plectrum. The man sleeps and I remain awake. Behold it is the Lord that stirs the hearts of men, and gives men hearts. (Attrib. to Montanus by Epiphanius)

I am the Lord God Almighty, dwelling in man. It is neither angel nor ambassador, but I, God the Father, who am come. (Attrib. to Montanus by Epiphanius)

After me shall be no prophetess any more, but the consummation … (Attrib. to Maximilla by Epiphanius)

These are the sorts of things the opponents of Montanism passed down to posterity. You can see how they would make people uneasy. No doubt other things were uttered by the ‘Montanist’ prophets, things far less controversial. The official causes of their condemnation were these controversial types of utterances as well as the state of ecstasy in which the utterances were given.

Now, as we saw with St. Basil On the Holy Spirit, prophecy was an accepted reality in the ancient church. Thus, it is not prophesying that is the problem the authorities had. Their problem was, as I said, the ecstatic state. They maintained that true prophets would make their proclamations in their right minds after the ecstasy had passed. They also maintained that the prophet himself was never possessed by the Spirit him/her/itself, and so things like the above would be totally out of order. They also believed that the Spirit is a Spirit of order, not chaos; the inane babblings were not part of their vision of true prophecy.

Back to Toronto and such.

I grew up in the charismatic wing of Anglicanism. But we kept things tame on Sunday mornings. The Eucharist was the main event, but while we went up for Communion, you could go for prayer ministry at the side and pray in tongues and get slain in the Spirit and all of that. No problem. There was a woman in our congregation who would often geat words from the Lord. She would share them with my dad, the minister, and then he would share them with the congregation. Everything was done as St Paul recommends — orderly. But there was room for the Spirit.

I am not opposed to contemporary prophets or visions or people with rigorist disciplines or praying in tongues or being slain in the Spirit. But I cannot reconcile the events of Acts and the advice of the Pauline epistles with the sort of mayhem that is unleashed at the Toronto Airport Church. I will not go so far as to say that it is from the Devil, as some do and as Epiphanius and ‘Anonymous’ do about the Montanists. But I just don’t think that’s the way we were meant to use the gifts of the Spirit and offer worship unto God.

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5 thoughts on “Montanism and the Toronto Blessing

  1. Also, for full disclosure, I teach at a church affiliated with the LCMS, and we are starting Vespers and Matins this coming week in honor of All-Saints Day, and yours truly has been given the task of being a sort of “cantor…” so I suppose my chant needs to improve!

  2. The larger church we are in is only 15 percent “cradle Lutheran,” so there is a greater knowledge and appreciation of the different orthodox Christian traditions. We also live in an area that has a very large heterodox/heretic group (Mormons, 50 percent of the population), which forces Christians to work together even if just for pragmatic reasons. We have several former Anglican/Episcopalians who left for a more faithful church body because of what has happened over the last couple of decades. The local group here has “jumped the ship” and complete left historic Christianity. The closest orthodox and tradition minded Anglican church is about 200 miles away. Or should I make that 320 kilometers for you…

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