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.

What makes Perpetua special? Journal and Visions

Perpetua and Felicity

I read the Passio Perpetuae (from c. 204) for the second time today; the first was for a course I was auditing, this time for a course I am TAing/tutoring. First let me tell you what does not make her special: specious, imagined similarities between her and suicide bombers, as I blogged last time I read this text. And now let me tell you what makes this early third-century Latin Christian text special: Perpetua’s journal and the visions it includes.

The eyewitness editor/composer of this document included in it Perpetua’s journal from when she was in prison before her martyrdom. Thus, we get a first-hand account of the life of martyrs before martyrdom. Of the visits and bribes of fellow believers, the pleas of pagan family members to renounce Christianity, the transfers of cells, the trial. This alone makes Perpetua’s journal special.

The first of the two main things that makes it special is that it is by a woman. Very often people say, ‘Well, if you’re going to talk patristics, talk matristics as well.’ Or something like that. Well, that would be nice — it would give us an insight into how women in early Christianity thought about things. But the field of matristics includes Perpetua, Egeria (who wrote a semi-pilgrimage travelogue), and a few bits of sayings from the Desert Mothers — oh, and (apparently) a Syriac nun’s life.

So, while I really don’t care if something is by a woman in and of itself (I care if it is interesting in other ways as well, generally), in a field where so few documents are by women, Perpetua stands out. She also stands out as a Roman, since the only other female Latin writers I know of are Sulpicia (an elegiac poet), Egeria, and female imperial correspondants in the realm of epistolography. So Perpetua is special simply by showing us something of the life and thoughtworld of women in the reign of Septimius Severus.

And what a thoughtworld it is! Perpetua is also special because of her visions. People generally assume this document and Perpetua are part of the New Prophecy that spread West to Carthage (where Perpetua died) from Asia Minor — eventually, this movement within mainstream, ‘catholic’, ‘proto-orthodox’ Christianity was condemned as the Phrygian heresy or — it’s more popular name — Montanism. The editor seems to be certainly favourable towards the ‘Montanist’ position, saying that just as the Lord gave words to men of old — prophets and apostles — so He can give a new word to people today.

Mind you, we must always be cautious of these appellations. If we read a quick snap of what ‘Montanism’ is from a dictionary of heresies, we may have completely mislabelled the variety we find in Perpetua’s passion. Furthermore, even if the editor is ‘Montanist’, Perpetua may not be. Having visions does not make one a Montanist; ask the patriarch Jacob or St Peter or St Paul or various Desert Fathers or St Hildegard or St Bernard or any number of modern charismatic Anglicans (of course, some of this latter group may basically be Montanists without knowing it).

The visions/dreams are themselves interesting, the whole Montanist question aside. I am especially fond of the first. It’s so good, I’m going to break a rule and quote it in full:

I see a bronze ladder of great size, reaching all the way to heaven, and so narrow that people could only climb up one at a time. And on the sides of the ladder were fixed all kinds of iron things. There were swords there and lances and hooks and cutlasses and javelins, so that if anybody climbed up carelessly or without looking up, he would be mangled and his flesh would get caught on the iron things. (4.4) And just below the ladder there was a huge snake, asleep. He was lying in wait for people climbing up, and he was terrifying them so they wouldn’t climb up. (4.5) But Saturus climbed up first – he had turned himself in voluntarily for our sake (because he is the one who had instructed us), and then, when we were picked up, he hadn’t been there.5 (4.6) And he reached the top of the ladder and turned around and said to me, ‘Perpetua, I’m waiting for you. But see that that snake doesn’t bite you.’ And I said, ‘It will not harm me – in the name of Jesus Christ.’ (4.7) And from beneath the ladder, it stuck its head out slowly, as if it was afraid of me. And I stepped on its head, as if I was stepping on the first rung, and I climbed up. (4.8) And I saw a vast expanse of garden, and in the middle of it sat a white-haired old man dressed like a shepherd – a big man – milking sheep. And standing around him were many thousands in white robes. (4.9) And he raised his head and looked at me and said to me, ‘Welcome, child.’ And he called me and gave me as it were a morsel of the cheese which he was milking. And I took it with hands joined and I ate. And all those standing round said ‘Amen’.

Two things strike me most about this vision: the ladder and the cheese. I cannot read this ladder imagery without thinking first of Jacob’s Ladder from Genesis, where the patriarch saw the angels of God ascending and descending. As well, we have ascent imagery in later ascetic and mystical texts such as the Syriac Liber Graduum and St John Climacus’ Ladder of Divine Ascent. When I think ladders, I am also reminded of Andrew Louth’s book The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition, wherein he discusses the Neo-Platonic images of ascent that were very influential in Origen and Evagrius, in particular.

The cheese seems eucharistic to me.

Perpetua’s other visions are interesting as well. They seem strikingly real, like the sort of weird dreams actual people have. And unlike St Hildegard, Perpetua does not give us a long, involved exegesis of her dreams. We are left to see in them what we will. This I like.

The Passion of Perpetua is interesting and short. I recommend you read it.