Monday, June 19, 2017

Précis: “Orthodoxy,” “Heresy,” and Complexity: Montanism as a Case Study (Rex D Butler)

“Orthodoxy,” “Heresy,” and Complexity: Montanism as a Case Study (Rex D Butler)
A Précis of
Chapter 5 from
Orthodoxy and Heresy in Early Christian Contexts: Reconsidering the Bauer Thesis. edited by Paul A. Hartog, Pickwick Publications, Eugene, Oregon, 2015.


The group of Christians that later became known as “orthodox” are known from documentary evidence to have existed early, throughout a very widespread area, and and very consistent in the expression of their beliefs. Groups that are known as heretics from the early ages are almost universally later, show up as local phenomena, and differ greatly from one another as well as from the orthodox.

While the term “orthodox” was not used in Scripture or in wide use by the post-Apostolic Fathers until the 4th century, the terms “heresy” and “schism” were in use to describe departures from a normative body of teaching/doctrine of Scripture which the Apostles and post-Apostolic Fathers defended. “Such references to heresy, however, do not disprove the existence of orthodoxy but, rather, presuppose it…. Prior to the linguistic delineation of ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘heresy,’ Christian leaders nonetheless possessed and transmitted what they considered to be apostolic teachings and/or traditions….” (p. 117) And the body of these normative teachings is found in Scripture and in the documents of the early Church.

Butler examines Montanism in some detail because Bauer maintained that this movement was an example to fortify his thesis. However, Montanism was not early, beginning in the late 2nd century it comes after normative Christianity is already documented. Montanism in the late 2nd century is a purely local phenomenon, whereas normative Christianity is already established throughout the Mediterranean and the Near East. And while normative Christianity already has a body of accepted doctrine, Montanism maintained that it was new, and was itself open to new and divergent teachings.

“The new prophets’ messages were recorded, collected,and circulated; and, therefore, another, more serious charge was leveled against the Montanists: that they revered these writings as authoritative, like those written by the apostles.”(p. 125) Butler surveys the early church’s reaction to several of Montanism’s distinct teachings and practices-reaction to some of which was very mixed.

They were condemned as heretics, non-Christians, by assemblies prior to that of the Council of Iconium (ca. 230-235). Their non-biblical teaching on the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit was recognized as a false portrayal of the God of Scripture. Because they did not confess the Trinity accurately the Council of Iconium mandated that people coming from Montanism into the Church needed to be baptized. Their previous baptism in Montanism was not in the name of the true God even though they may have used the same words as Christ gave in Matthew 28. However the data about and from Montanism is more mixed than the declaration from the Council of Iconium might lead one to expect.

Butler reviews the reception of Montanism in North Africa, particularly by Tertullian, who embraced the New Prophecy, and in a writing titled the Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas. The issue with this document is that it shows signs of Montanist influence, but it does not clearly embrace Montanism. There are clear statements by the editor that show the influence of the New Prophecy. But it may be that the brand of Montanism that came to Carthage was much more orthodox in its teachings than that of Asia Minor.

Butler states: “Elsewhere, I have argued that if Montanism were anything other than theologically orthodox, it would not have attracted the adherence of Tertullian, who was a committed Christian apologist and polemicist. The rejection of Montanism, therefore, resulted from other issues-not heterodoxy, but heteropraxy; not incorrect doctrines, but unacceptable practices.”(p. 138)

Thus Montanism was rejected as heretical in Asia Minor, but was considered generally orthodox in North Africa. This may be due to a number of factors, including significant differences in teaching and practice between the two Montanist movements at these different locations.


“The complexities involved in the history of Montanism should not necessarily be construed to support the Bauer Thesis, but they do demonstrate the diversity within normative Christianity during its early centuries.”(p. 140) This also demonstrates that two groups having the same name may not be the same in teaching and practice. Thus it would hazardous to conclude that the Montanism condemned in Asia Minor as anti-Trinitarian is the same Montanism embraced by Tertullian, who himself remained a staunch Trinitarian and defender of orthodoxy.

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