Did the Montanist’s speak in tongues and is this the historical antecedent for tongues in the church today?
The christian doctrine of tongues can be traced backward in two ways. The first one through ecclesiastical literature which chronicles the passing of this rite through the centuries and marks how it has evolved. The second and more popular way is to trace the lineage back to pagan Greek antecedents. Montanism is one of the key steps in this second order. Pentecostals and Charismatics take this second option further and claim Montanism and their alleged speaking in tongues as their historical parallel.
This article is an in-depth investigation to find an answer to the above question. In accordance with the goals of the Gift of Tongues Project, source texts are provided, analyzed and commented on. Such details may seem boorish for the regular reader, but the lack of source literature and analysis is one of the greatest problems that have plagued the modern christian doctrine of tongues debate.
What is Montanism and the source texts for this controversy?
In a simplified form, it was begun by a man named Montanus around 162 AD and aided by two women, Maximilla and Priscilla. Montanism lasted up until the 6th century. For a deeper historical overview of the Montanist movement, an old publication, Cyclopaedia of Biblical, theological, and ecclesiastical literature, Volume 6 covers the movement in the best detail to help the reader get up to speed with the debate at hand.
The movement is revealed through three major sources, Eusebius of Caesarea, Epiphanius Bishop of Salamis, and Tertullian. The first two write about the Montanists in very negative and vitriolic terms while Tertullian defended them. There are a number of works that allude to Epiphanius correlating Montanism with ecstatic utterances but substantiation or a source text similar to these claims has yet to be found. There are other citations about Montanists found in the writings of Jerome and Didymus of Alexandria, but these do not refer to the Montanist glossolalia controversy.
The most important source for the Montanists and glossolalia is Eusebius’ account. One must keep in mind that Eusebius’ account is a critical report of the Montanist movement. It contains over-the-top rhetoric which makes the reader wonder why so many resources and time were utilized against them. The strong attack causes one to either pity the Montanists or think there is an ulterior motive by the established church against them. Judging by the voracity of words, the Montanists must have been a populist movement that the institutional church felt threatened by.
Eusebius himself has his own internal doubts about the account provided to him by an unknown author and stated, “They say that these things happened in this manner. But as we did not see them, O friend, we do not pretend to know.” For that reason, Eusebius’ history should be taken with a degree of skepticism.
Eusebius’ source was trying to demonize the Montanists in almost every way. The wording and semantics are purposely kept distant from anything familiar to the christian faith.
The actual text used to link Montanist with Pentecostal speaking in tongues
The alleged Montanist experience is a brief account by Eusebius in his Historiae Ecclesiasticae who narrated about two Montanist followers who went into a state of ecstasy and uttered strange sounds. What exactly were the sounds? Were they foreign languages, ecstatic speech, or something else? Is this one of the earliest christian expressions of tongues after the first Pentecost? This is the crux of the discussion.
Here is the actual text :
There is said to be a certain village called Ardabau in that part of Mysia, which borders upon Phrygia. There first, they say, when Gratus was proconsul of Asia, a recent convert, Montanus by name, through his unquenchable desire for leadership, gave the adversary opportunity against him. And he became beside himself, and being suddenly in a sort of frenzy and ecstasy, he raved, and began to babble and utter strange things, prophesying in a manner contrary to the constant custom of the Church handed down by tradition from the beginning.
8. Some of those who heard his spurious utterances at that time were indignant, and they rebuked him as one that was possessed, and that was under the control of a demon, and was led by a deceitful spirit, and was distracting the multitude; and they forbade him to talk, remembering the distinction drawn by the Lord and his warning to guard watchfully against the coming of false prophets. But others imagining themselves possessed of the Holy Spirit and of a prophetic gift, were elated and not a little puffed up; and forgetting the distinction of the Lord, they challenged the mad and insidious and seducing spirit, and were cheated and deceived by him. In consequence of this, he could no longer be held in check, so as to keep silence.
9. Thus by artifice, or rather by such a system of wicked craft, the devil, devising destruction for the disobedient, and being unworthily honored by them, secretly excited and inflamed their understandings which had already become estranged from the true faith. And he stirred up besides two women, and filled them with the false spirit, so that they talked wildly and unreasonably and strangely, like the person already mentioned. And the spirit pronounced them blessed as they rejoiced and gloried in him, and puffed them up by the magnitude of his promises. But sometimes he rebuked them openly in a wise and faithful manner, that he might seem to be a reprover. But those of the Phrygians that were deceived were few in number.
The important sequences are:
- . . . and being suddenly in a sort of frenzy and ecstasy. . . — πνευματοφορηθῆναί τε καὶ αἰφνιδίως ἐν κατοχῇ τινι καὶ παρεκστάσει γενόμενον, ἐνθουσιᾶν.
I don’t know how the English translator worked it out that way. An alterntive would be: “that he was inspired by a spirit and suddenly became elated in some type of catatonic stupor and spurious ecstasy.”
- . . .began to babble and utter strange things. . . — ἄρξασθαί τε λαλεῖν καὶ ξενοφωνεῖν
- . . .spurious utterances. . . —
The glossolalia connection
The interpretation of this text centres around the word glossolalia. If the Montanists were glossalists, then there is a potential connection to the ancient christian rite of speaking in tongues. If not, then there is no connection with the christian community and the discussion is irrelevant.
Anyone who tries to make this association assumes that glossolalia was a special rite of speech practised by the ancient christian community. This assumption ignores that glossolalia is a new definition added to the christian doctrine of tongues that started in the early 1800s. This term should not be used to describe antecedents to the christian doctrine of tongues any earlier than this, but since the term glossolalia is so popular in the minds of contemporary scholars and readers alike, it will be permitted so that this discussion can run its course.
The importance of Montanism in the christian doctrine of tongues
Pentecostal scholars such as Rev. Heidi Baker parallel their tongues-speaking experience with the Montanists. She also holds a widely held belief in pentecostal circles that the primitivist virtues of the earliest church were lost when the church was institutionalized, regained by the Montanists, then forgotten again, until finally revived by the pentecostal movement 1800 years later. The acclaimed Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements edited primarily by Stanley Burgess, a “distinguished professor of christian history at Regent University and Professor Emeritus, Missouri State University” claims that that gift of speaking in tongues flourished with the Montanists and later influenced the glossolalic speaking eighteenth-century Camisards in south-central France. The Camisards then left a legacy for modern Pentecostals to follow.
The Presbyterian minded Biblical scholar who has closely studied the pentecostal movement, F. Dale Bruner, believes there is a connection between the two; “Montanism interests us as the prototype of almost everything Pentecostalism seeks to represent.”
Indeed looking at the Montanist movement, especially the coverage given by the renowned nineteenth-century scholar, August Neander, as found in his book, The History of the Christian Religion and Church during the First Three Centuries (Page 327), demonstrates many parallels between the two parties. However, this commonality does not mean an automatic connection with speaking in tongues which some suggest or want to happen. The pentecostal affinity to the Montanist experience makes it necessary to see if the Montanist story is a serious contributor to the history of christians speaking in tongues.
An essential keyword missing.
If one looks closely into the details, the actual historic evidence that equates Montanism with the gift of tongues is very weak. The critical Greek keyword which is used throughout the New Testament writings in reference to tongues speaking, γλῶσσα — glôssa does not appear in the text. This is required to definitively connect Montanist glossolalia with the church rite. This word connection does not exist.
This omission is a very crucial point. In order to reinforce this fact, the Greek, Latin and an English translation can be found at the following link: Eusebius on Montanism. The source work reinforces the skeptical reader that the critical Greek keyword is not there.
Two scholars, two different outcomes
Christopher Forbes and Rex D. Butler try to answer the question about the Montanists and glossolalia but come up with different results.
Christopher Forbes, who “is a Senior Lecturer in Ancient History, and Deputy Chairman of the Society for the Study of Early Christianity” at Macquarie University, argued that there is no conclusive evidence the Montanists used glossolalia.
If Montanist prophecy was in any sense analogous to glossolalia it is quite remarkable that no ancient writer ever noticed or commented on this fact. Though it is certainly true that Montanist prophecy was characterised by ecstasy (in the modern sense), and occasionally by oracular obscurity, there is no unambiguous evidence whatsoever that it took glossolalic form.
Rex D. Butler, Associate Professor of Church History and Patristics, at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary goes in the opposite direction. He reported that the elements of the Montanist text all correlate with glossolalia and directly counters Forbe’s claims.
His first argument rests on the role of the interpreter. If the prophecy was given in intelligible speech why would the service of the prophetess Maximillia, an interpreter ἑρμηνεύτην, be required?
Secondly, he charged that Forbes failed to recognize that the prophets utilized both intelligible and unintelligible speech. Third, he argued against Forbes definition of ξενοφωνεῖν. Forbes believed it to mean to speak as a foreigner while Butler believed it to mean to speak strangely. Butler further adds if it is combined with λαλεῖν, which is found in the Eusebius text as λαλεῖν καὶ ξενοφωνεῖν, then the phrase should be translated as chatter or babble. Finally, Butler concluded, “Forbes arguments are not sufficient to overturn the historic understanding that Montanists engaged in glossolalia.”
The arguments on both sides rest on ancient sources and linguistics. Therefore, it is necessary to take a further look into the subject matter.
Read moreA Critical Look at Tongues and Montanism