Saturday, September 18, 2010

Prophets and Gravestones: An Imaginative History of Montanists and Other Early Christians

By William Tabbernee, 338 pages, Hendrickson Publishers.

"Those listening are stunned. Who is speaking? Is it Montanus or is it some supernatural spirit? What does it all mean? Is the voice coming out of Montanus giving them some explanation of what they are witnessing? Has Montanus just been 'played' like some human instrument by God ...? Is Montanus' trance really like a state of sleep ...? [W]hat is the purpose of it all?"

As with the above words, the historian William Tabbernee uses ancient Christian documents to tell the story, in fiction form, of the Monatanists, a heretical movement that began in the second century. Readers get a close glimpse of the world of the early believers, orthodox and heterodox, at a time when trinitarian theology had not yet fully developed. Christian thinkers spent a great deal of time debating Christ's divinity, and His relationship to the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Prophets and Gravestones shows reader that ancient Christians sometimes developed theology by deciding what beliefs were heretical and what were orthodox. Christians were, within their own circles, argumentative folk. Followers of the “New Prophecy,” as Montanism became known, believed in Christ's divinity and took the orthodox side of the trinitarian debate. They went off course in their beliefs on the Holy Spirit, especially in their belief that revelation, through the Spirit, could happen without the full approval of the Church.

Montanus soon gathered followers around him in his village in the part of modern Turkey called Phrygia. Some of them, including many women, also prophesied, which added to the controversy. Because doctrine and the Church hierarchy were not quite set in these first Christian centuries, magnetic Christian personalities such as Montanus and his first followers could easily attract a following.

Thus the movement lasted for centuries, and Tabbernee shows that it was quite widespread, reaching North Africa and the famous Latin Church Father Tertullian, who spoke out in its favor, and to the important episcopal city of Lyons, in ancient Gaul. The Montanist prophecies, which came through many of the followers, emphasized strong moral living, such as forbidding a second marriage after the death of a spouse. Fasting and prayer were also greatly encouraged, more so than among mainstream Christians.

When the emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the empire in the early fourth century, he ordered Montanist books burnt; he sought to unify the empire through orthodox Christianity.

Prophets and Gravestones shows the extent to which orthodox Christians, both during the Roman persecution of the religion, and after Constantine's Edict, fought to end Montanism. Even when the persecuting Romans had thrown all the local Christians in jail to await their punishment or death, the mainstream and Montanist groups of Christians refused to get along, Tabbernee shows.

The following fictional account shows that the 2 groups were united on the importance of martyrs but split on the place of ongoing prophecy by the Paraclete:

"[A]mong the adherents of the New Prophecy and even among other Christians, there is the view that martyrs and confessors, because of their faithful suffering, have the power to forgive sins. Prophets and prophetesses, according to the teaching of the New Prophecy, also have this power. Apollonius totally disagrees with this inflated, alleged authority of prophets."

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