Tertullian and the ‘New Prophecy’

Ruin of Hierapolis of Phrygia. Image by Pixabay / Little MiMi
Ruin of Hierapolis of Phrygia. Image by Little MiMi from Pixabay

One of the saddest things one encounters when reading the 2nd-/3rd-century Christian writer Tertullian — and the reason he never became ‘St. Tertullian’ in Christian tradition — is his embrace in later life of the Christian overexuberance known as Montanism, or the ‘New Prophecy.’

The New Prophecy was a movement which came out of the region of Phrygia in Asia Minor (in what is modern-day Turkey). It was started by an enthusiastic Christian named Montanus who came to attention as a prophet around A.D. 172. He soon gathered to himself two ‘prophetesses’ named Prisca and Maximilla, who claimed to be the mouthpiece of the Paraclete (the word used in John’s Gospel[1] for the Holy Spirit) and often made utterances in the ‘divine first person.’[2]

“The ‘New Prophecy’ was concerned to address laxity within the Christian Church. Through the supposed utterances of the Holy Spirit, it called upon Christians to abandon marital relations and remain chaste, to eat their food dry, and other ascetic practices intended to prepare Christians for the return of Christ — which was believed to be imminent.”

The movement was concerned to address laxity within the Christian Church. Through the supposed utterances of the Holy Spirit, it therefore called upon Christians to abandon marital relations and remain chaste, to eat their food dry, and other ascetic practices intended to prepare Christians for the return of Christ — which was believed to be imminent.[3]

It is clear that the New Prophecy spread very quickly through the Roman Empire. Tertullian (c. A.D. 145 — c. 220[4]), who was a native of Carthage in North Africa,[5] is believed to have embraced it around A.D. 199.[6]

We know that he embraced the New Prophecy because he refers often, and approvingly, to the utterances of the two prophetesses. So we find in the eleventh chapter of his On the Resurrection of the Flesh.

In On the Resurrection of the Flesh, written around A.D. 208,[7] Tertullian defends the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body, against certain heretics — principally Marcion — who denied it. At the beginning of the eleventh chapter of his work, he writes:—

“Let this suffice for my eulogy to the flesh, [composed] in opposition to its enemies — who are, notwithstanding, also its greatest friends! For there is nobody who lives so much in accordance with the flesh as they who deny the resurrection of the flesh — since they despise all its discipline while disbelieving in its punishment.

“It is a shrewd saying which the Paraclete utters about these people through the mouth of the prophetess Prisca: ‘They are carnal, and yet they hate the flesh.’”

Tertullian, ‘On the Resurrection of the Flesh,’ chapter 11

“It is a shrewd saying which the Paraclete utters about these people through the mouth of the prophetess Prisca: ‘They are carnal, and yet they hate the flesh.’

“Since, then, the flesh has the best guarantee it could possibly have for securing the recompense of salvation, we would do well also to consider the power and might and competence of God himself: whether he is so great as to be able to rebuild and restore the edifice of the flesh, which [in death] had become dilapidated, and blocked up, and in every possible way dislocated.”[8]

We see in this passage Tertullian clearly quoting the prophetess Prisca as if she were uttering the direct words of the Holy Spirit. This is not to say that Tertullian did not have a high view of Scripture: in his other writings he goes to painstaking lengths, for example, to refute the heretic Marcion from Scripture. But we see here his twin view, at this time, of divine authority over the Church resting both in Scripture and in the New Prophecy.

This was too much for the early Christian Church, which eventually excommunicated the Montanist movement.[9]

“Cyprian never passed a day without reading some portion of Tertullian’s works, and frequently used to say, ‘Give me my master,’ meaning Tertullian.”

St. Jerome (4th-/5th-century), on Tertullian

In spite of his lapse into the Montanist aberration, the Christian Church continued to hold Tertullian in high regard for his colossal contribution to Christian orthodoxy. Jerome (4th-/5th-century) records a story about Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage in North Africa around the middle of the third century. He writes of him:—

“Cyprian never passed a day without reading some portion of Tertullian’s works, and frequently used to say, ‘Give me my master,’ meaning Tertullian.”[10]

And we, likewise, have many reasons to be grateful to Tertullian. It is, after all, he who furnishes us with more information about Christianity in the second century than probably any other writer of his age. (Eusebius, the Christian historian of the early part of the fourth century, perhaps furnishes us with more, but from a remoter vantage-point.)

In many ways we should not be surprised by Tertullian’s embrace of the New Prophecy.

“In many ways we should not be surprised by Tertullian’s embrace of the New Prophecy. When you read Tertullian, you are given the impression of an uncompromising figure, one who will suffer no fools, and who will say what he believes to be truth whether it’s palatable to the hearer or not.”

When you read Tertullian, you are given the impression of an uncompromising figure, one who will suffer no fools, and who will say what he believes to be truth whether it’s palatable to the hearer or not (indeed, all the better if it’s not!). Besides his On the Resurrection of the Flesh and many other theological treatises, he wrote many ethical treatises, setting forth his views on how Christians should dress, whether they should marry, how they should avoid any suggestion of paganism by the wearing of a wreath of flowers. It all conveys the impression of someone very definite about how Christians should live.

No doubt Tertullian saw the New Prophecy as a tonic against the laxity he viewed as encumbering the Church. After all, did not our Lord himself say,

“Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the cock crows, or in the morning— lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.”[11]

And,

“Whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”[12]

Moreover, this was an age when the canon of the New Testament was still in the process of being formed (more on this here); indeed, the very idea of a canon of New Testament books had barely been around for a few decades.

In such an environment, why should not the Holy Spirit speak fresh revelation through the mouths of modern-day human prophets — or prophetesses? The argument is quite understandable.

*        *        *

“Tertullian reminds us that even our spiritual heroes are flawed (often deeply flawed) individuals.”

Tertullian reminds us that even our spiritual heroes are flawed (often deeply flawed) individuals. It is a reminder to look upon our Christian brothers and sisters in a spirit of charity. Perhaps, in God’s grace, this is even part of the way he helps us to be humble and live as a community of his people, loving one another without judging (when Church works at its best, of course).

Perhaps there is also a timely reminder here for the “woke” generation. For every statue we wish to tear down of some historical grandee now deemed cultural oppressor, might we at least stop to ask the question, “Would I have behaved even as well as that, had I been in his/her shoes?”

 

 

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Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 


[1] παράκλητος, Paraklētos, in John 16:7

[2] A Lion Handbook: The History of Christianity (Oxford: Lion, 1996), 87.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Tertullian, The Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. III: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian (T&T Clark, Edinburgh; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, 1997), 3.

[5] Ibid., 5.

[6] Ibid., 6.

[7] https://etimasthe.com/2020/01/20/views-of-the-afterlife-in-the-ancient-world-dapres-tertullian/

[8] On the Resurrection of the Flesh, chapter 11. Tertullian, The Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. III: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, 552–53. Note, I have slightly altered the translation there found in order to make it easier for the modern reader.

[9] A Lion Handbook: The History of Christianity, 87.

[10] Tertullian, The Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. III: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, 5. Again I have slightly amended the translation to make it easier for the modern reader.

[11] Mark 13:35-37

[12] Matthew 5:19-20

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