History From Below - Dr. Tharwat Maher, PhD

History From Below!

"History from below" is a type of historiographical narratives that aim to tell History not from the perspective of institutions and official leaders, but from a perspective of common people - from below, not from above - taking into consideration that these two perspectives (from below and from above) are needed to tell integrated historical narratives.

Dr. Tharwat Maher, PhD

1- “The Montanists Were Real and Scriptural Christians,”
John and Charles Wesley
The Montanists Were Real and Scriptural Christians,”
John Wesley Said!
By Dr. Tharwat Maher, PhD, Regent University
John Wesley Said!

“Wednesday 15 – By reflecting on an odd book which I had read in this journey, The General Delusion of Christians with Regard to Prophesy, I was fully convinced of what I had long suspected: (1) that the Montanists, in the second and third centuries, were real, scriptural Christians….”[1] In fact, this is not my own opinion, but Wesley’s! John Wesley wrote these words in his journal in August 1750. In addition, he testified that “Montanus, who ‘appeared (without bringing any new doctrine) for reviving what was decayed, and reformed what might be amiss,’ was ‘not only a truly good man, but one of the best men then upon earth.’”[2] For me, as a Coptic Wesleyan Charismatic, I cannot deny that when I read these words for the first time, nearly ten years ago, I found myself in a maze. My “very” Orthodox family background, which interweaves with my Coptic roots, firmly tried to hinder any tendency to accept the exoneration of those condemned by different schools of classical Church historiography. On the other hand, my Wesleyan Charismatic enthusiasm created a propensity to examine Wesley’s opinion that might offer backing to this Pentecostal-like ancient group. It is worth mentioning that my Wesleyan Charismatic enthusiasm has conquered and pushed me to examine the reasons behind Wesley's opinion, and the following is my conclusion in brief points.

a-      The emergence of the New Prophecy/ Montanism:

The “Prophecy” movement emerged in Phrygia, Asia Minor, during the 160s, when its founder, Montanus, began prophesying in an ecstatic state. Priscilla and Maximilla soon joined Montanus as two prophetesses, and the movement had spread within a few decades to many regions including Rome and North Africa.[3] Around the year 207, “the movement won a powerful advocate Tertullian, who was attracted by its asceticism and apocalypticism.”[4] The prophecy movement was condemned as a heresy by many early bishops and writers (e.g. Eusebius, Apolinarius of Hierapolis, Apollonius, and Serapion of Antioch / Eccl. His. 5: 16, 18, 19) and the Montanists were officially excommunicated by the Synod of Iconium in 230.[5]

b-     Did the movement embrace heretic dogmas?

Many sources testify that the Trinitarian dogma of the New Prophecy people was orthodox, as well as their Christological belief. Even many of their contemporary opponents (e.g. Epiphanius and Hippolytus of Rome) agreed on that. The Montanists accepted all the scriptures of the OT and NT and were against non-orthodox belief such as Docetism.[6] Philip Schaff testified that “In doctrine Montanism agreed in all essential points with the Catholic Church and held very firmly to the traditional role of faith.”[7] Christine Trevett emphasizes that the “most ardent critics admitted that the New Prophecy was not a heresy.”[8] Dale Coulter stresses that “they did not preach any other God.”[9] In fact, Tertullian’s Montanist writings (e.g. Adversus Praxean) in which he formulated the doctrine of the Trinity became crucial in the development of the orthodox thought.[10] Therefore, I do not think it is going too far to say that the Prophecy movement was not a heresy.

c-      Teachings of the New Prophecy

Well; if Montanism was not a heresy, what were its distinctive ideas that have moved many to condemn it? The most distinctive teaching of Montanism could be summarized as follows:

  • The ecstatic state of prophesying: Montanus understood prophesying, exclusively, to be an ecstatic experience, in which prophets lose their sensation and become totally captured in a trance-like state.[11] Actually, this was odd for many, such as Eusebius who described it as “prophesying contrary to the custom of the Church according to the tradition and the succession of the Church from the beginning” [Eccl. His. 5: 16].
  • Emphasizing fasting and connecting it with the receipt of secrets. “Fasting and revelation are linked.”[12]
  • Re-marriage was uncompromisingly rejected.[13]
  • Less tendency to forgive or restore apostates,[14] and strong emphasis that only the “church of the Spirit” has the right to bind and loose.[15]
  • Strong emphasis on the Paraclete/ Spirit of Truth’s promises in the Johannine tradition; the Paraclete will guide believers into a mature understanding of the scriptures. Therefore, according to Tertullian, there is a place for novelty as long as it is in harmony with the Rule of Faith.[16]
  • The “highly original feature of the Montanist Eschatology” was the expectation that fulfillment of apocalyptic promises would come soon, and the New Jerusalem would descend at Pepuza; an eschatology that put Jerusalem at the center instead of Rome.[17]
d-     Why did they call them heretics?

Although the Montanists were extremists in some ideas and practices, they were orthodox in the essential Christian doctrines, and their extremity in practices definitely does not enable us to describe them as heretics. If this was the case, why did the church consider them heretics at that time? Some scholarly suggestions could be summarized as follows.

  • Christine Trevett highlights that Montanism emerged in the midst of the process of consolidation of authority in hands of male clergy, and she argues that (1) freedom and authority of women and (2) democratization of charisma in Montanism represented a threat for monepiscopacy. Dale Coulter alludes to the same point referring to Trevett’s emphasis that the conflict between the New Prophets and the developing Catholic tradition was not due to heresies but authority.[18]
  • Lucien Jinkwang Kim suggests that the early church was convinced that any agreement with the Montanist emphasis on the continuous revelation of the Spirit could hinder the move towards canonization.[19]
  • Rex D. Butler mentions Adolf Harnack’s argument that the main conflict was because of the developing Catholic tendency towards secularization vs the Montanist desire towards total separation from the world;[20] a suggestion which, I think, does not seem to be appropriate to describe the first stages of Catholicism.
  • I think what Trevett and Kim suggested, in addition to biased historiography that focuses on institutional history, could produce this kind of unfair assessment which falsely attributed a heretic nature to Montanism.
Could further historical and theological studies fully prove Wesley’s argument? Who knows?!

Dr. Tharwat Maher Nagib, PhD
Regent University, VA

[1] Journal of the Rev. John Wesley, August 15, 1750, cited in Robert Tuttle, “John Wesley and the Gifts of the Holy Spirit,” UCMPAGE, http://ucmpage.org/articles/rtuttle1.html (last accessed June 18, 2015).
[2] John Wesley, The Works of the Rev. John Wesley, 3rd Edition, ed. Thomas Jackson, 14 vols., CD-ROM edition (Albany, Oregon: Ages Software, 1997), 11: 485, cited in Lucien Jinkwang Kim, “Is Montanism A Heretical Sect Or Pentecostal Antecedent?,” AJPS 12 (2009): 121.
[3] Dale M. Coulter, “Montanism,” YouTube, Online video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ut8dOkHvc4o&feature=youtu.be (accessed 14, 15, 17, 18 June 2015) and Kim, 115.
[4] Kim, 115.
[5] Ibid, 113.
[6] Christine Trevett, “Gender, authority and Church History: A Case Study of Montanism,” Feminist Theology 6 (1998): 13.
[7] Philip Schaff, Church History (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Erdman Pub. Co., 1970), 421, cited in Erich Nestler, “Was Montanism A Heresy?,” PNEUMA 6 (1984): 73.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Coulter, “Montanism.”
[10] Paul McKechnie, “Women’s Religion and Second-Century Christians,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 47 (1996): 410.
[11] Coulter, “Montanism.”
[12] Christine Trevett, Montanism: Gender, authority and the New Prophecy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 106-107.
[13] Ibid, 113.
[14] Coulter, “Montanism.”
[15] Trevett, Montanism, 117.
[16] Coulter, “Montanism.”
[17] Trevett, Montanism, 95 and Coulter, “Montanism.”
[18] Trevett, “Gender, authority,” 13, 14 and Coulter, “Montanism.”
[19] Kim, 115.
[20] Rex D. Butler, The New Prophecy & New Visions: Evidence of Montanism in the Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2000), 19.


2- Restoring the Theology of Deification in the Contemporary Coptic Orthodox Church!

In his book New Heresies (2007), the 117th Coptic Pope of Alexandria, Shenouda the third (1923-2012), assailed the concept of deification (or theosis) considering it a new heresy which invaded the monastic community in Egypt during the second half of the 20th century. The former Pope wrote that deification was the first sin of the fallen angel.[1] He claimed that no one among the early fathers wrote or taught about this concept.[2] Pope Shenouda encouraged the monks who teach about deification to repent and to leave this unauthentic teaching.[3] Although Pope Shenouda was a respectful teacher and a strong apologist, there is no doubt that his thoughts on deification, compared to the patristic literature, were not accurate at all. Any proper study of the patristic thought refutes Pope Shenouda’s argument and proves the authenticity of the idea of deification in the patristic thought.
St. Anthony Monastery - Red Sea - Egypt 

Among many early writers, for instance, Athanasius, the 20th Pope of Alexandria (c. 297-373), wrote about the idea of deification much more frequently than anyone of his predecessors.[4] His statement, “for He was made man that we might be made God; and He manifested Himself by a body that we might receive the idea of the unseen Father,”[5] is considered the chief patristic reference to deification. According to Norman Russell, Athanasius understands deification on two different levels, ontological and ethical.[6] Those who experience deification are “those who on the ontological level have been united to the Logos by the grace of adoption, while on the moral level they have become like God through imitation and progress in virtue.”[7] It could be noted that Athanasius focused on the ontological level of deification (the participation in the deified humanity of the Logos) in his anti-Arian writings, as well as On the Incarnation of the Word, while in the Life of Anthony, he indicated the ethical level (diligence and imitation of Christ).

Abba Anthony the Great
In the Life of Anthony, Athanasius shows how his contemporary, Anthony the Great (c. 251-356), attained this experience of deification through diligence and progress in virtue during his monastic life. Spiritual warfare appears as an essential component within Anthony’s monastic journey. Dale Coulter highlighted that Anthony’s body was the locus of the demonic attacks and temptations (lusts and assaults), as shown in the Life of Anthony.[8] In this context, it could be noted that the evil spirits were trying to hinder Anthony, by using (or attacking) his body, from attaining his endeavor towards deification, which is seen in Athanasius’ thought as participation in the deified human body of the Logos. Many scholars assert that Spiritual warfare could never be correctly understood in the monastic tradition except in the context of deification and restoration of the first image. Spiritual warfare is basically to hinder the believer from attaining the goal of the Christian life, which is deification, according to the Eastern tradition. According to Athanasius, Anthony the Great defeated the evil spirits, became “passionless,” and reached a state of “dispassionate tranquility” (apatheia), which is “the flower of the ascetic life.”[9] The Synergy between grace and diligence is noticeable in Athanasius’ writings.

Back to the Egyptian context, the contemporary Pope of Alexandria, Tawadros the Second, has permitted the re-publishing of these writings on deification that were forbidden by Pope Shenouda, a step that could indicate a restoration of this authentic belief that was attacked for decades by the clergy in the Coptic Church.

Dr. Tharwat Maher Nagib, PhD,
Regent University, VA

[1] Pope Shenouda, New Heresies (Cairo: Anba Rues Press, 2007), 144.
[2] Ibid, 145 – 146.
[3] Ibid, 174, 215, and 224.
[4] Norman Russell, The Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 167.
[5] St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word, paragraph 54, in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of Christian church, Vol. 4, second series, edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978), 65.
[6] Dale M. Coulter, “Monasticism and Salvation,” YouTube, Online video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sg7FBOAMF-k&feature=youtu.be (accessed 17, 20 July 2015).
[7] Russell, 180.
[8] Monasticism: Athanasius, Life of Anthony, in “Monasticism, Donatism, and the Spread of Christianity,” Dale M. Coulter, ed. (Virginia Beach, VA.: Regent University, 2015), unpublished material.
[9] William Harmless, Desert Christianity: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 348.

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