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Mind of Christ

 

It was within the large kingdom of Phrygia, located in modern Turkey, that a small group of prophets arose around the year 170 A.D.  This group and their followers would start a movement that would fuel contentions within the infant Christian Church of Asia Minor (and then for centuries to come) regarding how God’s grace was understood to be distributed to individuals within the Christian community at large. Montanus, Prisca, and Maximilla were among these prophets who began to stress the apocalyptic elements of Christianity, specifically claiming that Christ would create the heavenly kingdom of Jerusalem from within the small village of Pepuza, located in the Phrygian region. Their sect also began to alter the practices of their Christian contemporaries by introducing elite refinements to their way of worship through severe fasting, radical purity and celibacy, and the encouragement of their members to volunteer for Christian martyrdom. Two of these prophets were women, who uncharacteristically taught among their community, when the majority of Christianity at this time forbade this public act. Their teachings seemed to include allusions to them being the last of their kind, when prophesying after these women would oddly cease among a group that so prided, and were identified by, their perceived charismatic gifts. This bizarre contradiction, however, was not the most alarming report to those who considered the Phrygians outside of orthodox belief.  Montanus, their leader, was thought to have brought the practices of his former life as a Hellenistic pagan priest to the group, and it was the ecstatic means by which they received their prophecies that was the most troubling witness to their peers, and to generations to come.

Over 200 years later, on an island in the Mediterranean Sea, the bishop of Salamis would compile a work of massive scope; a four volume set of over 1000 pages that would attempt to contain the summa of all known Christian heresies up to the present 380 A.D. Named for its intent, the Panarion, literally translated as “Medicine Chest”, was purposed to cure or prevent the 80 heresies that it contained from infecting the Church.

8 There are threescore queens, and fourscore concubines, and maidens without number.
9 My dove, my undefiled, is but one;[1]

A score comprises twenty, so the concubines mentioned here in this passage from the Song of Songs represent the sects of Christianity who were set as infidels to the one true dove of the Catholic Church. Epiphanius, the author of this work, had been ordained the bishop of Salamis in 367 A.D. Originally from Israel, he built and directed a monastery in Palestine for over 30 years, before begrudgingly accepting his election in Cyprus. This work which he compiled there was to be used as a manual for the many heresies that stood opposed to faith throughout history, some even before Christ’s incarnation. The Panarion was meant to establish a true Christian identity in contrast to the many concubines listed within the work. One of the harlots considered insidious enough to be among its ranks was the already ancient sect known as the Phrygians.

While some of the polemics within his taxology are admittedly constructed from solely hearsay by Epiphanius himself, the large span of time between the birth of the Phrygian movement and the composition of this work is the first clue towards the deduction that Epiphanius worked from a collection of sources to produce the chapter devoted to the ecstatic cult, referenced as Panarion 48. Other clues include the many quotes directly attributed to the prophetesses at Phrygian, and similarities to other known works precedent to Epiphanius, such as Hippolytus’ Syntagma and Pseudo-Tertullian’s Adversus omnes haereses. From these and other unknown sources, and perhaps his direct experience with the cult and its effects during his lifetime, Epiphanius constructs his defense against this movement that would revolve most heavily around his objection towards the ‘mechanics’ of their form of ecstatic prophecy, and the fruits that it produced.

After examining this chapter, it is my assertion that Epiphanius was not against prophecy itself, as if he were putting forth a cessationist argument, but rather truly critical of the Phrygians’ prophetic method and perceived content, that manifested in contradiction to Catholic sensibilities. From here out then, I will first expose the problems Epiphanius found with the ecstatic state as experienced by the Phrygians. Then, I will explore the content of the Phrygians’ prophetic utterances, and how Epiphanius found them to be both contradictory to their own rule, and to Christ Himself.  And lastly, I will discuss some doctrinal concerns that, outside of their liturgical practice, Epiphanius held with Phrygian thought, and weigh in with other modern commentaries towards the cult’s beliefs.[2]

John Paul II famously said that, “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth;”[3]  For Epiphanius, the reports he received regarding the Phrygian conduct revealed them to be clipped of one of their wings within their contemplative pursuits. When they appeared to enter their ecstatic state they would first talk in ambiguous terms, and then after fully entering their most accomplished surrender they would suffer the loss of their rational faculties and act as if they were possessed by the Holy Spirit Himself. One proposed prophecies from Montanus states:

“Lo the man is a lyre, and I fly over him as a pick.The man sleepeth while I watch. Lo, it is the Lord who distracts the hearts of men, and giveth the heart to man.”

While not unheard of in Biblical accounts, this perceived possession by the Lord seemed to take away the dignity of man by disabling his access to, and capacity of, reason, and violating the free-will within. This was troublesome for Epiphanius who recalled the many accounts of scripture where men spoke prophetic words to others from clear and conscious minds. Normally man does not render himself totally over to the Lord, as a puppet, but stays alert to receive and relay the word of God to others. On more than one occasion Epiphanius recalls an account of revelation in scripture that required man to refuse God, suggesting God’s preference towards this alert state of prophetic analytical consciousness.

       “3.7 Similarly, when the prophet Ezekiel heard the Lord say, “Bake thee bread on human dung.” he said, “Not so, Lord; nothing common or unclean hath at any time come into my mouth.” Understanding that which had been threateningly said to him by the Lord, he not go ahead and do [it] as though he were out of his senses. Since his mind was sound and rational he prayed and said “Not so, Lord.” These-both the teaching and the discussion– are marks of [the] true prophets, whose minds are sound in the Holy Spirit.”[4]

Here the good of the situation was easily discerned and found contrary to the request from God, who perhaps desired to reveal this dignity which He endowed to Ezekiel by prodding him to express his free will in defiance to His own inappropriate command. Epiphanius goes on to reply to another possible objection from scripture which could be offered as evidence by the Phrygians in testimony of an even deeper state of surrender for the ecstatic prophet, that of complete unconsciousness or sleep. Quoting Genesis, “The Lord sent an ecstasy upon Adam, and he slept,”[5]   Epiphanius explains this state as an anesthetic from God, to numb Adam of the pain of extracting his rib, rather than a portal to an unknown dimensions to receive a secret revelation. The real prophecy, he states, is when Adam regains his reason, and looks to Eve to claim with a sound mind, “This is now the bone of my bone and the flesh of my flesh.” It is this revelation of truth, both infused in the intellect and perceived through the senses, that is an accurate model of revelation that lends to true prophecy.

The second concern Epiphanius had, was with the validity of the claims to truth within the Phrygian prophecies. There seemed to be contradictions to both the rule of the Phrygian community, and  the Gospel of Christ from within their utterances. Maximilla, taking on a lead prophetess role, began to state that, “After me, there would be no prophet more[sic], but the consummation.” This was problematic on two accounts. First was the fact it had been roughly 200 years since her death, from Epiphanius’ vantage, and Christ still  had not returned to establish the new Jerusalem in Asia Minor. While this alone is not of great concern, seeing that several Biblical figures expected the return of Christ within their lifetime, it does prove her prophecy false in now, two different ways. The second way being the possibility of preserving the charismata among their sect. If Maximilla were to be the last prophetess of the Phrygians, how was it that the group whose identity was so connected with their spiritual gifts was to survive (which they had) until the time of Epiphanius, if their prophetic grace was schedule to cease after her death?

Another exposé of the unworthiness of the Phrygian claim, was demonstrated by an examination of the piety in the actions of their seers. Epiphanius recalls, “Christ taught us, ‘I send unto you the Spirit, the Paraclete,’ and to give the signs of the Paraclete, said, ‘He shall glorify me.’”[6]  Epiphanius goes on to state that the apostles all gave glory to God when receiving the Spirit, and even Christ gave glory to both the Father and the Spirit as the “Spirit of Truth”.  The Phrygians, Montanus in particular, glorified himself only when he spoke, claiming that the Father to overtook his body.  Never did he glorify Christ as  instructed, making a liar of the Lord in his personal witness. Their understanding of this possession by the ‘Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit’ at once, also revealed their error in monarchian belief, one that denied the three distinct persons of God and combined them together as one fictitious entity. Taking all of these discrepancies into account, the effectiveness of Epiphanius’ Panarion 48 in curing any notion of credibility among the Phrygians was perfect in its kind.

Many speculations can, and have, been made as to the cause or intent of the Phrygian ecstatics; from a political grab for power against the wave of a growing institutional Church, to demonic influences, to the result of psychological trauma gained in isolation from the church or otherwise, or simply to misconceptions about the truth of God due to human frailty– what can still surprisingly be attributed to this movement is that some aspects have continued to influence the Church to this day. While the proscription of Panarion 48 would help save souls from the dangerous Phrygian teachings and practices, (as the church often does) some characteristics of the sect were subsumed into the Church and baptised for Her use. Their charismatic signature can be seen throughout ecumenical sects in modernity (Pentecostalism), and many of their practices, such as priestly celibacy and compensation, consecrated virgins and head coverings, and other ascetical practices were adopted by the Catholic Church throughout the ages.

Despite the ferocity of Epiphanius’ attacks towards the process and content of the Phrygian prophecies, at no point did he ever discredit the ongoing occurrence of legitimate  prophecy within the Church itself, he rather asks of the Phrygians, “If we must receive gifts of grace, and if there must be gifts of grace in the church, why do they [Phrygians] have no more prophets after Montanus, Priscilla and Maximilla? Has grace stopped operating, then? Never fear, the grace in the holy church does not stop working!”[7]  Rather he states, “God’s holy church also receives the gifts of grace– but the real gifts, which have already been tried in God’s holy church through the Holy Spirit, and by the prophets and apostles, and the Lord Himself;”[8] — all whom remained conscious, obedient, and in union with the Father;  those who possessed the Mind of Christ.

 

Bibliography:

Epiphanius. “Panarion 48.” In The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis: Sects 47-80, De Fide, trans. Frank Williams (The Netherlands: E.J.Brill,1994), p. 6-21

Wace, Henry, William C. Piercy, and William Smith. 1994. A Dictionary of Christian biography and literature to the end of the sixth century A.D.: with an account of the principal sects and heresies. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson.

Epiphanius of Salamis, St. P. CANIVET.New Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 5. 2nd ed.  Detroit: Gale, 2003. p292-293. Word Count: 766.

Mursell, Gordon, ed. Christian Spirituality. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press). 2001.

David F. Wright [1897-2008], “Why Were the Montanists Condemned?” Themelios. (Sept. 1976): 15-22.

Nasrallah, Laura. An Ecstasy of Folly (Cambridge) (Mass.: Harvard University Press), 2003.


[1] Bible. Sg. 6:8-9

[2] There are a few references towards the end of Panarion 48 that deal with  other sects that Epiphanius found similar to the Phrygians. These brief treatments are both humorous and horrifying, and while I would recommend researching the etymology of the Tascodrugian cult for entertainment purposes, I will ignore these excerpts otherwise,  as they are irrelevant to our topic.

[3] Catholic Church, and John Paul. 1998. Faith and reason: encyclical letter Fides et ratio of the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II on
the relationship between faith and reason. Sherbrooke [Québec]: Médiaspaul.

[4] Epiphanius. “Panarion 48.” In The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis: Sects 47-80, De Fide, trans. Frank Williams (The
Netherlands: E.J.Brill,1994), p. 9

[5] Bible. Genesis 2:21

[6]  Epiphanius. “Panarion 48.” In The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis: Sects 47-80, De Fide, trans. Frank Williams (The Netherlands: E.J.Brill,1994), p. 6

[7] Epiphanius. “Panarion 48.” In The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis: Sects 47-80, De Fide, trans. Frank Williams (The Netherlands: E.J.Brill,1994), p. 7

[8]  Epiphanius. “Panarion 48.” In The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis: Sects 47-80, De Fide, trans. Frank Williams (The Netherlands: E.J.Brill,1994), p. 7

Robert is a graduate of Indiana University’s School of Communication and Culture, and of Saint Meinrad Archabbey, where he received a Masters of Arts in Theology, with a concentration in the Catholic philosophical tradition.
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