Montanism was, first of all, a highly rigorist movement. In morals, as in everything, there are two opposite tendencies. The first is to say : “Everything matters infinitely.” The second is to say: “No doubt that is true. But mere sanity demands that we should not treat everything as mattering all that. Distinction is necessary; more—and—less is necessary; indifference is necessary.” The contention is always sharp. The Rigorous view is vital to sanctity; the Relaxed view is vital to sanity. Their union is not impossible, but it is difficult; for whichever is in power begins, after the first five minutes, to maintain itself from bad and unworthy motives. Harshness, pride, resentment encourage the one; indulgence, falsity, detestable good-fellowship the other.
Between the two good (and evil) things the idea of what the Articles of the Church of England call “works of supererogation” had already emerged. “If thou do any good thing outside the commandments of God thou shalt win for thyself more exceeding glory,” wrote Hermas. It is a difficult and dangerous proposition—not made easier by the rather violent language of winning glory for oneself in which Hermas indulged. Yet the idea has lingered in the Church, and been half-formulated in the talk of the Way of the Commandments and the Way of the Counsels. The Christian doctrine has been that the demanded surrender to God must be entire, in which case there could hardly be anything supererogatory. Yet it has also been universally felt that there were, so to speak, acts of love and devotion which were not absolutely required. How can absolute surrender leave non-absolute potentialities? The answer seems largely to have lain in the doctrine of Vocation. Some were called to a strictness, some to a laxity. It naturally happened that strictness, being more difficult, was regarded as superior. So, as far as difficulty is concerned, it is; but so, as far as vocation is concerned, it is not. Relaxation is no less holy and proper than rigour, though perhaps it can hardly be preached so. But the lovely refreshments of this world in some may not be without their part in the lordly rigours of the others; the exchanges of Christendom are very deep; if we thrive by the force of the saints, they too may feed on our felicities. The life of the Redeemer is at the root of all; it is all within the Church, and (said the same Hermas, in a nobler style) “she was created before all things and for her sake the world was framed.”
To us the most relaxed morals of the Church of the second century are austere enough. But to the Montanists the faithful seemed to have fallen away almost damnably from their duty. They proposed to revive original decency—much fasting, no second marriages, no kind of relation to the State (as, for example, in education). They took the sternest attitude towards sins committed after baptism. They refused to allow that any of the faithful might escape from persecution. They said, in effect, to the Church about ordinary life: “Come out of her, my people.” They denounced the normal life of Christians at the time as sacrilegious, profane, and idolatrous. The normal Christians with less cause and as much heat retaliated. They even, to justify themselves, invented romantic details against the Montanists—such as child-murder and a cannibal Eucharist. The normal calumnies of piety flew to and fro.