We are now ready for a brief survey of church history (from the Apostolic Fathers to Augustine). The representative examples cited will demonstrate that the miraculous gifts of the Spirit were, and are, still very much in operation. Indeed, before Chrysostom in the east (347-407 a.d.) and Augustine in the west (354-430 a.d.) no church father ever suggested that any or all of the charismata had ceased in the first century. And even Augustine later retracted his earlier cessationism (see below). So let’s conduct a quick overview. [For helpful documentation, see Stanley M. Burgess, The Spirit & the Church: Antiquity (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1984).]
The Epistle of Barnabas (written sometime between 70 and 132 a.d.), says this of the Holy Spirit: “He personally prophesies in us and personally dwells in us” (xvi, 9, Ancient Christian Writers, 6:61).
The author of The Shepherd of Hermas claims to have received numerous revelatory insights through visions and dreams. This document has been dated as early as 90 a.d. and as late as 140-155 a.d.
Justin Martyr (approx. AD 100-165), perhaps the most important 2nd century apologist, is especially clear about the operation of gifs in his day:
“Therefore, just as God did not inflict His anger on account of those seven thousand men, even so He has now neither yet inflicted judgment, nor does inflict it, knowing that daily some [of you] are becoming disciples in the name of Christ, and quitting the path of error; who are also receiving gifts, each as he is worthy, illumined through the name of this Christ. For one receives the spirit of understanding, another of counsel, another of strength, another of healing, another of foreknowledge, another of teaching, and another of the fear of God” (Dialogue with Trypho, ch.39).
“For the prophetical gifts remain with us, even to the present time. And hence you ought to understand that [the gifts] formerly among your nation have been transferred to us. And just as there were false prophets contemporaneous with your holy prophets, so are there now many false teachers amongst us, of whom our Lord forewarned us to beware; so that in no respect are we deficient, since we know that He foreknew all that would happen to us after His resurrection from the dead and ascension to heaven” (Dialogue with Trypho, ch.39).
“For numberless demoniacs throughout the whole world and in your city, many of our Christian men, exorcising them in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, have healed and do heal, rendering helpless and driving the possessing devils out of the men, though they could not be cured by all the other exorcists, and those used incantations and drugs” (Second Apology, vi; Ante-Nicene Fathers 1:190).
Irenaeus (approx. AD 120-202), certainly the most important and influential theologian of the late century writes:
“Wherefore, also, those who are in truth His disciples, receiving grace from Him, do in His name perform [miracles], so as to promote the welfare of other men, according to the gift which each one has received from Him. For some do certainly and truly drive out devils, so that those who have thus been cleansed from evil spirits frequently both believe [in Christ], and join themselves to the Church. Others have foreknowledge of things to come: they see visions, and utter prophetic expressions. Others still, heal the sick by laying their hands upon them, and they are made whole. Yea, moreover, as I have said, the dead even have been raised up, and remained among us for many years. And what shall I more say? It is not possible to name the number of the gifts which the Church, [scattered] throughout the whole world, has received from God, in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and which she exerts day by day for the benefit of the Gentiles, neither practicing deception upon any, nor taking any reward from them [on account of such miraculous interpositions]. For as she has received freely from God, freely also does she minister [to others]” (Against Heresies, Book 2, ch.32, 4).
“Nor does she [the church] perform anything by means of angelic invocations, or by incantations, or by any other wicked curious art; but, directing her prayers to the Lord, who made all things, in a pure, sincere, and straightforward spirit, and calling upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, she has been accustomed to work miracles for the advantage of mankind, and not to lead them into error” (Against Heresies, Book 2, ch.32, 5).
“In like manner we do also hear many brethren in the church, who possess prophetic gifts, and who through the Spirit speak all kinds of languages, and bring to light for the general benefit the hidden things of men, and declare the mysteries of God, whom also the apostle terms ‘spiritual,’ they being spiritual because they partake of the Spirit” (Against Heresies, Book 5, ch.6, 1).
Tertullian (d. 225; he first coined the term Trinity) spoke and wrote on countless occasions of the operation of the gifts of the Spirit, particularly those of a revelatory nature such as prophecy and word of knowledge.
“But from God – who has promised, indeed, ‘to pour out the grace of the Holy Spirit upon all flesh, and has ordained that His servants and His handmaids should see visions as well as utter prophecies’ – must all those visions be regarded as emanating . . .” (A Treatise on the Soul, xlvii, ANF, 3:225-26).
He described the ministry of one particular lady as follows:
“For, seeing that we acknowledge spiritual charismata, or gifts, we too have merited the attainment of the prophetic gift, although coming after John (the Baptist).” This lady has been “favoured with sundry gifts of revelation” and “both sees and hears mysterious communications; some men’s hearts she understands, and to them who are in need she distributes remedies. . . . After the people are dismissed at the conclusion of the sacred services, she is in the regular habit of reporting to us whatever things she may have seen in vision (for her communications are examined with the most scrupulous care, in order that their truth may be probed). . . . Now can you refuse to believe this, even if indubitable evidence on every point is forthcoming for your conviction?” (A Treatise on the Soul, ix, ANF, 3:188).
Tertullian contrasts what he has witnessed with the claims of the heretic Marcion:
“Let Marcion then exhibit, as gifts of his god, some prophets, such as have not spoken by human sense, but with the Spirit of God, such as have both predicted things to come, and have made manifest the secrets of the heart; . . . Now all these signs (of spiritual gifts) are forthcoming from my side without any difficulty, and they agree, too, with the rules, and the dispensations, and the instructions of the Creator” (Against Marcion, v.8, ANF, 3:446-47).
We also have extensive evidence of revelatory visions in operation in the life of the martyrs Perpetua and her handmaiden Felicitas (202 a.d.). I encourage everyone to read the moving account of Perpetua’s perseverance in faith despite the most horrific of deaths.
It’s also important that we briefly take note of the movement known as Montanism (of which Tertullian was a part in his later years). Montanism arose in Phrygia in about a.d. 155, although Eusebius and Jerome both date the movement to a.d. 173.
What did the Montanists believe and teach that had such a significant impact on the ancient church and its view of spiritual gifts? Several items are worthy of mention.
First, Montanism at its heart was an effort to shape the entire life of the church in keeping with the expectation of the immediate return of Christ. Thus they opposed any developments in church life that appeared institutional or would contribute to a settled pattern of worship. Needless to say, those who held official positions of authority within the organized church would be suspect of the movement.
Second, Montanus himself allegedly spoke in terms that asserted his identity with the Paraclete of John 14:16. The prophetic utterance in question is as follows:
"For Montanus spoke, saying, 'I am the father, and the son and the paraclete.'" (Found in the writings of Didymus On the Trinity, 3:41).
However, many have questioned whether Montanus is claiming what his critics suggest. More likely he, as well as others in the movement who prophesied, is saying that one or another or perhaps all of the members of the Trinity are speaking through them. For example, in yet another of his prophetic utterances, Montanus said,
"You shall not hear from me, but you have heard from Christ" (Quoted in Epiphanius, Panarion, 48:12; col. 873).
Third, Montanus and his followers (principally, two women, Prisca and Maximilla) held to a view of the prophetic gift that was a departure from the apostle Paul's teaching in 1 Corinthians 14, insofar as they practiced what can only be called “ecstatic” prophecy in which the speaker either lost consciousness or fell into a trance-like state, or perhaps was but a passive instrument through which the Spirit might speak. One of the prophetic utterances that survived (there are only 16), found in Epiphanius, confirms this view:
"Behold, a man is like a lyre and I pluck his strings like a pick; the man sleeps, but I am awake. Behold, it is the Lord, who is changing the hearts of men and giving new hearts to them."
If this is what Montanus taught, he would be asserting that, when a prophet prophesied, God was in complete control. Man is little more than an instrument, such as the strings of a lyre, on which God plucks his song or message. Man is asleep, in a manner of speaking, and thus passive during the prophetic utterance.
This concept of prophecy is contrary to what we read of in 1 Corinthians 14:29-31 where Paul asserts that "the spirit of the prophets is subject to the prophet". The Montanists cannot be charged with having originated this view, for it is found among the Greek Apologists of this period. Justin Martyr and Theophilus both claimed that the Spirit spoke through the OT prophets in such a way as to possess them. Athenagoras says of Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah and other OT prophets that they were
"lifted in ecstasy above the natural operations of their minds by the impulses of the Divine Spirit, [and that they] uttered the things with which they were inspired, the Spirit making use of them as a flute player breathes into a flute" (A Plea for the Christians, 9).
The point is that, at least on this one point, the Montanists were not espousing a view of prophecy that was significantly different from what others in the mainstream of the church of that day were saying.
Fourth, the gift of tongues was also prominent among the Montanists, as was the experience of receiving revelatory visions. Eusebius preserved a refutation of Montanism written by Apolinarius in which the latter accused these "prophets" of speaking in unusual ways. For example, "He [Montanus] began to be ecstatic and to speak and to talk strangely" (quoted in Kydd, Charismatic Gifts in the Early Church, 35). Again, Maximilla and Prisca are said to have spoken "madly and improperly and strangely, like Montanus" (ibid.). Finally, he refers to the Montanists as "chattering prophets". We cannot be certain, but the word translated chattering, found nowhere else in all of Greek literature, may refer to speaking at great length in what sound like languages, i.e., speaking in tongues.
Fifth, Montanus did assert that this outpouring of the Spirit, of which he and his followers were the principal recipients, was a sign of the end of the age. The heavenly Jerusalem, said Montanus, will soon descend near Pepuza in Phrygia. They also stressed monogamy and insisted on chastity between husband and wife. They were quite ascetic in their approach to the Christian life (which is what attracted Tertullian into their ranks). They strongly emphasized self-discipline and repentance.
Finally, although Montanism was often treated as heresy, numerous authors in the early church insisted on the overall orthodoxy of the movement. Hippolytus spoke of their affirmation of the doctrines of Christ and creation and the "heresy hunter" Epiphanius (a.d. 315-403) conceded that the Montanists agreed with the church at large on the issues of orthodoxy, especially the doctrine of the Trinity.
Epiphanius wrote that the Montanists were still found in Cappadocia, Galatia, Phyrgia, Cilicia, and Constantinople in the late 4th century. This assessment was confirmed by Eusebius who devoted four chapters of his monumental Ecclesiastical History to the Montanists. Didymus the Blind (a.d. 313-98) wrote of them, and the great church father Jerome (a.d. 342-420) personally encountered Montanist communities in Ancyra when he was travelling through Galatia in 373. The point being that Montanism was alive and influential as late as the close of the 4th century.
Ironically, and tragically, one of the principal reasons why the church became suspect of the gifts of the Spirit and eventually excluded them from the life of the church is because of their association with Montanism. The Montanist view of prophecy, in which the prophet entered a state of passive ecstasy in order that God might speak directly, was perceived as a threat to the church's belief in the finality of the canon of Scripture. Other unappealing aspects of the Montanist lifestyle, as noted above, provoked opposition to the movement and hence to the charismata as well. In sum, it was largely the Montanist view of the prophetic gift, in which a virtual "Thus saith the Lord" perspective was adopted, that contributed to the increasing absence in church life of the charismata.
To be continued . . .