The study of the reasons for failure and mistakes is almost invariably the stepping-stone to ultimate victory and success. The Church can learn many lessons from the various errors in doctrine and practice that have flourished for a time during her history: even while at the same time she can praise God for the wonderful way He has preserved his truth through all the welter of centuries of human imperfection.
We are persuaded that a brief study of the Montanist Heresy of the Second Century is likely to prove very profitable just now. Indeed we seem almost driven to it when certain opponents of the present gracious Latter Rain Outpouring of the Holy Spirit and plainly stating that the Pentecostal Movement is only a revival of Montanism.
Montanus, a native of Ardaban, appeared in Phrygia, Asia Minor, about A.D. 150 as a prophet and reformer of Christianity. The practical aim and purpose of the movement which he originated was the reformation of corruption in the Church. The dominant characteristic of Montanism, however, quickly came to be visions and prophecies received while in a state of unconsciousness and ecstasy. Montanus was joined by two women, Maximilla and Priscilla, who likewise became somnambulistic and prophesied; and the movement rapidly spread. It quickly developed most serious errors in doctrine, so that in the end Montanus actually claimed to be the Paraclete promised by our Lord (John xvi. 13) who should guide the Church into all truth.
Such gross error, and such dangerous delusions, roused the Christian leaders of Asia Minor to quite properly protest against the whole thing as being heretical. Several synods pronounced against it (about A. D. 170), and the spread of the heresy became arrested.
Purged from much of its excess and error, a healthier form of Montanism continued for some time in the West, and numbered among its adherents and ablest champions the great Tertullian "the most eminent Christian teacher of his time in the West."
One of the questions which will arise in the mind of any serious thinker is whet her Montanism really contained within it at least some measure of a real working of the Holy Spirit on the lines of those genuine Spiritual Gifts described in the New Testament, and a Divine attempt to thereby reform abuses within the Churchor whether it was utterly the product of an ignorant fanaticism; perhaps even worse, a delusion engineered by demon power.
The answer must almost inevitably, we suppose, be coloured by personal prejudice and viewpoint. The intellectual higher critic of to-day dismisses Montanism as "the dream of an ignorant fanatic": the "Fundamentalist" teachers who make a hobby of demonology, and scare believers away from any form of the supernatural in their Christian experience, will ascribe the whole thing to deceiving spirits. One is impressed, however, by two facts in favor of Montanism having at least something truly of the Holy Spirit in it originally: (a) Its avowed purpose to reform abuse; "their moral earnestness and zeal against worldliness, Hierarchism, and false spiritualism, rendered important service to the Church" (Kurtz): (b) The fact that it gained the adherence of a man like Tertullian, the first and greatest teacher of the theological school of North Africa, "distinguished by its realism and practical tendency." Hardly the right soil, surely, for wholesale deception by either sheer fanaticism, or even demon power.
We do not suggest any excuse for unpardonable excesses in error which Montanus himself developed: these only act as a warning which we will presently consider as to where there is always danger in inspirational movements.
But who shall say that there may not have been something of God in Montanism? A re-assertion of that fading place which inspired ministry through spiritual gifts originally possessed in the Early Church: another method and voice by which the Lord was seeking to call back the fast backsliding Church to her first love and her first experiences when His Spirit was moving in manifest glory and power.
What caused Montanism to go so grievously astray? We unhesitatingly suggest that the answer must be the answer must be: The undue emphasis and authority placed upon "prophetic" utterances and visions. These quickly became the one outstanding feature of the whole movement. The Montanist prided himself on his purity of doctrine, but it was always at the mercy of some prophet with a new " revelation."
Once the utterances or visions of these prophets became clothed in the eyes of their enthusiastic followers with a degree of inspiration that was considered infalliblethen the possibilities for error and deception became plainly incalculable. Satan may have been content up till that point to allow human weakness to run its own lengths of folly and pride; but now he could only too obviously have a channel through which he could work untold mischief. The failure of so many inspirational movements down the history of the church is a melancholy commentary on this principle of error.
Pride quickly stepped in to an amazing degree. Montanus and his immediate followers very soon began to teach as one of their fundamental doctrines that Divine Revelation had not reached its full growth through Christ and His Apostles, this was only the period of youth; It required the revelation given through the Montanistic movement to attain its full maturity of manhood. Once the anchor of acceptance of the Old and New Testament as completing the Divine Revelation was thrown away, it is little wonder that the vessel quickly drifted on to the rocks of hopeless error and extravagance.
We heartily accept the axiom that "The Lord bath yet more light and truth to break forth from His Word," but we are careful to note that this is a very different thing from claiming more light in addition to His Word. We believe the present office of the
Holy Spirit is not to add to the body of written revelation, but to unfold the treasures of the Divine Revelation contained within the Sacred Scriptures.
Away down at the root of the error of Montanism, and of every similar movement that has or does magnify prophetical utterances up to an equal level with the Scriptures, is a mistaken idea of the real nature of Spiritual Gifts. This idea clothes utterances through Spiritual Gifts with an authority and importance which they do not possess. The mistake may be held in all sincerity, but it can be none the less mischievous. It can be held theoretically by those who repudiate any practical experience of these things, and can lead them as far astray in their doctrine, as it will others in their practice.
A careful study of the New Testament will reveal that the Early Church NEVER placed utterances through their prophets on a level with the Scriptures. Note carefully the distinctive phrase used in 2 Peter 1.21 to describe the latter"prophecy of the Scripture." See again the decision of Acts xv.28, where the difficulty was NOT solved by reference to the accredited prophets present (Barnabas, Judas, Silas, etc.), but by reference to the Old Testament Scriptures. The infallibility of prophets in the Early Church is strictly denied (I Cor. xiv. 20).
Does this emaciate our conception of the nature of Spiritual Gifts so as to make them of no more worth than ordinary natural endowments? Not in the least. They are still supernatural. They remain to this day the Divine-appointed manifestation of the Holy Spirit in and through the Church (see I Cor. xii. 7-11). They have their basis in a genuine inspiration, but that inspiration is not on a level with the inspiration of the Scriptures.
As a matter of fact this true conception of the real nature of Spiritual Gifts clears the way for recognising their abiding place and value right through the Christian Dispensation for it removes the mistaken idea that it was by means of these gifts that the Holy Spirit gave to the Church the New Testament Scriptures, and that therefore with the completion of the Canon they ceased because they were no longer necessary. The true purpose or Spiritual Gifts is rather to apply with Living Power from the Eternal Spirit the truth stored for all generations within the Sacred Volume. In the light of such a conception it can easily be seen how mistaken is the idea that they were to be the privilege of one generation alone.
Is it fair to make a comparison between Montanism and the Pentecostal Movement? We say that it certainly is not when dealing with those sections of the Movement which have kept loyal to the Scriptures. For the others we dare make no defence. But the Assemblies of God stand firm as a rock for every Fundamental Truth of Scriptural revelation; they repudiate fanatical excesses in every shape and form; they do not magnify prophetical utterances to a level with the Scriptures, but enjoy the exercise of Spiritual Gifts in their Assemblies with a sane and balanced regard to their true place in the economy of the Church, as appointed by her Great head, till He shall return, and the "perfect" shall come when we shall see Him "face to face." Then they shall cease, according to His own word (I Cor. xiii. 8-12), but not till then.