By A.D. 150 the early new dispensational church was a well-established and growing church. Enduring the trials of persecution and the attacks of various Gnostic heresies, the church continued to grow in its understanding of the Word and to be led by the Spirit to discern God’s Word of Truth. By A.D. 180 a solid consensus was already forming in the church as to what constituted the New Testament Scriptures, though this process cannot be said to be fully finished until around A.D. 350. The attacks of various Gnostic sects and heresies stimulated the church to take hold of the Word of God and to defend her heritage. According to God’s sovereign purpose, the effect of these heresies upon the church strengthened rather than weakened it, and bound the churches more closely together.
In this battle the Apologists, who labored from about A.D. 150 to 200, rendered valuable service to the church. The earliest of them, Justin Martyr, had defended Christianity against paganism, sealing his confession with his own martyrdom in Rome in approximately A.D. 165. Irenaeus who had been taught at the feet of Polycarp, fought a similar battle against the Gnostic heretics until his death in about A.D. 200. It is Irenaeus who perhaps deserves the distinction of being the earliest theologian of the church.
Following the Apologists, other leaders arose in the church to continue the struggle: Tertullian in North Africa who labored until about A.D. 220 and Cyprian, his pupil, who suffered a martyr’s death in A.D. 258. Under the leadership of such men God enabled the church to resist strongly the attacks of the various Gnostic sects. In spite of and in fact through the very means of persecution and trial, the church grew, began to develop the truths of the Word of God, and in particular to set forth the first formulations of the doctrine of the Trinity.
It is in this context that a new movement made its appearance within the church in A.D. 156. Its leader, Montanus, arose during a time of severe persecution in Asia Minor, the aged Polycarp being one of the victims of this persecution. In the midst of this severe tribulation Montanus saw the end of all things approaching and began to teach the imminent return of Christ and His millennial reign on earth in a new Jerusalem, which according to Montanus was to make its appearance somewhere in Asia Minor. In connection with these views concerning the last things he announced the coming of a new dispensation of the Spirit, proclaiming himself a prophet and passive instrument of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete and Comforter. He, and two prophetesses with him, went forth to preach this special dispensation of the Spirit. In character Montanism was therefore an early form of the Pentecostal heresy prevalent in our own day. Like its modern counterpart it was characterized by emotional excesses, a violation of and ignoring of the Scripture’s teaching concerning the role and place of women in the church, strange doctrines concerning the last things, and an attitude of world flight. Like Pentecostalism it emphasized the exotic gifts of the Spirit such as tongue-speaking and miracles of healing, and made a distinction in the church between spiritual and carnal members. Unlike modern Pentecostalism which emphasizes particularly speaking in tongues, Montanism emphasized the gift of prophecy.
Montanism was a serious threat to the church, for its error quickly spread throughout the churches. The church did not have a specific doctrine of the gifts of the Spirit at this time, although it did recognize their connection with the apostles. The church also made a distinction between the higher influence of the Spirit in connection with the labors and writings of the apostles and His influence in the post-apostolic era. This was the position which Polycarp took, as was pointed out in an earlier article. The church also taught that the Spirit still resided in the church and led the church, as she was founded upon the doctrine of the apostles. But the Montanist excesses and prophetic ravings the church ascribed to demonic influences and the power of Satan.
The seriousness of the error of Montanism lies particularly in its attack upon the doctrine of Scripture. While the Montanists, like the modern-day Pentecostals, made the claim that they fully recognized Scripture as the Word of God and claimed orthodoxy regarding it, yet in fact they undermined Scripture, for they denied its sufficiency as the rule of faith and life. Montanism’s prophecy was an additional revelation above and beyond that taught in the Scriptures. Even the church father Tertullian was carried away by this new error in the latter part of his life. While he and other Montanists taught that prophecy had to be in harmony with the teaching of Scripture and the historic doctrine of the church, it was particularly in the practical life and walk of the church that Montanism made its presence felt. It taught a rigorous asceticism—celibacy, fastings, abstinence from meats and drinks—which found ready acceptance in the church.
The church vigorously fought this new error and it was largely condemned by the churches, bishops, and various synods of the church. Yet the influence of Montanism continued in the church for a long time.
The Montanist error, in its denial of the sufficiency of Scripture, weakened the church and the authority of the Word, but it also served to promote an erroneous doctrine of inspiration in the church. The church maintained that Scripture was the Word of God given by the Spirit through the apostles and prophets. The question with which the church struggled was in understanding and explaining that work of the Spirit in its relation to the men by whom God gave His Word. The church taught that “holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (II Peter 1:21). The question was, how was this work of the Spirit to be understood?
While the church had formed no clear conception of inspiration, it had tended to vacillate between a more organic view of inspiration and a mechanical description of it. The common and simple explanation was a mechanical one in which the human instruments of Scripture were simply overpowered by the Spirit, their personalities, gifts, and even their consciousness suppressed. The resulting explanation described them as being like a musical instrument upon which the Spirit played a tune. This mechanical theory of inspiration was greatly advanced by the Montanist heresy, for they claimed that same kind of inspiration for themselves in their utterances. The prophet was supposedly lifted up out of himself so that he became a merely unconscious instrument in the hands of the Holy Spirit.
This mechanical theory of inspiration and prophetic ecstasy of Montanism, which also finds its counterpart in modern-day Pentecostalism, gradually supplanted the more organic conception of the apostolic fathers who regarded the Spirit as speaking in and through the apostles as conscious instruments of revelation. Organic inspiration recognizes that though the Spirit spoke infallibly and inerrently by the apostles and prophets, yet He did so, not apart from, but in and through the human instruments, as conscious instruments, so guiding and directing all their talents and gifts that that which they wrote was word for word, God’s inerrant Word. Due to the Montanist error, the church drifted away from this toward the mechanical theory, and it was left to the later church fathers, such as Jerome, Augustine and Chrysostom, to return to a more organic view (though they too often echo the mechanical idea as well), and ultimately a clear doctrine of inspiration was not developed until the days of the Reformation.
This mechanical conception of inspiration has certain consequences for how one interprets Scripture and is therefore a serious error. It severs the Scriptures from history in such a way that they really have no historical context at all, and it allows for all kinds of fanciful interpretations of the Word of God in complete disregard of the time and place in which they were given. The organic view, while avoiding the idea that Scripture is culturally conditioned and time-bound as it is God’s Word and not man’s word, yet at the same time maintains the literal sense of Scripture as spoken by the Lord to His people in the real world.
As a result the Montanist error served to further a growing tendency in the church to allegorize the Scripture and to give to historical passages of the Word of God a variety of mystical and symbolic interpretations which were not proper expositions of the meaning of Scripture. (We will have more to say about this in a future article, D.V.) Montanism, exactly because of its mystical and Pentecostal character, furthered the idea of a deeper level in the Scriptures than the plain meaning of the Word of God and the Spirit. This deeper level was open only to those who were “spiritual” in the church, i.e., the Montanist. With such an approach the necessity of comparing Scripture with Scripture is also eliminated since the inward revelation of the Spirit becomes a sufficient guide to exposition. Thus some of the sound principles of exegesis and Bible study, such as comparing Scripture with Scripture and explaining more obscure passages by clearer ones, were endangered. These principles, while not clearly understood by the church had begun to develop, and Montanism served to retard that development and misdirect its course.