The quote that heads this article is not a quote from me. It’s one from of the champions of cessationism, Eusebius. There have been several posts in blogosphere over the last few months giving the impression that the Church Fathers’ were almost entirely cessationist. That is only partly true. Notably absent from the discussion is the impact the Montanism had on the early church.
Montanus was a heretic, who believed he was a prophet and had new revelations from God. It is widely acknowledged that prophecy died out from the church shortly after the heresy sprung up. But what the cessationists don’t often tell you is how this heresy was dealt with. Take these extracts from that arch-opponent of Montanism, Eusebius (he’s quoting from fellow-opponent, Miltiades):
For if after Quadratus and Ammia in Philadelphia, as they assert, the women with Montanus received the prophetic gift, let them show who among them received it from Montanus and the women. For the apostle thought it necessary that the prophetic gift should continue in all the Church until the final coming. But they cannot show it… – Eccl. Hist. 5.17.4
Now this quote throws the cessationist and other commentators into complete confusion. Even Philip Schaff cannot make sense of it. This is what he says in a footnote:
To what utterance of “the apostle” (which commonly means Paul) our author is referring, I am not able to discover. I can find nothing in his writings, nor indeed in the New Testament, which would seem to have suggested the idea which he here attributes to the apostle.
But the continuationist can point to 1 Corinthians 13:9-10 “For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.” In other words, prophesy will continue (it is implied) until the perfect comes (that is the perfect revelation of Jesus at the second coming).
…the writer apparently means to prove that the Montanists are not a part of the true Church, because the gift of prophecy is a mark of that Church, and the Montanists no longer possess that gift. This seems a strange accusation to bring against the Montanists — we might expect them to use such an argument against the Catholics. In fact, we know that the accusation is not true…
But this is not strange at all to the continuationist. The gift of prophecy is a mark of the church – Acts 2 has made that perfectly clear. Eusebius’ point is not that Montanus must be a heretic because prophecy has ceased. Rather, he is arguing that because Montanus claims only he and a few others had the prophetic gift it must be a false claim, because “the prophetic gift should continue in all the Church”.
Not only did Montanus claim only a few could prophecy, the manner of his prophesying also went against New Testament theology, as these quotes from Eusebius show:
[Montanus] became beside himself, and being suddenly in a sort of frenzy and ecstasy, he raved, and began to babble and utter strange things, prophesying in a manner contrary to the constant custom of the Church handed down by tradition from the beginning. – Eccl. Hist. 5.16.7
Note those words again: Montanus prophesied in a manner contrary to the constant custom of the Church. Babbling and uttering strange things (something very similar to what is mistakingly called the gift of tongues today I would argue) were contrary to the constant custom of the church which was for intelligible prophesying. It is ecstasy that demonstrates that the prophecy must be false
But the false prophet falls into an ecstasy, in which he is without shame or fear. Beginning with purposed ignorance, he passes on, as has been stated, to involuntary madness of soul. They cannot show that one of the old or one of the new prophets was thus carried away in spirit. Neither can they boast of Agabus, or Judas, or Silas, or the daughters of Philip, or Ammia in Philadelphia, or Quadratus, or any others not belonging to them.” – Eccl. Hist. 5.17.2-3
Again, notice what Eusebius says. He does not say there are not prophets outside the apostolic circle. In his list of (true) prophets he includes Ammia and Quadratus, saying explicitly that they “prophesied under the new covenant”, and assumes that there were other prophets too, but that these (true) prophets could be distinguished from the Montanists because of their intelligibility.
In short then, according to Eusebius, “the apostle thought it necessary that the prophetic gift should continue in all the Church until the final coming”, but Montanus prophesied “in a manner contrary to the constant custom of the Church”. It is “babbling and uttering strange things” that was never a spiritual gift.
In so saying, Eusebius cuts down both the cessationists (who wrongly argue that prophesy has ceased) and the charismatics (who argue that “babbling and uttering strange things”* should be part of our Christian experience). Prophecy continues as it always has, ecstatic tongue-speaking must not. Sounds almost like 1 Corinthians 12-14, doesn’t it?** Now isn’t that strange 😉
* Please note: This is not an expression I would choose to use myself, but then Eusebius was in the frontline against heresy, rather than discussing things with brothers in Christ.
** Before I get condemned in the comments, I know this is not an argument from Scripture, and I know that Scripture is more important the church history. If that’s what you want, then stay tuned. But it’s nice to know that history’s on your side, regardless!