“The prophetic gift should continue in all the Church until the final coming”

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).

Schaff continues:

…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!

Comments

  1. Mark,

    Thanks for this post. I think it is great that you are bringing the church fathers into the discussion. They are an important link in the church’s history, and we dismiss them (or more often completely ignore them) to our own detriment.

    Since my post was one of the cessationist posts that you linked to, I thought it would be worthwhile to at least post a comment here. Just a few thoughts…

    (1) Regarding my article, in particular, I believe I only cited from Chrysostom and Augustine, two church fathers who were both later than Eusebius. Many of the earlier (ante-Nicene) church fathers indicate that they did believe the gifts were still operational in their lifetimes. The first indications of cessation come from Origen, with Chrysostom (in the East) and Augustine (in the West) given later, more-definitive statements that the gifts had ceased. The fact that this coincides with the universal affirmation of the canon by the church (in the mid-to-late fourth century) fits well with a cessationist model. So, even if Eusebius believed the gift of prophecy was still operational in his lifetime, and even if we believe him to be correct in his assessment, the cessationist positionultimately remains unchallenged.

    (2)Regarding the Montanist controversy, it may be helpful to read a cessationist understanding of Montanism, and how it fits within the cessationist paradigm. A good article in that regard is The Montanist Crisis by Dave Farnell (who teaches at The Master’s Seminary).

    (3) Regarding 1 Corinthians 13:8-12, and the patristic understanding of that passage… it is true that the church fathers universally accepted the “perfect” as a reference to the glorified state (which they normally associated with the return of Christ, though sometimes just to heaven in general). It is generally agreed that the reason they applied the passage to an eschatological point in church history was as an apologetic response to Montanism. Dr. Gary Shogren has written an excellent article in that regard in the 1999 Journal of Pentecostal Theology.

    Along those lines, there are many cessationists who view “the perfect” as a reference to the glorified state (either to heaven in general, or to the return of Christ specifically). Chrysostom would be one example. More recently, men like Richard Gaffin, Thomas Edgar, and John MacArthur would also hold similar views.

    Thanks again for your post. It’s good to think through these important issues.

    An interesting corollary to your post would be a study on what Eusebius thought the gift of prophecy was, and whether or not his understanding of the gift matches with contemporary charismatic practice.

    – NB

  2. Thanks Mark. An interesting and “strange” quote. I’d like to take some time to study this particular section in more detail, particularly as it relates to eschatology.

    I stand corrected in this issue. It appears as if one orthodox church father did support the continuation of gifts. (I don’t give Origen a lot of consideration).

  3. a couple additional notes…

    (1)in looking back at my original post, I also included Theodoret of Cyrus (c. 393–c. 466)

    (2)”positionultimately” should have a space in the middle of it … though I’m thinking about coining it as a new theological term

    (3) Dates: Eusebius (c. 275-339); Chrysostom (c. 344–407); Augustine (354–430)

    (4) technically, Eusebius is not an “ante-Nicene” father, since he was present at the Council of Nicea in 325… but his view, that the gift of prophecy was still operational in his lifetime, fits with the ante-Nicene understanding of the gifts

    (5) the post-Nicene understanding of the gifts was (to the best of my knowledge) primarily cesstionist

    (6) If the cessation of the gifts corresponds to the universal acceptance of the canon, then it helps explain the dwindling of the gifts throughout the ante-Nicene period and the complete cessation of the gifts in the post-Nicene period

  4. I’m thrilled to see this important historical detail given the airing it deserves. Too often Cessationists make unfounded assertions about the gifts disappearing in the first century, when the truth is they gradually fell out of use in the third. Something much harder to square with their usual exegesis of 1Co 13:10.

    I don’t agree with your analysis on all points (as you expected). I think its hard, especially in the light of this evidence, to claim Eusebius was a champion of cessastionism. (typo?)

    Also, babbling and tongue-speaking are two separate issues. It is possible to babble in a known tongue (Mtt 6:7) just as easily as it is to babble in a tongue given by the Spirit. The gifts, both now and then, can be abused as well as used, which is one of the main points of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. Not to prohibit tongue-speaking (1Co 14:5) but instruct on how this gift should be used correctly in the assembly.

    One of your commenters asks the question on how the modern use of the gifts matches with that of the church fathers. This is an important question, not just concerning the gifts, but all areas of church life. How does our evangelism match up to the early church? How does our pattern of church government? How much do we really live sola scriptura, and how much is based on our modern church traditions.

  5. Nathan,

    I’m grateful for your lengthy reply, and the time you have taken to respond. I think there’s a couple of issues we need to clear up, as although I’m happy with the evidence you put forward, I think some of the conclusions you draw are a little unfair.

    1. I obviously agree that (speaking very generally) the ante-Nicene fathers were generally continuationist and the post-Nicene fathers were generally cessationist. You say that fits well with the cessationist model as this coincides with the universal affirmation of the closure of the canon. I must confess this argument makes no sense at all to me. The ante-Nicene fathers did not just believe that prophecy was theoretically possible. They believed it was occurring. Indeed Eusebius believed it would always occur. Yet none of them believed that the canon was being enlarged. So in the eyes of the ante-Nicene fathers (like modern-day reformed charismatics) the continuation of prophecy did not endanger the canon. It’s hard therefore to see why the affirmation of the canon’s closure mean that prophecy had inevitably ceased.
    2. I’ve read David Farnell’s work extensively (I’ve even read his PhD!), but generally find him unconvincing. But I wasn’t aware of that recent article, so I appreciate the link. Thanks. On page 237 of The Montanist Crisis he asks, “Simply summarized, the basic question regarding Montanism centers in the following issue: does the post-apostolic church exhibit agreement with Grudem’s definition of prophesy in its handling of Montanism?” Certainly Eusebius does, doesn’t he? In his handling of Montanism, he agrees with Grudem that prophecy should continue. Furthermore, Farnell himself says, “a careful, honest examination of the Anonymous’s [the writer quoted by Eusebius] discussion leads also to the conclusion that he allowed for the possibility of prophetic activity at the time of his writing against Montanism” (pg 247). Farnell later admits (pg 252) that Epiphanius also believed the spiritual gifts continue, “which admittedly implies that he might not have been arguing against the continuance of the prophetic gift per se”. But Farnell seems to believe these problems don’t matter to the cessationist argument! He says on page 261 that “Sources cited by Eusebius (“the Anomymous” and Apollonius) and Epiphanius lived immediately after the apostles and most likely reflected apostolic views of prophecy. Those closest to the period most naturally reflect positions corresponding to postapostolic views… Grudem has made a grevious “mistake” when he cavalierly dismisses such data since it does not correspond to his own peculiar conceptions of prophecy.” I think who could substitute the name “Grudem” for “Farnell” in that sentence.
    3. I’ve read Gaffin on 1 Corinthians 13:8-10 and agree with him almost entirely. It was very refreshing! But there’s still a little more work to be done on that text, which I might possible post in the future.
    4. Farnell is right when he says “The abuse of prophesy by Montanism led to the gradual discrediting and disappearance of prophesy from the beginning of the third century onwards… the great excesses of this movement resulted in a growing resistance of the early church to anyone who later claimed to possess the prophetic gift” (pg 258). It was Montanism that led to the discrediting of prophecy, not the council of Nicea and the affirmation of the closure of the canon.
    5. Finally, I’m glad you say that you’d be interested in “a study on what Eusebius thought the gift of prophecy was, and whether or not his understanding of the gift matches with contemporary charismatic practice”. I’m not suggesting that Eusebius’ view is identical to the charismatic view, but it’s certainly fairer to say it’s nearer to the charismatic view than the cessationist one. Unpicking the church fathers view of prophecy requires a good deal of work (largely New Testament exegesis) that I am working on now. It is certainly very interesting (at least to me!).

    Thanks again for the interaction.

  6. Chris,

    Thanks for popping over. I agree with you about Eusebius. It’s not a typo. Cessationists really do appeal to him to back up their points. The article that Nathan linked to is an excellent example of that. Crazy but true.

    A full discussion of tongue-speaking will need to wait for another day. But Paul was against tongue-speaking precisely because it couldn’t be understood by most (hence the need for interpretation). To most then (and definitely to outsiders) it was considered to be “babbling” even if there was a meaning to it. It wasn’t Montanus who called his ecstatic prophesying “babbling”, it was his hearers. And so it is today. I’m not sure the reference to Matthew 6:7 applies. Babbling is unintelligble, and is therefore different from vain repetition.

    Thanks again Chris. I’m glad to have some interaction both from cessationists and charismatics.

  7. Mark,

    Enjoyed your response… The church fathers are, actually, one of my favorite things to study, so it’s a pleasure to discuss these things with you.

    Admittedly, I have not studied the patristic understanding of prophecy out like you have. However, I did my ThM thesis on the patristic understanding of glossolalia, so there is some overlap.

    Regarding your first point, you seem to imply that there is no connection between the universal affirmation of the canon and the general agreement among post-Nicene fathers that the gifts had ceased. In point four, you later state: “It was Montanism that led to the discrediting of prophecy, not the council of Nicea and the affirmation of the closure of the canon.” Actually, I don’t know that the post-Nicene church fathers articulated it in either of those ways (completed canon or Montanist heresy). In fact, regarding the latter, many of the ante-Nicene fathers argued for the continuation of prophecy as a rebuttal against Montanism. Eusebius, as a case in point, certainly did not think that Montanism’s distortion of prophecy necessitated the cessation of the true gift.

    It seems the post-Nicene fathers (such as Chrysostom, Augustine, and others) attributed the cessation of the gifts to what was a primary concern of theirs—the secularization and subsequent worldliness of the church.

    In any case, my point was not that the church fathers themselves attributed cessation to the universal affirmation of the closed canon. Rather, it was to demonstrate that historically the two events closely coincide. This correlation fits nicely within a broader cessationist paradigm–in which the gifts dwindle after the apostolic age ends (as the canon gains increasingly widespread acceptance) and finally cease when the canon is fully recognized. If one accepts this paradigm as a possibility, it explains Eusebius’s quote in a way that fits within a cessationist paradigm.

    This would fit well with what Robert Thomas suggests regarding Revelation 22:18–19.

    Also, if your interested, I did a multi-part study of 1 Cor. 13 over at Pulpit. I’d be interested in your thoughts.

    Thanks,
    NB

  8. Nate,

    Thanks for the followup. I’ll certainly head over to Pulpit and take a look at your study – after my holiday next week, anyway! If you’re willing, I’d be glad to see your thesis, too. As you said, there’s considerable overlap between tongues and prophecy. Don’t worry, I’m not intending to respond to your thesis (I might even agree with it!), but it might help me in my own research into prophecy. If you’re willing, respond in the comments, and I’ll shoot you over my email address.

    Thanks,

    Mark

  9. Mark,

    I’d be happy to send you the stuff I put together on tongues. My thesis is a little different than most cessationist treatments of the topic. It focuses on what the fathers understood tongues to be, rather than on when they thought tongues had ceased. Anyway, if you’re interested, feel free to shoot me an email: [email protected].

    Thanks again for the dialogue. I’m a big fan of any evangelical blogger who is willing to delve into the oft-neglected pages of patristic literature.

    – NB

  10. Good blogpost. Very good blogpost.