A Charismatic Movement in the Early Church

Montanists declared that they were ushering in the age of the Holy Spirit, with a renewed focus on prophecy, speaking in tongues, and the other gifts of the Spirit. The modern Charismatic experience makes almost identical claims.

Editor's Note: This is Fr. Zechariah's second article on the dangers of the charismatic movement. The first article in the series can be found here: An Orthodox Critique of the Modern Charismatic Experience

In the town of Phrygia, central Asia Minor, about the year 160AD, a man named Montanus claimed to be “seized” by the Holy Spirit. He began to receive “special” messages, “speak in tongues,” “prophesy,” and so forth. Two women “prophetesses” soon join him: Priscilla and Maximillia.

This occurrence took place well before 311 AD, which according to a Charismatic/Emerging Church scheme approximately marks the point when the Church allegedly enters a time of “darkness” (see part one of this series). This course of events transpired when the Church, according to such thought, was still “being led by the Spirit.” Thus, even for a person subscribing to modern Charismatic philosophy, this incident should bear at least some weight.

The History of the Early Church by Eusebius gives these details:

There is said to be a certain village called Ardabau in that part of Mysia, which borders upon Phrygia. There first, they say, when Gratus was proconsul of  Asia, a recent convert, Montanus by name, through his unquenchable desire for leadership, gave the adversary opportunity against him. And he 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…

Thus by artifice, or rather by such a system of wicked craft, the devil, devising destruction for the disobedient, and being unworthily honored by them, secretly excited and inflamed their understandings which had already become estranged from the true faith. And he stirred up besides two women, and filled them with the false spirit, so that they talked wildly and unreasonably and strangely, like the person already mentioned.

And the spirit pronounced them blessed as they rejoiced and gloried in him, and puffed them up by the magnitude of his promises. But sometimes he rebuked them openly in a wise and faithful manner, that he might seem to be a reprover. But those of the Phrygians that were deceived were few in number…

And the arrogant spirit taught them to revile the entire universal Church under heaven, because the spirit of false prophecy received neither honor from it nor entrance into it.

(Eusebius, The History of the Church, 5.16).

The Montanists, based on the brief description above, experienced a manifestation similar to those of the P/C movement, and the Universal Church at that time condemned it as heresy and delusion. As the Scriptures profess and caution, and as the Church indicated in Her dealings with the Montanists, not all “Charismatic” experiences are from God.

Montanists declared that they were ushering in the age of the Holy Spirit, with a renewed focus on prophecy, speaking in tongues, and the other gifts of the Spirit. The modern Charismatic experience makes almost identical claims. To reject the Montanist message was, they claimed, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

The Montanists prophesied in the first person, something unheard of in both the Old and New Testament. It appears that Montanus would say, “I, the Holy Spirit, say to you...” Whereas the Old and New Testament prophets all spoke in this manner, “Thus says the Lord...” (cf. Act. 21:11; Is. 8:1). They also fervently proclaimed the immediate return of Christ, even professing to know location and date. One author states: 

Claiming to receive revelation directly from God that fulfilled and superseded the revelation given to the Apostles, Montanus emphasized direct, ecstatic, and highly emotional spiritual experiences for all believers … (they) did not claim to be messengers of God but rather claimed that God 'possessed' them and spoke directly through them

(Damick, Andrew. Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy, Conciliar Media Ministries. Chesterson, IN. p. 21).

I will interject here a little personal experience from my past Evangelical Charismatic days. At various meetings, I remember hearing people speak in the first person - “I, the Lord, say…”

Even before I became Orthodox, when I first encountered the Montanist historical account, I was struck by its experiences and claims, and the similarity of modern Charismatic counterparts. The Apostolic Church, in its early days, had a firm reaction to Montanist experience and teaching.

In response to this, I had but few options. Either I could assume that “darkness” overcame the Church much earlier than I was taught, and push the date of its purported corruption back before 160 AD. This would provide an excuse to disregard the response of the Church as “dead religion", or else admit that my experiences in modern Charismatic circles — and their strong resemblance to Montanism — had been (at best) very questionable. I went with the latter option. 

Additional testimony from the early Church has also come down to us in a letter written by Miltaides. He duly provides a witness regarding the Montanist Charismatic movement:

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, [Acts 15:32] or the daughters of Philip, or Ammia in Philadelphia, or Quadratus, or any others not belonging to them… For the apostle thought it necessary that the prophetic gift should continue in all the Church until the final coming. But they [Montanists] cannot show it [continuity with the Universal Church]...

(Ibid. 5. 17.)

Based upon the available accounts regarding Montanism, the reconstructed picture bears remarkable similarity to the Azusa Street movement, which was the catalyst for every modern “Pentecostal” experience and its subsequent fruit — the Charismatic movement.

The early Church decisively condemned Montanism at several local councils in Asia Minor, and Bishop Zephyrius of Rome condemned it around the year 200. Although the movement lingered on for a number of years, the answer of the Christian Church was clear: Such “charismatic experiences” do not have their source in God. It is a false charisma. It has its origin in another spirit. The One Holy Apostolic Church has never known such “manifestations.”

Of course, “charisma” is a Scriptural word which describes the gifts of the Holy Spirit in the Church (Cf. 1 Cor. 12 ff). The Orthodox Church believes in true charisma, and throughout Her eminent history has ever operated in the gifts of the Holy Spirit. But She also has a means by which to discern what is true charisma, most of all when it comes to persons. This belongs to the conciliar and Apostolic wisdom in the Church. The Church has known by the wisdom of the Holy Spirit from the very beginning that there are false spirits which give counterfeit “charisma.”

The carefully deliberated response of the early Christian Church to Montanism and its self-professed prophets, “spiritual” gifts, and power should cause pause and circumspection for the modern Christian. One hundred years ago is a very recent time, and the past century is only a tiny piece of the Church's 2000-year history. Are these very recent and modern claims to “spiritual” renewal and power be trusted?

Undoubtedly there is a power involved in the P/C movement, but have people put faith in this power, without trying and testing it? Has much of modern Christendom failed to follow St. Paul's direction to “Prove all things, and hold fast to the good” (1 Thess. 5:21)? Are signs and powers in and of themselves an end-all proof that something is of God? Or are we to test signs and wonders, so as to see where they lead?

“If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, 'Let us go after other gods,' which you have not known, and serve them, you shall not listen to the words of that prophet ...” (Deut. 13:1-3). Have we not been duly warned that the false christs and prophets will “rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive” (cf. Matt. 24:24)?

The “christianity” introduced by the P/C movement, which has influenced much of modern Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, has a fundamentally different orientation from that of the Ancient Christian Church. In modern Rome alone there are estimated to be around 115 million Charismatics.1

Are Christians to expect a “New” outpouring and teaching of the Holy Spirit, which is heavily based upon the teaching of a “last days great revival?” Are signs and wonders de facto evidence that God is at work?

In a subsequent article, I will undertake to test these claims.

1 https://cruxnow.com/vatican/2019/06/08/pope-to-charismatics-being-afraid-of-change-is-a-temptation-from-the-devil/

Fr. Zechariah Lynch & his wife Natalia

Fr. Zechariah is an Orthodox priest in Pueblo, Colorado, at the Archangel Michael Orthodox Church. He blogs at The Inkless Pen, and is a regular contributor at Russian Faith.

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