This is part of a series of posts on Evangelical Heresies. Click here to see the entire series.
Several years ago I had a booth at a convention for Christian businesses and ministries. Over the course of the three-day convention I got to know a group of people from a local church who also were staffing a booth in support of their church. Like me with these essays, they were diligently attempting to correct the many errors of the Church in this country today. We had the opportunity to engage in a long and lively debate on numerous issues that they had prepared papers about. As the hours went by and the debate heated up, I began to realize that they had an unfair advantage over me. Unlike me, they had access to additional revelation beyond the Bible. It was inevitable that I would lose the debate.
As I would engage several of the leaders of this church on points in their papers with which I disagreed, they would ultimately resort to defending their positions with a statement something like this, “I prayed about it and God showed me that this is the way it is.” When they would tell me what God had told them the debate was over. There was no way for me to falsify what they asserted. If God had indeed spoken to them, there was no way for me to prove that what He had said was wrong. There was also no way for me to prove that God had not spoken to them. Nothing I could say would change their mind about the alleged fact that they had received additional revelation from God on the topic in question. Ultimately, when I expressed my frustration with their position, I was told that if I didn’t have the same experience there was no way I would ever be able to understand how God had spoken to them.
I quickly confessed to the fact that God had never spoken to me and they were aghast. How could I profess to be a leader in the church if God did not speak with me on a regular basis? How could I say that I prayed (without obviously lying about it), if I could also not tell others what God said back to me? In the final analysis I was told that I had a relationship with a book (the Bible) and not with the living God. That settled the matter. I was not even a believer in their eyes. They, on the other hand, were strong believers whom God had called to reform the Church and through whom new revelation was being given to aid them in their quest. I asked them if they had ever heard of the Gnostic heresy. Not surprisingly, they had not.
It is the standard position in Evangelicalism today that God continues to provide additional revelation to His people. This continuing revelation is available through one of two sources: ecstatic experience or mystical experience. Those who believe in additional revelation by means of ecstatic experience are generally called charismatics. Those who believe in additional revelation by means of mystical experience do not have a name by which they are generally called. Indeed, it seems as if practically every Evangelical alive today professes to “hear” the voice of God when they spend time in prayer and meditation. Phrases such as “God told me such and such” or “God led me to do this or that” are so common today that nobody bats an eye when we hear them. It seems as if we all simply assume that God continues to speak to His people with continuing revelation beyond what is revealed in the of the Word of God.
In this examination of the heresy of co-authoritative continuing revelation I am going to examine the two branches that exist today. As I mentioned above, I can’t think of any name for the popular delusion in which most believers are convinced that God is somehow speaking His secret will to them. For lack of a better term I will call them mystics and what they believe mysticism. The choice of those terms is not designed to be pejorative in any way. I simply need a term that I can use to develop the argument.
Both charismatics (also known as Pentecostals) and mystics share a common belief in continuing revelation that is co-authoritative with Scripture. Charismatics receive their new revelation through the exercise of one of the charismatic gifts. I believe it is fair to say that charismatics believe that God communicates new, authoritative revelation through prophecy, speaking in tongues, the interpretation of tongues, and through the word of knowledge. Mystics, on the other hand, receive their authoritative revelation from God by means of some sort of mystical experience that is non-falsifiable and non-explainable. The only way to validate the truth or falsehood of the mystical experience is to have one oneself. Mystics almost always deny that they actually hear a literal voice when they say that God spoke to them. Usually it just boils down to having some sort of unction in their souls after a time of prayer or mediation. There are many similarities between the two groups and in practice they often look very much alike. My goal is not to develop a complete theology of the two groups. Rather, my goal is to see how their beliefs relate to the orthodox doctrine of Sola Scriptura.
Montanism as the Historical Source of Charismatics:
Montanus lived in Asia Minor (present day Turkey) towards the end of the second century, AD. He developed the doctrinal position that specific individuals in the Church were continuing to receive new revelation from God by means of the Holy Spirit. Obviously, if Montanus was unique because of his assertion of this doctrine, it must have been the case that the standard or orthodox position was that God was not delivering new revelation to the Church. By this time the Canon was complete and the primary question in the minds of those who organized the Scriptures into the form we have today was not “is this a new revelation from God”. Rather, the primary question in the minds of the Church Fathers was, “is this existing document an authentic document written by an apostle or an apostolic delegate and, therefore, authoritative and worthy of inclusion in the Canon?”
The continuing revelations of Montanus and his fellow self proclaimed “prophets” (two women named Priscilla and Maximilla) primarily dealt with exhortations to persecuted believers to withstand suffering, the importance of regular fasting, the importance of avoiding remarriage (usually when one partner had been killed), and the need to avoid any sort of compromising position in light of persecution. The contemporary Church father known as Tertullian (himself a Montanist) said that the Holy Spirit did not proclaim any innovation in Christian doctrine (the same claim falsely made today by charismatics), but only gave directions about how to handle matters of discipline in the churches. In general, Montanists were orthodox in other matters of doctrine.
Montanists were known to have ecstatic experiences in which they would utter many sounds. There is some debate, even among the Montanists themselves, whether these languages were real human languages (xenolallia, hereafter abbreviated as xeno) or some sort of unknown angelic language (glossolallia, hereafter abbreviated as glosso). By the third century the Montanists were condemned by the Bishop of Rome (later known as the Pope) and were driven out of the orthodox churches. They continued to exist as a separate group in Asia Minor for another hundred years or so, with most of them eventually adopting other doctrinal views that were decidedly heretical.
Today, many, if not most, pentecostal and charismatic denominations will trace their roots back to the Montanists. They argue that zealots who were seeking to control the Church for their own glory drove the charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit out of the Church. They see the Montanists as the last vestige of true, biblical Christianity until the time when they recaptured the doctrine of the continuation of the charismata.