Once upon a time (during the second century, to be precise) a man called Montanus mixed a pleasant-tasting poison and put it in a large unbreakable bottle. The poison had the power to reproduce itself so, as long as a few drops remained, it didn’t matter how much of it was used. Given time, the bottle would eventually fill up again.
Many of the ingredients used by Montanus were actually quite wholesome and it was these
that gave his poison its attractive flavour. For example, he was tired of the worldliness of
the church of his day and taught that Christians should be red hot, unashamed, sternly self disciplined,
filled with self-denial, and radically different from the unconverted. It was this
ingredient which persuaded Tertullian (approx. AD 160-230) to drink the poison for a while.
The same ingredient also made the Montanists heroes in times of persecution.
Another tasty ingredient was Montanus’ insistence that believers should understand who
the Holy Spirit was and what was his work in their lives. They were not to think that
ministers had a monopoly of spiritual experiences. The Holy Spirit had been given to all
Christians and had gifted each one of them to make some useful contribution to the
building up of Christ’s church.
But mixed with these beneficial ingredients were additives, which were to prove ruinous to
the church’s health. Montanus taught that God had new revelations to give to his people.
These could come directly to the Christian without the Scriptures being involved. Yes, God
could have dealings with you even when your bible was shut and absent from your
thoughts. Indeed, you could have exalted spiritual experiences without your mind being
active at all!
Montanus taught that he himself was a mouthpiece for direct revelations from the Holy
Spirit. He refused to believe that prophecies had disappeared from the church, although he
accepted that not every Christian had such messages to transmit. He encouraged women to
take to the platform, and two of them — Prisca and Maximilla — became second only to
himself in declaring that they had the Word of the Lord for his people.
Once the poison was mixed, Montanus put a label on his bottle. He called it ‘Authentic
Christianity’ and it proved to be very popular. Who will ever be able to count the multitude
that drank from it during the second century, not only in his native Asia Minor, but later in
Europe? During the fourth century the vast majority of Christians in North Africa were
completely intoxicated by it.
The effects of the poison were quickly seen. It did not necessarily prove fatal, but was
always health-destroying. Its effects were similar to those of modern mind-bending drugs.
Without exception, people who drank the poison suffered from self-delusion. They
sincerely believed that they were speaking in tongues when they weren’t. They thought
they were having real experiences of God even when their minds were inactive or
unstimulated. Worst of all, they considered that they were eating a healthy diet in meetings
where there was little or no exposition of the Bible. Christian after Christian was found to
be suffering from spiritual malnutrition.
The effects of the poison on preachers were equally obvious. They lost their power.
Compelling preaching flows from a heart that believes that God speaks in the Bible,
everywhere in the Bible, only in the Bible, and nowhere outside of the Bible. Once a
preacher nurses the thought that God may perhaps have dealings with his hearers without
the biblical text being directly involved, a whole dimension of conviction and directness
inevitably disappears from his preaching.
Besides the awful effects we have mentioned, Montanism was splitting churches
everywhere. What could be done about it? Groups of churches began to act. They forcefully
stressed that there were no new revelations after the apostolic era and that prophecy in all
its forms had disappeared from the church. They could not destroy Montanus’ bottle or
stop his poison reproducing itself. So they tore off his label and replaced it with one
carrying the single word HERESY.
On the whole this action worked very well. Some of those who had been drinking from the
bottle gave it up, and eventually lost all taste for it. Most other Christians, when they saw
the label, kept their distance. There were, of course, always a few who closed their eyes,
gulped the poison down, and suffered the inevitable effects. Happily, some of these were
rescued by the Reformers and Puritans, who had discovered the perfect antidote to
Montanism. It was called the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture.
However, unless you regularly renew the glue, no label will stick for ever. The last three
centuries have seen Montanus’ bottle fill up again, while its label has become increasingly
loose. It has slipped further and further down the bottle. The warning it gives has become
very much harder to see. It is not surprising that more and more people have consumed
Montanus’ tasty poison. In fact there has been so much use of the bottle recently that the
label has come off altogether.
But is it right that the health of Christ’s church should be ruined by an ancient toxin? Is it
right that Christians throughout the world should experience the self-delusion from which
previous generations were so mercifully delivered? Must we again live through an era of
powerless preaching and split churches?
Isn’t it time to firmly stick the HERESY label back on the Montanist bottle? Isn’t there
anybody, anywhere, who will bring out the good old Reformed and Puritan antidote — that
God speaks in the Bible, everywhere in the Bible, only in the Bible, and nowhere outside
the Bible? Is there anything else that will rescue the modern church?
"Afresh, precious, precious Jesus, I resign this body to You, for doing or suffering, for living or dying. Will You accept it? Will You use me for Your glory more than heretofore, that You may have some little return for all the benefits You have done to me? Oh, do grant this request; my heart longs for it, my spirit pleads for it; and "if You will, You can." You know the hot temptation of which I am the subject. Bring Your glory out of it, and keep me from the evil, and it shall be well." - Ruth Bryan