Does God speak today?

Michael Jensen
November 9th, 2010

In 2008, a Canadian evangelist named Todd Bentley of Fresh Fire Ministries was called to Ignited Church in Lakeland, Florida by its pastor, Stephen Strader. Bentley stayed at Lakeland for more than half of 2008 promoting what was claimed to be a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit’s activity.

Making a startlingly successful use of the internet, the revival gathered steam and soon more than a million people had watched its activities online. A well-known Anglican church near where I was living in the UK actually flew representatives over to check out what was happening on the ground first-hand.

Bentley’s ministry featured alleged miraculous healings in which people were struck or slapped and in which he would loudly shout ‘Bam! Bam!’ Bentley also claimed to have been visited by an angel named … (wait for it)… Emma. He also claimed that he had raised the dead on twenty occasions.

Within a very short space of time, the credibility of the revival movement had faded owing to complications with Bentley’s personal life.

This sounds like a uniquely contemporary story, but of course nothing could be further from the truth.

What was Montanism?

Montanism was an apocalyptic movement that sprang up in the latter half of the second century, originating in provincial Phrygia, in Asia Minor.

Its distinctive feature was the presence of ecstatic outbursts which were claimed to be evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit. Montanists saw themselves as the authentic Christians; and the movement quickly spread across the church, East and West.

In either 156 or 172 AD, Montanus, who had been a pagan priest, first announced himself as the inspired instrument of the Holy Spirit. Along with two prophetesses, Maximilla and Prisca, Montanus set up shop in the little Phrygian town of Pepuza.

The prophetic utterances of the trio were written down and collected as sacred documents, about twenty of which survive. They developed a vigorous system of ascetic discipline which was extremely impressive to the African writer Tertullian, who joined the movement in 206. In the face of the increasingly hierarchical and institutional church, Montanism appeared refreshingly democratic, too.

The reaction of the church was indecisive at first. Instinctively it felt Montanus was on the nose. Eventually the bishops and synods of Asia Minor excommunicated Montanus; and soon the whole church had declared the Montanists a heretical sect. In the end, this cut off the life-blood of the movement.

Under pressure of the Montanist movement, the church was forced to limit and close the canon of Scripture in a decisive way. There could be no additions to the authentic apostolic writings.

Implications for today

While ever there are still Tod Bentley’s around, we need to recall the lessons of the Montanist controversy.

The desire for some fresh, direct interaction with divine revelation will always be there. Scripture is rather less exciting than this, it seems. People will always be diverted from it by the next big claim.

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