Montanism and the Toronto Blessing

A friend of mine was once praying before an event with a woman from the Toronto Airport Church. They formed a huddle, as you do before a football game, and were praying. The lady said that the Holy Spirit was going to give them the gift of holy laughter. Now, this woman was … large and well-endowed. And as they prayed, she began to laugh. And as she laughed, she shook up and down, jostling and rubbing against the people on either side of her. They began laughing because it was, well, awkward and amusing. And so did the rest of the huddle.

There was no Holy Spirit in that laughter.

My other Toronto Airport Church story is about a friend who went to hear a visiting preacher there. The preacher got barely more than ten minutes in when the cacophony began — the holy laughter, the barking like dogs, the clucking like chickens, the rolling on the floor. The noise was so loud and disruptive that the preacher was unable to continue. My friend said that it moved across the auditorium from right to left, moving like a contagion.

People who are acquainted with the Toronto Airport Church and the Toronto Blessing, as well as others from the depths of the charismatic/Pentecostal movement, are always interested to discover the second-century group of Christians known as Montanists. The opponents of these charismatic manifestations tend to be equally pleased. The former group find legitimacy in Montanists while the latter proclaim that the Church has already dealt with this and moved on.

Our sources for Montanism are sparse. Many of them come from Tertullian, but using Tertullian as a source for Montanism is dangerous for a variety of reasons. First of all, his alleged ‘Montanist’ period is about fifty years after Montanus — is Tertullian’s experience and witness viable evidence for second-century Montanism? Second, he is in Carthage, not Phrygia — many of the rigorist elements common to Montanism are also popular in ‘mainstream’ North African Christianity. Third, he is idiosyncratic anyway; could some of his teachings attributed to Montanism be simply because he was a grumpy old man?

Our other main source is called ‘Anonymous’, for the obvious reason that we don’t know who wrote it. You can find the ‘Anonymous’ in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, Book 5. ‘Anonymous’ was clearly writing about Montanism after the fact. It is also a hostile source. Some of what ‘Anonymous’ relates the author even admits may not be true. Furthermore, could not Eusebius have chosen those bits of ‘Anonymous’ that were best for his worldview? Could he not have consciously not introduced others that opposed him?

Third, we have the evidence of Epiphanius of Salamis, Cyprus. What can we say about him? Like Eusebius, he writes in the fourth century. As well, he has a habit of making up early heresies. This is not to say that Montanism never existed, but should cast some doubt about how reliable Epiphanius is as a source.

Nevertheless, what seems to be the case in Montanism is that people of any sort — women, the uneducated, people who are not priests — would be overcome by the Spirit. They would then, in the state of ecstasy, make utterances, some of them described as babbling, others of them prophetic. And unlike other prophets, they would speak in the first person as the Spirit, rather than, ‘The Spirit says …’

Here  are some purported Montanist sayings:

Behold a man is as a lyre, and I fly over it like a plectrum. The man sleeps and I remain awake. Behold it is the Lord that stirs the hearts of men, and gives men hearts. (Attrib. to Montanus by Epiphanius)

I am the Lord God Almighty, dwelling in man. It is neither angel nor ambassador, but I, God the Father, who am come. (Attrib. to Montanus by Epiphanius)

After me shall be no prophetess any more, but the consummation … (Attrib. to Maximilla by Epiphanius)

These are the sorts of things the opponents of Montanism passed down to posterity. You can see how they would make people uneasy. No doubt other things were uttered by the ‘Montanist’ prophets, things far less controversial. The official causes of their condemnation were these controversial types of utterances as well as the state of ecstasy in which the utterances were given.

Now, as we saw with St. Basil On the Holy Spirit, prophecy was an accepted reality in the ancient church. Thus, it is not prophesying that is the problem the authorities had. Their problem was, as I said, the ecstatic state. They maintained that true prophets would make their proclamations in their right minds after the ecstasy had passed. They also maintained that the prophet himself was never possessed by the Spirit him/her/itself, and so things like the above would be totally out of order. They also believed that the Spirit is a Spirit of order, not chaos; the inane babblings were not part of their vision of true prophecy.

Back to Toronto and such.

I grew up in the charismatic wing of Anglicanism. But we kept things tame on Sunday mornings. The Eucharist was the main event, but while we went up for Communion, you could go for prayer ministry at the side and pray in tongues and get slain in the Spirit and all of that. No problem. There was a woman in our congregation who would often geat words from the Lord. She would share them with my dad, the minister, and then he would share them with the congregation. Everything was done as St Paul recommends — orderly. But there was room for the Spirit.

I am not opposed to contemporary prophets or visions or people with rigorist disciplines or praying in tongues or being slain in the Spirit. But I cannot reconcile the events of Acts and the advice of the Pauline epistles with the sort of mayhem that is unleashed at the Toronto Airport Church. I will not go so far as to say that it is from the Devil, as some do and as Epiphanius and ‘Anonymous’ do about the Montanists. But I just don’t think that’s the way we were meant to use the gifts of the Spirit and offer worship unto God.

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Thoughts on Apostolic Succession (with reference to Irenaeus & Tertullian)

The Seventy Apostles

In some church bodies, it is a big deal to be within the Apostolic Succession, for which there are certain rules of succession that apply. Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy stand out in this way most prominently, but the Church of the East, the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Coptic Orthodox and Ethiopian Orthodox Churches, and the Armenian Apostolic Church all claim a direct line of episcopal descent from the apostles, as does the Anglican Communion, through the Archbishops of Canterbury, many of whom (as well as some others) were consecrated by the Popes of the Early Middle Ages.

This idea of a succession of church overseers crops up in Irenaeus (d. 202) for the first time, from what I can tell. In Against the Heresies, Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons in Gaul, calls to the reader’s mind the orthodoxy of the bishops of Rome, who can be traced from Peter (Pope of the Month here) through Linus and Clement (Pope of the Month here) to Eleutherus (c. 174-189).

Irenaeus is writing against various Gnostic sects and uses the apostolic origins of the bishops of Rome to demonstrate the truth of their teaching — if the apostles had secret knowledge, they would have passed it along to their successors. As it is, what is visible from the standard tradition of the Church of Rome in the days from Justin through Hippolytus (about whom read this but also this) is what we think of as ‘orthodoxy’ or, in some scholarly circles, ‘proto-orthodoxy.’ That is — not Gnosticism.

The purpose of the Apostolic Succession for Irenaeus is to demonstrate orthodoxy. The Bishops of Rome believe the following; they trace their teaching and authority from the Apostles; therefore, we can trust them. Tertullian, On the Prescription of Heretics, c. 190, uses the idea in a similar way.

This is important to consider. Today, Anglicans are passed over by the Church of Rome because a nineteenth-century committee decided we are outside of the Apostolic Succession. Anglicans are concerned about the viability of Methodist holy orders because John Wesley stepped outside the Apostolic Succession to promote their movement. The Orthodox at times claim that Protestants in breaking with Rome have removed themselves (ourselves?) from the Apostolic Succession and tradition, explaining the many strange journeys we have taken in the past 500 years.

For Irenaeus and Tertullian, however, Apostolic Succession is not simply a question of the validity of holy orders or whether a gathering of Christians is a true ‘Church’. Their concern with the Apostolic Succession is the guardianship of orthodoxy. We can trust these teachers to be true because we know where their teaching came from — especially important in a semi-oral culture that did most of its teaching orally. The Gnostics claim special knowledge but are distinct from the Apostles’ visible successors.

To take the question of the Methodists, we know where their tradition came from, and — even if their ordinations were irregular and uncanonical — we know that it is, in fact, within the bounds of orthodoxy. This seems to be the point of the earliest attestations of Apostolic Succession. Why, then, do we use it to exclude Methodists from our Communion?

The Martyrs of Lyons and Vienne (saints for the week)

This week, one of the classes I’m running tutorial seminars for is looking at martyrdom. Amidst the many interesting texts (from A New Eusebius, 2nd ed, 16-17, 20-24) was the account of the martyrs of Lyons and Vienne, in AD 177 (#23). This account was contained in a letter sent to the churches of Asia (Minor) because the ties between the Gallic and Asian churches were strong, many Gallic Christians being in fact from Asia. Their next bishop, St Irenaeus, was himself from Asia.

This particular persecution seems to have broken out as mob violence at first; the Christians were attacked and dragged before the magistrates by their fellowmen. The authorities, now confronted with these Christians, investigated what the charges against them were — beyond the usual ‘Christians are bad as business’, as old as the riots at Ephesus in Acts.

Some of the Christians recanted their faith. Many did not. All of them, ‘apostate’ or not, were tortured and tried for their crimes — including not just being Christians and therefore not burning incense to the genius of the Emperor but also ‘Thyestean banquests and Oedipodean intercourse.’ Freud has made the second reference obvious to us; the former is to cannibalism, specifically of children; in myth, Atreus served up to his brother, Thyestes, the man’s own children. Read the play Thyestes by Seneca for the full horror of what that would entail.

This time, recantation did not help anyone. And some, when being tortured, and seeing how the faithful held up under torture, returned to the Christian faith that they had shunned to avoid a torture that had arrived anyway.

The faithful held up well in prison:

They went forth with joy, great glory and grace blended on their countenances, so that even their chains hung around them like a goodly ornament, as a bride adorned with golden fringes of diverse colours, perfumed the while with the sweet savour of Christ, hence some supposed that they had been anointed with earthly ointment as well. (ch. 35)

According to this account, people were converted to the Way by the bravery of the martyrs in the arena. I am reminded by the famous Tertullian quote:

The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.

For a population fond of Stoicism and its ideals of enduring with dignity any horrors and terrors of this life, the brave face put on by many Christians when faced by beasts — if non-citizens — or the sword — if citizens — would have been appealing. They would have seen that these dying people had found something truly worth living for; these Christians were people who were truly living according to the balance of nature, perhaps!

During this persecution, many members of the church at Lyons were gathered up by the authorities and tortured. 47 or 48 of them were slain for their faith. What makes this account notable for me is that many of them were afraid of torture and and actually cried out in pain — a far cry from Perpetua or Polycarp. Something a bit more human. For did our Lord not also cry out on the Cross?

Another realistic detail is the fact that while Blandina, after being tortured, is put in a basket to be tossed around by a bull. The text says:

For a time the animal tossed her, but she had now lost all perception of what was happening, thanks to the hope she cherished, her grasp of the objects of her faith, and her intercourse with Christ. (ch. 56)

I cannot help think that perhaps she was simply in shock. I know I would have been.

The martyrs were perceived as combatants. These, not monks, are the original milites Christi — soldiers of Christ. They are the brave souls whose faithfulness to and faith in Christ are truly put to the ultimate test. Are you willing to gain the world by renouncing him at the risk of your soul? What matters more — this earthly life or the heavenly life?

These are the questions posed to us by the martyrs. How faithful will we be today in our soft lives of ease?

A brief note on Pelagians

I was  surprised tonight to read this in Celtic Daily Prayer:

But soon [Pelagius] was criticized for teaching women to read Scripture, and for believing that the image of God is present in every new-born child, and that sex is a God-given aspect of our essential creation. He did not deny the reality of evil or its assault on the human soul, or the habitual nature of sin. Augustine’s own peculiar ideas were in stark contrast, seeing humanity as essentially evil, and polluted by the sexual activity which causes conception to occur. (141)

Clearly misinformation and caricature are the best things to fill our devotional books. Thank you, Northumbria Community.

Now, I know that almost every heresiarch had a group in the 20th century seeking to rehabilitate his memory and prove his true orthodoxy, including Arius, Nestorius, and Pelagius. I have not read books on Pelagius himself, but Pelagianism, those things for which he got in trouble, is something of a different story than the caricature produced by people who imagine that “Celtic” Christianity is something special and unique, different from imperial, “Catholic” Christianity in the Mediterranean, represented by free spirits like Pelagius rather than horrible men like Augustine.

First, lots of women read Scripture. This is not part of the substance of any argument that could have brought Pelagius down, given St. Jerome’s tendency to be surrounded by virgins, some of whom could read the Old Testament in Hebrew.

Second, I understand that the question is not whether the image of God is present in new-born children but whether those children, like adults, are fallen and in need of redemption. The orthodox answer is that, yes, children are fallen; thus do we baptise them. Yes, they are in the image of God. We all are.

Third, even Augustine would agree that sex is a God-given aspect of our essential creation. What makes sex dirty is the fact that it is through sex that the man transmits the original sin of Adam. No doubt in his more Neo-Platonist moments, Augustine would also argue (along with St. Thomas Aquinas) that sexual intercourse is not always a good thing because it involves passion, not reason, and reason is the best part of a human. Part of the solution to this “problem” of sexual passion (as I believe explicated by Tertullian) was to say that Adam could engorge his membrum virile at will, rather than having it beyond the power of his reason.

We are not polluted by sexual activity, but our sin has irrevocably polluted it, since it is the means whereby sin is transmitted. This, as I understand it, is the Augustinian position.

To return to the second point, the Northumbria Community maintains that Augustine sees us as “essentially” evil. If we are to consider terminology, this is inaccurate. The Augustinian human being is not “essentially” evil; that would mean evil by essence, by nature. God does not create evil things. Human beings are necessarily evil, due to the fall of original sin.

Our essence is marred by evil, but not innately evil. This is how God is able to redeem us. Remember that for someone with so strong a Platonic background as Augustine, evil is essentially non-being. It is the absence of the good. Therefore, we cannot be evil by our own essence, or essentially evil. We can have a lack of good where it ought to have been. We can have ourselves marred so badly by evil that only a strike force from the heavenly realms can save us in a rescue mission (cf. Irenaeus and Athanasius). But this is not being “essentially evil” as the Northumbria Community contends.

Now, to say we are all evil in our very selves seems like a very pessimistic view of humanity to our “enlightened” ears. It is my contention that Augustine formulated it so very sharply because he was dealing with the very real, dangerous ideas of Pelagius’ followers (if not of Pelagius himself).

God’s grace, according to the Pelagian Julian of Eclanum, does not help us do good. We can not only choose God for ourselves (what most Calvinists think when they hear “Pelagian”), we can live a perfect, sinless life and attain salvation just as Christ lived of our own free will. God does not give us his grace in this endeavour. If He were to do so, He would contravene our free will and our good actions would be null and void.

Pelagianism (even if not Pelagius) teaches not simply that we can do good without God, but that we can be good without God. It teaches that we do not need God’s grace at any stage of our salvation because we have the capability within ourselves to live a holy life free of divine intervention.

This is not biblical orthodoxy. Whether you believe in the talking snake or not, the whole point of Gen 3 is to explain the very real condition of humanity as being basically cursed and sinful, fallen, lost. We need God’s grace to be saved. Now, some of us may fall in line with the Massilians (not Messalians who are heretics) like St. John Cassian and believe that there is some sort of synergy between our will and God’s (that’s a terrible way of putting it; read it for yourself); others may fall in with Predestinarians like St. Augustine of Hippo.

We all believe that we cannot be perfect without God’s help. We all believe that Christ is unique and “Adam” is more than a bad example, that our genes are hardwired for sin. Some of us believe in total depravity. Some of us don’t, believing that we can do good deeds without God. But we do not believe that we can save ourselves.

Believing that you, yourself, all alone, can save yourself free from God’s divine intervention is heresy.

We call it Pelagianism.

Whether or not Pelagius himself believed it, it’s the real reason he was condemned, not the mocking caricature provided for us by the Northumbria Community in Celtic Daily Prayer.

How are we to interpret the Bible?

I have previously posted about Biblical interpretation in “Killing Enemies & Bashing Babies on Rocks: Reading the Difficult Psalms” parts one & two and in “Layers of Meaning.” Today’s post is spurred on by yesterday’s.

Sam Harris argues in Letter to a Christian Nation that the Bible does not offer a clear statement of morality (p. 33).  He uses the expected argument by taking civil laws from the Pentateuch and saying that the injunctions to stone various people and sell as slaves to be evidence that the Bible does not direct people to live lives of compassion and love.  He further argues that Jesus himself bolsters the Law by saying that not one jot or tittle of the Law will be erased.  He also argues that eschatological statements about God’s coming judgement will also make people violent (pp. 13 & 14).

Harris acknowledges that Jesus does say some good stuff, although Confucius beat him to the Golden Rule.  I don’t imagine that the rest of the Sermon on the Mount would sit well with people like Harris.  It’s true that all humans, Christian and otherwise, could probably follow the bulk of the Ten Commandments with no need of their being written down; even certain primates do so.  But what Jesus calls us to is more radical than the Golden Rule, is bigger than the Ten Commandments — “Love your enemies,” “Bless those who persecute you,” “Turn the other cheek,” “If an enemy soldier forces you to march 1 mile, go a second,” “If someone steals your cloak, give him your tunic,” etc.*

How can we reconcile this apparently garbled account of morality?  Indeed, the Good Book gives us leeway to kill heretics or to forgive them if we read the way Harris does.

We must read it systematically.  If you approach the Bible expecting it to be garbled and unclear, you will be rewarded with a garbled and unclear text.  If you approach it expecting it to be capable of being clarified, you will find that you can produce a systematic morality and theology from the Bible.

Nevertheless, you could potentially create a heretical morality and theology.  You could end up a polygamous Mormon.  You could end up an Arian.  Depending on your translation, you could end up Jehovah’s Witness.  You could end up Nestorian, or Monophysite, or the average Anglican.

Where do we turn?  We must abandon any idea that sola scriptura means the Bible interprets itself.  It does not.  And if sola scriptura means the Bible interprets itself, then sola scriptura is wrong.  Thomas C. Oden, in The Rebirth of Orthodoxy, remarks that the texts of the New Testament were written as a way of preserving the oral tradition that had been handed down from the days of the Apostles.  The spoken word is alive, but — as anyone who has played the Telephone Game knows — it is fragile and open to manipulation, both accidental and malicious.

When we look at the community that accepted the New Testament documents as being authoritative, we see that various factors are at play when these early Church Fathers interpreted Scripture.  The first factor was the “Rule of Faith” or regula fidei, Irenaeus’ (d. c. AD 202) account of which looks a lot like the Apostles’ Creed (see Chadwick, The Early Church, p. 44 and Webber, Ancient-Future Faith).  According to Irenaeus, the Rule has been handed down from the Apostles through their successor bishops.  Tertullian (AD 160 – 220) said that the Bible was to be interpreted by the Rule of Faith.  This is the first piece of the Patristic puzzle of biblical interpretation.

The second factor at play is the lens of Christ.  As Christians, we are worshippers of Jesus Christ.  He is the cornerstone of our faith.  It is his teachings that we are following.  Therefore, everything should be read in relation to Jesus.  I cannot think of a patristic source for this at the moment (my apologies), but the idea is, first, that Jesus trumps all.

The Sermon on the Mount sets the standard for our conduct.  Thus, no longer is eye for eye and tooth for tooth.  Lustful looks count as adultery.  Hatred is murder.  The behaviour of Jesus, as encapsulated in the Woman Caught in Adultery, is to be our exemplar.  Thus, no more stoning of homosexuals, heretics, and witches (burning isn’t allowed, either).  Tertullian says that in disarming St. Peter, Christ disarmed every soldier.  Worth a thought.  I admit to not knowing how it is that not one jot or tittle will be removed from the Law while at the same time Jesus gives us standards of living that run counter to enacting the civil punishments of the law.

However, I think that if we take a third principle, that the Old Testament (aka “Hebrew Bible”) is to be interpreted by the New, then things move forward.  The lens of Christ tells us that Jesus has taken away our sins on the cross, and Hebrews tells us that we no longer need the sacrifices and ceremonies of the Temple because of the Cross.  Thus, out go Jewish ceremonial laws.  We are also freed from them by Acts 10, when St. Peter has the vision of the sheet full of unclean animals which he is told to eat.  St. Paul in his many letters also shows us that we are free from living under the civil & ceremonial Law when he says that we are saved and live by faith, and that the law won’t save us.

However, since Jesus takes the moral standards of the law very highly, then we are stuck following the morals of the Old Testament law.  This will show us that, while we can’t stone people for being homosexuals, heretics, and witches, we know that we shouldn’t engage in the practices associated with them.

Thus, when we read Scripture, the Rule of Faith (the Creeds), Christ, and the New Testament should be used as our keys to intepreting the difficult passages.  The clearer should also be used to illuminate the obscure.  This was the way of the Fathers, and it should be the way we follow as well.

*This is the source for nonviolence as practised by Martin Luther King, Jr.  King got it from Gandhi who, contra Harris (p. 12), did not get it from the Jains but from Tolstoy.  Tolstoy got it from Jesus and the simple faith of Russian Orthodox peasants.

Asceticism: Day 3

Thoughts during Day 3 of the Ascetic Revival:

1.  I’m not a true ascetic like St. Francis or St. Antony.  If I were, I would sell all of my books save those required for my work and give the money for the poor.  However, we did sell a bunch of books today and are looking to get rid of more.  I would probably also get rid of DVDs, excess clothing, and use the Internet less.

2.  Jonathan wanted to know about Compline.  Jennifer and I pray together before bed.  This covers prayers at lamplight (ie. Compline) and also fulfills Tertullian’s exhortation for married men to pray with their wives before going to bed at night.

3.  Jumping straight into this sort of thing, as Sophia warned, is not necessarily the brightest idea out there.  I’ve been easing myself into this for a few years with various stops and starts at various aspects of the disciplined life.  What I have done now is consolidate these things into a regula.

4.  Robin wisely reminded me of the need for community.  If you want to lead a more disciplined life, spending time with friends and family must be incorporated into the various aspects of askesis.  St. Basil the Great was opposed to hermits because people who live alone cannot fulfill the commands to be the servant of all and love as Jesus loved.  Perhaps, then, we should seek to deepen our relationships with friends and family.  Grow with our Christian brothers and sisters and help those who do not know Christ draw nearer to Him.  I think that a disciplined life helps cultivate an inner person capable of such relationships.

5.  I haven’t ridden my bike yet.  However, I walked for approx. 2 h yesterday and was on my feet for a similar amount again today.

6.  I keep forgetting prayers at midday.  This, no doubt, means I am a glutton.  Gluttony, for those of you unacquainted with John Cassian and the Eight Vices, is often the root of other sins.  If you cut off gluttony, you can deal with your anger and lust more easily.  Gluttony includes eating what you ought not to eat, eating when you shouldn’t, and eating more than you should.  It involves putting food and the belly before the things of God.  Thus — not praying at midday is a form of gluttony.  Not like in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life when the guy gorges himself and projectile vomits, but gluttony nonetheless.

7.  If you don’t practise any of the disciplines, start with prayer and Scripture-reading.  Set aside a time once a day for these, either both at once or two separate times.  Yes, we are to pray everywhere all the time, but, as Richard Foster notes in Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, we have to pray somewhere at some time for this to work.