“God has spoken to me.”
There are few statements that will shut down debate more quickly than this one. If Christians disagree over a doctrine, a practice, or an idea, then the trump card is always “God has spoken to me” about that. End of discussion.
But, the history of the church (not to mention the Scriptures themselves) demonstrates that such claims of private, direct revelation are highly problematic. Of course, this doesn’t mean that God doesn’t speak to people. The Scripture is packed with examples of this. But, these were typically individuals with a unique calling (e.g., prophet or apostle), or who functioned at unique times in redemptive history (e.g., the early church in Acts).
After the first century was over, and the apostles had died, the church largely rejected the idea that any ol’ person could step forward and claim to have direct revelation from God. This reality is probably best exemplified in the early Christian debate over Montanism.
Montanism was a second-century movement whose leader Montanus claimed to receive direct revelation from God. In addition, two of his “prophetesses,” Priscilla and Maximilla also claimed to receive such revelation. Such revelations were often accompanied by strange behavior. When Montanus had these revelations, “[He] became obsessed, and suddenly fell into frenzy and convulsions. He began to be ecstatic and to speak and to talk strangely” (Hist. eccl. 5.16.7).
Needless to say, this sort of activity caused great concern for the orthodox leaders of the second century. Part of their concern was the manner in which this prophetic activity was taking place. They condemned it on the grounds that it was “contrary to the custom which belongs to the tradition and succession of the church from the beginning” (Hist. eccl. 5.16.7).
But, the other concern (and perhaps the larger one) was that this new revelation was inconsistent with the church’s beliefs about the apostles. The second-century leaders understood the apostles to be a unique mouthpiece for God; so much so that they would accept no revelation that wasn’t understood to be apostolic.
As an example of this commitment, the early church rejected the Shepherd of Hermas–a book supposedly containing revelations from heaven–on the grounds that it was written “very recently, in our own times” (Muratorian fragment). In other words, it was rejected because it wasn’t apostolic.
This issue reached a head when the Montanists began to write down their new prophecies, forming their own collection of sacred books. The orthodox leaders viewed such an activity as illegitimate because, on their understanding, God had already spoken in his apostles, and the words of the apostles were recorded in the New Testament writings.
A few examples of how the orthodox leaders rejected these books of “new revelation”:
1. Gaius of Rome, in his dialogue with the Montanist Proclus, rebuked “the recklessness and audacity of his opponents in composing new Scriptures” (Hist. eccl. 6.20.3).
2. Apollonius objected on the grounds that Montanist prophets were putting their “empty sounding words” on the same level as Christ and the apostles (Hist. eccl. 5.18.5).
3. Hippolytus complained that the Montanists “allege that they have learned something more through these [Montanist writings], than from law, and prophets, and the Gospels” (Haer. 8.12).
4. The anonymous critic of Montanism recorded by Eusebius registers his hesitancy to write a response to the Montantists lest he be seen as making the same mistake as them and “seem to some to be adding to the writings or injunctions of the word of the new covenant of the Gospel” (Hist. eccl. 5.16.3)
When you look at these responses, a couple of key facts become clear. First, and this is critical, it is clear that these authors already knew and had received a number of New Testament writings as authoritative Scripture. Thus, they already had a NT canon of sorts (even if some books were still under discussion). Indeed, it is the existence of these books that forms the basis for their major complaint against the Montanists.
Second, and equally critical, the response of these writers shows that they did not accept new revelation in their time period. For them, the kind of revelation that could be considered “God’s word,” and thus written down in books, had ceased with the apostolic time period.
In terms of the modern church, there are great lessons to be learned here. For one, we ought to be equally cautious about extravagant claims that people have received new revelation from heaven. And, even more than this, the Montanist debate is a great reminder to always go back to Scripture as the ultimate standard and guide for truth. It is on the written word of God that the church should stand.