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History of the 3rd Century Church: Part 5

Nov 04, 2007

There was apparently a political power struggle in the Roman Church in 198 A.D. after Bishop Victor died. The outcome was that Zephyrinus was voted in as bishop instead of Hippolytus. Tertullian was a presbyter in the Roman Church at this time and may also have been a candidate for bishop, but the fact that shortly after the election he left Rome and returned to North Africa, the place of his birth, tells us that he was not a supporter of Hippolytus. But Jerome also tells us that he joined the Montanists because of the abuse he received at the hands of Zephyrinus. So it is certain that he was not a supporter of Zephyrinus either and, in fact, must have been perceived as another political rival.

Hippolytus and Tertullian each were more capable of the position from an intellectual position. Hippolytus himself calls Zephyrinus "an uninformed [or ignorant] and shamefully corrupt man" in Book IX of A Refutation of All Heresies. Hippolytus himself was well read, for in ten volumes under this title he refuted virtually every Greek philosophy and Church heresy up to his own time. He obviously felt that he was intellectually entitled to the bishopric, based upon his knowledge of heresies and what was orthdox Christian doctrine.

Tertullian apparently was not impressed. The fact that he turned to Montanism shows that he rejected soulish (intellectual) knowledge as a qualifier for the bishopric. The Montanists focused upon being spiritual, rather than soulish. So it is likely that after the Roman Church had split, Tertullian found a home in neither camp, and for this reason he returned to North Africa where he made a name for himself.

In my view, intellect is good, as long as it remains subject to one's spiritual side, for it is the spirit of man that houses the Holy Spirit of God. Intellect is not evil in itself, but yet its tendency since Adam's sin has been to dominate or overrule the spirit when it does not understand the ways of the spirit. The soul tends to believe its perceptions, which are based upon its own limited experience and education. The soul mistrusts the spirit, because the spirit lives by divine revelation that is outside of one's earthly experience.

The ideal, however, is for the soul to subject itself to the leading of the spirit (and therefore the Holy Spirit as well), for that is true Faith. Faith is not devoid of intellectual activity, nor yet of physical things. True Faith merely subordinates these things to the divine revelation of the spirit. Body and soul then become the willing servants of the spirit, saying "Amen" to all that the spirit reveals and leads them to do.

The difficulty in this, of course, is in the fact that people have a hard time distinguishing between the soul and the spirit. There have been more "heresies" determined by soulish study than true revelations by the spirit. This I attribute largely to the idols of one's heart, as Ezekiel 14 calls them. These "idols" are the soul's strong opinions or desires, emotional scars, and past circumstances where we have rejected truth or the leading of the spirit.

Most of these idols are hidden, in that we think they are gods (or the Holy Spirit), but in fact they are mere counterfeits--"graven images," so to speak--gods created in our own image and likeness. Because we are convinced that these are truly God, it is difficult to see otherwise. Jesus said in Matt. 6:23, "If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!" In other words, if we perceive the darkness as light, the darkness is even greater. If we perceive the idol to be God, we stand little chance of overthrowing it. All such idols blind us and bias us against true revelation, and only by the grace of God can we be healed and set free of those idols in the heart.

Yes, I speak from a certain amount of personal experience here. I have seen some great idols come crashing down in certain past crises in my life. But there is no way that I can count the remaining idols, for if I could do so, I would have removed them long ago. So I have learned that I can only put my trust in God's grace, that He will work in my heart to accomplish what I cannot do on my own. Meanwhile, I share that which my heart currently believes, in the hope that these things can be of help to some of you as well. For a more complete Bible study on the idols of the heart, see chapter 2 of my book, Hearing God's Voice.

Montanus, I think, discovered some very good truths, and these are the things that attracted Tertullian. Montanus wanted to walk by divine revelation, rather than soulish intellectualism. Montanus saw a developing problem of clericalism, whereby men were subject to men, rather than to God. He wanted all men to have a direct relationship with God, rather than subject their revelation to the souls of intellectual heresy hunters such as Hippolytus. But, in regard to the Montanists, Philip Schaff says in his History of the Christian Church, Vol. II, p. 424,

"But they only brought another kind of aristocracy into the place of the condemned distinction of clergy and laity. They claimed for their prophets what they denied to the Catholic bishops. They put a great gulf between the true spiritual Christians and the merely psychical; and this induced spiritual pride and false pietism."

In theory, Montanus had some good truth. But in practice, he ran headlong into the problem of heart idolatry. He merely turned from the heart idolatry of the Church Hierarchy to a more personal heart idolatry. In practice, he merely substituted one graven image for another. Now, instead of depending upon Church leaders, with their heart-idols, to determine truth and heresy, he now had to depend upon himself, not knowing that he too had idols that were only shaped differently from those in the Church.

We do not know much detail about the two women who left their husbands to follow Montanus, but similar "leading of the Spirit" is all too common even today. I have been utterly amazed at how many "prophets" eventually get the "revelation" that they are to engage in fornication, adultery, or polygamy. We read about others who were "told by God" to murder others--even their own children. Here is where the written word has a primary value, for it provides us with revelation from past prophets with which to compare and judge our own revelation. And in the area of morality, here is where the law has special value. I have never known a lawless prophet to escape immorality, fraud, or thievery.

Lawlessness is inevitably accompanied by legalism, for when one discards the law of God, one always begins to replace it with the traditions of men. Thus, Schaff tells us on page 425,

"Finally, the Montanistic sect was characterized by fanatical severity in asceticism and church discipline. It raised a zealous protest against the growing looseness of the Catholic penitential discipline, which in Rome particularly, under Zephyrinus and Callistus, to the great grief of earnest minds, established a scheme of indulgence for the grossest sins and began, long before Constantine, to obscure the line between the church and the world. Tertullian makes the restoration of a rigorous discipline the chief office of the new prophecy.

"But Montanism certainly went to the opposite extreme and fell from evangelical freedom into Jewish legalism; while the Catholic Church in rejecting the new laws and burdens defended the cause of freedom."

Montanism's holiness movement attempted to correct what it saw as substandard Christianity. But in judging the Church without an understanding of the law by the mind of Christ, they merely established more rigorous man-made laws.

This is the fifth part of a series titled "History of the 3rd Century Church." To view all parts, click the link below.

History of the 3rd Century Church

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Category: Teachings
Blog Author: Dr. Stephen Jones