Evidences in the Third and Fourth Centuries

[Return to the Table of Contents]
[Back to Online Books Menu]
[Return to the Homepage]

Section Titles
The Claims of the Montanists
Pronouncement Against Prophecy
Developments in the Fourth Century
Establishment of the Papacy
Perilous Changes Foreknown and Revealed
Corruptions Brought In
Popery the Consummation of Apostasy
Attempts to Restrain the Prophetic Gift
Ecclesiastical Stand Against the Gift

That the presence and operation of the heavenly gifts were needed to meet the mighty forces of evil that were arrayed against the cause of God after the ascension of our Lord will be readily admitted. In the first centuries of the Christian era, Jews and pagans alike were bent on the utter annihilation of the Christian church. To meet this powerful opposition successfully, the disciples required superhuman wisdom, grace, and power. That need was supplied through the spiritual gifts imparted to the messengers of the cross by their Lord who sent them forth. The mighty deeds wrought by these gifts through the apostles, and then by the godly men of the second century, as we have seen, were still continued to some extent in the third century. This is attested by modern church historians who have given the subject exhaustive investigation, and by the testimony of pious men who were eyewitnesses of what took place in those ancient times.

After reviewing the evidence left on record by writers of this period, the historian Robert Miller says:

“Now from all these testimonies it plainly appears that the miraculous powers bestowed on the church, and as a remainder of the apostolic spirit, did continue till toward the end of the third century, which did very much tend to overthrow the heathenish idolatry, and to promote the success of the gospel, notwithstanding all opposition.”—“History of the Propagation of Christianity and the Overthrow of Paganism,” Vol. I, Cent. III, pp. 318, 319.

This testimony accords with the view of Ulhorn that “witnesses who are above suspicion leave no room for doubt that the miraculous powers of the apostolic age continued to operate at least into the third century.”

No search for the presence of the gifts between the second and fourth centuries would be complete if it failed to include


mention of claims to the possession of the gift of prophecy made by the Montanists. Unfortunately, the meager records available have been preserved chiefly by those opposed to the gifts. These gifts have, in turn, ever been misunderstood and maligned by the opposers of God's gracious provision; therefore, too much reliance cannot be placed upon the testimony of its rejecters.

The Claims of the Montanists

[Top of Document]

There are many who are persuaded that the Montanists represent a line of God's true witnesses paralleling the growing apostasy that later became the “man of sin,” dominant throughout the Middle Ages. Others, impressed by evidences of fanaticism, at certain times and places, have questioned all Montanist claims to spiritual gifts, and have placed the Montanists among the sectarian heretics.

Without attempting to settle the point, it is sufficient here to point out that historical evidence reveals the fact that claim was made by this group to the manifestation of the gifts,—especially the gift of prophecy,—and that such was regarded neither inconsistent nor impious by those who sought seriously to determine its genuineness.

The earliest ecclesiastical synods were called to discuss the Montanist movement. The leaders of the church were not slow to mark the serious consequences of recognizing the uncontrolled authority of prophets who might arise among the lay members of the church. Prominent men in the church opposed Montanism, the records tell us. One sect, later known as the Alogi, in opposing the claim of prophecy, went so far as to reject the book of Revelation, and even the Gospel of John, because of its promise of the Paraclete.

Whatever conclusion one may reach, therefore, regarding the genuineness of the claims of Montanism to the prophetic office, historians generally agree that the controversy resulted in a definite action taken by the ecclesiastical dignitaries of the church to discredit all such claims for the future. The full significance of this action should impress itself upon us, for it has a bearing upon the future course of the church that is far-reaching:


“The most immediate and striking result of Montanism was its effect upon the final formation of the New Testament canon. The church met the proclamation of a new era of prophecy with the authoritative declaration that revelation was closed and prophecy was at an end…. The channel of truth is not to be the lonely individual in communion with God, but the supernaturally ordained hierarchy of the church.”“The Church's Debt to Heretics,” Rufus M. Jones, p. 143. New York: George H. Doran Company; London: James Clarke & Co., Limited.

Of the cessation of prophecy, H. B. Swete says:

“The church herself did not at once resign herself to the loss of prophecy. But the exigencies of controversy, added to the growing officialism of the church, succeeded in silencing this conviction, and the church ceased to prophesy, leaving Montanism in possession of a claim which rightly belonged to the church.”Biblical World, September, 1905.

Pronouncement Against Prophecy

[Top of Document]

Let us note clearly the subtle danger to the church involved in this official pronouncement against prophecy. The “supernaturally ordained hierarchy,” might and actually did, as we know, in later days depart so far from God as actually to assume to speak for Him. Communication from heaven must, they declared, be made through men and women of ecclesiastical appointment. But we know that fitness for such a mission is by no means regulated by official position. Furthermore, acceptance of the dogma that the gift of prophecy, as manifest through visions or dreams, was at an end, would make impossible in future days any direct communication from heaven in the manner that had been in operation from the days of Adam. There was thus an attempt in connection with this issue to make the “hierarchy” the infallible interpreter of the Scriptures, and the only source through which added light might come to the church. This very attitude is sufficient to account for the future hostility of church leaders toward any manifestation of the prophetic gift, and for the seeming rarity of its presence in the church during the centuries that followed.

In our study of the doctrine and history of the prophetic gift, we have now reached the fourth century. Momentous changes


in both the church and the Roman government have taken place during the preceding three centuries. The few hundred believers at the time of the ascension of our Lord have grown to millions and in the face of most determined opposition.

Developments in the Fourth Century

[Top of Document]

In three centuries of desperate effort by the Roman government to blot out the church of Christ from the face of the earth, it has discovered itself to be at war with an omnipotent power—something vastly more than a mere earthly force. It has also come to a realization of its own utter impotence in this direct warfare. It has seen the spread of the gospel into every part of its vast domain. Everywhere it has witnessed the upspringing of churches composed of Roman citizens, won from the pagan gods of the state, to Christ, the Son of God and Saviour of men.

But during these three centuries other changes of a very serious character have developed. The church itself has suffered a marked deterioration. It has lost seriously in what Christ called its “first love;” or, as rendered pointedly by Weymouth, “You no longer love Me as you did at first.” Rev. 2:4. Love for the Master had not been extinguished, but it had lost a measure of its fervor and glow. That loss opened the door for serious evils to come into the church. Doctrinal heresies and jealousies, dissensions and degeneracies, gained a foothold in the congregations. These evils, boring from within, accomplished what all the opposition and persecution from without had failed to effect. It resulted in weakening the great evangelistic endeavor of the believers, and in general deterioration and worldliness throughout their ranks. Indeed, we read the solemn words:

“A moral and intellectual paralysis had fallen upon Christendom.”—“The Great Controversy Between Christ and Satan,” p. 60.

Another great peril that befell the church at the close of the third century was the seeming surrender of the pagan state to the Christian church. In the early part of the fourth century, Constantine, the Roman emperor, professed to have abandoned the pagan gods of the empire and to have accepted Christianity.


He canceled the cruel edicts for the persecution of the Christians, and issued others in their favor.

“The nominal conversion of Constantine, in the early part of the fourth century, caused great rejoicing; and the world, cloaked with a form of righteousness, walked into the church. Now the work of corruption rapidly progressed. Paganism, while appearing to be vanquished, became the conqueror. Her spirit controlled the church. Her doctrines, ceremonies, and superstitions were incorporated into the faith and worship of the professed followers of Christ.”—Id., pp. 49, 50.

But Constantine went to greater lengths. The historian says:

“He prohibited by law the worship of idols in cities and country, commanded that no statues of the gods should be erected, nor any sacrifices offered upon their altars, and sent into all the provinces Christian presidents, forbidding the pagan priests to offer sacrifice, and confirming to the former [the Christian presidents], the honors due to their characters and stations.”—“The History of the Christian Church,” William Jones (two-volume edition), chap. 3, sec. 1, 168. Louisville: Norwood & Palmer, 1831.

Establishment of the Papacy

[Top of Document]

This was surely an amazing change. Apparently the pagan empire had surrendered to the Christian church.

“The fall of paganism, which may be considered as having begun to take place in the reign of Constantine, and as nearly consummated in that of Theodosius, is probably one of the most extraordinary revolutions that ever took place on the theater of this world. Their own writers have described it as ‘a dreadful and amazing prodigy, which covered the earth with darkness, and restored the ancient dominion of chaos and night.’”—Id., p. 193.

But no, it was not the fall of paganism that made this change a great calamity—one that “covered the earth with darkness, and restored the ancient dominion of chaos and night.” It was that which grew out of it, namely, the establishment of the papacy. It was this that assuredly “covered the earth with darkness,” and brought “chaos and night” upon the earth.

The secret hand that brought about this great disaster is clearly disclosed in this authoritative word:


“Satan … laid his plans to war more successfully against the government of God, by planting his banner in the Christian church…. The great adversary now endeavored to gain by artifice what he had failed to secure by force. Persecution ceased, and in its stead were substituted the dangerous allurements of temporal prosperity and worldly honor. Idolaters were led to receive a part of the Christian faith, while they rejected other essential truths. They professed to accept Jesus as the Son of God, and to believe in His death and resurrection; but they had no conviction of sin, and felt no need of repentance or of a change of heart. With some concessions on their part, they proposed that Christians should make concessions, that all might unite on the platform of belief in Christ. Now the church was in fearful peril. Prison, torture, fire, and sword were blessings in comparison with this. Some of the Christians stood firm, declaring that they could make no compromise. Others were in favor of yielding or modifying some features of their faith, and uniting with those who had accepted a part of Christianity, urging that this might be the means of their full conversion. That was a time of deep anguish to the faithful followers of Christ.”—“The Great Controversy Between Christ and Satan,” pp. 42, 43.

Perilous Changes Foreknown and Revealed

[Top of Document]

To know, however, that these perilous changes were all foreknown to the Lord, and that they were revealed to the prophets and apostles long before they were made, together with the glorious truth that the church of God's planting would ultimately triumph, affords Christian believers abiding confidence in the God of all wisdom and love. In Paul's farewell interview with the elders of the church at Ephesus, he said to them:

“I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them.” Acts 20:29, 30.

It must have given the great apostle a heavy heart to foresee the serious evils that would come upon the church he had labored so earnestly to upbuild. But his predictions given by inspiration were fulfilled. Grievous wolves did indeed enter in among the innocent sheep, causing the spiritual ruin of multitudes. Moreover, from within the church itself men arose introducing heresies


and speaking perverse things, and they turned many disciples away from the truth of the gospel. Gradually and almost imperceptibly this took place during the first two or three centuries after Christ. In the fourth, the tide is well-nigh resistless.

The same deplorable apostasy was foretold by Peter:

“There were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction. And many shall follow their pernicious ways; by reason of whom the way of truth shall be evil spoken of. And through covetousness shall they with feigned words make merchandise of you: whose judgment now of a long time lingereth not.” 2 Peter 2:1-3.

Corruptions Brought In

[Top of Document]

Along with these clear prophetic predictions there may well be placed the statement made by Mosheim regarding the corruptions brought into the church during the fourth century:

“An enormous train of different superstitions were gradually substituted in the place of true religion and genuine piety. This odious revolution was owing to a variety of causes. A ridiculous precipitation in receiving new opinions, a preposterous desire of imitating the pagan rites, and of blending them with the Christian worship.”

“From these facts, which are but small specimens of the state of Christianity at this time, the discerning reader will easily perceive what detriment the church received from the peace and prosperity procured by Constantine, and from the imprudent methods employed to allure the different nations to embrace the gospel.”—“An Ecclesiastical History,” Vol. I, Cent. IV, pp. 355, 356. Charlestown: Printed and published by Samuel Etheridge, Jr., 1810.

All this is very greatly deplored by those who established the pure and triumphant apostolic church. One writer puts it:

“Worship, and that idle propensity, which the generality of mankind have towards gaudy and ostentatious religion, all contributed to establish the reign of superstition upon the ruins of Christianity….

”The reins being once let loose to superstition, which knows no bounds, absurd notions, and idle ceremonies multiplied every day…. The virtues that had formerly been ascribed to the heathen temples, to


their lustrations, to the statues of their gods and heroes, were now attributed to Christian churches, to water consecrated by certain forms of prayer, and to the images of holy men.”

Popery the Consummation of Apostasy

[Top of Document]

But the most alarming of the predictions of the change destined to take place in the church is the one recorded by Paul in his second letter to the Thessalonians:

“Let no man deceive you by any means' for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition; who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshiped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God. Remember ye not, that, when I was yet with you, I told you these things? And now ye know what withholdeth that he might be revealed in his time. For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now letteth will let, until he be taken out of the way. And then shall that Wicked be revealed, whom the Lord shall consume with the spirit of His mouth, and shall destroy with the brightness of His coming: even him, whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders, and with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved.” 2 Thess. 2:3-10.

This, we understand, foretells seeming rejection of the pagan gods and religion of Rome, and the establishment in their place of the papal church—with the thinly disguised principles and practices of that selfsame paganism. This was accomplished during the first six centuries of the Christian era. Just what was involved in this transition—this substitution of a masked Christianity for the stark paganism of the empire—is very clearly explained by Wylie. How the dire inroads of centuries of almost imperceptible but nevertheless steady progress were made toward this satanic achievement, is condensed into this one comprehensive statement:

“Popery, then, we hold to be an after-growth of paganism, whose deadly wound, dealt by the spiritual sword of Christianity, was healed. Its oracles had been silenced, its shrines demolished, and its gods consigned to oblivion; but the deep corruption of the human race, not yet


cured by the promised effusion of the Spirit upon all flesh, revived it anew, and, under a Christian mask, reared other temples in its honor, built it another Pantheon, and replenished it with other gods, which, in fact, were but the ancient divinities under new names. All idolatries, in whatever age or country they have existed, are to be viewed but as successive developments of the one grand apostasy. That apostasy was commenced in Eden, and consummated at Rome.”—“The Papacy; Its History, Dogmas, Genius, and Prospects,” J. A. Wylie, Book I, chap. I, pp. 12, 13. Edinburgh: Johnstone and Hunter, 1852.

Attempts to Restrain the Prophetic Gift

[Top of Document]

In harmony with this brief statement is the tragic picture painted by Lawrence:

“The fourth century brought important changes in the condition of the bishops of Rome. It is a singular trait of the corrupt Christianity of this period that the chief characteristic of the eminent prelates was a fierce and ungovernable pride. Humility had long ceased to be numbered among the Christian virtues. The four great rulers of the church (the Bishop of Rome and the patriarchs of Constantinople, Antioch, and Alexandria) were engaged in a constant struggle for supremacy. Even the inferior bishops assumed a princely state, and surrounded themselves with their sacred courts. The vices of pride and arrogance descended to the lower orders of the clergy; the emperor himself was declared to be inferior in dignity to the simple presbyter, and in all public entertainments and ceremonious assemblies the proudest layman was expected to take his place below the haughty churchman. As learning declined and the world sunk into a new barbarism, the clergy elevated themselves into a ruling caste, and were looked upon as half divine by the rude Goths and the degraded Romans. It is even said that the pagan nations of the West transferred to the priest and monk the same awe-struck reverence which they had been accustomed to pay to their Druid teachers. The Pope took the place of their Chief Druid, and was worshiped with idolatrous devotion; the meanest presbyter, however vicious and degraded, seemed, to the ignorant savages, a true messenger from the skies.”—“Historical Studies,” Eugene Lawrence, pp. 20, 21. New York: Harper Brothers, 1876.

This situation produced a crisis in the ranks of the true followers of the Master. Their firm decision is disclosed in these significant words of Mrs. E. G. White:


“After a long and severe conflict, the faithful few decided to dissolve all union with the apostate church if she still refused to free herself from falsehood and idolatry. They saw that separation was an absolute necessity if they would obey the word of God.”—“The Great Controversy Between Christ and Satan,” p. 45.

So the true dissenters from the dominant church began to form a line that was to span the Middle Ages. They were soon to flee “into the wilderness” for the prophesied period of 1260 years.

This apostate Christian power—the papacy—having assumed the name not only of a church, but of the one and only true church, then began to hold sway, to a growing degree, over the minds, rights, liberties, and earthly destinies of the human race for over a thousand years. That period has been fitly called “the Dark Ages,” and “the world's midnight.”

As the church began to depart from the standards of the doctrines and Christian experience of the first and second centuries, it also began, consistently enough, to attempt to restrain and to terminate the operation of the prophetic gift. While the restraining process was going on, there was decided opposition to it by loyal believers. “The church herself,” says Swete, as previously quoted, “did not at once resign herself to the loss of prophecy. But the exigencies of controversy, added to the growing officialism of the church, succeeded in silencing this conviction and the church ceased to prophesy.”

Ecclesiastical Stand Against the Gift

[Top of Document]

The apostolic church had the gift of prophecy, and profited by it greatly. The gifts were continued after the death of the apostles, as we have seen. But when the ecclesiastical leaders wanted it no more, they lost it,—as a church. After that, it appeared here and there among true, humble believers. Reviewing a controversy regarding the prophetic gift, which continued in the church through the greater part of the second and third centuries, a discerning writer declares:

“It was now taught that prophecy in general was a peculiarity of the Old Testament (“lex et prophetae usque ad Johannem”); that in the new covenant God had spoken only through apostles; that the whole word


of God so far as binding on the church was contained in the apostolic record—the New Testament; and that, consequently, the church neither required nor could acknowledge new revelations, or even instructions, through prophets. The revolution which this theory gradually brought about is shown in the transformation of the religious, enthusiastic organization of the church into a legal and political constitution. A great many things had to be sacrificed to this, and amongst others the old prophets. The strictly enforced episcopal constitution, the creation of a clerical order, and the formation of the New Testament canon accomplished the overthrow of the prophets. Instead of the old formula, ‘God continually confers on the church apostles, prophets, and teachers,’ the word now was: ‘The church is founded in the (written) word of the prophets (i.e. the Old Testament prophets) and the apostles (viz. the twelve and Paul).’ After the beginning of the third century there were still no doubt men under the control of the hierarchy who experienced the prophetic ecstasy, or clerics like Cyprian who professed to have received special directions from God.“—”Encyclop?ædia Britannica,” Vol. XXII, art., “Prophet,” 11th edition.

Such a decision by the bishops, presbyters, and other leaders in the church could have no other influence than to discount, restrain, and attempt to suppress the manifestation of that gracious gift so greatly needed by the very ones who opposed it.

It will, of course, be evident to all that reference is here made to two churches, or rather to the church at two different periods. The first is the primitive church; the other is the church drifting into apostasy. It was the latter that endeavored to silence conviction regarding the continuance of the gift of prophecy. But that conviction was never entirely silenced. The canon of Scripture is indeed closed, but the gift of prophecy has never ultimately ceased. There were times when the gift seemed to have disappeared forever; but another has well said:

“In spiritually aroused eras in the history of the church, prophecy again puts in its appearance. It has never ceased altogether.”—“The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia,” Vol. IV, art., “Prophecy,” p. 2464.

Not until the gospel ceases on earth will the gift of prophecy finally “cease,”—to use the authoritative term of Holy Writ.

[Top of Document]
[Return to Homepage]
[Return to Online Books Menu]