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Free Will? Liberal Christianity. Punished for Sins We Commit After We Become Christians? Tertullian and the Montanists, Part 6

by Karl Kemp  
5/09/2015 / Bible Studies

We continue this study here in Part 6 of this seven-part paper.

I'll quote a few sentences from what Tertullian said about the form of prophesying of the Montanists. ((He said this to defend the type of prophesying (some use the word "ecstatic") that took place among the Montanists, which some used to try prove that their prophesying wasn't of God. The Montanists thought their form of prophesying proved that their prophecies were of God, without any input from the person prophesying ("Tertullian against Marcion," book 4, chapter 22, Vol. 3 of the "Ante-Nicene Fathers," page 383; Bercot dated this writing about AD 207.) )): "For when a man is rapt in the Spirit, especially when he beholds the glory of God, or when God speaks through him, he necessarily loses his sensation, because he is overshadowed by the power of God, - a point concerning which there is a question between us and the carnally minded [the opponents of the Montanists]."

The critics of the Montanists rejected the form of the prophesying of Montanus and Priscilla and Maximilla, but that doesn't prove that the form was out of order. I'll include a sentence from the "New Catholic Encyclopedia." "[Montanus] and his followers, notably the women Priscilla (or Prisca) and Maximilla, were seized by religious raptures, and in the course of ecstasy, spoke in strange tongues [some accused them of babbling, but the tongues could have been a genuine manifestation of the Holy Spirit] and uttered prophecies that the sectaries [the Montanists] regarded as oracles of the Holy Spirit." The Bible makes it clear that sometimes prophesying includes going into trances, etc. I don't know enough about what happened to have much of an opinion (sometimes critics are right; sometimes they are wrong), but it is clear that some of their "prophecies" did not come from God, which is a very serious problem. I don't believe this proves that they weren't Christians in the opinion of God (which is the only opinion that really matters when the end comes; we ought to go slow about dogmatically stating that particular "Christians" are of the devil and headed for hell), or that they didn't have some genuine gifts of God, but this kind of thing causes serious problems (sometimes very serious problems) and it is difficult to have confidence in any of their prophecies or in their ministries, and we always need to be aware of the fact that demons are very active in giving revelations/prophecies and that some "Christians" are not true Christians, even if they think they are.

Based on what I have observed, it is rather easy for those prophesying to let their own ideas intrude into the "prophecies" (It so often happens that the prophecies in particular movements, churches, etc. just happen to support and "confirm" what they believe and are doing in those movements, etc.); I believe this happens a lot in our day, and the potential to be deceived by demon spirits is always there. If we aren't aware of these problems, looking to God for His discernment and guidance, and being very careful to check everything against the Bible, we could rather easily be deceived. Many say that Montanus had been a pagan priest before he was converted and that he had not been converted long before he began to prophesy. For one thing, being a new convert makes a person more susceptible to pride (cf. 1 Tim. 2:6), but all of us are susceptible to pride.

I'll include a short excerpt where Tertullian quoted from Priscilla ("On the Resurrection of the Flesh," chapter 11, Vol. 3 of the "Ante-Nicene Fathers," page 552; Bercot dates this writing about AD 210): "It is a shrewd saying which the Paraclete [the Holy Spirit] utters concerning these persons [the Gnostics, who denied the resurrection of the body] by the mouth of the prophetess Prisca: 'They are carnal, and yet they hate the flesh.' " They are "carnal" in that they live for the flesh, which includes the idea (as Tertullian mentioned in the previous sentence) that they do not discipline the flesh. They "hate the flesh" in that they deny the resurrection of the body. Also, the Gnostics believed that physical matter is evil.

I'll include an excerpt from Tertullian where he speaks of spiritual gifts ("A Treatise on the Soul," Vol. 3 of the "Ante-Nicene Fathers," page 188; Bercot dates this writing about AD 207): "... We have amongst us a sister whose lot it has been to be favoured with sundry gifts of revelation, which she experiences in the Spirit by ecstatic vision amidst the sacred rites of the Lord's day in the church: she converses with angels, and sometimes even with the Lord; she both sees and hears mysterious communications; some men's hearts she understands, and to those who are in need she distributes remedies. [This sounds good, and I assume that at least much of this was revelation from God, but we must be aware that demons can do these things too for the devil's evil purposes, and some "prophecies" come from, or have an admixture of, the flesh.] Whether it be in the reading of Scripture, or in the chanting of psalms, or in the preaching of sermons, or in the offering up of prayers, in all these religious services matter and opportunity are afforded to her of seeing visions. ... After the people are dismissed at the conclusion of the sacred service, she is in a regular habit of reporting to us whatever things she may have seen in vision (for all her communications are examined with the most scrupulous care, in order that their truth may be probed). [This is good and necessary, but this doesn't in itself guarantee that the revelations (or all of the revelations) were from God.] ... ...the apostle most assuredly foretold that there were to be 'spiritual gifts' in the church [the apostle Paul (1 Corinthians chapters 12-14, for example)]. ...."

I'll include a few sentences from Tertullian's "On Fasting: In Opposition to the Psychics [unspiritual, soulish, carnal Christians]," chapter 1, Vol. 4 of the "Ante-Nicene Fathers," page 102; Bercot dated this writing about AD 213. ((Tertullian is defending the Montanists against the charge of heresy and pseudo-prophecy and a "(sentence of) anathema." Here he is referring to their being charged with the novelty of excessive fasting, but he makes it clear in this chapter that the charges against them were not limited to the topic of fasting. We do need to be very careful about setting up extreme rules for fasting, or anything else, that all Christians are supposedly required (before God) to obey, and we need to be careful of judging other Christians to be psychics (unspiritual, soulish, carnal). We also need to be very careful about calling other Christians heretics and pronouncing anathema against them, or, as it has happened on many occasions in the history of the Christian church, killing them for God.)): "It is these [the psychics (unspiritual, soulish, carnal Christians)] which raise controversy with the Paraclete [Holy Spirit]; it is on this account that the New Prophecies are rejected: not that Montanus and Priscilla and Maximilla preach another God, nor that they disjoin Jesus Christ (from God [apparently referring to the heretical viewpoint of some that Jesus wasn't deity with God the Father and the Holy Spirit], nor that they overturn any particular rule of faith or hope, but that they plainly teach more frequent fasting than marrying. [The Montanists rejected second marriages.] ...."

I'll include one last excerpt from Tertullian ("On the Resurrection of the Flesh," chapter 63, Vol. 3 of the "Ante-Nicene Fathers," page 594; Bercot dated this writing about AD 210): "...since, however, these heresies [In this context Tertullian was dealing with the denial of the resurrection of the body, but what he says here would cover most heresies.] would be unable to put on a bold front without some countenance from the Scriptures, it therefore is plain enough that the ancient Holy Writ has furnished them with sundry materials for their evil doctrine, which very materials indeed (so distorted) are refutable from the same Scriptures. [Heretics (including many heretics who don't claim to be Christians) typically cite verses that supposedly confirm their heresies, but when those verses are read in context and rightly interpreted and when everything else the Bible says on that topic is brought into the picture, always looking for the balanced truth of what the Bible teaches, the heresies are shown to be heresies.] It was fit and proper, therefore, that the Holy Ghost should no longer withhold the effusions of His gracious light upon these inspired writings, in order that they might be able to disseminate the seeds of truth with no admixture of heretical subtleties, and pluck out from it their tares. He has accordingly now dispersed all the perplexities of the past, and their self chosen allegories and parables, by the open and perspicuous [easily understood] explanation of the entire mystery, through the new prophecy [Montanism], which descends in copious streams from the Paraclete. ...."

We need to put a priority on looking to God for the correct interpretation of the Bible, especially when dealing with difficult passages, and I believe this is one of the primary things the Holy Spirit is here to do, while using all the tools that are available to us, including considering earlier interpretations of those passages. However, some Christians who think they are accurately hearing from God are not accurately hearing from Him, at least not on a consistent basis. It seems clear to me that Tertullian had a lot right, but that some of the revelation/prophecies that he and his community received were not from God. Some revelations come from God; some have an admixture of the flesh; some are from the camp of the devil. I am convinced we can accurately hear from God, but we must be extremely humble, careful, realizing the potential to be deceived one way or another. To the extent we are not Bible-centered and walking in the truth, righteousness, and holiness of God, which includes walking by the Holy Spirit on a continuous basis, we do not have a solid foundation to come to an understanding of the balanced truth of what the Bible teaches.

After the somewhat brief, but very important, tangent where we considered (for the primary topic) the difficulty that some of the early Christian Fathers (and those who followed their lead) had in dealing with the sins (especially sins like murder, apostasy, including during and after times of intense persecution, and adultery/fornication) of those who had become Christians, with some emphasis on Tertullian and the Montanists, WE ARE NOW BACK TO THE TOPIC OF WHAT THE EARLY CHRISTIAN FATHERS TAUGHT ABOUT FREE WILL AND GRACE. It is true that those early Christian Fathers often spoke of free will, but we need to understand what they typically meant, and what they did not mean, by free will. In this first section, I'll include quite a few excerpts from those writers who believed in, and often mentioned, free will to demonstrate that they understood that we are dependent on the enabling grace of God in Christ to become Christians and to live as Christians.

When the early Fathers (all before Augustine) spoke of free will they were not disputing the fact that we need God's grace to be saved and to live for God, doing His will and resisting sin. They understood that we are dependent on God's grace, but they also understood that our salvation will not be accomplished without our doing the things that God requires of us. God takes the initiative in our salvation, and He must receive all the glory. We don't ever have to worry that we might give God too much glory. However, we rob Him of glory when we don't believe His Word and live in agreement with His Word in His righteousness and holiness, with the victory over sin, by His grace through faith.

We need to understand that those early Fathers were emphasizing free will in a world (in a context) where the idea of free will was being denied on a very large scale, as we will discuss as we continue, but (as I mentioned) they understood that we could not become Christians or live as Christians apart from the enabling grace of God in Christ. I would appreciate it if they had emphasized our continual need for God's grace more, and some of them made statements that made it sound like we can do what must be done by our free will. I don't believe, however, that they were intending to deny our continual need for the grace of God in Christ. In the twenty-seven page section we just finished it is clear that although they understood their need for the grace of God to become Christians and to live as Christians, many of them were far from having an adequate appreciation of God's grace when it came to dealing with sins that were committed after they became Christians (post-baptismal sins).

For one very important thing, we must understand that those early Christian Fathers had to dispute the widely accepted worldview of their day of fatalism, which denied free will. If a widely accepted worldview of our day denied free will, we would have to emphasize free will more. We will discuss these things as we continue, including giving some excerpts from those Fathers which demonstrate that their opponents were denying free will.

The writing of the early Fathers can be helpful (there are places where those writings are very helpful, very much including the fact that they had a better understanding of the sanctifying power of the gospel, which enables, and requires, believers to walk in the righteousness of God with the victory over sin than most Christians do in our day, and they made it clear that they believed that believers can become unbelievers and lose their salvation), but we must understand that those writings are far from being on the same level with the Bible; they are not, nor did they claim to be, the inspired "Word of God." The Protestant reformers were right with their insistence on "Sola Scriptura": "The Scriptures (the Bible) alone." Traditions of men can be, and all too often are, wrong.

We must base what we believe on the Bible. How desperately we need the balanced truth of what the Bible teaches! It isn't difficult to find passages in the early Christian writings that are wrong, even though those men were quite sincere and committed to the truth of God's Word, and quite a few died as martyrs. (To die as a martyr doesn't prove that a person is a true Christian.) When it comes to what they taught about our need for grace to be saved and that God requires us to respond to and cooperate with His grace on a continuous basis they were mostly right, but (like I mentioned) it would have been better if they had emphasized grace more, and some of their statements about free will, taken by themselves, could rather easily be misunderstood to think they were saying that we can become Christians and live as Christians by our free will.

I'm Taking These First Excerpts, Which Demonstrate That These Early Christian Writers Believed That WE COULD NOT BECOME CHRISTIANS OR LIVE AS CHRISTIANS APART FROM THE ENABLING, SAVING, SANCTIFYING GRACE OF GOD IN CHRIST, from "A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs" by David W. Bercot, editor (Hendrickson Publishers, 1998). Bercot took these excerpts from "The Ante-Nicene Fathers" (editors: Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson; 1885-1887; 10 volumes [Hendrickson Publishers, 1994]). Bercot mentions that he modified some of the excerpts to make them easier to read while attempting to not change the meaning. "Ante Nicene" means before the Council of Nicea that took place in AD 325, where they (for one thing) refuted the Arian heresy that denied the deity of the Lord Jesus Christ and spoke of Him as a created being. Bercot uses E to indicate an Eastern writer and W for a Western writer. I have the 10 volume "Ante-Nicene Fathers" set and have used it quite a bit, but it saved me quite a bit of time to take these excerpts from Bercot's Dictionary.

These first three quotations come from IRENAEUS (about AD130-200), who is one of the most respected of the early Christian Fathers. He had learned from Polycarp who knew the apostle John. Irenaeus believed in and spoke of free will, but as this quotation shows, he also believed that we are dependent on the enabling grace of God to become Christians and to live as Christians.

"The Lord himself, who is Emmanuel from the virgin, is the sign of our salvation. It was the Lord Himself who saved them. For they could not be saved by their own instrumentality. Therefore, when Paul explains human infirmity, he says, 'For I know that there dwells in my flesh no good thing' [Rom. 7:18]. [[Irenaeus rightly understood that the apostle Paul was not speaking of/as a Christian in Rom. 7:14-25. He was speaking of fallen mankind being in spiritual death and bondage to sin, with the people of Israel being in the spotlight; they were the ones who had been given God's Law. By definition, those who are in spiritual death and bondage to sin have significant bondage of the will. Spiritual death is not complete during this age; it will be complete with the second death of Rev. 20:14, 15. However, mankind is not so fallen that we cannot cooperate with God's grace through faith; fallen mankind is not totally possessed by sin and the god of this world with his evil angels and demons. Irenaeus clearly believed that we have some freedom of our will and that it is totally necessary for us to do the things God requires of us as we respond to His grace to be saved (by grace).]] He [Paul] thus shows that the 'good thing' of our salvation is not from us, but from God. And again: 'Wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from the body of this death?' [Rom. 7:24].... Here we see that we must be saved by the help of God, not by ourselves. IRENAEUS, ["Irenaeus Against Heresies"] (about AD 180, East/West), 1.450" ["1.450" means volume 1 of the "Ante-Nicene Fathers," page 450; page 576 of Bercot's Dictionary].

In the early Christian writings, and in the Bible, and other writings, including some early Jewish writings, you cannot be too quick to jump to conclusions based on one passage, or even several passages. It has been clear to me for a long time, and I have been saying for a long time, that we must hold the balanced truth of what the Bible teaches. How desperately we need the balanced truth of what the Bible teaches! This same truth holds for writing in our day, but in our day there typically is more emphasis on trying to present the balanced truth in a passage, with scientific accuracy, instead of presenting part of the truth that still needs to be balanced out with other statements.

Not recognizing that the Bible has some passages that are written this way leads to much of the disagreement between true Christians. Very often we are clinging to a passage (or several passages) and think the case is closed, and we close our minds, not realizing that we may not be clinging to the balanced truth of what the Bible teaches. I'm not an expert on ancient writing, but I have seen examples (in the Dead Sea Scrolls and in other ancient Jewish writings) of out-of-balance statements that would give you the mistaken idea that they believed that everything depends on God and that man doesn't really have a role when it comes to salvation, for example. But as you keep reading you find that they also believed that we do have a definite role to play (by the will and plan of our sovereign God).

"No man can know God without both the goodwill of the Father and the agency of the Son. IRENAEUS ["Irenaeus Against Heresies"] (about AD 180 E/W), 1.470" [page 574].

"No one, indeed, while placed out of reach of the Lord's benefits, has power to procure for himself the means of salvation. So the more we receive His grace, the more we should love Him. IRENAEUS ["Irenaeus Against Heresies"] (about AD 180, E/W), 1.478" [page 576].

"What, moreover, does God will, but that we should walk according to His discipline? We make petition, then, that He supply us with the substance of His will and the capacity to do it - so that we may be saved both in the heavens and on earth. For the sum of His will is the salvation of those whom He has adopted. TERTULLIAN ["On Prayer"] (about AD 198, W), 3.682" [page 577]. Tertullian believed we have some freedom of the will, but also that we are dependent on the grace of God to know His will and to be able to do His will. The way those early Christian writers used the words "free will" they were compatible with our need for God's enabling grace on a continuous basis to become Christians and to live as Christians.

"Being convinced at that time of our unworthiness of attaining life through our own works [that which we could accomplish apart from the grace of God], it is now, through the kindness of God, graciously given to us. Accordingly, it is clear that in ourselves we were unable to enter into the kingdom of God. However, through the power of God, we can be made able. LETTER [from Mathetes] TO DIOGNETUS (about AD125-200), 1.28" [page 575].

"When the Word of God says, 'No man knows the Father but the Son, and he to whom the Son of God will reveal Him [Matt. 11:27; Luke 10:22],' he declares that no one can know God except by the help of divine grace coming from above, with a certain divine inspiration. Indeed, it is reasonable to suppose that the knowledge of God is above human nature. This is the reason for the many errors into which men have fallen in their views of God. [Our knowledge of God], then, is through the goodness and love of God to mankind and by a marvelous exercise of divine grace. ORIGEN ["Origen Against Celsus"] (about AD 248, E), 4.629" [page 578]. Origen believed in free will, but as this quotation shows he also believed that our salvation is dependent on the grace of God in Christ.

"To those whose heart He saw would become pure and obedient to Him, He gave power to repent with the whole heart. But to those whose deceit and wickedness He perceived, and seeing that they intended to repent hypocritically, He did not grant repentance [lest they should again profane His name]. [Hermas was speaking of Christians repenting who had fallen into serious sin.] HERMAS (about AD 150, W) 2.41" [page 294].

" 'Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it. Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman watches in vain.' This is not said to persuade us against building. Nor does it teach us not to keep watch in order to guard the city of our soul. Rather, it shows that what is built without God (and therefore does not receive His protection) is built in vain.... If we were to say that such a building is not the work of the builder, but of God...we would be correct. Yet, it is understood that something had also been done by human means. Nevertheless, the benefit is gratefully referred to God, who brought it to pass. The human desire is not sufficient to attain the end. Likewise, the running of those who (as it were) athletes does not enable them to gain the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. For these things are accomplished only with the assistance of God. Therefore, it is appropriately said that 'it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy [Rom. 9:16].' ORIGEN ["Origen De Principiis"] (about AD 225, E) 4.322" [page 295].

(I am taking this excerpt directly from the "Ante-Nicene Fathers.") "... There are therefore manifest reasons for holding the opinion, that as in good things the human will is of itself weak to accomplish any good (for it is by divine help that it is brought to perfection in everything); so also in things of an opposite nature we receive certain initial elements, and, as it were, seeds of sins, from those things which we use agreeably to nature; but when we have indulged them beyond what is proper, and have not resisted the first movements to intemperance, then the hostile power, seizing the occasion of this first transgression, incites and presses us hard in every way, seeking to extend our sins over a wider field, and furnishing us human beings with occasions and beginning of sins, which these hostile powers spread far and wide, and, if possible, beyond all limits. ... I think from this, that those opposing powers, i.e., those demons, having gained a lodgment in their minds which has been already laid open to them by intemperance, have taken complete possession of their sensitive nature, especially when no feeling of the glory of virtue has aroused them to resistance." [Those ancient writers were much more aware of the activities of demons than most Christians in our day, at least in our part of the world. We cannot walk in the truth, righteousness, and holiness of God without waging warfare against the world, the flesh (the old man who wants to continue in sin) and the devil and his evil angels (one-third of all the angels) and very large number of demons. Tertullian spoke often of dealing with demons, including our authority over them.] ORIGEN ("Origen De Principiis," 4.330).

"It is advantageous to each one for him to perceive his own particular nature [including the limits of his free will] and the grace of God. For he who does not perceive his own weakness and the divine favor...not having tested himself, not having condemned himself, will imagine that the benefit conferred upon him by the grace of heaven is his own doing. And this imagination also produces vanity, which will be the cause of his downfall.... They have been revealed to babes - to those who after childhood have come to better things. These are those who remember that it is not so much from their own effort as by the unspeakable goodness [of God] that they have reached the greatest possible extent of blessedness. ORIGEN ["Origen De Principiis"] (about AD 225, E), 4.313" [page 578].

"The strength of our will is not sufficient to procure the perfectly pure heart. For we need God to create it. He, therefore, who prays as he should, offers this petition to God: 'Create in me a clean heart, O God.' ORIGEN ["Origen Against Celsus"] (about AD 248, E), 4.624" [page 578].

"...the Father of those who believe - of those who, being sanctified by Him, and restored by the nativity [birth] of spiritual grace, have begun to be sons of God. ... We pray that this sanctification may abide in us; and because our Lord and Judge warns the man who was healed and quickened [made alive] by Him to sin no more - lest a worse thing happen to him. So we make this supplication in our constant prayers...that the sanctification and quickening [being made alive] that is received from the grace of God may be preserved by His protection [by the grace of God]. CYPRIAN ["Treatises of Cyprian"] (about AD 250, W), 5.450" [page 589]."

We will finish this study in Part 7 of this paper.

Copyright by Karl Kemp Karl Kemp worked as an engineer in the space field throughout the 60s. He became a born-again Christian in 1964. He received an MA in Biblical Studies in 1972. He has been a Bible teacher for 45 years. See the website for more info on his books, papers, etc.

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