Eusebius on Prophecy

Eusebius says that churches that don’t have a continuing line of prophets are heretical churches…

I’m currently working on a Church history paper on spiritual gifts in the early church. Most cessationists argue that the spiritual gifts were intended primarily to confirm the biblical canon, or to affirm the apostles, who wrote the scriptures. Therefore, since the canon is closed, the gifts must have ceased. Some even go so far as to argue that you can discern from the biblical witness that the charismata were “fading out” even as the last books of the bible were being written. However, I’ve heard very few arguments (for or against the charismata) from a historical perspective. If the gifts had ceased at a very early period in the church’s growth, surely somebody would have said something about it.

I’ve found some interesting things, which hopefully I’ll put up here once I’m finished writing my paper. But in the meantime, I wanted to treat you to this doozy from Eusebius, the first church historian since Luke. Eusebius was a personal friend of the emperor Constantine, and wrote his history sometime after Constantine’s conversion and the “mainstreaming” of the ancient church, so he writes with a bit of triumphalism, but he’s also pretty good about his sources.

In book 3 of his Church History, Eusebius is discussing a movement called Montanism, which rose up around the 2nd century A.D. Montanism today would probably look a lot like the more extreme forms of pentecostalism that we see today: It was founded by a man named Montanus, who made a distinction between the Holy Spirit and the “Paraklete.” Montanus claimed that *he* was the Paraklete and he and a group of women he gathered around him caused quite a stir by their ecstatic form of prophesying.

In Chapter 17, Eusebius quotes at length from a writer named Miltiades. Miltiades had several arguments against Montanism, none of which even begin to suggest a general belief that prophecy had ceased in any sense. Instead, Miltiades cites a continuing list of “modern” prophets, beginning with those mentioned in Acts and continuing until his present time. Four of the prophets he mentions can be found in the book of Acts. Two of them were well-respected contemporaries, Ammia (of Philadelphia) and Quadratus. (Nicely, there appears to be an even mix of men and women in his list, suggesting that in Miltiades time, the role of a prophet was acceptable for women).

Miltiades comes hard against Montanus for his ecstatic form of prophesying: “But the false prophet falls into an ecstacy in which he is without shame or fear. Beginning with purposed ignorance, he passes on, as has been stated, to involuntary madness of soul. They cannot show that one of the old or one of the new prophets was thus carried away in Spirit.”

But then comes the doozy, and I think here Phil Johnson and any other cessationist would quickly part company with early church’s mindset on spiritual gifts: Miltiades argues (and Eusebius quotes him approvingly) that “the apostle thought it necessary that the prophetic gift should continue in all the church until the final coming. But they cannot show it, though this is the fourteenth year since the death of Maximilla.” In other words, he’s arguing that a church that ***doesn’t*** have a *continuing* prophetic presence must necessarily be a heretical church.

Hello?! Montanism is false because it doesn’t have any prophets? Wow! It doesn’t sound like a cessationist would have felt very comfortable in the early church. In fact, it’s pretty obvious that if I made a similar argument today, it wouldn’t fly at all. But not only did if fly in the second century, it was so favorably received that it was preserved by an historian 200 years later. You can almost see Eusebius’ readers smiling and nodding. “Of course! 14 years without a prophetic voice. Montanism was dead in the water!”

The impression you get is that the early church (at least up through Eusebius) was highly continualist. If prophecy had ceased with the completion of the canon, or with the death of the last of the apostles, they certainly hadn’t gotten word of it yet in the 4th century A.D.

Oddly, Miltiades seems to be describing exactly the kind of spiritual breeziness that Pyromaniac is protesting in [this]( lovely article. The difference is that Miltiades goes on to suggest exactly what sort of behavior is acceptable from a prophet, while Phil merely wonders why people are so intent on fereting out the hidden cessationist assumptions in his criticism of false prophecy. Well Phil, if you’re not arguing that *all* modern prophecy is false, you’re not doing a very good job of helping us recognise the ones that are true.

[Edit: In all honesty, Montanus can probably be more favorably compared to Joseph Smith than with anybody modern, what with all that “I am the Paraklete” stuff.]

[Edit 2: Thanks for the history books, mom. They’re *real* helpful!]

Author: KB French

Formerly many things, including theology student, mime, jr. high Latin teacher, and Army logistics officer. Currently in the National Guard, and employed as a civilian... somewhere

8 thoughts on “Eusebius on Prophecy”

  1. I die happy.

    No, actually I live in hope that someday you’ll actually read all 12 volumes [or however many there were] of the 1001 Arabian Nights or find some practical use for them.


  2. That is a great quote…I think this works in well with where this discussion needs to go. I am going to attempt (hopefully today) to talk about not the need for “cessation” but discipleship to regulate the gifts and promote the true prophetic gift.


  3. Thanks brad, hope to read it.

    Mom – If I cite the Arabian Nights in any kind of authoritative way on theology, I will *definitely* be excommunicated – from anywhere! 🙂


  4. Since I’m still being snarky, I’ll quote Pyromaniac’s definitions:

    cessationism: the belief that the miraculous gifts such as healing, tongues, prophetic revelation, and supernatural knowledge pertained to the apostolic era only, served a purpose that was unique to the era before the New Testament was complete, and passed from use before the canon of Scripture was closed.

    continuationism: the assumption that the miraculous gifts are normative and have continued in uninterrupted operation since Pentecost.

    Notice how he characterizes cessationism as a “belief” and continuationism as an “assumption.” Otherwise his definitions are pretty much correct.


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