The Cessation of Communication with God's Spirits in Christianity: When? Why? and How?

At one time, during the New Testament era and a century or two beyond, Christians were expected to and did communicate with holy spirits sent from God.  Such communication was the very foundation upon which Christianity was established and was meant to continue to flourish on Earth.  The term that the earliest Christians most often used for communication with God's spirits was "prophecy," a word that had been used by Greeks for several centuries prior to the Christian era.  The Greeks had used it in both secular and religious contexts to denote simply "one who speaks forth."  In a religious context this "speaking forth" was believed to be done under the influence or inspiration of a god or some other deity.  The Hebrew prophets of the Old Testament were also called by the Greek word "prophet" in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures known as the Septuagint or the LXX.

Communication with God's spirits can be seen to run like a red thread throughout the Old and New Testaments (see this website: "Spirit Communication in Biblical and Modern Times").  This red thread can be clearly seen runninng from Moses to Paul: "Would that all of the people of the Lord were prophets!  Would that the Lord might bestow his Spirit on them all!" (Numbers 11:29); and "Now I should like all of you to speak in unknown languages ('tongues'), but even more I would like you to prophesy" (1 Cor 14:5).  The firm conviction of communicating with God's spirits, i.e., "to prophesy," is upheld by the two primary figureheads in both parts of the Christian Bible, Moses in the Old Testament and Paul in the New Testament.

Even Christ himself declared that communication with God's spirits was the only way that his educational agenda (the spreading of the good news) was going to continue on planet Earth once he had finished his misssion and returned to the Father: "And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Teacher (translations vary, "Advocate," "Comforter") to be with you always, the Spirit of Truth, which the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows it.  But you know it, because it remains with you, and will be in you" (John 14:16-17); "The Advocate, the holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name--it will  teach you everything and remind you of all that [I] told you" (John 14:26); "When the Teacher comes whom I will send you from the Father, the Spirit of truth that proceeds from the Father, it will testify to me" (John 15:26); "But I tell you the truth, it is better for you that I go.  For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you.  But if I go, I will send it to you.  And when it comes, it will convict the world in regard to sin and righteousness and condemnation" (John 16:7-8); and "I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now.  But when it comes, the Spirit of truth, it will guide you to all truth.  It will not speak on its own, but it will speak what it hears, and will declare to you the things that are coming.  It will glorify me, because it will take from what is mine and declare it to you" (John 16:12-14).

Christ's words here are the very description of the experiences of the Christian churches that Paul established and wrote to: "Only one through whom a holy spirit is speaking can say 'Jesus is Lord'" (1 Cor 12:3).  Paul was concerned that communication with God's spirits might cease, so he was sure to impress upon his Thessalonian brothers and sisters, "Do not quench the Spirit [= do not keep God's spirits from communicating with you]; Do not despise prophetic utterances [= do not stifle the utterances of God's holy spirits through prophets].  Test everything; retain what is good" (1 Thess 5:19-21).  By "testing everything" Paul was aware that certain spirits might not be from God and could therefore mislead Christians as Paul warns elsewheres: "Do not be suddenly shaken or alarmed . . . by a spirit . . ." (2 Thess 2:2); "discern among the spirits" (1 Cor 12:10); "Even if we or an angel from heaven should preach [to you] a gospel other than the one that we preached to you, let that one be accursed!" (Gal 1:8); "for even Satan masquerades as an angel of light" (2 Cor 11:14); and "Now the Spirit (= God's spirits) explicitly says that in the last times some will turn away from the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and the doctrines of demons" (1 Tim 4:1).  Christ's words in John's Gospel on the teaching agenda of the Spirit of truth and the holy Spirit, i.e., God's holy spirit world, is also seen in the experiences of Christians in John's first epistle: "Beloved, do not trust every spirit but test the spirits to find out whether they belong to God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.  This is how you can know the Spirit of God: every spirit that acknowledges ('confesses') Jesus Christ come in the flesh belongs to God, and every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus does not belong to God.  This is the spirit of antichrist. . . This is how you know the spirit of truth and the spirit of deceit" (1 John 4:1-3,6).  From this statement, it is clear that there are spirits who can be discerned as those belonging to God on the basis of that spirit's commitment and loyalty to Jesus; the spirit must CONFESS this commitment which means VERBAL COMMUNICATION between spirits and humans must take place. This corresponds directly to Jesus' statements in John's Gospel.  Such testing was necessary, even required, for a multitude of spirits was at the disposal of the earliest Christians as we see in Paul's statement: "So with yourselves: since you are ones who strive eagerly for spirits for building up the church, seek to have an abundance of them" (1 Cor 14:12).  Paul encourages his church in Corinth to continue communicating with God's spirits, but to proceed with vigilance, for the spirits must be discerned as those coming from God (1 Cor 12:3,10).  The spirit might also be allowed to speak a language unknown to the prophet through whom the spirit is speaking, but only if that language can be translated (1 Cor 14:13-19).  Otherwise, spirits must be required to speak in the language of the congregation, which is called "prophecy" (1 Cor 14:5,39) so that everyone can be edified by the communicating holy spirit (1 Cor 14:16-17).

Communication with God's spirits was the legacy of the earliest Christians, a legacy that has not been passed down to subsequent generations of Christians.  Why not?  Many modern-day Christians see prophecy and what some call "charismatic gifts" as a thing of the past.  They see that while prophecy and revelatory gifts were necessary during the formative years of Christianity, the emergence of the New Testament Scriptures provided Christians with God's revelation to humankind: Scripture takes the place of communication with God's spirits ("revelatory gifts," "charismatic gifts") and so Scripture replaces revelatory gifts.  Scripture now does what the Spirit did during the formative years of Christianity.  The "sufficiency of Scripture alone" is the principle here and is believed to be espoused in 2 Tim 3:16: "All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness."  This verse is often used as a proof-text to show that the Bible, as we have it today, is the inspired word of God.  But there are many problems with this view.  There was no "New Testament" when 2 Tim 3:16 was first composed.  The New Testament as we know it today, with its 27 "books" from Matthew to Revelation, was not declared canonical until the fourth century by Athanasius of Alexandria, and even then there was dispute as to which books should be read by all Christians and which books should not be read.  The word "scripture" in 2 Tim 3:16 could only refer to Old Testament scriptures, and there was considerable debate among Jews and Christians as to just which books should be included in the Old Testament canon.  Also, during the second and third centuries A.D., certain church fathers quoted from Christian documents by the term "Scripture" that are not to be found in our New Testament, for example 1 Clement, the Shepherd of Hermas, as well as Jewish texts that are not found in our Old Testament, for example 1 Enoch and Baruch.  By calling these texts "Scripture" those church fathers raised them to the "reading status" of the books in our authorized Bibles.  One must ask the following question: Does God ever promise to send us a book in order to reveal His will and teachings to humanity?  The answer is No.  The reason is quite clear in the light of Jeremiah 8:8-9 which says, "How can you say, 'We are wise, we have the law of the Lord'? (= first 5 books of the Old Testament). Why, that has been changed into falsehood by the lying pen of the scribes!  The wise are confounded, dismayed and ensnared; Since they have rejected the word of the Lord, of what avail is their wisdom?"  But God does promise to send His spirits to us as the author of Wisdom 9:13,17 knew all too well: "For what man knows God's counsel, or who can conceive what the Lord intends? . . . . Or who ever knew your (God's) counsel, except you had given wisdom and sent your holy spirit from on high?"  This verse is echoed in the New Testament, only now in the context of the gospel: ". . . the things that have now been announced to you by those through whom a holy spirit, sent from heaven, preached the good news to you" (1 Peter 1:12).  Note that "a holy spirit" preaches the good news, i.e., the gospel.  We do not have the originals of any biblical text, so any alleged inspiration of the original copies is a moot point (biblical texts never claim to be inspired; it is imputed to them by later generations).  There is one point that needs consideration: Does God reveal Himself through the pages of the Bible, or does the Bible describe the way in which God revealed Himself to humanity? (see this website: "The Word of God 1: The Bible or Spirit Communication?" and "The Word of God 2").  Another point must be considered: How did God communicate or reveal His will to humanity before there was "the" Bible?  Did Adam and Eve have a Bible?  Did Enoch?  Did Abraham?  Did Moses?  Did Aaron?  Did King Saul?  Did Samuel?  Did King David?  Did Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Malachi, Micah, or any of the other Hebrew prophets?  Did the Apostles?  Did Paul? Did Jesus?  All of these figures claimed to have direct, personal communication from God.  Both the Old and the New Testaments declare this principle: "Thus says Yahweh, the Holy One of Israel, and his Maker, 'Ask me of things that are to come!'" (Isaiah 45:11); "And they will be all instructed by God" (John 6:45).  

Communication with God's spirits, at least among the earliest Christians, was something that was meant to continue unceasingly without end, until Christ's return, which some Christians, including Paul, thought was imminent.  If communication with God's spirits was so important to the earliest Christians and was regularly practiced, then why don't Christians of today communicate with God's spirits?  It is interesting to note that some practices of the New Testament Christians continue to this very day among Christians, e.g., baptism, the Lord's supper, reading aloud of the Scriptures, singing hymns, taking up money for the poor and needy, and gathering in one place in the Lord's name on a particular day set aside for the occasion.  But what about the other practices of the New Testament Christians  such as communicating with God's spirits (prophecy, speaking in the spirit, speaking in tongues), having visions, being guided by spirits, and other phenomena that, by today's standards would be termed as "psychic"?

The Cessation of Communication with God's Spirits in the Modern Era: Theological Biases, Prejudice, and an Inheritance of Fourth-Century Theology

Needless to say, most Christians of the Modern Era have never communicated with spirits.  The Bible of the burgeoning Modern Era, the King James version of 1611, seems to indicate, as all modern English versions do, that communication with spirits should be avoided at all costs.  For instance, Leviticus 20:6,27 and Deuteronomy 18:10-12 give instructions not to traffic with wizards, witches, necromancers, diviners, spiritists, mediums, psychics, soothsayers, and spellbinders.  For most readers of the Bible, this is clear "evidence for" one simple thing: stay away from mediums, people who claim to contact spirits, and anything having to do with the "occult."  The Bible alone is sufficient, for it is God's word to humanity, or so goes the thinking of many Christians.

The perspective of most modern Christians on “the spirit world” and “consulting spirits” has been colored by recent versions of the Bible.  For instance, the denunciations by God of “necromancy,” “sorcery,” “soothsaying,” and “divination” have been translated into modern English versions as a condemnation by God of “spiritism,” “spiritists,” “mediums,” and “consulting spirits” or “the spirit world.”  This condemnation is found in texts such as Leviticus 19:6, 20:27 and Deuteronomy 18:10-12.   The spirit world, then, is off limits with an imprimatur of divine authority because “the Bible says so.”  The Bible, however, does not give a blanket ban on spirit communication.  God is a Spirit (Isa 31:3; John 4:24) and His angels and messengers are “spirits” (Psalm 104:7; Hebrews 1:14).  To communicate with God is to “consult His spirits.”  The prophets were those who had visions of the spirit world of God or were passive channels through whom these spirits spoke to faithful communities.  Was not Moses communicating with that which was "spirit" in the tent of meeting?  Did not Abraham communicate with this same "spirit" source?  And Samuel, Saul, David, and Solomon, were they not in communication with the Almighty?  Did not Tobiah walk with an angel of God?  Did not Paul go into trances, see spirits (in his case, Christ the Spirit), and communicate with them as his guidelines in 1 Cor 12 and 14 for such communication suggest?

Biblical scholars and church historians have written extensively on spirit communication in the Bible, although they use the terms “prophecy” and “prophets,” the terms used in the Bible and in the early Church; terms, however, that mean different things to different people of today.  A prophet was not a teller of the future as is commonly thought today.  Historically, a prophet was one who simply “spoke forth” (Greek pro = “before,” “forth”; and phet is from phetes = “speaker,” from the verb phemi, “to speak,” so “one who speaks forth”  about the past, present, or future).  If the prophet was an instrument of God, then he might be called “a man of God.”   Scholars have long known of the Christian beliefs in spirits and the spirits’ prophetic utterances that were made during the earliest Christian gatherings.  The scholarly studies on prophets and prophecy in the Bible and in early Christianity are generally beyond the grasp of the reading public for they are not to be found in the religion section of a Barnes and Noble bookstore.  Instead, these studies are either published by academic publishing houses that print a small run of 500-1,000 copies of a work bound for University libraries and who do not cater to the general public, or else are published as articles in scholarly journals that are tucked away in the bowels of a University library, only to be seen by graduate students or a few professors (if seen and read at all).  Hence, a divide remains where the findings of scholars are not passed on to the inquisitive lay reader who might very well benefit from such studies.  Yet, many lay persons are suspicious of scholarship that does not meet their preconceived theological expectations.  Scholarship is sometimes dismissed as “liberal” or is simply ignored as a tiresome academic exercise with little to offer in the way of “faith.”

Whereas biblical scholars study prophetic movements of the past, people involved in New Age channeling circles or modern-day spiritist circles might find that the early Christians were doing similar things as they.  Scholars usually dismiss, a priori, anything having to do with seances or spirits in modern culture, yet these same scholars have made detailed and important studies of these very same phenomena described in early Christian texts as purely Christian phenomena.  Hence, another divide remains, only this time it is between scholars and modern-day reports of spirit communication.  This divide is partly due to the division recently made between “natural” and “supernatural” that goes back to the rise of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment.  Modern Biblical scholarship is a product of the Enlightenment and biblical scholars are, to some degree, empiricists; they are only interested in texts that can be seen and handled by “scientific” methods and are not about to make investigations into séances or attend UFO conferences.  Yet, those scholars who investigate the activities of prophets and prophecy are studying very similar phenomena recorded at that time.  The “discernment of spirits” in 1 Cor 12:10 and the “testing of spirits” in 1 John 4:1 suggests that in order to discern or test “spirits” one must necessarily be communicating with and consulting “spirits” in the first place.  Many people make the same claim today, although now such is either dismissed as pseudoscience where psychology could better inform, or else consulting spirits is thought to be real but exclusively satanic and hence should be avoided at all costs.

Another difficulty for modern-day Christians in understanding communication with God's spirits is fitting it into the idea of the one "Holy Spirit."  The earliest Christians did not have the concept of the deity and person of "the Holy Spirit."  They experienced a multitude of holy spirits.  That being said, an English reader of the New Testament would never know this because most English versions of the New Testament do not transmit the nuance of the Greek text accurately with regard to "holy spirit."  In the Greek New Testament there are the phrases "the holy spirit" and "a holy spirit," "the spirit of God" and "a spirit of God."  Most translation teams are uneasy about the Greek phrases "a holy spirit" and "a spirit of God" because they lack the Greek article to (pronounced taw), "the" in English; "a holy spirit" would question the unique singularity of "the Holy Spirit."  And so, almost always these phrases are translated into English as "the Holy Spirit," thereby adding the article "the" which is not in the Greek text and capitalizing "holy spirit," a discrimination that is not in the Greek text either.  This gives rise to a remarkable situation: whenever an English reader sees the phrases "the Holy Spirit" or "the Spirit of God" in the New Testament, he or she automatically assumes that it is a reference to the Deity of the Third Person of the Trinity.  Thus, the illusion is created that this Trinitarian theology of "the Holy Spirit" is already implicit in the Greek text itself, i.e., it was already in the minds of the original authors such as Paul and Matthew.  But this is not the case because the theology of the Holy Spirit did not arise until the fourth century (see this website: "The Spirit (World) and the (Holy) Spirits among the Earliest Christians: 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 as a Test Case").

The earliest Christian belief in a multiplicity of holy spirits, descending down to Earth from a multi-dimensional spirit-world of God in order to instruct humankind, morphed into the doctrine of the one singular “Holy Spirit.”  How could a multi-dimensional plurality of holy spirits be misunderstood for the Person of “the Holy Spirit”?  Firstly, the plural pneumata hagia, “holy spirits,” does not occur in the Greek New Testament (the unqualified pneumata, "spirits," does occur in contexts referring to "[holy] spirits"--see 1 Cor 12:10; 14:12,32; 1 John 4:1).  The occurrence of the qualified plural may have dispelled any doubts as to a plurality of “holy spirits.”  Secondly, the indefinite pneuma hagion, “a holy spirit,” implying one of many holy spirits, does occur in the Greek New Testament, but English versions almost always translate the indefinite as definite and capitalized, “the Holy Spirit,” thereby obscuring and “corrupting” the indefinite meaning in the Greek.   Thirdly, the famous baptismal phrase “in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the holy spirit” at the end of the Gospel of Matthew suggests three single realities: the Father who is an individual, the Son who is an individual, and “the holy spirit” that, like the first two, suggests a certain single thing.  It is easy to see how the phrase to pneuma to hagion, “the holy spirit,” was read to indicate a certain “holy spirit,” for just as in English, the use of the definite article to, “the,” in Greek can indicate a “certain thing.”  But the definite article in Greek does not necessarily suggest that there is only “one, unique” thing of its kind as “THE Holy Spirit” was later understood to mean in the fourth century.

The doctrine of the Deity of “the Holy Spirit” originates from readings and modifications of Scripture by eminent church fathers of the third and fourth century, namely Origen, Cyril of Jerusalem, Didymus the Blind, Athanasius of Alexandria, Hilary of Poitiers, and the three Cappadocian Fathers, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus.  The proposition here is that some church fathers may have misread the phrases “the holy spirit,” “holy spirit,” “the spirit of God” and “spirit of God” to refer to a single reality that later church fathers believed to indicate a “Person” in the same way that God and Christ are single, individual “persons.”  Treatises by church fathers of the fourth century suggest as much, for they wrote about “the holy spirit” and not about “the holy spirits.”

The New Testament, however, provides textual evidence for the definite article as an indicator of plurality.  The phrases akin to “the holy spirit,” e.g., ” “the Spirit of God” and “the Spirit of Truth,” both occur as a grammatical plural: the Spirit of God is every spirit from God (1 John 4:2).  This is also illustrated in the definite plurals elsewhere in the New Testament where all evil persons are called “the evil person” and all good persons are called “the good person.”  Furthermore, the definite article may indeed indicate a “certain spirit,” for instance the phrase to pneuma to poneron, “the evil spirit,” refers to the particular evil spirit that is possessing the man in Acts 19:16, but this does not mean that there is only one unique evil spirit of its kind any more than “the holy spirit” means that there is only one unique holy spirit of its kind, at least in the New Testament.  Not only can the phrase “the evil spirit” indicate a certain evil spirit, but it can also indicate a plurality of evil spirits, for the akin phrases “the spirit of antichrist” and “the spirit of deceit” is “every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus Christ come in the flesh” (1 John 4:3,6).

It is not far-fetched then to understand the use of the definite “the spirit of God” in these contexts to indicate a world of spiritual beings, i.e. a spirit world.  The spirits who are from God are collectively known as the spirit of God (the spirit world of God) and the spirits who are not from God are collectively known as the spirit of anti-Christ (the spirit world of Satan).  The translation from koine Greek to modern English requires some nuance in order to convey adequately to the modern reader the meaning suggested in the Greek (e.g., the word “world” is not in the Greek, but the grammatical context suggests a plurality of spirits that might be understood to populate a world above and beyond the human world).  Spirits of both orders, those of God and those not of God, is clear enough in the Greek New Testament, and this is indeed translated over into the English versions, unmistakably so in some cases such as in 1 John 4:1-6, “every spirit that is from God” and “every spirit that is not from God.”  A plurality of evil or unclean spirits is implied in the indefinite akatharto pneuma, “an unclean spirit,” and poneron pneuma, “an evil spirit,” and a plurality of holy spirits or spirits of God is suggested in the indefinite pneuma hagion, “a holy spirit,” and pneuma theou, “a spirit of God,” that occur sporadically throughout the New Testament.  If one of many holy spirits or spirits of God is implied by these phrases, might this imply that all of these spirits make up a civilization, a world of holy spirits?  Might not this spiritual world be the “heaven” spoken of in 1 Peter 1:12 from whence comes “. . . a holy spirit . . . sent from heaven”?  English versions of this verse have “the Holy Spirit” for the Greek text that actually reads “a holy spirit.”

Both the definite Greek phrase to pneuma to hagion, “the holy spirit,” and the indefinite Greek phrase pneuma hagion, “a holy spirit,” appear in English versions as definite and capitalized, “the Holy Spirit,” suggesting that you can translate the theology of the Holy Spirit as God and as third person of the Trinity from the Greek New Testament text itself.  But since that theology emerged during the fourth century, a translation that is true to the Greek text in its original, historical first-century setting will not yield such an interpretation.  In the light of the definite and indefinite usages, it might be better to understand “the holy spirit” as referring to “the holy spirit world.”  Whenever it is said that “the spirit” or “the holy spirit” is “poured out” or is “quenched” or “falls upon” or “leads” or “guides,” we can understand these phrases to refer to the holy spirit world whereby a holy spirit or many holy spirits become present (or not, as in the case of “quenched”) in some way in the life or lives of the earliest Christians.

The capitalization of “holy spirit” in English, oddly enough, contributed to its being a reference to a single, unique holy spirit, “the Holy Spirit,” a Deified spirit above all other spirits and angelic hosts.  There is no distinction of this kind in the Greek New Testament.  The distinction between “spirit” and “Spirit” in any Greek text actually goes back to a fourth-century church father, Athanasius of Alexandria, who took the liberty of capitalizing the Greek word for “spirit,” pneuma as Pneuma, whenever he believed it referred to “the Holy Spirit.”  This position took precedence during the fourth century with the ascendency of the orthodoxy of the catholic church.

Biblical and Ecclesiastical scholars have long known of the importance and significance of the fourth century for the emergence of “orthodox” Christianity as we have come to know it today.  “Orthodox” refers to the “approved form” of the creeds, doctrines, and canon that were formulated, accepted by a vote at church councils, and passed down to subsequent generations of Christians.  All modern forms of Christianity, however different they may be, share common bonds that were forged during the debates and church councils of the fourth century.  The fourth century is probably the most pivotal century in all of church history because it gave Christians two significant doctrines (among others) that have molded and shaped modern Christianity: 1) the deity of the Holy Spirit; and 2) the Triune nature of the Godhead: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" /-->

Trinitarian theology is a difficult subject; and so, it should be: "God, when he made man, made him straightforward, but man invents endless subtleties of his own" (Ecclesiastes 7:29).  Alleged scriptural references to Triniatarian thinking are few (e.g., Matthew 28:19; 1 Corinthians 12:4-6; 2 Corinthians 13:13) and their meanings are not obvious; indeed, they can easily be read as contradictory. In fact, there is no explicit description of the Trinity in the scriptures at all.  The orthodox view of the Trinity (three persons in one God) is an inferential conclusion from scripture that took generations to piece together.  Having arrived at that conclusion, the next problem was to understand exactly what it meant; a problem difficult enough that many argued that it was simply a mystery, the answer to which we might know in the next life but not this one.  Such was the legacy of the fourth century (see this website: "The Theological Invention of the Deity of the Holy Spirit").

The Cessation of Communication with God's Spirits: When? Why? and How?

As we saw above, the earliest Christians were instructed to communicate with God's spirits who would continue Christians' education about the Plan of Salvation and clarify any questions and problems that they might have.  But, at some point, the historical record shows that communication with God's spirit world gradually ebbed and all but disappeared from among the majority of Christians.  There was no one point in time that cessation occurred.  We see, however, that during the second century, Christians continued to communicate with God's spirits.  In the Didache, Christians are instructed on how to welcome wandering prophets who come into their household and "speak in a spirit."  The Didache states that there are true and false prophets and that both can be inspired or "speak in a spirit."  The phrase "speak in a spirit" means that a spirit speaks through the prophet while he is in a trance state (see this website: "Early Christian Spiritism in Translation: The Didache 11").  Christians are instructed how to discern the true prophet from the false prophet in Didache 11:7-10.  The true prophet will have and exhibit the "ways of the Lord," i.e., his thinking patterns will be guided by holy spirits.  Another second-century Christian text that describes experiences of communicating with God's spirits is found in the Shepherd of Hermas that is divided into Visions, Mandates, and Similitudes.  In the 11th Mandate, a Christian prayer service is described and the discernment of spirits and of the prophets through whom these spirits act is also discussed (see this website: "Early Christian Spiritism in Translation: The Shepherd of Hermas Mandate 11").  For instance, a gathering of Christians for the purpose of communicating with God's spirits is explicitly given in Mandate 11.9: "So, then, when the man who has the divine spirit comes into an assembly of righteous men who have faith in a divine spirit, and intercession is made to God by the assembly of those men, then the angel of the prophetic spirit which is assigned to him fills the man, and being filled with the holy spirit the man speaks to the multitude, just as the Lord wills."  (The unusual phrase "the angel of the prophetic spirit" is not clear.  Does it mean a spirit agent [angel = "agent"] from the prophetic spirit world, that is, the spirit world that "speaks forth" via a spirit agent who speaks through a medium?)

WHEN?: During the later second and early third centuries, a Christian spiritist movement that emerged around 170 A.D., became the focus of negative talk about prophets speaking in trances while a spirit speaks through him.  The name of this Christian spiritist movement is known among scholars as "the Montanists" named after the movements so-called founder, Montanus.  Montanus was a Christian convert from "paganism" while living in Phrygia, Asia Minor, present-day Turkey.  Historically, Montanists were known as "Phrygians," a name taken from the geographical origin of Montanus.  Closely connected with Montanus were two prophetesses, Priscilla and Maxillima.  Most of our knowledge of Montanism is preserved in the writings that oppose Montanism and characterize it as a "heresy."  The trance states that Montanists experienced while a spirit spoke through them is preserved in Epiphanius of Salamis Panarion 48.4.1 as a simile of a musical instrument, "Behold, man is like a lyre, and I (the spirit) sweep over him like a plectrum.  The man is asleep (in a deep-trance state), but I (the spirit) am awake.  Behold, it is the Lord who puts men's hearts into ecstasy."  This experience itself was not so unusual among Christians.  The early church had been quite used to hearing prophets speak in trances (in ecstasy, or "in the Spirit").  Passivity on the part of the prophet resulting in deep-trance speech, i.e., the speech of a spirit speaking through a passive, entranced prophet, was neither novel nor blasphemous.  Ignatius of Antioch, half a century earlier, had reminded the Philadelphians that he had spoken to them in a trance ("ecstatically") "in a great voice of God" (Phld. 7.1).  In the Odes of Solomon, Christ himself had declared, "I have risen and am among them and I speak through their [the prophets'] mouth" (42.6).  The musical analogy above used of Montanus' trance-speaking experience is the same analogy used by other Christian authors to illustrate the trance state of the prophet as an instrument of one of God's spirits: Justin Martyr (Dial. 7); Athenagoras (Plea 7, 9); Theophilus of Antioch (Autol. 2.9.10); Pseudo-Justin (Cohortation to the Greeks 8); Hippolytus (Antichr. 2); and Clement of Alexandria (Instructor 2.5).  The eminent second-third century church historian Tertullian became the staunchest Christian advocate of Montanism.  Saint Jerome, the fourth century Hebrew and Greek scholar who made a Latin translation of the Bible (known today as the Vulgate), records in his Illustrious Men that Tertullian had written a six (or seven) volume treatise entitled On Ecstasy that made a positive assessment of the manner of Montanist prophecy, i.e., speaking in trance, as the true Christian form of prophecy.  (trance = ecstasy [ek-stasis, "to stand outside of {one's self}"]).

WHY?1) Speaking in a trance.  Thus, what worried and concerned the opponents of Montanism (also known as the "New Prophecy") was not so much the trance state of the Montanists but what was said during the trance state.  Although later on, speaking in ecstasy would become a primary target against Montanism, the initial scare on the part of the catholic church was the contents of the spirit's utterances through Montanus and not so much that a spirit was speaking through Montanus in a trance state.  The church historian Eusebius records: "The arrogant spirit taught to blaspheme the whole catholic church throughout the world, because the spirit of false prophecy received from that church neither honor nor entrance, for the Christians of Asia (Minor) after assembling for this purpose many times and in many parts of the province, tested the recent utterances, pronounced them profane, and rejected the heresy, -- then the Montanists were driven out of the church and excommunicated" (Ecclesiastical History 5.16.9).  Eusebius also records that two catholic bishops, Zoticus of Cumana and Julian of Apamea, conversed and attempted to "test" the spirit that spoke through the Montanist prophetess Maximilla: they "tried to refute the spirit that was in Maximilla" and they were "present for the purpose of testing and conversing with the spirit as it spoke" (Eccl. Hist. 5.16.17).  The demonization of the spirits who spoke through Montanists is seen in other passages preserved by Eusebius.  Montanus was accused of being "possessed by a demon and by a spirit of error" who was "disturbing the populace" (Eccl. Hist. 5.16.8).  Others who heard the spirit speak, "as though elevated by a holy spirit and a prophetic gift, and not a little conceited, forgot the Lord's distinction, and encouraged the mind-injuring and seducing and people-misleading spirit, being cheated and deceived by it so that he could not be kept silent" (Eccl. Hist. 5.16.8).  Eusebius records that Montanists believed that the spirits were "holy spirits" as the above quote from Eusebius' Church History indicates, "as though elevated by a holy spirit."  Other opponents thought that Montanus actually believed that he himself was the holy spirit, for example Cyril of Jerusalem claimed, "For this Montanus, . . . dared to say the he was himself the holy spirit" (Catechetical Lectures 16.8).  This simply confuses the prophet with the spirit speaking through the prophet.  So, initially, catholics accepted that Montanus was a medium through whom a spirit spoke.  When they condemned Montanus, they did so based on the content of the spirit's utterances, the "bastard utterances" as Eusebius calls them, Eccl. Hist. 5.16.8.  The notion that a spirit spoke this content through a passive, entranced medium would, later on, add further legitimacy to the charge that prophets should not even speak in a passive, entranced state.  Thus, "ecstasy" would become another focus of the opponents of Montanism.  An anonymous writer, called "the Anonymous" by scholars, recorded by Eusebius, argued that "ecstasy" (trance) should be used as a test by which to distinguish the false prophet from the true prophet.  The Anonymous was convinced of the "impropriety of a prophet speaking in ecstasy" (Eccl. Hist. 5.17.1) and stated, "A false prophet, indeed, is the one in extraordinary ecstasy in which state the prophet speaks without restraint and without fear" (5.17.2).  He further claimed that followers of the New Prophecy could "not point out a single prophet or prophetess under either the old or new covenants (Old or New Testaments) having been inspired by the spirit in this manner" (Eccl. Hist. 5.17.3).  Thus, according to this reasoning, speaking in a deep-trance state, or what the Anonymous called "losing control of their senses," is a style of prophesying that is contrary to the tradition of the church and, hence, speaking in ecstasy is a sign of false prophets.  As the Anonymous also complains about the manner of their prophesying (Eccl. Hist. 5.16.7), i.e. propheysing in ecstasy (in a trance), there may be an underlying, implicit (although not explicitly stated) connection between prophesying in a “trance state” and the “blasphemy” spoken by the “spirit” under whose spell the ecstatic prophets had fallen.  Once the connection between prophesying in a trance state and the manifestation of an arrogant spirit who "taught to blaspheme the whole catholic ('orthodox') church throughout the world" (Eccl. Hist. 5.16.9) was made, then it was an easy step to condemn speaking in a trance state as "heretical" or something that only false prophets did, which is precisely what happened.  

But as we saw earlier, speaking in ecstasy (in a trance, in the Spirit) was not a means to discern between true prophets and false prophets, for in the earliest Christian texts, BOTH TRUE AND FALSE PROPHETS SPOKE "IN A SPIRIT."  (see above, Didache 11 and Shepherd of Hermas 11.16 where the Greek word pneumatophoron, "moved [to speak] by a spirit" is used to describe the experiences of both true and false prophets).  As we have seen, the phrases "in a spirit," "in a trance," and "in ecstasy" are English phrases that are all describing the same phenomenon: a spirit is speaking through the prophet who is in a trance state.  In 1 Cor 12:3; 14:2,16 Paul uses the phrase "in a holy spirit," "in a spirit of God," and simply "in a spirit" to describe the utterance of a spirit through a prophet.  Didache 11 uses the very same phrase, "in a spirit," to describe spirits speaking through both true and false prophets.  A sign of false prophecy was not the trance state itself, for both true and false prophets spoke in a passive, entranced state, but rather whether the spirit speaking through the prophet was loyal to Christ in words and in deeds (see 1 Cor 12:3 and 1 John 4:1-6; Didache 11 and Shepherd of Hermas 11.16).

As early as the third century, the entrance of a spirit into the body of a person was becoming more and more identified with the demoniacs in the gospels and in Acts 19:15-16.  Only an evil spirit or a demon would actually take possession of a person and speak out of him in the first person.  Being "filled with the holy spirit" and being "possessed by an evil spirit" were phenomena that, to outward appearnces, looked similar: a spirit temporarily (or sometimes permenantly as in the case of evil spirits) inhabited the physical body of the person and spoke in the first person.  By the time of the church father Origen, third century, possession by a spirit was considered to be the primary sign that the spirit was evil.  Origen notes that "the possessed" are to be identified with the demoniacs in the gospels who were "cured by the Savior" (First Principles 3.3.3).  According to Origen, good spirits did not "possess."  Their influence on humans was from the outside.  Hence, the spirit world would become taboo for most Christians as a legitimate source for divine instruction from holy spirits through deep-trance speaking mediums.

WHY? 2. Prophecy a Thing of the Past.  Origen stated that prophetic activity was necessary for the church in the beginning, but it ceased to be necessary later (Contra Celsus 7.11).  Another charge against the Montanists by the Anti-Phrygian source was a claim that had been made earlier by Origen, that "prophetic charismata (e.g. 1 Cor 12 and 14) are limited to the past, even if God's grace and  other gifts exist currently (fourth century) in the church" (Epiphanius, Panarion 48).  By limiting genuine Christian prophecy to that of the Hebrew prophets in the Old Testament and to the prophets of what we now call the New Testament period, this Anti-Phrygian source can simultaneously deny that there is anything such as legitimate prophecy within the then catholic church (fourth century), test the nature and content of any alleged contemporary prophecy, and reject the prophetic authority of contemporary prophets by claiming that, because genuine Christian prophecy belongs to the past, by definition there cannot be genuine Christian prophecy or prophets in the present.  Ecstatic prophecy began to become a thing of the past, not by necessity but through misunderstanding of the phenomenon itself.  The misunderstanding about ecstasy, possession by a spirit, and speaking in a trance seems to pivot on the fact that both holy and evil spirits could speak through a prophet in a trance.  The problem was how to distinguish whether the spirit speaking was holy or unholy.  Kirsopp Lake, in his translation of Eusebius' Church History, summarizes this very point in a statement about Montanism, "It is important that Abercius fully believed in the supernatural gift of Montanus but ascribed it to the Devil instead of to the Holy Spirit.  It was the difficulty of distinguishing . . . between these two sources of inspiration which led to so much trouble" and confusion (Eusebius: Ecclesiastical History, Volume 1  p. 477 n. 2) (see this website: "Communication with the Spirit World: The Religious Experience of the Earliest Christians: 4. The Spirit World: The Problem of Ambiguity").  Apparently, the demands of careful discernment of the spirits became overwhelming for Christians or simply may have become too diluted and lost in subsequent centuries.  If "Satan masquerades as an angel of light" (1 Cor 11:14), then discernment is a keen art whereby training is required through actual experiences in communicating with spirits.  When communication with God's spirits ceases, then the "people perish for lack of knowledge" (Hosea 4:6).

HOW?: There does not seem to have been any official church edict that outlawed consulting prophets who spoke in a trance state.  The closest thing to such an edict is what we have in Eusebius' account of the Anonymous, mentioned above, to church synods in Asia who rejected the Montanist prophets because the spirit speaking through them had caused them to blaspheme the whole catholic (“orthodox”) church.  Scattered throughout official church edicts during the fourth century, given by Constantine and others, are references to Montanists by other names such as the Cataphrygians, the Phrygians, and the Pepuzites (a reference to Pepouza, a town in West-Central Phrygia in Asia Minor, a location where Maximilla prophesied in a trance state).  The edicts simply list these names along with other groups that were deemed "heretical" and not worthy of being incorporated into the pure holiness of the catholic church ("catholic" here did not refer to an "organized" Catholic Church as we know it today.  Rather, in the fourth century, "catholic church" simply meant "universal" in its extension "throughout the world" as well as teaching universally and unfailingly all the doctrines which ought to come to men's knowledge).  By the end of the fourth century, however, Montanists were accused of being involved in sorcery and black magic.  This charge appears to have arisen from alleged practices believed to have been carried out during the Montanist's "cursed mysteries."  The details of these practices were thought to be contained in Montanist writings.  Hence, Arcadius, in 398, ordered the burning of Montanist books and anyone caught hiding these books would be executed "as a retainer of injurious books and writings" (Theodosian Code 16.5.34.1).  The official charge which such persons were to be arrested was "sorcery" (Theo. Code 16.5.34.1).  Eusebius, in his Church History, accepted and popularized the view that Montanism was a demon-inspired false prophecy.  Not only did he, as was his usual practice, quote from or summarize the writings of earlier opponents who held this view, but the view itself is emphasized clearly by the way in which his own account of the New Prophecy (Montanism) is fitted into the structure of his History: the Church, as God's vehicle on Earth, is in conflict with "the devil" and the Montanist controversy was one such example of that conflict.  But this attitude did more harm than good, for it eventually put an end to God's sending His spirits just as Christ had promised He would do in John 14:16-17, 26; and 15:26.  By condemning the consultation of spirits through Montanist prophets in a trance, a condemnation that was initially made via the statements allegedly made by the spirit about "blaspheming" the church, the speech of God's spirits through any subsequent prophets was stopped because deep-trance speaking mediums became anathema; speaking "in ecstasy" became a sign of false prophecy (as well as the belief that the charismatic revelatory gifts were unique to the Apostolic period; hence, a thing of the past and are not necessary in the church any longer).  According to Paul, however, communication with God's spirit world through prophets was not meant to be a temporary event and was not anathema.  It should be carried on and practiced by all subsequent generations of Christians.  In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul uses the Perfect tense when discussing prophecy, a grammatical phenomenon that conveyed the notion of "continued" activity on into the distant future, i.e., unceasingly.  However, with the ascendency of the 'catholic' church, communication with God's spirits through entranced prophets ceded to Church authority and legislation via Roman Law and Roman edicts by fourth-century Emperors of Rome, such as Constantine and Theodosius I.  The condemnation of Montanism by the 'catholic' church was thought by them to be a condemnation of a demonically-inspired prophetic movement.  But what really happened was that by condemning Montanist ecstatic prophecy, ecstatic prophecy was banned altogether, for ecstatic prophecy became identified with demonic possession and the utterances of demons and erring spirits through entranced prophets.  In the midst of this confusion and misunderstanding of the operations of God' spirits on the one hand and Satan's spirits on the other hand (i.e., that both holy and evil spirits operated identically through a prophet under strict laws that regulated communication with spirits), the spirit communication of the earliest Christians ceased.  Hence, "the Spirit" was quenched, the very thing that Paul said not to do: "Do not quench the Spirit; do not despise prophetic utterances (i.e., the utterances of spirits through entrance prophets), but test everything" (1 Thess 5:19-21).

During the twentieth century, however, early Christian spiritism was restored to modern humankind in the book by Johannes Greber, Communication with the Spirit World of God: Its Laws and Purpose (1932), which can be downloaded from this website (see "Home").    

For further reading, see William Tabbernne, Fake Prophecy and Polluted Sacraments: Eccelsiastical and Imperial Reactions to Montanism (Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae 84; Leiden: Brill, 2007).  This book covers, in detail, all of the anti-Montanist sources and Roman edicts that mention Montanism as a "heresy."  It also discusses the Montanist texts in Eusebius' Church History discussed above.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     





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