One of the greatest difficulties of attempting to reconstruct any reliable history during this period is the scarcity of materials. The church was often being persecuted and many of its records were certainly destroyed. Not until the fourth century, when Constantine legitimatised Christianity, did the church have the opportunity to compile and store full records of its activities. Incriminating evidence could have proved fatal to many leaders if it fell into the wrong hands
Furthermore, when peace did prevail and various areas of the church advanced significantly, the strictly Orthodox mainline Church often resisted and attacked spiritual renewal groups. This was certainly true of the 2nd-3rd century Montanist movement. Most of the writings that have been handed down to us were penned by critics of the movement. The orthodox church often destroyed valuable writings authored by its antagonists eliminating important source materials. For example, It would have been most helpful to have read the learned Tertullian’s seven books on ecstatic prophecy which defended the Montanist position, but they were lost or destroyed.
Nevertheless there is sufficient data to construct a picture of a vibrant church, which continued to experience visitations from the Spirit producing outstanding growth and expansion. ‘The church grew rapidly in many areas, including the great city of Alexandria in Egypt, and along the coast of North Africa among the Latin-speaking population. The city of Carthage had a very strong church at an early date.’ R. E. Davies, p56.
Justin Martyr was a second century Christian apologist. Most of what is known about his life comes from his own writings. He was born at Flavia Neapolis (ancient Shechem in Judea, now modern-day Nablus). He called himself a Samaritan, but his father and grandfather were probably Greek or Roman, and he was brought up a pagan until he was converted to Christianity. Thereafter he attended a Christian school in Rome and devoted the rest of his life to teaching what he considered the true philosophy, still wearing his philosopher's gown to indicate that he had attained the truth.
He became the foremost apologist, or defender of the Christian faith, in the second century, writing various works presenting arguments and evidences that the Christian faith was true and that Christ’s followers were an asset to society. His most well know works are the First Apology, the Second Apology, and the Dialogue with Trypho.
It is in the second apology that we find some significant comments. ‘For numberless demoniacs throughout the whole world, and in your city, many of our Christian men exorcising them in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, have healed and do heal, rendering helpless and driving the possessing devils out of the men.’ Apol. II. Chapter 6.
Such boldness in referencing supernatural happenings ‘throughout the whole world and in your city’ by a world-class intellectual must be considered as weighty evidence for the truth of such claims. He clearly testifies that Christianity was known and widespread in his day and that Christians in the second century were continuing to exercise authority over demons and sickness in the public arena.
In his Dialogue with Trypho he says “For the prophetical gifts remain with us even to the present time.” Later in the same work, he says, “Now it is possible to see among us women and men who possess gifts of the Spirit of God.” Also “[Christians] are also receiving gifts, each as he is worthy, illuminated through the name of this Christ. For one receives the spirit of understanding, another of counsel, another of strength, another of healing, another of foreknowledge, another of teaching and another of the fear of God.’ Dialogue with Trypho, Sect. 39
His reference to gifts of the Spirit being commonly exercised by many in local Christian communities does not speak of revival but nevertheless underscores the continued vibrancy of the Christian faith during this century. God was living and active in this church, just as he was in apostolic days.
Irenaeus was Bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul, then a part of the Roman Empire (now Lyons, France). He was an early church father and apologist, and his writings were formative in the early development of Christian theology. He was born in the city of Smyrna, became a disciple of Polycarp, who was said to be a disciple of Saint John the Evangelist.
His best-known book, Adversus Haereses or Against Heresies (c. 180) is a detailed attack on Gnosticism, which was then a serious threat to the Church, and especially on the system of the Gnostic, Valentinus.
According to Irenaeus, the city of Lyons, Gaul, (present day France) was the scene of a local revival at some time subsequent to A.D. 178. In it many people were delivered from demons and came to Christ and many others were healed of sicknesses through the laying on of hands. Irenaeus also reported that prophetic gifts were in operation at this time and that people were raised from the dead. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 2. 32. 4 (qted in Richard Riss, A Survey of 20th century Revival Movements, p8)
This is the full quote from Irenaeus, Against Heresies Book 2. 32. 4-5:
4. If, however, they maintain that the Lord, too, performed such works simply in appearance, we shall refer them to the prophetical writings, and prove from these both that all things were thus predicted regarding Him, and did take place undoubtedly, and that He is the only Son of God. Wherefore, also, those who are in truth His disciples, receiving grace from Him, do in His name perform [miracles], so as to promote the welfare of other men, according to the gift which each one has received from Him. For some do certainly and truly drive out devils, so that those who have thus been cleansed from evil spirits frequently both believe [in Christ], and join themselves to the Church. Others have foreknowledge of things to come: they see visions, and utter prophetic expressions. Others still, heal the sick by laying their hands upon them, and they are made whole. Yea, moreover, as I have said, the dead even have been raised up, and remained (5) among us for many years. And what shall I more say? It is not possible to name the number of the gifts which the Church, [scattered] throughout the whole world, has received from God, in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and which she exerts day by day for the benefit of the Gentiles, neither practising deception upon any, nor taking any reward (6) from them [on account of such miraculous interpositions]. For as she has received freely (7) from God, freely also does she minister [to others].
5. Nor does she perform anything by means of angelic invocations, (8) or by incantations, or by any other wicked curious art; but, directing her prayers to the Lord, who made all things, in a pure, sincere, and straightforward spirit, and calling upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, she has been accustomed to work (9) miracles for the advantage of mankind, and not to lead them into error. If, therefore, the name of our Lord Jesus Christ even now confers benefits [upon men], and cures thoroughly and effectively all who anywhere believe on Him, ……
Irenaeus further testifies of the extraordinary ministry of the Spirit active in his church:
2. Moreover, those also will be thus confuted who belong to Simon and Carpocrates, and if there be any others who are said to perform miracles--who do not perform what they do either through the power of God, or in connection with the truth, nor for the well-being of men, but for the sake of destroying and misleading mankind, by means of magical deceptions, and with universal deceit, thus entailing greater harm than good on those who believe them, with respect to the point on which they lead them astray. For they can neither confer sight on the blind, nor hearing on the deaf, nor chase away all sorts of demons--[none, indeed,] except those that are sent into others by themselves, if they can even do so much as this. Nor can they cure the weak, or the lame, or the paralytic, or those who are distressed in any other part of the body, as has often been done in regard to bodily infinity. Nor can they furnish effective remedies for those external accidents which may occur. And so far are they from being able to raise the dead, as the Lord raised them, and the apostles did by means of prayer, and as has been frequently done in the brotherhood on account of some necessity--the entire Church in that particular locality entreating [the boon] with much fasting and prayer, the spirit of the dead man has returned, and he has been bestowed in answer to the prayers of the saints--that they do not even believe this can be possibly be done, [and hold] that the resurrection from the dead(3) is simply an acquaintance with that truth which they proclaim. Against Heresies Book 2. 31. 2
From such writings, it is obvious that the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit were still prominent in the life of the church of his day and that they were attracting people to the Saviour.
Regarding believers speaking in tongues and exercising the word of knowledge in his day, Irenaeus writes:
‘For this reason does the apostle declare, “We speak wisdom among them that are perfect,” 1 Cor. ii. 6. terming those persons “perfect” who have received the Spirit of God, and who through the Spirit of God do speak in all languages, as he used Himself also to speak. In like manner we do also hear many brethren in the Church, who possess prophetic gifts, and who through the Spirit speak all kinds of languages, and bring to light for the general benefit the hidden things of men, and declare the mysteries of God, whom also the apostle terms “spiritual”.....’
Against Heresies Book 5. 6. 1
His writings are a powerful testimony to the widespread knowledge and practice of spiritual gifts in the church of his time. The church was very much alive and obviously making an impact upon its world in the second century.
The Montanists first appeared in about 156-157 A.D. and spread throughout the Roman Empire.
They were clearly a renewal movement, which challenged the gradual domestication and growing formalism of the wider church. Moral laxity was also an affront to the movement’s leader, Monatanus. He began to seek the supernatural ministry of the Spirit, advocating a strict moral lifestyle in opposition to the emerging ecclesiasticism in the church.
Montanus quickly gained a substantial following and the movement spread rapidly throughout Asia Minor, North Africa even reached to Rome itself. The immediacy of the Spirit’s activity and the re-emergence of the gifts of the Spirit seemed to many to be God’s antidote to the ‘official’ ministry of presbyter-bishops who were seen as controlling and stifling the work of God.
Initial caution by the church was enflamed by Montanus’ claim that prophetic utterances were equal to the Scriptures. In A.D. 175 Apollinarius, the Bishop of Hierapolis launched a militant attack on Montanism, adding to mounting church condemnation. Several regional councils and synods censured Montanus and his followers during the latter half of the century, highlighting the impact that Montanism was having throughout the wider church. Killian McDonnell and George Montague have pointed out that ‘neither the threat of Gnosticism, nor Marcionism had never pressed the church into calling councils!’ Such was the impact of this renewal movement.
Nevertheless, support grew. Eusebius mentions that Irenaeus was sent to Rome by the Gallic Christians to intercede on behalf of the Montanists. When his pleas were rejected Irenaeus said that on the basis of rejecting prophecy they would likely not accept the Apostle Paul in the church!
Tertullian was yet another heavyweight supporter of the movement. This intellectual giant was so convinced of its foundational premises that he joined the movement in about 200 A.D.
By 381 A.D. the Council at Constantinople finally declared that the Montanists should be treated as pagans. In spite of this opposition the movement continued well into the 5th century as a testimony to the presence of the Spirit and His power to interact with men and women.
However, ‘recent study has vindicated the movements orthodoxy and it is probably true to say that it was a genuine movement of spiritual renewal protesting against the institutionalising of the church and calling for a renewed emphasis on spiritual gifts such as prophecy…’ R. E. Davies, p57. Modern church historians, almost without exception, have argued that it was not heretical, although it was schismatic….They were fanatics but not heretics.’ Ibid, footnote 4. p67. This sounds very similar to institutional comments on the early Pentecostal movements or more recent charismatic renewal movements!
It is conceded that the few, brief quotes in this paper are inadequate to prove the case for revival in the second century. They merely evidence the fact that some churches, in some places, on occasions, were experiencing the blessing of God in an extraordinary way. Let us conclude with two more specific quotes, which lead us to believe that there was a great work achieved for Christ across the mighty Roman Empire.
‘And when the Spirit of prophecy speaks as predicting things that are to come to pass, He speaks in this way: "For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. And He shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people; and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more." And that it did so come to pass, we can convince you.
For from Jerusalem there went out into the world, men, twelve in number, and these illiterate, of no ability in speaking: but by the power of God they proclaimed to every race of men that they were sent by Christ to teach to all the word of God; and we who formerly used to murder one another do not only now refrain from making war upon our enemies, but also, that we may not lie nor deceive our examiners, willingly die confessing Christ.
Justin Martyr, First Apology, Ch xxxix
And at the end of the second century Tertullian wrote this:
‘For whom have the nations believed,— Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and they who inhabit Mesopotamia, Armenia, Phrygia, Cappadocia, and they who dwell in Pontus, and Asia, and Pamphylia, tarriers in Egypt, and inhabiters of the region of Africa which is beyond Cyrene, Romans and sojourners, yes, and in Jerusalem Jews, and all other nations; as, for instance, by this time, the varied races of the Gætulians, and manifold confines of the Moors, all the limits of the Spains, and the diverse nations of the Gauls, and the haunts of the Britons— inaccessible to the Romans, but subjugated to Christ, and of the Sarmatians, and Dacians, and Germans, and Scythians, and of many remote nations, and of provinces and islands many, to us unknown, and which we can scarce enumerate? In all which places the name of the Christ who is already come reigns, as of Him before whom the gates of all cities have been opened, and to whom none are closed, before whom iron bars have been crumbled, and brazen gates opened. Although there be withal a spiritual sense to be affixed to these expressions,— that the hearts of individuals, blockaded in various ways by the devil, are unbarred by the faith of Christ,— still they have been evidently fulfilled, inasmuch as in all these places dwells the people of the Name of Christ. For who could have reigned over all nations but Christ, God's Son, who was ever announced as destined to reign over all to eternity?’
Tertullian, An Answer to the Jews, Chapter 7
This quote alone gives powerful testimony to the worldwide extent of the Christian church during the second century.
R. E. Davies, I Will Pour Out My Spirit, 1992
Eddie L. Hyatt, 2000 Years of Charismatic Christianity, 2002
David A. Womack, Wellsprings of the Pentecostal Movement, 1968
Ronald A. N. Kidd, Charismatic Gifts in the Early Church, 1984
Stanley M. Burgess, The Spirit & Church: Antiquity, 1984