Chapter 2 of Barry Bickmore’s Restoring the Ancient Church has a good discussion about the Apostasy and the dramatic changes in Christianity that occurred after the loss of apostles and prophets. Part of his discussion covers the Montanist controversy. No, this wasn’t about one of our least populated states, but about a man named Montanus in the second century who claimed to have prophetic gifts. He and his two prophetess consorts created quite a controversy and gained some notable followers like Tertullian. A key thing was the recognition that prophetic gifts had been lost in the main body of the Church, and this was troubling since they were clearly present in the earlier days of the Church, and the Apostle Paul had written that such gifts and offices were meant to endure (see Ephesians 4:11-14, for example, or other passages on spiritual gifts). Here is a passage from Bickmore on this topic that connects the Montanist controversy with the closing of the canon (I have deleted the many footnotes – please see Bickmore’s book for those):
What was the Church to do? The leaders realized that they should have the prophetic gifts, and those of the Montanists were clearly counter to the rule of the Church, but they had nothing to exhibit in their place. It should be noted here that instead of resolving the conflict through revelation, as the Apostolic Church did, the Catholics were forced to hold councils to put down this heresy. Indeed, J.G. Davies reports that the first councils or synods known in Christian history were the result of the Montanist controversy.
By the fourth century, as we saw with the example of Eusebius, the churchmen still realized that the gifts were essential for any claim to spiritual authority, but contented themselves with tracing the gifts as far as they could in the Catholic tradition and then announcing that they were no longer needed.
The Closing of the Canon of Scripture
As a result of the Montanist controversy, the Church was forced to face the fact that the gifts were essentially gone. And in order to deal with that fact they were compelled to do an about-face on the issue of the canon of scripture.
As was mentioned above, modern Christians are adamant that they have a Bible and there can be no more Bible. But was this always the case? Bishop Wand discloses that the canon was not closed by divine decree, but out of the necessity to combat the Montanist heresy. “The best defense set up by the Church against such conversions [as Tertullian’s] was to close the canon of scripture, and by so doing to deny any authority to the Montanist prophecies.” In this way “the possibility of a new revelation was excluded . . . .”
But it never occurred to anyone to close the canon until nearly the third century! Historian Willem Van Unnik notes that until that time the Christians would have had no objection whatever to “someone . . . add[ing] something to the word of the Gospel.” The very existence of a document such as the Shepherd of Hermas shows that the possibility of a new word of revelation was nothing to be wondered at. The Shepherd, which purports to be a series of revelations given to one other than the Apostles or their associates in the first half of the second century, hovered on the edge of the canon for centuries. Indeed, included in the Shepherd is a series of mandates which Hermas was commanded to write for the benefit of all who might read them.
Andrie B. du Toit, Professor of New Testament at the University of Pretoria, South Africa, explains that before the middle of the second century the “oral tradition was used alongside and even preferred to the Gospels.” Even in the latter half of the second century, Clement of Alexandria could report that “the first elders . . . preferred to speak the truth rather than write it down.”105 Therefore, while there was always a set of authoritative texts, the idea that the canon was forever fixed, or that the prophetic word was only to be found in a certain set of written works, was foreign to the first Christians.
Mainstream Christians, especially Protestants, often counter Mormon arguments on this point by citing a statement near the end of John’s Revelation:
For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book. (Revelation 22:18-19)
Since Revelation is placed last in the New Testament, many assume that this is an official proclamation that the canon was to be closed. However, apart from the fact that Revelation may not have been the last New Testament book written by John, it should be pointed out that the New Testament canon was not even established at that time. It would be centuries before a final list of canonical books was agreed upon. Another fact that must be taken into account is that the Lord made an identical proclamation through Moses: “Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you.” (Deuteronomy 4:2) Were all the prophetic books written after the Law of Moses false? Jesus took away certain commandments of the Law, so was he just another false prophet? The answer, of course is that Jesus was God, and God can add or take away whatever He wants from His word. True prophets and Apostles speak for God, so their writings can be added to God’s word, as well.
The canon was never meant to be closed. Mainstream Christianity today is adamant that the canon being closed and that prophets and apostles are no longer being needed. These positions are, sadly, inconsistent with original Christianity and are strong evidence that something vital has been lost from the early Church. While much good has been preserved in mainstream Christianity, we are happy to report that something wonderful has been restored. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not have all the answers, but we have some of them that have been given by revelation to modern prophets and apostles having authority from God that was restored through divine action in these last days.