Monday, August 12, 2013

Speaking in tongues

I'm going to comment on some remarks by Ed Dingess. He's trying to attack my position by attacking a position that's not my position–which is peculiar, to say the least. He chooses to make tongues the centerpiece of his argument. 

As an example, let’s look at the gift of diverse languages. It is a mistake to interpret “tongues” as some supernatural language. The Greek word to describe this phenomenon is the same Greek word used to describe languages. It is used 50 times in the NT, 168 times in the LXX, 13 times by the Apostolic Fathers, 101 times in Philo, and hundreds of times in the Classics. While it does not always mean languages that is its predominant sense. 

Here Ed is committing the word-concept fallacy. If Luke or Paul were describing a novel phenomenon, he might well use a preexisting word. His meaning would be determined, not by general usage, but by how he is using the word. 

If Pentecostal theology is right, there are a lot of us who claim to know Christ but who are not even filled the Spirit. Are the continuationists prepared to go down this road? Of course they’re not. They want to have their cake and eat it too. 

Of course, that's not a serious argument. That's just a dare. A bluff. And two can play that game. For instance, you have cessationists (e.g. Jack Cottrell) who think modern tongues is demonic.

In addition, the practice is highly irrational. It simply makes no sense. But it is supposed to be edifying. How does speaking gibberish edify me? 

To say that modern tongues is "gibberish" is a pejorative characterization that begs the question. I'd also add that a noncognitive experience can be edifying. Watching a sunset can be edifying. Listening to music can be edifying. 

They want to argue for the continuation of the gifts but also argue that Pentecostal theology is wrong about tongues. I’m sorry, but they can’t have it both ways. 

Actually, I can. For what the NT actually teaches may be differ from Ed's position or Pentecostalism. 

I simply draw your attention to this issue to point out that most of the Christian Church has always believed that some gifts were permanent while others were temporary. 

A red herring. 

The same is true with miracles and faith healers. For some reason, the ability vanished. 

Begs the question, as well as disregarding ostensible evidence to the contrary.

But that men like Paul, Peter, and others would come into a town and perform numerous undeniable miracles and healings continued to happen throughout Church history is simply contrary to the facts.

Well, Paul was evidently unable to heal Trophimus (1 Tim 4:20).

In addition, any human being is capable of producing or mimicking this modern phenomenon practiced by Pentecostals. There is nothing miraculous about it.

Speaking for myself, I think tongues is the most popular gift because it's the easiest gift to fake. (Exorcism would be a close second.)

Acts 2 clearly informs us that the languages spoken on Pentecost are real languages. The gift of tongues is not unintelligible broken syllables that no human can understand.  
The NT phenomena and the modern phenomena are clearly not the same. This is where we begin to answer our question whether or not these gifts are still being given in the Church. If we no longer see them in use, we might ponder the purpose of these gifts when they were in operation. For instance, an apostle had a completely different function and purpose than an elder. Apostleship is no longer a gift that men receive. There were a select few given that gift, called to that office. This would naturally lead to the question of what purpose that office served given the fact that it no longer exists. The same is true of any of these gifts.
Another issue with modern tongues is the notion that it is the evidence that one has been filled with the Holy Spirit. Exegetically speaking, this is not difficult to prove in the ancient Church. The correlation is undeniable.When NT believers were filled with the Spirit, they spoke in tongues. Why don’t we speak in tongues when we are filled with the Spirit? The continuationist who is also non-Pentecostal is left to do extreme exegetical gyrations in their typical answers.
The argument over how we arrive at which gifts are permanent and which ones are temporary is really one of semantics from my perspective. Tongues mysteriously stopped happening for some reason. From the beginning, the individual never acquired this ability. The individual passively received this supernatural ability to speak in other languages. The event was initiated by God. No one was going around seeking to speak in tongues, praying for this to happen to them. God was in charge of the process end to end. And for some reason, God stopped endowing people with this gift. What are we supposed to say? Did the Church just decide she would no longer accept this ability from God? This isn’t to say that God stopped healing people entirely. That is not the argument at all. 
So the argument for the continuation of these gifts has first to establish what these gifts actually were. As far as I can tell, Pentecostal theology has it wrong when it comes to their most basic gift, tongues. They make numerous hermeneutical leaps in their effort to defend this phenomenon. We simply cannot accept the claim that the modern Pentecostal practice is equivalent to the one experienced in the ancient Church. In addition, if it is accepted that modern tongues are in fact the same as those in the ancient Church, we are then left with no recourse, but to accept the Pentecostal teaching that it is the initial evidence that one has been filled with the Spirit.
Those who argue this way want to defend the on-going practice and possibility of tongues, healings, and miracles but without having to subject it to empirical verification. However, we cannot leave out empirical verification because it is essential to understanding the phenomena and comparing it to what we see in Scripture.
It is empirical in the sense that these claims are physical in nature and can be subjected to empirical testing. We can see if a healing has taken place or if a person can actually speak in a foreign language supernaturally.

Let's see if we can summarize Ed's meandering argument:

i) In Acts 2, glossolalia is a form of xenoglossy

ii) We should use Acts to as an interpretive grid to classify tongues in all the other Lukan as well as Pauline occurrences

iii) In the NT church, all Christians spoke in tongues

iv) Since modern glossolalia isn't xenoglossy, that falsifies Pentecostalism

Unfortunately for Ed, every step of his argument is shaky at best.

i) His first premise is the most likely premise. In Acts 2, it's probably the case that glossolalia is xenoglossy. 

Keep in mind that there are scholars who question that identification. They consider Acts 2 to be a miracle of hearing rather than a miracle of speaking.

One advantage of that interpretation is that it would explain how the audience could sort out what was said. If all the speakers were speaking simultaneously, that would be cacophonous. 

However, it's quite possible that the speakers took turns speaking. And the actual wording of Luke's account seems to describe a miracle of speaking rather than hearing. So I think this was probably a case of miraculous xenoglossy.

ii) However, that doesn't mean we should use our interpretation of Acts 2 as a default filter for the other occurrences in Acts, much less 1 Corinthians. 

a) In Acts 2, Luke uses some descriptors (dialektos, hai hemeterai glossai) to specify that he's referring to foreign languages. He doesn't include those additional descriptors in other occurrences (10:45-46; 19:6), so we can't simply assume they mean the same thing.

On the other hand, Luke maybe using shorthand in the other occurrences because he already explained his usage in Acts 2, so it's possible that the other occurrences also refer to xenoglossy.

b) But there's a larger issue. It's the concrete setting of Acts 2 that makes xenoglossy especially appropriate. The audience consists of Diaspora Jewish pilgrims. By contrast, there's no reason to assume there was a polyglot audience on other occasions when tongues are mentioned in Acts. Ed disregards the international setting of Acts 2, even though that's a key contextual factor.

c) It's dubious to assume that Lukan usage controls Pauline usage. We need to judge each writers usage on his own terms.

d) It's by no means obvious that tongues in 1 Cor 12-14 are foreign languages. Paul describes tongues in ways that many scholars find inconsistent with xenoglossy. 

e) In defense of the xenoglossic identification, a foreign language would still be incomprehensible if that language was unknown to the speaker or congregants. But what would be the point of God gifting the speaker to utter a foreign language which he couldn't understand, or anyone else in attendance? That would not be a sign-gift, for no one present would be in a position to appreciate the miraculous sign–unlike Acts 2. 

Likewise, if glossolalia is xenoglossy in Pauline usage, why didn't Paul advocate tongues as a form of missionary xenoglossy? Why does Paul confine this phenomenon to church services rather than evangelizing the neighborhood?  

iii) Acts doesn't tell us or show us that converts always spoke in tongues. Moreover, in 1 Cor 12, Paul goes out of his way to deny that every Christian speaks in tongues. All Christians don't have the same gift. The Spirit dispenses the gifts according to his sovereign discretion.

Ironically, Ed still agrees with Pentecostals that tongues is the initial evidence of Spirit-baptism, and the gateway gift to the other spiritual gifts. He just thinks all that passed away. 

iv) There are credible reported cases of modern xenoglossy. Cf. Craig Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary: Introduction and 1:1–2:47 (Baker 2012), 829. So that would be consistent with continuationism. Denying cessationism doesn't entail the belief that every Christian throughout church history must be a miracle worker. This isn't an all-or-nothing proposition. 

v) If glossolalia isn't xenoglossy, then we can't say if modern tongues in the same as Corinthian tongues. We have no recordings of 1C Corinthian tongues to furnish a comparative sample. 

vi) By the same token, if glossolalia isn't xenoglossy, then it may resist linguistic analysis. It may be incommensurable with human language. You also have the code language explanation of Vern Poythress.

Now, I happen to think the modern practice of speaking in tongues is generally bogus. It's usually the result of coaching or crowd psychology. 


  1. Steve, doesn't Acts 2 seems to indicate that a) they heard them speaking in their own language and b) they were drunk?

    It seems the argument for the miracle of hearing is fairly strong. Why would they think of these people as drunk if they were simply praying in their (the visitors) own tongue?

    The observation recorded as drunk leaves me wondering.

    1. Steve,
      You might be interested in Vern Poythress' article "The Nature of Corinthian Glossolalia: Possible Options." He seems to come to conclusions that would be compatible with yours. I also find him personally to be like you: not a continuationist but willing to consider the best options of this view without descending into hardened categories.

      Also, just in case you have never read it be sure to read Poythress' essay: "Modern Spiritual Gifts as Analogous to Apostolic Gifts: Affirming Extraordinary Works of the Spirit Within Cessasationist Theology."

    2. steve8/12/2013 1:41 PM
      i) Although it could be a miracle of hearing, hearing is not an alternative to speaking. Listeners heard the discourse in their mother tongues because the speakers spoke in multiple languages. Although it's possible that all the speakers used the same language, while listeners heard it in their mother tongues, emphasis on hearing doesn't, by itself, point to that interpretation.

      ii) We can only guess why the hecklers attributed this to inebriation. Perhaps the speakers used some foreign languages which were unrecognizable to the hecklers. Maybe the miracle targeted some listeners while leaving others out of the loop.

  2. "Now, I happen to think the modern practice of speaking in tongues is generally bogus. It's usually the result of coaching or crowd psychology."

    I echo the above. I've heard tongues, and it sounds like gibberish. Unless they claim it's private prayer language, then who am I to say that it sounds like gibberish.

    Here's an idea. Record someone speaking in tongues. Give it to two independent of each other translators. Have them write down their respective translations. If the translations match pretty closely, then it's a language!

    If they don't, gibberish. Unless the person speaking in tongues claims that it's private prayer language.