Adult Bible Studies
July 27, 2014
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The Gift of Tongues
Adapted from New Interpreter
Used by permission.
Speaking in tongues, also called "glossolalia," [is] a striking phenomenon of primitive Christianity. It consisted in articulate, unintelligible speech issuing from Christians who, in a state of ecstasy, believed themselves to be possessed by the Spirit. It was prevalent in the Pauline churches, particularly at Corinth (I Cor. 12:1-14), but appeared earlier when the church was constituted in history and began its expansion into Judea and Samaria (Acts 2:1-42; 10:44-48; 11:15-17; 19:2-7).
This phenomenon was not limited to Christianity but was found in many of the religions of the ancient world. Wherever it appeared, the common element was the belief that the spirit of the god worshiped took possession of the devotee, spoke through him, and often produced bodily movements of abnormal character. During such ecstatic states the vocal organs were affected, the tongue moved as if by the operation of a power beyond the mental control of the subject, and utterances poured forth which, to the observer, were as impressive as they were incoherent.
The tongues at Pentecost. The glossolalia first appeared in the Christian church at Pentecost, when the apostles, and those associated with them, became convinced, after much rethinking and prayer (Acts 1:24), that the risen Jesus was God's Anointed (Acts 2:36), that the messianic age had begun (Acts 2:29-33), that they were the people of the New Covenant inheriting all the promises made to the people of the Old (Acts 2:16-17; 3:25). They were so overwhelmed by the force of these convictions that, with all their inhibitions released, resources of spiritual power became available to them, creating new levels of spiritual experience which found abnormal channels of expression. Luke, describing this momentous event, says: "They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance" (Acts 2:4). Similar manifestations continued, for the converts at Caesarea and Ephesus also "spoke in tongues" when they received the Spirit (Acts 10:46; 19:6), and Peter declared that the experience was similar to that at Pentecost (Acts 10:47). Glossolalia seems to have been the sure, to many perhaps the surest, evidence of the Spirit's indwelling. Note also that in some texts of the late addition to Mark at 16:17 there is reference to speaking "in new tongues."
A number of explanations, or rationalizations, of the "tongues" at Pentecost have been offered:
a. For the purpose of evangelization a miracle of language is said to have taken place, whereby the audience heard what was said in a number of foreign languages. Many of the early church fathers held this view.
b. The multitude, all of whom spoke either Greek or Aramaic, and many of them both, would understand, particularly those who knew the various dialects, what Peter and the others were saying.
c. It has been suggested that the speech of the apostles was filled with foreign phrases and idioms, heard over the years, which, under the intense emotion and excitement, began to pour forth automatically from the subconscious. Precedents are cited to illustrate this.
d. Another view is that because of the close spiritual rapport, the thoughts and feelings of the speakers were transferred to the hearers, and there was general understanding of what was said.
All attempts at rationalization are conjectural and are dubious especially when viewed in the light of what is said about glossolalia elsewhere in the NT.
The Lukan account. The story in Acts is clear. The "tongues" spoken on the day of Pentecost are foreign languages, understood by a bewildered and astonished crowd. But when "tongues" were spoken at Caesarea and Ephesus (Acts 10:46; 19:6), Peter equated the experience with his own, without any reference to a linguistic miracle. There is no evidence later that the apostles enjoyed the benefit of such a miracle, nor was there need of it, since Greek and Aramaic were sufficient to meet the needs of the church, Moreover, long before Luke completed Acts, the phenomenon of tongues was common in Pauline churches, but was certainly not thought of as the ability to speak foreign languages. Paul, indeed, declared that the glossolalia was not intelligible speech, would not be understood, and might even be construed as insanity (I Cor. 14:9, 23). Plainly an irreconcilable difference exists between the Lukan account in Acts 2:4 and Pauline accounts. The widely accepted view is that both writers were dealing with the same ecstatic phenomena.
What then has Luke done? Certain suggestions have been made. According to one view, Luke has taken the older and more reliable tradition concerning glossolalia, in which emphasis was mainly on the ecstasy of the disciples--as witness the reference to drunkenness (Acts 2:13)--and on the revival of the prophetic spirit (Acts 2:15; 3:24- 25), and transformed it, shaping and dramatizing the event according to the rabbinic tradition of the giving of the law in every language, and in the interests of Luke's own emphasis on the universal appeal of Christianity.
Another suggestion is that, under Pauline influence, Luke sought to reinterpret the original speaking in tongues with a view to reducing the prestige of the current glossolalia, which had become damaging to the church.
Again, it is said that Luke has literalized the glossolalia, or perhaps has taken the view that, though unintelligible, it was nevertheless a form of language which, under the right conditions and by the proper people, could be understood.
The glossolalia in Pauline churches. Speaking in tongues was so well known at Corinth and elsewhere that Paul did not explain or describe it but simply stressed its unintelligible ecstatic character. There were "various kinds of tongues" because of differences of native language or diversity of spiritual mood (I Cor. 12:10, 28). Some Christians did not possess the gift (I Cor. 12:30), and others, wishing to safeguard the purpose of worship, sought to curb it (I Cor. 14:39; Col. 3:16; I Thess. 5:19-20; cf. Eph. 5:18-20). Many believers (possibly members of the Cephas party [I Cor. 1:12]), tremendously impressed with it as convincing evidence of Spirit-possession, gave it primary value and eagerly desired it.
This Pauline glossolalia has been described as angelic speech (I Cor. 13:1), a heavenly language beyond human eloquence in which God is praised by the heavenly hosts; or again as antiquated or unusual speech, unintelligible because archaic, known only to someone with expert philological knowledge. This is meaningless speculation. Quite possibly, among the ecstatic outpourings, sounds which resembled syllables and words from current tongues gave the impression of a real language. This could hardly have been otherwise, and proves little.
Because of the exaggerated emphasis upon glossolalia at Corinth, Paul was compelled to deal with it. He does so by recognizing it as: (a) a genuine gift of the Spirit, not to be forbidden, and acknowledges that he shares the gift himself (I Cor. 14:5, 18, 39); (b) an aid to private devotion, a means of personal communion with God, an opportunity to express thoughts and feelings which could find no outlet through ordinary channels (I Cor. 14:4; cf. Rom. 8:26-27); (c) a sign to unbelievers (I Cor. 14:22), an evidence of divine power which, like the "sign of Jonah" (Matt. 12:39), though genuine enough, was yet unrecognized by the hardhearted and unbelieving scoffers and critics.
Paul saw the dangers in the practice even more clearly than its values. He gave it no precedence or encouragement in public worship (I Cor. 14:19, 28). It is last in his list and in point of value (I Cor. 12:10, 30; 14:19). He indicates methods of control:
a. By applying regulatory principle. The use of spiritual gifts must be determined by their worth in building up the church "in love" (I Cor. 13:1; 14:4-5, 17-19; Col. 3:14; cf. Eph. 4:16). Tongues are too individualistic, encourage self-centeredness and self-importance, and are detrimental to the solidarity of the Christian fellowship (Rom. 12:3; I Cor. 13:5; Phil. 2:3-4).
b. By maintaining orderly worship. The edification of the church is primary. The glossolalist must restrain himself and keep silent unless interpreted (I Cor. 14:27-28). When worship is not understood, or repels seekers after truth, it fails. Order and decency are of first importance (I Cor. 14:13-19, 23-33, 40).
c. By exercising the gift of interpretation. The capacity to interpret tongues was the special gift of some (I Cor. 12:10, 30; 14:28)--the ability to convey a supposedly rational account of what was said, possibly by thought-transference effective through spiritual rapport. The ecstatic lacking this gift should pray for it, since he has a responsibility both to himself and to the church (I Cor. 14:13-14).
4. Parallel phenomena. Such ecstatic speech as described above prevailed among the earliest Hebrew prophets, the professionalized nebi'im (!yaybnh ynb), who, as Yahweh enthusiasts, wandered about the country in bands, working themselves into religious frenzy by means of music and dancing (I Sam. 10:5-13; 19:18-24; II Sam. 6:13-17; I Kings 20:35-37). The word nabi (aybn), by which they were called, was probably suggested by their ecstatic babblings, and their hith-nabbe (abnth), "prophesying," may well have corresponded to the glossolalia, though scholars are not agreed upon this. In Hellenistic circles also, followers of the Dionysian cult, or of some mystery religion, under powerful emotional pressures of ceremonial rites, often slipped into ecstatic states bordering on frenzy, and expressed themselves in forms intelligible only to the initiated. Through the centuries glossolalia has frequently reappeared among Christian groups, the Montanists, the Camisards, the Irvingites, and many modern sects given to emotional extremes. The psychological aspects are patent.
Bibliography. In addition to commentaries on Acts and I Corinthians, see: P. Volz, Der Geist Gottes (1910); K. Lake, The Earlier Epistles of St. Paul (1911); S. Angus, The Mystery-Religions and Christianity (1925); G. B. Cutten, Speaking with Tongues (1927); P. G. S. Hopwood, The Religious Experience of the Primitive Church (1936); A. L. Drummond, Edward Irving and His Circle (1937); A. Guillaume, Prophecy and Divination (1938); E. T. Clark, The Small Sects in America (1949); M. Barnett, The Living Flame (1953).