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Tuesday, August 5, 2008


The gift of tongues is a major component of most charismatic movements, due to the charismatic assumption that the NT's description of the experiences of the first century church is wholly indicative of what our modern experience should be. For me, this was one of the first columns to crumble, and it led to my eventual recognition of cessationism. So what do I do with tongues as described in the Bible?

In Acts 2, we see the definition of tongues, and find no reason to believe that there is a redefinition elsewhere. The words used are glossa and dialektos, which never meant “tongues” as we understand it, but “languages” and “dialects” (roughly speaking). The text is quite clear that the apostles spoke in actual human languages. Now, why should we expect the glossolalia discussed throughout the rest of Acts to be different? What competent author or historian, having taken pains to describe a phenomenon in detail, would suddenly start describing another, distinct phenomenon using the same terms he used for the already defined phenomenon?

Even 1 Corinthians 14 affirms Luke's description. Paul is somewhat impatient with the Corinthians who were using glossolalia in worship services uninterpreted. Accusing them of “thinking like children,” he points out the true purpose of glossolalia as prophesied by Isaiah in chapter 28: speaking in “strange tongues” and with “the lips of foreigners” was meant as a confounding sign of judgment (cf. Babel) for unbelieving Israel. In fact, the Old Testament proclaims in multiple places that the language of foreigners spoken in Israel was to be a sign of God’s displeasure with and judgment of Israel. (cf. De 28.49; Je 5.15)

Have a look at this webpage, which lays it down pretty much as I believe it. The gift of tongues was “a sign, then, not for believers, but for unbelievers” (1 Cor 14.22), and was used to warn Old Covenant Israel of the judgment that eventually came on them when God, through the Roman armies under Titus Vespasian, sieged and destroyed Jerusalem and her beloved temple in A.D. 66-70. That this judgment was accomplished is seen by the Diaspora and the resultant dysfunctional nature of Judaism sans a temple or the genealogical records necessary to determine the priestly Levite line.

But wait - human language is simply one type of tongue, and the heavenly language is completely different....right? Well, even accepting for the sake of argument that tongues were of two types, my argument still stands that Paul's intent in 1 Cor 14 is to correct the abuse of glossolalia in the church. The stinger that closes this subject is the passage I cited, in which he reminds them of the purpose of glossolalia, without making any distinction between what he was describing in verse 2 and the sort that was a sign for unbelievers in verse 22.

However, I don't think there is any evidence for two types of glossolalia. Different kinds of languages? There definitely are, as any linguist can tell you! But different kinds of glossolalia? I am aware that charismatics talk about "prayer languages" as opposed to the "language of heaven" and use 1 Cor 14 verses 2 and 14 as their prooftexts, but here again, you have his statements just a few verses later, without any redirection or distinction made, that talk about "tongues" (same word) as a sign "not for believers". If you put this passage in the larger context of the letter, viz. the correction of abuses of God's gifts in worship services, you'll see that when Paul said that "he who speaks in a tongue edifies himself" (v. 4), he was not putting this in a positive light, but was describing its abuse: some Corinthians were showing off the charismatic gift, "speaking into the air" (v. 9), even when no one was profiting by it. Glossolalia was ecstatic prophecy in actual languages of men, apparently uninterpretable even to the speaker without a special dispensation (v. 13). Putting that gift on display when no one was there to profit by it was simply "speaking mysteries" that only God could understand, to the speaker's glorification alone.

In fact, to use it in the presence of people who were already believers when no one present could understand the language was useless ("not for believers"); and if no one was there who actually understood or could verify it as an actual language, what good would it be as a sign? Anybody can babble meaninglessly. "Will they not say that you are out of your mind?" (v. 23) Surely that unfortunate situation sounds like the norm today in charismatic/Pentecostal settings!

One more thing: the idea that "praying in a[nother] language" is referring to personal prayer time in one's prayer closet is unlikely given the immediate context of worship services, as well as the cultural context in which prayers were most often (if not always) spoken aloud rather than silently (cf. 1 Samuel 1:13). This is why Jesus told people to go into their prayer closets for prayer so they wouldn't be heard and thought to be showing off for passersby -- he could have told them to just pray silently with their eyes open! I think, therefore, that this passage is probably referring to prayer offered in a corporate setting. Regardless, my other points stand.

I think the other charismata, as well, were signs of the times, and not something meant to carry over. In fact, the author of Hebrews (written sometime in the mid 60’s) implies that the age of signs and wonders as embodied in the ministry of the apostles had dwindled to the point that those manifestations could be spoken of in the past tense (2.3-4). But nevertheless, although the Old Covenant was passing away (8.13) it was being replaced by a “better covenant” (8.6). It is this we live in today.

Monday, August 4, 2008

No baby

I think the charismatic movement suffers from a fundamentally misguided interpretation of the Christian life. Moreover, it's a blemish upon Christianity's reputation.

Charismatic Christians who recognize that things often go awry in charismatic circles will try to temper statements like mine above by saying, "Now wait, sure there are abuses here and there. But let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater." I understand that sentiment, I really do: for years I have tried to walk the fine line, but then recently I realized I'm having a hard time finding the line, such that I have come to doubt its existence. I have come to the conclusion that there is no baby in that bathwater.

Let me give you a little background.

My history

My Baptist church growing up believed so much in the charismata and we all tried to move in them. Until I went to college, our church was never particularly successful, however. No healings, almost zero tongues, but a few people who tried to prophesy. I went to a Church of God college and thought that there I’d finally be able to really break loose from the sincere but somehow still uncharismatic Baptists. Sure enough, during Convocation in my freshman year, it finally happened. I went down to the altar and amidst the hullabaloo surrounding me, a few prayed for me to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit with the evidence of speaking in tongues. I was overjoyed! It didn’t feel at all like I thought it would, but I prayed in tongues in worship as often as I could.

Flash forward 12 years (has it been that long?!). I am now a cessationist. What happened?

A number of things. It is a complex issue. First, as I studied Acts and 1 Corinthians (at this Pentecostal college, no less) my doctrine began to change and I put it over and above my experiences. It was then that I began to see that “tongues” as espoused by modern Christians is an unfortunate misunderstanding of the first-century phenomenon.

Upon examining this evidence, I examined myself. I became convinced that as sincere as I was, I had been fooling myself. I opened my mouth and just started producing syllables as I was instructed at the altar once I noticed that I didn’t get an overpowering “unction”. Although we can't press this too far, I think that it is perhaps significant that such instructions for "priming the pump" are not given to anyone in Scripture.

Broadening the scope

Now, does “cessationist” mean that I don’t think God speaks, moves, or heals today? No, not necessarily. Miracles are still possible, but the offices and gifts meant to testify to and confirm the teaching of the Gospel to the Jews are no longer in effect. God can heal anyone, and we should pray for healing. But are there “healers”? No. Are there prophets? No, although this does not mean that God absolutely could not or would not give some insight to His believers if He so chooses. After the unique apostolic age, the gifts as core commodities and integral aspects of the life of the Christian are no longer “standard issue”. On this point, I would like to quote C.S. Lewis.

They [miracles] are found at the great ganglions of history – not of political or social history, but of that spiritual history which cannot be fully known by men. If your own life does not happen to be near one of these great ganglions, how should you expect to see one?

My predicament

I belong to church which moved from a traditional Baptist church to a contemporary/charismatic-leaning church in the eighties, and has been increasingly giving itself over to most every charismatic whim of doctrine since the turn of the millennium.

So why don't I just leave?

I have been a part of this church for twenty years, so many of the members of this church mean the world to me. They are wonderful people who deserve to have their delusion removed; unfortunately, I have only recently become convinced that I will never be able get through to them. Another big reason? A significant constituency of my beloved family attends this church. So until I have an undeniable and wholly defensible reason to tell them I'm leaving them other than, "I think you're all delusional, like I once was," I am not going to risk hurting and isolating myself from the only friends and family I've ever known. But the day's coming, I'm afraid. This blog is an attempt to vet some of my thoughts, perceptions, and opinions.

It's unlikely that charismatics will deny their experiences, unless they're committed to a Scriptural basis for their doctrine and they have been convinced that Scripture contradicts their interpretation of their experiences. That's what happened to me. In later posts, I'll be chronicling the theological problems of a host of charismatic teachings, focusing on some popular ones at my very own church.