EARLY CHRISTIANITY: The Speaking with Tongues

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CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY Vol. IV CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY Vol. V MIRACLES

by Philip Schaff

The speaking with other or with new tongues, or simply speaking with tongues,[1] which, along with miraculous powers, the Lord had expressly promised to his disciples before his ascension, (Mk. 16:17), marks, in its first appearance, that creative act of the Holy Spirit, in which he for the first time broke through the confines of nature, took forcible possession, so to speak, of the human mind, and solemnly consecrated human language to become the organ of the gospel. As in general, the inward and the outward, soul and body, thought and form, are intimately connected; so here, the new spirit created for itself a new language. The speaking with tongues, however, was not confined to the day of Pentecost. Together with the other extraordinary spiritual gifts which distinguished this age above the succeeding periods of more quiet and natural development, this gift, also, though to be sure in a modified form, perpetuated itself in the apostolic church. We find traces of it still in the second and third centuries,[2] and, (if we credit the legends of the Roman church), even later than this, though very seldom.[3] Analogies to this speaking with tongues may perhaps be found also in the ecstatic prayers and prophecies of the Montanists in the second century, and of the kindred Irvingites in the nineteenth; yet it is hard to tell, whether these are the work of the Holy Spirit, or Satanic imitations, or, what is most probable, the result of an unusual excitement of mere nature, under the influence of religion, a more or less morbid enthusiasm, and ecstasis of feeling.[4] They are, however, at all events, interesting psychological phenomena, which may serve to throw some light on supernatural states of mind.

THE CREATION DAYS OF GENESIS gift of prophecy

The Ceasing of the Spiritual Gifts of the New Testament

We must here distinguish between the proper essence of this speaking with tongues, as a gift of the apostolic church in general, and the particular form, under which it made its first appearance on the day of Pentecost. In examining the first, we must call to our aid the extended and accurate description of it, by Paul in his first epistle to the Corinthians; though of this, we shall speak hereafter by itself.

Mosaic Authorship HOW RELIABLE ARE THE GOSPELS

First, as to the general nature of this phenomenon. It is an involuntary, spiritual utterance in an ecstatic state of the most elevated devotion, in which the man is not, indeed, properly transported out of himself, but rather sinks into the inmost depths of his own soul, and thus, into direct contact with the divine essence within him; in which state, however, for this very reason, his ordinary consciousness of himself and of the world, and with it his common mode of speaking, is suspended, and he is controlled entirely by the consciousness of God, and becomes an involuntary organ of the objective Spirit of God, which fills him. Hence, it is said, Acts 2:4: “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” This inspiration affects matter and form, thought and style. Paul terms speaking with tongues a praying and singing “in the Spirit,” (πνεῦμα,) denoting the highest power of intuition, the immediate consciousness of God, in distinction from the “understanding,” (νοῦς,) that is the intellectual consciousness, reflection, (1 Cor. 14:14, 15). The things thus uttered were praise for the mighty acts of God’s redeeming love, in the form of prayer, thanksgiving, and song.2 This gift stands next to that of prophecy, which likewise rests upon a direct inward revelation of divine mysteries, and, in Acts 19:6, is immediately connected with the first. But these gifts differ in two respects. First; the one, who speaks with tongues, addresses God; the prophet addresses the assembly Secondly; the latter speaks intelligibly, even for unbelievers; while the former, at least in the Corinthian church, could not be understood without an interpreter, (1 Cor. 14:2 sqq.) Hence, Paul gives the prophetic gift the preference, (1 Cor. 14:5), and compares speaking with tongues to the tinkling of a cymbal, (1 Cor. 13:1), to the uncertain sound of an instrument, (1 Cor. 14:7, 8), to the language of a barbarian, which no one understands, (1 Cor. 14:11), and which seems to the uninitiated like raving, (v. 23). Speaking with tongues was, therefore, a dialogue between the enraptured soul and God; an act of self-edification; and became edifying to others only through the gift of interpretation, by being translated into the language of common life. Yet in this latter respect the gift of tongues as it appeared on the day of Pentecost seems to differ from that described by the Apostle; and this leads us to the second point.

REASONABLE FAITH

Why Is Speaking in Tongues After the Apostles Not Biblical?

As to the peculiar form, which this gift at first assumed. The language seems to have been at once, to a certain extent, intelligible to the hearers without interpretation. At least there is nothing said of interpretation in the narrative in Acts. Yet even in this case, an inward susceptibility was necessary to understand what was said. For some of the multitude mocked, and attributed what they witnessed to drunkenness, (Acts 2:13); and this agrees perfectly with what Paul says of the impression made on unbelievers by the speaking with tongues, (1 Cor. 14:23). Then again, we must consider,—what is commonly altogether overlooked,—that the speaking with tongues was, even in this case, primarily an address to God, and not to men. It was an act of divine worship on the part of the disciples, the ecstatic expression of their gratitude and praise, and belonged, therefore, to the inward life of the church itself. For it began even before the multitude had collected, (Acts 2:4, cf. v. 6); and it could produce in the hearers only a vague astonishment, an impression that God had wrought a miracle, and a desire to understand it more fully. It was then explained to them, not by a new act of glossolaly, but by the clear discourse of Peter, in the language of their every-day life, (v. 14 sqq.), the object of which was to spread outwardly the new life of faith, which had so powerfully broken forth within the apostles in the speaking with tongues. Thus, the accounts of Luke and of Paul, as to the relation of the speaking with tongues to the speakers and hearers, do not differ so much as might at first sight appear.

INVESTIGATING JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES REVIEWING 2013 New World Translation

COUNTERFEIT MIRACLES: Roman Catholic Miracles

But a second and more important difference is this. Paul gives no hint, that to speak with tongues was to use all sorts of foreign languages, in distinction from the vernacular. He himself did not understand the language of Lycaonia, (Acts 14:11, 14), though he had the gift of tongues in a high degree, (1 Cor. 14:18: “I thank my God, I speak with tongues more than ye all.”) The tradition of the primitive church, also, speaks of interpreters of the apostles. Thus Mark is called by Papias, “the interpreter of Peter.” Paul’s description seems rather to require the conception of an altogether uncommon use either of the vernacular; or of an entirely new spiritual language, a speaking with the tongues of angels, (1 Cor. 13:1), which differed from all common languages, in proportion as the soul of the speaker was raised above ordinary consciousness and intellectual reflection. The inward rapture, the extraordinary and involuntary elevation of the mind into the divine life, expressed itself also involuntarily in the kind and mode of communication; though undoubtedly, so far as the essential elements of this gift are concerned, the speaker’s native language might be employed. For this reason he could be understood by none, who were not themselves in the same state of lofty inspiration. The book of Acts, on the contrary, describes the speaking with tongues as the use of the various languages of the foreigners, who were present at the feast of Pentecost. For the very cause of their astonishment was, that the unlearned Galileans spoke in languages, which they could not be expected to know, and the command of which must have been suddenly and miraculously given them, (2:6–11). That this is the clear, indisputable, literal sense of the narrative, is admitted even by Rationalistic interpreters.

AN ENCOURAGING THOUGHT_01

False Prophets and Spiritual Gifts Bringing Praise to Man

But if, now, we recognize no difference between the speaking with tongues on the day of Pentecost, and that in the Corinthian church, if we totally deny the use of foreign languages, not acquired in the usual way; we are forced either to admit an unhistorical, mythical element in the story of Luke—which for us, however, is, on internal as well as external grounds, absolutely impossible—or to suppose self-deception on the part of the hearers, whose impressions the narrator simply relates without giving any opinion of his own respecting them. It might be thought, for instance, that the disciples spoke, indeed, in a language prompted by the Holy Spirit, and entirely new, though perhaps closely allied to the Aramaic; but with such power of kindling inspiration, that the susceptible hearers involuntarily translated what they heard into their mother-tongue, as though it were spoken in this, and the barrier of different tongues was for a moment removed by fellowship in the Holy Spirit. Each susceptible hearer felt his own inmost peculiar nature appealed to, so that his soul was released from its natural disability by this ecstatic language, and operated in a miraculous manner. Or, according to another modification of this theory, it may be supposed, with Billroth, that the disciples spoke in the primitive tongue, which the pride of Babel had caused to be split into a multitude of languages. The children of the new Zion, in their humility, were enabled to gather again its scattered fragments and relics into unity; and it sounded to the inmost recesses of souls seized by the same spirit, as a mysterious memento of Paradise, and a cheering prophecy of the future. In either case, therefore, the miracle would be transferred rather into the hearers.

Young Christians

Yet we must confess that these attempts at a psychological explanation are not altogether satisfactory to us, since they do not comport with a natural view of the text in the Acts. Besides, we see no reason, why the speaking with tongues on Pentecost, and that in the Corinthian church, should in every point exactly coincide. Here is the error both of the older orthodox view, which supposes in both cases the use of foreign languages, not naturally acquired, for the spread of the gospel; and of the view taken by several moderns, who make the description of Paul the rule for interpreting that of Luke. Rather does the apostle Paul himself seem to indicate a difference in the forms of this gift, by the expression: “kinds” or “diversities of tongues,” (γένη γλωσσῶν, 1 Cor. 12:10, 28), as also by the distinction between tongues of men and of angels, (1 Cor. 13:1). We would, therefore, not confound, by exegetical and philosophical subtilties, things thus distinguished; and, relying on the simple literal sense of the narrative in Acts, we suppose, that, in the first appearance of this creative gift, and in presence of an assembly gathered from all quarters of the globe, there was an extraordinary elevation of soul, in which the Holy Spirit temporarily (not permanently) enabled the disciples, in this state of ecstatic inspiration, to grasp the different languages then and there represented, and thereby to make the deeper impression on the susceptible portion of the hearers.[5]

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Nor is it difficult to discern the symbolical import of the phenomenon. It was, in the first place, for the apostles personally, a divine assurance and guarantee, that they were called to be witnesses of Christ in the whole world, and it inspired them with courage and joy to enter upon their work. At the same time, it was, for all present, an ocular prophetic demonstration of the universality of Christianity as ordained for all nations and countries, and of the fact, that the preaching of the gospel and the praise of God should soon be heard in every language of the earth. It is probably with this view, that Luke, (Acts 2:9–11), specifies the names of the nations. Those foreigners “out of every nation under heaven,” three thousand of whom on that day believed, were the representatives of all the nations in which the church was planted in the apostolic age. In this respect the speaking with tongues on the birth-day of the church, like the day itself, stands forth without parallel in history; and, at the same time, as a significant prophecy, which is gradually being fulfilled in the history of missions, as the gospel advances in triumph from nation to nation, not to rest, till the whole world shall become obedient to the faith, and “every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father,” (Phil. 2:11). As a personal gift to individual Christians, the power to speak with tongues is no longer needed. The church and the Holy Scriptures now proclaim the wonderful works of God in almost all the languages of the earth. Even in the time of the apostles this gift lost its original form, though in its essence, as an act of worship, as an ecstatic address of prayer and praise to God, it continued still longer. For we can see no reason for supposing, that, in the house of Cornelius, for instance, (Acts 10:46, comp. 19:6), or in the Corinthian church, (in other words, among those who were already believers), it manifested itself precisely in the use of foreign languages. In the Roman empire, the chief theatre of Christianity, the missionaries could make themselves understood almost anywhere by means of the Greek and Latin tongues; and the way in which the apostles themselves handle the Greek, in their writings, shows that they had learned it in the usual way. And the history of primitive missions gives no intimation, that the rapid spread of the gospel was caused or even aided by a supernatural gift of tongues.

We have yet to observe, however, in fine, that the Holy Scriptures represent the origin of the different languages as a punishment of human pride, (Gen. 11); and that Christianity, as it can accommodate itself to all tongues and nations, has power, also, to break down gradually all the partition walls, which sin has set up, and to unite the scattered children of God, not only in one fold under one shepherd, but also in one language of the Spirit. Of this union of nations and tongues the miracle of speech on the day of Pentecost may be regarded as the divine guarantee; so that the end of the development of the church was prophetically anticipated and typified in her very beginning.[6]

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[1] Luke, in his account of the Pentecost, uses the expression: “to speak with other tongues,” (ἑτέραις γλώσσαις λαλεῖν). perhaps in antithesis with the vernacular, though possibly, also, in opposition to all natural language. Our Lord himself, in Mark 16:17, calls the gift: “speaking with new (καιναῖς) tongues.” This expression seems rather to point to an entirely new language, never before spoken, and immediately prompted by the Holy Spirit. It is, no doubt, to be regarded as the original and most suitable expression; the emphasis lying on new. In all other cases the elliptical form is used, “to speak with tongues,” (γλώσσαις λαλεῖν; also in the singular, γλώσσῃ λαλ., Acts 10:46. 19:6. 1 Cor. c. 12 and 14.) Grammatically, the simplest meaning of γλώσσῃ is language. In the second chapter of Acts this rendering is demanded by the epithet, ἑτέραις, and by the word, διαλέκτος, used evidently in the same sense by the strangers present, v. 8; and this alone, too, suits the singular form, γλώσσῃ λαλ., as used by Paul, 1 Cor. 14:2, 4, 13, 14, 19, 26, 27. This latter form of expression itself is enough to disprove the ingenious interpretation of Bleek, who would understand by γλώσσαι the unusual, highly poetical, antique, provincial expressions—a meaning exceedingly rare in the profane writers, but never to be found in the Old or New Testament. Some would adhere to the meaning tongue, the organ of speech, (to which, also, our common translation: “tongues,” may mislead). But this allows no explanation whatever of καιναί and ἕτεραι, which can certainly relate only to the language itself. For the instrument of speech, in the speaking with tongues, could have been no other than the ordinary tongue. When Kahnis says, (Lehre vom heil. Geist, I. p. 64), that the tongue is here named, because “in this kind of speaking there is wanting that which does not ordinarily remind one of the tongue,” and because it “appears to the hearers as a mere vibration of the tongue,”—I confess, I cannot attach any clear idea to his words. He seems not to consider, that the expressions: γλώσσαις and γλώσσῃ λαλεῖν, are only abbreviated for καιναῖς or ἑτέραις γλ. λαλ., and that the adjective, not the noun, is the emphatic word.

[2] Irenaeus, (†202), speaks of many brethren then living, who “possessed gifts of prophecy, and spoke in diverse languages, (παντοδαπαῖς γλώσσαις), by the Spirit, and brought the hidden things of men to light, for edification, and expounded the mysteries of God,” (Adv. haer. V. 6). Comp. the somewhat obscure passage of Tertullian, in his work against Marcion, V. 8, and Neander’s Gesch. der Pflanzung und Leitung, etc. I. 26, 4th ed.

[3] Dr. Middleton, indeed, (Inquiry into mirac. Powers, p. 120), asserts: “After the apostolic times, there is not, in all history, one instance, either well attested, or even so much as mentioned, of any particular person who had ever exercised that gift (of tongues), or pretended to exercise it in any age or country whatsoever.” But this opinion, adopted by many Protestants, is shown, even by the passage just quoted from Irenaeus, to be false. In later times, also, at least three examples of the kind are known, on the merits of which, however, we express no opinion. Judgments respecting the Romish miracles must be formed with the greatest caution. The Spanish saint, Vincennes Ferrer, is said to have preached to the Jews, Moors, and Christians, and to have converted vast multitudes of them, by the aid of his miraculous gift of tongues. The bull for the canonization of Louis Bertrand. 1671, ascribes to him the same gift, through which he is said to have converted, in three years, 10,000 Indians of different tribes and dialects in South America. The celebrated Jesuit missionary, St. Xavier, is reported to have been enabled, at least on special occasions, to speak languages, which he had not learned, while in other cases, he studied the various dialects of East India; and the bull for his canonization by Urban VIII expressly ascribes to him the miraculous gift of tongues. Comp. Dr. John Milner: The End of Religious Controversy, Letter XXIV.

[4] The speaking with tongues in the Irvingite congregations, as it manifested itself in the earlier years of this sect in England, was at first a speaking in strange sounds resembling Hebrew, after which the speakers continued in their English vernacular. A Swiss, by the name of Michael Hohl, an eye and ear witness of this phenomenon, gives the following interesting description of it in his Bruchstücken aus dem Leben und den Schriften Edward Irving’s, gewesenen Predigers an der schottischen Nationalkirche in London. St. Gallen. 1839. p. 149: “Before the outbreak of the discourse the person concerned appeared to be entirely sunk in reflection, his eyes closed and covered with the hand. Then suddenly, as if by an electric shock, he fell into a violent convulsion, which shook his whole frame. Upon this an impetuous gush of strange, energetic tones, which sounded to my ears most like those of the Hebrew language, poured from his quivering lips. This was commonly repeated three times, and, as already remarked, with incredible vehemence and shrillness. This first effusion of strange sounds, which were regarded chiefly as proof of the genuineness of the inspiration, was always followed, in the same vehement tone, by a longer or shorter address in English, which was likewise repeated, some of it word by word, and some sentence by sentence. It consisted now of very pressing and earnest exhortations, now of fearful warnings containing, also, truly valuable and moving words of consolation. The latter part was usually taken to be an expository paraphrase of the first, though it could not be decidedly explained as such by the speaker. After this utterance, the inspired person remained a long time sunk in deep silence, and only gradually recovered from the exhaustion of the effort.” The inward state of such persons was thus described to the narrator by a young female: “The Spirit fell upon her unawares and with irresistible power. For the time she felt herself guided and borne entirely by a higher power, without which she would have been absolutely incapable of such exertions. Of what she felt compelled to utter, she had no clear consciousness; much less did she understand anything she spoke in a strange language, entirely unknown to her; so that she could not afterwards tell definitely anything she had said. The utterance was invariably followed by great weariness and exhaustion, from which she in a short time recovered.”[4]

[5] Could we appeal to the Irvingite glossolaly, as a reasonable analogy, we should here have a similar elevation, in which, according to Hohl’s account above quoted, the ecstatic discourses were delivered first in strange sounds, like Hebrew, and afterwards, when the excitement had somewhat abated, in the English vernacular. Yet this analogy might be used more naturally to illustrate the relation between speaking with tongues and the interpretation of tongues.

[6] Philip Schaff, History of the Apostolic Church; With a General Introduction to Church History, trans. Edward D. Yeomans (New York: Charles Scribner, 1859), 197–203.

In this sense, we can adopt the profound language of the Anglo-Saxon presbyter the venerable Bede: “Unitatem linguarum, quam superbia Babylonis disperserat, humilitas ecclesiae recolligit.” In like manner says the celebrated Dutch expositor, Grotius: “Poena linguarum dispersit homines, donum linguarum dispersos in unum populum recollegit.”[6]

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