There is a growing charismatic movement within the Roman Catholic Church. Is this increased awareness of the 'sign gifts' an indication that the Catholic claim of being guided by the Holy Spirit has substance? Or is it just one more heresy added to the already extensive catalog of Catholic heresies and false teachings? Because of this, I believe non-Catholics would do well to examine their position on the 'sign gifts' so dear to charismatics. What follows are some of my thoughts on the subject,
Shortly after regeneration, I believed that I was led to join a charismatic church; and this after literally visiting a number of churches and talking with their pastors. In retrospect, it seems clear that the leading was not so much to the church itself, but to its full-time pastor This man, 64 when I met him, had begun his ministerial life as a member of the Plymouth Brethren in New Zealand. According to Pastor, he began street-corner preaching at the age of 9. When he came to America, then middle-aged, he became pastor of a Southern Baptist congregation in California.
In pursuit of a Th.D., Pastor enrolled in the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, a liberal 'Protestant' institution. During that time, he became affiliated with the Melodyland Christian Center, a charismatic assembly. After earning his doctorate, he accepted a teaching position in a non-denominational liberal seminary in San Antonio. He soon left that position due to, he claimed, doctrinal differences, taking a number of the student body with him to found a charismatic assembly.
The mini-bio of the pastor might be helpful to some who are interested in factors that contributed to the development of my own systematic theology. This man opened his library to me and devoted an hour or two almost every day to tutoring me as I labored to make up for half a lifetime of avoiding things religious by studying the things I should have learned long before. Given pastor's background, it should come as no surprise that my studies progressed in a somewhat eclectic manner. It was not until I enrolled in Bible college that my theological position began to solidify into what it is today.
That charismatic congregation and that pastor were my first experiences as a born-again Christian, and they were both about as charismatic as I think it possible to be. Every meeting was exciting, filled with joyous 'songs of praise and worship.' There was speaking and prophesying in tongues – with and without interpretation, healings and slayings in the Spirit, etc. And, after my 'baptism in the Holy Spirit, I joined in many of the activities, though I sometimes never fully understood what was going on.
My religious education and training had been jump-started with the help of pastor and his library and the many media ministers I watched and listened to, most of whom were charismatic. As I progressed in Bible college, I learned hermeneutics and the importance of sound exegesis. And I was compelled to read, to really read, the Scriptures as I prepared for my classes and labored over homework assignments. The more I studied in the Scriptures, the less attention I gave to the media money ministers and the less comfortable I was with the charismatic stress on signs and wonders.
Eventually, I met people associated with the Dallas Theological Seminary and the Tyndale Theological Seminary, two quite conservative and quite Dispensational institutions. Through my discussions with these friends, and by the readings they suggested, I became convinced that the increasingly liberal movement toward modernism in what I still referred to as the Protestant church was unbiblical.
Now, firmly ensconced as a 'classical' Fundamentalist in the Dispensational camp, my position concerning the charismata is cessationist. I believe the 'sign gifts' were given by the Holy Spirit to some in order to validate their ministries and/or to advance the growth of the infant church. As the church grew and spread, and as the Apostles and inspired teachers died off, the need for the sign gifts faded until they eventually ceased. This should not be understood as implying that God does not provide miracles today, for that simply is not true. God is not limited, but I do not believe He makes miracles on command of charlatans and 'ministers' whose primary concern appears to be separating the gullible from their bankrolls. Some years ago, a friend sent me a detailed examination of the signs and wonders so dear to charismatics. The study begins with these words:
So, what's the big deal? What harm can come from believing that the sign gifts are still active today? After all, no one really is harmed by thinking that he can babble in a gibberish he calls a "Heavenly language," is he? Same with all the other signs and wonders that charismatics consider to so important. To the non-charismatic, these are really nothing more than religious fantasies, aren't they? No big deal.
Actually, it is quite a big deal. Charismatics believe those gifts to be from God and eagerly seek them. If they are from God, then evangelicals are in error by not accepting them. If they aren't from God…then where do they originate?
In an article published in a respected theological journal some years back, Thomas R. Edgar, Professor of New Testament Literature and Exegesis at the Capital Bible Seminary, Lanham, Maryland, asked what he called the essential question concerning the sign gifts: "From God or Not From God?" His paper begins:
The sign gift most often encountered in my experience is that of speaking in tongues. This 'gift' appears to have been given to just about every big-time media evangelist and some of them can be seen almost daily on the tube as they babble something incomprehensible just prior to smacking someone on the forehead, causing them to be 'slain in the Spirit." I imagine that it is difficult for folks raised in one of the mainline religions to figure out what is going on when they see such things.
Do you know a charismatic who prays in 'tongues?' Ask him why he believes it necessary to do that. He likely will respond that 'tongues' is his prayer language. If he does, ask him whether he believes the Lord doesn't understand English. He might respond to that by saying that the Spirit gave him utterance and that he was praying for those things that he did not necessarily know that he should be praying for. This seemed to be a common understanding among those folks I knew who prayed in tongues. Shoot! I believed it at one time.
This belief is the result of the loose "exegesis" of a couple of passages in the New Testament, in which Paul says he prays with his mind as well as in the spirit. The first of these passages is in his letter to the church at Rome:
Another passage latched onto by those who covet the modern understanding of speaking in tongues is 1 Corinthians 14:12-17
Do people who speak in tongues also think in tongues or do they think in their native language and then convert their thoughts to tongues? I can only speak to this question from my own experience. I am bilingual and switch between English and Spanish every day of my life. When I am communicating in English, my thoughts are in English and when I am conversing in Spanish, I think in Spanish -- except for technical terms and words for which I do not know the Spanish equivalents. When I was involved in charismatic worship, I do not recall ever 'thinking' at all about what I was doing, I would just open my mouth and babble, all the while convinced that the Holy Spirit was speaking through me and for me.
I don't think that praying, preaching or prophesying in tongues is a translation process. It's basically allowing indistinct sounds to come forth as they pop into one's head. I would say it's a (simple) learned skill that improves to a certain degree as one practices it.
I never knew what was going on in my head when doing tongues. As I recall, my mind either was blank or I was focused on the emotional experience. To my thinking, 'tongues' usually is an manifestation of feelings, intensified during singing or praying, but it also can be turned on during flat, unemotional periods as well. It's nothing like a trance or a catatonic state, as some have suggested. But there's nothing really conscious about it - at least in the experienced tongue-talker.
And, at times it does offer a certain feeling of emotional release - of being able to express oneself when one might otherwise find it difficult or impossible. I used to believe that 'tongues' is relatively harmless, and also that it has little to do with the Spirit or Spiritual gifts. Doing 'tongues' appears to be a sort of right of passage in the Pentecostal/Charismatic/Vineyard world.
Does the Holy Spirit only dispense gifts to charismatics? Of course not, as noted theologian and educator John Walvoord writes:
So, what about 'tongues' and the other 'sign gifts?' Are they what charismatics claim they are: important gifts of the Holy Spirit? I think not. Walvoord, writing on 'tongues,' lists four reasons why they aren't valid today:
Lord, come soon.
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