On Tongues and Stuff

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:

Protestantism is being shaken seriously by the charismatic movement. Throughout Church History there have been small groups claiming to possess the gifts of prophecy and miraculous signs and wonders. But, historically Christians have looked upon these as false sects or extremists.

The dawn of the twentieth century served also as the dawn of the Pentecostal Churches. Due to the general apostasy to liberalism early in this century, Pentecostals received a reluctant and cautious acceptance as evangelicals. Their beliefs in a supernatural God and a divinely inspired Word made them helpful allies of fundamentalism… In the churches large numbers of laymen have sought and received the 'gifts'.…Laymen who 'have gotten it' are delivering exciting reports to their Christian friends, encouraging them to share in 'the blessings'.

Those who have been Christians for years are suddenly claiming to have extraordinary gifts and experiences. Few churches have escaped this startling impact. Even the cautious are puzzled by the multiplied reports of supernatural events. What are church members to think of them?

…Certainly Protestantism is being challenged to answer serious questions. The Church, the world and perhaps your own conscience are asking, 'What about these things? What does the Bible teach us about tongues and healing?' It will not do to drift along in a vague neutrality. Nor will it do to rest in the seemingly pious but evasive pronouncement, 'I do not wish to oppose a genuine work of God.' The question to be answered is, 'Can this dramatic development of our time be from God?"…You dare not ignore the modern claims to miracle working. You may have forced the subject from your mind; but this is not honest. Nor has the issue retreated. Are today's events parallel to those of the Acts? You must review the Scriptures on this pertinent subject to answer these questions…

The full article is available here.

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:

As with any other doctrinal issue it is important to know the truth or the error of the "charismatic" position. This is not a purely doctrinal matter, since in the charismatic movement in all its various forms, such as Pentecostalism, neo-Pentecostalism, "power evangelism," and the "signs and wonders" movement, emphasis is placed on phenomena and subjective experiences. These experiences, which transcend doctrinal considerations and doctrinal boundaries, are the raison d'etre of the movement. They are not merely the daily outworking of one's doctrine as distinct from his doctrinal position, but are usually crisis events that allegedly go beyond normal, traditional Christian experience. These so-called "spiritual" experiences are either from God or not from God. There can be no neutral or partially true position. Either they are biblically true or they are false experiences. If they are biblically false then the issue is much more serious than merely another view of the Christian life, since the charismatic movement involves a spiritual experience that attempts to be in direct contact with supernatural forces. Whether the charismatics are correct can only be determined from the Scriptures and other relevant facts. By the very nature of the issue, the "gifts," such as tongues, healings, and signs and wonders, so prevalent in today's charismatic movement, are either from God or not from God. There can be no middle ground… (Thomas R. Edgar, The Cessation of the Sign Gifts, Bibliotheca Sacra / October-December 1988) The full text is available online here

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:

26 Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. . (Romans 8:26)

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:

One of the important ministries of the Holy Spirit to believers today is His bestowal of spiritual gifts on Christians at the time of their conversion. While Christians may have natural abilities even before they are saved, spiritual gifts seem to be related to the special purpose of God in calling them and saving them; and, in the language of Ephesians 2:10, they are "created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them."

Spiritual gifts are divinely given capacities to perform useful functions for God, especially in the area of spiritual service. Just as the human body has members with different capacities, so individual Christians forming the church as the body of Christ have different capacities. These help them contribute to the welfare of the church as a whole, as well as to bear an effective witness to the world. Spiritual gifts are bestowed by the sovereign choice of God and need to be exercised in the power and under the direction of the Holy Spirit.

Every Christian has at least some spiritual gifts, as according to 1 Corinthians 12:7, "To each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good." After enumerating a partial list of such gifts, the apostle concluded in 1 Corinthians 12:11, "But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills." The analogy of the human body is then developed as an illustration of the various functions of the members of the body of Christ. (John F. Walvoord, The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts, Bibliotheca Sacra -- April-June 1986 ) Full text available online here

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:

Four areas of misunderstanding are commonly associated with the gift of tongues. First, speaking in tongues is not, as is sometimes claimed today, a prominent spiritual gift. It is the least of all spiritual gifts and is the least effective in propagating Christianity.

Second, tongues is not a required sign of salvation, and by its very nature as a gift it was given to only a few Christians, not to all of them. The lack of reference outside the books of Acts and 1 Corinthians is substantial proof that it was not an important feature of experiential Christianity in the first century.

Third, speaking in tongues is not in itself a proof of spirituality. The church that seems to have exercised it the most was the least spiritual. The history of the tongues movement seems to have given rise to emotionalism and excesses that have not been beneficial to the propagation of the gospel.

Fourth, it is not true that speaking in tongues is an inseparable evidence of the baptism of the Spirit. Since it was a genuine gift in the early church, one who spoke in tongues obviously was also baptized into the body of Christ. Yet every Christian is baptized by the Spirit into the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13), but only a few spoke in tongues. So the attempt to make tongues a necessary sign of either spirituality or salvation is an abuse of the doctrine. (Walvoord, Op. cit.)

Lord, come soon.

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