church bell from below

No Other Foundation

Reflections from Fr. Lawrence Farley

As the pastor of a church community where many of our members are converts from Protestant Evangelicalism, I am sometimes asked about my view of the current Pentecostal practice of speaking in tongues.  What follows is a part of my response.

The practice of speaking in tongues (or “glossolalia”) is clearly Biblical.  On the day of Pentecost, the 120 were empowered by God to speak in foreign human languages they had never before learned, speaking in those languages to praise God for His mighty acts (Acts 2:1f).  This was discovered because many people who spoke those languages as their native tongue were at that time in Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost, and thus recognized and understood the languages spoken by the 120.  Those utterances in tongues did not constitute a preaching of the Gospel.  That happened later when Peter spoke to the assembled crowd in his native Aramaic and proclaimed Christ to them.  On the Day of Pentecost, the phenomenon of speaking in tongues was not designed for preaching, but solely for the private praise of God.

The phenomenon is mentioned two other times in the Acts narrative—when the Gentiles heard the Gospel (preached to them by Peter in the house of Cornelius, narrated in Acts 10) and after the disciples of John the Baptist had been baptized by St. Paul (narrated in Acts 19).  On both occasions the phenomenon of speaking in tongues served to prove and authenticate that those who had heard the Gospel (from Peter and Paul respectively) were well and truly converted.

Note: speaking in tongues consisted of the Christian speaking to God in a language he had not learned, but was which nonetheless a real human language spoken and understood somewhere on earth.  (St. Paul’s mention of “the tongues of angels” in 1 Corinthians 13:1 is clearly rhetorical.)  There is no suggestion that the person speaking in tongues understood what he was actually saying.  St. Paul says that while speaking in tongues the mind “remains unfruitful”—i.e. the speaker does not understand what he is saying though his spirit is “edified” by the experience (1 Corinthians 14:14).  St. Paul also insists that not all Christians have this gift or ability to speak in tongues, and when he lists spiritual gifts in order of importance, glossolalia comes at the end of the list (1 Corinthians 12:28-30).

From 1 Corinthians 12-14 it appears that a number of Christians in Corinth could speak in tongues and that they thought it was very important and perhaps the greatest of the spiritual gifts.  They also used to speak in tongues all at the same time.  St. Paul forbids this (1 Corinthians 14:23), and orders them to speak in tongues one at a time and only two or three at a time in sequence.  They were then to wait for someone to manifest the supernatural gift of interpretation, interpreting in the vernacular what was said in tongues.  If there was no such interpretation forthcoming, tongues were to cease for that night. In that case speaker in tongues could still speak in tongues, but must do so silently to God, and not publicly.  What mattered in the Church assembly was public edification (1 Corinthians 14:27-28).

This then was the apostolic practice of glossolalia, at least in places like Corinth.  The question is:  is the modern Pentecostal practice of glossolalia a modern instance of the same phenomenon?  The question is far from clear.

There is no clear historical record of the practice surviving in the Church beyond the first century.  St. Justin Martyr refers to gifts of prophecy being transferred from the Jews to the Christians (Dialogue with Trypho, chapter 82), but does not mention tongues among them—perhaps a significant omission.  The Montanists of the third century claimed to manifest gifts of prophecy but, once again, there is no record of their claim that anyone among them spoke in tongues.  At the very least, the early patristic silence regarding such an obviously supernatural gift reveals that if it existed in those days, it was very rare indeed.  Fathers such as Augustine and Chrysostom took for granted that no one in their time spoke in tongues as once was common in the days of the apostles.

The phenomenon next shows up in the revivalist Protestantism of the American frontier many centuries later.  There it appears as a part of the larger phenomenon of “jerking”—i.e. falling down and twitching uncontrollably.

We quote from the work of the Pentecostal scholar Vinson Synan in his magisterial The Holiness-Pentecostal Tradition.  Synan wrote that at the 1801 Cane County revival in Kentucky, their camp meetings involved “‘godly hysteria’ [which] included such phenomena as falling, jerking, barking like dogs, falling into trances, the ‘holy laugh’…In August 1801 the Cane Ridge revival reached a climax when crowds variously estimated at 10,000 to 25,000 gathered.  In the light of the blazing campfires, hundreds of sinners would fall ‘like dead men in mighty battle’.  Others would get the ‘jerks’ and shake helplessly in every joint…After ‘praying through’ some would crawl on all fours and bark like dogs, thus ‘treeing the devil’.  Others would fall into trances for hours.  In some services entire congregations would be seized by the ‘holy laugh’, an ecstasy that could hardly be controlled”.

In the nearby University of Georgia, “students visited nearby campgrounds and were themselves smitten with the ‘jerks’ or slain in the Spirit”.  One report says that they “took suddenly to jerking with apparently every muscle in their body until it seemed they would be torn to pieces or they shouted and talked in unknown tongues” (Synan, pp. 12-13).  Glossolalia was a part of the larger phenomena of “jerking” and losing bodily control.

We note too that such revivalistic phenomena as speaking in tongues also accompanied early Mormon meetings.  It seems that glossolalia was a feature among the emotionally hysterical frontier religions in America.  This does not, of course, disprove its legitimacy, but it does provide an historical context for considering such questions.

In particular, it brings to the fore the question of why the gift apparently vanished from the praxis of the historical church for about eighteen centuries only to reappear among such fringe groups as Mormonism and those movements given to “jerking”.

The usual Pentecostal answer is that the Church rapidly fell into laxity and apostasy, and so such gifts of glossolalia died out.  That is, the cause for the cessation of the phenomenon is to be found in the increasingly cold hearts of the Christians from the second century onward, and not in the providence of God.  According to such Pentecostal thinking, now that God was restoring His Church to its original purity, such phenomena as jerking and tongues should be expected.

This also assumes, as Evangelicals generally do, that the Bible provides us with the pattern for contemporary worship, so that if tongues were present in first century Corinth they should also be present in twenty-first century Kentucky.  This view of sola Scriptura perhaps explains why some modern groups claim to have “apostles” governing them, just as apostles existed in the first century.

This explanation also fits in with the Protestant view of Church history generally wherein the apostolic Church rapidly began to slide downhill until bottomed out and became the papal church of the Dark Ages.  Protestants of course differ about the dates and the rate of decline.  Many date the definitive nose-dive with Constantine.  Some place it even earlier, in the early second century.  Herbert W. Armstrong, founder of the interesting “Worldwide Church of God”, if memory serves, placed it at around 60 A.D.  But all Protestants, heirs to such polemical works as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, assume that at some point the Church took a nose-dive into apostasy, retreating from the pure teaching of God’s Word to become Babylon, the Church of the Antichrist which languished in error and darkness until the Reformation dawned to dispel its darkness.

One difficulty with such a view of Church history is that it asserts that the Church which was produced martyrs and later produced the Christological definitions accepted as foundational to Protestantism was essentially apostate.  There is no room in a blog post to examine at length the problematics with such an historical view.  Here I will only suggest that it does not constitute a very robust confidence in God’s ability to preserve His Church from error and from the gates of hell (see Matthew 16:18).

We note that there is no trace of such uncontrollable and involuntary behaviour such as jerking, laughing, falling down, or barking like dogs in the New Testament or the history of the early Church.  In fact, given the apostolic insistence upon order (see 1 Corinthians 14:33, 40) and upon self-control (Greek σωφρονισμός/ sophronismos; see 2 Timothy 1:7), it is unlikely that such behaviour would have gained apostolic approval.  If Paul refused to allow many to speak in tongues at the same time because it would lead outsiders to conclude that they were mad, what would his reaction have been to jerking and barking?  Such behaviour in fact suggests another and darker source.

Ultimately the legitimacy of the modern Pentecostal insistence that its practice of glossolalia is a revival of that of the apostolic Church must stand or fall by hard evidence.  On the Day of Pentecost the supernatural nature of the gift was attested to by the fact that some listeners could identify the languages as those spoken by men in other countries.  Where, we ask, is similar modern evidence and corroboration?  Attempts to evade the challenge by asserting that the apparently meaningless babble, though not a human language, is the language of the angels do not convince.  Surely some of the words spoken can be understood by someone—especially in this modern age of internet communication?

Anecdotal evidence is not real evidence, and anyway, that cuts both ways.  One hears anecdotal evidence of glossolalia being sometimes recognized as real languages uttering blasphemy.  That is why one should prescind from all such merely anecdotal stories and concentrate on real evidence.  In the apparent absence of such proof, the ball remains in the Pentecostal court.

For these reasons, I remain dubious about the supernatural origin and legitimacy of modern Pentecostalist glossolalia.  The jury, of course, remains out.  But I am not greatly disturbed by the lack of glossolalia in the Orthodox Church.  And as St. James reminds us (James 3:6f), we have more pressing problems with tongues.

Fr. Lawrence Farley

About Fr. Lawrence Farley

Fr. Lawrence serves as pastor of St. Herman's Orthodox Church in Langley, BC. He is also author of the Orthodox Bible Companion Series along with a number of other publications.