How the tongues of Pentecost has passed down through twenty-centuries of christian living.
People will always be inspired by the pentecostal narrative described in the Book of Acts and the mysterious tongues found later on in the New Testament epistle called I Corinthians. Those accounts have propelled many ardent students of the Bible and the christian faith to reproduce this phenomenon in their lives. The passion for a new Pentecost has cycled for twenty-one-centuries. How communities and persons perceived, practised and passed-on the right throughout these centuries is the goal of this study.
The christian rite of speaking in tongues has been controversial, especially over the last one-hundred years and is part of a growing movement throughout the world. Many have tried to explain this rite through experiential and psychological terms, but few have attempted an extensive study through historical literature.
This summary fills in the blanks of the historical record that have, up until now, been neglected.
This work is broken up into a three part series. Part I is tracing the evolution of Pentecost throughout the centuries. Part II covers how the purposed neglect of the historical christian accounts has significantly altered the modern definition. Part III is an in-depth look into the Corinthian tongues saga.
Table of Contents
- What is speaking in tongues today?
- The absence of historical literature in the modern tongues debate
- The start and later acceleration of the Gift of Tongues Project
- Glôssa better translated as language rather than tongue
- Pentecostal Tongues
- First to third-centuries
- The golden age of the christian doctrine of tongues: the fourth-century
- The connection between Babel and Pentecost
- Hebrew as the first language of mankind and of Pentecost
- Pentecost as a temporary phenomenon
- Augustine on tongues transforming into a corporate identity
- Gregory of Nyssa and the one voice many sounds theory
- Gregory Nazianzus on the miracle of speech vs. the miracle of hearing
- The expansion of the christian doctrine of tongues from the tenth to eighteenth-centuries
- Later Medieval accounts of speaking in tongues
- The legend of Francis Xavier speaking in tongues
- Conyers Middleton on how miracles were no longer active in the church
- The Camisards speaking in tongues as a sign of divine judgement
- Early Protestant Commentaries on speaking in tongues
- A history of unknown tongues in the English Bible
- What about women speaking in tongues?
- The shift from miraculously speaking or hearing a foreign language to glossolalia
- The Irvingites and the renewal of tongues
- Glossolalia entrenched as the foremost definition
- The Holiness Movement’s definition of speaking in tongues
- The birth of the pentecostal church and speaking in tongues
- Why the pentecostal definition of tongues changed in the early 1900s
This summary is the result of the Gift of Tongues Project which is designed for the advanced researcher. The Gift of Tongues Project has attempted to identify, collate and digitize the source texts in the original Greek, Latin, with some Syriac, French and a sprinkling of a few other languages. English translations have been provided with almost every text, along with my own analysis. The Gift of Tongues Project differentiates itself from others because the source texts available on the website allow for you to research and draw your own conclusions. All the legwork is already done. All one has to do now is read instead of the time consuming and never ending task of finding the source files. Better yet, the majority is digitally searchable.
Speaking in tongues owes its heritage to a book of the Bible called the Book of Acts. This book was written by a first-century christian follower and a physician named Luke. He only wrote 206 words(1)According to the NIV English Bible to describe the formative event called Pentecost. Pentecost established the foundations for Messianic Judaism and its universal message. This event was described as the Holy Spirit arriving and causing the apostles and 120 others to instantly preach in diverse foreign languages that they did not previously study or know. This explanation is the standard one to help the reader to get started on the subject. The summary will proceed to demonstrate there are many alternative viewpoints.
Perhaps one could argue 800 words when you throw in the defense of the experience by Peter in Acts chapter 2 and the three other instances throughout the Book of Acts. Perhaps Paul could be credited with writing about Pentecost if his coverage in his first letter to the Corinthians contains a parallel, though Part III will show these are not connected. Why all the fuss over 206 words? If it was so important, why didn’t Luke go into much greater detail? This would have spared the modern day reader such a confusion. The clarification is going to take over 10,000 words and the parsing through a magnitude of documents found throughout the centuries to explain those few written words two thousand years ago.
Luke is vague on the actual mechanics and certainly short on details. This leaves his Pentecost and subsequent tongues narratives with many unanswered questions; did every inspired person speak in a single different language and together they were speaking the languages of all the nations? Was it one sound emanating and changed during transmission so that the hearers heard their own language? If it was a miracle of hearing, what was that sound? Were the people conscious of what they were saying or were they completely overtaken by a divine power and had no comprehension about what they were speaking? Was it a heavenly, non-human or prayer language? Did this miracle continue after the first-century? How did this tongues-event get passed down to the next generation? Did it become part of the church liturgy?
The various source manuscripts on the Book of Acts available today do not have any variance that brings about new clues. This necessitates digging deeper into other records.
The Gift of Tongues Project and this summary believe that Pentecostals and Charismatics have brought positive contributions to the greater society, and have made the world a better place. The purpose of this examination is not to attack or denigrate their character. The goal is simply to find the truth of the matter. Nothing more.
As a person who attends a charismatic church and involved in these type of communities for decades, I wanted the results to parallel their experiences. Unfortunately, the findings did not allow for this. Everyone who approaches the 2000 year narrative on speaking in tongues has to allow history to speak for itself – not to rewrite history to justify contemporary experience.
In comparison to the detailed articles posted within the Gift of Tongues Project, few footnotes will be given here, and some ancient authors and minor movements will be ignored. One can find substantiation at the Gift of Tongues Project webpage. Links to the Gift of Tongues Project pages will be highlighted throughout. The results are subject to change as new information comes forward.
This work traces the perception of tongues speaking through the centuries. Perception is not necessarily reality. On many occasions, the work will reference the perception with no remarks about the integrity of the event or person. This is up to the reader to decide.
What is speaking in tongues today?
Speaking in tongues is an inherent part of the present pentecostal and charismatic identities. This practice is one of the key features that distinguish them apart from other christian movements.
How popular is speaking in tongues? A Pew Forum study has concluded one-quarter of all Christians are Renewalist Christians – a term given for those who emphasize miracles, supernatural occurrences, and oftentimes speaking in tongues within the Christian’s everyday life. Really, it is an umbrella term for Pentecostals, Charismatics, and those who remain in mainstream denominations influenced by Pentecostals and Charismatics. There are an estimated 584 million Renewalists in the world. Perhaps even more. (2)http://www.pewforum.org/2011/12/19/global-christianity-movements-and-denominations/ This does not mean all those defined as Renewalists emphasize this doctrine and practice it. The same Pew study further demonstrates that no more than 53% of Renewalists speak in tongues in any country they examined. In most instances, it is less.(3)Spirit and Power: A 10-Country Survey of Pentecostals. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. October 2006. Pg. 16 My conservative estimate tallies about 150 million people consistently practising the christian rite of speaking in tongues throughout the world.
The Renewalist faith, with its emphasis on holiness, mysticism, independence, and easy adaptability to different cultures, is the fastest growing segment of Christianity in the world. Their christian mystic framework along with its distinctive theology of speaking in tongues makes a historical study imperative.
What do Renewalists presently believe speaking in tongues to be? There is a general agreement that speaking in tongues is a supernatural phenomenon — one that cannot be measured or defined by science. Some Renewalists call it a heavenly language that only the individual, God, and a special interpreter understands. Others say it is a private prayer language or a form of exalted worship. There a those who just shrug their shoulders and say it is simply a God thing that defies explanation. A handful may say speaking in tongues is the spontaneous ability to speak a foreign language. Most Renewalists believe that speaking in tongues is a deliberate outcome of a controlled mind – in other words, they are not crazies or kooks whose erratic behavior is in an uncontrolled hallucinatory state. They are regular people like the helpful neighbor across the street, the taxi driver, teacher, dentist, nurse, plumber, politician, lawyer or construction worker. Renewalists are found in all walks of life.
A good example of a Renewalist speaking in tongues is found in this video clip of the late Kenneth Hagin. He was a highly respected and influential pentecostal preacher in the mid-1900s.
Hagin appears as an elder statesman. He has a father like persona that the people in the audience are attracted to and appreciate. The young lady who is a distance behind Hagin in the video approves his message with an accepting smile. About four minutes into the video, he utters, “Memen hatsu toro menge kanga deging bango ondu konste fre peffe hemo outse,” and then begins to laugh. The laughter implies an overabundance of a spiritual force that overwhelms the senses, forcing the speaker into an uncontrolled fit. The audience cheered Hagin for more.
This is a typical example, though speaking in tongues is not always done in a Sunday service. It is practised more frequently in weekday services, prayer sessions, pastoral settings, and special events.
A more contemporary example is Reinhard Bonnke. Bonnke is a German-born evangelist whose work in Africa, especially Nigeria has earned him the rank of one the top preachers of all time in respect to audience reach. The example here is his public speaking in tongues at a large indoor gathering somewhere in Asia. His Christ for the Nations website claims over 55 million documented decisions for Christ under his ministry.
Bonnke’s demonstration is not as obvious as Hagin’s. He mixes regular language and charismatic, excitable speech between short outbursts of tongues-speech. The audience is energized but not surprised by this presentation. This is quite common in renewalist circles.
The absence of historical literature in the modern tongues debate.
After an exhaustive approach of locating, digitizing, translating and analyzing two-thousand years worth of texts, the results of the Gift of Tongues Project has found one of the main challenges to solving this debate is overcoming the embedded ignorance of history.
This finding was not anticipated at the start. The Project assumed at the beginning there was little christian literature throughout the centuries to build a case. Rather, there is a substantial corpus of ancient christian literature on the subject. The discovery about the abundance on the subject has created two rival stories. The first allows the building of a compelling narrative on the doctrine of tongues throughout the centuries. The second is the narrative about the ignorance of christian literature over the last two centuries and how it has contributed to the modern definition. Both play an important story in the modern definition and I am not sure which one is more important. They share a complex interplay that is difficult to untangle. The solution decided about these two streams of thought is to give them separate articles, which has been done. This article focuses on tracing the practice of Pentecost through the centuries.
The start and later acceleration of the Gift of Tongues Project.
The Project was started in the 1980s, but little was done until the early 2000s. The initial goal was to parse through the collection of church writings found in the massive Migne Patrologia Graeca series and its Latin counterpart, Migne Patrologia Latina. There is no digital version of MPG available, so a page-by-page visual scan was required. This was a very time-consuming process – especially with over 135 volumes averaging 1200 pages each. This was a long process.
Thankfully the internet age came along. Museums and other institutions have posted many manuscripts online. Better manuscripts are now available than the ones found in MPG. The ability to do digital searches with Google’s search engine reveals even more texts. The Gift of Tongues Project is one of the direct benefactors of the digitization of libraries, museums, and institutions.
Glôssa better translated as language rather than tongue
Glôssa (γλῶσσα) is the pivotal key word for the doctrine of tongues in the original Greek text. This word is the central theme found in Paul’s address to the Corinthians and Luke’s description of the first Pentecost. This noun is further used by later Greek ecclesiasts and authors on the subject.
The challenge is how a contemporary researcher is to translate this word without a modern bias.
When the Greek keyword appears, or if it is found in a Latin text, which is lingua, my mind always wants to automatically translate it as tongue.
The word tongues, which is seldom used in our modern language to specifically mean a modern, regular or contemporary language, is usually understood to be something out-of-this-world, unusual or even weird. Sometimes it is used a synonym to language, but rarely in contemporary literature is it a predominant descriptor.
As I have worked over both Greek and Latin Patristic texts, from the likes of Greek writers such as Irenaeus, Origen, Gregory Nazianzus, Cyril of Alexandria, Epiphanius, John of Damascus etc., to the Latin writers of Augustine, the Venerable Bede, Thomas Aquinas, the Ambrosiaster authors, and many more, they do not contain references to the gift being a strange, mystical or heavenly language that needs a new definition. It simply means a human language to them. To advance such a thought that it was different from a human language, they would have had to take extra steps to make it distinct. They never did.
Secondly, one must keep in mind that the noun language was the dominant English word used to translate glôssa/γλῶσσα before the introduction of the Geneva Bible in 1534.
See The Unknown Tongues in the English Bible for more information.
It would not be fair to translate the church fathers on the subject using tongues instead of languages. It significantly changes the nuance of the text when it is done.
One could argue that I am forcing my own interpretation on the text. However, it is believed that language is more accurate to what the writers meant.
This changes things considerably, instead of Acts 2:4 reading as other tongues the proper reading is other languages. The other tongues creates ambiguities that never existed in the Greek. Other languages immediately starts to clarify a difficult subject.
The large corpus of material studied and compared demonstrate that the christian doctrine of tongues was related to human languages for almost 1800 years. The mechanics of how this happened differed, but was the common theme. There were no references to angelic speech, prayer language, glossolalia, or ecstasy until the nineteenth-century.
How it shifted from a concept of foreign languages to that of glossolalia is a major part of the story.
The Pentecost event as described by the writer Luke in the first part of the Book of Acts has far more coverage than Paul’s address to speaking in tongues throughout ecclesiastical literature. The ancient christian authors were split on the symbolism of Pentecost. Pentecost was either understood as a symbol of the Gospel becoming a universal message beyond the bounds of the Jewish community or a theological symbol for the Jewish nation to repent.
First to third-centuries
The earlier church writers who lived between the first and third centuries, did mention the christian doctrine of tongues such as Irenaeous, who stated it was speaking in a foreign language. There was also Tertullian who recognized the continued rite in his church but fails to explain anything more than this. Neither of these writers contain sufficient coverage in their text to make a strong case for anything other than its existence.
The debate inevitably leads to Origen – one of the most controversial figures on speaking in tongues. Modern theologians, commentators, and writers all over the broad spectrum of christian studies believe Origen supports their perspective. This has created an Origen full of contradictions. Origen was a third-century theologian that can be viewed as either one of the greatest early christian writers ever because of combining an active and humble faith with a deep intellectual inquiry into matters of faith. On the other hand, he was mistakenly labeled a heretic after his death for his limited view of the Trinity. He lived at a time the Trinity doctrine was in its infancy and wasn’t fully developed. His views didn’t correlate with the later formulation and he was posthumously condemned for this. After careful investigation about his coverage on speaking in tongues, Origen hardly commented on it. If one is to draw a conclusion with the limited coverage by him is this: he didn’t think there was anyone pious enough during his time for this task, and if they were, it would be for cross-cultural preaching.
The golden age of the christian doctrine of tongues: the fourth-century
Due to the devastating effects of the persecutions by the Roman emperor Diocletian in the third-century, there is hardly any christian literature to choose from the first to third-centuries. This dramatically changes in the fourth-century when Christianity becomes a recognized religion, and later the foremost one within the Roman Empire. This is where things get really interesting.
The fourth-century began to unfold greater details on speaking in tongues. Cyril of Jerusalem wrote that Peter and Andrew spoke miraculously in Persian or Median at Pentecost and the other Apostles were imbued with the knowledge of all languages. The founder of the Egyptian Cenobite movement, Pachomius, a native Coptic speaker, was miraculously granted the ability to speak in Latin.
The doctrine of tongues divided into five streams in the fourth-century. The first interpretation was the speaking in Hebrew and the audience heard in their own language. The second was Pentecost as a temporary phenomenon. The third was the one voice many sounds theory formulated by Gregory of Nyssa. Fourth, the transition of a personal to a corporate practice represented by Augustine, and last of all the tongues paradox proposed by Gregory Nazianzus. Some may reckon that two more belong here – the cessation of miracles and the Montanists. Both Cessationism and Montanism are perceptions developed during the eighteenth-century. These theories will unfold further down in the summary chronology.
Before winding down the path of these five options, it is necessary to take a quick look at the confusion of tongues found in the Book of Genesis. This story has an important relationship with the discussions to follow.
The connection between Babel and Pentecost
One would assume that the reversal of Babel would be one of the early streams of thinking about Pentecost. This proposition is surprisingly not the case. The idea that the ancient christian writers would connect the confusion of languages symbolized by the city Babel in the book of Genesis with Pentecost because both are narratives revolving around languages seems logical. The book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, has a brief narrative that described how mankind originally had one language. This oneness changed with their determination to build a tower to reach into the heavens which was stopped by the introduction of a plurality of languages. Although the text is minimal and lacking details, the text suggests some form of arrogance and self-determination apart from God. The tower also represented mankind’s ability to collectively do great evil. In response, God chose to divide the one language into many languages and scatter mankind throughout the earth in order to curb this amassing of power. The overall traditional record does not associate Pentecost as a reversal of Babel.
The connection between God giving the commandments to Moses on Mt. Sinai would appear to be the better correlation. The old covenant, that is the law of the ancient Israelites, was spoken by God and heard by Moses, then later given in a written form. The Talmud states that God spoke this to Moses in 72 languages – a number understood to symbolically mean in all the languages of the world. The new covenant, the law of grace, was given by the apostles in fiery tongues on the Mount of Olives at Pentecost – these apostles and 120 more miraculously spoke in a whole host of languages. The Jewish community today annually celebrates the giving of the law of Moses and call this day Shevuot which calculates the same days after Passover as Pentecost does. However, this holiday is not an ancient one and does not trace back to the first-century when the first Pentecost occurred. Luke does not mention a direct connection to Shevuot and neither do any of the ancient christian writers.
The Babel allusion prevailed discreetly in later dialogues, especially two concepts. The first one related to which language was the first language of mankind, and how that fit into the Pentecost narrative. The second relating to the one voice spoken many languages heard theory.
Hebrew as the first language of mankind and of Pentecost
There is a substantial corpus about Hebrew being the first language of mankind within ancient christian literature and a tiny allusion to Pentecost being the speaking of Hebrew sounds while the audience heard in their own language. This position about Pentecost does not clearly flow throughout the seas of christian thought, only in the shadows.
The idea of Hebrew as the first language of mankind starts with the early Christians such as first-century Clement, Bishop of Rome, fourth-century Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, for at least part of his life (He changed his position later). The concept of Hebrew being the original language of mankind was repudiated by fourth-century Gregory of Nyssa and then endorsed again by the eighth-century historian and theologian, the Venerable Bede. In the tenth-century Oecumenius, Bishop of Trikka believed that Hebrew was a divine language, because when the Lord spoke to Paul on the road to Damascus, it was in Hebrew.
The eleventh-century philosopher-theologian, Michael Psellos, referred to an ideology that placed Hebrew as the first common language. He alluded that Pentecost could have been the speakers vocalizing in Hebrew while the audience heard it in their own language. This was a reflection of a possibility in his mind, not a position he endorsed. Thomas Aquinas too mentioned this explanation, but quickly moved onto better, more rational theories.
The speaking of Hebrew sounds and the audience hearing in their own language was a small theory that never gained widespread attention. It was played about, but never became a standard doctrine with a vibrant local or international appeal.
See Hebrew and the First Language of Mankind for more information.
Pentecost as a temporary phenomenon
A writing loosely attributed to the fifth-century Pope of Alexandria, Egypt, Cyril of Alexandria, described Pentecost as the “changing of tongues.” Pentecost was the use of foreign languages at Pentecost as a sign for the Jews. This event was a miraculous endowment and those that received this blessing in @31 AD continued to have this power throughout their lives, but it did not persist after their generation.
Cyril represented the city of Alexandria at the height of its influence and power throughout Christendom. His biography concludes that he was deposed because of quarrelsomeness and violence. There are unsubstantiated claims that he was responsible for the death of the revered mathematician, astronomer, philosopher, and scholar Hypatia. Although his history comes to a sad demise, his earlier stature and his near-universal influence requires careful attention on the subject of Pentecost. This may have been an older tradition passed down and reinforced by him, or his own opinion on the christian communities under his influence. It is hard to tell because there is little information about this theory before or after his time.
However, the theory can be traced to the thirteenth-century with no references inbetween. The celebrated scholastic writer and mystic, Thomas Aquinas, weighed in on the temporary question. Whenever a theological subject has been addressed by Aquinas, it is worth the time to stop and consider. There is no person in christian history that had assembled such a broad array of the various christian traditions, writers, texts, and Scripture into a systematic form of thought. Not only was Aquinas systematic, but also a mystic. The combination of these qualities gives him a high score in covering the doctrine of tongues.
He held a similar position on Pentecost to that of Cyril of Alexandria, though he does not mention him by name. He believed the apostles were equipped with the gift of tongues to bring all people back into unity. It was only a temporary activity that later generations would not need. Later leaders would have access to interpreters which the first generation did not.
Aquinas’ argument is a good and logical one, but the christian history of tongues does not align with this conclusion. After Aquinas’ time, there are numerous perceived cases of the miraculous endowments that contradict such a sentiment. Neither can Cyril’s thought be traced down through the centuries to numerous writers and be claimed as a universal or near-universal teaching.
The temporary idea of Pentecost was restricted to this miracle alone. There is no implied idea that this temporality extended to miracles of healing, exorcisms, or other divine interventions.
Augustine on tongues transforming into a corporate identity
The christian rite of speaking in tongues transferring from a personal to a corporate expression was espoused by Augustine Bishop of Hippo. This was created over his lengthy and difficult battle with the dominant tongues-speaking Donatist movement.
The Donatists were a northern African christian group; broken off from the official Catholic Church over reasons relating to the persecutions against Christians by edict of emperor Diocletian in the third-century. After the persecutions abated, a controversy erupted in the region over how to handle church leaders who assisted with the secular authorities in the persecutions. This became a source of contention and it conflagrated into questions of church leadership, faith, piety, discipline, and politics. One of the outcomes was a separate church movement called the Donatists. At the height of their popularity, the Donatists statistically outnumbered the traditional Catholic representatives in the North Africa region. At the height, it had over 400 bishops.
The Catholic Church was in a contest against the Donatist claims of being the true church. One of the assertions the Donatist’s provided for their superior claim was their ability to speak in tongues. This forced Augustine to take the Donatists and their tongues doctrine seriously and build a vigorous offense against them.
Augustine’s polemic against the Donatists has generated more data on the christian doctrine of tongues than any other ancient writer and gives a good lock into perceptions of this rite in the fourth-century.
Augustine attacked the Donatist claim of being the true church in a number of ways.
One was through mocking, asking when they laid hands on infants whether they spoke in languages or not.
Or he simply stated that the gift had passed. The cessation statement was one of many volleys that he made.
This cessation needs further clarification. Augustine meant that the individual endowment of miraculously speaking in foreign languages had ceased from functioning. The corporate expression still remained. It cannot be applied to mean the cessation of miracles, healings, or other divine interventions. Augustine was exclusively referring to the individual speaking in tongues. Nothing more.
In other words, the individual expression of speaking in tongues changed into a corporate one – the church took over the function of speaking in every language to all the nations.
He described Pentecost as each man speaking in every language.
This transformation from individual to corporate identity was referenced by Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth-century in his work, Summa Theologica, but built little strength around this theme. He left it as is in one sentence.
There is no question that the semantic range of this experience fell inside the use of foreign languages. He used the term linguis omnium gentium “in the languages of all the nations” on at least 23 occasions, and linguis omnium, speaking “in all languages”. Neither does Augustine quote or refer to the Montanist movement in his works.
The Bishop repeatedly answers the question “If I have received the holy Spirit, why am I not speaking in tongues?” Each time he has a slightly different read. What did he say? “this was a sign that has been satisfied” — the individual expression has been satisfied. He then offers a more theological slant in his Enarratio In Psalmum, “Why then does the holy Spirit not appear now in all languages? On the contrary, He does appear in all the languages. For at that time the Church was not yet spread out through the circle of lands, that the organs of Christ were speaking in all the nations. Then it was filled-up into one, with respect to which it was being proclaimed in every one of them. Now the entire body of Christ is speaking in all the languages.”(4)Augustine. Enarratio in Psalmum. CXLVII:19 (147:19)
One has to be very cautious with Augustine on this topic. He was pitting the Catholic Church as the true one because of its universality and inferring that the Donatists were not so ordained because of their regionalism. His answers were polemic than theological in nature.
Augustine’s polemical diatribes against the tongues-speaking Donatists never became a universal doctrine. The individual to the corporate idea has indirect allusions in John Chrysostom and Cyril of Alexandria’s works, but nothing concrete. The concept faded out within a generation and references to him on the subject by later writers is not very frequent.
See Augustine on the Tongues of Pentecost: Intro for more information.
Gregory of Nyssa and the one voice many sounds theory
Gregory of Nyssa represents the beginning of the evolution of the christian doctrine of tongues that has echoes even today.
Gregory of Nyssa was a fourth-century Bishop of Nyssa – a small town in the historic region of Cappadocia. In today’s geographical terms, central Turkey. The closest major city of influence to Nyssa was Constantinople – which at the time was one of the most influential centers of the world.
This church father, along with Gregory Nazianzus and Basil the Great were named together as the Cappadocians. Their influence set the groundwork for christian thought in the Eastern Roman Empire. Gregory of Nyssa was an articulate and a deep thinker. He not only drew from christian sources but built his writings around a Greek philosophical framework.
Gregory sees parallels between Babel and Pentecost on the nature of language but produces different outcomes. In the Pentecost story, he explained it as one sound dividing into languages during transmission that the recipients understood.
Gregory of Nyssa’s homily on Pentecost is a happy one which began with his reference to Psalm 94:1, Come, let us exalt the Lord and continues throughout with this joyful spirit. In reference to speaking in tongues, he wrote of the divine indwelling in the singular and the output of a single sound multiplying into languages during transmission. This emphasis on the singularity may be traced to the influence of Plotinus — one of the most revered and influential philosophers of the third-century. Plotinus was not a Christian, but a Greek/Roman/Egyptian philosopher who greatly expanded upon the works of Aristotle and Plato. He emphasized that the one supreme being had no “no division, multiplicity or distinction.” Nyssa strictly adhered to a singularity of expression by God when relating to language. The multiplying of languages happened after the sound was emitted and therefore conforms to this philosophical model. However, Nyssa never mentions Plotinus by name or credits his movement in the writings examined so far, so it is hard to make a direct connection. There is an influence here.
What was the sound that the people imbued with the Holy Spirit were speaking before it multiplied during transmission? Nyssa is not clear. It is not a heavenly or divine language because he believed mankind would be too limited in any capacity to produce such a mode of divine communication. Neither would he understand it to be Hebrew. Maybe it was the first language mankind spoke before Babel, but this is doubtful. Perhaps the people were speaking their own language and the miracle occurred in transmission. I think speaking in their own language is the likeliest possibility. Regardless, Gregory of Nyssa was not clear in this part of his doctrine.
This theory did not solely rest with Gregory of Nyssa. He may be the first to clearly document this position, but the idea was older. There are remnants of this thought in Origen’s writing (Against Celsus 8:37) – though it is only one unclear but sort of relevant sentence and hard to build a case over
Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, pokes at this too, but is unclear. He mentions on many occasions “one man was speaking in every language” or similar.(5)Sermo CLXXV:3 (175:3) What does this mean? How can one man speak simultaneously in all the languages at the same time? Even if a person sequentially went through 72 languages speaking one short sentence, it would take over ten minutes and wouldn’t be considered a miracle – only a simple mnemonic recitation. Augustine didn’t make any attempt to clarify this statement. He was playing with the one voice many sounds theory in a polemical sense and altered the nuance. The idea shifted to the connection between oneness and unity, which in Latin, are similar in spelling. He wanted to emphasize that those who spoke in tongues do it for the sake of unity. He was arguing anyone who promoted speaking in tongues as a device to divide the church is a fleshly and evil endeavor.
The concept takes us to the fifth-century where Basil of Seleucia, a bishop of Seleucia in a region historically named Isauria – today a south central Turkish coastal town known as Silifke. Basil of Seleucia followed the literary trail of John Chrysostom and copied many of his traits, but in the case of Pentecost, he adds the one voice many sounds description.
See An analysis of Gregory of Nyssa on Speaking in Tongues for more information.
Gregory Nazianzus on the miracle of speech vs. the miracle of hearing
Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus were acquaintances in real life, perhaps more so because of Gregory of Nyssa’s older brother, Basil the Great. Gregory Nazianzus and Basil the Great had a personal and professional relationship that greatly impacted the church in their dealings with Arianism and the development of the Trinity doctrine. Unfortunately, a fallout happened between Gregory Nazianzus and Basil the Great that never was repaired.(6)Frienship in Late Antiquity: The Case of Gregory Nazianzen and Basil the Great
Gregory Nazianzus recognized the theory of a one sound emanating and multiplying during transmission into real languages. He seriously looked at this solution and compared against the miracle of speaking in foreign languages. He found the one sound theory lacking and believed the miracle of speech was the proper interpretation. Perhaps this is a personal objection to Nyssa or a professional one based on research. There are no writings between Nyssa or Nazianzus that allude to a contested difference between them on the subject. Nyssa’s contribution to the christian doctrine of tongues has long been forgotten in the annals of history, but Nazianzus has survived. On the other hand, the theory itself posited by Nyssa never did vanish. These two positions by Nyssa and Nazianzus set the stage for an ongoing debate for almost two millennia.
Who is Gregory Nazianzus? Most people have not heard of him before but his contributions to the christian faith are many. This fourth-century Bishop of Constantinople’s mastery of the Greek language and culture is exquisite and hard to translate into English. Much of the wonder and power of his writing is so deeply connected with these two elements it feels like an injustice to translate. His works come across as dry and esoteric in an English translation whereas in the Greek he is a well-spring of deep thought. Many church leaders during his period preached and then published the homily. Nazianzus likely wrote first and preached later. His works do not come across as great sermons, but great works of writing. All these factors have contributed to him being relatively obscure in the annals of christian history – even though in the fourth-century he was on the same level of prestige as Augustine or John Chrysostom.
The description of Pentecost as either a miracle of speaking or hearing became the focal point of Gregory Nazianzus in the fourth-century when he wrote in one of his Orations that these both were potential possibilities, though he clearly believed Pentecost as a miracle of speech. Unfortunately, a Latin translator, Tyrannius Rufinus, misunderstood some finer points of Greek grammar when translating and removed Gregory’s preference of it being a miracle of speech and left both as equal possibilities. The majority of Western church leaders were unfamiliar with Greek and relied on Tyrannius’ Latin text. Tyrannius’ mistake created a thousand-year debate of the miracle being one of either speaking or hearing.
See Gregory Nazianzus on the doctrine of tongues intro for more information
The speech versus hearing argument was brought up again the seventh-century by the Venerable Bede, who wrote two commentaries on Acts. The Venerable Bede lived in the kingdom of the Northumbrians (Northern England. South-East Scotland). He was brilliant in so many areas. Astronomy, mathematics, poetry, music and a literature were some of his many passions. His writing is very engaging and fluid – a good read. His Ecclesiastical History of the English People makes him the earliest authority of English history.
His first commentary delved deeply in the debate, and studying only the Latin texts, concluded it was a miracle of hearing. In his second commentary, he was not so convincing. He changed his mind, alluding Pentecost was a miracle of speech and conjectures it could have been both a miracle of speaking and hearing. The outcome didn’t really matter to him. Perhaps he took this conclusion to avoid saying he was initially wrong.
Another noteworthy discussion about the Nazianzus paradox was presented by Michael Psellos in the eleventh-century. His own biography is not one of the religious cloth, but civic politics. His highest position was that of Secretary of State in the highly influential Byzantine City of Constantinople. He was a Christian who had a love-hate relationship with the church. One of the lower moments in that relationship was his choosing Plato over Aristotle. The Church tolerated the non-christian writings of Aristotle, but frowned on Plato. Psellos studied theology but loved philosophy, and this was a continued source of contention.
It is surprising that his complex weave of Greek philosophy and christian faith in a very conservative christian environment did not get him into more serious trouble than he encountered. He was way ahead of his time. His approach to faith, Scripture, and intellect took western society five hundred or so more years to catch-up.
Michael Psellos was caught between two very distinct periods. He lived in the eleventh-century and still was connected to the ancient traditions of the church, but also at the beginning shift of intellectual and scholarly thought that modern readers come to rely on. He bridged both worlds. This is why his work is so important.
He thought highly of his opinions and liked to show-off his intellectual genius. After reading his text, it is not clear whether he was trying to solve the riddle of Nazianzus’ miracle of hearing or speech, or it was an opportunity to show his intellectual mastery. Regardless of his motives, he leaves us with a rich wealth of historic literature on speaking in tongues.
What did Psellos write that was so important? Two things. He first clears up the Nazianzus paradox stating that it was a miracle of speaking. Secondly, he particularly clarifies the similarities and differences between the ancient Greek prophetesses going into a frenzy and spontaneously speaking in foreign languages they did not know beforehand, and with the disciples of Christ who also spontaneously spoke in foreign languages.
Psellos had a detailed knowledge of the pagan Greek prophets and explains that the ancient female prophets of Phoebe would go in a form of frenzy and speak in foreign languages. This is a very early and important contribution to the modern tongues debate because there is a serious scholarly connection given to the ancient Greek prophets going into ecstasy and producing ecstatic speech with that of Pentecost. The christian miracle is named a synergism of the ancient Greek practice of ecstatic speech in order to make the christian faith a universal one.
Psellos may be the oldest commentator on the subject and must be given significant weight. His knowledge of ancient Greek philosophy and religion is unparalleled even by modern standards. It is also seven hundred years older than most works that address the relationship between the christian event and the pagan Greek rite.
He described the Pentecostal speakers spoke with total comprehension and detailed how it exactly worked. The thought process remained untouched but when attempting to speak, their lips were divinely inspired. The speaker could change the language at any given moment, depending on what language group the surrounding audience belonged to. He thought this action a miracle of speech, and sided with Nazianzus.
The total control of one’s mind while under divine influence was what differentiated the christian event from the pagan one. The Greek prophetesses, as he went on to describe, did not have any control over what they were saying. There was a complete cognitive disassociation between their mind and their speech while the Apostles had complete mastery over theirs.
Last of all Psellos introduces a concept of tongues-speaking practised in the Hellenic world that has to do with the use of plants to arrive in a state of divine ecstasy. He also quickly described pharmacology too in this context, but it seems the text infers it was used in the art of healing. His writing is somewhat unclear at this point, but there was a relationship between the two. Perhaps tongues speaking practised by the ancient Greeks was part of the ancient rite of healing. It is hard to be definitive with this because his writing style here is so obscure. He warns to stay away from the use of exotic things that assist in going into a state of divine ecstasy.
Thomas Aquinas tried to conclude the tongues as speech or hearing debate. Aquinas proceeded to use his argument and objection method for examining the Nazianzus paradox. In the end, he clearly stated it was a miracle of speech. His coverage was well done. However, this attempt was not successful in quelling the controversy.
Another aspect that Aquinas introduced was the relationship between the office of tongues and prophecy. The topic has lurked as early as the fourth-century but never in the forefront. Aquinas put the topic as a priority. Given that he was a mystic and lived in the world that heavily emphasized the supernatural, this comes as no surprise. He believed that the gift of tongues was simply a systematic procedure of speaking and translating one language into another. The process required no critical thinking, spiritual illumination, or comprehension of the overall narrative. He believed the agency of prophecy possessed the means for translating and interpreting but added another important asset – critical thinking. One must be cognisant of the fact that his idea of critical thinking is slightly different from ours. He includes spiritual illumination along with intellectual acuity as a formula for critical thinking. The prophetic person had the ability to understand the meaning behind the speech and how it applied to one’s daily life. Therefore, he felt prophecy was a much better and superior office than simply speaking and translating.
The expansion of the christian doctrine of tongues from the tenth to eighteenth-centuries
The tenth to sixteenth-centuries could be held as the golden age of tongues speaking in the Catholic Church, and arguably the biggest era for the christian doctrine of tongues. The next two-hundred years that reached into the eighteenth-century was the civil war that raged between protestants and catholics that put miracles, including speaking in tongues, in the epicenter. These eight-centuries were the era of super -supernaturalism in almost every area of human life. Speaking in tongues was common and attached to a variety of celebrity saints – from Andrew the Fool in the tenth to Francis Xavier in the sixteenth. This period had established the doctrine of tongues as either a miracle of hearing, speaking or a combination of both.
Later Medieval accounts of speaking in tongues
For example, the later legend of thirteenth-century had Anthony of Padua, a popular speaker in his time, spoke in the language of the Spirit to a mixed ethnic and linguistic gathering of catholic authorities who heard him in their own language. What was the language of the Spirit? This was never clarified in the text or by any other author and remains a mystery.
Vincent Ferrer in the fourteenth-century was a well-known evangelist, perhaps in the top 50 in the history of the church. He visited many ethnic and linguistic communities while only knowing his native Valencian language. His orations were so great and powerful that it was alleged people miraculously heard him speak in their own language.
There were also revisions by later writers to earlier lives of saints such as Matthew the Apostle, Patiens of Metz in the third, and the sixth-century Welsh saints, David, Padarn and Teilo. They were claimed to have spoken miraculously in foreign languages.
Speaking in tongues was also wielded as a political tool. The French religious orders, l’abbaye Saint-Clément and l’abbaye Saint-Arnould, had a strong competition between each other during the tenth and fourteenth centuries. L’abbaye Saint-Clément proposed their order to be the foremost because their lineage traced back to a highly esteemed and ancient founder. L’abbaye Saint-Arnould countered with St. Patiens who had the miraculous ability to speak in tongues.
The account of Andrew the Fool has an interesting twist in the annals of speaking in tongues. Andrew the Fool, often cited as Andrew of Constantinople, or Andrew Salus, was a tenth-century christian follower known for his odd lifestyle that would be classified under some form of a mental illness by today’s standards. However, many biographers believe it was a ruse purposely done by Andrew. There is a rich tradition of holy fools in Eastern Orthodox literature who feigned insanity as a form of a prophetic and teaching device. The story of Andrew the Fool’s miraculous endowment of tongues was used to facilitate a private conversation between Andrew and a slave while attending a party. This allowed them to talk freely without the patron of the party becoming privy to the conversation and becoming angry about the matter being discussed.
The legend of Francis Xavier speaking in tongues
The sainthood of Francis Xavier in the sixteenth-century, and the incredulous notion that he miraculously spoke in foreign languages brought the gift of tongues to the forefront of theological controversy. Protestants used his example of how Catholics had become corrupt, to the point of making fictitious accounts that contradict the evidence. A closer look demonstrated that the sainthood investigation process was flawed on the accounts of him speaking in tongues. On the contrary, a proper examination showed Francis struggled with language acquisition. His sainthood with partial grounds based on speaking in tongues was a later embarrassment to the Society of Jesus to whom Francis belonged to. The Society of Jesus is an educational, missionary and charitable organization within the Catholic church that was ambitiously counter-reformation in its early beginnings. The Society of Jesus still exists today and is the largest single order in the Catholic Church. The mistaken tongues miracle in Francis’ life also was a headache for the Catholic Church leadership itself. This led to Pope Benedict XIV to write a treatise on the gift of tongues around 1748 and describe what it is, isn’t and what criteria should be used to investigate such a claim. He concluded that the gift of tongues can be speaking in foreign languages or a miracle of hearing.
This treatise was a well-written and researched document. No other church leader or religious organization, even the Renewalist movement, have superseded his work in validating a claim for speaking in tongues. After his publication, the investigation of claims for tongues-speaking in the Catholic Church had significantly declined.
Conyers Middleton on how miracles were no longer active in the church
One of the assaults made by the earliest protestants was to deny the succession of catholic authority through the acts of miracles. The Catholic Church believed its leadership and structure was divinely ordained and confirmed through miracles and thus their authority was unquestionable. Protestant leaders naturally had to break this association to establish a new order. Their volley asserted that miracles had ceased earlier in the christian church and anything else after that period, including speaking in tongues, was false. The cessation of miracles was especially noted by Conyers Middleton in the eighteenth-century. This new theology was called cessationism. Cessationism became an independent doctrine that influenced not only the christian doctrine of tongues but the doctrine of miracles. There are still many ardent supporters of this belief in traditional and fundamentalist churches today but small in comparison to the renewalist movement.
Middleton cited fourth-century John Chrysostom to hold up this claim, though a closer analysis does not find this interpretation correct. Chrysostom didn’t believe miracles had ceased, rather he didn’t want miracles as a central part of the christian identity. Chrysostom still believed in miracles, especially those of exorcism, healings by being near the tombs or relics of the great saints, or through corporate rites of the church. However, he shied away from the idea of miracles. They brought up too much pride and interfered with personal growth. Neither did later followers of Chrysostom bring up the idea of cessation such as the fifth-century Basil of Seleucia, the eighth-century church leader, John of Damascus, or the eleventh-century highly-trained student from Constantinople and later archbishop of the Bulgarian church, Theopylacti of Ochrid.
Middleton was also the first one to associate Montanism with tongues.
Cessationism was never an absolute in protestant circles. Tongues speaking continued to have outbreaks. The Camisards and the Irvingites are two obvious examples among many. The Camisards will be immediately explained while the Irvingites will have to wait for a number of paragraphs.
The Camisards speaking in tongues as a sign of divine judgement
The Camisards were part of the Huguenot movement in the late 1600s and early 1700s in the rugged mountains of south-central France called Cévennes. The Huguenots were France’s version of the protestant faith. The Camisards spoke a language called Occitan which, at least in the 1700s, had a closer affinity to Spanish. The majority of Camisards were illiterate, uneducated, and didn’t know the French language.
The Camisards have a special narrative in the annals of christian history and it is a sad one. Their story would have been forgotten if their speaking in tongues and their habitual use of prophecy was their mark in history. They were subject to harsh and brutal persecutions by the Catholic dominated French authorities. It is estimated that 500,000 Camisards fled France or were killed.(7)Catharine Randall. From a Far Country: Camisards and Huguenots in the Atlantic World. Georgia, USA: The University of Georgia Press. 2009. Pg. 18 These pogroms are the more important story, but the persecutions opened new protestant expressions of piety that were unique, especially in the realms of speaking in tongues and prophecy.
These persecutions led to a heightened sense of mysticism among the Camisards. There are various accounts of Camisards, from infants to elderly women, apparently speaking miraculously in the French tongue. The Camisards believed this miracle as a sign of divine judgement against the French authorities.
Early Protestant Commentaries on speaking in tongues
Did the protestant writers during the Reformation recognize the doctrine of tongues as a heavenly language or some non-human entity? Protestant writers, most notably John Gill, John Lightfoot, Matthew Henry, John Locke, and Jean Calvin.(8)I should have Martin Luther here but have not studied his works All of these understood the christian doctrine of tongues in relation to a foreign language. Neither did the dictionaries before the late 1880s have any references other than foreign languages. They were unaware of the glossolalic alternative because the concept had not been conceived yet.
A history of unknown tongues in the English Bible
A relatively minor Bible translation polemic by the protestants against the catholic establishment in the 1560s has contributed greatly to the renewalist cause — a mainstay for their modern interpretation of tongues but taken completely out of context. This influence can be traced to the theologian, churchman, and reformist, Jean Calvin. Calvin, along with protestant thinkers from around the European regions came together in Geneva, Switzerland. Geneva offered protestant followers safety from the catholic authorities and allowed them to freely practice their faith without any hindrance. This city became the central hub for translators to develop fresh, local translations for their countries of origin – a practice seriously condemned throughout by the catholic dominated European countries but encouraged under the leadership of Geneva’s protestant rulers. A common system was devised by these multi-ethnic followers on how to translate the Scriptures into a local language and everyone reflected a certain Genevan protestant interpretation in their translation. For the most part, this was good, but in the case of the speaking in tongues passages of the New Testament, this created a new genre of interpretation that still stands with us today.
This new theological twist has to do with the addition of a single adjective being added to the English Bible; the word unknown or in some translations, strange, added to the noun tongues. This adjective did not exist in the original Greek or Latin. There is only one exception and that is Acts 2:4 where it does exist in the original Greek. Calvin knew that he was adding a qualified opinion, so did the rest of the translators, but felt compelled to insert it.
The adjective is found in one the earliest French Bibles La Bible de Genève. Calvin took this even further and named important tongues passages in I Corinthians as “langages incognus” (unknown tongues) in his commentary on I Corinthians (chapter 14 specifically). The typesetter of Calvin’s work put the word incognu in italics to denote that this adjective was an editorial decision indicating that it was not found in the original text.
The influence of the Geneva protestant leadership and the addition of the adjective influenced William Whittingham, among other English Protestant Reformists, forced to flee England. He oversaw the translation of the Geneva Bible into the English language. The translation utilized not only the French version but previous English Bible translations and the protestant commitment to sourcing the actual Greek and Hebrew texts.
The promotion of the Geneva Bible was highly successful in England and greatly displaced all other English Bibles. This is partly due to the fact that study notes, cross-referencing, pictures, the introduction of verse numbers, and easier to read fonts were major upgrades to the previous English versions. This also was the first mechanically produced book in England.
The Geneva Bible was an overwhelming success and a strong influence on the King James Bible that was published shortly later. The editorial idiom “unknown tongues” crossed over from the Geneva to the King James. This idiom, though used differently in alternative translations such as other tongues, or strange tongues is permanently etched on the minds of English Bible readers.
The King James rendering of other tongues has been an important building block for Renewalists such as the late Kenneth Hagin in the mid to late 1900s, who partially built his theology of tongues from this idiom and strengthened his idea of the rite being a private prayer language,(9)Kenneth E. Hagin. Why Tongues. Rhema Bible Church. 21st Printing. 1988 and forms one of the statements of faith held by one of the largest pentecostal bodies in the world, The Assemblies of God.
But why was it put there in the first place? We know from the writings of Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth-century that unknown tongue meant any foreign language spoken that was neither understood nor explained. This definition became a rallying point of protestants against catholicism because the Catholics insisted that Latin was the sole language of legal and religious instruction and sacred universal language that could connect ancient thoughts and literature of the past with the present. It was a language considered to have the ability to communicate clearly heightened forms of knowledge and logic that other common languages did not possess. Authorities believed local vernaculars limited their societies intellectual and spiritual well-beings. Any resistance to such logic was met with harsh penalties.
The Protestants countered that Latin was a language and writing that few civilians and the large lower classes throughout Europe comprehended. This ignorance allowed for catholic authorities to control and direct harmful social policy without any opposition. The protestant revolution saw illiteracy as a barrier for social and religious good and used the unknown tongues as a Biblical basis to reject the Latin language and the catholic authority that rested behind it.
Jean Calvin wasn’t afraid to make this bold statement in his writings either. Jean Calvin was a preeminent foundational protestant leader a generation after Martin Luther. Being born and raised a catholic with protestant sentiments, highly educated from humanist based institutions, and a lawyer, Calvin was easily provoked against any sign of Catholic excess, including forcing Latin only in church and civil affairs. He didn’t clearly explain why he added the idiom “unknown languages” to his I Corinthian commentary. But then he didn’t have to, the evidence was manifestly clear that he believed that Latin was not to be the sole language of the church and he took great strides, even to add the adjective unknown to achieve his aims. This little insertion was a trumpet against the Catholic ears.
See Uncovering the Unknown of Unknown Tongues for more information.
What about women speaking in tongues?
Christine F. Cooper-Rompato compiled a detailed look in her book, The Gift of Tongues: Women’s Xenoglossia in the Later Middle Ages. She concluded that the miraculous gift was usually reserved for men to produce public conversions whereas with women it is often accidental, downplayed or semi-privately done. There are few documentations of women exercising this gift (Page 40).
This remains an area that the Gift of Tongues Project could use more research.
The shift from miraculously speaking or hearing a foreign language to glossolalia
The Irvingites and the renewal of tongues
No one can write about the evolution of the christian doctrine of tongues without referencing the Irvingite movement in the 1830s. This is a key moment in the doctrine of tongues. They are also the first large representation of speaking in tongues within the English protestant movement. The birthplace where both of today’s definitions are derived from – the mystical and the glossolalia versions. The international publicity created by the Irvingites stimulated the foremost religious thinkers of their day to explain the phenomenon in the most scientific, rational and common sense way. This started with leading German scholars and their opinions proliferated throughout the world.
Edward Irving was a presbyterian clergyman in London, England. He lived during a time where anti-establishment sentiment against the Presbyterians was high, and their followers, especially those of Scottish descent, were ready for an alternative. There was an openness to almost anything from Presbyterianism. Irving was a person of an exuberant and charismatic persuasions and appealed to these disenchanted masses.
The Irvingites represented an epoch where pockets of England were in a period of prophetic expectation and excitement — a sense that the end was drawing near and the supernatural gifts of the original Apostles would return. Speaking in tongues was one of the anticipated giftings to herald in the end. The angst was fulfilled when a Scottish woman in Edward Irving’s circle, attributed to Mary Campbell, started to miraculously speak in a foreign language. She believed that she spoke in the language of the Pelew islands – a very remote set of islands north of Indonesia and west of the Philippines. Some say she spoke Turkish, others Chinese. There were other unverified citations regarding people miraculously speaking in foreign languages in the Irvingite community.
The Irvingite explosion of speaking in tongues created a great deal of curiosity throughout London. The Irvingites were front page news. Big names that got drawn into the discussion were the likes of the Scottish philosopher and writer, Thomas Carlyle, the Duke of York, and members of Parliament. The manifestations also attracted celebrities, lawyers, doctors, students, and journalists.
Over time, the pressures confronting Irving to validate these experiences prompted him to make a subtle change. He stated he didn’t have any idea on how to define the gift of tongues and left it obscure.
The assertion about the Irvingites may be an over-generalization because the major addition to the doctrine of tongues begins a few short years before them, but without this controversial apocalyptic and tongues-speaking group, international inquiry to the doctrine of tongues would never have occurred. There would have been no catalyst for the intense evaluation of the christian doctrine of tongues that happened afterward.
The intellectual spirit of the age forced a review of the gift of tongues under a completely different set of rules. The most important one promoted that ancient christian literature was not considered a reliable source for defining the tongues of Pentecost or Corinth.(10)See the The Historical Rejection of Patristics and its Legacy This was especially found among the acclaimed German academics whose scholarly works dominated the religious academic world. They had relegated ecclesiastical literature to the realm of myths and legends. The results had only a few patristic citations, and these were weak ones – deliberately chosen to advance their thesis while discarding a much greater library of patristic references. Classical Greek sources such as the Greek prophetesses at Delphi were considered more trustworthy. This approach had serious consequences on the modern tongues debate and created a complex web that is difficult to untangle. This has proven more difficult than tracing the evolution from the fourth to twelfth-centuries.
Glossolalia entrenched as the foremost definition
German theologians dictated the intellectual side of the protestant world during the eighteenth-century with the likes of Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher — the father of modern liberal theology, Wilhelm Martin Leberecht de Wette – a rationalist thinker, and August Neander – a disciple of Schleiermacher and one of the most influential theologians in the nineteenth-century. Neander combined rationalism with a common-sense faith and acceptance of the supernatural.
Neander is especially noted because his coverage on the Pentecost was so effective that it permanently altered the definition. He wasn’t the beginning of the German intellectual pursuit of tongues and his story comes slightly later.
All these great theologians combined are part of a theological movement called Higher Criticism. Generally, it means a more scientific approach to interpreting Scripture: letting history, facts, textual creation and transmission, archaeology, third-party works such as Greek philosophers, be part of the theological and moral analysis for any given passage or book. A higher-criticism scholar is not required to follow christian tradition at all and may come up with an altogether different solution. The definition of higher criticism is fluid and depends on the scholar’s opinion. This is not necessarily a bad problem. This approach has helped stabilize the christian faith in a modern world.
Two understudies of these magnificent three had an initial impact on the modern definition of speaking in tongues. F.C. Baur who once was under Schleiermacher’s spell but found his theories wanting. So he adapted the theories of the controversial but universally discussed works of Georg Hegel. Hegel is an important figure in history but does not add to the speaking in tongues narrative except his influence on Baur’s methodology to the tongues issue. Lastly, Freidrich Bleek, who sought to find a system of interpretation that balanced rationalism with supernaturalism.(11)Old Testament Criticism in the Nineteenth Century: England and Germany Pg. 130
Baur and Bleek were the first known academics to publish a critical work on tongues and draw a conclusion of ecstasy or something non-human. This thesis started around 1830, just before the Irvingite movement’s break-out. Before these two scholars provided their alternative opinions, most commentators followed the standard protestant definition that speaking in tongues was the spontaneous speaking in a foreign language.
Bleek and Bauer’s contributions hardly gained a universal audience, but when the influential and distinguished scholar, August Neander, published his findings, this began to change. Neander believed that the miracle of Pentecost was speaking in foreign languages, but that faded out in the early church. The later editions of tongues speaking in the christian world were a spiritual language and the tongues of Corinth was a language of ecstasy.
These conclusions were picked up later by Philip Schaff and F.W. Farrar. Neither of these are household names today, but back in the late 1800s, they both had a powerful influence in the English speaking religious world. Philip Schaff was a German-born and trained historian who spent his later adult life teaching in the United States. His work, History of the Christian Church was an updated and modernized version of Neander’s original publication of a similar name. Schaff took the tongues issue quite seriously and in the first ever meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in the US which was held in January 1880, Schaff chose to publicly read his work, “The Pentecostal and the Corinthian Glossolalia.” He also delved into the Irvingite experience to find a rational explanation. He didn’t really know what it was but inferred it was a language of ecstasy.
Neander’s influence reached a larger audience and crossed into the English language when the writer, Anglican schoolteacher, later Dean of Canterbury, and pallbearer for the funeral of Charles Darwin, F.W. Farrar, published the popular book; The Life and Work of St. Paul in 1879. He wrote that Pentecost had nothing to do with foreign languages and was a language of the spirit. He is the one most credited, along with another author named Lily(12)whose work I cannot locate for introducing the word glossolalia into the English language.
See The History of Glossolalia: The Origins for more information
The formulation of tongues as ecstasy, utterance, and frenzy was clearly developing. There were still objections by traditionalists and some hurdles to pass through before it was adopted. These objections were relatively minor compared to the momentum the doctrine of glossolalia had accrued. The spirit of the times was decidedly shifting to the new definition.
The Holiness Movement’s definition of speaking in tongues
The following sections are preliminary as the research is not complete.
The holiness movement principally sprung up in the United States, Great Britain, Canada, Australia and pockets of Europe during the nineteenth-century wherever the Methodist style church message was conveyed. The movement itself influenced other mainline denominations and contained independent quasi-Methodist sects who emphasized empowered right-living after conversion. An attitude of anti-establishment, which seems to follow protestant sects, also pervaded the movement which reacted against status, prestige and religious formalities.
A surge of christian mysticism began to develop in the United States, Canada, and other holiness communities around the world in the late 1800s. The economic, social, political, and religious climate was ripe for this expression. A desire for the renewal of the gifts of the Holy Spirit as outlined in the Book of Acts was eagerly sought for. This anticipation, combined with end-time angst, generated an apocalyptic feeling that God would soon restore the gift of tongues. This gift would allow missionaries to spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth and usher in the new age. There were local accounts of speaking in tongues within small gatherings happening all over North America and Great Britain. Such as the 1859 Ulster Revival in Ireland, which emphasized the miracle of speaking in a foreign language and purposely distancing itself from the Irvingite experience. Nothing occurred on a national scale.
Although there are documented accounts of speaking in tongues during this period, the Gift of Tongues Project is not concerned about tracing every holiness movement. The goal is to find whether the definition remained static or changed. A review of the holiness movement so far demonstrates there was no change in definition that speaking in tongues was the miraculous endowment of speaking in a foreign language.
The birth of the pentecostal church and speaking in tongues
The holiness anticipation for the return of the gifts broke through on a national level with an event that happened under the leadership of Charles F. Parham, founder of Bethel Bible School in Topeka, Kansas. He was encouraged in the year 1900 during his stay at a holiness commune in Shiloh, Maine, led by the controversial and later imprisoned leader Frank W. Standford. Standford had an extraordinary emphasis on tongues speaking. Parham’s excitement was strengthened by the report of a missionary named Jennie Glassy who was supernaturally empowered to speak in multiple languages. She also had the unique supernatural ability to write in “in many letters of the Greek and Hebrew alphabet.”(13)http://www.fwselijah.com/glassey.htm
Parham brought this zeal back to Kansas and his Bible School. This all came together in 1901 when one of his students, Agnes Ozman, claimed to miraculously speak in Bohemian — evidence that the Holy Spirit had arrived and the end of the world was nigh. Speaking in tongues turned into an expectation that was methodologically applied. Parham qualified this process, calling it the baptism of the Holy Spirit with the initial evidence of speaking in tongues.
The students spread out their message of spiritual awakening with great zeal. One particular student of Parham’s was William Seymour who moved to Los Angeles to take a pulpit there. The spiritual hunger among certain holiness people of California matched the same passion happening all over the continent. Seymour preached the Baptism of the Holy Spirit with the initial sign of the Holy Spirit and then a breakthrough happened. A person by the name of Edward E. Lee began to speak in tongues. This event spread throughout the holiness circles and caused a following that forced Seymour to rent a building at 312 Azusa Street. Thus, the Azusa Street revival was born in 1906 which symbolizes the birthplace of pentecostalism.
Azusa Street was not the only place that speaking in tongues was occurring but this was the location where the rite broke through internationally and gained universal attention. Azusa Street was the symbol of the holiness movement’s move into popularity.
The official publication of the Azusa Street church was called the Apostolic Faith. The first edition had in-depth coverage of the tongues revival, clearly marking it as the miraculous ability to speak in foreign languages. The Azusa Street ministry saw this as a sign for spreading the Gospel to the furthest corners of the earth.
There were serious problems hiding under the Azusa Street banner. Parham disagreed with his protege’s church. He thought the tongues outbreak was disingenuous and only gibberish – it wasn’t the real thing. Perhaps Parham’s assessment was correct, but his assertion may have been out of spite. He was banished from preaching or serving at Azusa and this refutation may have been an attempt to regain his lost honor. But a more serious problem arose; some endowed with the gift of a new language felt compelled to go the country that the language was spoken in. After costly preparation along with a long voyage, these missionaries dejectedly discovered that they had no immediate linguistic ability to speak with the native inhabitants. They were forced to either learn the language through the time consuming normal means or come back home in failure. This forced a review their christian doctrine of tongues.
What did these converts do to overcome such a dilemma?
Why the pentecostal definition of tongues changed in the early 1900s
They slightly changed the definition of speaking in tongues in order to adjust to this embarrassing reality.
This conclusion is asserted by an Assemblies of God teacher, writer, and professor, the late Gary B. McGee. He wrote a very factual account on the development and evolution of the doctrine of tongues in the pentecostal movement.
It is a well-researched article with substantiated sources. This is one of the most definitive works found covering the subject from the late nineteenth century onwards.
He cites the most important leaders in the modern tongues movement, and how the original emphasis was on the supernatural acquisition of foreign languages. This mystical acquirement was hoped to be a solution for the common perception that language learning was a long process and a barrier to a rapid missionary expansion throughout the world.
McGee admits that somewhere between 1906 and 1907 the doctrine of tongues had changed from what was perceived as spontaneous language acquisition into worship and intercession in the Spirit:
Not surprisingly, though claims of bestowed languages had the potential of being empirically verified, such claims severely tested the credulity of outside observers. Corroborating testimony that Pentecostals preached at will in their newfound languages and were actually understood by their hearers proved difficult to find. By late 1906 and 1907 radical evangelicals began reviewing the Scriptures to obtain a better understanding. Most came to recognize that speaking in tongues constituted worship and intercession in the Spirit (Rom. 8:26; I Cor. 14:2), which in turn furnished the believer with spiritual power. Since on either reading–glossolalia for functioning effectively in a foreign language or for spiritual worship–the notion of receiving languages reflected zeal and empowerment for evangelism, most Pentecostals seemed to have accepted the transition in meaning.
It is surprising that an Assemblies of God teacher, representing the one of the largest and oldest pentecostal institutions in the world, admitting an important transition in meaning. He arrived at these conclusions without vigorous internal debate or opposition. I have yet to find scholarly pentecostal sources that dispute his claim.
Unfortunately, he failed to go into any details on what figures were responsible for this change, and how it became an entrenched doctrine in such a short period. The Gift of Tongues Project has yet to do extensive research on the subject.
Today the pentecostal definition of prayer language, heavenly language, or other tongues that are not of human origin, with some wiggle room that it possibly can happen as a foreign language has become a fixed doctrine and has not changed for over a 100 years. The academic definition too, that the christian tongues are glossolalia — that is a language imagined by the speaker, or expressions from a state of heightened emotion is now the standard textbook definition. The fundamentalist groups that simply believe tongues died out long ago in the early church are now a minority. Their argument is an echo of an earlier protestant era that is dying out.
After reading this, most readers will be surprised by the amount of information the church writers have produced over the centuries and the later movements created by their desire to recreate Luke’s account of Pentecost in the Book of Acts. No, the church wasn’t silent at all. The contemporary ignorance of historic literature and the lack of availability of ancient christian writings is a big culprit surrounding the contemporary issues of speaking in tongues.
As evidenced by the documentation shown above, the evolution of the christian doctrine of tongues has never been static. Pentecost has always been at the core of the christian identity and the desire for a fresh new Pentecost has been recreated throughout history – both in catholic and protestant circles. This is not restricted to regional or cultural dimensions. The concept as the miraculous ability to speak in a foreign language is the major stream along with the miracle of hearing being close behind as the standard definitions. The concept then extended to being one where it was either a miracle of speaking or hearing, then in the early 1800s, there became multiple explanations. One was that it was glossolalia – a made up language from a person in an exalted state. A third position was it could be all three together. In the early 1900s, another dimension was added. It could be a private prayer language, heavenly or angelic speech, or a form of worship.
For further reading:
- A Summary of the Gift of Tongues Project: Literary Lapses is in development.
- A Summary of the Gift of Tongues Project: Corinth is also in development.
- Further details on the topics discussed can be found at the Gift of Tongues Project
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||According to the NIV English Bible|
|3.||↑||Spirit and Power: A 10-Country Survey of Pentecostals. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. October 2006. Pg. 16|
|4.||↑||Augustine. Enarratio in Psalmum. CXLVII:19 (147:19)|
|5.||↑||Sermo CLXXV:3 (175:3)|
|6.||↑||Frienship in Late Antiquity: The Case of Gregory Nazianzen and Basil the Great|
|7.||↑||Catharine Randall. From a Far Country: Camisards and Huguenots in the Atlantic World. Georgia, USA: The University of Georgia Press. 2009. Pg. 18|
|8.||↑||I should have Martin Luther here but have not studied his works|
|9.||↑||Kenneth E. Hagin. Why Tongues. Rhema Bible Church. 21st Printing. 1988|
|10.||↑||See the The Historical Rejection of Patristics and its Legacy|
|11.||↑||Old Testament Criticism in the Nineteenth Century: England and Germany Pg. 130|
|12.||↑||whose work I cannot locate|