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Book Review: Soldiers: German POWs on Fighting, Killing, and Dying

Soldiers: German POWs on Fighting, Killing, and Dying, by Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welzer is an eye-opening book about the amorality and monstrosities of German soldiers in the Second World War and how this mindset developed.

Soldiers: German POWs on Fighting, Killing, and Dying, by Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welzer

Sönke Neitzel, a German historian and “currently Professor of Military History at the University of Potsdam”(1)https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S%C3%B6nke_Neitzel and Harold Welzer, a German social psychologist, combine to build a definitive and unassuming portrait based on taped conversations of Germans detained in Allied war prisons. These were secretly done and transcribed by British and American intelligence agents during the Second World War. These dialogues helped the Allied forces better understand the technological and strategic initiatives within the German military during the War. However, the social and moral dynamics found in these discussions had little strategic value and were left unused for over five decades.

Neitzel accidentally found out about these records while working as a visiting lecturer in Glasgow in 2001. Further investigation uncovered a large library of over 100,000 pages. Neitzel contacted Harold Welzer who was electrified about the findings: “. . .men were talking live, in real time, about the war and their attitudes towards it. It was a discovery that would give unique, new insight into the mentality of the Wehrmacht and perhaps of the military in general.”(2)Pg. Ix Indeed, the documents revealed a rich wealth of information to build a historical and psychological portrait. The findings offered lessons not only on the German war machine, but war in general.

Their analysis dispelled the myth that German soldiers were merely following orders or that the violence was committed by a few rogue groups or leaders. The dialogues portrayed the everyday soldier, airman, or seaman, along with the upper echelons of military brass were compliant in the atrocities. Even the civilian administration was guilty. The mass executions were a lure for a good show, a “semipublic spectacle with a high amusement value.” The circumstances extended even to police officers who wanted to kill someone for the thrill of the experience.(3)Pg. 137

The book does not delve into the hearts and minds of soldiers and leaders who worked inside the concentration camps, only those captured in battle.

The authors sought to discover what influenced German soldiers to shift into an amoral and monstrous mindset. They concluded the most important factors were unlimited power, unbridled youth, shame, group dynamics, and the military frame of reference. The analysis ruled out any socio-economic status, religious identity, education level, or ethnicity as a contributing factor. Nor was ideology a force. Most soldiers were apolitical.(4)Pg. 319 The infamous SS or its armed wing, Waffen units, were neither entirely responsible. Soldiers in the general armed forces, the Wehrmacht, had also perpetrated severe violations. The actions were consistent of any participant in the German enterprise.

Wartime soldiers are by and large youngish men who have been separated from their real or would-be partners and freed from many social constraints. When stationed in occupied areas, they are given the sort of an individual power they would never enjoy in civilian society.” (5)Pg. 165

Soldiers were most concerned with their own individual survival, their next home leave, the loot they could pilfer, and the fun they could have, and not the suffering of others, especially those considered racially inferior. Soldiers’ own fate was always at the center of their perception. Only in rare cases did the fate of enemy troops or occupied peoples seem worthy of note. Everything that threatened one’s own survival, spoiled the fun, or created problems could become the target of unlimited violence.(6)Pg. 77

The book is a much harsher reality than the one portrayed in the movie, Schindler’s List, but less intense than the narrative provided by Philippe Aziz, in his book, Doctors of Death, — which focused on the German medical leadership and experimentation on Jewish subjects. The atrocities being widespread and not restricted to loose canons or hierarchical force was also substantiated by Edwin Black in his book, IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation where he shows that low-level clerks and commoners who did the data entry for identifying Jewish identity in Nazi-occupied territories were also direct contributors to the holocaust.

The prison conversations bring to light the general war problem of autotelic violence“violence committed for its own sake without any larger purpose.”(7)Pg. 49 This is a natural outcome when the modern rules of law are suspended in times of war. The authors shared a conversation of a Luftwaffe observer named Lieutenant Pohl, who said it only took him three days to get used to the violence. After the fourth day, he enjoyed shooting down soldiers — it was breakfast amusement. On one occasion he wanted to drop bombs on a crowded Polish town because he was so full of rage and he didn’t give a damn. “It would have been great fun if it had come off.”(8)Pg. 46

Another conversation shows how autotelic violence had become routine:

“We sank a children’s transport. . . which gave us great pleasure.”(9)Pg. 69

Neitzel and Welzer make a formative statement that the rape, tortures, mass killings, forced plunder, genocides, and other war-related fatalities were nothing new in the historical annals of war. The difference was the increased dimension and expression of such phenomena exercised by the Germans. The introduction of new technology and weaponry – the switch from horses, cannons and bayonets to planes, tanks, semi-automatic rifles, and weapons of mass destruction, allowed for death and destruction beyond any historical framework. This greatly expanded the ability to destroy without any limit.(10)Pg. 321 The coverage of later wars and revolts by the revered journalist, Robert Fisk, clearly points out that these evils are not a proprietary problem of Germany, but an expression of humanity’s dark side wherever a social system collapses and there are no limits on violence.(11)See the The Great War for Civilisation for more info Another distinction within the German establishment was the elimination of certain groups that had “nothing to do with the war itself.”(12)Pg. 76

The authors build a framework to answer why out of 17 million members of the Wehrmacht, there were only 100 attempts at rescuing Jews.(13)Pg. 100 They believe the solution can be found in their frame of reference. The frame of reference was built around military values in a wartime situation. It became extreme because German society was passive, tolerant of repression, restricted their opinions to the private realm, and did not question the military value systems.(14)Pgs. 34–35 More importantly was the individual soldier’s relationship with his immediate comrades. Going against the group existential existence, even if the purposes are inhuman, is tantamount to the individual’s emotional or physical death.(15)Pg. 336

Naturally, the horrendous acts of violence against Jews are included in many conversations. These come as no surprise, but the callousness and the uncaring does. Soldiers got extra rations, pay incentives and other perks for execution duty.(16)Pg. 126Ff But a switch began to happen as the war began to shift into Allied control. More emphasis was placed on hiding the killings, including exhuming bodies and destroying any evidence. There was a certain fear that if the Germans lost the war, Jews would look for revenge.

The prisoners conversations about sexual assaults, rapes and violence against women was shocking. The soldiers’ dialogues carried the sense of pleasure and power without any remorse. While some women did receive better treatment, it was far from altruistic — the soldiers traded protection for a sexual favours. The women were eventually shot and killed in order to hide the abuses and avoid public shame of sex with a Jewish woman. There was also rampant prostitution. The authors described that the sexual predation was widespread throughout the military and led to a major spread of gonorrhoea and syphilis that overwhelmed the medical facilities. Antibiotics treatment had not been introduced yet, and contracting a VD severely weakened the military’s available manpower. The military responded by setting up and sponsoring brothels in order to counter this.

But without doubt, sex was part of soldiers’ everyday existence – with a whole series of consequences for the women involved.(17)Pg. 169

A statistic for the amount of rapes, violence, and murders against women done by German soldiers has never been given. However, the conversations by the soldiers indicate the rate must have been significantly high.

The overall discussions were so dark, contorted and distasteful, that my mind has difficulty imagining them. But they compelled me to ask, what kind of persons are we dealing with here? How could men with such strong values of hard work, respect, and honour, turn dark so quickly and heartlessly? How could they go home and speak to their wives, mothers or sisters about what they did? Once the war was over, was there a place for them to live? Or did their conscience already die and they moved about as empty shells?

The authors answered the first two questions. The latter questions about the post-war lives of these soldiers are left unanswered. How could these people find peace? Corrie Ten Boom, a Dutch woman dispatched to a concentration camp by the Nazis for concealing Jews in her family home, and author of Hiding Place gave one clue. While giving a speech in Germany shortly after the War, a former prison guard at Ravensbruck concentration camp approached her, though not familiar with each other, asked her for forgiveness against the cruelty he enacted on the people at Ravensbruck. She felt both were liberated through the act of forgiveness: letting go of her bitterness that could cripple one’s body and soul, and him, from the prison of his guilty conscience.(18)https://www.guideposts.org/inspiration/stories-of-hope/guideposts-classics-corrie-ten-boom-on-forgiveness?nopaging=1 Was this type of remorse and wanting catharsis widespread with post-war soldiers, or was Ten Boom’s encounter an exception? Soldiers: German POWs on Fighting, Killing, and Dying, would have been a more powerful book if the authors followed up interviewing a few of these prisoners that did such atrocities to find whether they remained defiant or later became remorseful.

The popular term today in military mental health circles for soldiers in this circumstance is called moral injury — the “reaction stemming from perpetrating, failing to prevent, or bearing witness to acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs.”(19)Psynopsis: Canada’s Psychology Magazine Most literature on moral injury tend to treat the person as a victim and a mental health problem. I think the authors of Soldiers: German POWs on Fighting, Killing, and Dying would dispute the claim of the perpetrator as a victim. Although many situations can be a perceived sense of guilt and not real, the victims of a person committing a moral injury are either dead, disabled or emotional invalids, while the perpetrator goes on living. This is a cop-out that avoids addressing the moral failure and prevents the perpetrator to admit wrongfulness and receive full catharsis.

The stories shared in the book evoke such anger for real justice. If there is no remorse given by the perpetrators, or any attempt to say sorry to those who have been wronged, the only solace is that these people will have to answer before God at the day of reckoning for the blood of the innocents.

What can be learned from this book for today? This is not a book about ideology but the everyday person in the German military. The idea that, I don’t give a rat’s ass about anything except what affects me, was consistent within all the discussions and a key undertone among many others. A condition that allows hatred to ignite and go unchecked. A mindset that allows the person to complete instructions even against one’s moral convictions, and removes the person from any social responsibility. This circumstance opens a pandora’s box of monstrous proportions when no rules exist. Apathy is a much harder vice to correct than hatred and is the essence of inhumanity. This is not a simply a problem of World War II Germany – examples can be found in almost any major modern conflict in the world. Every society has to guard against this sin.

Would I recommend this book? This is one of the most difficult readings I have ever done. It is well written, researched and documented, but the subject matter is grisly. This book is not recommended for the casual reader, or for anyone personally haunted by the bitterness of war, but a source work for the historian, social psychologist, teacher, or journalist. Neither should one attempt to read in one, two or three sittings. The very nature forces one to read only bits at a time and put it away for a while.

References   [ + ]

The Camisards, tongues and prophecy

The 18th century Camisards in southern France and their religious rite of speaking in tongues.

A Protestant Assembly surprised by Catholic troops by Karl Girardet, 1842.
A Protestant Assembly surprised by Catholic troops by Karl Girardet, 1842.

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. However, these are mere expressions of a greater problem of political and religious persecutions that continually harassed and cost so many lives. It is estimated that 500,000 Camisards fled France or were killed.(1)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 the realms of speaking in tongues and prophecy.

A deep look at Maximilien Mission’s book, Le Théatre Sacré des Cévennes ou Recit de Diverses Merveilles, published in 1707, gives some vitals answers to the Camisard religious experience. This is the sole primary source for this article. He took eyewitness accounts of the Camisards from this period and organized them according to each person’s testimony. Le Théatre Sacré des Cévennes is a seminal work into the minds and workings of the Camisard movement.

This book piques those who are curious about the history behind the Christian doctrine of tongues.

His work clearly defines the Camisards speaking in tongues as a foreign language, especially the spontaneous waxing eloquence in French. There was no reference to a non-human or angelic language. Nor was there any association with the idea of glossolalia within the Camisard experience.

This miracle in the French language gave the Camisards a perceived divine approval. The empowering was their sign of judgement on the French King and the Catholic Church. The sign was specifically directed to the French universe and did not extend to other Protestant controlled countries such as England.

One must understand that the Camisards did not speak French as their native tongue. They spoke a language called Occitan that, at least in the 1700s, had a closer affinity to Spanish. The majority of Camisards were illiterate and uneducated.

The above statements cannot be left unqualified. The rest of this article will explore this statement along with the role of prophecy within the Camisard movement.

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 that had spread to various communities throughout Europe and the Americas.

They were a sub-culture of the greater Huguenot community. Because of the persecutions and the absence of any defined leadership, their forms of worship evolved into distinct expressions.

For political and religious reasons, the Catholic-influenced French Government called on the military to eradicate the Huguenots and its subsidiary Camisard movement within their borders. Soldiers were billeted to Huguenot homes and their mission was to dragonnade the Huguenots to Roman Catholicism. This dragonnade represented a special rank of the French military who were arguably scripted from the basest and worst elements of the army. They began an unbridled policy of brutality and suppression. In the eyes of the French soldiers, Huguenots had no legal rights to property, possessions, security or any protection under the law. These conditions were ripe for pecuniary gain and personal abuse by the soldiers. The Huguenots were ultimately given ultimatums; lose all property and personal rights, face imprisonment, death, rape, children removed and given to Catholic families, torture or exile. These conditions could all be revoked if they converted to Catholicism. Those who were leaders or teachers of the Protestant faith suffered an even worse judgement. They were immediately killed or forced to flee.

The testimonies contained in Maximilien Mission’s book showed a strong distaste to Catholic based authority. They believed the Pope was the Antichrist and the Catholic Church was the new whore of Babylon. These perceived signs, along with the severe persecutions, were signals heralding an end-of-world scenario.

The Camisards were poor and geographically isolated. The Huguenots in other regions of France were generally better-off and had easier access to neighbouring, non-hostile countries. These circumstances slowly forged the once pacifist Camisards into a reactionary force. The war between themselves and the better equipped French military can better be described as an insurrection. A war that the Camisards could never realistically win.

Prophecy strengthened the community resolve against the relentless pressure from King Louis XIV and his forces from 1685 to 1705. Prophecy was the vehicle by which they expressed their anxiety, tension, rhetoric and communal vision.

Catharine Randall definitively narrates the role of prophecy and tongues in the Camisard life. Her book, “From a Far Country: Camisards and Huguenots in the Atlantic World,” synthesizes the complex pieces of the Camisard faith and describes these two offices in detail:

Often, several prophets arose within the same family. Camisards gathered in great numbers to hear the prophecies; greatly consoled and inspired, some in the audience themselves experienced the “gifts.” In the absence of the clergy, the Camisards viewed these new, experiential manifestations as para-ecclesial ways to continue their conversations with Christ. The prophecies embodied the most literal understanding of the Protestant rejection of the Catholic doctrine of intercession and mediation, and of Calvinist reliance on scripture: these humble folk spoke directly with God through their prophesying, experiencing him face to face. In Relation sommaire des merveilles que Dieu fait en France (1694), Claude Brousson describes this belief in immediacy of access to the divinity: “Deprived of the word of God, of evangelism, of a regular worship service, of orderly sermons, of an emotionally appealing but also rational form of religiosity, the Camisards turned towards a belief in ‘inspiration.’”

As these prophecies evolved from consolation and instruction to calls for militancy, the Camisard began to select as leaders exclusively men who experienced this gift of tongues and prophecy. If such manifestations ceased, the leader was promptly replaced by another inspiré.(2) Catharine Randall. From a Far Country: Camisards and Huguenots in the Atlantic World. Georgia, USA: University of Georgia Press. 2009. Pg. 17

The Camisards believed that when a person went into a spiritual empowered state, it was usually demonstrated in these conditions:

  • grand agitations throughout the whole body, and particularly the chest(3) avait de grandes agitations de tout le corps, et particulièrement de la poitrine.
  • speaking while sobbing – a sign of humility and repentance (4)Il parlait avec sanglots
  • falling to the floor(5)tomba dans des agitations
  • prophesying or speaking divine things that is signified with the following introductory words, “Je te dis, mon enfant. . .”

One or more of these types of manifestations must take place in order for it to be a confirmed prophecy.

The Camisards then called this state l’inspiration and often employed the synonym, l’ecstaxy. The formal use of the article demonstrates a special religious significance. There may be a distinction between the two words, but the author did not supply enough material to make an informed declaration on the difference between the two. L’Ecstaxy could easily be interpreted by the modern French reader to mean excitement. However, this noun has a specific religious usage that is rooted into the Latin language and Roman Catholic mystical practices. The word was originally found in the Latin and made its way untouched into English. Unfortunately ecstasy presently has strong sexual connotations outside of religious usage in contemporary American society but there is no alternative solution. Ecstasy denotes a special divine religious experience in this context.

The Camisard testimonials are very quick to identify that the miracles of emboldened or miraculous speech happened to both male and females, infants, mothers, youth, and adults. This strengthened their perceived argument that the Camisards were a movement directly controlled by God.

In reference to miraculous tongues-speech, it is hard to tell whether they were especially relating to the gift of tongues or emphasizing boldness of speech. This boldness empowered anyone at any time who normally did not have the persuasive speech to speak against the established authority.

The Bible, specifically Matthew 10:17-19, contains references to a specially anointed boldness that God will endow people when they are put on trial, persecuted, or imprisoned for faith reasons. This persecution validated the Camisard experience, and conversely vilified the French Government and the Catholic Church.

This divine emboldening allowed illiterate people to articulate clearly and persuasively. Infants also had the power to persuasively preach the power of repentance in a foreign language unknown to them beforehand which they thought to be the divine sign of speaking in tongues. Infants speaking in tongues is a distinctive practice of the Camisards and cannot be traced to any other earlier influences, nor did it propagate after them. For example, this is the testimony of a Jean Vernet, given in 1707:

About a year before my departure, two of my friends (Antoine Coste and Louis Talon) and myself, went to visit our mutual friend Pierre Jaquet at Moulin de l’Eve near Vernou. As we were together, a girl of the house came calling her mother who was with us, and said to her, “Mother, come see the child.” After which the mother herself called us, saying to us that we should come see the little child who was speaking. She added that it was not meant to frighten us and that this miracle had already occurred before. We all immediately ran towards the child.

The infant, aged 13-14 months, was swaddled in the cradle, and had never yet spoken by himself or walked. When I entered with my friends, the child was speaking distinctly in French, of a fairly high voice given his age; in such a way that it was easy to hear him through the whole room. He exhorted (like the others I had seen in the inspiration) to works of repentance, but I was not paying close enough attention to what he was saying to recall any of the circumstances. There were at least twenty people in the room where this infant was, and we were all weeping and praying around the cradle After the ecstasy ceased, I saw the child in his ordinary state. His mother said to us that he had some agitations of the body at the beginning of the inspiration, but I did not notice this when I came. It was a difficult thing to acknowledge because he was wrapped-up in his swaddling clothes! I also heard of another small child at the breast who spoke too at Clieu, in Dauphine.(6)My translation from Les Prophètes Protestants. Réimpression de l’ouvrage intitulé, Le Théatre Sacré des Cévennes, ou Régit des Diverses Merveilles. A. Bost. ed. 1847. Pg. 141

Jacques Dubois, de Montpellier’s eyewitness account added to this concept of children miraculously speaking eloquent French. He related a remarkable story of a child speaking in French but also prophesying, “qu’une partie de la grande Babylone serait détruite l’an mil sept cent huit.” — “that a portion of Babylon the Great will be destroyed in 1708”.(7)My translation from Les Prophètes Protestants. Réimpression de l’ouvrage intitulé. Pg. 152-154 This testimony shows the blending of prophecy, tongues and apocryphal vision into one seamless theme.

He also stated that he had seen more than 60 children between the ages of three to twelve speak and prophesy under inspiration.(8)Les Prophètes Protestants. Réimpression de l’ouvrage intitulé. Pg. 152-154

The gift also was also found among the adult community. Jean Vernet explained about his mother and sisters who spoke in tongues and prophesied:

I left Montpellier around May 1702. The first people I saw in inspiration were my mother, my brother, my two sisters and a cousin Germaine. It has now been thirteen years at least since my mother received her gifts; she always had them since that time until my departure, and I learned from the various people who had seen her not long ago, she is still in the same state. She has been detained in prison for eleven years now.

My sisters received the gift some time after my mother had received it; one at the age of nineteen, the other eleven. They died in my absence. My mother’s greatest agitations were of the chest, which made her produce great tears. She spoke nothing but French during the inspiration; which gave me a great surprise the first time I heard her; because she had never tried to say a word in this language, nor has ever done since, at least to my recollection;. . .(9)My translation from Les Prophètes Protestants. Réimpression de l’ouvrage intitulé. Pg. 139

It is not understood why the Camisards emphasized women and children prophesying and speaking in tongues. From my understanding of the Irvingites later on in 19th century England, women speaking in public or taking any form of leadership was severely frowned upon. This may not extend to French Camisard life. However, one can make a consensus that the features of women and children in the forefront of the Camisard religion are a peculiar characteristic to them and relative to their times. Maybe it was because the majority of older men had fled, were imprisoned or had died.

Jean Cabanel witnessed a gathering of Camisards for worship in the woods – the Camisards were forced to hold their meetings in secret. He describes Occitan-speaking adult Camisards speaking in French – a language foreign to them, especially since they were uneducated.

I believe I saw at least fifteen people of one and the other sex speaking at different times under the inspiration. They were all speaking French and I am quite sure that some of these that I specifically knew, that did not know how to read, would not have had the ability to express themselves in such good French being outside of ecstasy.(10)My translation from Les Prophètes Protestants. Réimpression de l’ouvrage intitulé. Pg. 142

Jacque Dubois declared that sometimes the people under ecstasy spoke in foreign languages.

I have seen many people of one and the other sex who in ecstasy were pronouncing certain words that the assistants believed to be a foreign language. Afterwards, they that were speaking explained several times the meaning of those sayings which they had been uttered.(11)My translation from Les Prophètes Protestants. Réimpression de l’ouvrage intitulé. Pg.154



References   [ + ]

Charismatics, Headaches and Healings


Examining the role of divine healing in charismatic churches and the urgency to review, modify, or abandon this as a staged event.

If you attend almost any charismatic church meeting, you are sure to hear about supernatural healings. They are usually abstract ones such as headaches banished, a sore back relieved, a short leg lengthened, and many other unusual conditions cured. The majority cannot be scientifically proven because of the vague symptoms, but the person feels better. There are seldom any that can be empirically proven.

The practice of divine healings is typical of a charismatic liturgical experience. The charismatic movement, originally birthed from mainline denominations in the 1950s and rising to prominence in the 1960s, was originally assigned to those people deeply connected with the pentecostal wave but still attended their traditional churches. They were part of a theological influence that erupted through the continent emphasizing a mystic union with God through the baptism of the Holy Spirit, subsequent speaking in tongues and an emphasis on the supernatural.

Those imbued with the pentecostal wave and still attending their Anglican/Episcopalian, Baptist, Methodist and other mainline churches tried to bring their spiritual awakening to their traditional brethren, but it did not succeed. The result was that many of these people voluntarily left or were forced out. As a consequence, these people formed their independent churches. One of their attributes, apart from their emphasis on the supernatural, is the autonomous nature and avoidance of denominational or sectarian features. Because of this, there is a wide range of expressions and practices within the charismatic movement. There is no key leader, church, or theologian that represents them. Dialogue and cooperation exist between these independent churches, but no desire to form a hierarchical structure.

One may think that the charismatic movement is a small slice of the religious pie, but this is not the case. It is one of the fastest growing segments of the christian faith in the world. In the United States alone, the Barna Group states that four out of every ten independent churches are charismatic based, and 46% of those who attend a protestant meeting are Charismatic. (1)https://www.barna.org/barna-update/congregations/52-is-american-christianity-turning-Charismatic#.Vc1JVB_iubk

Divine healings is part of the charismatic emphasis on the supernatural and the mystic christian life. It is an important part of their religious identity.

Problems with exhibitions of divine healings

However, there are serious problems with the mystic rite that the charismatic movement must address.

First of all, the public exhibition of divine healings strengthen public sentiment that those practising are radicalized religious fanatics. It scares the general populace more than attracts. This healing practice, which is perceived as a staged act rather than fact by most members of the public, also further alienates the christian faith from being a regular participant in public social dialogue.

Secondly, the staged process of divine healing undermines the credibility of the message. I don’t know how many times I have had public discussions where the faith discussion is quickly shut down because they think the whole church thing is a fraudulent process that is for the elderly, the mentally weak, or those who are easily deceived. They usually quote faith healers they have seen on television, the radio, or in print magazines to back up their refusal to discuss any matters of the christian faith.

This leads to a serious concern. Unless the various branches of the protestant churches seriously confront the problems of perceived fraud and lack of accountability in the practice of divine healing, then a serious public relations problem exists. The lack of discipline may lead to a tipping point; some abuse relating to divine intervention will spark the already existent anti-church sentiment and will set a precedent for government intervention. As a result, this will send a very bad message that the church, which is supposed to pursue and encourage moral excellence, is an institution that cannot govern itself, nor be considered reputable. Whose fault is that? Is it a war on the church or is it a backlash the church has created for itself?

The historic problem of supernaturalism

This is not the first time in history that an overemphasis on the supernatural within the christian community has caused problems.

Both Origen in the second and John Chrysostom in the fourth-century touched on it. They agreed that very few pious people would ever achieve the status of producing miracles.(2)Origen, Against Celsus. As found in The Writings of Origen. Translated by the Rev. Frederick Crombie. Vol. II. Origen Contra Celsum. Edinburgh: T & T Clark. 1872. Pg. 426. For Chrysostom see the footnote below Chrysostom especially did not want to attach miracles to the Christian identity. He felt that superstition and magic would be an obstacle to personal growth. He also stated that there was a certain danger of pride with those who were miracle workers and very much de-emphasized such a ministry because of this.(3) Homily on Matthew 9:32 See also: Chrysostom on the Doctrine of Tongues which covers Chrysostom’s beliefs regarding miracles.

Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth-century dwelt deeply on the topic of miracles and formulated the definition into various degrees. He cautions against improperly assigning a natural phenomenon as a miracle. One example he used was an eclipse. To the astronomer, it is part of a routine pattern, but to the thirteenth-century layman, it was out of the natural order and, therefore, a miracle. Aquinas simply assigns this as a wondrous event.

He describes miracles as something out of the natural order of nature, such as the sea temporarily parting so that people can walk through it. The more the event goes against the laws of nature, the greater the miracle. The healing of a blind person, paralysis, etc., are actions that nature cannot do, and, therefore, are categorically a miracle. Another kind of miracle is where God intervenes where nature could have done the same thing such as curing a fever, or bringing on rain. He deems these as a lesser miracle.(4)Thomas Aquinas. Contra Gentils. 101 “On Miracles.” http://dhspriory.org/thomas/ContraGentiles3b.htm#101

One must realize that Aquinas lived in an era where mystic christianity was in a heightened stature. He realized there was a fundamental problem and clearly wrote out basic principles for defining a miracle. Although his work is almost 800 years old, it still surpasses what the present charismatic community has in place today for defining a miracle – which is nothing.

The eighteenth-century English philosopher, David Hume, among others, noted that superstition and adherence to mysticism were too strong a social constant in his society. It permeated all the theaters of decision making. From this perspective he produced this powerful sweeping statement.

The many instances of forged miracles, and prophecies, and supernatural events, which, in all ages, have either been detected by contrary evidence, or which detect themselves by their absurdity, prove sufficiently the strong propensity of mankind to the extraordinary and the marvelous, and ought reasonably to beget a suspicion against all relations of this kind. This is our natural way of thinking, even with regard to the most common and most credible events.(5)David Hume. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Reprinted from the posthumous edition of 1777 with introduction, comparative tables of contents, and analytical index by L.A. Selby-Bigge. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/9662/9662-h/9662-h.htm

He further added that miracles should not justify a system of faith.(6)IBID Hume. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Miracles used to rationalize a charismatic church or christianity as an authentic representation of religion instead of reason delegitimizes such movements within the Canadian social mosaic. Any religious leadership that uses miracles to promote their brand may have short term gain by preaching to the choir, but in the long term, the public will be further disassociated.

Nor are most Charismatics aware that they are simply reinventing the wheel. The topic of divine healings, mysticism, and the supernatural were a central core of European society for centuries. It dominated the political and social landscape. William Lecky, in his book, History of the rise and influence of the spirit of rationalism in Europe, described the circumstances in the 17th to 18th centuries as this:

Nothing could be more common than for a holy man to be lifted up from the floor in the midst of his devotions, or to be visited by the Virgin or by an angel. There was scarcely a town that could not show some relic that had cured the sick, or some image that had opened and shut its eyes, or bowed it head to an earnest worshipper.(7)William Lecky. History of the rise and influence of the spirit of rationalism in Europe, Volume 1. New York: D. Appleton and Company. 1888. Pg. 157

He saw no difference in the attitudes of either the Protestants or the Catholics on the subject.

The improper application of miracles and the supernatural was one of the factors that forced a social revolution that regaled against any perceived spiritual intervention. The desupernaturalizing also had another important factor. It deprived Church of their authority and transferred it to a new entity. As a consequence, it enabled society to establish a new set of laws, selection processes for civic leaders, systems of government, and a different framework for scientific exploration. This correction was an overreaction that downgraded the realm of miracles and supernatural into the place of myth; a piece of history that should remind present day charismatics to tread carefully.

There is also a theological and common sense problem. If a church has regular weekly healing meetings based on the premise that miracles will happen, then this means they have the ability to suspend the laws of nature for an hour or two every week. Such a proposition displays a predictable pattern of health recovery and, therefore, a normal procedure. Such a custom is not consistent with what constitutes a miracle. A miracle is something that cannot be controlled or predicted in any way. This is not a realistic premise to encourage or practice.

Building a proper framework

Miracles do happen but the definition should be purposely narrow and only be declared when something occurs that is obviously outside the laws of regular nature. The cure for a common cold, or a back feeling better are too subjective. An amputated arm that grew back, or somebody clinically defined as dead and then suddenly brought back to life while someone was praying over the coffin are miracles are of substance. However, I have never seen anything like this happen.

It is important that churches who emphasize faith healing have a clear policy in place. An independent third party must empirically prove any miracle. Therefore, meetings that encourage divine healings should state that only a health care professional declares whether a miracle has happened.

It would be difficult to ascribe something as spontaneous healing with many ailments. Diabetes, most cancers, multiple sclerosis, or many other afflictions are all conditions that can be tricky to declare healed. Some can heal through natural means or can even go in remission. They can hide for long periods of time and then surprisingly reappear. These states can lead to a false hope and potentially to a premature death because a sick person who believes that a divine intervention has occurred may fail to take prescribed therapies or refuse medical treatment.

All healings and miracles should be listed according to Aquinas’ system: wonders of nature, greater miracles and lesser miracles.

Some would counter that the positive affirmation of community prayer heals a broken spirit and can alleviate emotional suffering. This then can cross over into the bodily realm and help those with heightened sensitivities to physical pain.

Many divine healing services succeed in encouraging people by instilling a sense of hope. Hope is hard to grasp for those who continually struggle due to a physical malady, lack financial means for the most elementary of provisions such as medications, dental work, food, or employment, or hurting through a divorce, death, or many other reasons. These are situations where many have quietly given up on life and live in the shadows. Many testimonies in healing services attest to overcoming such obstacles and finding the experience as a place for a new kick-start in life.

The psychological help and inspiration of a divine hope appears to be a great argument for divine healing services. However, these aren’t miracles. They are words of encouragement. They are a divine wonder.

These last two arguments gloss over the serious trust broken by faith healers and ignores the ominous task of rebuilding it. Until the various branches of the protestant movement seriously address this subject, the Good News will remain stagnant or even regress in the hearts of the majority of North Americans.

References   [ + ]

Tertullian on the Doctrine of Tongues

Tertullian woodcut

When it comes to glossolalia and Tertullian, it is the making of a mountain out of a molehill.

It is unfortunate that the second century church leader, Tertullian, has been given a prominent seat on the subject, while authors such as, Cyril of Alexandria, Augustine, Gregory Nazianzus, The Ambrosiaster text, Epiphanius, Michael Psellos, and many more ecclesiastical writers who wrote specifically on the christian doctrine of tongues, have been largely ignored.

A critical analysis of Tertullian’s supposed reference to the christian doctrine of tongues supports such a claim.

There is one facet of this study that is indisputable — Tertullian believed the gift of tongues and interpretation, along with many other gifts, such as healing, were still operative during his time. However, he failed to specify if this was simply speaking a foreign language by those trained in such languages, a supernaturally inspired speaking in another language, or something else. He simply stated that it existed and added nothing more.

The oft-cited Tertullian text on the doctrine of tongues is found in Against Marcion Book V. 8:7-12, and it is not a strong connection. But for the sake of readers wanting to find out for themselves, a translation, and explanation have been provided. The actual translation and Latin text can be found by reading Tertullian on Tongues: A New English Translation. All the comments below are based on this text and translation.

Tertullian was a poster boy for the nineteenth century and later higher criticists who made the case that tongues was nothing more than religious frenzy, a glossolalic outburst that had antecedents in pagan Greek religions. The development of this modern doctrine is treated in greater detail in Introduction to the History of Glossolia. These are a series of articles which traces the inception of the doctrine of glossolalia in the 1800s, its overtaking the traditional Christian position, and its evolution. If one is to use a more comprehensive methodology and trace the christian doctrine of tongues using historical Christian literature from inception to the twelfth century, Tertullian’s contribution appears minimal.

The initial approach to including Tertullian in the Gift of Tongues Project was to post both the Latin text alongside an already published English translation by Peter Holmes. His translation was published in 1885 as part of the well-known series, Ante-Nicene Fathers, which today is easily available on the internet.(1)http://www.tertullian.org/anf/anf03/anf03-35.htm#P7138_2070665 However, it was found wanting from technical and readability perspectives. Ernest Evans updated the translation in 1972, and great improvements were made, but the portion relating to the supposed tongues speech still remained obscure.(2) Tertullilan. Adversus Marcionem. Edited and Translated by Ernest Evans. Glasgow: The Oxford University Press, 1972. Pg. 561 The goal of my translation was to make this portion of Tertullian clearer for the modern reader.

Tertullian on Tongues: A New English Translation is partially based on Holmes text, along with some help from Ernest Evan’s translation.

There are a number of differences.

First of all, Tertullian comes across in the Latin text as more combative against Marcion, even mocking. An attempt was made to make that more apparent.

Secondly, the translation of the Latin keyword lingua was changed from tongue to language. This makes it closer to the intent of Tertullian. This is an editorial decision made early on in the Gift of Tongues Project and is consistent with almost all of the translations found on this site. For more information please read, The Difference Between Language and Tongues.

Thirdly, the feature of Tertullian’s work is not about tongues but the role of women in the church and and how Tertullian felt that there was too much female authority in the Marcionite sect. He stated that women have the right to prophesy, but not to instruct; a practice which was happening in the Marcionite movement, and thus considered heretical. The address to languages in the church is happenstance.

Tertullian was positing that women could not be moral, political, or theological leaders in the church at large. He had a compromise and that was the office of prophecy. This was considered a high status in the Church and women could have a significant impact through this agency. Tertullian appears to be a misogynist in modern terms, but his concept of women being able to prophesy may have been revolutionary for his day. More research on this aspect needs to be done.

There are two key phrases that set-up the scenario and are difficult to translate:

Aeque prescribens silentium mulieribus in ecclesia, ne quid discendi, duntaxat gratia loquantur


ut semel dixerim nosse non debuit nisi in destructionem

Holmes has the first translated as: “when enjoining on women silence in the church, that they speak not for the mere sake of learning.”

His English translation really makes no sense. Why would women not be allowed to speak because they may learn something? This seems contradictory. Ernest Evans comes closer with his translation “when he enjoins upon women silence in the church, that they are not to speak, at all events with the idea of learning.”

It still lacks clarity, so my translation went to a more literal state, “this apostle recommends silence of the women in the Church, nor that women should speak anything specifically for the reason that a male is going to learn.” In other words women are not to instruct in the church. Perhaps this means women are allowed to instruct other women, but never to preach, educate, or lead a male or mixed gender audience.

The second phrase, “ut semel dixerim nosse non debuit nisi in destructionem,” is not as hard once the first difficulty above is understood. Holmes has, “let me say once for all, he ought to have made no other acquaintance with, than to destroy it.” This is a nebulous translation. Who or what is the person having an acquaintance with and what is to be destroyed? It is not clear. Evans somewhat clarifies it, “he had no right to take note of except for its destruction.” It is closer, but the antecedent is still wanting. My translation contains the following that hopefully clarifies Tertullian’s intent, “let me say once for all, that he ought not to know [what the woman is teaching] except for its repudiation.” The words in the square brackets do not exist in the Latin but put here so that the English reader understands Tertullian’s argument.

Tertullian was mocking Marcion and previous English translations have downplayed this aspect. One of the important keywords that suggest the mocking is a proper understanding of amentia. Holmes has it as rapture, indicating the mind is in some joyful, exuberant state. Evans translated it as, “which means abeyance of mind,” suggesting that the mind in that moment is unoccupied and controlled by other influences. It seems unclear what he exactly means here. However, amentia has negative connotations. The text, id est amentia clearly comes across as condescending. The Lewis and Short Latin dictionary describes amentia as a negative mental state: “the being out of one’s senses, beside one’s self, madness, insanity.”(3) http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0059%3Aentry%3Damentia. and William Whitacker has it as, “madness; extreme folly, infatuation, stupidity; frenzy, violent excitement.”(4) From my digital application Latin Words for OS X based on William Whitacker’s Latin Dictionary. When I first read these dictionary entries, my mind immediately jumped to the Greek equivalents; the adjective used by Origen, μανικός, manikos, or the verbal form found in Michael Psellos’ work, μαίνομαι both which refer to people disposed to madness, frenzied, symptoms of madness, enthusiastic, or inspired. Both Origen and Psellos use the word distinct from the Christian experience and reserved it to exclusively describe the historical practices of the ancient Greek prophets and their peculiar acts of prophesying. Tertullian’s work is heavily structured on a Greek philosophical framework, and this was likely his intention too at the use of amentia. The second century writer, by use of this word, is making the case that Marcion’s practice does not have a Christian lineage, but the synthesis of ancient Greek religion, especially that of their prophets. It was folly, and one of the evidences among many that Marcion indeed was a heretic. It has little or no relation to the christian doctrine of tongues.

The most suitable translation for id est amentia is, “that is in madness.”

The understanding of amentia is dependent on the use of the subjunctive in this passage. Holmes has elected to understand it as a jussive, which forces the translator to subsequently understand amentia as an inspired state. Whereas, since Tertullian is mocking Marcion, it should be understood as a potential subjunctive.

Another set of critical words for those looking at the connection between Tertullian and the christian doctrine of tongues is si qua linguae interpretatio accessit. My translation reads, as if an interpretation of languages had occurred. Holmes translated it as, whenever an interpretation of tongues has occurred to him. Tertullian was not attacking Marcion directly in this passage, but specific mystical practices performed by the female gender within his movement which was outside church tradition. Holmes ascribes it to Marcion directly, which cannot be established from the Latin text.

Holmes understood si qua to mean whenever which doesn’t fit here for a number of reasons. Si is about a condition that may or may not happen. The use of Whenever leads the reader to believe a durative process that happens throughout time, which doesn’t rightly fit into a conditional paradigm.

The use of qua here reinforces the idea of a conditional concept. Brad Inwood, author of Seneca: Selected Philosophical Letters has offered a clue as to how to understand this word in his analysis of Seneca in the first century. He suggests that Seneca used qua adverbally, referring back to Greek philosophy, and should be understood as tamquam(5) Brad Inwood. Seneca: Selected Philosophical Letters: Translated with Introduction and Commentary Oxford University Press. 2007. 85.33-5 which, according to Whitacker’s Words means, “as, just as, just as if; as it were, so to speak; as much as; so as.” It has already been noted before that Tertullian heavily utilizes a Greek framework to structure his writing, and this would be consistent for his usage.

The use of accessit in the text is another clue to this conditional clause. It is in the perfect indicative, which was a surprise, not in the subjunctive, which was to be expected. It is a simple conditional, which indicates a factual condition. Tertullian was drawing a caricature of the prophet(s) going into a state of madness, akin to those of the Greek prophets, and feigning the ability to understand different languages.

Another clue on his definition, and it is not a complete one, is his mention of Isaiah 28:11, that the Creator would speak in languages foreign to the Jews of Israel, and that the gift of tongues was a prophetic fulfillment of this. This statement restricts Tertullian’s view on the gift of tongues to that of foreign languages. However, he doesn’t elaborate whether it is a natural, supernatural or mystical ability to speak in foreign languages, and so it doesn’t give a complete picture.

Tertullian, wrote elsewhere about mystical events, especially in Treatise of the Soul, Book 9, where he described a woman endowed with mystical powers. He was not negative in any way towards this woman but simply was reporting these talents. He does not include in any description an ability to speak in tongues. Therefore, this passage has been left out of the Gift of Tongues Project.

A challenge in translating this text is the lack of manuscripts. The digital copies found on the internet do not list what manuscripts they are composed of, and some of the Latin words used, such as duntaxat, seem to be later additions. However, the Tertullian manuscripts, as compared to Gregory Nazianzus and other leading church fathers, are hard to find, and those that do exist, are found in expensive books. These books are not readily available in my regional university libraries. There have been moments in critical spots where seeing actual manuscripts would have been helpful, but did not do because of these limitations.

This study clearly demonstrates that the information supplied by Tertullian on the christian doctrine of tongues is not very valuable, nor is it a smoking gun. It is a slight reference, but nothing substantial enough to advance anyone’s cause. ■

References   [ + ]

Tertullian on Tongues: a New English Translation

Tertullian: Against Marcion. Book V. 8:7-12


Seeing as the Creator especially promised the gift of the Spirit in the latter days; and moreover Christ appeared in these latter days as the dispenser of spiritual gifts to which the apostle says, ”But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent His Son,”(1) Galatians 4:4 and again, ”Because the time is now in short supply”,(2)”Quia tempus iam in collecto est” — perhaps from I Cor. 7:29 “hoc itaque dic fratres tempus breve est” and it is evident that this gift of the Spirit leads with praises towards Christ. Now compare the types between the apostles and Isaiah: “To one is given”, he says, “by the Spirit the word of wisdom;” and Isaiah steadfastly prefers the spirit of wisdom. “To another, the word of knowledge;” this will be the spirit of understanding and counsel. “To another, faith by the same Spirit;” this will be the spirit of holiness(3)religionis and fear of the Lord. “To another, the gifts of healing, and to another the working of miracles;” this will be the power of might. “To another prophecy, to another another discerning of spirits, to another various kinds of languages, to another the interpretation of languages;” this will be the spirit of knowledge.(4)agnitio See how the apostle is bringing together and developing the concept of one spirit and in the prophet’s precise way that applies about interpreting. I can say this very thing that he has harmonized throughout the many and diverse members of our body the unity of the various gifts into a structured form, and on the same theme he shows the Lord in regards to the human body and Holy Spirit, which he did not want the merits of the gifts to be in the context of a spiritual body, nor did he establish such things in the context of a human body in relation to love, which is naturally put ahead too over all the other gifts. This guided the apostle as the lead principle to be established and because Christ esteemed this: “You shall love your neighbour as your own self.”(5)This is an abbreviated version of Luke 10:27 “diliges Dominum Deum tuum ex toto corde tuo et ex tota anima tua et ex omnibus viribus tuis et ex omni mente tua et proximum tuum tua et proximum tuum sicut te ipsum.”

When he mentions that it is written in the Law, he is recalling the Creator is going to proceed to speak in other languages and lips, he validates this reference with the gift of languages — a different gift here of the Creator cannot be shown with special mention. Equally so, this apostle recommends silence of the women in the Church, nor that women should speak anything specifically for the reason that a male is going to learn, (yet shows the right for the ability to prophesy is currently also given to the female participant, he additionally assigns a veil with with the woman who prophesies), he reinforces from the Law the responsibility of the woman is someone who ought to be subordinate, which, let me say once for all, that he ought not to know [what the woman is teaching] except for its repudiation.(6)nosse non debuit nisi in destructionem Let us now move from the spiritual things, the matters themselves ought to prove which of us blindly claims his god, and whether it is possible to oppose against our side, and even if the Creator promised these things for His Christ who had not yet been revealed, as being only destined to the Jews, getting ready to have His works in His time, in His Christ, and in His people. Marcion is then to exhibit gifts from his god, some prophets, who nevertheless have spoken not from the human sense, but by the spirit of God, which the things to come are going to be proclaimed, and the secrets of the heart are going to be exposed.(7)cordis occulta traduxerint He is probably showing some type of psalm, vision, prayer, merely a spiritual thing, in ecstasy, that is in madness,(8)Tertullian is mocking the form of worship as lacking structure and simply creating stupidity and senselessness like the ancient Greek prophets. It is trying to be spiritual but lacks any definition. as if an interpretation of languages had occurred.(9)accessit Let him show to me also a woman who exaggerates among them that can prophesy according to those most sacred women(10)ex illis suis sanctioribus feminis — I think this is not be taken literally but referring to a religious order of women but lack information to be conclusive about this If all these things are being easily made known by me, and by all means these things work together in one accord as a basic principles, the construct of the arguments, and teachings of the Creator, without doubt Christ, the Spirit, and the apostle will be of my God. It contains my statement that anyone would have been certain to examine.


Partially translated and revised by Charles A. Sullivan. Some portions are directly taken from the translation by Peter Holmes’ found in the Ante–Nicene Fathers. Vol. 3 (1885).

For the actual Latin text, click on the following link, Tertullian on Tongues: the Latin.

References   [ + ]