For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding.
I grew up largely ignorant of the charismatic movement, I was familiar with a general idea that something like it existed but it was only when I went to university that I got to understand it in any depth. I realise now in many settings, even many Anglican churches, that their is an implicit assumption that the contemporary charismatic outlook on the gifts of the spirit is accepted if not generally endorsed by many Anglicans today. One of the clearest signs of the charismatic movement is the use and advocacy of tongues. A series of noises generally unintelligible to all but those gifted with an interpretation. In my experience this takes place either in private prayer or in a corporate setting (which will require interpretation, or not, depending on the church in question). This practice is based on interpretations of actions described in specific chapters in books like Acts and 1 Corinthians.
I will be honest, as someone ignorant of it for a long time I didn’t know how to respond when first confronted with tongues as its understood by charismatics. My first reaction was
- This is really flipping weird
- If this was true how could I have been so ignorant of something like this for so long?
My charismatic peers were happy to talk about it and did so with a sort of certainty and ease that suggested there was little to no doubt as to the reality of these tongues to them. It isn’t a difficult thing to do, but the implications for doing so and the confidence in which you did so seemed to be at a sign, at least to others, as to how open you were to the Spirit being at work in your life. The thing that really confused me however was that tongues afforded them in many instances a liberty and license in their behaviour and conduct which I hadn’t seen before in Christians. The assumption being that the practice of tongues speaking in some instances was taken as an affirmation of the Holy Spirit for the individual in question.
We use this word ‘tongues’ because it is what appears in the context of passages like 1 Corinthians 14. Glossa, the word for tongues (the body part) in Greek is synonymous and interchangeable with our word ‘language’. This isn’t necessarily problematic to a Charismatic who will offer up that these may well be unknown languages or that of angels. They’re languages, just not as we understand them. Yet as time has gone on I’m wondering if this understanding is a much more recent one and not found in the general history of the church. Reading the writing of John Chrysostom, a 4th century Archbishop of Constantinople, however suggested avery different understanding..
Here he shows that it is in their power to obtain the gift. For,let him pray,says he, i.e.,let him contribute his own part,since if you ask diligently, you will surely receive. Ask accordingly not to have the gift of tongue only, but also of interpretation, that you may become useful unto all, and not shut up your gift in yourself alone.For if I pray in a tongue,says he,my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful.Do you see how by degrees bringing his argument to a point, he signifies that not to others only is such an one useless, but also to himself; if at leasthis understanding is unfruitful?For if a man should speak only in the Persian, or any other foreign tongue, and not understand what he says, then of course to himself also will he be thenceforth a barbarian, not to another only, from not knowing the meaning of the sound. For there were of old many who had also a gift of prayer, together with a tongue; and they prayed, and the tongue spoke, praying either in the Persian or Latin language , but their understanding knew not what was spoken. Wherefore also he said,If I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays,i.e., the gift which is given me and which moves my tongue,but my understanding is unfruitful.
What then may that be which is best in itself, and does good? And how ought one to act, or what request of God? To pray,both with the spirit,i.e., the gift, andwith the understanding.Wherefore also he said,I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.
He signifies the same thing here also, that both the tongue may speak, and the understanding may not be ignorant of the things spoken. For except this be so, there will also be another confusion.
The above quote from Chrysostom suggests that our understanding of tongues as a word really is synonymous with an understandable language (he cites Persian or Latin as an example), a mode of speech. He also seems to suggest this is an argument against saying prayers or even speaking in languages you don’t understand. Tongues has one use. This frames passages like 1 Corinthians 14:14-15 and its broader chapter in context of describing individuals being gifted not just in communication but also in understanding.
If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and the speaker is a foreigner to me.
1 Corinthians 14:11 (NIV)
What can a person achieve if he does not know what he is saying?
Ambrosiaster, commenting on 1 Corinthians 14:14
Chrysostom seems to understand tongues as a gift that enhances the commons, the body, of the Church. This could be truly miraculous, as is the case at Pentecost – but it is miraculous precisely because it is a gift that unites those in attendance in an clearly understandable message humanely impossible. In the case of Pentecost this results in the Apostles being able to clearly preach the inaugural Kingdom of God to those in attendance in their native languages.
This stands in quite a contrast to the more contemporary expression of tongues as a tool also for devotional, or private ends. Earlier in the chapter we see 1 Corinthians 14:4 which seems at first to support a private or devotional usage of tongues.
Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church.
1 Corinthians 14:4 (NIV)
This depends on how we understand prophecy, but implies that tongues has a personal benefit to the individual. If we bear in mind that tongues can equally mean language or more generally a ‘mode of speaking’ however then this can equally be understood as anyone with the gift of a language building themselves up (in the eyes of themselves and others) by speaking it. Prophecy in this passage, is explained in the preceding verse as..
But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort.
1 Corinthians 14:3 (NIV)
Which at the very least suggests a communal role for the benefit and growth of the wider church body.
This reading in light of the writings by Chrysostom portrays a very different image of Glossolalia than that given by contemporary Charismatics. It is singular in purpose yet much more public and clearly directed as an act of service to God, a witness to the unbelieving world and a means to grow the broader church body. This seems to make sense and remind me of the verse where Jesus himself states..
But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say,
Given by what? The Holy Spirit. Which sounds more in keeping with Chrysostom’s exposition again. It is a public act that is directed towards bringing people into the Kingdom of God.
Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is not for unbelievers but for believers.
1 Corinthians 14:22
This has echoes again of Pentecost in it – the primary role of tongues is a public evangelistic one, contrary to the contemporary expression which rarely if ever takes place outside of church gatherings today. The gift of languages represents the undoing of the division of tongues found in the Tower of Babel account.
John Chrysostom is by no means the only or final voice on the matter but I haven’t seen anyone of his contemporaries or predecessors dispute this understanding. If however you want to read more on this I’ve found the following paper useful which takes a broader look on the subject within the early church.
I think there are other reasons why contemporary tongues can be seen as problematic, both with reference to history and the contradictory, and at times heretical theological claims of the movements it is found within. But pragmatically as laypeople, what are we to do about this?
I think even having the knowledge that what is taken for granted currently on the subject of something like tongues isn’t the final word is incredibly powerful. Personally I am in an environment where this sort of behaviour is a normal part of the low level ambience. As a result we’ve got to be willing to have these discussions that can place the emergence of these practices within a specific context in light of the broader witness of the church and scripture in order to give us a better grasp of the issues at work and engage with proponents of such practices.
I do not think it is a surprise that in our late-capitalist, post-modern and overwhelmingly individualistic age we see a rise in the practice and appeal of something like these private, manmade and unknown languages. I believe the explanation for this rise in the practice is a mixture in part of..
- Exegesis out of context
- Ignorance of church history
- Sociological phenomenon at work within the church and society
Despite this, I imagine a charismatic understanding of tongues is a theological hill that many people would be perfectly willing to die on. Despite being what many Christians would call a secondary issue on the surface. Partly because it is a core component of a much wider theological worldview. However, if we can work our way back to a confident orthodoxy we can provide an example to others of a more grounded, nuanced and whole of life embrace of the Kingdom of God that engages with these phenomenon critically without rejecting the wider workings of the spirit. With the prevalence of this sort behaviour being advocated as normative in courses like Alpha, one of the primary evangelism engines at work in the UK church, we need to be willing to go against the grain and speak out in love for a corrective scripturally and historically orthodox understanding on this topic.