Chrysostom, 1 Corinthians 14 and (Charismatic) tongues

Chrysostom, 1 Corinthians 14 and (Charismatic) tongues

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

  1. This is really flipping weird
  2. 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 least his 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, and with 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.

John Chrysostom, Homilies on First Corinthians 35.5-6 (on 1 Corinthians 14:15)

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, one of the most famous preachers in the history of the church

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,

Matthew 10:19

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.

So what?

Contemporary tongues emerged in 19th century Protestant revival movements in the UK/US

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.


Towards a ‘Catholic’ understanding of the miraculous

Towards a ‘Catholic’ understanding of the miraculous

The human longing that gave birth to the Pentecostal movement is not bad in itself. The fundamental and basic hunger that is addressed by Pentecostalism is a desire for intimacy with the Uncreated God. This is good and God-given. We were meant for intimacy with the Divine.

But the theological poverty that was the atmosphere of the birth of Pentecostalism guaranteed that the very good desire would be quickly corrupted by weak theological support. And the movement bears this out. All one has to do is turn on religious TV to discover both old and new heresies finding fertile ground in the hearts of ungrounded and disconnected Pentecostal believers.

– Fr Barnabus Powell, Strange Fire – Journey to Orthodoxy

The Church of England, particularly in London, is becoming decidedly Charismatic. Largely under the influence of churches like Holy Trinity Brompton many people are also finding their way back into the Church via its initiatives such as the Alpha course. To be honest a lot of these CofE Churches are Anglican increasingly in name only and bear a closer resemblance to Vineyard, Elim or New Frontiers churches.

This trend is a global one with many of the new converts in the global south being to Pentecostal and Charismatic churches. For a time I consistently attended a Charismatic CofE church and whilst I never bought into or understood the more pronounced tongues, slayings and various other phenomena attended fairly happily for the most part for several years.

However the prominence and focus on the Charismatic externals eventually did in part give cause to move on. Their wasn’t much talk of doctrine, people held very different beliefs on a range of issues but it became increasingly requisite to be onboard with charismata as the church presented it. Orthodoxy was never a problem but charismatic orthopraxy felt like the only means to participate fully in the body and soul of the church.

In talking to many people about this, trying to learn more, I found the people broadly fell into two camps. The Charismatics or the Cessationists, the former believes in the full run of gifts (understood in a particular way) and the latter their absence. That was the way a vicar was putting it to me before asking me to choose what I subscribed to. Yet neither is really the historic position of the Catholic (universal) church nor that of Scripture. The testimony of the saints before us throughout the ages is replete with the miraculous yet is a topic generally neglected by contemporary Charismatics. In fact I’ve come to believe that if contemporary Charismatics would be lead to search their own history they would discover that their ‘new things’ God is doing and ‘fresh waves’ of the Spirit at their best are nothing new and at their worst have nothing to do with the spirit.

There’s nothing wrong fundamentally however with the desire to see God at work in the life of the believer. Yet the preeminence given to the more ecstatic displays you might see on a sunday or the emotional intensity sought has become to some a form of sacrament (The charismatic churches I attended, even in the CoE, rarely shared the eucharist interestingly). This and the pursuit of such encounters blindsides the believer into thinking it is in these expressions that the primary work of the Holy Spirit is being done.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

– Galatians 5:22-24 (NIV)

The other more concerning thing is the presence of what could be considered antinomianism, amongst a proportion of charismatics. Drinking to get drunk, sex out of marriage and antipathy towards theology or doctrine are on the increase alongside a Biblical illiteracy that despite being bemoaned by those in ministry shows little to no sign of improving. I appreciate this isn’t universally the case and don’t mean to hurt or anger anyone yet this is what I have consistently seen over the years living in different cities across the UK. All of this indicative of  our shifting attitude towards faith from the corporate to the individual and the corresponding dearth of actual discipleship present in the church today.

None of these things are seen as problematic to a Charismatic or Pentecostal who takes the ability to speak in tongues, prophecy and exhibit what they believe to be manifestations (some understand as the ‘seal’ mentioned in Ephesians 1:13 and 2 Corinthians 1:22) of the spirit irrespective of how they live the rest of the week. These events are ‘signs’ of the Holy Spirit in the life of one someone who otherwise might be entirely devoid of the fruit Paul outlines that we hope to see. This is perhaps most evident in the Pentecostal heresies of the Prosperity Gospel, New Apostolic Reformers and Oneness Pentecostals. If all these dramatic displays we saw were legitimate in all these churches with conflicting theology departing from orthodoxy, the Holy Spirit must really not be so concerned or grieved by what we do, say or think after all. I know no other way to come to terms with it if the gifts are legitimate.

It’s tempting then to be dismissive of all of this and say it is all questionable yet I think even this is to lose out in our understanding of how God directly intervenes in our world. It is fair to say that perhaps Pentecostalism and its milder Charismatic relative are reactions against a dry intellectualism that has occupied much of Protestantism since its conception and there is a balance needed to be found. For me this is where the lives of the saints come in, they remind us that God still acts in the world today despite all our foibles and can change the lives of the worst of us for his glory. They tempered reason with wonder and loved the church that homed them. As Protestants we should not forget that it is God alone that is worthy of veneration, they are just like us and fallible, but that at the same time they show us the faith “which was once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 1:3).

Modern day charismatics have brought a lot to the Church by reminding us the intimacy with God is something worthy of pursuit and that he has agency in this world. He is a God who cares about the sick and the hurting enough to be involved directly. Yet theologically it is easily compromised and leaves many Christians like ‘infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.’ (Ephesians 4:14) The historic position of the church is that God is at work through his Holy Spirit in all times and we should neither be charismatic nor cessationist but contextualised by a Catholic (Universal) understanding of the spiritual gifts that are to be eagerly desired. We should stop ‘inviting the Holy Spirit’ into our church services because Jesus already promised us that he is present wherever we gather. That the pursuit of spiritual events are a poor substitute for the progressive sanctification of the individual under God.

Through the Holy Spirit comes our restoration to paradise, our ascension into the kingdom of heaven, our return to the adoption of sons, our liberty to call God our Father, our being made partakers of the grace of Christ, our being called children of light, our sharing in eternal glory, and, in a word, our being brought into a state of all “fulness of blessing,” both in this world and in the world to come, of all the good gifts that are in store for us, by promise hereof, through faith, beholding the reflection of their grace as though they were already present, we await the full enjoyment.

– St. Basil the Great, “On the Holy Spirit”