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

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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?

tongues
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.

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On emotional spirituality

On emotional spirituality

I was reading a sample of the book “Strip the Vanity of the Heretics” by Coptic Orthodox Bishop Anba Raphael online whereon a particular section jumped out to me. Part six of the section ‘Intellectual errors of deviant religious groups’ (which probably includes all Protestants for him) goes..

Humans are composite of body, soul and spirit. If the spirituality is linked to the body only, it will be an ill, Pharisaic, literal religiosity. If it is linked to the soul only, the religiosity will be psychological, passionate, emotional, unreal, and temporary.

So in the Orthodox approach, we deal with God “in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23,24).

In the Orthodox approach, the body becomes spiritual, yet worship will not be according to the flesh. And the soul transcends, yet the worship will not be at an emotional level. The spirit is leading the human being, but becomes subject to the Spirit of God. The deviated approach, however, depends on the excitement of the emotions of the hearers, whether by enthusiastic songs with loud music, or emotional words flared with passion, or enthusiastic preaching, filled with emotional and psychological inspiration. “It is these who set up divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit” (Jude 19).

Or even more with the most refrains filled with enthusiasm and emotion, for example, repeating several times, “the blood of Jesus Christ purify me from every sin” with a loud and enthusiastic voice, like someone walking in a demonstration!

Even if the term is correct dogmatically, the emotional and passionate cheering is wrong, because it wears off quickly, and man returns back to real coldness, after the unreal heat fades away. We did not hear from the fathers that they were shouting in this way. Such emotional sickness is not found in the church hymns or praises. This counterfeit spirituality is like fire in the straw, and Orthodox spirituality, is like water carved in the rock, quietly, with depth and continuation. Therefore we reject this emotional worship because it is from the soul not the spirit.

The total eight sections are well worth reading and whilst I don’t agree with all of the document (obviously being Protestant) this section spoke to me as someone who in recent years found themselves caught up in a lot of ‘emotional spirituality’. I will be the first to confess however that even now in the singing the words of some hymns and songs that I still get emotional and I can’t help it and it has only gotten worse the older I’ve gotten. However, I would venture that the Bishop here is not advocating a stoic dispassion towards the gathering of believers for worship but of the deliberate seeking out of such emotionalism both by the leadership and the broader body.

It is often talked about in many Christian festivals or conferences that after attending such things attendees are hit with a sort of ‘slump’ when they return home. Likewise I think this is what the Bishop touches upon when he states the ‘unreal heat fades away’ after the emotionally intense periods of worship we see in some churches. The kind of intensity isn’t sustainable day in and day out and in some cases we may even mistake emotional receptiveness to the work of God in the life of the believer. This is dangerous because the temptation arises to forsake sanctification in other areas of our life because we mistake our emotionality for genuine long term spiritual growth. This I think has become a big area for a lot of British Evangelicals who are so often lambasted for being so ‘unemotional’ as a nation. We are coaxed and cajoled in shaking off the ‘shackles’ of our staid nature and eventually having done so are convinced that we have finally become ‘free in the spirit’ (Romans 8:2).

At the same time the Evangelical in me recognises the necessity of conviction in bringing about actionable change in the life of the believer and a personal relationship with God. Even as a teenager one of my biggest issues with liturgy was the seeming insincerity by which I saw it carried out and it nearly drove me out. However, the imagery of spirituality ‘like water carved in the rock, quietly, with depth and continuation’ is one that resoundingly appeals (admittedly emotionally) within me.

Their is a danger of loving our services and traditions (on both sides of this) more than the souls of the people around us wherever we are. Despite this I believe the adoption of genuinely spiritual worship is foundational to long term and far reaching spiritual growth. So many young Evangelicals I know are biblically illiterate, undisciplined and unsure of how to share their faith – I know because I am one. I am not convinced that evangelical spirituality as it stands today prepares believers to go into the world and make a lasting change because we are like ‘children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming’ (Ephesians 4:14) when Paul admonishes us to cease being these very things. This isn’t an argument to dispense with Evangelicalism altogether but to stop looking to emotional intensity as a means to measure our  own or others relationship with God or the authenticity of what we encounter. Many people believe in something sincerely and with a great deal of emotion, but that is no indicator of the beliefs authenticity. For us that should only come through our searching of scripture in its proper context.

I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.

C.S Lewis, God in the Dock