Speaking in tongues: The pattern in Acts

What is the basis for the Pentecostal belief in tongues as the initial evidence of baptism in the Spirit, outlined previously. Is their basis sound? Does it hold water?

Pentecostals argue for the reception of tongues as an initial evidence of baptism in the Spirit partly upon the basis that this phenomenon is described in Acts 2 on the day of Pentecost, which they believe to provide a biblical precedent. However, speaking in tongues cannot on this basis form a universal pattern, for in this case the precedent includes the presence of wind and tongues of fire on heads of the recipients of baptism in the Spirit.

The pattern of tongues

Pentecostals argue that the phenomenon of tongues-speaking in Acts 2 provides a precedent because it is part of a pattern revealed through out the Acts narrative. This pattern is apparently present in the set of narratives described in previous artices on the examples in Acts (Part I and Part II) (The first disciples, Acts 2:1-42; The Samaritans, 8:4-24; Saul, 9:1-19; Cornelius' household, 10:1-48; The Ephesian disciples, 19:1-7). Pentecostalism maintains that these five narratives consistently feature tongues as the common sign of the reception of Spirit-baptism.

Although Pentecostals admit that historical events are not commands, and that neither Jesus nor the Apostles ever commanded or promised tongues-speaking to the recipients of baptism in the Spirit. They argue that Luke, the author of Acts, intends in his narrative to teach that tongues-speaking is the universal sign of Spirit-baptism.

However, if Luke intended in his narrative to demonstrate that tongues were always present at the reception of Spirit-baptism to provide initial evidence, then why would he omit this detail in two out of five of the narratives being discussed: In the case of the baptism in the Spirit of the Samaritans (Acts 8) and Saul (Acts 9) he does not point this out. Therefore the Pentecostal view is an inconsistent reading of Luke; he does not intend to show that tongues are always present at the reception of Spirit-baptism because he does not always record that it is present.

The pattern of Apostles

There are more common elements in these accounts than tongues-speaking alone. However, Pentecostalism does not maintain that all of these elements are necessary for the reception of baptism in the Spirit; they place importance only in the predominance of tongues within the narratives. The presence of Apostles in each of these cases is a stronger common element than the phenomenon of tongues: in every one of these narratives used as a basis for teaching that tongues-speaking is the initial evidence of baptism in the Spirit, the reception of the Spirit and the reception of tongues occurred in the presence of Apostles (Acts 8:14, 10:46, 19:6); that is, Apostles were witnesses to each of these events. Pentecostalism cannot escape the conclusion that they seek an experience based upon on a pattern in the Scriptures that involved the presence of Apostles, without exception.

The pattern of new groups

In all four cases where the reception of the Spirit and the reception of tongues come together in the New Testament, tongues came to whole groups, not to individual seekers to the exclusion of non-seekers. Similarly, reception of tongues to recipients of the Spirit came to those who were not seeking either the Spirit or tongues. In addition, in each of the cases, the narratives record baptism in the Spirit and the sign of tongues being given to a new group, geographically and/or racially: Jews in Jerusalem (Acts 2); Half-Jews in Samaria (Samaritans, Acts 8); Gentile God-fearers in Caesarea (Cornelius was Italian, Acts 10); Gentiles, formerly Pagans, in Ephesians (Acts 19). These narratives must have something else to teach us than what Pentecostalism has maintained.

The pattern of Paul's teaching

If Pentecostals hold that tongues is a universal sign of ‘baptism in the Spirit’, then this seems to go against Paul’s entire argument in 1 Corinthians 13. For if ‘baptism in the Spirit’ is available to all, and tongues is a sign of ‘baptism in the Spirit’, then we must hold that all should speak in tongues, or at least that all can speak in tongues. However this would contradict Paul’s rhetorical question “Do all speak in tongues?” (1 Cor 12:20) which is asked within the context of God’s deliberate distribution of gifts within the church as a whole. No doubt Paul implies that God has intended that all do not speak in tongues.

The secular pattern

The phenomenon of tongues speaking occurs in other religious and non-religious contexts completely divorced from Christianity (See What is the history of tongues?). Clearly tongues simply cannot serve as an infallible sign of the work of the Holy Spirit in a person within his new covenant ministry. In addition, owing to the ever present possibility of self-deception and counterfeit, surely this warning should be heeded, and the greatest amount of care taken before condoning the use of an evidence for Christianity (let alone an external one such as this) that was never commanded by Jesus or his Apostles, nor anywhere else in Scripture.

Why were tongues given?

The reception of tongues were given by God as a ‘sign’ to the early church to confirm his new covenant work of salvation to new groups of people; not as an evidence of an experience subsequent to conversion for all Christians today.

More on this topic

Speaking in tongues: Why tongues were given

Tongues and Spirit-baptism: What Pentecostals believe

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