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Speaking in Tongues: Barnett & Jensen

© Anzea Publishers 1973
This article is an excerpt that was first published in The quest for power | neo-pentecostals and the New Testament by Paul Barnett and Peter Jensen (Sydney: Anzea Publishers, 1973, p. 83-88). It is reproduced here with permission.

Speaking in tongues (glossolalia) as a sign

The fact that on three occasions in the book of Acts (2:4, Jerusalem; 10:44-46, Caesarea; and 19:6, Ephesus) the reception of the Holy Spirit was marked by men speaking in tongues has been adduced by some as evidence that such speech is the sign of the baptism in the Holy Spirit.

Some suggest that the Spirit-baptized believer should speak in tongues, and if he does not then there is some prejudice or lack of faith in him.

Thus the position appears to be that some neo-pentecostals claim on the basis of the Acts that speaking in tongues is the usual sign that a person has received a ‘subsequent’ baptism in the Spirit.1

However, certain points need to be raised about this teaching.

First, glossolalia did accompany the baptism of the Holy Spirit on several occasions, but this was in the context of men’s first commitment to the Lord Christ.

Second, it is possible to suggest quite cogent reasons for the gift of tongues being given on the occasions when it is mentioned in the Acts. Outward evidence of the Spirit’s coming was very appropriate on each occasion—for example, note the crucial nature of the events surrounding the conversion of Cornelius. The Jewish church had to be told thus that God had received the Gentiles; the Ephesians’ ‘false start’ made it important for them and for Paul to be assured that the Spirit had come.2

Third, historical events are not commands. That men spoke in tongues on three occasions does not amount to a command or a promise. Neither Jesus nor the apostles ever command or promise glossolalia.

Fourth, the phenomenon of tongues occurs in other religions and even in non-religious circumstances, showing that it cannot be an infallible sign, if sign it is, of the lordship of Christ or the coming of the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, owing to the possibility of self-deception in the area of tongues, interpretation and prophecy, we must be careful before presuming that use of it is evidence of Christianity, let alone a special baptism of the Spirit not commanded in scripture.

Tongues as a gift

1 Corinthians 12-14 contains the New Testament’s only discussion of this subject. It is possible to take various statements by Paul in isolation and build them into a case for glossolalia being normative Christian experience. For instance 14:5, ‘Not I want you all to speak in tongues…’; 14:18, ‘I thank God that I speak in tongues more than you all…’; 14:22, ‘Thus, tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers…’; 14:39, ‘…do not forbid speaking in tongues…’

However, this is not fair to Paul’s argument, for the following reasons.

First, in the case of each quotation mentioned above an important modification follows or precedes. This cannot be ignored. Also, it is of more than passing interest to note that when Paul makes what appears to be his strongest statement, ‘Now I want you all to speak in tongues…’ (14:5), it is paralleled in 1 Corinthians 7:7 where, speaking of marriage, he says, ‘I wish that all were as I myself am…’, that is to say, unmarried. Now in 1 Corinthians 7 he obviously does not mean that we wishes all in fact to be single, for not all have that gift as he admits. A man cannot exercise a gift he does not have, and this applies to tongues. It is quite clear that only some Christians have the gift of glossolalia. So in 12:27-31 Paul asks, ‘Are all apostles? Are all prophets? … Do all speak with tongues?’ Here the Greek construction indicates without doubt that the answer ‘no’ is expected. It follows that we cannot demand that other Christians have this gift.

Second, Paul’s discussion taken as a whole leads to a minimal assessment of glossolalia. Tongues are mentioned last in the three lists of Chapter 12.3 The gift does not edify the gathered members (14:6-11), whereas prophecy edifies, exhorts, and consoles (14:3-6). Tongues do not edify the understanding of the speaker: therefore he should pray for the ability to understand what he speaks (14:13-15). Tongues speaking damns the unconverted in church, whereas prophecy converts him (14:20-25). Thus one cannot lovingly speak in tongues without interpretation.

Third, when Paul allows tongues, it is within strict limits. Meetings are not to be tongues dominated; two or three at most, and then only if interpretation is supplied so that it is edifying (14:27, 28). Further, glossolalia must be orderly and in turn (14:27, 40). The total effect of chapters 12-14 is not to condemn but to discourage.

Actually, the possession of gifts is not a matter for praise or blame (1 Cor. 4:7). Nor is it a guarantee of spirituality; the Corinthians were jealous and strife-ridden, arrogant, tolerant or immorality, litigious, insensitive to the weak, compromising with idolatry, self-assertive and unbelieving.

The neo-pentecostals will be quick to agree with this. They will point out that the baptism in the Holy Spirit leads to power for witness and service or other Christians, not sanctification. But by dividing evangelism and ministry from our sanctification they have divided the work of the Holy Spirit and gone contrary to the New Testament message:

Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven (Matt. 5:16).

By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:35).
The Spirit’s work in sanctification gives power for evangelism and the service of the body of Christ. The use of gifts is the vital thing. Gifts are merely tools at the disposal of love, and are quite useless (and worse) without love (1 Cor. 13). This too provides the criteria by which to judge the usefulness of a gift—does it edify the brethren?

When all this is said we would like to make clear that we agree that this is a gift God can still give his people. We are told that great joy and peace flow from the experience, and again we rejoice that our brethren have been blessed by God.

Further, we wish to say that there is no room for an arrogant faith which coldly excludes those Christians who are of a different temperament, or who have received different gifts from the Lord. We rejoice to see gifted people as an evidence of God’s hand at work.

However, a problem arises with those Christians who seek to make their experience of tongues a norm for others. This is contrary to Paul’s word in 1 Corinthians 12:30 and to the very nature of gifts, which are varied.

Private tongues speaking

Some believe that there is a vital form of glossolalia which is available (or necessary) to every believer and which provides a revolutionary spiritual liberty (perhaps referred to in 1 Cor. 14:2, 4a, 17). However, one must note that it cannot be an experience open to all in the light of 12:30, ‘Do all speak in tongues?’

Further, private tongues speaking is never held up for praise as a superior form of prayer. We are nowhere encouraged to practise it, and we must therefore conclude that it is not of great value. This is a fair assessment in view of the fact that glossolalia ‘in the spirit’ (14:2) is not ‘in the Holy Spirit’ but in the area of non-rational as opposed to the rational part of the personality (see 14:15). In the light of the New Testament emphasis on knowledge, it is no wonder that Paul commands the tongues speaker to seek understanding (14:15).

‘He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself’ (1 Cor.14:4a) is often quoted in praise of private tongues speaking. It is to be noted that the tongues speaker is instructed to pray for the power to understand (14:13) so that in singing and praying he may comprehend what he says. How can a person be edified if he doesn’t understand what he is saying? Thus we see an apparent contradiction between Paul’s sentiments in 1 Corinthians 14:4a and 14:13-15. But is this really the case? When we return to 14:4a we notice that it is one part of a verse which is being unfavourably compared with the other half:

He who speaks in a tongues edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church.
We conclude that in 1 Corinthians 14:4a Paul is speaking ironically. Thus his meaning is that the tongues speaker is locked up in his won world; he doesn’t edify the church; he doesn’t fulfil the idea of the previous chapter which is love. His gift terminates on himself; it is useless for the church. 1 Corinthians 14:4a is not therefore to be seen as a commendation of private tongues speaking; it merely puts tongues speaking in an unfavourable light next to prophecy.

It is of interest to note D. W. Burdick’s conclusion in Tongues—To Speak or Not to Speak? (Moody Press, Chicago, 1969): ‘But, if the previous suggested explanation of present-day tongues is reasonably accurate, the glossolalic experience in such instances is abnormal. It is a form of dissociation within the mentality of a person. It is in reality a separation which blocks off the rational function of the brain with the result that action is produced apart from rational control. Temporarily the tongues speaker has entered a pathological condition…’ (p. 84). Unrestrained non-rational religious activity is sub-Christian and apparently open to Satanic influence. It must be tested by allegiance to the lordship of Christ (12:3) and love (chapter 13).
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1. So, e.g. Harper in Power for the Body of Christ, p. 33 f.
2. This is so, too, if the Samaritans spoke in tongues, as seems likely (Acts 8:16 f.).
3. Some have queried the relevance of the ‘tongues are last’ observation. The problem is resolved by the use of language in 12:28: ‘first… second… third…’; obviously a descending order is in mind. talkingpentecostalism.blogspot.com | joe towns: christian discussion on pentecost, charisma, pentecostal and charismatic beliefs, the Bible and Jesus; including the origin and history of pentecostalism, baptism in the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, gifts and miracles, divine healing and word of faith, prosperity and wealth, praise and worship, guidance and hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit.