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A Gift of the Spirit, Rarely Given

Speaking in Tongues: A Critical Historical Examination. Volume 1: The Modern Redefinition of Tongues

By Philip E. Blosser and Charles A. Sullivan

Publisher: Pickwick Publications

Pages: 236

Price: $35

Review Author: Christopher Beiting

Christopher Beiting, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Archivist at Waldorf University and Editor-in-Chief of The Catholic Social Science Review.

The New Testament twice mentions the practice of speaking in tongues, or glossolalia, as it has come to be called. First is St. Luke’s account of Pentecost (cf. Acts 2) in which glossolalia circumvents linguistic differences and provides a universal method of communication. Second is St. Paul’s description of glossolalia as a private method of communication in prayer: “One who speaks in a tongue does not speak to human beings but to God, for no one listens; he utters mysteries in spirit.” These mysteries can be understood only by someone who has the spiritual gift of interpreting it: “If anyone speaks in a tongue, let it be two or at most three, and each in turn, and one should interpret. But if there is no interpreter, the person should keep silent in the church and speak to himself and to God” (1 Cor. 12-14).

Which of these two instances provides the proper understanding of the practice? As a way of addressing the question — and examining the history of speaking in tongues — Philip E. Blosser and Charles A. Sullivan have proposed a comprehensive, three-volume study of the subject, of which The Modern Redefinition of Tongues is the first. If this volume is any example, the completed work is likely to be the definitive study of the subject — and to ruffle a few feathers.

Speaking in Tongues: A Critical Historical Examination is an unusual work in a number of ways. The first is the nature of its approach. Most historical studies of this type would begin with the New Testament and then trace the subject through the Patristic era, the Middle Ages, the Reformation, and so on, up to the present. Blosser and Sullivan, however, have undertaken what they term an “archaeological excavation” in which they begin with the present and dig backward through the past. Thus, Volume 1 deals with the contemporary era (from the present to the 19th century), Volume 2 will go from the Counter-Reformation to the late Patristic era, and Volume 3 will cover the early Patristic era to the New Testament era, as well as earlier Jewish practices. This approach is a bit counterintuitive, but since this is the age of Christopher Nolan, director of such nonlinear films as Memento (2000), Tenet (2020), and Oppenheimer (2023), it doubtless has its appeal.

The second way this project is unusual has to do with its authors and their backgrounds. Blosser and Sullivan are both credentialed scholars, and they have written their work with full academic rigor. But they are also men of strong religious faith. Sullivan, an independent scholar and linguist, is a Canadian who was raised Baptist, studied in Canada and Israel, was exposed to the Canadian Charismatic Renewal movement in the mid-1980s, and has been affiliated with it ever since. Blosser, born to Protestant missionaries in China, grew up in Japan and was exposed to charismatic-style worship from his youngest days. He converted to Catholicism in 1993 and has been part of the Catholic charismatic movement ever since. He is now on the faculty at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, an unusual institution in that a goodly portion of its faculty members are Catholic charismatics.

Thus, given their respective backgrounds, Blosser and Sullivan have produced a work that is truly ecumenical and treats fairly both Catholic and Protestant approaches to the subject. (Indeed, NOR readers — those who didn’t go to Franciscan University of Steubenville, anyway — might find Chapter 2 particularly interesting as it provides a good look at the Catholic Charismatic Renewal.) Moreover, as both men are, in their own ways, Pentecostals, any criticisms they make of Pentecostal practices are not those of hostile outsiders but of faithful insiders. Thus, the conclusions they draw are radical, but they are the product of critical study done by fair-minded men who do not have an axe to grind. What overall conclusion do they draw? Quite simply, this:

We can say with certainty that the understanding and practice of “speaking in tongues” found in the Pentecostal-Charismatic tradition is based on a nineteenth-century theory of glossolalia and a twentieth-century redefinition of “tongues” that are complete historical novelties…. The contemporary practice and understanding of “tongues” as a gift of personal prayer and praise, regardless of how spiritually uplifting they may be, are a historical novelty without precedent before the nineteenth century in Church history.

In short, from the Patristic era to the 18th century, the consensus of Christianity was that speaking in tongues was to be understood according to St. Luke’s account rather than St. Paul’s description. Which is to say, speaking in tongues was considered a gift of the Holy Spirit that enabled someone to be understood by another individual who did not speak his language (and, as a spiritual gift, it was vanishingly rare in history, perhaps possessed by the likes of St. Francis Xavier, but very few others). Only in the 19th century did using unintelligible languages as a form of private prayer — as is commonly observed in Pentecostal churches these days — emerge. While we must wait for Volumes 2 and 3 to get the deep historical data behind this conclusion, Volume 1 provides a good study of the events that led to it.

And the reasons why the situation is what it is turn out to be somewhat comical.

Though Blosser and Sullivan’s backward-proceeding archaeological approach makes an exact origin date for the modern practice of speaking in tongues difficult to pinpoint, generally speaking, it appears to be an early-19th-century phenomenon. Its roots are arguably found in the ministry of the popular Scottish Presbyterian pastor, theologian, and revivalist Edward Irving (1792-1834), who became something of a celebrity in early Victorian Britain. Irving’s religious views were decidedly apocalyptic in nature, and central to his teaching was the idea that the gifts of the Holy Spirit would manifest increasingly in the end times (which were, in his opinion, clearly at hand). By 1830 Irving had encountered a number of worshipers in Scotland who were manifesting unusual spiritual gifts, particularly the practice of speaking in unintelligible languages during prayer. Irving considered this an important sign, which he made central to his ministry, so much so that people began to find it bizarre and off-putting (the famous Scottish author Thomas Carlyle was particularly bothered by it, took to referring to Irving pejoratively as “gift-of-tongues Irving,” and considered him mentally unstable). Irving died in 1834, but the practice of speaking in tongues survived him, although it was not enormously popular or widespread. Indeed, the word glossolalia, which sounds ancient, actually emerged in the 19th-century German Higher Criticism movement and first appeared in English in 1879 in the writings of Anglican divine Frederic William Farrar (1831-1903).

Matters seem to have come to a head in the last years of the 19th century and the first years of the 20th in what Blosser and Sullivan refer to as “the Pentecostal Crisis of Missionary Tongues.” A number of Pentecostal groups, particularly those involved in revivalist circles in the United States, were keenly interested in doing mission work in Asian countries. During their prayer meetings, some of these charismatics began speaking in unintelligible tongues, which they were convinced were actually Indian or Chinese languages. They took this to be a sign of a new Pentecost and set off on mission trips to India and China, utterly convinced that the Holy Spirit would enable the missionaries to preach effectively to the unchurched heathens while sparing them the long and tedious process of actually learning the native languages. Naturally, these charismatics were completely mistaken and, naturally, their mission efforts failed completely and, naturally, they made fools of themselves in the process.

But the practice of speaking in tongues survived this catastrophic evangelical face-plant. When it turned out that the unintelligible noises they were making during prayer were not actual languages, these Pentecostals maintained the practice but shifted from perceiving it in a Lukan way to a Pauline way. And there matters have remained ever since.

To an outside observer, the usefulness and divine inspiration of speaking in tongues in a Lukan way is obvious. But the same is not true of the Pauline perspective. Adherents claim it provides a deep spiritual experience, but detractors regard it as useless and even silly, as Carlyle did. And, in any case, as Blosser and Sullivan make clear, the practice has never been a significant part of Christianity.

The conclusion Blosser and Sullivan draw will doubtless be as welcome in certain circles as a bombshell exploding on a playground (their image, actually). But it is interesting to contemplate what Speaking in Tongues: A Critical Historical Examination is not, as much as what it is. In the hands of lesser or less charitable individuals (i.e., most academics these days), the work would have turned into a glorified exercise in “Lookit how stoopid these religious people are.” In the hands of more hostile or critical individuals, such as Presbyterian-pastor-turned-rad-trad-Catholic Gerry Matatics — who became vehemently opposed to speaking in tongues after testing his fellow Pentecostals in various ways, such as reciting a memorized string of nonsense words when asked to speak in tongues to see if they would be interpreted the same way each time (they weren’t) or by reciting Psalm 23 in Hebrew to see whether the interpretation would have anything to do with shepherds or valleys (it didn’t) — the work would be an unrelenting attack on the legitimacy of the practice. Blosser and Sullivan fall into neither of these camps.

For all their reservations about the historicity of speaking in tongues, our authors do appreciate the “spiritual significance” of the practice and the benefits it has had for many people. They maintain that it “is not necessarily discredited by these findings,” noting also that “the Holy Spirit works in the interiority of human hearts in ways that cannot always be easily discerned.” All in all, they issue their work with the wish that it “will encourage friendly debate.” How well their work will be received, and what the nature of the debate it engenders will be, is, at present, anyone’s guess.

 

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