THE CONFINEMENT OF TONGUES

I once knew a person, a close relative actually, who would periodically express outrage at some perceived injustice in the world. At such times he would express his heartfelt desire to stamp out the root cause of this injustice or abuse, which inevitably would turn out to be closely related to the item that was abused, if not the item itself. If a car had run through an intersection without looking and caused an accident, he would demand, usually by written notice to the city fathers, that a stop sign be placed on every intersection. If a tree fell during a windstorm, he would insist that all trees over a certain height or age be cut down.

There’s a well-used phrase that describes such over-the-top, knee-jerk, all-encompassing and basically thoughtless over-reaction. It’s called “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”.

Recently I was handed a small pamphlet that apparently represents the prevailing Baptist position on tongues. Entitled Speaking in Tongues in the Light of the Scripture, this booklet by Samuel Fisk, published in 1967 by College Press on behalf of Western Baptist Bible College, attempts to demonstrate Scripturally why speaking in tongues is inapplicable to the modern Christian experience.

The Baptist position on tongues has been long established. The motivation behind the publication of this booklet, however, as well as the Baptist position itself, could be a reactionary stance against the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements that emphasize the ability to speak in tongues as an outward sign of having been filled by the Holy Spirit. Indeed, many congregations of the Charismatic persuasion have thoroughly abused this gift by attempting to call forth the Holy Spirit during worship services. This practice, in effect, tries to place the Holy Spirit into a box of the Church’s own choosing, thus attempting to confine God into a position of obedience to man. Jesus made it perfectly plain during his talk with Nicodemus in John Chapter Three that the Holy Spirit does what God wants, and when and where God wants it to be done.

I personally have witnessed such an abuse of the practice of speaking in tongues by attempts to call forth the Holy Spirit through the use of “mood singing”. That Church placed such importance on the gift of tongues that Scripture itself was subordinated to it. The subordination of Scripture caused me to leave the Church. Therefore, I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Fisk’s concern.

Mr. Fisk attempts to set the record straight on the issue of speaking in tongues by appealing to Scriptural references to the practice, which are basically limited to three books in the Bible: Mark 16, Acts 2, 10 and 19, and l Corinthians.

So far so good. But then Mr. Fisk starts to over-react, with what I consider to be devastating consequences.

With respect to the passage in Mark, Mr. Fisk argues that the manifestation of tongues was a sign following the preaching of the Gospel to a world to which the Gospel was novel, namely the time in which the Church was newly founded following the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Here the author attempts to show that the gift of tongues was a one-shot event, reserved for the very early Church following the first Pentecost after Jesus’ resurrection. As if to add credence to this notion, he makes the observation that other gifts of the Spirit, such as healing of deadly wounds and sicknesses and casting out devils, cannot be seen today. In direct opposition to this observation, I can cite numerous counter-references to this claim, in which modern instances of healings and exorcisms are well-verified, having been attested to by multiple witnesses.

In his discussion of tongues in the context of Mark, Mr. Fisk makes an unjustified, and in my mind egregiously illogical, extrapolation of Scripture to suit his preconceptions. Nowhere does the applicable passage of Mark even imply that the gift of tongues was limited to the Apostles alone, or to a single period of time. Nor is it proper to hint, as he does, that the very exercise of the gift of tongues represents a theological error. Mr. Fisk simply attaches his own “reason” for the gift of tongues to what Mark actually wrote about it, and then claims on the basis of that manufactured supposition that this “reason” no longer exists. It is illogical to attack an abuse of a quality by attacking the quality itself. That kind of reaction amounts to over-reaction, a “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”. This mindset can reach beyond nonsense to cruelty, a historical instance of which existed in the inhumane practices associated with the Inquisition.

Regarding the accounts in Acts of tongues, Mr. Fisk is quick to point out the significance of the small number of instances in which tongues is mentioned, which, as he says, indicates the small value of this gift. This comment is mere supposition that can be countered by pointing to other qualities of our relationship with God that, while exceedingly important, are also mentioned but a few times. An example is Paul’s message in Ephesians 5 regarding the Church’s marriage to Christ. As for the account of tongues in the Pentecost, Acts 2, Mr. Fisk claims that this event was never repeated. This statement would be true for him, because virtually by his own definition all modern accounts of speaking in tongues are fraudulent. But such a statement is an outrageously arrogant and biased presuppositional error. In areas where Christians are routinely persecuted, unlike the relatively comfortable circumstances of Mr. Fisk’s world, there are numerous accounts of the gift of tongues. I myself, despite my own witness of abuse of this gift, am also a probable witness of genuine instances of this gift. Again, Mr. Fisk supplies no logical basis for his assertion that the gift of tongues was never repeated. It was simply conjecture on his part, conditioned by his own presupposition regarding the gift and having no definitive Scriptural basis. The majority of his argument regarding Acts 2 represents a story of his own manufacture, again based on conjecture. He embellishes on the Scriptural account without actual Scriptural justification for it. He repeats the charge that the Pentecostal outpouring of the Holy Spirit following Jesus’ resurrection was a unique event caused by a unique situation, namely the need to get the Church started. His assertions refuse to grasp the essential notion that there are many situations throughout the centuries in various regions of the world, particularly those where the Gospel has been suppressed by wicked governmental systems, that the Church must be freshly and newly established, often repeatedly. Consider, for example, the growth of the Church in Russia, China, Indochina and the Muslim nations over the past several decades, where suppression is and has been extreme.

In her book Eucharistic Miracles, Christian author Joan Carroll Cruz relates the following account of a ministry supported by tongues, this account occurring closer to our own time than that of the early Church:

“Another who shed tears before the Sacrament of the Altar was St. Francis Solano (d. 1610), a native of Andalusia, Spain who was pious and contemplative in his youth. He communicated frequently and devoutly and was able, because of his edifying example, to draw other youths to a similar devotion. At the age of 20 he entered the Franciscan Order, where he so impressed his superiors that soon after his ordination he was given the assignment of novice master. When King Philip II of Spain asked for missionaries for South America to evangelize the native Indians, St. Francis Solano volunteered and set out with a party of priests in 1589. After a trying trip in which his ship was wrecked in a storm, he found his way to Lima, Peru, where his principal labors took place. Because of his gift of tongues he was able to preach to wild tribes in their own dialect. It is said that during his missionary endeavors more than 9,000 persons asked for Baptism. The wildest animals were subject to him, and birds sang at his invitation – as they had for St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of his order.”

One can question the validity of this claim, although the validity itself of one’s question in that regard would be nothing more than a matter of opinion. But one cannot question the fact that the circumstances under which St. Francis Solano was reputed to have spoken in tongues was virtually identical to the situation at the birth of the Church, where Scripture itself openly declared the use of tongues in supporting its development. This fact alone refutes the reasoning behind Mr. Fisk’s declaration that tongues was a one-shot event.

In his diatribe against the use of the gift of tongues, Mr. Fisk makes another assertion, that the Holy Ghost was not given to individuals prior to Jesus’ glorification, which is demonstrably false. While this assertion may have been true during the period when Jesus remained in the flesh prior to the establishment of the Church, there are cases in the Old Testament where the Holy Spirit clearly indwelt selected individuals in order to accomplish the will of God in specific situations. An example that points directly to the Pentecost experience is presented in Numbers 11:25, where God gave the Spirit to the seventy elders, who subsequently prophesied “and did not cease”. Another example is given in Nehemiah 9:20, where the prophet recalls God’s gift of the Holy Spirit to individual Israelites to instruct them in the building of the temple.

Mr. Fisk’s assertions with respect to Acts 10 (the inclusion of Gentiles into the Church through the conversion of Cornelius) and Acts 17 (the establishment of Churches in new and predominantly Gentile lands) are based on the same presuppositions behind his commentary regarding Acts 2. As before, I make the counter-assertion that these situations, far from being unique to that period, are in effect existing at this very moment in various locales throughout the world. I also repeat my assertion that the referenced Scriptural accounts in no way imply that such situations would be unique to that time, nor even hint that the gift of tongues was unique to that period.

Regarding the gift of tongues as noted in First Corinthians 12-14, Mr. Fisk declares that while all Christians receive the indwelling Holy Spirit, not all speak in tongues, nor does this gift represent sanctification. Having established those points, he then distorts this basic understanding into the familiar assertion that the gift of tongues was reserved for unique situations (the ones he attempted to establish earlier and are supposedly no longer in existence) and eventually into the assertion that the practice was actually discouraged. Along the way, he addresses the real reason behind his assertions: the abuse of the gift of tongues. His statements with respect to this abuse reveal his reactionary overgeneralization, amounting to a desire to suppress the gift in order to stop the abuse, or, equivalently, to “throw the baby out with the bathwater”.

Mr. Fisk concludes his discussion with a summary of his interpretation of what Scripture has to say about the gift of tongues. I will present below his various points along with my own commentary regarding them.

“Tongues served as an initiatory token to confirm the establishment of a new order, the Church” This is pure conjecture, not related to the cited Scriptural passages. In fact, as I have noted above, there are renewals currently taking place around the world whose circumstances closely resemble those encountered in Acts.

“The Holy Spirit’s power and blessing was entered into without tongues.” This over-generalization is arrogant and unjustified. The linkage of the indwelling Holy Spirit with the gift of tongues is a matter entirely up to God, most fortunately without the participation or direction of Mr. Fisk.

“Tongues was not given to all believers.” I’m tempted to agree with Mr. Fisk on this point, but then again, the gift and its exercise are two different things, so who’s to say whether we who don’t use the gift don’t do so because we don’t think we should or because our devotion is lacking.

“Tongues was only one of several spiritual gifts granted at that time.” Okay, but so what?

“Tongues evidently was a peculiarity of the age of apostolic signs and wonders.” Perhaps Mr. Fisk may think so, but that doesn’t make it true. There is no Scriptural basis whatsoever for this assertion.

“The appearance of tongues was manifestly occasional.” Perhaps, but by no stretch can that be interpreted (and over-generalized) to preclude its validity today.

“Tongues was an inferior gift, even in the day of its occurrence.” How wonderful that God has Mr. Fisk to tell him what’s important and what’s not in His relationship with mankind.

“Tongues is not to be sought, but passed by in favor of gifts that edify all.” At first, I tended to agree with Mr. Fisk on this point, as the seeking of tongues is a common starting point for abuse. On second thought, the implication made here by Mr. Fisk is that this gift, even if valid, is to be rejected in favor of “better” ones. If this is indeed what Mr. Fisk meant, he’ll have a lot to answer for to God. I, for one, would never be so impudent with God as to reject an offered gift.

“If manifest, the employment of tongues was sharply restricted and regulated.” Certainly, because of the obvious problem of abuse. But again, who is man to turn up his nose at anything offered by God?

“Indications are that tongues would not be permanent.” This is a restatement of an earlier point he made regarding the uniqueness in time of the gift of tongues. Again, there is absolutely no Scriptural justification for this statement.

In conclusion of my review of Mr. Fisk’s commentary on the gift of tongues, I assert that he is doing exactly the same thing as those who he claims are abusers of the gift: he’s attempting to put the Holy Spirit, and thus God, into a box of his own design and dimensions. In doing so, he’s creating his own God. But his box is not only glaringly hypocritical, it is even more confining and ugly that the one he accuses the abusers of creating.

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