Tongues | A Historical Theology of Tongues-Speaking

The following belongs to a series on the continuation or cessation of the miraculous phenomena of tongues-speaking. Read the previous post here.

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“Reinventing the wheel” has never been an efficient venture. Contemporary theology owes much to the theological progress made before it. Although it certainly does not have the final word in the matter, what historical theology can contribute to this study on tongues must be considered, as demanded by wisdom and caution.

If continuationism is true, one would expect to find evidences of tongues in those centuries closest to the apostolic era. However, as D.A. Carson notes, from the beginning of the 2nd century until the Montanists emerged, claims of tongues-speaking were tremendously rare.1 Eusebius of Caesaria (AD 263-339) gave report of this 2nd century sect (the Montanists) which practiced babbling speech. His report reveals that this group was divisive, declared heretical, and expelled from the Church.2

Looking further into church history leads one to find various statements made by the Church Fathers which seem to indicate a cessationist understanding of tongues. For instance, Origen of Alexandria (AD 185-254) stated,

The Holy Spirit gave signs of His presence at the beginning of Christ’s ministry, and after His ascension He gave still more; but since that time these signs have diminished. . . .3

John Chrysostom (AD 347-407) while commenting on 1 Corinthians 12:1-2 wrote,

This whole place {1 Corinthians 12:1-2} is very obscure: but the obscurity is produced by our ignorance of the facts referred to and by their {spiritual gifts} cessation, being such as then used to occur but now no longer take place.4

And finally, Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430) claimed,

In the earliest times, “the Holy Ghost fell upon them that believed: and they spake with tongues,” which they had not learned, “as the Spirit gave them utterance.” These were signs adapted to the time. For there behooved to be that betokening of the Holy Spirit in all tongues, to shew that the Gospel of God was to run through all tongues over the whole earth. That thing was done for a betokening, and it passed away.5

And besides these direct statements, as Gromacki notes, despite the fact that these Fathers wrote 1) letters to churches where tongues had originally been practiced and 2) on practically every major NT doctrine, no mention is made to the existence of tongues in their time.6 This testimony from the early church, concerning the belief that tongues had ceased by the time of the Church Fathers, seems to heavily support the cessationist view.7

However, continuationists such as Jon Ruthven make somewhat decent arguments for the belief in and occurrence of miraculous activity during the early church and church history in general.8 How should cessationism respond? First, much of this evidence provided concerns miraculous activity in general and not tongues. Second, most claimed tongues-speakers in between the apostolic period and the 19th century, who are not many,9 were sectarian, mystical, bizarre, typically heretical, considered aberrations by their contemporaries, and on the fringe of Christianity.10 And thirdly, practically every occurrence of these so-called tongues does not fit the Biblical model (i.e., not intelligible human languages).11

In conclusion, this historical argument is not conclusive for either cessationism or against continuationism. It is partly an argument from experience as well as an argument from silence.12 But, if nothing else, it does place an extremely significant burden of proof on continuationists to prove that church history’s experience and teaching was unbiblical.

Notes

1. Carson, Showing the Spirit, 166.

2. Eusebius described Montanus as a “recent convert” with “unquenchable desire for leadership” who “raved, and began to babble and utter strange things, prophesying in a manner contrary to the constant custom of the Church.” Many who heard his “spurious utterances . . . rebuked him as one . . . that was under control of a demon.” Some of the errant doctrines and bizarre practices of the Montanists that Eusebius mentioned include a denial of the universal Church, claims of one to have been taken into heaven, falling into trances, and unsuccessful attempts at predicting future wars. Eventually Montanus and one of his partners, Maximilla, hung themselves. Eusebius of Caesaria, “The Church History of Eusebius,” trans. Arthur Cushman McGiffert in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series, Volume I: Eusebius: Church History, Life of Constantine the Great, and Oration in Praise of Constantine, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1890), 231-33.

3. Origen, “Origen Against Celsus,” trans. Frederick Crombie in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume IV: Fathers of the Third Century: Tertullian, Part Fourth; Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson and A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 614.

4. John Chrysostom, “Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the First Epistle of St. Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians,” trans. Hubert Kestell Cornish, John Medley and Talbot B. Chambers in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series, Volume XII: Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians, ed. Philip Schaff (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1889), 168.

5. Continued: “In the laying on of hands now, that persons may receive the Holy Ghost, do we look that they should speak with tongues? Or when we laid the hand on these infants, did each one of you look to see whether they would speak with tongues, and, when he saw that they did not speak with tongues, was any of you so wrong-minded as to say, These have not received the Holy Ghost; for, had they received, they would speak with tongues as was the case in those times?” Augustine of Hippo, “Ten Homilies on the First Epistle of John,” trans. H. Browne and Joseph H. Myers in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series, Volume VII: St. Augustine: Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, Soliloquies, ed. Philip Schaff (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), 497-98.

6. Gromacki, Modern Tongues, 17-18.

7. Also important to this study is the fact that the Church Fathers held to the belief that tongues is a supernatural enabling to speak intelligible human languages (not babbling). See Francis Gumerlock, “Tongues in the Church Fathers,” Reformation and Revival RAR 13:4 (2004) for direct quotations from the early Church Fathers and others.

8. For example, continuationists often claim Augustine later repudiated cessationism as seen by the many miracles he attests to in his City of God, 22.8. See Ruthven’s arguments in his work Cessation of the Charismata, ch. 1.

9. Such minimal “occurrences” argue against continuationism. Since tongues is sovereignly bestowed by the Spirit (1 Cor 12:11), it seems logical that tongues should appear throughout all of church history if continuationism is true.

10. See Gromacki, Modern Tongues, ch.5; Anthony A. Hoekema, What About Tongue-Speaking? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966), ch.1; Edgar, Promise of the Spirit, ch. 8; Carson, Showing the Spirit, 166; MacArthur, Charismatic Chaos, 234-235.

11. With that, Gumerlock states he was only able to find two claims in the patristic period where individuals supposedly spoke in unlearned human languages (“Tongues in the Church Fathers,” 131-33). Both of these occurrences, however, are extremely suspicious and unlikely genuine.

12. Continuationist Jack Deere argues that the experience of church history is a weak argument since one can only know the facts but not the interpretation or reason for the facts (Surprised by the Power of the Spirit: Discovering How God Speaks and Heals Today [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993], 100-101).

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5 thoughts on “Tongues | A Historical Theology of Tongues-Speaking

  1. methinks you could be a little more conclusive than that with the data cited. granted it isn’t conclusive, but, from the way you wrote the body of the article, it seems fairly obvious that cessationism has a significant upper hand in the historical theology category.

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    • Sure, but I don’t want to pull off a double standard. Continuationists, namely the really charismatic types, will make arguments based on experience. I don’t want to condemn that argumentation and then in the same moment employ it myself (although don’t get me wrong; personally, I must say I value Chrysostom’s early Church experience over the nearby Assembly of God pastor’s 21st century experience). With that said, experience and Church history are so helpful, but are not the final straw. Hence, I tried to take a balanced, and above all, honest approach in my arguments and conclusions.

      I found this issue surprisingly to be one of the toughest theological issues I’ve approached so far, not because of its magnitude throughout scripture or because of how vital/central it is to one’s overall theology (such as with issues directly dealing with redemptive history), but because of how attached the issue is to one’s overall theology (case and point, see the next post in this series, which is only a sampling of this fact) alongside the fact that there is little information on this issue in scripture itself. Because of that, I believe caution should be taken to be dogmatic only were dogmatism is really allowed.

      This article series was originally my BSS paper, and so consequently, I read thousands of pages (no exaggeration) as I put this thing together. And with that, I deliberately read a high quantity of books and theological articles from all the various positions (namely, because I didn’t know what I believed on the issue as I endeavored on this study; in other words, I didn’t grow up Cessationist). So I guess having read countless good scholarly arguments from both sides of things (as well as moderate, mediating positions) also influenced me into being less than dogmatic here.

      But either way, I would agree with your assessment, “it seems fairly obvious that cessationism has a significant upper hand in the historical theology category.”

      Thanks for probing that response, because several people have asked me about the same thing here.

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    • that is fair, although, i don’t think that would necessarily be a double standard. your ending just seemed abrupt like you were downplaying your extensive research. p.s. “for either cessationism or against continuationism.” (aren’t they both the same side?)

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    • “for either cessationism or against continuationism.” – I’m simply being very precise here. To illustrate, there were negative reasons why I did NOT choose to go to Maranatha Seminary and there are positive reasons why I DID decide to attend Trinity’s, although the summation of these reasons influenced my final decision to attend Trinity. So, similarly–reasons FOR cessationism or reasons AGAINST continuationism. Hope that clarifies.

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