Outline

I. Glossolalia, or "speaking in tongues," has always been a powerful and divisive form of religious experience in

Christianity, both in the beginning—it divided the crowd at Pentecost (Acts 2:12-13)—and in many churches today.

A. Champions of the practice regard it as the most direct sign of the power of the Holy Spirit and the prophetic voice of the church. In charismatic or Pentecostal movements within Christianity, "tongues" is the defining experience.

B. Many other Christians, while acknowledging that glossolalia is found in the New Testament, regard it as something of an embarrassment. They see in the practice a potential for self-delusion or even deception.

II. Even the definition of the phenomenon gives rise to disagreement concerning appropriate methods of analysis.

A. What New Testament sources should be used and how should they be read? Do the narrative allusions in Mark and Acts point to the same phenomenon as Paul's discussion does in 1 Corinthians 12-14? Do their quite different descriptions suggest different experiences or only different interpretations of the same experience?

B. How much should cross-cultural evidence affect the interpretation of the early Christian practice? Some form of ecstatic utterance is associated with ancient Hebrew prophets, and mantic prophecy is well attested and highly esteemed in Greek religion. Do these shed light on the Christian phenomenon or should they be excluded?

C. The hardest question concerns contemporary practice: Modern-day Pentecostals claim that their experience and practice is the same as that reported in the New Testament. Should these claims affect analysis?

III. Two standard definitions of speaking in tongues divide practitioners and analysts.

A. In Pentecostal groups, tongues is considered to be speech in real but unknown languages (xenoglossia) that is given by divine inspiration. The evidence in Mark and Acts, together with some lines in 1 Corinthians 14 support this view, but it is mostly based on anecdotal contemporary evidence.

B. Linguists and students of religious phenomenology define glossolalia as an ecstatic utterance, a form of ordered babbling. This reading takes more account of the rest of the evidence in 1 Corinthians 12-14 and contemporary studies of cross-cultural glossolalic practice.

C. The evidence best supports the position that glossolalia is not the speaking of a foreign language unknown to the speaker but a form of ecstatic babbling.

1. Psychologically and sociologically, tongues is both a learned behavior and an expression of spiritual joy and release.

2. Religiously, the power to praise and prophesy in this fashion is attributed to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

IV. The two main sources for the practice of glossolalia in earliest Christianity agree on some aspects of it but interpret it differently.

A. Both Acts and Paul agree that glossolalia is a "more-than-human" form of speech that is empowered by the Holy Spirit, is associated with prophecy, and connotes the presence of the risen Lord Jesus in the community.

B. Acts has a straightforward and positive evaluation of tongues as a form of prophecy. The ecstatic speech at Pentecost is the decisive sign that the Spirit has been poured out on the followers of Jesus following his Resurrection.

C. Paul has a much more ambivalent attitude toward glossolalia, despite himself being a practitioner.

1. He allows its expression in the assembly but only when the speech can be "interpreted" and, thus, made intelligible to the community.

2. He much prefers what he calls "prophecy," which is a non-ecstatic form of speech that "builds up" the community through rational discourse.

V. Paul's cautious attitude toward glossolalia predicts its ambiguous continuing role in Christianity.

A. Positively, speaking in tongues clearly was a powerful religious experience. For the individual, it was a literal "empowerment" and "experience of the divine"; for the community, it was empirical evidence for the presence of the Holy Spirit of prophecy.

B. Negatively, we learn that ecstatic utterance could be confused with pagan forms of prophecy, that it could be used divisively in support of spiritual elitism, and that it could be disruptive.

C. Cross-cultural studies indicate that ecstatic speech sometimes functions subversively to undermine male authority structures. The practice of "prophecy" by Corinthian women prophets may have been perceived as such a threat.

D. Despite its obvious power and appeal, glossolalia quickly becomes marginal in Christianity, associated with primitive times and deviant "enthusiast" groups. For the same reason, it also is a frequent feature of reform and revitalization movements in Christianity.

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