We’ve had a fruitful conversation this week on speaking in tongues. (See this post, including the comments section.) I’d like to reproduce, in its entirety, N.T. Wright’s entry on “speaking in tongues” from the glossary section of his Acts for Everyone commentary. I include it as a succinct overview of the issue, not because it settles the questions we’ve discussed since Monday.
Since speaking in tongues is, for many Methodists and other non-Pentecostal (or “charismatic”) Christians, an exotic, esoteric, and slightly threatening phenomenon—not to mention that it will come up again in this Sunday’s sermon on Acts 2—I thought this overview might prove helpful.
If you’ve read my blog for more than a couple of weeks, you already know that I trust the Rt. Rev. Wright as a reliable, credible, and faithful contemporary Bible scholar and theologian. He is simultaneously evangelical and high church, having recently served as a bishop in the Church of England.
In many religious traditions, people who experience certain types of ecstasy have sometimes found themselves speaking, praying or even singing in what seem to them to be languages which they do not themselves understand. Sometimes these turn out to be actual languages which are understood by one or more listeners: this is what is described in Acts 2, and there are many examples from subsequent periods including our own. Sometimes they appear to be a kind of babbling semi-language corresponding to no known human tongue. Sometimes the speaker may be unable to decide which it is. Paul was well aware (1 Corinthians 12.1-3) that phenomena like this could occur in non-Christian contexts, but for him, and for millions since (not least in today’s pentecostal and charismatic movements, though much more widely as well), such prayer was and is powerful in evoking the presence of Jesus, celebrating the energy of the spirit, and interceding for people and situations, particularly when it isn’t clear what exactly to pray for (see, perhaps, Romans 8.26-27). There is however no good reason, within early Christian teaching, to suppose that ‘speaking in tongues’ is either a necessary or a sufficient sign the thte holy spirit is at work in and through someone’s life, still less that they have attained, as has sometimes been claimed, a new and more elevated level of spirituality than those who have not received this gift. To be sure, in Acts 2, and also in Acts 8.1 (by implication at least), 11.46 and 19.6, ‘tongues’ is a sign that the spirit has been poured out on people who weren’t expected to be included in God’s people. But there are plenty of other times when the spirit is powerfully at work without any mention of ‘tongues’, and equally every indication (e.g. 1 Corinthians 12 and 14) that praying in tongues is, for some, a regular practice and not merely an initiatory sign.[†]
† N.T. Wright, Acts for Everyone, Part One (Louisville: WJK, 2008), 210-211.