The Church: An Organic Picture of Its Life

by Robert Brow

Brow Publications, 1996

Chapter 7

Tongues and Interpretation

It is tempting to avoid discussing the controversial until the acceptable has been accepted, but our consideration here cannot escape the controversial; tongue-speaking is needed to explain the other gifts. In any case many readers will begin with this chapter to form an opinion about the book as a whole. For or against tongue-speaking, opinions are strong. and the whole church is discussing a rediscovery of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, in which the understanding of "tongues" is central. I shall begin with two obvious facts that will soon indicate the direction of my prejudice.

The Corinthian Church spoke in tongues as a regular practice, and Paul certainly did not discourage them (I Cor. 14; esp. v. 39). There are at least three other passages in the New Testament where tongues are mentioned, usually in connection with receiving the Holy Spirit.[19]

Secondly, speaking in tongues as part of regular church meetings, as opposed to private experiences that may have been more common, seems to have died out until this century.[20] There are three explanations for this eclipse. One is that tongue-speaking is a psychological by-product of religious excitement with similar manifestations in Greek religion, the voodoo sects of Haiti, and certain oriental cults. Or we can say that this was the miraculous unrepeatable sign of the inauguration of the New Testament era, so that all subsequent manifestations are spurious. Those who have experienced speaking in tongues usually assume that just as it took fifteen centuries - until the time of Reformation - to rediscover justification by faith, so it has taken nineteen centuries to rediscover the power of the Holy Spirit. Peripheral; superseded; rediscovered - these are the three options. If we hold to the "rediscovered" view, we can say either that it is an essential experience for all Spirit-filled Christians, or that it is a possible manifestation for those who have this gift. What follows is based on the latter view. I am convinced that there have been and there are genuine manifestations of this gift of the Holy Spirit, but I am equally convinced that there are men and women who are filled with the Holy Spirit without this particular gift. I hope I can remain on the happiest of Christian terms with those who hold the other views.

If tongue-speaking is a gift of the Spirit with genuine manifestations in our day, as well as much spurious excitement, what exactly is its nature? Nineteen hundred years before modern psychology Paul made an important distinction between conscious mental activity and the deeper level of the spirit. He stated that it is possible to use one's vocal cords to pray, sing, or speak, under the direct control of the subconscious as well as mediated through the thinking mind. "If I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful (inactive). What am I to do? I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also; I will sin-, with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also.... In Church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue" (I Cor. 14:14f., 19). The experience of singing without using one's conscious mind is common. Most Christians have experienced times of prayer when they know they have communicated with God from the deepest level of their being, but used no articulate words. Speaking in tongues can be viewed as a similar activity, in which the subconscious communicates to others directly through the vocal cords without using the mind to construct sounds, words, and grammatical sentences.

This explains why the experience of speaking in tongues is so often connected with an outpouring of spiritual life. Men and women are so impressed with this new experience that they are unable to express it in words. In a sympathetic environment they may feel free to use their vocal cords to communicate what they now know with the assurance that others can understand. Their tongue communicates but not according to usual phonetic rules. We can also see why those who have been used to a well-ordered, carefully thought-out devotional life find it so hard to disengage their conscious minds to seek the experience of "tongues." Some who have sought to speak in tongues have through this discovered that their spiritual experience was cold and calculated; and in letting go of themselves they have really found God. Others with a genuine experience of God have looked for the something extra that "tongues" might give them, and not finding it have been unnecessarily frustrated. The essential experience, which may or may not be accompanied by "tongues," is to find oneself loving God with all one's heart; and this should lead to loving him with all one's mind as well. If seeking for "tongues" brings one to seeking to know God in this way, then the seeking has ended in the right direction. If on the other hand one who already loves God with all his heart and all his mind is then persuaded that he needs to look for an experience we should not be surprised if unhealthy results are produced, whether or not he speaks in "tongues."

We need to distinguish the experience of speaking in "tongues" that are incomprehensible, which therefore need interpretation, and the unique experience of Pentecost. There is no doubt that on that occasion the hearers were able to understand the Galilean disciples without distortion of dialect or even of native language. There was a direct communication from heart to heart without any language problem. That this occurs from time to time with particular individuals even today seems probable. There is a growing body of literature on ESP, the phenomenon of extrasensory perception. Some people have an astonishing power of knowing directly without the use of spoken words, or through spoken words in a quite unknown language. It seems that simple and so-called primitive people have often retained this direct avenue of knowledge better than our city dwellers. There may have been a time when men communicated from heart to heart much more than we do now.

We assume that grammatical and syntactical language is necessary for conveying information, but this belief arises only because that is the way we happen to communicate now. Marshall McLuhan has helped us to see the change from tribal to mechanical man that took place as a result of printing. Now he predicts the emergence of a new universal tribal consciousness through the extensions of man's mind made possible by electronics.[21] We can visualize a similar change in humanity long ago at the time when syntactical language first began. Before that, men may have communicated more directly without language distortion. The dividing effect of language may be indicated by the account of the tower of Babel (Gen. 11) when men began to go apart because they could no longer understand each other.

The day of Pentecost was a reversal of the curse of Babel. Again for a brief period men understood each other: they had a foretaste of the reunified humanity that the Messiah was beginning to inaugurate. It is not surprising that this type of direct communication in "tongues" was made possible by God on Pentecost, when the disciples first knew at the deepest level who Jesus was, and the hearers were gathered from every nation for the very purpose of attending what might be called the preview of the declaration of the gospel throughout the world.

Some will object that we have now made "tongues" into something ordinary and common, but this is also the case with all the other gifts of the Spirit. Christianity is superbly ordinary. The only difference is that ordinary activities are shot through with loving God with all one's heart and one's neighbor as oneself. Without that love "tongues" are valueless. Jesus Christ will say "I never knew you" to many who preach in his name, cast out demons, and do other mighty works, So we can hardly expect "tongues" to be a better substitute than these for doing the will of God. Paul accepts the validity of "tongues" plus agape-love, but without the first and great commandment man is nothing but noise and a clanging (Matt. 7: 22f.; I Cor. 13:1 ). Evidently it is possible to speak in tongues and be lost. If an ungodly man speaks in tongues, his communication is Satanic. "Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks." The tongue as a member and "tongues" as a gift are both ordinary and neutral; it is man's heart and the love of God that make the difference.

This may explain why there are recurring reports of the phenomena of "tongues" in other religions. Tibetan monks are said to quote from Shakespeare and use the profanity of drunken English sailors in the excitement of their ritual dances. Travelers describe similar outpourings from the subconscious among the voodoo sects of Tahiti, the dervishes of the Moslem world ' and 'various animistic tribes. These reports all lack scientific documentation, and they may be largely exaggerated second-hand tales, but there is no Possible theological reason for surprise if "tongues" and prophecy are found in other circles. Psychologists are only beginning to dip their toes in the vast seas of extrasensory perception and the group unconscious. Whether or not "tongues" will be satisfactorily explained as an ordinary psychological phenomenon, the New Testament clearly warns us against either accepting it as a proof of godliness in itself or opposing it as an evil to be rejected.

Let us imagine a twentieth-century situation where a group of people have suddenly come to know God in a vital way, and some have expressed this experience in "tongues." What advice would Paul give to them? First of all he is concerned that they learn to articulate their heart experience in understandable words. "Therefore he who speaks in a tongue should pray for the power to interpret" (I Cor. 14:13). He uses the illustration of three musical instruments. The beginner will make noises, but this should lead on to playing a tune or sounding a trumpet call. "If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute, or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will any one know what is played? And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for the battle? So with yourselves; if you in a tongue utter speech that is not intelligible, how will any one know what is said?" (I Cor. 14:7-9).

Evidently Paul would expect every speaker in tongues to go on to prophecy. "He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church. Now I want you (or I am glad if you) all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. He who prophesies is greater than he who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be edified" (I Cor. 14:4f.).

Secondly, Paul would bring the use of tongues under control. Obviously there must be room for the one who has not yet learned to articulate his heart experience in grammatical sentences. Tongues should not be forbidden, but there needs to be someone in the group with the gift of interpretation, otherwise they should keep quiet (I Cor. 14:28). The gift of interpretation enables a more experienced Christian to discern what the speaker in tongues is trying to say, and to put this into intelligible language. The interpreter knows grammatical language, but also understands the "prelanguage" of direct communication. In addition to requiring an interpreter for any speaking in tongues, Paul limits such participation to "two or at the most three" in one meeting; and this should not be a simultaneous pouring out of "tongues" but "each in turn" (I Cor. 14:27). Most of the meeting will be taken up with singing, reading of Scripture, and the expounding of the prophets and teachers. (Evidently Paul is not speaking of a formal meeting for public worship, but a small gathering where most of the group takes part.)

The third emphasis that Paul would bring is the encouragement of all to develop their gifts and to seek "the higher gifts" (I Cor. 12:31). Every Christian should use whatever gift he has. "Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them" (Rom. 12:6). The gift of tongues will normally develop into a gift of prophecy. Other incipient gifts will appear, and these should be encouraged. The gifts of teaching and eldership will probably take much longer to develop. Exercising mercy in an effective way is not a gift that can appear fully formed the first day. This is why "tongues" is so prominent as an immediate gift. Other gifts take time, but any Christian with the gift of "tongues" can express himself immediately. We should expect most of those wit t h his immediate gift to move on to prophecy, which is discussed in the next chapter.

So far we have concentrated on "tongues" as a gift of the Spirit. Like teaching, evangelism, works of mercy, and the like, it is a specialist contribution to the life of the church. In this it needs to be distinguished from "tongues" in private devotion. As we saw earlier in the chapter the experience of direct communication by the Spirit through the subconscious to the conscious mind, but bypassing the reasoning intellect, is probably more common than we imagine. There are many who have found this type of prayer experience very helpful, and they often use the word "tongues" to describe it. Others prefer to confine the term to public exercise of the gift in a church meeting. Rather than argue about the definition, we ought to understand the experience, To insist that both in public and in private a, Christian has no right to communicate unless he uses "normal" language is unreasonable. In a public meeting the use of "tongues" must be ordered and strictly controlled to avoid confusion. In private the bypassing of the reasoning intelligence in some form of "tongue" would probably be a help to many who still find it hard to pray unless they find the right word.

Chapter 8...