Monday, March 19, 2007
Part Two: Tongues in the post Apostolic Church
Section 1- Speaking in Tongues in the first 4 centuries
In exploring the charismatic experience, our first step outside of Biblical narrative and into early church history is a step onto an overgrown path. I say this because, although there is a fair amount of information about “charismatic” gifts in early church history, little attention is given to this part of history (in regards to this particular topic) from either Pentecostals or their critics. This seems to be due to the fact that Pentecostal/Charismatic churches tend to be restorationist, believing that the church was led off course and needs to be “restored” to its original state, and do not like to extend the works of the Holy Spirit too far beyond the Apostolic era lest they be forced to accept the Catholic Church as Spirit led. Oddly enough many cessationist churches hold a similar disliking for the Catholic Church and will write off accounts of prophecy, tongues, and miraculous healings as the works of cults or mystics (a derogatory term in cessationist circles due to such writers as B.B. Warfield).
What both views lack in nuance they make up for in tenacity. In most Pentecostal churches, the only church history given jumps from the book of Acts to 1901 Kansas where students of Bethel Bible College began speaking in tongues. This can be observed simply by looking at the “history” section of the official Assemblies of God website. Without even blinking, they have ignored and invalidated (at least from their perspective) almost 2 millennia of church history. The cessationists are not without their own audacities and are quick to label saints of the Catholic and Orthodox churches as heretic (or at least associate them with heretics). In between these extreme rests many protestant churches that treat the charismatic experience as a taboo in a similar fashion as sexuality, acknowledging its necessity for the formation of the church but seeing it as distasteful to discuss in decent company (perhaps there is more to the similarities in how the many churches deals with the charismatic gifts and sex, but that is a topic for another time).
I feel that in order to understand this topic fully we must take a serious look at speaking in tongues, prophecy, and other such gifts in the first few centuries To begin, I would like to make a clear distinction between the various cults that displayed behaviors similar to the gifts in question and, what I believe to be genuine acts of the Holy Spirit. So let us begin with the cults.
Cults and Heretics within the Early Church
1) The Gnostics
I will assume that most of my readers will be at least somewhat knowledgeable of the Gnostics. This heretical offshoot of Christianity was known to perform a wide variety of strange ceremonies and spiritual exercises including ecstatic utterances.
Among Gnostic groups, glossolalia of the type requiring interpretation was common, and there exist several transcribed Gnostic Prayers in the Coptic Tongue in which are included several lines of ejaculated glossolalic syllables or single vowels and consonants. There are also instances of nearly unintelligible utterances in some Gnostic texts in which Aramaic words or other nomina barbara can be recognized in somewhat distorted form.[i]
Not only do we find an example of glossolalia in the Gnostic sect, but we also have one of the first (if not the first) examples of the sort of nomina barbara (to borrow a great word from the text) that we see in Pentecostal churches.
2) The Montanists
The Montanists were a heretical Christian sect that began in the second century under the leadership of Montanus and existed, in some form or another, until the seventh century according to some accounts. They were known mostly for their ecstatic prophecies in which the prophets believed themselves to be possessed by the Holy Spirit. The practices of the Montanists conflicted with Orthodoxy at the time in several areas. Most significantly, the Montanists felt that their prophecies superceded the doctrine of the church and the teachings of the Apostles. They were also known to have put aside the traditional language of Christian prophecy (i.e. “Thus saith the Lord”) and instead chose to speak in first person saying things such as “"I am the Father, the Word, and the Paraclete," The teachings of Montanus were heavily inspired by his belief that the end of the world was at hand and that Christ’s thousand year reign would soon begin. His followers, Priscilla and Maximilla, who took over the cult after Montanus’s death, gave prophecies supporting this idea including a universal war, none of which came to pass.[ii] One of the several major church figures to discuss the Montanists was the Christian historian, Eusebius. He writes in his masterwork, The History of the Church,
There is said to be a recent convert named Montanus, while Gratus was proconsul of Syria, in his unbridled ambition to reach the top laid himself open to the adversary, was filled with spiritual excitement and suddenly fell into a kind of trance and unnatural ecstasy. He raved, and began to chatter and talk nonsense, prophesying in a way that conflicted with the practice of the Church handed down generation by generation from the beginning.[iii]
Eusebius describes in this text a practice of ‘ecstatic chattering’ that, even though it was used as prophecy, was contrary to Christian teachings. The fact that such behavior cannot even be redeemed through its use as prophecy should give us a clue as to the dangers of this "chatter and nonsense talk." The author makes a clear point to say that the problem does not lie in the idea of prophecy led by the Holy Spirit, but in the method by which the prophecy is given which “conflicted with the practice of the Church.” Later in the text, the author (whom Eusebius is quoting from) lists several prophets in the Church that are held in high esteem for their gift. So clearly it is the divisive “chatter” that is at fault here.
Speaking in Tongues in Orthodox Christian Tradition
In the first four centuries of the church we find several references to speaking in tongues by the Church Fathers and other notable Christian leaders.
Irenaeus (c. 130-202) Irenaeus was in bishop in Lyons and spent a great deal of his career defending Christian Orthodoxy from heretical teachings such as that of the Gnostics. Irenaeus was a student of Polycarp who was in turn a disciple of the Apostle John. He writes of tongues,
For this reason does the apostle declare, "We speak wisdom among them that are perfect," terming those persons "perfect" who have received the Spirit of God, and who through the Spirit of God do speak in all languages, as he used Himself also to speak. In like manner we do also hear many brethren in the Church, who possess prophetic gifts, and who through the Spirit speak all kinds of languages, and bring to light for the general benefit the hidden things of men, and declare the mysteries of God,[iv]
In this quote lies two important points. First, we have an account of speaking in tongues occurring after the deaths of the Apostles. Second, tongues is clearly seen to be speaking “all kinds of languages,” not just a solitary angelic language. Irenaeus implies that we should seek to speak “all languages” so as to spread the Word of God to all nations.
Novatian (d. 258) Novatian was a controversial figure in his time. He was a Presbyter in Rome who opposed the offer made by Pope Cornelius to forgive the sins of Christians who had committed apostasy during the Decian persecution. He was consecrated as pope by three bishops (some believe against his will) and, needless to say, was excommunicated. But despite his disagreement with the pope, his doctrine remained orthodox and he is considered a father of the church. He writes in his treatise On the Trinity he writes,
This is He who places prophets in the Church, instructs teachers, directs tongues, gives powers and healings, does wonderful works, offers discrimination of spirits, affords powers of government, suggests counsels, and orders and arranges whatever other gifts there are of charismata; and thus make the Lord's Church everywhere, and in all, perfected and completed.[v]
Here again we have a post Apostolic writer supporting the gift of tongues in his own time. This passage does not specifically say that “tongues” is speaking in an existing language, but I feel that it can be assumed. Notice that tongues is listed after prophecy and teaching and that all gifts are said to be used to “make the Lord’s Church everywhere.” It seems a much more likely understanding of this text to see the gift as tongues as a tool by which to minister to those in foreign nations, not as some incoherent, private prayer language.
Hilary of Poitiers (c. 300-367) St. Hilary was a bishop and Doctor of the Church. He was known to some as the “Athanasius of the west” and did a great deal of work refuting the Arians. St. Hilary writes of speaking in tongues in his work On the Trintiy (popular title I guess).
After quoting the list of gifts in 1 Corinthians 12, he commented: “here was have a statement of the purpose and results of the Gift, and I cannot conceive what doubt can remain, after so clear a definition of His origin, His action, and His powers.” In a subsequent chapter, he mentioned among other things the “gifts of either speaking or interpreting diverse kinds of tongues” and concluded: “Clearly these are the Church’s agents of ministry and work of whom the body of Christ consists; and God has ordained them.”[vi]
Pachomius (c. 292-348) St. Pachomius was the founder of cenobitic monasticism and had a first hand experience with speaking in tongues. Once, after praying for three hours he was able to speak in Latin ( a language he did not previously speak) with a visitor from the West.[vii]
[i] Michael P. Hamilton, The Charismatic Movement (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975) 64.
[ii] Chas S. Clifton, Encyclopedia of Heresies and Heretics (New York: Barnes & Noble Inc., 1992) 98-99.
[iii] Eusebius, The History of The Church From Christ to Constantine, V, xvi (London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1989) 161.
[iv] Irenaeus, Against Heresies V, vi, 1
[v] Novatian, On the Trinity XXIX