PMT 2014-063 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.
Eschatology is not an addition to Christian theology. It stands at the very heart of it. Consequently, it impacts and colors all areas of biblical truth. Oftentimes we can understand a biblical phenomenon better if we see in terms of its implications for the outworking of redemption, for redemptive-history’s progress to its climax.
Willem Van Gemeren succinctly notes that eschatology is “the totality of the teaching of Scripture on the redemption of God” (Van Gemeren, Progress of Redemption, 458). Thus, as Michael Horton observes: “Eschatology should be a lens and not merely a locus. In other words, it affects the way we see everything in scripture rather than only serving as an appendix to the theological system” (Horton, Covenant and Eschatology, 5).
One of the most remarkable (and tragic) phenomenon of our times is the outbreak of the charismatic movement in the last fifty years. Christianity has moved from a foundationally Word-based approach to God to an almost total experience-based approach. And when charismatics even attempt to root their experience in Scripture, they fail to understand the Scriptures generally and eschatology particularly.
The charismatic movement is also multi-faceted, of course, boasting a wide variety of charismatic experiences. Among its adherents we read of prophetic utterances, miraculous healings, being “slain in the Spirit,”“holy laughter,”and so forth. Nevertheless, “speaking in tongues” (or glossolalia, as it is technically known) is certainly one of the most distinctive features of the movement. In this series I will investigate the Scriptural data regarding three fundamental issues relating to tongues-speaking: (1) The nature of tongues, (2) the purpose (or function), of tongues, and (3) the transience of tongues. These issues impact our understanding of eschatology. Or rather, our understanding of eschatology should impact our analysis of tongues.
The Nature of Tongues
In studying biblical tongues we must consider their nature in terms of both form and content.
The Form of Tongues in Scripture. Basically two standard positions are used to explain the biblical form of tongues-speaking: One claims that tongues were ecstatic utterances. These utterances were rhapsodic, incoherent, spiritual ejaculations of prayer and praise with no formal, linguistic structure discernible. Frequently adherents of this view speak of tongues as a “heavenly language.” This view almost universally prevails in charismatic circles today.
The other view holds tongues were a miraculous endowment of the Holy Spirit whereby the charismatically-endowed Christian could speak an historical, foreign, human language which he had never learned. Thus, tongues were a truly miraculous phenomenon of a remarkable nature.
That tongues were structured, coherent, foreign languages is evident from the Scriptural record. The following provides incontrovertible evidence in this direction.
First, the evidence from first occurrence. The definitive, first-occurrence of tongues was indisputably in the form of structured foreign languages. In Acts 2 the first historical manifestation of tongues-speaking confirms its biblical form:
And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were bewildered, because they were each one hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and marveled, saying `Why are not all these who speak Galileans? And how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born. . . . We hear them in our tongues speaking the mighty deeds of God.’” (Acts 2:6-8, 11)
This first occurrence is definitive of biblical tongues, for this is the very experience prophesied by God through the prophet Joel (Joel 2:28-32; Acts 2:16-19) and by the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 1:5).
Second, evidence from later episodes. Subsequent occurrences of tongues-speaking in Acts conform to the pattern established in Acts 2. The very next express reference to tongues is found in Acts 10:45-46. When the Lord opens the hearts of Cornelius and his household to the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ, they immediately exercise the identical gift: “And all the circumcised believers who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out upon the Gentiles also. For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God.” When this event is related to the Jerusalem Church, Peter reports that “as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, just as He did upon us at the beginning. . . . If God therefore gave to them the same gift as He gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” (Acts 11:15, 17).
Note that Peter carefully defines this experience in terms of the Pentecost event. This is the “same gift”; it falls upon Cornelius’s household “just as” does upon Peter and the 120 “at the beginning.” Clearly the original Pentecost tongues serve as the paradigm for later manifestations.
Third, the evidence from identical terminology. All references to tongues-speaking in Scripture employ the same basic terminology, thus indicating identity of form. The Greek word for “tongues” occurring in all instances of tongues-speaking is glossa. The Greek word for “speak” in every instance is laleo. Since tongues are not re-defined elsewhere, and since all instances employ the same terminology as in Acts, and since an obvious pattern is set early in Acts, we may safely conclude that the biblical form of tongues was constant. Tongues were foreign, human languages spoken under a miraculous movement of the Holy Spirit.
Fourth, the evidence from language analogy. The Corinthian tongues are defined in terms fully compatible with episodes in Acts. In 1 Corinthians 14:10-11, while in the course of speaking to the Corinthian abuse of tongues, Paul writes: “There are, perhaps, a great many kinds of languages in the world, and no kind is without meaning. If then I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be to the one who speaks a barbarian, and the one who speaks will be a barbarian to me.”
Here we must note two important facts: (1) Paul expressly asserts that no language is without meaning. He is comparing tongues to world languages, and he recognizes that all languages have coherent meaning. (2) He also observes that at Corinth the gift of tongues is being employed wrongly. That is, in such a manner that no one present could understand the particular foreign language spoken.
That tongues here are foreign languages is evident in that Paul compares the situation to a meeting between two foreigners. The Greek word “barbarian” indicates one who speaks a foreign language unknown by the Greek-speaking person. Foreigners do not babble incoherently; they speak structured languages — even though the one to whom they speak might not personally understand the language. This is precisely the failure of the Corinthian Christians: they are employing their gift of tongues (languages) indiscriminately and, thus, are not benefiting the congregation any more than would a preacher speaking a sermon to them in a foreign language.
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See more study materials at: www.KennethGentry.com
Fifth, Paul’s principle of speech. Paul enunciates a biblical principle which negates the possibility of tongues being rhapsodic frenzy. In 1 Corinthians 14:32 Paul writes that “the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets.” That is, it is not in keeping with the biblical concept of spiritual gifts for one to lose control of his psycho-somatic self in an emotional frenzy. In divine endowments the Lord gifts the whole man — the rational, as well as the emotional aspects of man’s being. It is only in paganism that those “gifted of the gods” lose control of themselves as their rationality is overridden by a surging of demonic power.
Consequently, the form of tongues in Scripture is that of miraculously granted ability to speak in foreign human languages previously unknown to the speaker. Before moving on to other matters, though, I will survey several leading texts employed in support of the ecstatic-utterance viewpoint.
As we continue our study, we will see that this miraculous endowment of foreign languages is an eschatological sign. But for now we are having to present tongues as they actually occur in Scripture. If tongues true meaning is lost, then its eschatological significance is distorted.