Edmund Clowney on Tongues

I’m currently working through Sammy’s copy of “The Church” by Edmund Clowney, an installment of the Contours of Christian Theology series. He’s covered some foundational ground concerning nurturing the church, mission of the church and structure of the church. This morning I completed his chapter on the ministry of women in the church and came upon his examination of the gift of the spirit, particularly tongues. I’ve loosely summarized the content of the chapter.

Pentecostalism holds that the gift of the Holy Spirit is a second work of grace and that glossolalia is a necessary sign of the Spirit. This was followed by the ‘Third Wave’ that still holds charismatic beliefs, but separates itself from Pentecostals. Clowney explains that Third Wave charismatics hold that baptism in the Spirit is part of conversion, not a second work of grace, speaking in tongues is not a necessary result of Spirit baptism and that service rather than spiritual experience is the mark of a Christian.

The Holy Spirit was at work during the apostolic age as the apostles worked out ‘apostolic signs’. These validated the apostles’ claims (2 Cor. 12:12) and were a continuation of the signs of Christ, as we can see in Peter’s raising the dead (Acts 9:40) and healing the lame man (Acts 3:12-16). However, these apostolic signs were not always being shown, but when they were manifested; they were to the testament of Christ’s finished work. Apostolic signs have ceased (gifts of prophecy are no longer direct revelation inspired by the Spirit, which resulted in the New Testament writings), but this does not mean gifts of the spirit have. Glossolalia is not in later Pauline letters and post-Corinthian New Testament writings. Irenaeus heard or had heard of tongues and prophecy. But from the mid-third century to the seventeenth century, little to no tongue-speaking is evidenced. Augustine had to reasons for this lack of tongue-speaking: 1) ‘testimony of temporal sensible miracles’ was given in the early church era ‘to be the credential of the first beginnings of the church’, 2) early church spoke tongues as a sign of the gospel’s spread to all nations so that it would be actually spread in their native tongues. Tongue-speaking would remember post-Reformation in the Shaker movement and the Great Awakening.

In the Book of Acts, we see that the gift of tongues is a miracle of languages. Clowney notes the theological implication of the speaking of tongues at Pentecost as a reversal of Babel and that God will be praised at Zion in several tongues. The gospel was to be addressed to all nations. Clowney then brings in a concept that I have never heard of before, but I assume is widespread in learned circles of Biblical scholars. Clowney explains that most people assume that the gift of tongues at Corinth was ecstatic/syllabic speech without any structure, meaning that it is not a real language. And therefore, people have imposed this interpretation onto Pentecost. However, at Pentecost, Peter was speaking in different languages, so why not interpret Corinthian tongue-speaking as well as simply speaking different languages? Clowney notes the discontinuity of Peter speaking of two different forms of tongues at Pentecost and in Acts 10:46; 19:6, if we interpret tongues as languages at Pentecost and then tongues as ecstatic/syllabic speech later on. Therefore, Clowney holds that the use of tongues in the New Testament was linguistic speech, the same as used by Peter at Pentecost, and not ecstatic/syllabic speech as we usually see today.

An objection to this understanding is 1 Cor. 13:1, when tongues is referred to as angelic, so people have interpreted it as the language of angels. Clowney holds that Paul is being hyperbolic-that even if angelic language were used without love, it would be useless.

Figuring out what glossolalia in Corinth was like is important because today speaking in tongues has no linguistic structure, but comes in the form of ecstatic/syllabic speech. If we take tongues to require linguistic structure to be interpreted, then contemporary usage is unscriptural. We know that tongues will eventually cease (1 Cor. 13:8), but the question is when-interpretations range from post-apostolic age to the parousia.

Clowney ends with a note on how there must be order in the church. Whether or not tongue-speaking is still being poured out by the Spirit, Jonathan Edwards’ warning should be heeded, that “the powerful working of the Spirit may at times make physical responses irrepressible, but it cannot excuse substituting continuing chaos for the order of reverent joy in the presence of the Lord” (p. 254).

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