Thinking In Tongues (In Review)

Derek Ouellette —  March 15, 2011

Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contribution to Christian Philosophy
By James K.A. Smith
3 Stars (out of 5)

The last post was birthed out of this one. It was originally the introduction to this review. But as it turned out, a series of emotions came to the surface and before long it took on its own identity and became its own post.

The stereotype I illustrated in the previous post is also illustrated in the introduction of Thinking in Tongues where Smith tells a story of his own experience. In 1994 he had impressed a room of  scholarly attandees at the Canadian Theological Society by presenting an award winning paper on Christian philosophy. After the presentation he sad down next to “a distinguished Canadian theologian” who merrily engaged Smith in conversation. Through their engagement the scholar asked, “And so, you are from the Dutch Reformed tradition?” “Oh no” Smith replied, “I’m Pentecostal”. Awkardness set in right away and soon after the scholar ended it and politely moved on.

James Smith is a proud Calvinist and also a proud Pentecostal (not the theological mix you see every day) and the question on my mind approaching this book was what does Pentecostalism have to contribute to Christian Philosophy.

It’s an interesting book which explores the Pentecostal worldview and attempts to make explicit the implicit beliefs and assumptions Pentecostals have (p.43). It’s quite the challenge – a philosophical challenge to be sure – to explain and validate what “I know that I know that I know” means when it comes out of the lips of a middle aged woman who believes that her recent conception is a miracle from God in light of her previous barrenness.

Pentecostalism carries with it a stigma of anti-intellectualism – it seems – not because it is, but because not many have articulated the deep-rooted convictions held by Pentecostals of all ranks. The Pentecostal worldview is rooted in four things:

1. A position of radical openness to God

2. An “enchanted” theology of creation and culture (i.e. the active Spirit in the world)

3. A non-dualistic view of embodiment and material (i.e. believe in healings and also prosperity in many cases)

4. An “eschatological orientation of mission and justice”.

Pentecostal philosophy is naturally rooted in the Pentecostal worldview and one of its primary distinctives is experience. Pentecostalism is an implicit critique of Enlightenment Reasoning, “if the pentecostal practice of testimony is a kind of critique of our ‘idolatrous reliance on reason,’ it’s not reason that is the target, but our idolatrous construction of it.” (p.53)

Everything constructed on this book seems to be based on Acts 2 (as we might expect); that an authentic church is a pentecostal church (the church was born on Pentecost); that the church received something new that day, namely the Spirit of God, and to be Pentecostal is to be open to the “newness” of God. To be “eschatological” is to be Pentecostal since it is on Pentecost that the prophecy was fulfilled “the last days”. Thus right there we have the four elements of a Pentecostal worldview, 1. openness to God, 2. activity of the Spirit (healings et cetera), 3. “newness” of God, and 4) eschatological.

This short review hardly covered the essence of Thinking in Tongues and I found the book somewhat difficult to read (certain not anti-intellectual!). None the less, here are a few critiquing thoughts (from someone with more theological – rather than philosophical – aspirations).

1. I felt that James Smith went to great lengths to justify an “I know that I know that I know” worldview as an approapriate critique to reason. I have heard the “I know that I know that I know” expression used in such a way as to alter the biblical text and make it say something quite other then what it actually said, often justifying this “new reading” as coming from the Spirit of God.

Enlightening us to the worldview behind that phrase was fantastic, but I would like to see Smith highlight that worldview in light of Pentecostal progress, not lift it up as already being in a proper place.

2. From a theological point of view, I felt James continued to place an unduly emphasis upon Pentecost as the ground by which all other Christian theologies should be understood. Pentecost is immensely important in the narrative of God and Creation, but it is neither the main thread nor the climax of that story.


I believe Pentecostalism has much offer the rest of the Church, and that’s just the point. Pentecostalism can – and should – contribute to the ecunumical Church by reminding us of the activity of the Spirit in the world, of the continued experience – yes, even emotional experiences – of God’s Spirit at the altar, arms raised high, tears flowing down, perhaps a little dance here or there (no clucking like chickens please, I’m not talking about them weirdos). But Pentecostalism – in my view – by its very nature is too narrow in it’s theology, and while contributing to the rest of the Church traditions it should incorporate from them as well.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.