The Ultimate Evidence – Part 1 Reexamining Tongues-Evidence

Derek Ouellette —  January 19, 2012

“This writer was baptized with the Holy Spirit at the age of thirteen and spoke in tongues, and I still speak in tongues” – Larry Newman, p.3

I have come across many books over the years written on the topic of Spirit-Baptism, they typically fit in one of four categories. First there are the cessationists who insist that the spiritual gifts (including ‘tongues’) faded from history shortly after they began. Second are the Pentecostal’s who hold that the initial or primary evidence that one has received Spirit-Baptism is that the said individual will speak in tongues. Third are those who believe the spiritual gifts are alive today yet they reject the Pentecostal emphasis on tongues as the initial evidence. And finally there are those who have ‘exited’ from Pentecostalism bitter and hurt from the claims and effects this doctrine has had on them, and they have become hell-bent on informing the world of the ‘evils’ of Pentecostalism in books such as “17 Reasons Why I Left the Tongues Movement”.

Seldom however have I come across a book written by a Pentecostal, one who was “baptized with the Holy Spirit” and “spoke in tongues” and continues to “speak in tongues”, yet who has risen to the challenge of critically examining one of the movements most sacred cows in light of academically critical scriptural hermeneutics. Furthermore, Newman, while at times defending Pentecostalism, has in godly love and humble self-examination admitted the weaknesses within Pentecostalism and its’ doctrines and history, and attempts to map out for the Pentecostal reader a better way, one that aligns itself more faithfully to the scriptures, brings unity to the Body of Christ, and calls for the distinctiveness of Pentecostalism to contribute to – not harbor against – the Church at large.

Newman says,

“There are some who think that the issue of tongues-as-evidence ought to be left alone. Then there are some who recognize that the examination and reformation of this doctrine may well be the most important theological endeavor in the history of the Pentecostal movement” [p.xiii].

“Tongues” – Not exclusive to Christianity!

If the visible expression of speaking in tongues is the evidence that someone has been filled with the Spirit of God (Spirit-Baptism), then the only logical way for this to be so is if “tongues” were exclusively a Christian experience. As someone I know mistakenly concluded in a previous blog, if someone speaks in tongues, they must be a Christian. Newman shows how this seems to be a general assumption made by Pentecostals and he quotes many writers to that affect, all claiming that the tongues phenomenon did not exist any where by any means throughout history prior to Pentecost in Acts chapter two. This assumption is historically unfounded and incorrect. As a matter of fact, the “tongues” phenomenon existed for centuries prior to Pentecost within certain Greco/Roman “mystery” religions.

“The experience of the emerging church on the day of Pentecost was not the introduction of speaking in tongues into the realm of human history” [p.3].

“The Delphic Oracle, associated with the religion of Apollo, was well known for its emphasis on glossolalic phenomena and was active for more then one thousand years” [p.4].

Closely related to this cult is the cult of Dionysus, younger brother of Apollo who was considered to be the mystic, ecstatic god. Historians tell us that

“it was not just the priestess who spoke in tongues in this cult but that it appeared to be a common event during the festivals of Eleusinian and Dionysian mysteries” [p.5].

Newman goes on to quote Marcus Bach:

“When the exuberance of the worshipers reached rapturous heights, the incredible, sometimes musical utterances, began. They were like sounding brass and tinkling cymbal. The speakers became the center of attraction. Initiates listened enthralled and often they, too, became overpowered and burst into a babble of sounds… devotees not only spoke in tongues but were also baptized in the river” [p.5].

When someone in this cult began to utter glossolalia it was believed that this was a sign that the ‘gods’ had inhabited the person. It will become very relevant when we discuss Paul (in the next post) that the Corinthians would have been all too familiar with this tongues-speaking cult, and understanding the cultural and historical background of 1 Corinthians 12-14 goes along way to properly understanding and applying Paul’s message of tongues and prophecy.

Newman further gives examples of individuals at the start of our recent Pentecostal movement who spoke, not from the Holy Spirit, but in tongues of another persuasion – demonic. The wife of one of the patriarchs of the modern Pentecostal movement, Sarah Parham, recorded an experience;

“One day, when in prayer, a power seized my lower jaw, which began to tremble, then shake with increased violence [and after her husband Charles began to pray for her] The power, over which I had no control, left me and I realized it was not of God”.

Ironically, Charles Parham was instrumental in developing the tongues-as-evidence doctrine [p.7].

Newman also adds that “the flesh can mimic Holy Spirit produced glossolalia, and the demonic can imitate this phenomenon” [p.7]; and concludes his first chapter with this critical observation:

“The belief that speaking in tongues is the primary evidence that one has been filled with the Holy Spirit is at best tenuous. We must seek an evidential construct or constructs that can be neither mimicked by the flesh nor imitated by the demonic” [p.9].

Newman goes on to show how the gifts of the Spirit (including tongues) continued on throughout the patristic period up to around 400 A.D. and that the modern movement had a precursor to it in the revival meetings of Edward Irving around 1830; yet the doctrine of tongues-as-evidence never before was taught either by the early church or by England’s Pentecostal precursor. Furthermore, he shows that in the beginning of the modern Pentecostal movement the tongues-as-evidence doctrine was highly debatable – contrary to the idea that it was unanimously accepted (for example, it was not accepted in the Assemblies of God until 1916 [p.74]).

F.F. Bosworth joined the Pentecostal movement in 1906 and was one of the participants in the founding council of the Assemblies of God in April 1914 [p.74]. He is most known for his healing ministry and most famous for his book, Christ the Healer. He affirmed and strongly believed in the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Yet he was perhaps a leading voice against the tongues-as-evidence doctrine in the ensuing debate. After the General Council wholly accepted the doctrine Bosworth submitted his resignation and joined the Christian and Missionary Alliance [p.74-75].

Turning to Hermeneutics

Larry Newman has analyzed the Pentecostal attempt of creating a distinct hermeneutic, one that ignores or fails to take into account those hermeneutical principals that have been tried and proved, in favour of one that is more sympathetic to the doctrine of tongues-evidence. The result has been a lack of respect for the great tradition of the Christian Church – a sort of looking down the nose at all who have gone before – and a great deal of scriptural misunderstanding. He says,

“If the call for a hermeneutic that is particularly Pentecostal means that we set aside interpretive principles that have stood the test of time throughout the history of the church, we must rigorously resist such a notion” [p.55].

Larry shows how often Pentecostals have run amuck with their experiences, and often scour the scriptures for ‘evidence’ that such and such is biblical; and that this approach often leads deeper into false doctrines. What often happens is that an experience that someone had may be considered “extra revelation” by the Spirit, but such notions uninhibited opens the door to encounters which are not from God. All things must be measured by God’s Word since the Holy Spirit will not contradict Himself.

He also shows how

“some Pentecostals deem it unnecessary to receive formal (or informal I would add) training in order to properly interpret the word of God. The Holy Spirit will reveal to the seeker what a particular passage means. After all, the Spirit inspired the word to start with, why should he not reveal what it means now?” [p.60].

Newman goes a long way to defend some of the essence of that quote, the carnal mind cannot understand the things of God, “we need the transcendent illumination of the Holy Spirit” [p.63], but are we prepared to be so bold as to judge all the powerful men of God throughout the centuries as being unable to interpret the word of God, since, in the Pentecostal judgment, the vast majority of them did not have the “illumination of the Holy Spirit” (assuming tongues-evidence)? Examining inwardly Newman adds,

“there is something lacking, for the most part, in Pentecostal hermeneutical labors… sound hermeneutics requires exegesis, something at which we Pentecostals have certainly been remiss. The failure to properly exegete a passage of Scripture has often lead to misinterpretation of the passage” [p.63].

“We have already witnessed the devastation wreaked upon our movement by people claiming to have received extra-revelation from the Spirit that was absolutely contrary to a proper understanding of the word and ways of God; in particular, the Jesus Only movement and the Latter Rain movement, both of which rose out of the Pentecostal movement, due to too much subjectivity in the hermeneutical task” [p.64].

One particular hermeneutical fallacy consistent in Pentecostalism is it’s treatment of the book of Acts, in particular, by ignoring its genre and also by stretching certain aspects of what it says. Acts is not and should not be treated as didactic! The book of Acts is a historical and narrative literature, not didactic, and should be approached on different grounds then, say, the Pauline epistles which are deliberately didactic! Larry Newman asks a most compelling question (one I’ve asked for years), if glossolalia is the evidence that someone has received the fullness of the Holy Spirit, then why, in all of the doctrinal letters in the New Testament, is this one teaching eerily absent? Why, if it is not addressed by Peter, John, the author of Hebrews, or indeed Paul, is it so adamantly insisted upon in modern day Pentecostalism?

Furthermore, when Acts is taken into account, remembering that its genre is historical/narrative and not didactic, we must remember that Luke was very specific in selecting what parts of the narrative to document, and what not to. Of the five instances where it is said that someone receives Spirit-Baptism, only four of them mention tongues, and two of those four instances tongues is accompanied with another gift, and of the two remaining, the first holds certain uniqueness due to the fact that it was the birth of the church in Jerusalem, the second holds a distinct uniqueness due to the fact that it was the first time the Spirit was poured out on to the Gentiles. Taken all of these examples into account it should be evident that Luke is not giving us a “pattern” or “paradigm” to follow of tongues-evidence; Acts gives no consistent standard. It does not teach the modern Pentecostal doctrine of tongues-evidence.

It is interesting to note that when the Spirit is poured out on the Gentiles in Cornelius’ home, it happened without them seeking, it happened without Peter or anyone else praying for them to receive it, and when it suddenly happened (surprisingly interrupting Peter’s sermon) Peter exclaimed what was happening was the same thing that happened “as on us at the beginning?” If Luke is being careful and accurate in what he wrote, then this indicates that all those thousands who were saved between chapters two and ten of Acts did not necessarily receive tongues-evidence!

“He could just as easily have said, ‘As He has been baptizing all from the beginning.’ If it was well known that all these spoke in tongues when they were Baptized in the Spirit, why should he point back only to the time when they spoke in tongues on the Day of Pentecost?” [Bosworth, p.127-8].

To confirm the uniqueness of this event in Cornelius’ house, the very pattern established regarding salvation is slightly altered by the sovereignty of God in order that Peter and those with him would understand that the gospel includes the Gentiles. When the multitudes cry out on the day of Pentecost, “what shall we do?”, Peter answers in this order, 1. Repent; 2. be baptized (water); and 3. you will (after that) receive the gift of the Holy Spirit [Acts 2:37-38]. At Cornelius’ house the order was altered. They were pierced in the heart by Peters sermon, God filled them with the Spirit (in the same manner he did to Peter on Pentecost) and only after that occurred, “the circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles… Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water?’” [Acts 10:44-47]. The Jews from Jerusalem with Peter would have forbidden the Gentiles water-baptism if God had not miraculously intervened to show that they too are accepted or justified or “in” in God’s eyes. That’s why Peter exclaims, “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water?” The Jews would have kept them from the water.

Newman shows many further instances were the Pentecostal hermeneutic is flawed, getting specific at times. On one particular occasion he addresses a “questionable interpretation” of Acts 2:39 by Thomas Holdcroft concluding his analysis that such an interpretation simply will not stand up under proper hermeneutical procedure. The promise Luke makes reference to in Acts 2:39 is the person of the Holy Spirit, not some manifestation of the Spirit”. He adds,

“We must not confuse the charisms of the Spirit with the person of the Spirit. The church down through the centuries has had the Spirit at work within her, even in the most somber days of the Dark Ages. The Holy Spirit did not leap over the centuries from the upper room in Jerusalem to Camp Creek, North Carolina, or a Bible school in Topeka, Kansas, leaving everything in between in a vacuum. God did not start something different with Agnew Ozman” [p.78].

I only mention this one particular instance in Newman’s book because years ago during my first year at the International Bible College I read Holdcrofts book, Holy Spirit, and grew so frustrated over the sheer volume of “questionable” interpretations Holdcroft was making. But what astonished me further is that so many of my classmates swallowed Holdcrofts hermeneutical fallacies uncritically, hook, line and sinker.

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Derek Ouellette

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

    Bosworth could not have joined the Assemblies of God in 1906, as the fellowship was not founded until 1914 in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

    1906 was the year of the famous Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles, which catipulted the Pentecostal movement and the tongues phenomenon that began in Topeka in 1901 into the public eye through extensive media reports.

    • Derek Ouellette

      Thanks for pointing out my mistype. Bosworth joined the Pentecostal movement in 1906 and was a participating founder of the Assemblies of God in 1914.

  • Brian Roden

    I’m A/G, and from Arkansas, so I know well the date and place of the first General Council. And, I’m taking a class on A/G history at our seminary this semester.