Monday, September 27, 2010

The Missionary "Tongues" Story

Ever since I was a child, I have often encountered a particular story. It is something of an urban legend in certain church circles.

It goes like this: There was a missionary who met up with a person, usually a tribeman of some sort in a remote jungle area, with whom he wished to share the Gospel. Unfortunately, though, they could not understand each other's languages. Somehow the missionary felt compelled to open his mouth and just speak. To his surprise, he found himself speaking the other person's language fluently, though not aware of what he was saying. The tribesman was miraculously converted.

I have heard a dozen or more incarnations of this story, but those are the central story factors that are always present. As I said earlier, in some church circles, especially Pentecostal ones, this is something of an urban legend. It is always recounted third or fourth hand. I have never spoken with someone who actually claims to have personally had this experience.

The unspoken assumption, and often very clearly spoken assumption, of this story is that egghead cessationists are wrong and the supernatural sign gift of tongues still functions in the church today. Usually, this idea is further 'established' by claiming that while much of the tongues speaking that goes on in many Pentecostal churches is fraudulent, this kind must be real because it occurs in situations that seem to replicate the condition of the 1st Century Church.

This is a problematic assumption. I am not satisfied that this situation replicates the situation of the Apostolic age. I don't think it even comes within a hundred miles of the situation that existed on the Day of Pentecost.

1. On Pentecost, there was, as yet, no New Testament.
2. Tongues did not miraculously preach the Gospel to people in need of an interpreter.
3. The 3,000 converts were converted by Peter's plain preaching of the Gospel in Aramaic, a language they all understood anyway. Peter did not preach in tongues. The witnesses, though fluent in other languages, were all Jews who understood Peter's Aramaic sermon. The elect were converted, the non-elect mocked them, in direct fulfillment of Isaiah 28:11-12.
4. Pentecost was the event wherein the New Testament Church emerged from the cocoon of the Old Testament Church. This can never be repeated.
5. Virtually the entire visible church was present - something that has not been repeated since.
6. Tongues, on the Day of Pentecost, was not a conversation between a believer and an unbeliever. It was not an evangelism tool.

In short, Tongues was not a solution of how to preach to someone whose language Peter and the Apostles did not speak. It was not a miracle to overcome the absence of an interpreter. Every one present was Jewish; they all spoke Aramaic. Peter preached to them immediately after the tongues event occurred. He did not preach in tongues; he preached in Aramaic. Furthermore when one compares 1 Corinthians 14:21-22 with Isaiah 28:11,12 one sees that the occurrence of tongues on Pentecost was a sign of God's judgment upon unbelieving Israel. This was proven on Pentecost. The elect repented upon hearing Peter's sermon. The rest, judged as unbelievers, simply mocked the Apostles.

When people interpret "sign to the unbeliever" to mean that it is something that convinces an otherwise skeptical person, they flatly misunderstand the text. The idea of a sign in Scripture is always a judgment. Besides that, God never performs miracles like as if they were tricks to convince doubters. This turns the power of the Holy Spirit to a parlor trick.

A further problem arises when we wonder about the validity of the experience itself. Assume for the sake of argument that the story is actually true. One thing is immediately clear, whatever else may be said about the situation, it is certainly unusual, and therefore not to be appealed to as the norm. Secondly, this is not how tongues functioned on Pentecost. So, even assuming the story to be true, this is still not an example of tongues in the Biblical sense. Furthermore, what do we do with experiences that seem to point to the opposite assumption? Both positions cannot be equally true.

Anyone with even slightly Reformed leanings will agree that Scripture is the rule of doctrine and practice and that experience never trumps Scripture. I am reminded of Anthony Flew. He was the foremost scholarly atheist of the past generation. Late in life, however, he recanted his atheism due to something like a near-death experience. He did not convert to Christianity, mind you. If anything, he became a deist. And when he died, he was as hardened to the Gospel of Christ as he ever was during his staunchly atheistic days. If experience determines what one believes, then we must accept the validity of Mormonism based on their "burning in the bosom." We must also accept the trance-like experiences of Hindus. Furthermore, we cannot reject the experiences of millions of Charismatics, many of whom are Papists, Unitarians, modalists and Pelagians.

Rejection of the Continuist position has always been a part of the Reformed theological tradition. When Calvin and others wrote against it, they did not have an axe to grind with Benny Hinn or some other screwball Charismatic. Their opponent was Popery. The idea that the supernatural sign gifts were to remain in active function throughout the church for all time is a distinctly papist idea. Rejection of this is one of the tenets for which our Protestant forefathers were called "Protestants." They affirmed the sufficiency of Scripture and therefore rejected the notion that Scripture needed to be supplemented by weekly messages in tongues or visions and prophecies by the mystics. If the cannon is closed, these sign gifts are either superfluous to Scriptural revelation or additions to it. You can't have your cake and eat it too. If a message in tongues is revelatory, then it is anathema for adding to Scripture. If it is merely confirmational, then it is not needed. Scripture tells us all we need to know. A wicked and adulterous generation seeks a sign.

One last loose end needs to be tied up and that is this: Assuming again that the story is true, and the tongues speaking is neither revelatory nor confirmational, but simply proclamation of the Gospel, why is this needed in the first place? Why should we assume that God, in order to have the Gospel preached to one of His elect, would send a missionary that is not linguistically competent, or that He wouldn't send a fellow native? This is what makes me most skeptical of the story. It presupposes that God is forced to use a missionary that hasn't done his language preparation. It presupposes that God's timing in saving His elect is rushed. He can't wait until the missionary learns the language, or He can't send someone to preach who already speaks the language. 

Besides, the whole story comes off very contrived. It reminds me of the Sadducee story of the woman married to seven men. Its whole existence seems contrived simply to disprove the Reformed Cessationist position. Again, assuming for the sake of argument, that the story is true and God did actually give someone for a brief moment the supernatural ability to converse with someone in a language they did not know, this still would not be the tongues of the Day of Pentecost. It may be a wonderful providential blessing to a lost soul, but it wouldn't be the tongues of the Day of Pentecost.

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