When I returned from Vietnam in January 1972, I soon recognized the need to be in church again. My short stint in the military was not conducive to the Christian walk and I had strayed from the faith in which I had been raised. I began to take my Christianity seriously and got involved in my home church. It was a Southern Baptist Church.
In retrospect, the Charismatic Movement was in full swing, but I was oblivious to such controversies. So when I began to ask questions about things I read in the book of Acts and Paul’s writings like in 1 Corinthians chapters 12-14, I was surprised by the animosity they generated.
There were those who believed the gifts of the Holy Spirit as listed in chapter twelve of First Corinthians had ceased being practiced in the Church. They were called cessationists. Those who believed these gifts were still operating in the Church were called continuationists. I remember there were excesses on both sides of the issue.
I remember reading several prominent cessationist theologians’ commentaries on the subject. None of them agreed on what “speaking in tongues” was, but they all agreed on what it was not, it wasn’t for the Church today. I thought then as I do now; if you do not know what it is, how can you say what it isn’t?
Then there were the excesses of the continuationists. Some believed you could teach someone else to speak in tongues. It was not uncommon to see a seeker come forward at invitation time to have hands laid on them to receive the “gift of tongues” and then have two prayer partners coaching the candidate; one exhorting him to “hang on” and the other telling him to “let go.”
This controversy is still with us today. Pastor John MacArthur is planning a “Strange Fire” conference in October taking its title from Leviticus 10:1-2 where Aaron’s sons Nadab an Abihu died for their blasphemy. He says speaking in tongues today is the equivalent of the strange fire offered by Aaron’s sons, it is blasphemous. Mark Driscoll, whose theology is reformed, says cessationists like MacArthur are wrong.
I take seminary courses online. One of the courses I have completed is Biblical Hermeneutics. Part of this class involved the professor giving us a verse or two each week to apply the interpretive principles we were learning. Our text gave us a five part formula called the “interpretive journey.”
One week our instructor gave us 1 Corinthians 14:18 where Paul writes, “I thank God, I speak in tongues more than you all.” I do not recall any of my classmates addressing this verse. They gave their view of other verses in the chapter and elsewhere in the Bible but I do not recall a single comment directly predicated on this passage. For some reason my fellow students were taking the “interpretive detour.”
When I asked one of my classmates why he did not address verse 18 he said he did not understand the verse. I told him simple semantics and syntax, elementary English grammar, suggested some meaning. He reiterated he did not understand the verse.
I said “Paul validates the practice of speaking in tongues by his own example.” This seemed to be a simple interpretation without addressing the issue of whether or not the passage was descriptive or prescriptive for today. I don’t recall any comments on my interpretation. I do not know if there is confusion on the subject, or if people fear to discuss it because of the strong feelings it arouses.
I have said experience alone (or the lack of it) is a poor hermeneutic. We do not interpret the Scriptures solely by our experiences, but we can interpret our experiences by the Scriptures. I think those who have not experienced “speaking in tongues” are the ones most confused about it. All they need to do is read the Scriptures for themselves and pray about it. The Spirit of God will make all things clear. Those who are confused are listening to too many other people.
Speaking in tongues will not save you; it did not save me. I cannot teach someone else how to do it; no one taught me. But I can echo the words of the apostle Paul, “I thank God, I speak in tongues more than you all” 1 Corinthians 14:18.