Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Evidence and Verdict

With this post, I think I will have said all that I have to say about speaking in tongues on my blog. I am still working on a more technical and academic demonstration of cessation in the historical record.

The basis of my A Posteriori Cessationism, and therefore the key difference between myself and some others, is the fact that I have come to regard all examples of ecstatic utterances that I have encountered to be human phenomena and not a work of the Holy Spirit. To put it more succinctly, there is absolutely nothing miraculous about present-day speaking in tongues (as contrasted with the biblical phenomenon).

In previous comments and discussion the idea of verification has come up. I mentioned the "retreat from verification" that has taken place in the history of the modern-day practice—the fact that modern-day tongues-speakers have gradually claimed less and less for the phenomenon as each set of claims has been shown to be demonstrably false by one reasonable standard or another. I think that verification remains an important part of the question, but I fear that too much of a focus on verification can leave a false impression. One might come to conclude that, in this debate, there is only evidence in favor of the validity of these ecstatic utterances as a Holy Spirit phenomenon. According to such a misunderstanding, some find that evidence to be sufficient to conclude in favor of the practice, while some hardnosed sticklers just have a really high standard of proof and refuse to be convinced by the favorable evidence.

But one must consider not only the case (if you will call it that) in favor of the modern-day practice, but also the case against it. Actually, there is a significant body of negative evidence, and responsible discussions of this phenomenon must deal with it.

  1. The Phoneme Question. A phoneme is "any of the perceptually distinct units of sound in a specified language that distinguish one word from another." So, phonemes are the sounds of language. Go to Mississippi and listen to a given charismatic Mississippian speak in tongues. Count how many German umlauts you hear. Count how many Hebrew ayins you hear. Count how many Ndebele clicks you hear. Don't hear any? Why is that? Why is it that, whenever you speak a different human language you almost always wind up having to try to train your mouth to make foreign phonemes—sounds that just aren't used in your language but that appear regularly in other languages—but human tongues-speaking just happens to employ precisely the phonemes that the speaker knows from the human languages he legitimately speaks and no others. Is this a coincidence? Is the Holy Spirit powerful enough to make us speak new languages unknown to us yet impotent to teach us a few new sounds? Or does it just so happen that there are enough "tongues of angels" for English-speakers to have their own, Russian-speakers to have their own, German-speakers to have their own, etc.? This is evidence for the idea that modern-day tongues-speaking is a counterfeit. People rearrange the sounds they know from their own language into nonsensical groupings. But they can only do so with sounds that they know, so they employ their own phonemes. There is nothing miraculous about that.
  2. The Grammatical Structure Question. Linguists have poured over countless hours of recordings of people issuing forth ecstatic utterances. In all of that research, no one has ever discerned any of the basic features of language in alleged speaking in tongues. There are no common words. There is no evidence of tense or mood or declension. There is no evidence of syntax. There are no observable patterns of phrases or clauses or any other linguistic units. For those of you who have gone to seminary, these ecstatic languages seem to be precisely the language that you wished Greek to be: No new letters or sounds to learn and no declensions or conjugations to memorize! None. The phenomenon seems not to rise above the level of the phoneme. Some might respond that angelic languages do not necessarily exhibit the same linguistic phenomena as human languages, and this is certainly a formidable strategic speculation—a bald speculation but a cunning one nonetheless. Yet one wonders, why at the phoneme level is this phenomenon so entirely unremarkable, containing absolutely nothing new to the speaker, while at every other level of language it shares absolutely no attributes with any language we know? Nothing otherworldly about the phonemes and nothing corresponding to the world in grammar and syntax? If I were just to babble, isn't that precisely what you would expect from random sounds without any meaning? Is this just a coincidence? Has God designed these divine languages so that there is no possible way for His children to be able to tell them apart from meaningless babbling? If not, how do we know? Someone from the enlightened among us, please share with me, how do you tell the difference between meaningless babble and this restored spiritual gift of tongues?
  3. The Parallel Phenomena Question. We must deal with the question of counterfeits because ecstatic speech is not a phenomenon strictly limited to Christianity. Does the Holy Spirit give the spiritual gift of tongues to nonbelievers, even to practitioners of non-Christian religions? If not, how might one differentiate objectively between the genuine Christian phenomenon and the counterfeit non-Christian phenomenon? Of course, there's no problem doing that with the biblical phenomenon, because the gift of interpretation validated the gift of tongues. But, the present-day practice is devoid of this distinctive attribute. The parallel phenomena also are not limited to the exterior of Christianity. There are always the "barks" of the Camp Meeting Revivals in Kentucky and elsewhere. Is barking like a dog an instance of speaking in tongues? (Maybe they'll try that in Toronto or Pensacola next year) If any of these examples are fakes, then do they not demonstrate the very real proclivity of humans to counterfeit such things? Given our pervasive sinfulness, are we wise to pretend that this could not possibly be the case with regard to present-day tongues-speaking? Yet the case for authenticity of the modern phenomenon seems simply to be a refusal to countenance the idea that it might be counterfeit rather than a consideration of evidence supporting the counterfeit theory and the reasonable rejection of that evidence on some grounds that we all might examine.
These are the strongest points of evidence. There are others, but I am tired and I am convinced that this is enough to form a basis for discussion.

I conclude by saying this, I would set all of these questions aside if there were any evidence at all of the miraculous hand of God at work in this phenomenon. In the New Testament, that evidence was there in the indisputable xenoglossy of Acts and the objective verification provivded by the gift of interpretation in 1 Corinthians. But when you combine the striking absence of these things in the present-day phenomenon with the above-listed factors that strongly suggest a natural, human genesis for the phenomenon, it seems to me that the only way to accept it as genuine is to decide beforehand not to question it at all.

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