Thursday, October 5, 2006

The Trail of Babble

[NEWLY INSERTED CONTENT: Look at this article in the Dallas Morning News. It is not precisely on-topic, but it probably doesn't merit its own post, either.]

It seems to me that it would be very difficult to be a true continuationist in all that the word itself implies. Why? Because the historical record strongly suggests that there is no continuity to the New Testament sign gifts.

Some have endeavored to produce an unbroken record of glossolalia throughout Christian history. As a Baptist, I can't help but sympathize with the attempts and indulge in a heartfelt and knowing chuckle. We, too, have been through a phase when our apologists have felt compelled to contort the historical record in order to produce a "Trail of Blood" and thereby legitimize our existence to others. But we did so at the expense of honesty, making "Baptists" of heretical groups and straining the limits of credulity in our suppositions and leaps of logic.

The "Trail of Babble" is no more reliable than the "Trail of Blood." Certainly by the time of Augustine the predominance of the evidence asserts that the practice of glossolalia had ceased. The only way to put together a strong argument to the contrary is to take references to being fully endowed with the Holy Spirit or speaking with the aid of the Spirit to be, necessarily, references to speaking in tongues. Yet this interpretive sleight-of-hand must be weighed against explicit statements like that of Augustine:

10. In the earliest times, "the Holy Ghost fell upon them that believed: and they spake with tongues," which they had not learned, "as the Spirit gave them utterance." These were signs adapted to the time. For there behooved to be that betokening of the Holy Spirit in all tongues, to shew that the Gospel of God was to run through all tongues over the whole earth. That thing was done for a betokening, and it passed away. In the laying on of hands now, that persons may receive the Holy Ghost, do we look that they should speak with tongues? Or when we laid the hand on these infants, did each one of you look to see whether they would speak With tongues, and, when he saw that they did not speak with tongues, was any of you so wrong-minded as to say, These have not received the Holy Ghost; for, had they received, they would speak with tongues as was the case in those times? If then the witness of the presence of the Holy Ghost be not now given through these miracles, by what is it given, by what does one get to know that he has received the Holy Ghost? (Homily 6 on 1 John)
Augustine is by no means alone in his testimony. Indeed, although we have the record of the "barks" in the Great Western Revival and a few scattered occasions of alleged tongues-speaking in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, we can trace the modern practice back to Charles Fox Parham's work in Topeka, KS in 1901—at this point, serious scholarship is in agreement.

So, one really does not have the luxury of acting as though glossolalia has simply "continued" down throughout Christian history. Instead, if one will approach the Christian story honestly, he must grapple with the absolute fact of cessation. One can, of course, be some sort of a restorationist—one might argue that although the gift of tongues has ceased previously in history, it has been restored today. Such a point of view raises the questions of whether the modern-day practice is legimate, why the ancient practice ceased, and why God saw fit to restore it in 1901. I, for one, would be interested in hearing some of our Southern Baptist brethren address the last two of these questions (obviously, the first one has already received blogophilic treatment).

Furthermore, even if one believes in some sort of a restoration, it seems to me that all must acknowledge that restoration to be incomplete. In the New Testament, people spoke in tongues and multiple hearers were in agreement verifying that a consistent message was being articulated in languages unknown to the speaker. That does not happen today, or if it does, someone is woefully remiss in letting the rest of the world know about such a miracle and giving us the opportunity to glorify God for it. In the New Testament, believers could walk up to a person who had been crippled or blind since birth—for decades—and in an instant, right in front of people who had known them for all of their lives, these people received miraculous and complete healing at the touch of the apostles. That does not happen today. I believe that God heals, but it just doesn't happen that way any more.

So, if the New Testament panoply of miraculous spiritual gifts "continues" today, then it does so after a period of cessation and it does so as a faint reflection of its former glory.

Is it any wonder that some of us remain unconvinced that it continues at all?

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