Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Tongues and History

This past Sunday night in our small group (Church, for those of you not in the know) we began discussing charismatic gifts and their modern day existence. In a follow up email a buddy of mine asked why these gifts seem to disappear shortly after the death of Christ and not really show up in any written account until the 19th century. Below you can find my reply. Let me preface the reply by saying that I am shooting from the hip on this one...hoping my memory of previous study serves me well. Enjoy:

I would say that many reasons exist for why things such as speaking in tongues were not written. Christians were increasingly persecuted beginning even in Acts when the followers of Jesus fled to various cities and areas. Once being a christian or gathering as christians became crimes punished typically by death, I can't imagine many people would be willing to write about manifestations of the Holy Spirit.
Of course, once Constantine beat Maxentius on the Mulvian Bridge under the sign of Chi Rho (a cool story for another day), the persecution of christians ended...in the traditional form anyway. However, for the first time in the brief history of christendom, the church was "official"...in Blake's world I would call it "institutionalized". Constantine gave churches land grants and for the first time in history, a second class of humans were established within churches...leaving us, almost 1700 years later with pastors (or pick your choice label for paid leadership within a church) and lay people. Of interest, Constantine also gave the clergy Roman Senatorial Robes which became our modern day choir robes...and some denominations still have the paid leader person preach or perform communion in robes. Anyway, all of that is important because of the ecclesiastical subjugation to government. Once the elite, popular and wealthy of Rome began to flock to the new fad of christianity the more spiritual practices of the faith would understandably decrease...in percentages anyway. Those who kept a more pure form of faith would have not been published nor would they likely have been willing to write of their experiences for fear of ridicule, demotion or some other form of embarrassment. With things like the Nicene Creed and the Edict of Milan being written by those in power, testimonies of tongues, healings and prophesy would be limited or grossly overlooked.
If we fast forward through the Middle Ages we pass through over 1000 years of Catholic controlled ecclesiology that extends well into the period of Protestant Reformation. For example, people like Jeanne-Marie Bouvier de la Motte Guyon were imprisoned even in the late 17th century by the Catholic Church for "Mysticism". Her form of mysticism was simply teaching people that the Spirit of God could live in them, guide them and even communicate with them supernaturally without the help or blessing of the "church". Strangely enough I still proclaim the same thing today and am sometimes met with similar skepticism...but I digress. That isn't really an environment to be too vocal or public with something like speaking in tongues.
Now with all of that said, it is important to note that even Plato mentioned what many consider to be "speaking in tongues" with the mention in some of his writings of "ecstatic speech". So obviously, charismatic gifts showing up in written form are not the gold standard of their existence or of their foundation being always rooted in God.
However, it is important to note that writings do exist indicating the practice of charismatic gifts. Origen, Tertullian, Athenogoras and Eusidius all mention these out-pourings of the Holy Spirit. The Schleitheim Groups founded in the mid 16th century were known for "waiting on the spirit of the Lord" and wait they would. If needed, they would wait in silence for days until the "Spirit" would show up in the form of charismatic gifts.

I say ALL of that to say that we can't really speak accurately about charismatic gifts being something that were and then took a break and now may be back again. I think that kind of reasoning, in addition to being historically inaccurate, is designed to cast immediate skepticism on the existence and practice of these gifts of the Holy Spirit. If we can effectively remove this argument based on their historicity, perhaps we can more clearly seek to understand what God intends for us in our present walk with Him. That is the goal after all...at least I think it is.

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