Sunday, September 03, 2023

Book Review: Blosser & Sullivan's Speaking in Tongues: A Critical Historical Examination

[Sept. 3, 2023] It is getting tougher and tougher for me to get around to book reviews these days what with the sheer quantity of material that people send me, not even counting my own voluminous "to-read" pile that seems to grow larger no matter how much reading I accomplish. But when I received the book that is the subject of today's post, Speaking in Tongues: A Critical Historical Examination, by Philip Blosser and Charles Sullivan, I knew I had to make the time for it. Speaking in Tongues (published by Pickwick Publications) is the first in a three volume series dealing with the subject of tongues. Volume 1 is subtitled The Modern Redefinition of Tongues and concerns how the understanding of tongues has been revolutionized in modern Christianity.

Before I dig into the meat of the book, I want to give some preliminary remarks:

(1) This book is not an attack of Charismatic-Pentecostalism, nor is it any kind of hit-piece on Christians who speak in tongues. The tone is extremely scholarly and narrowly restricted to the question of how Christians have understood the gift of tongues, especially in the last three centuries. Those who are looking for a hit-piece on Charismatic Christianity will be disappointed, while those Charismatics who are worried precisely that this is a hit-piece need not be. It offers no arguments against nor critiques of Charismatic Christianity as a spirituality one way or another, choosing instead to stick to an analysis of historical texts and their interpretation.

(2) Since both Catholicism and Protestantism have charismatic subcultures, this book has an ecumenical appeal. It is not a "Catholic" book, per se. In fact, one author is Catholic (Philip Blosser) and the other Protestant (Charles Sullivan). The book has no confessional "angle." It could be read with equal value by a Protestant or a Catholic.

Now, on to the synopsis:

Volume 1 in the Speaking in Tongues series essentially explores the genealogy of an idea—the modern concept of "speaking in tongues" as found in charismatic Catholic parishes and Protestant pentecostal churches around the world today (for the sake of simplicity, for this review I shall use the words "Pentecostal" and "Pentecostalism" to refer to all Christians who "speak in tongues," whether Catholic or Protestant, even though technically the term has a much more Protestant connotation). Blosser and Sullivan begin by looking at how tongues are conceived of today and work backwards to see how we arrived at the contemporary perspective. 

Dominating contemporary discussion on tongues is the concept of glossolalia, a modern term (coined by the Anglican theologian Frederic Farrar in 1879) identified with the "private prayer language" or "heavenly language" through which contemporary Pentecostals contextualize their experience. In the Bible, Pentecostals identify glossolalia with the phenomenon St. Paul discusses in 1 Cor, 14. This is distinct from xenolalia, a term that denotes the miraculous speaking (or hearing) of other human languages, as witnessed on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2.

The miracle of tongues as xenolalia is well established in Church history, both within Protestantism and Catholicism. In fact, as Blosser and Sullivan demonstrate, prior to the late 1800s, no theologian anywhere in any Christian confession identified tongues as anything other than xenolalia—the miraculous, intelligible speaking (or hearing) of previously unlearned human languages. From whence, then, did we get the concept of tongues as an incoherent "private" language as denoted by glossolalia?

Here Blosser and Sullivan do some excellent historical sleuthing, tracing the evolution of the idea back through the revivals of Topeka and Azusa Street to the British Irvingite movement and the Second Great Awakening.  Modern Pentecostalism grew out of the apocalyptic stew of these various movements, which all shared in common the notion that God was going to "restore" the Church in the "latter days" to more closely resemble the Church of the New Testament. The problem was most mainline Protestant denominations after the Reformation had rejected the continuation of miracles (a position known as Cessationism) in reaction against the multitudinous Catholic miracle stories of the Middle Ages. But the New Testament clearly teaches that miraculous charismata are meant to continue in the Church. The early Proto-Pentecostal movements thus sought to find a way to reintroduce the miraculous into their congregations to mimic the New Testament Church, or at least their vision of it. Hence the advent of modern tongues (beginning with Agnes Ozman, the first person to "speak in tongues" in the contemporary sense in 1901) as a "restoration" of the spiritual gifts to the Church.

What Blosser and Sullivan's book amply demonstrates, however, is that early Pentecostals like Charles Parham, Agnes Ozman, William Seymour, et. al. did not consider their experiences to be glossolalia. Rather, they believed they were experiencing xenolalia i.e., miraculously speaking other human languages. For example, after Agnes Ozman received the so-called "baptism of the Holy Spirit" and spoke in tongues, she was personally convinced that she was speaking Chinese and allegedly wrote in Chinese as well (the writing turned out to be meaningless scribbles). But the point is that these early Pentecostals did not believe they were uttering a "personal prayer language"; they believed their rapid speech-like syllables that lacked any objective linguistic structure were, in fact, other human languages.

With admirable erudition, Blosser and Sullivan document how these early revivals led to a burst of Pentecostal missionary activity. It was believed that the "restoration" of tongues would do away with the need for missionaries to spend years learning foreign languages. Emboldened by the Holy Spirit, Pentecostal missionaries set sail for the distant mission fields of China and India, believing whole-heartedly that they would be able to speak their utterances to foreign peoples who would miraculously understand them. They were shocked and disappointed to find that their utterances were completely unintelligbile—we can only imagine the confusion of a Chinaman or Hindi-speaker at hearing the incoherent utterances of these strange westerners. These experiences were a source of profound disillusionment for early Pentecostals, triggering what Blosser and Sullivan refer to as the "Tongues Missionary Crisis" of 1906-1909. 

The Tongues Missionary Crisis was essentially a rude-awakening for Pentecostals as they came to see that, whatever they were experiencing in their churches, it was not the xenolalia of the Day of Pentecost. This resulted in a quiet redefinition of "tongues." Influenced by the theology of the German Higher Critics, Pentecostals began to interpret their ecstatic utterances as the glossolalia postulated by Frederic Farrar, that is, a "private" or "personal" prayer language that had no lexical intelligibility—a kind of "heavenly" speech whose purpose was to edify the speaker. Throughout the 20th century, this understanding of tongues came to dominate scriptural commentary, not just in the Protestant world, but within Catholicism as well. 

Volume 2 of Blosser and Sullivan's series (which I have not read yet) chronicles how Christians have viewed tongues throughout history. The forthcoming Volume 3 is exclusively devoted to the tongues of Corinth mentioned in the New Testament, answering the question, "If the tongues of Corinth were not glossolalia, what were they?"

While Blosser and Sullivan's book is critical of contemporary biblical exegesis about tongues, it is not, as I said, critical of Pentecostals themselves and makes no judgment upon their spiritual lives. It is a work of historical theology, exploring the "genealogy" of a theological definition. Speaking in Tongues Volume 1 is an excellent resource for understanding the theological development of this practice which, whatever you think of it, has become so ubiquitous in Christianity today. I highly recommend anyone with an interest in this subject get a copy of Volume 1 and Volume 2.

Incidentally, I sat down with the authors recently and recorded an audio interview with them, which you can listen to on the Unam Sanctam Catholicam YouTube channel (which you should also subscribe to : ) 

1 comment:

Hereward said...

Interesting review and pointer, thanks.