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"Speaking in Tongues"

IF WE LOOK CAREFULLY at the writings of the "charismatic revival," we shall find that this movement closely resembles many sectarian movements of the past in basing itself primarily or even entirely on one rather bizarre doctrinal emphasis or religious practice. The only difference is that the emphasis now is placed on a specific point which no sectarians in the past regarded as so central: speaking in tongues.

According to the constitution of various Pentecostal sects, "The Baptism of believers in the Holy Ghost is witnessed by the initial physical sign of speaking with other tongues" (Sherrill, p. 79). And not only is this the first sign of conversion to a Pentecostal sect or orientation: according to the best Pentecostal authorities, this practice must be continued or the "Spirit" may be lost. Writes David Du Plessis: "The practice of praying in tongues should continue and increase in the lives of those who are baptized in the Spirit, otherwise they may find that the other manifestations of the Spirit come seldom or stop altogether" (Du Plessis, p. 89). Many testify, as does one Protestant, that tongues "have now become an essential accompaniment of my devotional life" (Lillie, p. 50). And a Roman Catholic book on the subject, more cautiously, says that of the "gifts of the Holy Spirit" tongues "is often but not always the first received. For many it is thus a threshold through which one passes into the realm of the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit" (Ranaghan, p. 19).

Here already one may note an overemphasis that is certainly not present in the New Testament, where speaking in tongues has a decidedly minor significance, serving as a sign of the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2) and on two other occasions (Acts 10 and 19). After the first or perhaps the second century there is no record of it in any Orthodox source, and it is not recorded as occurring even among the great Fathers of the Egyptian desert, who were so filled with the Spirit of God that they performed numerous astonishing miracles, including raising the dead. The Orthodox attitude to genuine speaking in tongues, then, may be summed up in the words of Blessed Augustine (Homilies on John, VI:10): "In the earliest times "the Holy Spirit 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 it was fitting that there be this sign of the Holy Spirit in all tongues to show that the Gospel of God was to run through all tongues over the whole earth. That was done for a sign, and it passed away." And as if to answer contemporary Pentecostals with their strange emphasis on this point, Augustine continues: "Is it now expected that they upon whom hands are laid, should speak with tongues? Or when we imposed our hand upon these children, did each of you wait to see whether they would speak with tongues? And when he saw that they did not speak with tongues, was any of you so perverse of heart as to say, 'These have not received the Holy Spirit'?"

Modern Pentecostals, to justify their use of tongues, refer most of all to St. Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians (chs. 12-14). But St. Paul wrote this passage precisely because 'tongues' had become a source of disorder in the Church of Corinth; and even while he does not forbid them, he decidedly minimizes their significance. This passage, therefore, far from encouraging any modern revival of "tongues," should on the contrary discourage it‹especially when one discovers (as Pentecostals themselves admit) that there are other sources of speaking in tongues besides the Holy Spirit! As Orthodox Christians we already know that speaking in tongues as a true gift of the Holy Spirit cannot appear among those outside the Church of Christ; but let us look more closely at this modern phenomenon and see if it possesses characteristics that might reveal from what source it does come.

If we are already made suspicious by the exaggerated importance accorded to "tongues" by modern Pentecostals, we should be completely awakened about them when we examine the circumstances in which they occur.

Far from being given freely and spontaneously, without man's interference - as are the true gifts of the Holy Spirit- speaking in tongues can be caused to occur quite predictably by a regular technique of concentrated group "prayer" accompanied by psychologically suggestive Protestant hymns ("He comes! He comes!"), culminating in a "laying on of hands," and sometimes involving such purely physical efforts as repeating a given phrase over and over again (Koch, p. 24), or just making sounds with the mouth. One person admits that, like many others, after speaking in tongues, "I often did mouth nonsense syllables in an effort to start the flow of prayer-in-tongues" (Sherrill, p. 127); and such efforts, far from being discouraged, are actually advocated by Pentecostals. "Making sounds with the mouth is not 'speaking-in-tongues,' but it may signify an honest act of faith, which the Holy Spirit will honor by giving that person the power to speak in another language" (Harper, p. 11). Another Protestant pastor says: "The initial hurdle to speaking in tongues, it seems, is simply the realization that you must 'speak forth'...The first syllables and words may sound strange to your ear... They may be halting and inarticulate. You may have the thought that you are just making it up. But as you continue to speak in faith... the Spirit will shape for you a language of prayer and praise" (Christenson, p. 130). A Jesuit "theologian" tells how he put such advice into practice: "After breakfast I felt almost physically drawn to the chapel where I sat down to pray. Following Jim's description of his own reception of the gift of tongues, I began to say quietly to myself "la, la, la, la." To my immense consternation there ensued a rapid movement of tongue and lips accompanied by a tremendous feeling of inner devotion" (Gelpi, p. 1).

Can any sober Orthodox Christian possibly confuse these dangerous psychic games with the gifts of the Holy Spirit?! There is clearly nothing whatever Christian, nothing spiritual here in the least. This is the realm, rather, of psychic mechanisms which can be set in operation by means of definite psychological or physical techniques, and "speaking in tongues" would seem to occupy a key role as a kind of "trigger" in this realm. In any case, it certainly bears no resemblance whatever to the spiritual gift described in the New Testament, and if anything is much closer to shaministic "speaking in tongues" as practiced in primitive religions, where the shaman or witch doctor has a regular technique for going into a trance and then giving a message to or from a "god" in a tongue he has not learned [4].

In the pages that follow we shall encounter "charismatic" experiences so weird that the comparison with shamanism will not seem terribly far-fetched, especially if we understand that primitive shamanism is but a particular expression of a "religious" phenomenon which, far from being foreign to the modern West, actually plays a significant role in the lives of some contemporary "Christians:" mediumism.

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