Reader’s Question: Is speaking in tongues the initial sign that a Christian is baptised in the Holy Spirit?
Pentecostals maintain that the ability to speak in other tongues (Greek: glossolalia) is the initial evidential sign that a believer has received the baptism of the Holy Spirit. According to Pentecostal theology, Spirit baptism is the second work of the Holy Spirit, subsequent to regeneration, that empowers believers to be witnesses for Christ.
The website of the Assemblies of God, UK, states: ‘We believe in the baptism in the Holy Spirit as an enduement of the believer with power for service, the essential, biblical evidence of which is the speaking with other tongues as the Spirit gives utterance’.
Pentecostals routinely cite Acts 19:6, which gives an account of the Holy Spirit descending on the disciples in Ephesus when Paul laid his hands on them. Upon receiving the Spirit, the Ephesian believers immediately spoke in tongues and prophesied.
Other passages that Pentecostals frequently appeal to for scriptural support of their teaching about initial evidence include Acts 2:4, 8:14-20 and 10:44-46.
Before we discuss the hermeneutical and theological issues pertaining to the Pentecostal doctrine of initial evidence, two important observations are in order.
The first is the fact that not all the passages in Acts that describe the so-called baptism of the Spirit specifically mention tongues-speech as the immediate consequence (See, for example, Acts 2:41; 4:4; 5:14; 8:17; 13:12, 48; 14:1; 17:12, 34; 18:8).
Secondly, although many Pentecostals accept tongue-speech as initial evidence of Spirit baptism, some have argued that it is not normative. For example, the NT scholar and AG minister Gordon Fee maintains that while speaking in tongues may be regarded as a valid ‘repeatable’ experience, Pentecostals should not insist that it is normative.
The hermeneutical question is important, and therefore a good place to begin as we examine this doctrine from the biblical standpoint.
Put differently, are these accounts in some definitive sense prescriptive? Or are they merely descriptive?
Many biblical scholars, including I. Howard Marshall and Gordon Fee, maintain that the accounts in Acts are the attempts by their author, Luke, to describe what took place at Pentecost and on the days following that important and pivotal event.
However, although Acts is a historical account of the birth of the Church, Luke’s narrative also seeks to give the read a sense of what God was doing in human history. Put differently, Luke’s historiography has a theological intent and purpose.
The question is: what was that theological intent and purpose? Was it to present a paradigm for the Christian life?
Many biblical scholars, including Gordon Fee, maintain that it was never Luke’s intention to present a paradigm for the Christian life or to teach that Spirit baptism is the work of God subsequent to regeneration.
Fee, for instance, makes his case against the doctrine of subsequence in his article entitled, ‘The Baptism in the Holy Spirit: The Issue of Separability and Subsequence’ published in the Fall 1985 issue of Pneuma: The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies.
Luke’s theological emphasis in Acts is to show how Jesus’ promise to his disciples before his ascension (Acts 1:8) is fulfilled as the Church’s witness unfolded as the result of the Spirit’s empowerment.
Turning now to the theological issues surrounding the Pentecostal doctrine of initial evidence, we should note firstly that Paul’s fundamental emphasis concerning the gifts of the Spirit has to do with their diversity and with the fact that they are distributed according to the sovereign will of God.
Paul emphasised that not every Christian will receive the same gift. ‘If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be?’ he asks (1 Corinthians 12:17). Furthermore, his rhetorical question, ‘Do all speak in tongues?’ suggests that even in a Church as spiritually gifted as the Corinthian Church, not every member has the ability to speak in tongues.
In his discussion on the spiritual gifts, there is no evidence that Paul privileged the gift of tongues above the rest. Yet, the Pentecostal doctrine of initial evidence privileges tongues over the other gifts because it alone is a reliable evidential sign that a believer is baptised in the Holy Spirit.
Finally – and briefly – we have to consider the way in which Pentecostals and some charismatics have understood the expression ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’. Reading Acts as presenting a paradigm for the Christian life, they conclude that Spirit baptism refers to a definite work of the Holy Spirit subsequent to regeneration.
As we have already seen, some Pentecostal scholars have argued that this interpretation is untenable. I think they are right in doing so.
The Spirit also grants Christians various gifts for the edification of the Church. To some are given the gift of mercy, to others the gift of tongues. Thus, every Christian is empowered by the Spirit for service, and therefore has a role to play in the Body of Christ.