Krister Stendahl has a really interesting essay in Paul among Jews and Gentiles called “Glossolalia—The New Testament Evidence.” He argues that what we usually call “speaking in tongues” was a widespread part of early Christian expeience that was later damped down by the institutional church. He maintains that glossolalia as discussed in Paul’s letters were an “ecstatic” form of religious experience that is proper to Christianity.
It seems to me that the witness of the New Testament texts as to the phenomenon called glossolalia is quite clear and quite simple–and quite up to date. The various texts carry with them a certain critique of the situation today. The history of our main traditions is one of fragmentation and impoverishment within the Christian community. As I read Paul it seems to me crystal clear that if the Presbyterians and the Episcopalians, the Lutherans, and all the “proper” Christians, including the Catholics, did not consciously or unconsciously suppress such phenomena as glossolalia, and if other denominations did not especially encourage them, then the gifts of the Spirit–including glossolalia–would belong to the common register of Christian experience. (p. 121)
He also says that it’s a mistake to separate charismatic experience from Christian witness against injustice because the one time the NT promises that the Spirit will provide Christians with words to speak is when testifying to the faith before the authorities.
There are those who identify the public impact of the Spirit with spectacular religious exhibitions on TV and maximum publicity for evangelistic campaigns, while casting suspicion over those who challenge the authorities by their courageous witness to Christ’s justice in the courts. It seems that the biblical model is the opposite one. In the courts is the confrontation that has the promise of the Spirit. (pp. 120-121)
Stendahl–a Lutheran–is no charismatic, but he says that the church needs them because “light-bulb wattage” faith isn’t sufficient to meet the difficulties that the world faces. He also thinks, however, that charismatics would benefit from incorporation into the broader church so that they can be nurtured into a more mature faith that doesn’t rely exclusively on “peak experiences.”
I take it that this essay must’ve been written prior to the inroads made by the charismatic movement into the mainline denominations. Still, I think it has relevance since it would be a stretch, to say the least, to maintain that most mainline churches honor charismatic experience as something normal and desirable. I’m about the least “charismatic” guy around (in the theological sense!), but even I resonate with Stendahl’s point that we mainlainers are extremely wary of the more ecstatic forms of religious experience. He makes the intriguing suggestion at the end of the piece that charismatic phenomena like glossolalia belong to the same spectrum of experience as mysticism–both are forms of living religious experience that a religious tradition should want to nurture.
5 thoughts on “Stendahl on glossolalia”
For an update on Stendahl, you need to look at the great chapter on glossalalia in Luke Johnson’s Religious Experience in Earliest Christianity.
Thanks – I should’ve caveated this with the fact that his scholarship might be out of date.
Our gut-level rejection (I speak as an Episcopalian) of charismatic manifestations such as prophesy and speaking in tongues worries me, too. I think ministries of healing are taking root in the “mainline” churches again, and that is cause for hope. Perhaps the 19th and 20th century desperation to prove that religion was not irrational and inimical to a scientific understanding of the world played a large role in dampening our appetites for ecstatic religious expression. Obviously, more secluded, less educated, or deliberately fundamentalist Christian communities would not be susceptible to such scruples, and so have been more able to preserve or revive that part our heritage. It seems we have good reason now to be disenchanted with the glories of science and rationalism, and perhaps feel safer exploring these areas again.
A cursory mental review indicates that visionary and ecstatic experience was more common prior to the advent of the industrial revolution and widespread literacy. It would be interesting to do a study on whether or not it was mere embarrassment that destroyed the full potency of Christian religion.
I would have to agree with Stendahl on this. From my own experience of having been non-denominational charismatic for many years, there was still something lacking. I find a stability and maturity of faith as a Lutheran. There is the enthusiasm and fire from my charismatic years too. They go well together.
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