Resisting the Influence of Evangelicalism, Part VIII – The Third of Evangelicalism’s Faulty Practices: Speaking in Tongues, by Pr. Klemet Preus

(These posts are adapted from a presentation Pastor Preus made in Sweden for the North European Luther Academy in 2006 and which was republished in the recent edition of Logia, A Journal of Lutheran Theology. We recommend both groups to the Brothers of John the Steadfast. The other posts in this series are archived in the Brothers’ Cafe under Klemet’s name.)


Speaking in Tongues


I could mention altar calls, praise bands, seeker services, obsession with counting converts as proof of God’s presence or a host of other practices in which the Evangelical community engages. All could be shown to further the understanding of faith as an emotional experience and the service of the church as the studied attempt to effect that experience. But another church practice commends itself for analysis; speaking in tongues.


A brief overview of the history of tongues speaking among America Evangelicals is called for. Throughout the history of the church the phenomena of speaking in tongues has been reported intermittently and sparingly. It was a curiosity with little theological value attached to it. All that changed in the early days of the twentieth century when Pentecostalism had its birth. Agnes Ozman, a student attending Bethel Bible College in Topeka, Kansas spoke in tongues. She described her experience.


It was as his hands were laid upon my head that the Holy Spirit fell upon me and I began to speak in tongues, glorifying God. I talked several languages, and it was clearly manifest when a new dialect was spoken. I had the added joy and glory my heart longed for and a depth of the presence of the Lord within that I had never known before. It was as if rivers of living waters were proceeding from my innermost being. [1]


The “hands upon” Agnes Ozman belonged to her pastor, a revivalist preacher named Charles Parham. He interpreted this experience of tongue speaking as the indispensable sign of the Spirit’s blessing of “the baptism in the Spirit.” Immediately he began to preach at revivals throughout Kansas and Missouri and ultimately in Texas. There he met a black revivalist preacher, W. J. Seymour, who spoke in tongues and was convinced that tongues were the necessary experiential evidence of God’s second blessing. Seymour moved to Los Angeles and spearheaded a three year “revival” later dubbed “The Azusa Street Revival.” [2] Pentecostalism had begun. The central teaching of Pentecostalism has always been that you can know that God has blessed you when you speak in tongues. The specific blessing identified by the Pentecostals is the “baptism in the Spirit.” Before the rise of Pentecostalism there was little if any theological import assigned to speaking in tongues. Incidents of the phenomenon were rare. After the rise of Pentecostalism, tongues has become a worldwide movement with deep theological significance. All Pentecostals believe that:


The Scriptures teach us that after we are cleansed with the blood we then need to receive the filling of the Spirit, the baptism with the Holy Ghost, the abiding Comforter, that which was promised by John the Baptist and corroborated by Jesus Christ that on receiving the baptism with the Holy Ghost we have the same evidence that followed Acts 2nd, 10th, and 19th chapters to wit; the speaking with other tongues as the Spirit gave utterance. [3]    


In the late 1950s and early sixties the Pentecostal experience began invading the mainline Churches. This was due to a policy of penetration employed by Pentecostal leaders whereby they attempted to turn mainline Evangelical pastors into Pentecostal advocates within their various churches. So C. Peter Wagner, a Pentecostal, penetrated the church growth movement with his appointment as Director of the Evangelistic Association at Fuller Theological Seminary in 1971. The words of David J. Du Plessis, an indefatigable Assemblies of God revivalist preacher, are also noteworthy. In 1960 he was asked to speak to the “Commission of Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches.” In his address he pleaded that the “great revival of charismatic happenings” would be “soon be seen everywhere in the world” so that in all churches “leaders and people will be spirit-filled and empowered on a scale hitherto unknown.” [4] The strategy used by Du Plessis was not to convert other Christians into Pentecostals but to encourage them, “Be no more conformed to Pentecostalism, but be ye transformed by the renewal of your mind in your own church.” [5] By the mid 1970s Robert Culpepper could truthful assert:


What is the relation between Pentecostals and the modern day charismatic movement? The current charismatic movement is the offspring of Pentecostalism. Had there been no Pentecostalism probably there would have been no Charismatic movement. Many of the thought forms, worship patterns, and theological ideas of Pentecostalism have been brought over in the movement. [6]


Why share this brief and intriguing history? Because we need to understand the function which the practice of tongue speaking serves in the Evangelical churches today. Today the tongues movement has spread throughout the world and tongues are practiced by people within almost every major church body. In fact the American Pentecostal churches are universally considered to be part of the Evangelical movement. But note that speaking in tongues is not a benign practice. It is a practice which is universally interpreted as supporting the craving of Evangelicalism for experience. “Tongues regarded simply as an isolated phenomena, rather than as on initial evidence of the baptism of the Spirit, did not launch a worldwide reform.” [7]   And tongues speaking brings with it the worship patterns and practices of Evangelicalism.


That is why tongues speakers universally describe their experience in emotional, superlative and life defining terms. Listen to a few of the earliest charismatic accounts of tongues:


But as I spoke on, something else began to happen. My heart began to get happier and happier. The presence of God that I had so clearly seen in earlier days to be the real reason for living suddenly enveloped me again after the many, many years of dryness. Never had I experienced God’s presence in such reality as now….the reality of God was something that I felt all the way through even with my body. But instead of being fearful, I felt tremendously happy and elated. [8]


I just went on talking my new language. But that wasn’t enough. The charge of energy was like a million volts of electricity looking for motors to turn on and dark streets to light up like day. I threw furniture into the air and shouted….I looked at the things around me; the bricks on the fireplace all looked new, each one looked perfect, and each was a window through which God poured. [9]


Something happened. My heart was strangely warmed. I thought if Paul surrendered all his ambitions and lived for Jesus – why can’t I? I broke down and wept, and right there in the classroom I surrendered my life to Jesus Christ. [10]


I lived under a yoke of condemnation because I never felt able to measure up to all that my church, my calling, and my conscience demanded of me. To be perfectly frank, I didn’t feel loved of God although intellectually I could say, “yes, but God’s Word says you are even if you don’t believe it.” But when the Holy Spirit flooded my soul with love I felt it. There was no need to keep quoting bible passages. The Holy Spirit was now ministering that love within my heart and not just through my intellect. [11]


The intellect, however, has an inveterate tendency to categorize and legalize. When the intellect steps aside the Spirit can operate through this gift of tongues with a freer hand, building us up. [12]


Notice that the practice of tongue speaking pictures, promotes and perpetuates the soteriology of American Evangelicalism. Individualism reigns since the experience almost always happens when you are alone with God. The emotions provide the assurance of God’s love and tongues the assurance of forgiveness. “Quoting Bible verses” has been replaced with the feelings of “love within my heart.” Four of the five citations quoted above are made by Lutheran pastors. The policy of penetration was certainly successful among the Lutherans.  


The effects of tongue speaking are also telling. Larry Christenson says that speaking in tongues introduces to the church, “the ‘pneumatic factor,’ the non-theological, purely dynamic.” [13] Others claim that it “lifts one spiritually on to a higher place with regard to assurance, prayer, bible study, fruits, guidance, help and comfort” [14] or that “Pentecostals became stronger in the faith in certain ways.” [15]


The common denominator in all of these [tongue speaking episodes] seems to be this; it has intensified the sense of the presence of God – the word of God has become more contemporary, believable – Christ the Lord has become more real – in a word, faith has been strengthened. [16]


What has helped me most is that even though I have been a Christian all my life, and have attended Church regularly since I was a child, I have never been sure I was forgiven my sins and would be acceptable to Christ. For many years this has been a secret worry, only spoken of to my pastor and most intimate friends. Now I have the assurance that the Lord is with me, guiding me, comforting me in times of need. [17]


In all this the practice of tongues is virtually indistinguishable from the theology of the movement which promotes it. The soteriological importance of tongues speaking is obvious. Tongue speaking as a church practice was invented by the Pentecostals but eagerly adopted and adapted by American Evangelicals a half a century later. To those who practice it, tongues speaking is a means of grace. It is an experience which provides assurance of grace and forgiveness, guidance, happiness, the presence of God, a clear conscience, a stronger faith, relief of worries and comfort. It replaces the word and sacrament in the life of the church just as all evangelical experiences tend to do.


Many Evangelicals do not speak in tongues and some have been avid critics of the practice as well as the movement which promotes it. Critiques of the tongues movement has usually been made on an exegetical or even scientific basis. [18] But Evangelicalism does not appear to have the theological capabilities within the system of its theology to resist the tongues movement or any movement which extols and promotes an emotional, spiritual experience as necessary to full Christian life. That is why the tongues movement was able so easily to penetrate Evangelical circles.    


Lutherans need to be aware of the deep theological import which the practices of Evangelicalism posses. Their style is not a matter of indifference. Rather, the practices of Evangelicalism are profoundly soteriology. Evangelicals (1) extol experience as the essential assurance of God’ grace (2) develop worship patterns which promote experiential Christianity and (3) practice or tolerate the archetypal experience of Evangelicalism – speaking in tongues. These practices picture, promote and perpetuate the theology of Reformed, Arminian, American Evangelicalism  


[1] Klaude Kendrick, The Promise Fulfilled ( Springfield, Missouri: Gospel Publishing House, 1981) 52.

[2] For a thorough and sympathetic account of the early days of Pentecostalism and its roots see Joseph Campbell, The Pentecostal Holiness Church. 1898-1948 (Franklin Spring GA: Publishing House of the Pentecostal Holiness Church, 1951), W. J. Hollenweger, The Pentecostals: The Carismatic Movement in the Churches translated by R. A. Wilson (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1972),   Claude Kendrick (op. cit.), and Vinson Synan, The Holiness Pentecostal Movement in the United States (Grand Rapids: WM. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 1971).  

[3] Campbell 247

[4] David J. Du Plessis, The Spirit Bade Me Go (Plainfield, NJ: Logos International, 1970) 29.

[5] Sited by Robert H. Culpepper, Evaluating the Charismatic Movement: A Theological and Biblical Appraisal, (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1977) 22.

[6] Culpepper 51-52.

[7] Frederick Bruner A Theology of the Holy Spirit (Grand Rapids: WM B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co. 1970) 77

[8] Dennis Bennett, Nine O’clock in the Morning (Plainfield, NJ: Logos International, 1970) 20.

[9] Erwin Prange, The Gift is Already Yours (Plainfield NJ: Logos International, 1973) 130.

[10] A. G. Dornfield, Have you Received the Holy Spirit? (St. Charles, MO: Published by author, 1973) 2.      

[11] Rodney Lensch, My Personal Pentecost (Kirkwood MO: Impact Books, 1972) 20.

[12] Larry Christenson, Speaking in Tongues (Minneapolis: Dimension Books, 1968) 79.  

[13] Larry Christenson, Message to the Charismatic Movement (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, Inc. 1972) 22.

[14] Ian Cockburn, Baptism in the Holy Spirit (Plainfield, NJ: Logos International, 1971) 46.

[15] John Stevens Kerr, The Fire Flames Anew (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974) 65.

[16] Christenson, The gift of Tongues, 9.

[17] Ibid. 77-78.

[18] See Robert Gromacki The Modern Tongues Movement (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1967),

Charles Smith, Tongues in Biblical Perspective (Winona Lake Indian: B. M. H. Books, 1972) and John F.

McArthur, The Charismatics: A Doctrinal Perspective (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House,

1978).For a report of the Psychological or scientific basis for the questioning of tongues see, John Kildahl

The Psychology of Speaking in Tongues (New York: Harper and Row), Felicitas Good Speaking in

Tongues, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1972) and Klemet Preus, “Tongues: An evaluation

from a Scientific Perspective” Concordia Theological Quarterly (Volume 46, number 4, October 1982)


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