What We Say

The Pastor/Theologian Robert Zerhusen has been looking very closely at the subject of 'speaking in tongues' in the New Testament. He has developed what might be called a purely linguistic approach to the New Testament phenomenon. Lets consider Zerhusen's fascinating new approach.

For Zerhusen, there is little or nothing miraculous in the tongues speaking accounts which we read of in Acts, and which Paul discusses in 1 Corinthians, except that Gentiles were praising God and showing evidence of the Holy Spirit; the problem is, we have too quickly adopted a somewhat mystical approach to 'glossolalia' and to the relevant texts. I don't think that Zerhusen ever actually says that, but it is certainly the basis of his approach.

Zerhusen points out that the original Acts 2 manifestation of tongues almost certainly occurred in or around the temple. He points out - with telling authority - that Hebrew was the language of worship for the Jews and so the thing which made the 'tongues' (non-Hebrew languages) so momentous in Acts 2 was that languages other than Hebrew were heard in the temple area and in worship of God! This is certainly interesting and there is no doubt that many religions have had their languages of worship, as Zerhusen points out.
For Islam, Arabic is a 'holy language', the Jews, of course, still use Hebrew in their synagogues; then we have the example of the Roman Catholic Church with its great preference for Latin as a language of worship. So we have several examples of people using languages for worship which they rarely use - if at all - away from worship. Most of the Jews of New Testament times spoke in Aramaic but worshipped in Hebrew - this is why the occasions of 'tongues' in worship became so momentous. Worship of God was simply inseparable from the use of Hebrew!

Zerhusen is able to apply this basic approach to all the New Testament texts which deal with tongues; the 'tongues' are simply non-Hebrew languages! The evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit is simply that people for whom Hebrew was not the language of religious worship were praising God! It was simply stunning for the Jews - even the first Jewish Christians - to encounter people praising the God of Israel in a foreign language!!

He makes an especially compelling case for this when discussing the relevant 1 Corinthians texts. When Paul states that he spoke in tongues more than anybody, Paul is referring to the fact that he spoke many languages (which he would have surely needed to). Corinth was a thriving seaport which attracted many different nationalities, many of these people were becoming Christians! It was, therefore, inevitable that they would occasionally praise God or give their testimonies in their native language - let us remember that these people were simply not Jews! Also, without question, many Christian Jews - perhaps for a long time - felt that just as Moses was for the Jews, so Jesus would be! But Paul's advice is that the use of various languages in worship needed to be held in check and if no interpreter was present, such a person should keep silent. Obviously, if one was able to ensure that an interpreter was present, one knew that one would be speaking a definite language (rather than making somewhat unpredictable 'ecstatic utterances').

So what is our reaction to this new linguistic approach of Zerhusen?

I think that there is a lot in what Robert Zerhusen says! When I first learned of his approach, I believed that it would not stand up upon careful consideration of every single New Testament textual consideration of 'tongues', but actually his approach stands up rather well, although not without raising the odd question (for instance, if Zerhusen is correct, why were 'tongues' considered a gift of the Holy Spirit?). Of course, I myself have written two articles on Tongues. In my original article, Tongues (which I have now renamed The Truth About 'Speaking in Tongues' At Last) , I purposely approach the subject from a viewpoint somewhat sympathetic to Pentecostals/charismatics. Hopefully, in Christian love and concern, I attempted to show this group of Christians that not all of their assumptions on 'tongues' are truly biblical. My briefer article, Should Believers Speak in Tongues? , attempts to show that some claims which have been made on this topic are simply illogical.
So I am somewhat sympathetic to the work of Robert Zerhusen, yet I am not entirely convinced that his very able and scholarly stance fully explains everything we read in the New Testament about 'tongues'. But certainly, we remain convinced that much of what Pentecostals/charismatics consider 'tongues' is not the same as that which occurred in Acts and which Paul discusses in 1 Corinthians.
Robin Brace

A reader of the above article has contributed the following comments:

Hi, great review of Zerhusen's thesis on tongues. His thesis really helped me several years ago when his articles first came online when I was struggling through getting out of the pentecostal/charismatic maze. I spent some time in my own research which confirmed many points he brought up for myself. I had emailed linguistic experts on Jewish languages in the second temple period, etc., to get the needed information and now I can not be shaken from this new position.
I can offer a possible answer to the question you raised, that if Zerhusen is correct, how are 'tongues' considered to be a gift of the Holy Spirit? I consider various languages to be a gift to the Church under the New Testament in the sense that the gospel has a vehicle to spread it throughout all the nations. Given that the gospel as promised by God even as far back as Abraham was with the intention to redeem people out of every nation. This would be impractical upon the supposition that evangelism and discipleship required only the use of Hebrew. The gift of languages was that the Holy Spirit bore witness to the truth of the gospel when its glories were declared in common languages. In the same way the Lord Jesus declared all foods kosher, he has declared the same concerning common langauges. The biggest expression of this idea is seen in the very language in which the New Testament was written. God designed, in light of the international aspect of the gospel, that there is no such thing as a 'holy' language. Languages, as a gift, allows a multi-national, multi-cultural expression of worship to God, which provides a marked contrast to his dealings with his covenant people under the stricter Old Covenant. The old wine skins cannot hold the new wine any longer. Language itself must be, in my observation, be considered a vehicle of communication, a wineskin to bring us to God. I am not sure if it gets more complicated or simple than that. The 'gift of languages' cannot properly be spoken of outside of 'the gift of the gospel' itself. One is the means of expressing the other in order to establish the Church which is the Israel of God.
Grace and peace, Doug Gibson, Regina, Sk, Canada.

My own two articles on tongues are here:
The Truth About 'Speaking in Tongues' At Last!

Should Believers Speak in Tongues?