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Del Tarr: The Foolishness of God

Accordingly, as the Pentecostal/charismatic movement has expanded and gone more mainstream, the negativity has softened somewhat. For example, Harvey Cox, Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-First Century (1995). The definitive, though now somewhat dated reference tool is Watson Mills, Speaking in Tongues: A Bibliographic Guide to Glossolalia (1987).

To many, speaking in tongues is the ultimate foolishness. It is often shown to fall outside of normal human linguistic patterns—merely “learned behavior.” It requires relinquishing control of our most guarded ability—to gain status with clever and articulate speech. Moreover, it is assumed that it is chiefly snake handlers, TV evangelists, and the economically and socially dispossessed that are those who speak in tongues.

With all this against it, “why did God choose a sign related to human speech/communication that would be so ridiculed, maligned, resisted and rejected” (p 31)—the “least of the gifts” to express the New Covenant of the Spirit—the goal of God’s redemptive purpose?

Pentecost, the celebration of the gift of the covenant at Sinai where the direct voice of God was rejected in favor of a document (Ex 20:18; Heb 12:25; 2 Cor 3), now celebrates the goal of both the scriptures and Jesus’ mission: to “baptize with the Holy Spirit” of the New Covenant when he “pours out that which you see and hear,” the ideal covenant now internalized in Spirit utterance.

At this point Tarr could have helpfully added that the very climax—the action point—of arguably the most important message in all of Christianity is the Pentecost sermon. It describes the fulfillment of salvation history, the New Covenant, and it is characterized by Spirit-speech. This was laid out in Isaiah 59:21, “This is my covenant with them: the Spirit that I place upon you [Isa 61:1-2], and the words I place in your mouth, will not depart from your mouth [“He still speaks today,” see Heb 12:25], nor from the mouths of your children, nor from the mouths of your children’s children, forever.” The “words” in “the mouths” of Isaiah’s prophecy, of course, is partly fulfilled in the Pentecostal phenomenon going on around Peter and his audience as he speaks: “this promise is for you, and for your children and for those who are afar off: anyone whom the Lord your God shall call.” Paul later paraphrases Isa 59:21 in Rom 11:29. “The gifts [charismata] and calling of God are not withdrawn.” So the gift of Spirit-utterance, glossolalia, in this instance, is for everyone forever.

So while it’s clear that God sent this characteristic gift, the central question remains: why tongues? Tarr offers the intriguing thesis that the biblical reason that God gave glossolalia as a “sign gift” of the Spirit is that, in line with the way He characteristically revealed himself in Christ, “glossolalia is irrational by design” [italics his]. Other apologies for tongue speaking, he notes, have focused on “reasoned discourse and logical systems, hoping to make this misunderstood phenomenon acceptable.” Tarr insists such a defense short-circuits God’s own strategy: “any attempt to make God look less foolish is aimless” (p. 6). He notes that God characteristically reveals himself by “what is foolish [“intellectually ugly” (p.253)] in the world to shame the wise…. He chose the lowly things of the world and the despised things … so that no man might boast before Him” (1Cor 1:27-29).

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Category: Spirit, Spring 2014

About the Author: Jon M. Ruthven, Ph.D., passed away April 11, 2022. He spent his entire adult life in ministry, starting with David Wilkerson in Boston and New York City in the mid-60s. After spending a dozen years pastoring, a couple a years as a missionary in Africa as President and Dean of Pan Africa Christian College in Nairobi, Kenya, he ended up teaching theology in seminary for 18 years. Always interested in training and discipleship, Jon sought to develop a radically biblical approach to ministry training that seeks to replicate the discipling mission of Jesus in both content and method. Jon wrote numerous scholarly papers and books including On the Cessation of the Charismata: The Protestant Polemic on Postbiblical Miracles (1993 and 2009) and What’s Wrong with Protestant Theology? Tradition vs. Biblical Emphasis (2013). He emphasized the biblical grounding for a practical ministry of healing, signs and wonders in the power of the Spirit. Facebook.

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