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James K. A. Smith: Thinking in Tongues

Thinking in TonguesJames K. A. Smith, Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Philosophy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 155 pages, ISBN 978-080286184.

James K. A. Smith, associate professor of philosophy at Calvin College and executive director of the Society of Christian Philosophers, engages the subject of hermeneutical philosophy and presses the boundaries outward to make room for a distinctly pentecostal perspective. He examines philosophical ideas from Husserl, Heidegger, and Gadamer, laboring to remind the reader of their foundational concepts on language and communication. In this regard, Smith divides the book in two major sections by first exploring the classical pentecostal worldview and then by exploring communication theory, in order to propose how the phenomena of glossolalia might expand Christian philosophy. The first three chapters will be readable and comprehendible for the college graduate, but the second three chapters wade into deep waters of hermeneutical philosophy, which may disorient many of the uninitiated or novice philosophers. Smith concludes the book in an open-ended manner, inviting conversation on his newly proposed conceptual framework. Herein, we recognize that Smith’s targeted audience is the academic community rather than the average person in the church. It has been said that academics take simple ideas and talk about them in complex ways. Thus, in this review we will attempt to do the opposite, to unpack Smith’s difficult words and restate them in simple ways.

In the first half of this book, Smith offers five ways to define the pentecostal worldview. The first of these is fairly straightforward; pentecostals are open to God doing new things. Pentecostals regularly expect a prophetic word to start with the phrase, “Behold, I am doing a new thing” and pentecostals anticipate that God will not always do things as He has done in the past. Second, pentecostals recognize spiritual realities in every area of the natural world. Angels and demons are active participants in our everyday life. Demonic influences motivate people to do evil. The Holy Spirit guides the believer to do good. Third, pentecostals know that the work of Jesus on the Cross accomplished both the salvation of the soul and the restoration of the body; by his stripes we are healed. Pentecostals read the birth-of-the-church Pentecost story in Acts 2 and the healing of the lame man in Acts 3 as being examples of the normal Christian life. Peter did not lead the lame man to salvation and leave him lame; he healed his body then brought him to salvation. Thus, pentecostals expect both supernatural and natural blessings. Fourth, pentecostals place high value on salvation and miracle testimonies. These stories build faith and validate spiritual reality and blessings from God. They are foundational to faith and they take first place in theological understanding. Theological epistemology may not be clearly written, but the pentecostal worldview includes space for “I know that I know that I know.” Fifth, pentecostal philosophy is oriented toward doing the right thing for the poor, the needy, and those who have never heard the gospel; mission is taken seriously.

In the second half of this book, Smith explores theories of languages and philosophies of interpretation. For the most part, these chapters labor to build a theoretical foundation that the final chapter can build upon. Once Smith has established his philosophical basis, he will finally say what he has wanted to say from the start. Speaking in tongues, be it an exhortation with an interpretation or a private prayer in tongues, is more than simply strange words. Smith’s challenge to pentecostal philosophers is to consider the question “What does this prayer do?” over what do these strange words mean (144). He opens the door for philosophers to consider that “tongues” DO something regardless of whether they make any sense or not. It is here that Smith’s purpose becomes clear and exciting; in the arena of language theory there must be a legitimate place for unknown “tongues” to communicate something beyond the rationality of known words. He presses the practical question (What do tongues do?) to the harm of the theological proposition question (What do tongues mean?). “Tongues” effect and affect God. Likewise, “tongues” open other people to an expectation of the miraculous.

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Category: Fall 2011, In Depth, Pneuma Review

About the Author: John R. Miller is an ordained minister with Elim Fellowship of Lima, NY and serves as Pastor of Education with Living Word Temple of Restoration, Rochester, NY. He has a degree from Elim Bible Institute, a B.Div. (Trinity Theological Seminary), C.P.E. (University of Rochester), M.Div. (Northeastern Seminary), and Ph.D. (Regent University). He teaches at Regent University and Elim Bible Institute & College.

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