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Rodman Williams: The Gift of the Holy Spirit Today: Response

All of this is possible because of the new situation created by the gift of the Holy Spirit. God, while remaining transcendant, scales the heights and plumbs the depths of creaturely existence, thereby effectuating a fresh situation of divine-human immediacy. In this very moment human existence is so penetrated by the Holy Spirit that response may come forth in a new spiritual key. A transposition thereby occurs wherein human language—as representative of the divine-human immediacy—can become, in an extraordinary way, the vehicle of the Holy Spirit for the praise of Almighty God.5

This brings us again to the picture of what happened on the Day of Pentecost: “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4). The Spirit of God filling all present pervades the speech of each one and brings forth “other tongues.” The disciples speak—not the Holy Spirit—but it is the Spirit who gives them the utterance.6  And the speech is speech of transcendant praise, for what they are declaring are “the mighty works of God” (Acts 2:11).

Before proceeding further it is to be recognized that many persons hold the view that speaking in “other tongues” signifies a miraculous speaking in a language of mankind one has not learned. This is claimed, first, on the basis of the narrative in Acts 2 that, since in the assembled crowd “each one heard them speaking in his own language,” the disciples must have been speaking the various languages of the listeners. However, what may have been happening was not the hearing of one’s own language but hearing in one’s own language. What the Apostle Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians as the Holy Spirit’s work of interpretation following upon a tongue (1 Corinthians 12:10; 14:5 and 13) may have been occurring at Pentecost, so that those who heard “other tongues” had this immediately translated—by the Holy Spirit’s activity—into their own native speech. Actually not everyone on the Day of Pentecost seems to have understood: “All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others mocking said, ‘They are filled with new wine'” (Acts 2:12-13). Those mocking seemed to hear and understand nothing; the speech of the disciples did not impress them as being their own speech—or any speech for that matter. Hence, it would scarcely seem that the disciples were speaking the various languages of the multitude. For those who had ears to hear, the Spirit gave them understanding; for others, the disciples’ speech was but the babble of drunken persons.7

A second claim that “other tongues” refers to speaking in other languages of mankind is drawn from some contemporary experience. Many testimonies in the spiritual renewal of our time are heard of people speaking foreign languages they did not learn. The evidence for this invariably given is the witness of others that they actually heard their own languages being spoken by someone who had no knowledge of that language.8  However, there are no assured proofs that the language spoken was actually a foreign language. Tongues spoken on various occasions have been recorded and checked thereafter as to language content, but the evidence for their being a language of man is lacking. This, of course, does not rule out the possibility—even likelihood—that through the Holy Spirit’s interpretation a person might understand what is being said. It would seem more probable that speaking in “other tongues” refers—as was earlier mentioned—to the utterance of transcendent praise. “Other” would mean different—different, that is, in quality9—from what had been spoken before. Thus rather than the speaking of an additional human language, it would be transcendent speech, and in that sense an unknown tongue. It would be language addressed to God and known by Him alone.10

Let us reflect upon a number of significant matters about this utterance. First, the extraordinary and unique fact is that while people do the speaking, it is the Holy Spirit who provides the language. It is spiritual, not natural, utterance. The human apparatus—mouth, tongue, vocal cords—is in full operation, but the words are not from the speaker: they are from and by the Holy Spirit. One speaks as the Holy Spirit gives to speak out.

Thus there is no sense of compulsion or coercion. The Holy Spirit does not assume control, thereby forcing this speech to occur.

There is no divine seizure. Rather, the person freely does the speaking, and the Holy Spirit generously provides the language. Human integrity is fully maintained—even as individuals are given to speak forth praise in a way transcending anything they have before experienced.

It may also be observed that the uniqueness of this speech is also related to the fact that the Holy Spirit is speaking through the human spirit. For the Spirit of God pervades the depths of the human spirit and speech flows there from. The level is deeper than—or higher than—the level of mind where speech is that of human conceptualization and articulation. The level is also more profound than that of human feelings where speech has a large emotional content. It is that level of human spirit where the Spirit of God, speaking in and through the spirit of man, communicates with the transcendent God.11  To speak in other tongues is to go beyond one’s native speech into the realm of spiritual utterance. Thereby the praise of God may sound forth in a new and glorious way.

The utterance, secondly, has intelligible content. It is address to God, and not babbling nonsense12  or irrational expression. It is speech, language; hence, there is intelligibility, even if this utterance is other than one’s own ordinary language.

Again, let us return to the Day of Pentecost. They speak on that day in “other tongues” or “languages.”13  Hence, there is intelligible content even though the disciples themselves do not provide it. This intelligibility is demonstrated in the fact that the assembled crowd understands the disciples to be declaring “the mighty works of God” (Acts 2:11). The same thing is implied later at Caesarea where the people are heard to be “speaking in tongues and extolling God” (10:46). There is intelligible content in both cases: the magnifying of God.

It is important to stress that the intelligible content of speaking in (other) tongues is that provided by the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit of God flowing through the human vessel—most profoundly the human spirit—communicating with God. It is the worship of God “in spirit and truth” (John 4:23).

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Category: Fall 2002, Spirit

About the Author: J. Rodman Williams (1918-2008), Ph.D., is considered to be the father of renewal theology. He served as a chaplain in the Second World War, he was a church pastor, college professor, and key figure in the charismatic movement of the 1960s. Beginning in 1982, he taught theology at Regent University School of Divinity in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and became Professor of Renewal Theology Emeritus there in 2002. Author of numerous books, he is perhaps best known for his three volume Renewal Theology (Zondervan, 1996).

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