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Strangers To Fire: When Tradition Trumps Scripture, reviewed by Tony Richie

Here’s my rationale. Unless we move forward in developing a more advanced charismology, particularly in terms of glossolalia, we are bound to be locked in a ceaseless (no cessationism here!) cycle of defending our distinctive experience without making any definitive progress in its actual application and implementation. It just may be that the best way forward lies in demonstrating what lies ahead for a forward-moving theology of speaking in tongues and other spiritual gifts. In other words, we might develop positively instead of defending negatively. Although Graves’ Hernando’s chapter (17) refreshingly focuses more on the positive nature of continuationism rather than the negative side of cessationism, these themes should be more consistently sustained and addressed in much more depth throughout the book. Of course at times deeper ideas do come through (cp. Moreland and Menzies on charismata in context of the theology of the Kingdom). And one of the strengths of Strangers to Fire is its strong component of biblical treatment. Authors such as Ruthven (3) and Elbert (35) demonstrate the thoroughly biblical nature of continuationism vis-à-vis the incredibly unbiblical stance of cessationism.

However, we really need more theological development regarding glossolalia in particular and the charismata in general. And it’s not that work hasn’t been done in this direction that’s well worth building on. For example, Steve Land describes glossolalia as the language of the Kingdom. That description is loaded with theological potential. The ability to form and utilize complex systems of communication is indisputably one of the most intriguing characteristics of human beings. The role of the brain in language is an intriguing element of ongoing scientific research. Yet language is much more than a means of communication involving cerebral activity and energy. Language also has many social and cultural uses. Language can signify group identity, social stratification, social grooming, and more.

How might such insights contribute to a positive theology of glossolalia? Does speaking in tongues function among Pentecostals as a signifier of group identity? If so, isn’t that a legitimate derivative of the inherent nature of language as it might be applied in our particular faith context? How does that thought offer us new ways of articulating the classic doctrine of initial evidence? Does the obvious prevalence of Pentecostal-type movements among the world’s marginalized—especially the poor and disenfranchised—indicate that speaking in tongues can function as a cry of the oppressed for liberation through salvation? If so, what soteriological and social implications might that entail? And what about the sheer diversity suggested by the polysyllabic and polyphonic character of glossolalia in actual practice? Does the multiplicity of tongues at Pentecost suggest that a mono approach (whatever the “mono” might be) to Christian identity, spirituality, or theology is misdirected? Does the linguistic diversity and fluidity prominent in the Pentecost account suggest biblically and theologically what the Spirit-filled believer and his or her church should reflect practically and relationally in today’s global cultures? How might that look (and sound!). And by the way, wouldn’t it be somewhat nonsensical for the language of the Kingdom to cease when the Kingdom hasn’t ceased to bear its witness?

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Category: Fall 2014, Spirit

About the Author: Tony Richie, D.Min, Ph.D., is missionary teacher at SEMISUD (Quito, Ecuador) and adjunct professor at the Pentecostal Theological Seminary (Cleveland, TN). Dr. Richie is an Ordained Bishop in the Church of God, and Senior Pastor at New Harvest in Knoxville, TN. He has served the Society for Pentecostal Studies as Ecumenical Studies Interest Group Leader and is currently Liaison to the Interfaith Relations Commission of the National Council of Churches (USA), and represents Pentecostals with Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation of the World Council of Churches and the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs. He is the author of Speaking by the Spirit: A Pentecostal Model for Interreligious Dialogue (Emeth Press, 2011) and Toward a Pentecostal Theology of Religions: Encountering Cornelius Today (CPT Press, 2013) as well as several journal articles and books chapters on Pentecostal theology and experience.

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