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The Speaking in Tongues Controversy: A Narrative-Critical Response, Part 2

Let us examine the entire scene that Walston is using and not just a portion. The way Luke presents it to Theophilus, it begins at Acts 2:1 and runs in real time all the way to 2:40. Then, Luke caps it off with the summary statement of v. 41 (the verses that follow in chapter two describe action occurring days afterward). The scene has a dual focus: (1) the coming of the Holy Spirit with its accompanying signs and (2) Peter’s sermon and interaction with the crowd. Luke has already portrayed Jesus as telling the disciples to remain in Jerusalem until they are baptized in the Holy Spirit so that they will receive power to be his witnesses (1:5, 8). Since the disciples are already saved, this is a post-conversion empowerment, a pneumatological rather than a soteriological experience. Acts 2:1-13 describes the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise in detail. Luke ends with the question, “Whatever could this mean?” Peter explains what it means by quoting the prophet Joel. Significantly, Peter quotes a primarily pneumatological portion of scripture. To make this point clear, Peter edits Joel’s prophecy, adding “and they shall prophesy” to verse 18. Because he is speaking to non-Christians, Peter includes Joel’s statement that “whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (2:21). Next, Peter goes into an explanation of Jesus of Nazareth, Lord and Messiah, who has poured out “this which you now see and hear,” speaking of the promise of the Father or, more specifically, the accompanying signs of the promise (v. 33). Cut to the heart, the Jewish listeners ask Peter, “[W]hat shall we do?” (v. 37). Peter replies, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call” (vv. 38-39). Finally, Luke concludes the scene, “Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them” (v. 41).

Now, back to Walston’s question: “Why does Luke not make a point of saying that they did (or did not) speak in tongues?” The answer to this question relates to Walston’s (under)statement that “Luke is not a substandard communicator” (85). Luke is believed by many scholars to be the most eloquent, articulate, intentional, and educated writer of scripture. For that reason, we should not expect him to write in a sophomoric, garish, coarse, unreflective, or tedious style. Stronstad writes, “Arguably, Luke-Acts is the most carefully designed book in all of biblical literature, certainly in the New Testament” (Prophethood 14). According to Elbert, the writings of Luke exemplify the highly developed, conventional Greco-Roman narrative tradition, as illustrated in the teachings of Theon of Alexandria, a rhetorician and contemporary of Luke:

Luke is in accord with the instruction of Theon on this expected method of narrative persuasion via plausible examples and precedents serving to provide Christian expectation. Clarity, understandability, and vividness of examples and precedents are the narrative tools deemed important by Theon; it is unsurprising then that Luke employs such contemporary narrative technique. Lukan portrayal of interaction with, and of Christian expectation of, the divine is quite harmonious with Theonic characterization and personification.18

Luke’s refined architectonics in Acts does not require the tedious repetitions that our 21st-century minds may desire.19 Even as Luke tells the disciples that they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (the Gentiles), rather than laboriously naming all the cities and regions, he deliberately chooses two of the most momentous occurrences of tongues to narrate for Theophilus—the first Jews and the first Gentiles saved calling upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Would not these be the “paradigmatic gold mines” in Luke’s mind? The third occurrence, the Ephesian disciples, was probably narrated, in part, because of Paul’s involvement (given Luke’s propensity to give Peter and Paul equal time) and because it is the last scene in the Acts narrative with characters who are baptized in the Holy Spirit. For us, it serves the additional purpose of disallowing the Lukan cessationist notion that Spirit-baptism is an apostolic-age or unique experience.20 Of these three occurrences, Donald Johns writes, “It is difficult to deny that speaking in tongues did accompany being baptized in the Spirit in three texts in Acts. It is a common storytelling technique the world over to tell things in groups of threes: three times should be enough to tell anything. The paradigmatic effect of these stories should lead us to expect the same things in our own experience with the Spirit. Actually, as we are drawn into the story, we should experience the Spirit along with Peter, Cornelius, and all the rest. By telling these stories, Luke shows that this is the way his world works” (163; cf. 153-56).21

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Category: Spirit, Winter 2006

About the Author: Robert W. Graves, M. A. (Literary Studies, Georgia State University), is the co-founder and president of The Foundation for Pentecostal Scholarship, Inc., a non-profit organization supporting Pentecostal scholarship through research grants. He is a Christian educator and a former faculty member of Southwestern Assemblies of God College in Waxahachie, Texas, and Kennesaw State University (adjunct). He edited and contributed to Strangers to Fire: When Tradition Trumps Scripture and is the author of Increasing Your Theological Vocabulary, Praying in the Spirit (1987 and Second Edition, 2017) and The Gospel According to Angels (Chosen Books, 1998).

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