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Tongues Speaking in the Early Church (Pt. 1)

Here is an article I wrote a few years ago for The Biblical Illustrator.   

In 1 Corinthians 12-14 Paul provides the first record of the Christian practice of speaking in tongues, or glossolalia.  Those who study Scripture and early Christianity find the practice a bit baffling for a number of reasons.  First, the earliest, firsthand description of speaking in tongues depicts a church divided over the practice with Paul urging restraint on the part of those who do and tolerance by those who don’t.  In the final analysis to forbid tongues speaking is no better than flaunting it (1 Cor 14:39).  Second, it is not at all clear how pervasive the practice is.  pentecost_crossAlthough Paul wrote thirteen letters in the New Testament, the practice is mentioned only in 1 Corinthians.  Moreover, in the two other places where Paul catalogs spiritual gifts–Romans 12 and Ephesians 4—tongues fails to make the list.  Some have concluded the practice is so widespread it is hardly worth mentioning except when there was a problem (as at Corinth).  Others read the evidence to say there was little or no tongues speaking going on in Paul’s other churches.  Third and perhaps most puzzling, it is also not clear whether Luke’s account in Acts of the disciples speaking in tongues is of the same sort as what we find happening in Corinth.  In Acts 2 Luke recounts the coming of the Spirit on the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem during Pentecost after Jesus’ crucifixion.  When the Spirit comes, they see visions and begin speaking in tongues.  Those Jewish pilgrims who have come to Jerusalem for the festival hear the disciples praising God in their own languages (Acts 2:1-11).  Some interpreters have understood this not so much a miracle of speaking as it is a miracle of hearing for the pilgrims say: “Why, are not all these who are speaking Galileans?  And how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born?” (Acts 2:7-8, NASV).[1]  Despite this way of reading the text, it may well be that Luke meant to describe miraculous speech.  Therefore, let the reader understand that Galileans began speaking the native languages of Parthians, Medes, Cappadocians and many others although they had never studied or learned those languages.  The other accounts in Acts which describe speaking in tongues (Acts 10:44-48; 19:1-7) occur with the newly converted but no mention is made whether these “gifts of the Spirit” should be understood as real, human languages.  Paul’s description in 1 Corinthians 12-14, on the other hand, points to the fact that tongues speaking does not involve a known, human language; rather it is Spirit-inspired speech directed toward God not other people (1 Cor 14:2).[2]  For these and other reasons, the origin and practice of tongues speaking in the early church lays shrouded in mystery.

The situation is complicated to some extent by the fact that similar practices are found in other religions.  The Old Testament records that some early Hebrew prophets experienced episodes of ecstasy and inspired speech which may border on glossolalia (1 Sam 10:5-13; 19:18-24; 2 Sam 6:13-17; 1 Kings 20:35-37) although not all are agreed on this.  Perhaps more to the point is the pagan phenomenon known as mantic prophecy.  In mantic prophecy a divine spirit so possesses a prophet (known as a mantis) that the person falls into a trance-like state and speaks messages from a god.  Evidence suggests the language used was inarticulate and had to have an interpreter to be understood by the one seeking the oracle.[3]  Similar phenomena appear in the ancient cults of the Dionysius and Cybele.[4]  The relationship of early Christian glossolalia to any parallel phenomona is not self-evident.

 

 

pentecost 3


[1] Luke Timothy Johnson, Religious Experience in Earliest Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998), 111.

[2] Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 598.

[3] Johnson,  113-4.

[4] E. Andrews, “Tongues, Gift of,” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon), 4:671-2.

[5] Fee, 571.

Christian Women

My friend, colleague, and collaborator in all things good at Wheaton College, Dr. Lynn Cohick, and her former student Amy Hughes have written an important and timely book on the role of many key women in church history in the second to fifth centuries (Christian Women in the Patristic World: Their Influence, Authority and Legacy in the Second through Fifth Centuries [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic Press, 2017]).  It has just been published and I’ve had a chance to read through much of it in digital form.  I’m looking forward to getting my SIGNED copy when I return to Chicago in a couple of weeks. Christian Women book by Cohick and Hughes

When most of us took church history, we were introduced to dozens of men who defended the nascent community and/or led it during tumultuous times.  Names like Ignatius, Clement of Rome, Justin Martryr, Athanasius, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine were just a few of the men we studied.  But fortunately the record of many women who defended and led the church still exists, and there are scholars eager to tell their stories.

In their own words this “book will educate readers who are exploring the patristic period about the lives of the most important women from this period, so that their influence can be better integrated into the history of the church.”  And that is the story they tell, a story of integration. They do not silence the men who contributed to the growth and development of the church, but they do correct them in gracious tones. I would characterize their approach to the evidence available as a “charitable feminism,” an advocacy for the role of women in church history as leaders, martyrs, examples in their own right, understood against a culture that in ways were hostile to women who dared to speak outside the private, domestic fear (though the male-public, female-private distinction is often overblown).  Both Cohick and Hughes clearly appreciate the cultural limits placed people living in 1500-1800 years ago.  Few of us have eyes to see beyond our own cultural limits.

If you are interested in church history—particularly the formative centuries that brought Christianity from its status as a persecuted sect to one of the most influential forces in the west—you will want to get and read this book. Don’t think you can claim any expertise in the history of Christianity, if you don’t take into account the contributions of Macrina, Felicitas, Thecla, Perpetua, Egeria, Helena and many others.

If you’d like to pick up your own copy, click here.

The Extent of Theological Diversity

I’m fortunate to be affiliated with a group of scholars at the Society of Biblical Literature.  It is a program unit entitled: The Extent of Theological Diversity in Earliest Christianity.  Here’s a description of its purpose:

The Extent of Theological Diversity in Earliest Christianity Group explores the origin, nature, and extent of theological diversity within Christian communities from the beginnings until approximately 180 CE. Focusing on the evidence for Jesus’ death and resurrection as a narrative used to shape the identity of emergent communities, as well as on the alternatives to this narrative preserved in early Christian sources, the unit seeks to clarify the historical origins and relationship of these diverse forms of Christianity and bring greater precision to the study of “orthodoxy and heresy in early Christianity.”

Although  it is not quite up-to-date, the web address below will take you to some of the papers and activities of the group since its inception in 2008.  There are papers there by Richard Bauckham, Birger Pearson, Todd Still, James Ware, Mark Goodacre and many others.  More recently we have hosted sessions with Larry Hurtado, Bart Ehrman, and Judith Lieu. I’ll post the upcoming schedule for SBL 2016 in San Antonio.

 

http://www.austingrad.edu/sbl.html

The Earliest Christologies

 

I received a copy of James L. Papandrea’s book, The Earliest Christologies: Five Images of Christ in the Postapostolic Age (InterVarsity Press, 2016).  I had read and reviewed the book prior to publication so this is my “thank you” copy from the publisher. Earliest Christologies by Papandrea

Papandrea is an associate professor of church history at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary at Northwestern University.  He has written other books on the Church Fathers and Trinitarian theology.

The second century (AD or CE, if you prefer) was a crucial period for what would become the Christian Church.  A great deal is thought out, worked out, argued out about key issues like: What books do we read as Scripture?  How do we relate to the Jews and other religions?  How do we live out our distinctive calling?  Who was Jesus  . . . really?

It is this last question which occupies Papandrea’s attention for 127 pages.  Was the Christ a man who was temporarily inhabited by the divine?  Was he a spirit that only appeared to be flesh?  Was he the enfleshing of the divine Logos?  Was he a righteous man adopted by God for a special purpose?

In short, Papandrea has taken a complex and daunting set of texts from long ago and helped his readers sort out the language, concepts, and images.   By its length and scope it is an introduction so it is on a shelf everyone can reach.  Papandrea describes five views of Jesus in this period: Angel adoptionism, Spirit adoptionism, Docetism, Hybrid Gnosticism, and Logos Christology.  Each idea was current among a sizeable group of Jesus people in the second century and, in some cases, beyond.  But ultimately the Church would land on one option to answer the perennial question: “Who do you say that I [Jesus] am?”  The only reason you haven’t probably heard some of these other options is because they were deemed insufficient, wrong, and heretical.  So, over time, they died out.  Ironically, vestiges of these approaches to Jesus remain in “orthodox” Christianity, but that’s another post.

The next time I teach this period and topic, I will be using The Earliest Christologies by James Papandrea.

Here is a link to the book on Amazon: The Earliest Christologies. 

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