Jürgen Moltmann on the Speaking in Tongues

moltmann-spiritMy eyes were first open to Christ Jesus in a Pentecostal church when I was five years old in southern Michigan. I remember being afraid of drowning during the baptismal immersion. I remember the waters were as cold as ice, and then afterwards, violently trembling in the wintry cold basement of the church without a towel. My teeth chattered and my words stuttered and my body shivered from my Siberian style baptism in such a way that I was speaking in tongues for the first time, such that maybe this was the initial evidence of being "Baptized in the Spirit" for the first time (or only the onset of hypothermia). My home is now in the Reformed Church tradition, and although I left the Holiness and Pentacostal Tradition of my youth, I will never forget that this was "where my eyes were first opened to Christ" as Karl Barth once described conversion. However, looking back on all the charismatic experiences, I believe much of my experiences way back when, may now require demythologization.

Friedrich Schleiermacher's doctrine of the Trinity was arguably an appendix to the Christian Faith, yet in many ways he has commonality with the Holiness and Pentecostal Tradition due to his famous formula of Piety a "feeling of absolute dependence." (Read Vinson Synan's The Holiness-Pentecostal Tradition to learn more about non-trinitarian Pentecostal Churches such as the "Oneness" movement and for a general history of the American Pentecostal Tradition). The Pentacostal Church experience provides a means for a person to worship that isnt exclusively cerebrial or ritualistic, and allows for free expressions of joy that are common to man that are not common to services, such as screaming, dancing, extatic speech, jumping and running. Isn't this an experience of "feeling of absolute dependence"?

As Pentecost 2015 approaches, I've been reading Jürgen Moltmann's The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation and meditating on the experience of the Holy Spirit. In this book, Moltmann has a surprisingly positive assessment of glossolalia (speaking in tongues). I read this recently and thought that he described my experience with Pentecostal Churches quite well, despite that he was a stranger to the American Pentacostal Tradition.  Since the Church is "a broad place", as Moltmann might say, then in this season of Pentecost, and a time to experience the Spirit of Christ Jesus. It is a retrospective season for me, looking back to when I first began to experience the Spirit of Life.


It is a historically indisputable phenomenon that the birth of the Christian congregations was accomplished by ‘speaking with tongues’. This is already reported in the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 2, (Acts 2:1-47) in its account of the first Pentecost. it can also hardly be disputed that the Christian revival movements have been accompanied by the same phenomenon. Finally, there is no doubt at all that today Pentecostal and charismatic congregations are growing everywhere, not only in the countries of the young churches but in the older Christian countries too. I have no personal experience of this phenomenon, so I can neither explain nor dispute it. I can only describe it from the outside, from its effect on the people concerned. It would seem to me to be an inward possession by the Spirit which is so strong that it can no longer find adequate expression in comprehensible language, so that it utters itself in glossolalia – just as intense pain is expressed by unrestrained weeping, or extreme joy by jumping and dancing. ‘With praise and adoration a charismatic community responds to what God has revealed in word and act. New love and words, spontaneous prayers, speaking with tongues, prophecies and testimonies springing spontaneously from the immediate situation, as well as an expressive body language in the form of raised hands, clapping, kneeling, throwing oneself on the ground before God, and dancing: all these have become typical characteristics of gatherings in the context of charismatic renewal’

It is certainly true that our regular, mainline church services display a wealth of ideas and reflections in their sermons, but are poverty-stricken in their forms of expression, and offer no opportunity at all for spontaneity. They are disciplined and disciplinary assemblies for talking and listening. But does the body of Christ really consist simply of one big mouth and a lot of little ears? So it is liberating for us Europeans to share the charismatic worship of black people in Africa and the United States, and to see and learn a body language which is different from our European ‘sitting-still-with-folded-hands’. I would interpret ‘speaking with tongues’ as the beginning, when the tongues of the dumb are loosened, and they express what they themselves experience and feel. Perhaps we can see an analogy in scream therapy, although speaking with tongues goes beyond any purely human possibility. It is at all events a new way of expressing the experience of faith, and it is a personal way. Paul also advises the congregation to ‘strive for’ (RSV: ‘earnestly desire’) charismata (1 Cor 14:1), but most of all ‘that you may prophesy’. By this he means personal, comprehensible witness in preaching and pastoral care. In his view, therefore, speaking with tongues can be interpreted in the Holy Spirit, and he believes it is God-given.

Prophetic speech is a special charismata, for in a particular personal or public kairos it discovers the appropriate, binding and liberating word, and says specifically and at the right time what sin is, and what grace. This appropriate word cannot be deduced from any doctrine, nor can it be psychologically figured out from the situation. But one can develop sensibility for the congruity of the appropriate word and the proper time, and can become open for it, so that it can happen.

The fact that the congregations who listen to sermons with us are hardly enabled to give any personal conviction. Many people are quite satisfied to belong to the church, to go to church occasionally, and to agree by and large with the church’s doctrine, even if they do not know much about it, and it does not mean very much to them. The awakening of personally experienced and personally expressed faith is the ‘charismatic experience’ today. Before the mainline churches and the bishops and other leaders ‘quench’ the Spirit of the ‘charismatic movement’, we should all make room for the Spirit, not only in church services, but in our bodies too, since those bodies are, after all, supposed to be ‘a temple of the Holy Spirit’ (1 Cor 6:19).

But we have to put a critical question to the ‘charismatic movement’: what about the neglect of charismata? Where are the charismata of the ‘charismatics’ in the everyday world, in the peace movement, in the movements for liberation, in the ecology movement? If charismata are not given us so that we can flee from this world into a world of religious dreams, but if they are intended to witness to the liberating lordship of Christ in this world’s conflicts, then the charismatic movement must not become a non-political religion, let alone a de-politicized one.

Moltmann, Jürgen. The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation. Trans. Margaret Kohl. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993. 185-6. Print.

Image Source: "Duccio di Buoninsegna 018" by Duccio - The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Related: , , , , ,
Comments (2) Trackbacks (1)
  1. Thanks for this very personal post, Wyatt.

    I had no idea you came from a Pentecostal background.
    I have no experience in Pentecostal circles.
    I have gone through seasons of deep joy and peace though.

    I’m not sure why you left the tradition behind,
    but it is no secret that it has many problems and challenges to deal with.

    Thanks for sharing about your life.

    • Thanks Juan! I don’t know how to answer that question, other than that I am where I am now by God’s grace and predestination! My temptation is to criticize where I was, and to praise where I am now, but there’s no denying that’s where new life began for me! Sometimes, one needs to circle the world to appreciate the place where they began!

Leave a comment