Professional Review of The Foolishness of God

The Foolishness of God: A Linguist Looks at the Mystery of Tongues

Del Tarr, Professor Emeritus and past President of the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, who holds a PhD in Communications from the University of Minnesota, applies scientific linguistic and theological insights in a breakthrough analysis of the phenomenon of glossolalia.

Pentecost, the celebration of the gift of the covenant at Sinai where the direct voice of God was rejected in favor of a document (Ex 20:18>Heb 12:25; 2 Cor 3), now celebrates the goal of both the scriptures and Jesus’ mission: to “baptize with the Holy Spirit” of the New Covenant when he “pours out that which you see and hear” in the utterance of tongues.

At this point Tarr could have helpfully added that the very climax–the action point—of arguably the most important message in all of Christianity, the Pentecost sermon, describes the fulfillment of salvation history, the New Covenant, characterized by Spirit-speech, cited in Acts 2:39 “This is my covenant with them: the Spirit that I place upon you [Jesus--Isa 61:1-2], and the words I place in your mouth, will not depart from your mouth [He still speaks today], nor from the mouths of your children, nor from the mouths of your children’s children, forever” (Isa 59:21). The “words” in “the mouths” of Isaiah’s prophecy, of course, is partly fulfilled in the Pentecostal phenomenon going on around Peter and his audience as he speaks: “this promise is for you, and for your children and for those who are afar off: anyone whom the Lord your God shall call.” Paul later paraphrases Isa 59:21 in Rom 11:29. “The gifts [charismata] and calling of God are not withdrawn.” So the gift of Spirit-utterance, glossolalia, in this instance, is for everyone forever.

So it’s clear that God sent this characteristic gift, but the central question remains: why tongues? Tarr offers the intriguing thesis that the biblical reason that God gave glossolalia as a “sign gift” of the Spirit is that, in line with the way He characteristically revealed himself in Christ, “glossolalia is irrational by design” [italics his]. Other apologies for tongue speaking, he notes, have focused on “reasoned discourse and logical systems, hoping to make this misunderstood phenomenon acceptable.” Tarr insists such a defense short-circuits God’s own strategy: “any attempt to make God look less foolish is aimless” (p. 6). He notes that God characteristically reveals himself by “what is foolish [“intellectually ugly” (p.253)] in the world to shame the wise. . . . He chose the lowly things of the world and the despised things . . . so that no man might boast before Him” (1Cor 1:27-29).

Tarr, then, argues that it is precisely because tongues speech is so bizarre and foolish (Acts 2:13), so easily dismissed by the “cultured despisers of religion,” that the tongues phenomenon perfectly expresses God’s characteristic feature of revelation to humanity. Against the human seduction toward human knowledge to control our choices, as in the temptations of the first and Second Adam, God’s revelation in tongues speech requires a radical shift from the gleaming fortress of our own intellectual arrogance to a filthy stable, to see a powerless baby born to a so-called “virgin” from a backwater town—a birth that quite plausibly could be explained by the nearby Roman army garrison rampant with sexual predators (p. 260).

To “see” Jesus, Tarr argues, required getting past toxic small-town gossip and disdain, yet this is the biblical and “foolish” way God revealed Himself to the world–and even more foolishly, to end up being executed as a cursed criminal, “despised and rejected of men”—the paradox of a dead Lamb on the throne of the universe (Rev 7:17).
The Old Covenant was expressed as a written document. Tarr argues that while the written format has the advantage of being more or less permanent, unchanging and reliable, it nonetheless is inferior to the New Covenant, which is God’s word written directly into one’s heart. God’s New Covenant emphasizes the superiority of “orality,” direct, personal revelation, over a text even written in stone (143-46). Despite this biblical shift from our scribal focus on a written text (the Old Covenant) , Tarr argues that orality, God’s direct communication to our heart or through charismata of utterance is of the essence of the Christian experience (chapter 4: Communications Theory and Glossolalia). Instead, Christians, especially in the West, have reduced much of their encounter with God to interaction with texts—a regression to the practice of the scribes and the academics. “It is precisely this textualism of evangelical theology which undermines the Pentecostal experience of continuing revelation” (153).

Tarr’s extensive experience in non-literate areas of Africa taught him the power of the spoken word and how this power is viewed in ways quite similar to those of scripture. A spoken word has power in its effects, whether a blessing or a curse. The “elder or chief has ‘mouth’. . . . ‘Mouth’ means authority/power that refers to the power of his oral speech—not written language” because these men were non-literate (153). The very term, “mouth,” conveys authority, strength or power, especially as it “names” a child or empowers the seed with life for sowing. A dull knife has “no mouth.” Accordingly, “since the word has all power, everything one says is binding. There is no ‘harmless’ or casual word” (154). Hence, Tarr notes that these Africans understand Jesus at a different level than Westerners when he says, “By your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” In this “word” culture, then, tongues-speaking could quickly be construed biblically: this is God himself bestowing authority, intimacy, a powerful new “name,” that is, “words” in the “mouth”. Since the biblical era was characterized more by orality (and its personal, intimate quality) than by text-based memory and manipulation of ideas, it is not so difficult in Tarr’s West African culture to understand the significance of the Pentecost experience as the fulfillment of the New Covenant being expressed as “words” in the “mouth” (Acts 2:39 > Isa 59:21).

The “oral” immediate “word” of God revealed by the Spirit and spoken directly into our hearts, and out again from our mouth, has the great advantage of expressing God’s very presence in our bodies, addressing, at the most appropriate moment, the exact needs of our soul. “Speaking in the Spirit” “builds up” the speaker, while our mind is “unfruitful” even as our spirit (or Spirit) is praying mysteries (1Cor 14:4,14; Rom 8:26). Against earlier academics who tended to pathologize glossolalia, recent more rigorous investigations have discovered the restorative, healing power of tongues speaking .

Tarr insists that despite the growth of Pentecostalism (tongue speakers) in the last 100 years to perhaps the largest active group in Christendom, “my desire is less to defend tongues than to show how this humbling experience can open the door to empowerment.” Dr. Del Tarr, the linguist/theologian, has offered an original, biblical, profound, and convincing explanation for “the mystery of tongues”: God’s “foolish” revelation to mankind.

Del Tarr’s work offers a substantial bibliography (pp. 419-33) that reflects his engagement with a broad range of scholarship. His significant contribution, however, derives from his expertise as a linguist, practically applied as a highly successful missionary in West Africa, his background in communications theory and his insight that tongues speech represents, yes, a stumbling stone, but in that stigma, tongues represents another example of God’s power revealed in a “foolish” weakness—the pattern of the cross itself. The Foolishness of God deserves a prominent place in the nascent but growing and increasingly more rigorous field of Pentecostal/charismatic theology, and as a reference to balance our rationalistic, textualized religious education.

Jon Ruthven
Regent University School of Divinity, Virginia Beach, VA

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