J. Massingbird Ford
Tongues are a prophetic sign that the Holy Spirit finds no distinction between Jew, half-bred Jew, or Gentile….
I have used the term “prophetic sign” because I see no sharp distinction between tongues and prophecy. The biblical data and our existential experience teach us that prophecy is often given in tongues. The value or edification of “tongue-prophecy” lies in the interpretation given either by the speaker or by a second party (one or more persons) or the simple fact that a hearer might know the language in a human way.
However, there is a further aspect to the prophetic sign. When two people or more are involved in the sign, that is, a prophet and interpreter, this would seem to signify the interrelationship between the different parts of Christ’s Body. In a prayer meeting or the liturgy there is an act of “community contemplation.” The congregation is dependent on the dual action for the hearing of the message, for no one save Christ is sufficient for himself or herself.
When everyone plays his or her part, one with spontaneous prayer, another with a reading, a tongue, prophecy, image, testimony, the Holy Spirit seems to work a kind of mosaic or tapestry until the whole picture or theme is built up for the edification and encouragement of the whole community… this interdependence makes one realize community in the deepest sense of the word, but it is also a safeguard. The community has the duty to judge the authenticity of the parts played by several members, to keep charity and to see that there are no excesses.
It is not without great significance that Paul’s teaching about the Church as the Body of Christ occurs in this section of 1 Corinthians. So “tongues” continue their prophetic symbolism on the existential level…. In Acts and 1 Corinthians “tongues” are a prophetic sign with the dynamism to re-create faith, either (1) to bring the Jew to the realization of the fulfilment of Sinai, or (2) as a sign that the apistos [one who is weak in faith] is entitled to the plenitude of Jewish-Christianity; (3) as a sign to apostles etc. that the latter may be received into full membership of the Church; (4) as a general dynamic sign to build up the faith of the individual or the community; (5) as a sign of international unity, a sign that Babel wrought by God has been reversed by God.
In biblical times “tongues” were a sign of international unity and a sign of the extension of the Christian message to all peoples. Today it may be the same profound and dynamic prophetic symbol … of interdenominational unity. It may be a sign to Christian denominations that they have much to give to and receive from each other, but also much in common. It is not without significance that the charismatic renewal began shortly after Pope Leo XII’s Encyclical on the Holy Spirit, the non-Roman Catholic prayers for unity, and then Vatican Council II, which was preceded by the earnest prayer of the Church for a New Pentecost.
If the Asian peoples are to feel at ease within the Christian liturgy there must be a certain continuity between the worship they have been used to in the other religions and Christian worship. Given the thinking of Vatican II we can accept many of the sacred writings of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Confucius and Lao-Tzu, the traditional founder of Taoism. These texts should find a revered place in the Asian Christian’s liturgy. They are in many senses our Old Testament God speaking to our peoples in many and diverse tongues over the ages.