Epistemological Uncertainty and Pentecost
Epistemology is the study of how we know something. If one wants to have surer footing as to what they know, they must have good reasons for their position. For the person who doesn’t spend their life investigating where their knowledge comes from, then they at least must not have good reasons (in their mind or available to them) against their position.
In this writing I work to show how we cannot know (regarding details) what happened in Acts chapter 2 with the giving of the Holy Spirit. We, as readers divorced from the time and people, are left with Scriptures that are giving limited descriptions of the indescribable work of God the Holy Spirit. The good news about this is that we leave God in the position to decide how he gives the Holy Spirit. He is not limited to some formula. The bad news, at least for some Christians (especially those in Pentecostal Churches), is that we cannot know exactly what took place with the languages mentioned in Acts 2. We can know the meaning of the event, but the raw event is vague. For Christians who speak like Acts 2 (think languages) must CERTAINLY be mimicked, they should lower their level of certainty, because they are talking beyond what they know (and what the Scriptures teach).
Pentecost and Pentecostals
Pentecost takes place 50 days after Passover. Both religious festivals are significant for Christians and Jews. The author of the book of Acts explains that there were many nations coming into Jerusalem for the festival (Acts 2:5-11). The reason the author highlights this is because prior to verse 5, Acts says, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in others tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” In the other words, the author is explaining why many languages (tongues) mattered. It mattered because there were many nations present. Another word for “tongues” which is periodically used in translations is “languages.” I will use them interchangeably.
At first glance the reader might think this scene is clear. As in “The disciples must have been literally talking in other languages.” This is at least possible, but there is shaky ground here. There is an even larger problem with saying what Pentecostals have classically said, “If we are filled (or baptized in the Holy Spirit) we should speak in tongues, because the apostles spoke in tongues.” Each of these ideas is misleading because they try to make certain things that are not.
The First Reason – A Need for Many Languages?
The Jewish believers in town for this festival were from numerous nations and places, but the common language of the day was Greek. Peter would not have had to talk in more than one language. Believers from all these tribes could have understood him in Greek. And, for the rest of chapter 2, we are led to believe that is exactly what happened. Peter gave one speech to all those listening.
Forcing the point further, remember that the festival goers are Jews or Jewish converts and they are all coming to the religious center of Jerusalem. They are coming with the knowledge that to participate likely means having some knowledge of the customs or languages or actions. Some Greek would have been necessary. Still, even if their Greek was limited, Many Jews would have familiarity with Aramaic (the language Jesus spoke) and perhaps Hebrew as well (the language of most of the Old Testament).
To add another reason to this, Acts 2 says, “We hear them in our own language speaking the mighty deeds of God” (vs. 11). My thinking is that the disciples would not have had to have too many words to achieve this. God’s name and certain important actions of God would have formed a common language among the people already. Beyond that observation, the point is that if there is solid footing between “Speaking in other languages” or “hearing in other languages” it would be more on hearing side. The reasons for this are already given above. The author of Acts says, “6 And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were bewildered, because they were each one hearing them speak in his own language.” (Act 2:6 NAS). Verse 8 says the same thing.
The Second Reason – Religiously Descriptive Language
1 – In Acts 2:2 we learn that this whole experience is conveyed with comparative or approximate language. “Like a mighty rushing wind.”
2 – Acts 2:3 “They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire” – This language of “seemed” is also leading us in the direction of thinking that whatever took place, is beyond description.
Moreover, any author (biblical or non-biblical) trying to convey spiritual activity, which is definitionally non-physical or beyond the senses, is going to be at a loss of words. Whatever their descriptions of a pure spiritual being, they are going to have to grasp at comparative or analogical language. In this case, the author uses Old Testament language to convey the ‘work of the Spirit. Commentaries that I have read on this passage point this out as well; FF. Bruce, I. Howard Marshall, N.T. Wright.
“Wind” – There could be several allusions here. In the first case, we might have a reference to the giving of the Spirit in the Gospel of John where Jesus “breathes” on the disciples and they are filled with the Holy Spirit. Even more, the Hebrew word for Spirit is “Ruach” which means “wind, breath, mind or spirit.” Hundreds of references convey the Spirit’s work with “wind” in the Old Testament.
“Tongues” – The “tongues” in “tongues of fire” is most likely a reference to the deep Old Testament tradition of God blessing the nations, tribes, and languages, through his choice nation, and eventually choice servant. We see this tradition in Genesis 1-11 as the nations continually divide, until ultimately the Tower of Babel does the final book level separation (more on Babel later). Then in chapter 12, God calls Abraham and through him He will bless the nations (Genesis 12:3). The Prophet Isaiah makes it clear that all nations and tongues will see God’s glory (66:18). Tongues is being used as a reference to the peoples of the earth, and their getting to see God’s glory.
“Fire” – The “Fire” in the “tongues of fire” is possibly referencing one of three Old Testament interactions with God. The first case is Moses and the burning bush. God speaks through the fire that enflames (but does not burn up) a bush. In this setting, God has begun his work of deliverance through his servant. Still, there are other places that can serve equally well. It is possible all are in view. 2)Elijah calling down fire to engulf the Baal prophets and 3) the fire of God’s glory leading the Israelites by night.
What is most telling about both wind and fire is the movement and the uncontrollable aspects of each of them. Wind and fire do their own thing. This is telling for those who wish to build a doctrine of the Holy Spirit and his “manifestations.” The early Pentecostals who set the tone for all subsequent Pentecostal teaching made flat and literal an experience that was meant to be dynamic and figural. The work of the spirit has been boxed into a teaching on evidence of the Holy Spirit being proven with Tongues. This very much misses the mark. The very language that protected God’s dynamism in the earth, was used to box the work of the Holy Spirit in.
The Third Reason – The Gospel of John’s Pentecost
One event all the letters of the New Testament record or allude to is the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth who had been dead for three days. There is great agreement amongst the New Testament authors on this central event. However, the events of Pentecost in Acts (tongues etc.) are never once mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament (at least directly). Not all silences are pregnant, but I think this one is.
There are of course other ways of talking about Pentecost, or the results of Pentecost, such as the words “filled with the Holy Spirit.” Although these references would not necessarily be direct references to Pentecost, they could function that way depending on the context. The problem here is that Luke is the only Biblical author to use such words, and he was the one recording the event. Even more, broadening the possibilities, “filled with the Spirit” does not get us much farther. Luke again is almost all the references. The Apostle Paul makes one such reference in Ephesians 5:18, but this is a general admonition and not speaking of what happened at Pentecost. Even in the well-known Corinthian chapters on the gifts of the Spirit (12-14) has no reference to Pentecost or what happened in Jerusalem.
The Gospel of John does picture a similar event (John 20:22), but it is lacking all the detail that Acts gives. In John, everything is collapsed into a day or days after the resurrection, but not 50 days later. Moreover, Jesus is right there with the disciples. In Acts, Jesus has ascended into heaven. In John, the point of giving of the Holy Spirit is so they can now do the work of God that Jesus was doing. Spreading the good news of forgiveness. In Acts, this is close to the same meaning (see Acts 2:38), but it is understood under the template of overcoming the division of languages that began at Babel.
A Christian has several routes to think about understanding these accounts together.
1) Remember that each religious narrative is offering a picture of an event couched in language that communicates direction to a congregation or people group. Thus, Luke and John may have different ways of communicating the one truth of the reception of the Holy Spirit. Luke connects the meaning of the giving of the Holy Spirit with the reversing of Babel (dividing of languages at Babel, reuniting them at Pentecost). John focuses attention on the forgiveness of sins (whatever you forgive is forgiven). Certainly, these are two sides of the same coin (without forgiveness of sins there can be no reversing of Babel). Under this heading we can say that both have offered a religious history of the singular event of the reception of the Holy Spirit.
2) One could also think that John purposefully condenses the account because his focus is different than Luke. In this view, one would prioritize the book of Acts as conveying the times, place, and peoples in a more historical way.
3) Privilege the account of John, and think that Luke purposefully adds much detail to make sense of the event of the giving of the Holy Spirit along Jewish feast lines as well as to draw together the whole of the Bible’s view of the nations gathering together. We find the theme of the work of the Holy Spirit throughout the book of Acts, leading the church into mission to bring the nations the message of the good news. In this view, one thinks John communicates the basic event of the giving of the Holy Spirit, and Luke is the one adding much theological interpretation.
4. One could possibly think there were two “giving of the Spirit” events. One to his close followers, and one to a larger group. This one seems the most tedious to me.
There could be more ways of how to connect the two accounts. Whatever the answer, my argument is solidified. There is epistemological uncertainty offered in the Scriptures as to how to think about the actual historical order of events, especially as it relates to the languages in Acts 2.
The Fourth Reason - Babel
Babel is sitting in the background of Acts 2. In Genesis 11, God confuses the languages of the world. Another reading of the passage is that the natural outworking of sin brings confusion in the world. If Babel sits in the background, then it gives us the meaning of Acts 2, especially the many languages. By the giving of the Holy Spirit, the world can come back together in unity after their hostile separation in Genesis 11. Generally, the Holy Spirit produces language that is heard by the nations of the world. I think this is Gospel language. By being with God, the hostility of the nations is reduced.
At one level this is adds much clarity to the meaning of the work of the Holy Spirit. However, this would only work against the Pentecostal assessment of these passages. Looking at Genesis 11, we find that the Tower of Babel is a moral tale. Cultural or real details (location, towers, etc) are likely really being cited, but they are couched in a tale that never took place, at least in that it did not take place as the historical overview of the true division of the nations of the world. The tale is meant to function as a universal way of understanding humanity. Namely, enmity with God brings hostility between people. The hostility of the peoples is pictured through the division of languages.
For Christians who have considered the Tower of Babel literal history, then let me say that the most important reason for thinking it is not is the Bible itself (not to mention a general history of the development of the world). Check out Genesis 10.
Genesis 10:5 From these the coastlands of the nations were separated into their lands, every one according to his language, according to their families, into their nations. (Gen 10:5 NAS)
Genesis 10:20 These are the sons of Ham, according to their families, according to their languages, by their lands, by their nations. (Gen 10:20 NAS)
Genesis 10:31 These are the sons of Shem, according to their families, according to their languages, by their lands, according to their nations. (Gen 10:31 NAS)
One cannot take Genesis 11 in the literal sense. In fact, Genesis 10 proves this to us by offering an Israelite perspective on the development of the nations from a more geographical, genealogical, and social developmental viewpoint (at least from Israel’s perspective). Namely, the 10th chapter of Genesis tells us that the 11th chapter of Genesis did not really (read historically) happen. The 10th chapter tells us how the nations and languages developed. The 11th chapter is a moral tale. There is a moral to the story. The languages of the world are the device to show the division, but we already know (see Genesis 2-9) that language is not what really causes division in the first place. Everyone can speak the same language and still be divided.
Reading Babel in the background of Acts 2, we think we know that the author of Acts is interpreting Jesus as the cause for bringing the nations back together. The reason we can only ever arrive at vagueness in regard to the languages of Acts 2, is because if Genesis 11 is not literally referring to languages being divided, why should we think that Acts 2 is referring to literal languages being united. Perhaps, and this would hold based on the whole book of Acts and the giving of the Spirit, that the work of the Holy Spirit “unifies the languages” or rather, brings people at enmity with each other back together. If this took place at Pentecost, 50 days after Christ’s death, that is fine with me. But the meaning is still the same.
A Distinction that Does not Hold
Modern and Classic Pentecostals have often used a distinction about ‘kinds’ of tongues. Their distinction causes at least one insurmountable problem for their own special doctrine.
The distinction is that there are missionary (public) tongues as well as devotional (private) tongues (several wordings may be substituted for my choice words, but they mean approximately the same thing). One is a tongue that is an actual human language spoken by people supernaturally and could be known by the receivers who speak that language. The other tongue is not something meant for the public and would not be known by the public if it was spoken to them. This tongue/language is not human, at least not of any known human language. For some, it might be angelic. Still for others, it is a tool that is used to edify the person speaking it. That is why it is considered devotional/private.
These distinctions seem to be implied by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13-14. I say, “seem to be implied” because, as every Pastor knows, you begin your work with where the people are at, and then lead them to where you think is best. If this is what Paul is doing, then his affirmations of a distinction are present merely to gain a hearing from those who value tongues at the expense of other Christian teaching.
Paul’s rhetorical methodology is to become all things to all people (1 Corinthians 9:20-22). We find this through his speeches in the book of Acts, his writing about husband and wife home relations (Ephesians 5), as well as his discussion on slavery in Philemon. One of the best, and somewhat concise works on the use of rhetoric in the New Testament is Ben Witherington III’s “New Testament Rhetoric.” In each of the examples I gave (and we should add his discussion on tongues as well), Paul appeals to the social codes of his audience and then subverts those social codes in the next sentences. He sometimes see-saws back and forth affirming the author and then subverting again from new and fresh ground.
Without knowledge of rhetoric, or reading these letters flatly in 21st century English, Paul sometimes looks like he is for male dominant relations as well as slavery. Read Pastorally, or rhetorically, we know that Paul affirms some from a present cultural context to gain a hearing and then subverts them to get his audience on the right footing away from those practices that dominated that group.
What this means for the book of Corinthians is that his phrases appearing to affirm the distinction between missionary tongues and private tongues, as well as his own appeal to them that he ‘speaks in tongues’ more than all of them, can be read along the lines similar to that of him affirming the slave owner. He is merely affirming them to gain a hearing, because his overall argument from 12-14 in 1 Corinthians is a grand subversion. Paul even sets up such boundaries for their uses of tongues in a way that may have effectively ended the practice in public (Chapter 14). Moreover, he sends them on a pathway to better things (Chapter 13 “Faith, Hope, and Love”).
I pointed out earlier that this is insurmountable for the Pentecostal view. Why? The typical Pentecostal holds two beliefs.
1 – The evidence of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit is speaking in tongues.
2 – There is a difference between speaking in a public/missionary tongue and a private/devotional tongue.
The question to illuminate the problem is this. If Acts 2 is about missionary tongues, why then do Pentecostals accept devotional tongues as evidence of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit? Even much worse, is why on earth do plenty of Pentecostals teach people to ‘babbling like a baby’ or ‘say whatever syllables come to mind’ when this has nothing to do with what happened in Acts 2.
A little lower in this paper I write about an error of interpretation that Pentecostals unwittingly commit. It is called the Is/ought fallacy. Pentecostals use an example in Scripture to become the rule for their practice. That alone is a fallacy. However, their error is much worse. They set up a rule that they themselves have invented from no example in Scripture. They have taken the example of Acts 2 and imported more data into it, and then set up a rule.
The more data they imported is that the Baptism of the Holy Spirit can come with missionary tongues or private tongues.
The whole book of Acts only knows missionary tongues. Therefore, under the Pentecostal error itself (of using Acts 2 as a prescription for modern Christian experience, especially as it relates to tongues), almost no one in the Pentecostal world is Baptized in the Holy Spirit. Anyone who speaks in a private or devotional tongue alone, has surely not had the experience of Acts 2, Acts 10 or 19 for that matter.
Just because something is, does not mean it ought to be. Is and ought are two different kinds of things. “Is” is a description of things. “Ought” is a prescription of the way things are supposed to be. When it comes to the Pentecostal views under scrutiny in this paper, Pentecostals have looked at a description in Acts 2, and they have turned it into (all the while importing more data, as referenced above) into a prescription for all Christian practice. One can see how foolish this is when we look at other examples of how this error could come about.
1 – Communism must be valid because the early Christians practiced holding all things in common (Acts 2:44). Just because something is, does not mean it should be for all.
2 – All liars will be killed instantly (in the presence of the Apostles) because Ananias and Sapphira were (Acts 5:1-11).
3 – All those strongly against God’s people, will temporarily go blind like the Apostle Paul and convert to Christianity (Acts 9-10).
In all these examples we see the egregious error of turning an is (description of something) into an ought (prescription for all Christian behavior and experience). Pentecostals have mistaken the window dressing for the window itself.
Concluding on Uncertainty and Epistemology
When we say that we know something, we should have good reasons to think it is the case. At the very least we should not have good reasons (in our mind) to think it is not the case. The unique Pentecostal belief on the initial evidence not only does not have good reasons for it, it has many good reasons against it. We should conclude that Acts 2 is somewhat vague on the experience of the early Apostles. I argued this with several lines of thought.
1 – Questioning if there was a need for many languages being spoken on Pentecost with the festival goers likely speaking a common language anyway.
2 – The language used in Acts 2 about the experience is couched in Old Testament categories. I think this was wise, because it protects the work of God the Holy Spirit and does not box him in.
3 – The Gospel of John has his own Pentecost (albeit not on the festival of Pentecost), which likely means that both he and Luke in Acts are offering a religious interpretation in their writings of the reception of the Holy Spirit.
4 – The Tower of Babel sits in the background of Acts 2. Genesis 11 was not literal history because Genesis 10 offered a more historical picture of the division of the languages. Therefore, Acts usage of the languages may be along the same line. A device utilized in to convey a larger truth.
5 – The distinction between missionary tongues and private tongues in no way holds from a book of Acts perspective. Moreover, I pointed out how Pentecostal doctrine on the initial evidence of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit imports a false distinction into their teaching, which inevitably widens their view as to who has been baptized or not. Their standard is the example in the book of Acts, but their practice allows much more.
6 - The unique Pentecostal teaching commits the is/ought fallacy. Their position is definitively wrong.
We have little reason to think that everything in Acts 2 is a certain history, because it is at least partially couched in a religious narrative. We have good reason to think that whatever is being described is uncertain. We can know that we do know with certainty everything that went on with the raw event of the giving of the Holy Spirit.