Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Literal Interpretation of Psalm 8:2 (In defense of the Charismatic gift of tongues)

The Literal Interpretation of Psalm 8:2

“I will sing of your majesty above the heavens with the mouths of babes and infants.” -Psalm 8:2

"Out of the mouths of infants and nurslings you have brought forth praise." -Matthew 21:16

One of the puzzling effects of the presence of the Holy Spirit is the gift of tongues.  There seems to be an equivocation on the word throughout the bible.  In some places, as in Acts 2, tongues seems to signify a gift by which the faithful are able to communicate to others in instantly learned languages.  This indicates that the gift of tongues is intended as a tool of the apostle in preaching.  In other places in St. Paul's writings, there is mention of gift of tongues that requires interpretation.  Yet in other places, such as in 1 Corinthians 14, there is a tongue that brings about edification for the speaker, not the hearer.  This is one of the chief meanings that the Charismatic movements refers to when speaking of tongues: when one speaks in tongues, he does “not utter intelligible speech.”  “One who speaks in a tongue does not speak to human beings but to God, for no one listens; he utters mysteries in spirit.”   In this kind of tongue, neither the speaker nor those within hearing distance are able to understand what the words signify.  (Charismatics also refer to a "prophetic tongue" that is not widely known about.  This essay will not attempt to give an explanation of this tongue but only of what is referred to as a "prayer tongue.")

Yet what could be the benefit of speech that is not intended for human ears?  Surely God, Who knows the inner thoughts of man, does not need a private language by which he understand what man intends to say.  If God does not need significant speech to understand and if tongues are not intended for the understanding of people other than the speaker, and further, if the speaker himself does not understand what the sounds signify, what good is the gift of tongues as the Charismatic movements understand it? 

I claim that the gift of tongues, according to the Charismatic use of the term, is a great good in the life a Christian and is a beautiful and fitting way of offering praise to God.  More specifically, taking Psalm 8:2 literally, I will argue that it is fitting that God’s majesty be praised by the speech proper to the lowliest of speaking things and the speech that was the consequence of a great sin, not insofar as the intended speech signifies well, but merely insofar as the good and humble, fully-expressed, intention to praise God's glory brings glory to Him.I will do this by manifesting eight premises that are implicit in my thesis.  First and second, the effect of ignorance and sin are babble.  Third and fourth, God manifests His glory by exalting the lowly and bringing the greatest goods out of evil.  Fifth, that it is fitting that God speak not only through signs but more chiefly through things.  Sixth, God’s majesty cannot be fully captured in significant speech.  Seventh, that God looks more to the intentions of the heart than the outward actions when judging goodness of an action.  Finally, that great praise can come about by petition.  If these eight premises are shown to be true, then it is very fitting that God be praised by the babble of the Charismatics.

As St. Thomas mentions in his prayer before study, man is born with the two-fold darkness of sin and ignorance.  The effects of both of these evils is babble.  This is most obvious in the case of ignorance.  Everyone is aware that babies babble before they speak.  This babbling happens because of three things: the natural tendency to signify thoughts through speech, the ignorance of conventional language in the infant, and the lack of training in the tongue for correct speech.  Fortunately, although the first stays with us throughout our life (which is why, for instance, we shout for joy or have expletives), the latter two are overcome upon learning which sounds ought to be paired with which thoughts, whether they be thoughts of universals or of particulars.  It should be added that originally the sounds made by an infant arise more from an inability to control the instruments of voice rather than being ignorant of the correct pairings between thought and sound.  This shows that by a certain withdrawing of the motive power that controls the movements of the vocal instruments, random sounds can be generated.  Thus, we babble by denying control over a part of ourselves.

The second cause of babble is discovered by scriptural authority, both in the Old Testament and the New.  The most evident case is in Genesis, where God scatters the people and confuses their language because of the abomination of the tower of Babel. 

“Then the LORD said: If now, while they are one people and all have the same language, they have started to do this, nothing they presume to do will be out of their reach. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that no one will understand the speech of another.”

This demonstrates that the many languages, which are babble relative to each other, came about because of sin.  In the New Testament, we find that "we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies," and later on, " we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings."  We groan as we await the redemption of our bodies, which were marred from our sin.  And these groanings have the same effect as petitionary prayer, for the Spirit intercedes for us with groanings as well.  The use of the word "groaning" is particularly suitable for the present thesis, since it signifies a sound arising from a desire and thus signifies naturally rather than conventionally.  The importance of its origin being in desire will be established below.

As St. Paul says, we "exist for the praise of [God's] glory."  We find God manifesting His glory in two ways: by exalting the lowly and by bringing the greatest goods out of evil.  Mary's canticle in Luke beautifully expresses the former: " My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord... For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness."  Joseph's triumphant rising from slavery to authority is a great example of the latter: “Even though you meant harm to me, God meant it for good.”  Just so, babbling comes from infancy and sin, i.e., lowliness and evil.  Thus it would be very fitting that God deem babble worthy of praising Him, since this would fit with His means of manifesting His glory.

If babble were raised to the honor of being a tool for praise, God's glory would be praised in a two-fold manner: first, because the very act of praying in tongues is intended for praising God's glory.  Second, God's power would be shown, insofar as praise of God's glory cannot naturally come from the effects of imperfections, yet praise can come from babble, which is the effect of sin and ignorance.  Thus, God's hand is shown in making babble achieve an end beyond its natural power.

It is natural to object: why would the faithful intend to praise God by babbling?  Is it not more fitting to have his glory proclaimed by means of knowing and expressing the marvels of His name and His deeds?  For, his created glory is increased in the minds of His creatures.  What good will be done if the believers do not have explicit thoughts, which thoughts are known by the aid of some kind of spoken word?  To resolve this, we must explore in what way the spoken or imagined word falls short when praising God.  This will be manifested in two ways.

First, it is fitting that God would speak not through conventional signs but through things:
“For Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
St. Augustine elaborates on this when defending the literal meaning of the story of Jacob and Esau.  He vindicates the apparent lie of Jacob by saying that Jacob acts first as a sign of what is to come, prefiguring that the gentiles will receive what rightfully belongs to the Jews.  In this way, God uses Jacob and his actions as signs, rather than using spoken words.  We see this happening in many ways throughout the Old and New Testament, for even the presence of Jesus Himself was a sign to Simeon of salvation that was to come.  It is fitting that God speak in this way rather than through conventional signs because it is glorious to both cause a good creature and a good sign in one and the same thing.  For, it belongs to Wisdom to act simply by accomplishing many things by means of one thing.  Conventional signs, on the other hand, signify, not in themselves and by their nature, but rather because of an artificial imposition, making the sign and signified one only intentionally.  Thus, praise would be more divine if it were to be done through natural things rather than conventional words.

Second, words produced by human artifice cannot fully capture the many aspects of God's grandeur.  Although the created universe contains fullest expression of God's glory, the very word "universe" can hardly do so.  Thus St. John says, "There are also many other things that Jesus did, but if these were to be described individually, I do not think the whole world would contain the books that would be written."  St. Augustine points to St. Paul when showing that God's greatness cannot be fully understood, much less expressed in words: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways!  “For who has known the mind of the Lord?”  Thus, the spoken word falls short of manifesting God's glory because of both the great number of words it would take to express His glory and because the conventional spoken word only points to a humanly-conceived thought, which in turn is largely deficient in comprehending His glory.  Thus the spoken word falls short of praising God's glory insofar as it artificially signifies and insofar as it inadequately signifies. 

The objection naturally follows: surely, if significant words cannot adequately manifest God's glory, babble must be deficient all the more.  Yet, this is not so, for two reasons.  First, God reveres the humble, sincere intention.  Thus, when one of the faithful encounters a marvel, if he is experiencing it for the first time, he will many times not have a sufficient word for expressing it, since our own words mostly point to thoughts concerning human things, not divine.  Even if he could find a sufficiently significant word to express a praiseworthy concept, he would most likely be distracted in his speech, should he attempt to use it in praising God.  For, it takes a man perfected in wisdom to praise with divine science.  Thus, even priests rely on the traditional texts of the Church when praying the most holy Mass.  This, of course, does not mean that the faithful should not develop his intellect and become familiar with his lofty thoughts, for he would follow the Church in developing a good understanding of doctrine.  Praying in tongues, however, allows the faithful to exercise the will to praise God without being held back by the deficiencies of his intellect and speech.  Thus, we many times use noises to express our inner emotion without paying attention to what the word actually means, such as when one slams his thumb with a hammer.

Second, babble does not fall short from praising God because, paradoxically, it falls short in expressly praising God.  When babes babble, they attempt to express their own thoughts, but fail to do so for the reasons given above.  Most importantly, however, they show a desire to enter into mature speech, even to the extent of making noise which is necessary for human speech.   Just so, the utterances with the mouth when someone prays in tongues reflect the inner happenings of the heart and mind.  Just as we search for fitting signs with babblish sounds, so also do we vainly search for fitting concepts with which to conceive of God.  For, as previously mentioned, any thought of our own falls vastly short of the truth of the Divine nature.  Nevertheless, in praying thus, we express both our deficiency and our desire to praise God adequately, if prayed in humility and sincerity.  And this is a great method of praising.

That manifesting our dependence on God is a great means of praise is explained in a gloss on the extraordinary form of the Mass.  The priest prays with Psalmist before receiving the most precious Blood: "How shall I make a return to the Lord for all of the good He has shown to me? I will take up the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord."  This prayer together with the action indicate that one of the best ways to praise God and thank Him for His gifts to us is to acknowledge their worth by asking for more.  Thus, we demonstrate the value of what we praise by seeking to have it replicated.  In the same way, upon encountering God's glory, it is fitting to praise it by expressing the desire to have it present within us more fully.  The natural expression of this desire is babble and dumbfoundedness by which we show both our lack and readiness to be informed with God's glory.  Thus, the babble of the Charismatic tongue is a fitting sign of our readiness to learn because it is a natural sign of it.  When we manifest our weaknesses to God, He is all the more ready to apply His remedies: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me."

Why would this response to God's glory be referred to as a gift?  Would not the expression of our wonder in babble be a natural response and thus stem from ourselves and not from God?  In a way, yes but in another way, no.  This babble does come from a real desire within ourselves to praise God in thanksgiving of His glory but both the desire and the integrated response from the desire are of a Divine origin.  For, when St. Paul tells the Ephesians that we exist for the praise of His glory, he introduces the claim by pointing out that we have been chosen to do so.  Thus, only those who have been elected by God, who actively "hope in Christ", can intentionally praise His glory.  Further, speaking in tongues must stem from grace since the wonder and awe (a.k.a. fear of the Lord) from which speaking in tongues comes is a gift of the Holy Spirit.  Thus, in the book of Acts, many Christians speak in tongues after being baptized or as an indication to the Apostles that they are ready for baptism.  Furthermore, St. Paul mentions that the flesh is at war with the spirit.  Thus, in order for the passions and other bodily faculties of man to be integrated with the desires of the spiritual soul of man, there must be some supernatural gift by which man acts in an integrated way to praise God.  Thus, St. James even says, "Every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no human being can tame the tongue." Therefore, if a man is to be ready and willing to use his tongue well for the praise of God's glory, he must be granted this gift by God.  Fortunately, however, this gift stems from baptismal grace, which means that any of the faithful can access their gift of tongues.

It may be objected against tongues as something over and above regular, mental worship: if we are to will anything, we must first conceive of it.  And, if we are to conceive of something, we must do so by the help of our senses.  Thus, if we are to desire to praise God, we must have some kind of imagined word to conceive of this desire and thus to will it.  So even if we were to babble with our tongue, our inner thoughts would still be thinking something by means of an inner word.  Therefore, it is superfluous to pray in tongues since we must be aware of our deficiency by means of an explicit word if we are to ask for a remedy to our deficiency.  I answer that, although it may be so for some who pray in tongues that their mind is not united with their lips, nevertheless, by those who use this gift well, the very babbling that they utter and the act of reflecting upon this serve as an adequate replacement for a spoken or imagined word.  For, instead of speaking a word that points to a previous realization of their lack of knowledge, they themselves become the word, the direct sensible experience, upon which they conceive of their desire.  In this way, they become the praise and thus exist as praise of His glory.

This way of praising is itself glorious for two reasons.  First, it is wonderful that He would use our lowliness as one of our greatest glories, which in turn begets a further desire of God's glory.  In this way, this act is reflective of itself and multiplies itself, for one of the faithful could pray in tongues in praise of the very notion of praying in tongues.  Second, by becoming the very word by which we conceive of a desire to praise God, we foreshadow the beatific vision by which the Divine Essence is known not by means of a mediating thought, created by human artifice, but by our intellects becoming united directly to the very Divine Essence, by which we most perfectly exist as the praise of His glory.

Nota Bene: I do not mean to answer the question whether praising in tongues is the best way to praise God.  Indeed, as hinted above, to praise with divine science seems to supercede praising with Charismatic tongues.  For, when one praises (or acts in general) with divine science, he is acting more fully as another Christ.


1. Babies babble.  

2. Proud sinners babble before their fall:
“Then the LORD said: If now, while they are one people and all have the same language, they have started to do this, nothing they presume to do will be out of their reach. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that no one will understand the speech of another.

3. God manifests his majesty by exalting the lowly:
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my savior.
For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness;
behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed”
And again: “He has shown might with his arm,
dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart.
He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones
but lifted up the lowly.”

4. He also manifests his glory by bringing the greatest goods out of evil:

5. It is fitting that God would speak not through signs but through things:

6. God’s greatness cannot be fully captured in words:
“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways!  “For who has known the mind of the Lord?”

7. God blesses the good intentions that we make, apart from the greatness of the actions:

8. God is praised when we show our lack and desire for His good gifts:
"How shall I make a return to the Lord for all of the good He has shown to me? I will take up the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord."

Therefore, God is praised insofar as we babble since our babble can be the direct experience from which we conceive of our desire for His glory:
"Out of the mouths of infants and nurslings you have brought forth praise."

Thus, it is fitting that God’s majesty be praised by the speech proper to the lowliest of speaking things and the speech that was the consequence of a great sin, not insofar as the intended speech signifies well, but merely insofar as the good, humble, fully-expressed, intention to praise God's glory brings glory to Him.

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