Theologians offer views on ‘private prayer language’

by Tammi Reed Ledbetter & James A. Smith Sr., posted Monday, February 26, 2007 (12 years ago)

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)--In addition to the historical claims on which Dwight McKissic rests his call for “latitude” among Southern Baptists on tongues and private prayer language, the pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, also has cited scholarly affirmation for his interpretation of key biblical passages, especially the Apostle Paul’s treatment of tongues in 1 Corinthians 14.

In several letters posted on his church’s website, McKissic disagreed with what he views as forbidding the practice of a private prayer language at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Seminary officials, meanwhile, have insisted they are not forbidding tongues, but instead discouraging the promotion or advocacy of the charismatic gifts by faculty and administration through a statement the school’s trustees passed in their October meeting.

To make his case, McKissic appealed to the writings of several Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary professors and its former president, as well as its current president.

The two Southwestern professors whose writings are quoted extensively, James Leo Garrett and Siegfried Schatzmann, along with former seminary president Kenneth Hemphill whom McKissic described as having endorsed the practice of private prayer language, varied in their reactions to McKissic’s citations.

One said he thought his treatment in a systematic theology text had been misrepresented as an endorsement of the practice, another preferred not to comment further and the last agreed that the practice should not be a test of fellowship.

McKissic made clear that he distinguishes his “continualist” viewpoint from a classical Pentecostal theology, favoring the word “ecstatic” to describe the use of a private prayer language.

Serving as a new trustee on Southwestern’s board, which in October issued a statement against promoting charismatic practices at the school, McKissic, convinced that the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 allows freedom for both views, pressed board officers to explain how their interpretation of private prayer language is more valid than his own.

“If my interpretation is unbiblical and harmful to the churches, how are you going to label the interpretations of current faculty members that are similar to mine as I will reference and document later?” McKissic asked.

Without responding to McKissic’s citation of his April 4, 2006, chapel sermon at Southwestern Seminary, in an interview with the Florida Baptist Witness, Patterson rejected suggestions by McKissic and others that 1 Corinthians 14 requires acceptance of private prayer language.

“I don’t find anywhere in the Bible where a private prayer language is ever endorsed, and certainly if it is mentioned in 1 Corinthians 14 —- which is an interpretative question —- it is clearly not being recommended by Paul and clearly not being called a ‘charismata,’ spiritual gift. That is, the Acts 2 form of tongues,” Patterson said.

In contrast to the experience at Pentecost recorded in Acts 2 in which tongues were a public, known language given by the Holy Spirit for the purpose of providing the Gospel to those who would not otherwise understand the message, “what’s going on at Corinth is not Acts 2 and is a poor effort in the power of the flesh to imitate [the tongues] of Acts 2 -— and Paul’s limiting it” in every way possible, Patterson said, adding later, “Whatever it is, it’s so carefully hedged by Paul and so clearly not in his favor that he has virtually eliminated it.”

Still, Paul does not forbid the tongues entirely in 1 Corinthians 14 in order to leave open the possibility that the legitimate gift referenced in Acts 2 can be operable, according to Patterson.

Patterson also asserted that whatever is being described in 1 Corinthians 14 it is not included in any of the four New Testament passages listing spiritual gifts.

“My position remains that one cannot regulate much of anything that goes on in private. But neither should we advocate such unhelpful and harmful behavior or choose our leaders from among its advocates,” he added.

Contrary to what some may expect, Patterson told the Witness he is not a cessationist -— rejecting the idea that some spiritual gifts, like tongues, may have ended with the era of the apostles. “I believe that God can do this any time He wants to, but if He does, it will be Acts 2” type of tongues -— known languages used to make the Gospel understandable to those who would not otherwise understand.

Concerning claims by McKissic and others that because they affirm the inerrancy of Scripture there should be latitude where inerrantists interpret passages differently, as in the case of 1 Corinthians 14, Patterson cited the case of a Church of Christ minister who argues for baptismal regeneration, citing Acts 2:38.

“Now, he believes in the inerrancy of God’s Word, and he also is citing Scripture for his viewpoint, but Baptists say you are dead wrong. You have misread the Scriptures. I would say that same thing” regarding private prayer language.

Patterson also told the Witness, “One of the interesting things about private tongues is that they never stay private. They always become public so it’s a misnomer to begin with. And, it also becomes divisive invariably, as Paul warned that it would.”

Although it’s “not a logical necessity” that acceptance of tongues and private prayer language will lead to acceptance of other planks of the charismatic agenda, Patterson added, “Historically, is that the way it almost always happens? Yes. And that’s the problem.”

Hemphill, Patterson’s predecessor at Southwestern, does not see the matter entirely the same.

Responding to a request from Baptist Press to clarify his view, Hemphill noted he had been referenced on the topic in both the recent discussion at Southwestern as well as in a document IMB trustees used a year ago. Both trustee boards used his 1992 book "Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Discovering Your True Self Through Spiritual Gifts," as a source. Hemphill’s workbook on spiritual gifts was released a few years later.

“Since a brief quotation from a much larger context has been used, additional information might prove helpful,” he told BP. “I do believe that Paul in 1 Corinthians 14 prohibits the public display of tongues in worship. He declares that they can be confusing to the ungifted,” citing 1 Corinthians 14:16, “and detrimental to evangelism,” referring to verse 23.

“I do not, however, believe that 1 Corinthians 14 provides sufficient scriptural warrant to prohibit the practice of a personal prayer language. I do not believe the Bible clearly teaches the cessation of such gifts,” Hemphill said.

“There are legitimate issues of interpretative difference on this matter among scholars with a commitment to biblical inerrancy. While I do not personally practice a prayer language nor advocate such practice, I do not think we should make this a test of one’s commitment to the conservative resurgence, the principles of biblical inerrancy, or loyalty to Southern Baptist life and work. I think we should be guided by Paul’s preference for intelligible speech in the gathered assembly and his caution that we should not prohibit a private prayer language,” he added, referring to 1 Corinthians 14:39.

Offering a further warning, Hemphill told BP, “We must be careful not to allow issues of personal interpretation and preference to deter us in our passion to expand God’s kingdom through our Baptist family of faith.”

Southwestern’s Schatzmann declined an opportunity to further clarify his position based on his book, "A Pauline Theology of Charismata," and an article in Southwestern’s Fall 2002 Journal of Theology. Schatzmann received his masters and doctoral degrees from Southwestern, and served on the staff of an Assemblies of God church as a seminary student and later served 10 years on the faculty of Oral Roberts University.

While much of the focus of the excerpts McKissic cited from Schatzmann’s writings focus on spiritual gifts that equip the church for service, included is allowance for the possibility that Paul affirmed a place for speaking in tongues to oneself, in the believer’s own devotional practice.

Asked to elaborate on his view regarding private prayer language, Schatzmann told Baptist Press, “After careful and prayerful consideration, I have decided that the wiser course of action on my part is not to enter into the discussion or debate at this point” regarding the passages quoted.

In the section quoted, Schatzmann noted the importance of the affirmation in 1 Corinthians 14:5 is followed by “the contrasting ‘but rather’ (mallon de) and the testimonial in v. 18 gives way to the superordinate ‘but in the church’ (alla en ekklesia) of v. 19, thereby indicating this his own personal practice, however beneficial, is not the criterion for the gift’s public use.”

When Garrett first read of McKissic’s use of his multi-volume systematic theology text as support for advocating private prayer language, the emeritus theology professor said he chose to remain quiet, not wanting to add to the disagreement. He described his interpretation of spiritual gifts as one section of a chapter he wrote 12 years ago.

The date of release for his book is relevant since the term private prayer language only recently gained wide attention in Southern Baptist circles. Garrett said the reference McKissic made to the 12-year-old book was “done without clarifying my position.”

He explained, “While I have an open attitude toward the whole matter of spiritual gifts, it would be wrong to say that passage which has been quoted indicates I am promoting a certain kind of prayer language.”

Putting it more bluntly, Garrett said, “I haven’t promoted anything in that passage so much as I reported and indicated the scope of tongues, prophecy and healing. A lot of it is simply trying to interpret Paul’s teaching on 1 Corinthians,” he added, calling it “largely a descriptive statement.”

Garrett said the purpose of a systematic theology is different than a commentary. “Systematic theology is supposed to bring together the whole doctrinal beliefs system —- the body of beliefs, drawing from Scripture and secondary sources such as Christian history and all of that to address the situation today in a language that, hopefully, can be understood.”

Reflecting on what he was attempting when he wrote the book, Garrett set the stage for the chapter on spiritual gifts.

“We’ve all been called upon to look at spiritual gifts in a way we haven’t before the 20th century,” he said, adding that much of the discussion is far more recent.

“When I was writing that in the last decade of the 20th century, I was simply trying to reflect the vast change that has come and how spiritual gifts is now a major subject for theology.” Certain he could not avoid the subject, Garrett said, “I tried to give it my best shot to develop the chapter.”

Noting many books had been written on spiritual gifts such as the one by Hemphill, Garrett said he felt it was time to make that a part of the system of theology.

“If we had not faced up to spiritual gifts in writing systematic theology in the 1990s, we would have been out of sync with not just Pentecostals, but non-Pentecostal authors.”

Similarly, the doctrine of missions previously had not been included. “We were trying to be inclusive in the topics to make systematic theology as adequate and comprehensive as possible.”

As for any suggestion that the BF&M be revised to clarify the view of Southern Baptists regarding private prayer language, Garrett doubts there would be unanimity.

“We should adopt what we agree on, not what we disagree on,” he said of such statements of faith that are approved by messengers to annual SBC meetings. “If you begin to put in things you disagree on, you begin to turn the statement in a different way. I don’t believe there is now unanimity. It might be wise to wait on that,” he added.

Garrett recalled such consensus as a key element in the first Southern Baptist statement known as the Abstract of Principles. The consensus stemmed from the decision to exclude anything on which Southern Baptists were divided. Consequently, he said, some of the Landmark theology considered divisive at that time did not get included.

“By analogy, maybe things on which we disagree should not be included,” Garrett said. He said he would like to see Baptists pay more attention to spiritual gifts “for the sake of those gifts that are not thought to be extraordinary.” When the 17th century Baptist confessions referred to gifts, it was usually the list found in Ephesians 4, Garrett said.

“They wanted to make sure that their elders or pastors had received some gifts. Today Mr. or Mrs. Average Baptist needs to find and exercise his or her gift through the local church for the upbuilding of the body, whatever their leaders may be saying about prayer language.”

Challenged by board chairman Van McClain to examine his experience in light of the teaching of Scripture, McKissic said he had done that in 1981 while a student at Southwestern. He told trustee officers that he had concluded that private prayer language is a gift for some but not for others, referring to 1 Corinthians 12:28 and 14:5, and the teachings of some Southwestern professors.

McKissic wrote to McClain: “I cannot and will not allow your lack of experience to interpret and define my experience particularly when I have biblical support, as well as the published works of Southern Baptist professors, leaders, and other prominent conservative theologians who share my viewpoint.”

Armed with “a legitimate biblical experience,” McKissic said he is never at the mercy of a man with only an intellectual argument based on his biblical reasoning. “On this issue we simply have to agree to disagree.”


Download Story