Review - Stimulus Magazine

Stimulus: The New Zealand Journal of Christian Thought and Practice

Volume 9. Issue 3, Page 46, August 2001.

Reviewed by: Dr Brett Knowles, teacher of church history at Otago University, and former New Life pastor.


Publishers comment: 

Dr Knowles has at several places misrepresented the book and the author in his review, charging the author with being logically inconsistent on a number of counts. At the end of the review the author has responded to these charges. 

The author acknowledges a reviewer has the right to say what he or she wants about a book, though does think it preferable that reviewers accurately convey to readers the thoughts of an author. 

Dr Knowles reviews two books regarding matters ‘Pentecostal’ in Stimulus Vol 9/3, one sympathetic to the position, and ‘Tongues Revisited‘, which is not. The tone of the other review is far more moderate, and conciliatory than the review of ‘Tongues Revisited‘. One suspects the difference may not result from one book being moderate and the other not, but because the reviewer favours one side of the argument over the other – the reviewer after all was, and still identifies himself as having been, a ‘New Life pastor’. 

The author thanks Dr Knowles for his review and for favourable comments in spite of his disagreement with the books position. 

It should also be noted that not all things within quote marks “…” in the review are actually quotes from Tongues Revisited, even though some are.



Tongues Revisited: A Third Way

Renton Maclachlan. Porirua: ClearSight, 2000. 312 pp.

Available from the publisher at (website URL has changed)

Renton Maclachlan is well known in New Zealand as a fearless debater on evangelical Christianity. Indeed, Peter Lineham describes him as “Mr. Valiant-for-Truth” in a foreword to this book; a description that is borne out by the author’s activity in “promoting the biblical worldview and challenging secular culture”. Maclachlan’s experience of division within the Brethren movement over the issue of charismatic gifts has led him to question both non-charismatic and charismatic views of “tongues”, and to propose a “third way” of looking at these. He contends that biblical “tongues” are normal human languages, normally learnt and normally spoken. Consequently, he identifies the problem that Paul addresses in 1 Cor 14 as being one of understanding in a multi-lingual congregation. As he sees it, the messages are spoken in “tongues” (i.e., languages) that the speaker understands, but other people in the congregation do not – hence the injunction that such messages should be interpreted. Thus, Paul is dealing with “exclusively a non-shared language problem” (p.110). Maclachlan insists that if this is so, then present-day charismatics cannot claim that what they have experienced – i.e., speaking in unknown tongues – is the same as the New Testament experience.

It needs to be said that Maclachlan’s work is not a work of dispassionate academic inquiry, but rather a polemic statement. His passionate concern is essentially a pastoral one; he seeks to provide a basis for guarding both believers and congregations from what he considers serious doctrinal error. His thesis, although original, is backed up by his intensive study of the Scriptures, and by his passion for honesty and truth. He piles Scripture upon Scripture to prove his case, which is densely – indeed laboriously – argued and exhaustive in its detail.

In my view, while Maclachlan makes some useful comments – particularly in his chapter on “Grace in the Times of Conflict – Seventeen Suggestions for Conduct in a Theological Civil War” – he undermines his case by the unyielding way in which he argues it. He comes across as very “black and white” in his approach, and appears certain that his interpretations of the difficult passages of Scripture are the right ones. He is at times quite scathing towards those with whom he disagrees – J. Rodman Williams is a particular target (e.g., endnotes 35, 87 and 146), and his arguments against Williams verge on an ad hominem approach.

Maclachlan writes to “prove a point” and his argument that “tongues” are natural human languages produces a number of logical inconsistencies. His claim that the gift of tongues was the ability to communicate in foreign languages, which are to be interpreted so that all members of a multi-ethnic church (such as Corinth) could understand, leads him to describe Paul – on the basis of 1 Corinthians 14:18, where Paul says that he spoke in tongues more than all the Corinthian congregation – as simply “a skilled linguist” (p. 87). Charismatics justifiably might object that 1 Corinthians 14:14 (“For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful” NIV) is an indication that Paul did not understand what he was praying in a tongue. Maclachlan counters this by arguing that since “tongues” are languages understood by the speaker, the mind that is unfruitful is that of the hearers, who do not understand what is being prayed. In my view, such an interpretation of 1 Corinthians 14:14 does violence to the plain statement of the verse – that is, that Paul himself did not understand what he was praying in tongues. Maclachlan’s minutely detailed analysis of the trees, branches, twigs and leaves causes him to seemingly lose sight of the forest.

A more serious inconsistency in Maclachlan’s argument appears when he discusses the languages spoken by the Diaspora Jews in Acts 2 (pp. 133-144). He argues that all that the Diaspora Jews in Acts 2 were “diglossiac”, speaking either Greek, Latin or Aramaic – depending on the locality from which they had come – in addition to their own local language. But this is completely at variance with his previous argument that Paul was dealing in 1 Corinthians 12-14 with a multi-ethnic – and hence multi-lingual – congregation that required interpretation of “tongues” messages (as Maclachlan defines them) so that they could understand. But if, on the basis of his Acts 2 argument, all spoke Greek in the Hellenic context of Corinth, would such interpretation have been necessary? Maclachlan’s argument is something of a “bob each way”; namely that the Acts gathering was diglossiac – or bi-lingual – but the Corinthian congregation was not. The lack of consistent treatment seriously undermines the validity of his argument.

Maclachlan sees the current phenomenon of “tongues” as a deception, and therefore is vigorously opposed to it. In his view, the widespread acceptance of – for example – the “Toronto blessing” is a symptom of “dullness of discernment” within the Christian church (pp. 113-114). However, Charismatics themselves would not deny the need for discernment and for the need to “prove all things”. Furthermore, an isolated demonic manifestation need not by any means prove that all charismatic phenomena are ipso facto deceptive or demonic. Even the well­known Colin Graham incident, which Maclachlan cites (p. 240, endnote 240), simply demonstrates the need for the charismatic gift of “discerning of spirits”. For their part, charismatics would point to Luke 11:13: “if you being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?” Can believers not trust the Father’s promise in this?

Although Maclachlan’s book is both partisan and polemic, it cannot be easily dismissed, despite its shortcomings. Although his passion for fidelity to the Scriptures leads him to a stridently fundamentalist position at times, it is a challenging book, which takes on the “received wisdom” of both charismatic and non-charismatic views on glossolalia. The aggressive way in which he argues his case, and the lack of balance and perspective that undermines parts of his analysis, should not be allowed to obscure the originality of his approach to the issue of “tongues”, or the sincere pastoral concerns that underlie this book.


Author’s comments:

Dr Brett Knowles has charged me with ‘logical inconsistencies’, and gives two examples of where I am supposedly inconsistent in this way. 

1.    After establishing that an ability in biblical ‘tongues’ was an ‘ability to communicate in foreign languages’, I then suggested Paul was a skilled linguist – given he said he spoke in languages more than all the Corinthian congregation. 

The charismatic response, Knowles suggests, would be to point to 1 Cor 14v14 where Paul refers to his mind as being ‘unfruitful’. Knowles misrepresents my position by claiming I say that ‘the mind that is unfruitful is that of the hearers’, not  that of the speaker. Wrong. That is not what I say at all. 
What I say is that the fruit of a speakers mind is the understanding produced in the hearers mind when they hear words spoken by the speaker in a language the hearers know. Accordingly, if hearers do not understand what a speaker says, the speakers mind bears no fruit in the mind of the hearers and is thus unfruitful. It is always the mind of the speaker which either bears fruit or does not. Knowles has not understood the argument.

Knowles says that my view ‘does violence to the plain statement of the verse – that Paul himself did not understand what he was praying…’ With all due respect, the verse does not plainly say that Paul ‘did not understand’! It says his mind is ‘unfruitful’. It is the meaning of ‘unfruitful’, which Knowles asserts plainly means ‘does not understand’, which is in contention. Knowles simply loads his interpretation onto the verse because of his prior notion that ‘tongues speakers’ do not understand what they say, then claims the verse plainly says what he thinks it says.

Now in all of this, there is no break in my logic. Therefore to charge me with logical inconsistency is spurious. Knowles has essentially only pointed out that I hold to a different position to that which he holds, but does so with an ironic twist. 

He charges me ‘logical inconsistency’, and yet the charge actually rebounds. In his argument he changes the meaning of the word ‘unfruitful’ in the process of  the argument. First he takes up my meaning, which locates the fruit – or lack thereof – of the speaker’s mind in the hearer’s mind. Then on finding on the basis of my meaning that the hearer does not understanding the speaker, he applies his meaning and argues that I say that the hearer’s mind does not bear fruit! This changing of the meaning of a term in an argument is a logical fallacy called Ambiguity or Equivocation.

2.    Knowles second instance of me being logically inconsistent – which he describes as ‘a more serious inconsistency’, involves me noting that the cultural situations described in Acts 2 (Jerusalem) and 1 Cor 12-14 (Corinth) were different, thus I’m supposedly having a bob both ways. I fail to see how I can be logically inconsistent in noting this.

His charge is muddled because he has not got a grip on the ‘diglossia’ concept I outline in some detail in the book.

First, I do not use the term ‘diglossiac’ in the book.
Second, as far as I understand the diglossia concept, the term ‘diglossia’ refers to the cultural use of languages and not to people, thus individuals are not referred to as ‘diglossiac’.
Third, I am not saying the people in Jerusalem were ‘diglossiac’ (to use Knowles’ term) because they spoke either Greek, Aramaic or Latin in addition to their own local language’. Greek, Aramaic – (or to a lesser extent Latin), were their local languages, being the languages of the Eastern and Western Diaspora of the Jews. 
I said very clearly that the term ‘diglossia’, when used of the Acts 2 situation, referred to the relationship of Greek and Aramaic, to Hebrew. Greek and Aramaic (plus Latin to a lesser extent) were, I proposed, the ‘low languages’ – with Hebrew the ‘high language’ – of a diglossia which prevailed at that time in the religious life of the Jews.
Fourth, the term ‘diglossia’ is not a synonym of ‘bi-lingual’ as Knowles makes it out to be. I quote a linguistic specialist who made clear, explicit, distinctions between ‘bilingualism or multilingualism‘, ‘lingua franca‘, and ‘diglossia‘.

Knowles then makes out that my understanding of what was occurring culturally in Jerusalem ‘is completely at variance’ with what I suggest was the situation that prevailed in Corinth – which is that the church at Corinth was simply a multilingual, multi-ethnic church. He wants to uplift the dynamic of a Jewish cultural/linguistic phenomenon occurring at the cultic centre of Jewish religious life, i.e. the Temple in Jerusalem, and slam it into a church in the pagan city of Corinth, half way across the Mediterranean! As I am not prepared to do this due to recognising the differing cultural situations, he charges me with logical inconsistency!

To note that two situations are separated by a great many miles, geographically, culturally, and linguistically, hardly warrants the charge of ‘logically inconsistency’.

As these charges of logical inconsistency are Knowles’ only substantive criticism of the content of the book, and as both instances he points to are not failures on my part at all, his critique ends up being purely about what he perceives as the books tone.

Renton Maclachlan