by Simon

Lien-yueh Wei





The Nature of the Sacred Symbolic Language
in Pentecostal Phenomena




In the Pentecost or the Pentecostal movement, the most attractive things may be Pentecostal phenomena, such as prophecies, visions, dreams, signs, wonders, and tongues. Many non-Pentecostal Christians regard these phenomena as special religious experiences or individual spiritual gifts; they do not attribute to these phenomena collective or universal meanings of faith. On the other hand, many Pentecostals believe that Pentecostal phenomena have not only individual meanings of faith, but collective significances of faith as well. They see the phenomena as collective signs to reveal the presence of God and the power of the Holy Spirit in the end times. The phenomena also are heralds of divine activity that would issue in the climax of history.[1] Some Pentecostal theologians, such as Mark D. McLean, interpret the phenomena as concrete symbols.[2]

However, many Christians neglect the fact that Pentecostal phenomena can be understood from the perspective of language. This study tries to interpret Pentecostal phenomena as a sacred symbolic language and attempts to demonstrate that the sacred symbolic language in Pentecostal phenomena contains the nature of a universal language, an individual language, an ultimate language, a testified language, the language of faith, and the language with hope. When this study tries to understand Pentecostal phenomena from the perspective of a sacred symbolic language, it finds many significant messages of faith and unique meanings of theology of Pentecostal phenomena that are often (or usually) neglected.


Pentecostal Phenomena

In this study Pentecostal phenomena will refer to paranormal phenomena, such as prophecies, visions, dreams, signs, wonders, and tongues, which occurred in the Pentecost recorded in the book of Acts or occurred in the Pentecostal movement. The following provides a brief description of some of the best-known Pentecostal phenomena.

In the Old Testament period, prophets mainly received prophecies from God. In the New Testament period, apostles mainly received visions. In the early church period, many saints or martyrs received dreams. But in the Pentecostal movement, prophecies, visions, and dreams occurred frequently in meetings or believers¡¦ lives.[3]

In Mark 16:17, Jesus promises that signs will accompany those who believe. In Acts 5:12, ¡§The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people.¡¨ Many miracles, such as a cripple (paralytic) walking, the sick being healed, a person who never studied piano playing the piano well, etc., occurred in the early Pentecostal movement.[4]

Tongues can be classified as known tongues or unknown tongues. A known tongue or ¡§xenolalia¡¨ is a translatable and understandable human language (e.g. Acts 2:1-11). On the contrary, unknown tongue or ¡§glossolalia¡¨ is an untranslatable and incomprehensible language to speaker or hearer (e.g. 1 Co 14:2, 28). In the Pentecost and the early Pentecostal movement, known tongues prevailed. Yet, as Gary B. McGee indicates, ¡§By late 1906 and 1907, though still believing that tongues signified human languages, Pentecostals began to view tongues speech as glossolalia.¡¨[5] 


Pentecostal Phenomena as Sacred Symbolic Language

Three main reasons show that Pentecostal phenomena can be understood as a sacred symbolic language. First, Pentecostal phenomena have the character of a symbolic language. Reason cannot understand Pentecostal phenomena or control their real meanings because they have supra-rational, uncertain, and changeable meanings which are the characters of a symbolic language. As Paul Ricoeur indicates: 

In fact, unlike a comparison that we consider from outside, the symbol is the movement of the primary meaning which makes us participate in the latent meaning and thus assimilates us to that which is symbolized without our being able to master the similitude intellectually. It is in this sense that the symbol is donative; it is donative because it is a primary intentionality that gives the second meaning analogically.[6]

The Pentecostal phenomena also have the characteristics of a symbol or symbolic language, in that its meaning can not be mastered intellectually and externally.

For example, some people in the Pentecost interpreted the phenomena of tongues as ¡§They [the receivers of tongues] have had too much wine (Acts 2:13)¡¨ while other people realized it as the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the last days. The different explanations among people who saw the same phenomenon imply that Pentecostal phenomena are a symbolic language which does not have only one or an unchangeable meaning.

Second, Pentecostal phenomena manifest a divine language of action. They enable one to recognize theophany. They contain a sacred symbolic language which represents divine presence by taking divine place or by taking the place of divine means to make divine present that is not present.[7]

God¡¦s creation of the world is a good example for this argument. Since God created the world through His discourse (Gen 1:1-31), God has shown Himself and His action in His language in which the world was created. God acts in His language. The action of God¡¦s creation manifested a sacred language of symbol. Namely, the phenomenon of the creation could be understood as a sacred language which symbolizes God¡¦s action and presence. Likewise, people could find the action of the Holy Spirit through Pentecostal phenomena in the Pentecost or the Pentecostal movement. In this sense, Pentecostal phenomena became a sacred language to symbolize the divine action or presence.

John Macquarrie also pointed out the significance of a symbolic language for people to know God or His presence. He says:

It was shown that symbols, so far from being mere empty ciphers, have Being ¡§present-and-manifest¡¨ in them, as was repeatedly said. They are not just ideas floating in our minds but are the concrete ways in which Being (God) accomplishes its self-giving and self-manifestation. Furthermore, it was shown that symbolic language is not just a poetic language of image, but does throw light on actual structures¡KWe should remember Paul Tillich¡¦s good advice: ¡§One should never say, ¡¥only a symbol,¡¦ but one should say, ¡¥not less than a symbol¡¦.¡¨ So we should be far from despising symbols for they have an indispensable part to play in our knowing, providing the only way in which we can attain insight into and talk about Being.[8]


Third, Pentecostal phenomena present a symbolic language which holds and expresses divine messages. For instance, the Holy Spirit communicated with people in the Pentecost through paranormal phenomena (Acts 2:1-11). Pentecostal phenomena, therefore, became a linguistic agent between the Holy Spirit and people. Peter also claimed that Pentecostal phenomena reveal God¡¦s message and fulfill His promise (Acts 2:14-36).

Fire is another example of Pentecostal phenomena as a sacred symbolic language, because it is often used as a symbol to convey divine messages in the Bible. Deut 4:24 mentions, ¡§For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.¡¨ It does not mean that God is fire, but that fire is a symbolic (language) to express the disposition of a jealous God. Likewise, a burning bush expressed the message of holiness to Moses (Ex 3:1-5); the fire that fell and burned up the sacrifice before Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel expressed the messages of the power of only one true God. 

The Pentecostal movement has also reflected that God still continues to deliver His messages through Pentecostal phenomena to His people from generation to generation and how His people have responded to His messages.[9] Hence, Pentecostal phenomena as a divine symbolic language call people to notice and respond to God. This language arouses attention to the divine.[10] 


The Nature of the Sacred Symbolic Language in Pentecostal Phenomena

The sacred symbolic language in Pentecostal phenomena contains the nature of a universal language, an individual language, an ultimate language, a testified language, the language of faith, and the language with hope. 

1. Universal Language

Any human spoken language is a kind of ethnic, regional, or cultural language. A language may be used and comprehended only in one or a few particular groups, communities, or regions. However, many people, such as Eric Fromm and Carl Jung, believe that universal languages have existed; for example, the languages of music and of mathematics, body language, the languages of laughter, crying, and sexuality, etc.[11] A universal language surpasses the limit of common language and make communication possible between people who are from different ethnicities, regions, or cultures.

The sacred symbolic language in the Pentecost or the Pentecostal movement also has the essence of a universal language. The messianic or end-time prophecies are a collective message for all humans. Miracles and wonders can be understood as the presence of divine power in every region and culture. The signs of the end days, such as the sun turning to darkness, the moon to blood, the stars falling from the sky, and the heavenly bodies shaking, will frighten people all over the world (Joel 2:31; Mt 24:27-30; Mk 14:24-25; Acts 2:20).

However, sacred symbolic language can be differentiated from profane universal languages in three aspects. First, the sacred symbolic language is not a man-made language; it is made by the divine rather than by humans. Any spoken language or profane language is a production of human beings. Humans occupy the predominant position in the action of communication. Language is regarded as a tool in the communication of people. However, in the sacred symbolic language, humans are forced to passively receive the message from it. Sometimes, some people have to serve this language. Namely, humans become a tool or servant of the sacred symbolic language. Peter, for example, addressed and interpreted the messages in Pentecostal phenomena as serving for the sacred symbolic language (Acts 2:14-41).

Second, the sacred symbolic language is not limited by any rule or mode. Every secular language has its own system of grammar, definition, and function that make communication possible and comprehensible. In other words, a linguistic system of grammar, definition, and function control and limit the process of communication in language. For instance, a user of music language must follow music theory. In contrast, no ruling or normative system exists in the sacred symbolic language. It is an unlimited and non-systematic language operated only in divine free will. In this sense, only unknown tongues can be a sacred symbolic language because they cannot be translated and therefore unlimited by profane language rules. In this point, people might find that the main purpose of an unknown tongue is to express sacred symbols rather than linguistic meanings.

Third, the sacred symbolic language requires fear of and obedience to the divine while profane languages require comprehension. The presence of the sacred symbolic language equals to theophany or the disclosure of space of holiness. When this language presents, it always has an explicit, decisive and formative influence on people¡¦s actions or lives. Three thousand people, for instance, repented and were baptized after the presence of the sacred symbolic language in the Pentecost (Acts 2: 38-41). 

In short, the sacred symbolic language in the Pentecost or the Pentecostal movement reveals the nature of a universal language that is different from other profane universal languages.

2. Individual Language

Although the sacred language in Pentecostal phenomena has the nature of a universal language, it also has the nature of an individual language, which is a language used only by an individual or communicated for an individual. First, the sacred symbolic language is a language used by only one true God. This language is not constructed and spoken by a community or group, but by God. In the communicating mode of this language, God is the only speaker while humans can only be hearers. Hence, the sacred symbolic language is a divine-individual and one-way language.

Second, the sacred symbolic language is a language of a personal world that is used by God to communicate with individuals. It is a language of personal experience of religion, inner world, and spirituality. A community can understand it only when it is translated from a sacred symbolic language to a secular language. For example, the Pentecostal phenomenon of a vision is an individual language because only its receiver can directly ¡§see¡¨ and understand the meaning of the vision. Other people can know this vision only when the receiver uses a common language to express the meaning of the vision to them. Two figures in the New Testament are the representatives of this kind of receivers: Peter, who interpreted the vision he had seen to Cornelius and other apostles (Acts 10: 24-11:18), and the author of the Book of Revelation, John, who used a common writing language to describe the visions he had seen on the island of Patmos (Rev 1:1-11). 

However, some people might doubt that an individual or private language exists. Indeed, a practical language of individual with the characters of a collective, common, or spoken language does not exist, but a symbolic language of individual having only personal conscious meanings does. Dreams, for instance, are an exemplification of an individual symbolic language. Dreams reveal a private world totally different from the community world. In the world of dream, time, space, communication, culture, environment, etc., are all totally different from those communal life. The messages in dream are abstract and symbolic. Moreover, one person¡¦s dream world is totally different from another¡¦s. Dreams are a language used only between a dream world and its dreamer. Only one protagonist, one hero, and one audience――the dreamer himself or herself――is in a dream world. No connection exists between this dream world and that one. A dream is a completely individualized and enclosed world. Thus, an individual symbolic language, such as the language of dream, does exist. If a dream comes from the divine, this dream becomes a sacred-individual symbolic language.

Probably, for some people, it is absurd and contradictory that a language is a universal language and an individual language at the same time. However, the divine operation and power on the sacred symbolic language allow the two contradictory essences to coexist in this language harmoniously and reasonably. In fact, the coexistence of the two contradictory essences in the sacred symbolic language manifests the uniqueness of this divine language because all other secular languages lack this coexistence.[12]

3. Ultimate Language

The sacred symbolic language has the nature of an ultimate or eschatological language, which is a last language in the world. First, since Pentecostal phenomena are the signs in the last days (Joel 2:28-31; Acts 2:17), the sacred symbolic language in the phenomena is the last language of human history or the world. In the end times, the language becomes a universal language among people, especially among believers (Joel 2:28-31). The language proclaims the imminence of the advent of Christ. It reveals God¡¦s salvation, hope and message in the last days.

Second, many old languages are dead or dying; not any new human languages seem to have been created in last few centuries. All people can do is to coin some new words or develop some new meanings in an old language.

On the other hand, the Pentecostal movement in the twentieth century shows that sacred symbolic language is prevailing all over the world. This language has become a new language of religion or spirituality not only in many churches, but also in many countries. Furthermore, after the final judgment, the divine will make everything, including language, new (Rev 21: 5). Thus, before all the languages in the old world disappear, the last or ultimate language may be the sacred symbolic language.


4. Testified Language

The sacred symbolic language reveals the nature of a testified language, a language of testifying God, in many aspects. For example, the presence of the sacred symbolic language negates God¡¦s absence. The language substitutes for the physical presence of God. For example, the divine healings in the Pentecostal movement is not to help the sick to escape from death, but to manifest the divine presence and to testify to the divine power and promise.

Moreover, that Pentecostal phenomena always results in the great numbers of converts in the Pentecost to the Pentecostal movement demonstrates God had made crucified Jesus the Lord in those converts¡¦ lives through the phenomena. Furthermore, the sacred symbolic language evidences the work of the Holy Spirit. Fire in the Pentecost signified the coming and pouring of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:3).[13] The language also convinced many Jews that the Gentiles could and had received the Holy Spirit (Acts 10: 44-11: 18).

Finally, God testified to His salvation by signs, wonders and various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to His will (Heb 2:4). Pentecostal phenomena will accompany believers in order to certify that every tribe and nation will hear God¡¦s message before the close of human history (Mk 16: 17-20). Besides, tongues are a sign for unbelievers; prophecy is for believers (1 Co 14:22). In evangelizing actions, Pentecostals prioritized the need for spectacular displays of celestial power, such as signs and wonders.[14]


5. Language of Faith

The sacred symbolic language presents the nature of the language of faith, a language that can be understood only by faith. Since the sacred symbolic language is a transcendent discourse of God, it is always comprehended through faith. People could receive its divine message only by their faith rather than intelligence. All secular languages are logical languages which can be understood by rational thinking. However, the sacred symbolic language could be misunderstood or even regarded as superstition by rational reasoning because it is a supra-rational language of faith.

For instance, many modern people do not believe that the world was created by the word of God. But, by faith, believers understand that ¡§the universe was formed at God¡¦s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible (Heb 11: 3)¡¨. Unbelievers see the Bible as an ancient literature while believers consider it as the word of God. What make the different understandings among them is not the content of the Bible, but faith.

In addition, unknown or untranslated tongues in the Pentecost or the Pentecostal movement are the language of faith. Many people who do not know the tongues¡¦ meanings through their reason always mock the tongues¡¦ receivers (Acts 2:13) or interpret the tongues as a babbling rather than sacred language. However, the New Testament does testify to the validity and spirituality of unknown or untranslated tongues (e.g. 1 Co 14:2, 22). Mark 16: 17 also mentions, ¡§And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues.¡¨ A new tongue means a new language that was never heard and cannot be known. Hence, it is not surprising if people do not believe that the new tongue is a language for it never existed before. It can be believed only through faith.

Faith is to believe what one does not know or cannot understand through reason. The sacred symbolic language requires and challenges faith rather than intelligence. It can be appreciated through faith instead of reason. Faith makes this language accessible and comprehensible.


6. Language with Hope

The sacred symbolic language discloses the nature of the language with hope, a language that can bring hope to people. It provides the hope of faith to believers. First of all, where there is the presence of the divine, there is hope. The sacred symbolic language in Pentecostal phenomena reveals the presence of God so that it gives believers hope.

For unbelievers, Pentecostal phenomena in the Pentecost or the Pentecostal movement deliver faith or belief, but for believers, they deliver hope. Likewise, a sick person obtains the divine healing in a meeting, but the people around the person who do not experience or need not the divine healing obtain hope. For most believers, after experiencing Pentecostal phenomena, their faith or belief may not change too much, but their hope does.

Secondly, the sacred symbolic language in Pentecostal phenomena reveals the realization of God¡¦s promise in the last days. Thus, believers who have experienced those phenomena are able to throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and run with perseverance the race marked out for them (Heb 12: 1). Hope makes believers more faithful (1 Co 15: 19; 1Th 4:13).

In every generation, God have shown His people that His promise never fades through His word and Pentecostal phenomena as well so that believers can live in hope even though there seems to be no hope in their lives. In this sense, Pentecostal phenomena are a divine language that bestows hope. The transformation of Peter¡¦s life provides an exemplification for this claim. Peter fearfully disowned Jesus three times and then despaired of the divine promise after Jesus was crucified (Mk 14: 66-72; 16: 9-13). Yet, a short time later, Peter boldly testified to the divine promise in public after experiencing Pentecostal phenomena in the Pentecost that bestowed hope on him. Therefore, for believers, the sacred symbolic language in Pentecostal phenomena is a language with hope. Where there fill with Pentecostal phenomena, there overflow with hope.   



In short, Pentecostal phenomena could be understood not only as individual religious experiences or collective divine signs in the last days, but also as a sacred symbolic language. The divine uses Pentecostal phenomena as a language to call people¡¦s attention and response to God. Pentecostal phenomena are a sacred symbolic language of communication between the divine and humans.

The sacred symbolic language reveals the nature of a universal language, an individual language, an ultimate language, a testified language, the language of faith, and the language with hope. The nature of the sacred symbolic language discloses the significant messages of faith and profound meanings of theology of Pentecostal phenomena that are given little or no attention. The nature also challenges any simplified or profane understanding and interpretation of Pentecostal phenomena.



[1] Edith L. Blumhofer, Restoring the Faith: The Assemblies of God, Pentecostalism, and American Culture (IL: University of Illinois Press, 1993), 23-24.

[2] Mark D. Mclean, ¡§The Holy Spirit,¡¨ in Stanley M. Horton ed. Systematic Theology (MO: Logion Press, 2003), 380-382.

[3] Gary B. McGee, People of the Spirit: The Assemblies of God (MO: Gospel Publishing House, 2004), 23. Frank Bartleman, Azusa Street: The Roots of Modern-Day Pentecost (FL: Bridge-Logos Publishers, 1980), 1-74.

[4] Ethel E. Goss, The Wind of God: The Story of the Early Pentecostal Movement (1901-1914) in the Life of Howard A. Goss (MO: Word Aflame Press, 1977)34-35, 61, 85. Gary B. McGee, 39-42

[5] Gary B. McGee, ¡§The Radical Strategy in Modern Mission: The Linkage of Paranormal Phenomena with Evangelism,¡¨ in C. Douglas McConnell ed., The Holy Spirit and Mission Dynamics, Evangelical Missiological Society Series #5 (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1997), 87.

[6] Paul Ricoeur, The symbolism of Evil, Trans. Emerson Buchanan (NY: Harper & Row, 1967), 15-16.

[7] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, Trans. Joel Weinsheimer (NY: Continuum, 1989), 154.

[8] John Macquarrie, Principles of Christian Theology (NY: Charles Scriber¡¦s Son, 1977), 178-179.

[9] Mark D. Mclean, 337.

[10] David Lim, ¡§Spiritual gifts,¡¨ in Stanley M. Horton ed., Systematic Theology (MO: Logion Press, 2003), 476.

[11] Eric Fromm, The Forgotten Language: Introduction to the understanding of dreams, fairy tales, and myths (NY: Grove Press,1957), 1-20. Carl Jung, Man and His Symbol (NY: Laurel Books, 1964), 1-32.

[12] Roger Stronstad provides a proof for the sacred symbolic language as both a universal language and an individual language from a biblical perspective. For example, the phenomenon of being filled with the Holy Spirit in the Pentecost is both an individual and a collective experience of religion. Roger Stronstad, The Charismatic Theology of St. Luke (MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1984), 53-54.

[13] Mark D. McLean, 381.

[14] Gary B. McGee, ¡§The Radical Strategy in Modern Mission: The Linkage of Paranormal Phenomena with Evangelism,¡¨ 89.


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