4. HISTORICAL PRECEDENT: Is this teaching contrary to what the vast majority of the Bible-believing church has held throughout history?
In regards to the question of “private prayer language,” this point is admittedly one on which the position in favor of openness may appear to be most vulnerable. I readily recognize that the practice of “PPL” has not been well documented down through the great part of church history, up until the advent of the Pentecostal movement at the beginning of the 20th century.
On the other hand, D. A. Carson, who, as far as I can tell, has “no axe to grind” on this issue, and is widely recognized in conservative evangelical circles as a competent and balanced scholar, tempers the historical pretensions of cessationists a bit, when he states the following, on p. 165 of Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14:
There is a considerable historiography that argues that the phenomenon of tongues and other “charismatic” gifts died out fairly early in the history of the church. This varies from Knox’s amusing and sometimes savage denunciation of what he calls “enthusiasm” to more pedestrian studies that may admit strange phenomena do recur, but insist that such aberrations are found only in fringe groups, among sectarian heretics. Thus one noncharismatic ends his study of both the Bible and church history with these words: “We conclude by quoting Paul, who said: ‘Tongues shall cease’ (1 Cor. 13:8). They have.” There are enough loose pieces to make us fearful that the historical records are being handled (or mishandled) on the basis of a strong commitment to a predetermined conclusion.Also, I think it is relevant here to take into account not only the practice of the majority of the pre-20th-century church, but also that of the present-day church. The fact of the matter is that “PPL,” though probably not practiced by the majority of bible-believing Christians today, is at least accepted and tolerated by a significant majority throughout evangelical Christianity around the world.
In addition, Grudem himself states: “It is important to remember that these questions should be weighed and not just counted, for some of them will be more relevant than others, depending on the individual situation.” I believe that, with respect to the validity or lack of validity of “PPL,” this particular question (i.e. historical precedent) is comparatively less relevant than others. There are various reasons for this:
1. The preponderance of the practice of certain spiritual gifts and phenomena seems in one degree or another to be related historically to the spiritual state of the church of the time period under consideration. Jesus himself said He did not do many miracles in Nazareth due to the lack of faith of the people there. Although I personally would not go so far as to claim an across the board spiritual superiority for continuationists or Pentecostals/Charismatics, I do think it is entirely plausible that the rationalistic prejudices on the part of some, and the hardened hearts of others, have, to a certain extent, limited the miraculous manifestation of the Holy Spirit’s power in the lives of Christians on many occasions.
2. Many beliefs and practices that are accepted as legitimate by the vast majority of bible-believing Christians today were not always accepted as such. Included among these are such questions as justification by faith, believers baptism, and the abolition of slavery. I think these examples provide more than ample evidence to demonstrate the vast majority of Christendom has been wrong on more than one occasion.
3. Although I do not believe the defense of this question rises or falls on this point, I personally see a certain degree of plausibility to the “latter rain” theory that posits an increase in the occurrence of supernatural manifestations as a result of the work of the Holy Spirit as we draw closer to the “end-times.”
On the other hand, the requirement that legitimate Christian baptism be administered by a local church that only baptizes believers by immersion, and does not teach the doctrine of “eternal security,” seems to go against the opinion and practice of the majority of bible-believing Christians throughout history. Admittedly, consistency with the argument presented above regarding “PPL” demands that this teaching not be rejected on the basis of this criterion alone. However, I would think that the almost total lack of support of the teaching underlying the new IMB policy regarding baptism throughout church history, with the notable exceptions of the Landmark movement, and certain other Baptists I think would best be described as “neo-Landmarkists,” gives, at the very least, due cause for serious reflection.