With all due respect to the great minds that have contributed posts on the subject of continuationism and cessationism, I’m going to join in to offer what I see and why I see it. I am not going to attempt to settle the entire issue, but to add to the
confusion discussion on just what “tongues” means.
David Rogers in his earlier post, “Are Biblical Tongues a Personal Prayer Language,” offers one way of striving to define the term “glossa” from the Greek of the New Testament. His post begins with 1 Corinthians 14, and then works from that point to explain the meaning of “tongues” throughout the text.
First, I would offer this: that is the primary manner in which we ought to define our terms. We can dig out the BAGD and the Thayer’s, pull down Kittel and Mounce, and all of these are informative. At the end of the day, though, words typically have potential meanings. These meanings fall within a range, certainly, for “glossa” in the New Testament never means “horse” or “eating of fried chicken.” However, determining where along that range the word is used falls to context. Context within the passage and context within the canon of Scripture. If the primary Biblical usage of a term draws from one portion of its meaning, then there should be a clear reason to depart from that meaning in another location in the text.
That being said, I would suggest that in defining “glossa,” a word which is not clearly defined in the text of the New Testament, should start with the first occurrence. Not merely the first occurrence of the word itself, but the origin of its usage for the church. Depending on how you view the longer ending of Mark, that origin point is either Mark 16:17 or Acts 2:4. The former is in the description of accompanying signs with the commission to evangelize. The latter is the first record of tongue-speaking happening.
Taking the words of Christ in Mark 16, without going on to the snakes, we have the statement that “they will speak with new tongues,” or “they will speak in new tongues.” It’s three words in Greek: “they will speak,” “new,” and “(in/with) tongues.” The subject is carried on the future verb, and refers to the first clause of the verse: “those who have believed.” There is no real doubt about the meanings of “they will speak” or “new.” “They will speak” does not require clear speech though it can carry that meaning, and there is a different verb that is only used of intelligible speech. “New” means, well, new. It holds the same range in Greek that it does in English: it can mean completely new as never-before-heard-by-anyone or new as never-before-used-by-the-person-described.
That leaves us with “glossa.” Which is the word we want to get to–and “glossa” ranges in meaning from the “tongue” itself, to known human languages, to “utterances” (which is nice and vague), to the content of the speech, to languages of unknown origin.
We can likely eliminate the first possibility: the physical tongue remains the same. Beyond that, we are left with a word that needs clarified.
So, on to Acts 2. Here the Apostles, and likely the remainder of the 120 or so in the Upper Room, are filled with the Holy Spirit and we get a couple of uses of the word “glossa.” The first is the type of fire: tongues of fire. There is nothing to suggest the fire speaks, so we are looking at shape in 2:3 and we move on. Acts 2:4, in a literal rendering, gives us that they “began to speak in other tongues as the spirit gave them to declare.”
Is there anything else in the passage that will clarify what this phrase means? There is: Acts 2:6-11 makes it clear that the disciples and Apostles were speaking of the mighty acts of God in the normal languages of the assembled people. True, it appears that starting with Acts 2:14 Peter speaks in one language to the crowd–there would have been a shared knowledge of at least one language, and maybe both Greek and Aramaic.
This is not speaking in heavenly languages or in unintelligible languages. This is speaking in a language that people are capable of understanding, and doing so to point people to God. Some mocked–hard to guess who the “some” are here, though one can imagine that a Jerusalemite in the midst would think anyone babbling in Parthian sounded drunk and looked foolish. It was time to be celebrating united Jewishness, not to babble in your home language, so there is possible origin of the complaint without resorting to saying that some of the speakers were using unintelligible speech.
From this, I see that Acts 2 refers to the ability to speak in languages that are intelligible and doing so in a manner that points people to God, even at the expense of the reputation of the speakers. And being classed a drunkard happened to Jesus, so I doubt the disciples of the time minded.
In this case, there is no need of a translator because the tongues given were to speak to those who naturally heard the language. That changes when dealing with a gathering that is unified in language.
What do we do from that point? Tongues reappear in Acts 10:46 and 19:6. In 10:46, the familiar sound to Peter from Pentecost affirms that the household of Cornelius is as saved as Peter is. This is clear to both Peter and Cornelius, and later to Church at Jerusalem. Here, the Holy Spirit repeats what was done at Pentecost to make a point to the Church. If the “glossa” from Acts 10 are substantially different from the “glossa” of Acts 2, the connection would not be made. It reads clearly, to me, that Luke is connecting the two events.
Acts 19:6 is a little more challenging, for Paul is present and was not the action man in Acts 2 or Acts 10. To assume Paul personally observed either is a stretch, but it should be clear that by this point in the narrative flow, Paul has surely heard of what happened at Pentecost. He would have known how tongue-speaking sounded. Further, Luke is recording the events and connects them by using the same label. It follows that there is a connection between all three “glossa” events of Acts and these were similar: speaking in known languages in Acts 2, and then the same event repeated 10 and 19.
It should be noted that there are attesting “signs and wonders” that are sometimes parallel to the “glossa” and sometimes, like Acts 8, standing alone in testimony. Luke does not class “glossa” as a sign of the Gospel, but does class it as a gift of the Holy Spirit.
If we take the definition of “glossa” from Acts and carry it into 1 Corinthians, then I think the result is very different than if we go the other direction. If we start with 1 Corinthians, we develop a view that there were tongues that were beyond understanding, and these edified the individual. So, Paul does not want those in the church, though he admits to practicing this habit, whatever it may be. We then find ourselves with a passage that says tongues are a sign for unbelievers, but a sign of their destruction, while prophesy is good, but then only compares the tongue-speaking as practiced in Corinth as being like bad bugling or flat fluting.
In other words, the tongue-speaking at Corinth was not right by the Apostolic standard. It also the primary mention of tongues until Revelation where the clear meaning is people groups that speak different languages, gathered to praise the Lamb. There is a remarkable picture in . The Corinthians passage is bookended by references to tongues as the languages spoken by humanity.
What does that mean for this discussion?
1. We have limited meanings available to us from Scripture regarding “glossa.” Whatever view you take, it still has boundaries.
2. There is a valid case to be made that Acts represents “glossa” as human languages and that Revelation does as well. It is therefore not absurd to attempt to understand 1 Corinthians as having “glossa” in reference to human languages.
3. Acts and Revelation place “glossa” in the context of praise amidst people. Even 1 Corinthians is addressing “glossa” in the gathered church.
4. Keep in mind that Corinth, more than many other cities, would have had passers-through of many languages due to the port system there. It would be a prime location to need, at times, the supernatural ability to communicate the praises of God among the heathen.
5. Either Paul intends a different meaning in 1 Corinthians for “glossa” in the church than is found in Acts, or he is referring to the same spiritual gifting that he saw in Acts 19.
From this, I draw the conclusion that “glossa” is best understood to refer to the speaking of human languages unknown to the speaker, by the power of the Holy Spirit. That may not be correct, but having wrestled with this off and on for years, and really digging into it since we kicked this can over, that is what I see if I take an NASB, an NA27, a Greek Lexicon, and pour over it.
This, then, is what I see in the text. Does that mean that I think those who have the experience of a personal prayer language are violating Scripture? No–but I do not see it as the experience of tongues as drawn from Scripture. If I start from the text and work forward, this is what I see.