In this post I propose to present my exegetical case for believing that the tongues referred to in 1 Corinthians 14 (and in Acts) are not necessarily known human languages used to proclaim the gospel to native speakers of that language, but may also be what has been labeled a private prayer language (though I believe the term personal prayer language is a more accurate description). I am not proposing an exhaustive treatment of this question here, but rather one which I believe will be sufficient to demonstrate the validity of my case. Neither am I presenting here a defense for the continuation of supernatural gifts in general, as I (and others) have already done this elsewhere. I will try to keep my presentation as simple as possible, building my argument on a series of logical steps.
1. Some people claim that Paul’s purpose in 1 Corinthians 14 was to correct the Corinthian believers for using a spurious gift of tongues, one which was not an authentic gift of the Holy Spirit. I believe this position is untenable for the following reason. If the tongues the Corinthians believers were practicing was not an authentic gift of the Holy Spirit, the logical response of Paul would almost certainly have been to directly inform them that this was the case, and to either command them to stop or discourage them from practicing this spurious gift of the Spirit. However, Paul nowhere says that the gift they were practicing was not an authentic gift of the Spirit and nowhere tells the Corinthian believers to quit practicing it altogether. Instead, he tells them:
a. “I want you all to speak in tongues” 1 Cor. 14:5
b. “One who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret.” 1 Cor. 14:13
c. “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you.” 1 Cor. 14:18
d. “If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret.” 1 Cor. 14:27
e. “But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God.” 1 Cor. 14:28
f. “Do not forbid speaking in tongues.” 1 Cor. 14:39
The logical conclusion is that the practice of the Corinthian believers was not invalid in and of itself, but was rather generally being used in the wrong context: in a public church meeting. There was one circumstance, though, in which the practice of tongues was permitted in a public church meeting: whenever there was someone present who was able to interpret what was being said.
*David Worley has suggested in a comment on another post that there may be some significance to the fact that, in 1 Cor. 14, Paul sometimes refers to “tongues” (plural) and “a tongue” (singular), and that it appears that he uses the term “tongues” when referring to the legitimate use of the spiritual gift and “a tongue” when referring to an invalid use of a spurious gift. A careful analysis of each of the uses of the terms “tongues” and “a tongue” in 1 Cor. 14 renders this hypothesis unsustainable, though, as there are occasions in which the term “tongues” is used to refer to something Paul discourages (e.g. 14:6, 23) and the term “a tongue” is used to refer to something Paul allows (e.g. 14:13), and even encourages (e.g. 14:26–27).
2. If we are in agreement that the tongues the Corinthians believers were practicing was not some spurious, invalid gift, then we are faced with another option. Were the Corinthian believers using their authentic gift of tongues to speak in known human languages (though not known to them by natural human means) in the church meetings in Corinth?
If this were the case, several things seem clear.
First of all, those practicing this gift did not understand what they were saying. This seems clear from 1 Cor. 14:2—“no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit”; 1 Cor. 14:9—“speech that is not intelligible”; 1 Cor. 14:11—“if I do not know the meaning of the language”; and 1 Cor. 14:14—“my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful.” Also, if they did understand, there would be no need to pray that they might interpret (1 Cor. 14:13).
Secondly, it appears that no one in the congregation understood what they were saying either. The general argument of 1 Cor. 14 has to do with tongues speaking that is not understood by the congregation at large. But it also appears clear that, not only the congregation at large, but every single individual in the congregation, was unable to understand the tongues being referenced, because if someone did understand them, they would have been able to interpret for the rest.
This leads us to ask, if someone had the supernatural ability to speak in a known language, but no one—neither the speaker, nor the congregation—understood what was being said, what might possibly motivate the speaker to use his/her gift in public? If they knew that the purpose of tongues was for communicating the gospel to the unsaved, yet they knew, at the same time, there was no one there who would be able to understand their message in tongues, what possible motivation might they have for giving it anyway?
3. The only plausible answer I can think of to this question is that those who had the gift of tongues were accustomed to using their gift in their personal prayer life. It was a practice that edified them (1 Cor. 14:4) and helped them to express their thanks to God (1 Cor. 14:16–17), even though they did not understand the specific content of what they were saying. It seemed only natural to them to pray in the same way in public they sometimes did in private. What they were failing to take into account, though, was the fact that the practice of their gift of tongues in the church meetings was not edifying but was, rather, distracting to other people in the congregation. This is why Paul tells them that, unless there was someone present who was able to interpret, they should reserve the practice of their gift for their personal prayer life and not for displaying it in public.
That, in essence, is the substance of my argument. In what follows, I will seek to tie up a few loose ends.
- Does this mean their personal prayer language was a known human language, an angelic language, or an ecstatic utterance of some type of another?
I think the answer to this question is largely irrelevant, since whatever the answer to this question, no one understood what they were saying. Even if they were praying, for example, in Swahili, it amounted to the same thing as praying in an angelic language, or a supernaturally inspired “ecstatic utterance.” Either way, they were also edifying themselves (1 Cor. 14:4)—something, which, according to Jude 20, is not necessarily a negative thing—and they were giving thanks with their spirit (1 Cor. 14:16–17).
- Doesn’t 1 Corinthians 14:22 say that the purpose of tongues is not personal edification, but rather “as a sign to unbelievers”?
Actually, no, it does not say that this is the purpose of tongues. It does say that at least one of the functions of tongues is as a sign to unbelievers, but nowhere does it say that this is the purpose of tongues. Also, to understand 1 Cor. 14:22 in context, it is necessary to cross-reference the text Paul quotes in 1 Cor. 14:21: “In the Law it is written: ‘With other tongues and through the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people, but even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.”
The Old Testament source of this quote, with a little fuller context, is Isaiah 28:11–13: “For by people of strange lips and with a foreign tongue the Lord will speak to this people, to whom he has said, ‘This is rest; give rest to the weary; and this is repose’; yet they would not hear. And the word of the Lord will be to them precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little, that they may go, and fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken.”
The clear implication is that the sign function of tongues was not as an aid to help people who spoke a foreign language to understand the proclamation of the gospel, but rather as a stumbling block, something that would cause them to “fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken.”
Exactly what this means in the New Testament context of tongues I am uncertain. I think a possible clue is found in Acts 2:12–13: “Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, ‘What does this mean?’ Some, however, made fun of them and said, ‘They have had too much wine.’” What is clear, however, is that the so-called purpose of tongues as a tool for proclaiming the gospel is almost certainly not what Paul is talking about in 1 Cor. 14:22.
- But wasn’t tongues used as a means to communicate the gospel to the lost whenever it was referred to in the book of Acts?
Once again, actually, no.
In Acts 2, it never says that those speaking in tongues used their gift of tongues in order to communicate the gospel to those who could not otherwise understand what was being said. Actually, it says the people heard the Jerusalem believers “declaring the wonders of God in [their] own tongues” (Acts 2:11). That sounds to me more like prayers of praise and worship than evangelistic proclamation. When it came time to actually clearly explain the gospel message, it was not the use of tongues that facilitated the task, but rather the preaching of Peter, who stood up, together with the other eleven apostles, and addressed the entire crowd in one language they apparently all understood: either Greek, or possibly Hebrew or Aramaic.
In Acts 10:44–48, the second reference to the practice of tongue in the book of Acts, it is not even the evangelizers who are speaking in tongues, but rather the new believers, and they are not preaching the gospel to others, but rather “extolling God.”
In Acts 19:1–7, the third and final instance of speaking in tongues in the book of Acts, once again, it is not Paul, the gospel proclaimer, who speaks in tongues, but rather the new believers, who, when Paul lays his hands on them, “began speaking in tongues and prophesying.”
In other words, the evidence from the book of Acts, just like the evidence in 1 Corinthians 14, seems to point more toward tongues as a personal prayer language than as a tool for proclaiming the gospel to those who otherwise could not understand.