Even while I was authoring my earlier post, I suspected that my next installment might not be able to come forth until after VBS was over. Indeed, things have unfolded to be even worse than that. I wrote my last post while I was visiting family in the Ozarks of Missouri, and I have not been able to return to this task until I have returned to the Missouri Ozarks. I therefore bring this post to you knowing that the elapsed interim is an eternity in blog years. For that, I beg your pardon.
I previously took for myself a narrow task—”The consideration of what the relevant non-narrative passages in the New Testament say to us about the essential nature of the gift of tongues,” concluding (a) that the true heart of the present dispute about this gift concerns its nature (that is, what the gift actually is) rather than theories of cessation or continuation, and (b) that the relevant non-narrative passages of the New Testament are inconclusive regarding the nature of the biblical gift of tongues. For this post I take an equally narrow and complementary task: The consideration of what the relevant narrative passages in the New Testament say to us about the essential nature of the gift of tongues. What about the narrative passages in the New Testament? What do those teach us?
The major narrative books of the New Testament are the four gospels and The Acts of the Apostles. Of course, to search for narrative or non-narrative passages in scripture, one has to recognize more granularity in the New Testament than a book-by-book approach would permit. Although the gospels are narrative at a bird’s-eye view, much of the material within them is didactic. Although Galatians is an epistle, it contains a lengthy (as a percentage of the epistle as a whole) narrative passage. Acts, likewise, is a narrative book containing important protreptic passages (Acts 1:8, anyone?). And so, even in books that we consider to be essentially narratives, we must be on the lookout for non-narrative passages.
With regard to Acts, we face further concerns that touch upon how we will interpret the book. These involve the attitude that we choose to take regarding “the early church.” How much of a Primitivist are you? Christian Primitivism, defined hermeneutically, is the idea that every narrative account of the early church is just as prescriptive as any didactic prescription in the New Testament. Primitivism is the notion that the modern churches’ main problems lie in its differences from the New Testament churches, and therefore the modern churches’ main objective must be to return to the descriptions given of the New Testament church.
To be a Protestant is to be a Primitivist to one degree or another, but the “one degree or another” qualification is significant. A more thoroughgoing Primitivism appears in denominations like the Primitive Baptists, who eschew the accretion of structures not explicitly depicted in the New Testament (missions-sending organizations outside the local church, for example). Such a hermeneutic would regard not only all of the words of the narrative passages to be prescriptive, but would also treat the silences of the narratives as prescriptive.
It is among the distinctive attributes of Southern Baptists that we are but moderate Primitivists. I’m comfortable with that position. I think it makes a lot of sense. On the one hand, we recognize that Holy Spirit was mightily at work in the early church and that Apostolic Age is the source of all prescriptive authority for Christians. On the other hand, we recognize that much of the apostolic work actually involved the correction of the early church, and that the vast bulk of the New Testament was written not because the early church was such a model to follow but rather because they had so many profound problems.
And yet, even after you consider all of the caveats and conditions, the role of the Book of Acts in this particular question cannot be overstated: Whether we ought to emulate all of their actions or not, the Book of Acts does reliably and inerrantly convey to us what actions the early Christian believers and churches performed. Since our primary quest is to uncover what the people in the New Testament were actually doing when they were speaking in tongues, any information that Acts gives to us will be helpful.
So, how will we go about this? What in the text of the Book of Acts will help us to know whether these believers were speaking in extant human languages or were speaking in something other than that? I propose that we employ the following flowchart:
The first question in the flowchart (abbreviated “Did a human hear it?”) simply asks whether anyone other than the speaker was present to hear what happened on the occasion when this person spoke in tongues. I often pray silently. I suppose, presuming that someone could pray in an unknown tongue, that someone could possibly pray silently in an unknown tongue, in which case nobody would hear it, and we would have insufficient data to take the matter any further. This would be the ultimate example of the gift of tongues being used in private prayer.
But if someone did hear it, then suddenly the hearer becomes an important eye(ear?)witness to what has just taken place. We must pose several questions to the hearer. The first of those is simply, “Did you understand what you just heard?” That is, was the content of the statement communicated to the hearer?
Now, if no human being comprehended what was said, then what we have is the modern phenomenon as it transpires in the overwhelming preponderance of cases today. As Dwight and I concurred in our prior discussions up to this point, neither of us has ever witnessed any occasion in which a person has spoken miraculously in a human language not known to the speaker. Also, after online discussion of this question that has spanned seven years, I have to date known of the brethren who frequent this blog to assert precisely one occasion in which someone (Jerry Rankin) claims that a person spoke in tongues and another person delivered that message by means of the gift of interpretation so that a third human being or group of human beings was able to receive the transmitted message. If we should all, for the sake of discussion, grant without question the validity of every occasion that anyone in the comment thread should assert as an occasion when the gift of tongues effectively communicated a message to a human being, I think we’d still all, if we were honest, be forced to conclude that the overwhelming preponderance of modern cases of “speaking in tongues” are occasions in which somebody (if only the speaker) hears what is said, but nobody understands it.
By the way, when all of my posting on this topic has come to a conclusion, it will come down to this: Out of this entire flowchart, the only thing I’m really arguing against is this one position: Things uttered that nobody understands but that are alleged to be a work of the Holy Spirit.
But what if a human being actually DID comprehend what was being said? At that point we know that something has happened that is undeniably miraculous. Further questions will help us to understand the precise nature of the miracle as it transpired.
And so, our second question is this: “Can you identify which language that person was speaking?” After all, if the biblical text itself identifies that a particular language or particular languages were being spoken, then we have learned something significant. If the language was not identified, then multiple options are still open, and yet we’ve proceeded far enough down the flowchart that one option—the modern phenomenon—has been definitively ruled out. The data is insufficient for a precise categorization, but it is sufficient to exclude some options.
If a language is identified in the biblical text, then we know that we’re going to be able to recognize this utterance as pertaining to one of three categories. Either (a) an other-than-human language was uttered, and by the gift of interpretation of tongues a human being was able to tell the plain meaning of it, or (b) a human language known neither to the speaker nor the hearer was uttered, but the hearer was able to understand it by means of the gift of interpretation, or (c) a speaker miraculously spoke a language unknown to him but known to the hearer, who came to know that language by natural means.
Of these last three alternatives, we can note significantly at this point that everyone in the thread, I’m pretty sure, acknowledges that all three of them, if any of them ever occurred in the days of the Book of Acts, either have nearly ceased or have utterly ceased. We share in common a functional cessationism at this point, although this point of agreement may prove a difficult one on which to build unity, since so few continuationists will acknowledge its existence. It’s not that this point is often robustly disputed, but rather that it is too often ignored, presumably as something either unimportant or inconvenient.
So, let us apply this methodology to the relevant narratives.
Acts 2:1-13 (All quotations NASB unless otherwise noted)
On the Day of Pentecost came the inauguration of the gift of tongues and the commencement of the work of the Holy Spirit in the churches. What happened on that day does not happen today. These two facts are, among Christian believers, unassailable, even though the second sentence asserts the dreaded negative. After all, if sounds of mighty rushing winds accompanied by visible displays of fire on people’s heads resulting in miraculous tongues-speaking in a multitude of human languages were regularly occurring in our world, it could not possibly escape notice. Of course, the very point that day was to be sure not to escape notice. The Holy Spirit had something to say, and He made certain that people were paying attention when He said it.
And so, we’re all cessationists of one stripe or another with regard to the events of the Day of Pentecost.
But what do we learn about the essential nature of the gift of tongues in this passage? I note the following:
- The phenomenon goes by the same terminology here as it did in the non-narrative passages. What did the people in the Upper Room do on the Day of Pentecost? Among other things, they began “to speak” (lalein) “in tongues” (glossais, which is the noun glossa in the plural dative). 1 Corinthians 13:1 likewise uses the verb “to speak” (lalo is the first-person, singular, active, subjunctive of the infinitive lalein from Acts 2:4) and “in tongues”(glossais again).
No linguistic evidence exists to support the idea that Acts 2 is speaking about one thing while 1 Corinthians 12-14 are speaking with reference to another. They’re both named the same thing using exactly the same words. Attempts to differentiate between the two must arise from something other than the wording used.
This is true in spite of the presence of the adjective “different” (heteros) in Acts 2:4. The Greek language has two words that mean something akin to our English word “other.” Allos means “another of the same kind.” “Get me another one of those pulled-pork sandwiches.” In contrast to allos, the Greek word heteros means “another of a different kind.” “This North Carolina stuff is horrendous. Let’s go to another restaurant and try to find some Memphis barbecue.”
The presence of heterais (the feminine, dative, plural form of heteros, so to match the gender, case, and number of glossais) here is interesting. In 1 Corinthians 12:10, the presence of “hetero gene” (“various kinds”) sometimes plays a critical role in arguments claiming a biblical phenomenon of tongues-speaking in other-than-human languages. Here in Acts 2, the clearest example of miraculous, Spirit-induced speaking in unstudied human languages, Spirit-inspired scripture refers to the phenomenon by use of the same adjective that appears in 1 Corinthians 12:10. The word heteros links these two passages together.
- The activity of the Holy Spirit is always and only linked in this passage with the phenomenon of speaking rather than with the phenomenon of hearing. The text explicitly says that the Spirit was giving utterance to those who were speaking. Those hearing found the experience remarkable not because of what they were doing in listening, but because of the fact that Galileans were speaking in their respective native tongues. To suggest that the Holy Spirit was working a miracle in the hearing of the listeners is to bring to the text something that is not there.
- In Acts 2, tongues-speaking is connected with speaking on God’s behalf, not with speaking to God on one’s own behalf. By way of explanation of the tongues-speaking phenomenon to the people who were listening, Peter connected it with Joel’s prophecy in the Old Testament that the sons and daughters of Israel would prophesy (Acts 2:17-18). Prophecy occurs when a human being delivers to other human beings a message originating from God. Prophecy is the complement—the opposite, or sorts—of prayer.
- Human beings heard what was being said. The first decision point in our flowchart can be answered with a resounding “Yes.”
- Human beings comprehended what was being said. The hearers heard the Christians on that day as they were “speaking of the mighty deeds of God.” The hearers heard and comprehended content.
And with that observation alone, the modern phenomenon that passes as speaking in tongues these days is dismissed as something other than what happened in Acts 2.
- The languages spoken were identified. The text identifies five people-groups present and notes ten regions from which people were attending. How many languages were represented? We cannot know a precise number from this data alone, but we can safely estimate that the 120 speakers in the Upper Room constituted enough people for each of the necessary languages to have been represented by multiple speakers.
So, thankfully, we’re given plenty of data in this narrative to identify with precision what took place that day.
- The languages spoken were human. Those observing the events as they transpired said that they were speaking in “our” tongues.
- The hearers spoke the languages that they heard. There isn’t the slightest indication otherwise.
And so, in Acts 2 the essential nature of “speaking in tongues” was clearly and specifically identified as “Human languages naturally understood.”
This is significant because this narrative in Acts is the most detailed account of tongues-speaking in all of the New Testament. We have already seen in the previous post that the non-narrative passages are utterly inconclusive as to the essential nature of the gift of tongues. This narrative passage, in contrast, is inescapably conclusive. Furthermore, it is the ONLY conclusive passage in all of the New Testament on the question of the essential nature of the gift of tongues.
In Acts 10:44-46, Cornelius and the other Gentile believers in Jesus Christ spoke in tongues in the presence of Peter and his compatriots. Of this narrative we can observe the following:
- Again, the name of the phenomenon is simply “speaking” (lalein) “in tongues” (glossais). This is the same phenomenon as in Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians 12-14.
- Speaking in tongues served as evidence that the Gentile believers had received the Holy Spirit. This is the primary role of the phenomenon in the passage
- Having received the Holy Spirit served as evidence of conversion and as just cause for baptism.
- Human beings heard the speaking in tongues.
- Human beings comprehended what was said in tongues. I believe that the “exalting God” heard by Peter et al was delivered within the vehicle of the “speaking in tongues.” I realize that some will likely retort that these could have been two different things that they heard. Perhaps some were speaking in tongues and saying things that no one comprehended, while others were exalting God in Greek. Or, perhaps the new Gentile believers were alternating between speaking inscrutably in tongues on the one hand and exalting God on the other, and that the bystanders just happened to hear both. The sentence in 10:46, taken by itself, could certainly be construed to signify this (although it would in no way rule out the interpretation that I have advanced).
And yet, I believe that Peter’s reaction in 10:47 provides perfect clarity. Peter said, “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” (emphasis mine) The events in Acts 10 truly are the “Gentile Pentecost,” and Peter identified the phenomenon with Cornelius and his fellow converts as being the same thing that happened when the apostles and their friends had received the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. On that day, as we have already seen, there is no question that the hearers comprehended the tongues-speaking, and the content of it was precisely what Acts 10:46 names again: praises to God.
Yet again, the modern phenomenon in which someone speaks in tongues that are not comprehended by anyone has been excluded as a sound interpretation of the passage.
- The language was NOT identified. And so, our flowchart methodology ends here. Did Peter understand what they were saying due to the gift of interpretation? Were Cornelius and his friends speaking in the vaunted “tongues of angels”? There is absolutely nothing in the text to suggest it and nothing to refute it. Perhaps Greek-speaking Cornelius and his friends began to speak in fluent Aramaic or Hebrew. We do not know.
The implication is simply that Acts 10 provides a less clear, less detailed description of tongues-speaking than does Acts 2. The narrative does, however, helpfully direct us back to Acts 2 as the predecessor event to the things that transpired in Caesarea that day. Do you want to know more about what happened in Acts 10? Acts 2 is the only other source available.
And so, once again we encounter people who, at the moment of receiving the Holy Spirit, being to communicate truths about the majesty and glory of God in languages that they do not know, but in such a way that bystanders are able to comprehend their prophetic exaltations of God.
We could chase a dozen rabbits in considering this narrative, all of them important and interesting in their own right, but the relevant verse for us is verse 6:
And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking with tongues and prophesying.
This final tongues-speaking narrative in the Book of Acts is the least detailed. Regarding it, we observe
- Again, the name of the phenomenon is simply “speaking” (lalein) “in tongues” (glossais). This is the same phenomenon as in Acts 2, Acts 10, and 1 Corinthians 12-14.
- Again, speaking in tongues is offered as evidence that the believers have received the Holy Spirit. This time, interestingly enough, the tongues-speaking occurred after baptism rather than before it. But that’s a topic for another day.
- Human beings heard the speaking in tongues.
- Again, humans comprehended what was being said. Now, I freely admit that this is less clear in this passage than in any of the others, but I would direct you to the connection between speaking in tongues and prophesying in this verse. Particularly in light of the way that Peter commingled tongues-speaking and prophecy in Acts 2 and the identifying of the content of the tongues-speaking in Acts 10:46 as being declarations of the worshipful truths about God to men, I do not believe that the connection between speaking in tongues and prophecy in Acts 19:6 is additive. Rather, I believe that it is elaborative. This falls well within the scope of the Greek word here (kai), which often is translated with the English word “even.”
This understanding of the relationship between “prophesying” and “speaking with tongues,” corresponds with the undeniably explicit connection made in Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 and accords well with what we’ve seen in Acts 10. Nothing in this text compels us to regard the incident differently.
I might also add that, if these believers publicly spoke in tongues in ways that were not understood by those around them, then the Holy Spirit in this instance violated the principles set forth in 1 Corinthians 12-14 forbidding the use of uninterpreted tongues, even as my continuationist brethren understand those chapters, since there is no dispute that these men spoke publicly.
- Again, we have no information identifying the language used. Oh, how I’d love to have access to that bit of inside information, but we’ll have just have to be content to ask these gentlemen about it when we see them in Heaven.
Considering the relevant narrative passages in the New Testament, we conclude the following:
- None of them was private.
- None of them was identified as being in the form of prayer.
- None of them was identified as having employed other-than-human languages.
- None of them involved the expression of personal burdens or matters difficult to articulate in human language.
- None of them states that the tongues-speaking was not understood by those who heard it.
- Some of them plainly state that the tongues involved were human languages theretofore unknown to the speaker.
- Most of them connect tongues-speaking with prophecy.
- Most of them connect tongues-speaking with the exaltation of God.
- All of them tie tongues-speaking with the initial reception of the Holy Spirit.
- All of them regard tongues-speaking as a miraculous action of the Holy Spirit.
- All of them consider tongues-speaking to be ipso facto evidence of conversion. That is, all of them plainly regard tongues-speaking as something that no unbeliever could possibly accomplish.
Having considered these passages, we have exhausted the biblical material concerning the gift of tongues. Where does that leave us? There is incontrovertible evidence that New Testament tongues-speaking at least sometimes involved the communication of theological truth to other human beings by means of the Holy-Spirit-bestowed miraculous ability of a human being to speak in human languages that he had never studied. There is no incontrovertible evidence that it ever consisted of anything other than that.
What we can say with some certitude at this point is that the modern phenomenon—a person offering an utterance in an ostensibly angelic language, perhaps as a mode of prayer, which remains uninterpreted and unintelligible to any human being on the planet—is a phenomenon entirely absent from (nay, contary to!) every narrative description of biblical tongues-speaking and entirely unnecessary for understanding the non-narrative passages. Only relatively recent Christian history and the vicissitudes of personal experience can explain the origins of this practice.
Whatever questions may remain open at this point, and there are some, they cannot be resolved by appeal to the biblical text. Two sources remain for our secondary consideration: The cultural environment in which the New Testament was written and the history that has transpired between the New Testament era and the present day. The consideration of these factors must be secondary, because scripture trumps all other sources. Nevertheless, for those matters left open after scripture has had its say, these secondary factors are worthy of our time. I will turn to them in my subsequent posts.