In this, the first in a series of posts articulating my understanding of the New Testament gift of tongues, I choose for myself a narrowly constructed 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. “Relevant non-narrative passages” because Alan Cross has rightfully insisted upon the primacy of non-narrative passages over narrative ones in the determination of doctrinal matters as a core principle of sound hermeneutics. I was thankful for Alan’s emphasis here, since this principle is an important and sometimes underemphasized one. In fact, I had considered several weeks back authoring a post on that very question as applied to some comments Dwight had made about egalitarianism and complementarianism with regard to the offices of pastor and deacon, but I digress. Suffice it for now to say that Alan is entirely right that primacy must be given to any non-narrative declarations in the New Testament on this subject. I do think that we’ll wind up back in the narrative passages after all is said and done, because we’re not going to find as clear of an answer in the non-narrative passages as we’ll find in the narrative ones, but this is a good starting place.
I’m limiting the post to the topic of “the essential nature of the gift of tongues” because that really is the central question here. With regard to the supernatural speaking of extant human languages by the aid of the Holy Spirit, I cannot tell that any of us disagree about the extent of the cessation of the biblical gift. If it happens at all—and it may—neither Dwight nor I have ever been in the presence of it. It may not have ceased entirely, but it has ceased entirely for my church, and for Dwight’s. As one regards spiritual gifts regularly distributed among believers throughout the body of Christ, the supernatural endowment by the Spirit with the ability to speak extant human languages is not among them. I explicitly clarified this in a Q&A with Dwight on the subject matter. He agrees that the ability to speak human languages in this way was a feature of the biblical phenomenon (although he does not believe that it exhausted the biblical phenomenon). He admits that he has never, with his own eyes and ears, witnessed this particular gift in operation.
And so, all we disagree about is the practice of believers uttering things that are not human language. He says that this practice is accomplished by the work of the Holy Spirit and is the biblical gift of tongues, or rather constitutes a part of it. I remain unconvinced on both points. Our central disagreement is over the nature of the gift of tongues. Were we to come to agreement on that question, by movement in either of our directions, we would automatically find ourselves in agreement on all of the others.
One final introductory item is in order before I turn to a verse-by-verse consideration of these biblical texts. I did, several years ago, coin the term a posteriori cessationism. An a priori cessationist is someone who, before examining any phenomenological evidence, knows that he is going to reject whatever he sees as unbiblical. He must do so, because he is convinced that the Bible teaches the cessation of revelatory gifts at the end of the apostolic age. On the other hand, the a priori continuationist, before examining any of the phenomenological evidence, knows that he is going to accept at least some of whatever he sees as biblical and legitimate. He must do so—he must find somewhere the valid gift—because he is convinced that the Bible teaches the unbroken continuation of the revelatory gifts. An a posteriori cessationist can be convinced in either direction by anyone who will help him to observe what God is doing.
I do not mean, by giving these descriptions, to denigrate a priori approaches. Friends, I’m happily a priori about the gospel, the inerrancy of scripture, and a whole host of other things. But when it comes to speaking in tongues, on this particular topic I favor an a posteriori approach. Why? Because I do not believe that the New Testament speaks conclusively one way or the other as to how long these gifts would persist (although I do think it gives us plenty of insight into the nature of the gift).
Some people call themselves “open, but cautious” with regard to things like speaking in tongues. A more pedestrian way to describe a posteriori cessationism would simply be “open, cautious, and still waiting.” By the term a posteriori cessationism, I really mean nothing more than that.
Mark 16:17 (All quotations NASB unless otherwise noted)
These signs will accompany those who have believed: in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues;
Someone will, perhaps, find it strange that I am citing the longer ending of Mark, since I could easily avoid it by taking refuge in the textual difficulties that accompany the passage. And yet I think this verse must be considered no matter what you might think about its canonical status or its relationship with the book as a whole. The fact remains that, even if the longer ending is a “later addition,” by “later” we can mean nothing any later than AD 160, when Justin Martyr mentioned Mark 16:20. That’s a voice from within a century of the deaths of Peter and Paul. So early a testimony to the church’s view of tongues would have to be valuable to us, especially to the question of the nature of speaking in tongues.
Does the phrase “new tongues” mean that the believers will speak in tongues that the world has never known, or merely that they are speaking in tongues that are new to them? The Greek language employs two different words for “new.” The word neos denotes chronological newness. The word kainos speaks instead of a qualitative newness. If this verse had employed neos then that would be a strong point for the case that speaking in tongues does not refer to human language—the clear statement would be that believers were speaking in tongues that were brand-new languages. As the verse presently stands, however, it means no more than that these believers would have a new experience of speaking a language that would be qualitatively different from what they had experienced before.
If we would want to know whether speaking in tongues in the Bible involved non-human language, this verse is not going to help us.
1 Corinthians 12-14
Other than the words of Jesus in Mark 16:17, the only other relevant non-narrative New Testament passage on the question of tongues-speaking is this three-chapter section in 1 Corinthians. Discerning everything that these chapters say about speaking in tongues is a large enough task for a book (as several authors have clearly demonstrated). As far as the limitations of this blog post go, our purpose is simply to see what these chapters tell us about the nature of the tongues-speaking phenomenon.
As a side note, if we will all be patient, the disagreement between we two brothers, Dwight and I, who know so well the region of Eastern Arkansas may be helped along by the forthcoming work of the former pastor of FBC Osceola, AR. Dr. Mark Taylor is the author of the yet-to-be-released 1 Corinthians volume in the excellent New American Commentary series. When his book comes out, perhaps we will revisit this conversation yet again.
Certainly Dr. Taylor’s work will be a welcome addition to a subject matter where there is room for further light to be shed. We must sympathize with Chrysostom (AD 347 – 407) who said: “This whole passage is very obscure; but the obscurity arises from our ignorance of the facts described, which, though familiar to those to whom the apostle wrote, have ceased to occur.” If anyone has mastered the passage, he has done so only after doing a yeoman’s work.
1 Corinthians 12:10
One key verse that sometimes appears as purported evidence for biblical glossolalia other than xenoglossy is 1 Corinthians 12:10,
and to another the effecting of miracles, and to another prophecy, and to another the distinguishing of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues.
In fact, among my interlocutors in this exchange, Dwight McKissic cited this verse in his earlier post, “Reflections and Ruminations on the SBC and Her Future: Part 1“
Where does the Bible say that tongues is “generally considered to be a legitimate language of some people group”? The Bible is clear in I Corinthians 12:7, 10 that the Holy Spirit gives to certain believers based on His sovereign will (I Corinthians 12:11) “different kinds of tongues” (I Corinthians 12:10d). Clearly among the “different kinds of tongues” that Paul referenced—all did not meet the IMB standard of being a “legitimate language of some people group,” based on Paul’s teaching on the subject.
The argument advanced relies heavily upon the use of the Greek word genos in 1 Corinthians 12:10. Paul could have simply said “new tongues” or “other tongues” as the phenomenon is called in other New Testament passages. Instead, so goes the argument, because he used genos to indicate a number of categories of tongues, each containing a number of tongues within the category, then these categories must be the “tongues of men and of angels” mentioned in 1 Corinthians 13:1. This misunderstanding, fortunately, is correctable solely by reference to the text of 1 Corinthians itself. 1 Corinthians 14:10 tells us:
There are, perhaps, a great many kinds of languages in the world, and no kind is without meaning.
Although the word for “language” here is phone rather than glossa, both the context of the passage and the meanings of the words make it clear that they are interchangeable in this passage (the word glossa emphasizing the transmission end of language and the word phone emphasizing the receiving end). The key word in the discussion, genos, is precisely the same both in 12:10 and 14:10. In 14:10 the text makes it explicitly clear that these are kinds of earthly languages—”languages in the world.” Also abundantly clear, by the way, is the fact that no language is without meaning. Meaning is what makes the difference between a language and mere sound.
Linguists categorize human languages into a number of categories, but one need not be a linguist to recognize this fact. We all know that there are Romance Languages (as well as the Language of Romance!). There are Cyrillic languages and Germanic languages. Mandarin and Cantonese are both in the Chinese category. Even in the ancient world they knew about dialects in language families. They knew that Hebrew, Aramaic, and the precursors of modern Arabic were a family of languages together. They probably did not refer to them as the Central Semitic language family, but certainly they knew that these languages were related to one another in a way that Latin and Greek were not.
Everyone classifies languages.
1 Corinthians 12:10, therefore, tells us nothing about the nature of the biblical gift of tongues—whether the gift of tongues is broad enough to include the utterances of languages not known to humankind is not a question resolved by this verse.
1 Corinthians 13:1
If ever there has existed a proponent of tongues-speaking as the utterance of other-than-human languages who did not cite 1 Corinthians 13:1 as evidence, I have not yet encountered him or her. This is the textus classicus for the viewpoint. Indeed, Dwight moved rapidly from 1 Corinthians 12:10 to 13:1
Paul said in I Corinthians 13:1, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels.” If Paul described one of the “different kinds of tongues” as “the tongues of men and of angels,” how can the IMB announce so boldly that glossolalia is considered to be a legitimate language of some people group when Paul refers to “different kinds of tongues” and “tongues of angels”?
What verse says that tongues are always a language that existed on earth? The Bible does not restrict or limit tongues to “a legitimate language of some people group.” Paul is very clear in recognizing human languages or angelic languages (I Corinthians 13:1). No one at the IMB could interpret or translate the Apostle Paul when he spoke with the “tongues of angels” (I Corinthians 13:1). Angelic language may sound like ecstatic utterance or gibberish if you are not an angel. Any language of any people group in the world can sound like gibberish or ecstatic utterance if you don’t know that language. Who knows the language of the angels?
By the way, as a side note, it is difficult for me to resist the temptation to point out that Dwight has herein declared the cessation of the gift of interpretation, asserting as he has that it would be utterly impossible that anyone at the IMB could interpret Paul’s speaking in tongues. 🙂
What does 1 Corinthians 13:1 say? We know this much: It is a conditional sentence (an “if…then” sentence), and the statement about “tongues of angels” appears in the protasis of the sentence (i.e., the “if” part). The assertive declaration of the sentence is found in the apodosis (the “then” part). This sentence, like all conditional sentences, asserts absolutely nothing about the reality of the protasis. The protasis is merely a statement that the author wants you to assume for a moment for the sake of argument. He might want you to assume for a moment that the protasis is true (first-class conditional sentences in Greek), or he may want you to assume for a moment that the protasis is false (second-class conditional sentences in Greek), but after the moment is up, he expects you to quit assuming anything about the protasis whatsoever.
1 Corinthians 13:1 does not assert, does not hint, does not float a trial balloon, does not suggest in any way that anyone ever spoke in the tongue of an angel. Rather, it simply states that, should anyone ever manage such a feat, it still would be a meaningless non-accomplishment apart from love. And I agree 100% with that.
We know and all agree (I’m sure) that this is the right way to handle the protasis of the next sentence in 1 Corinthians 13:2. No one but God knows or has ever known all mysteries. No one but God has or has ever had all knowledge. And although I accept as an article of the faith that the mere faith of a mustard seed is sufficient to do it, we know that no Christian has ever actually plucked up a mountain and tossed it into the sea. It is not from the text of scripture itself that we know these things. We know them from history, and yes, from an argument from silence. We simply have no record that anyone ever tossed Mt. Rainier into Puget Sound by faith. Scripture is silent on the subject. But we find that to be sufficient, somehow. All we know from scripture is that these verses do not actually teach that any of these things has happened. Why? Because these phrases are in the protases of conditional sentences rather than in their apodoses. Grammatically they differ not at all from the assertion about “tongues of angels.” In such a case (i.e., tossed mountains, human omniscience), we naturally take this “argument from silence” to be quite sufficient. I cannot see any reason, other than prejudice toward the outcome, to treat verse 1 differently from verse 2. Certainly there is no grammatical nor syntactical reason—no feature of the language—that supports any different treatment of them.
And for those of you whose eyes, perhaps, glazed over a bit at this descent into protases and apodoses, let me make this simple: describing the nature of speaking in tongues simply isn’t the point of 1 Corinthians 13:1. The point is the primacy of love. If we would proof-text our way through this argument by pressing sentences into service beyond their natural authorial intention, I could just cite Revelation 7:9 and point out to you that EVERY TONGUE (glossa) is represented naturally among nations, tribes, and peoples. The verse does, after all, clearly say just that. But I think we all can recognize, or should, that the sentence at Revelation 7:9 is not actually making any point whatsoever about the nature of speaking in tongues, any more or less than is 1 Corinthians 13:1.
Be fair about it. Treat 1 Corinthians 13:1 just like you treat the very next sentence. Don’t press the Apostle beyond what he’s really saying here. Or at least, if you will treat 1 Corinthians 13:1 as something entirely different from its sister sentence, give some good linguistic reason why I should do so, too. It is perhaps instructive that when Pastor McKissic engages in the appeal to authority in the exegesis of this passage, he invokes the late missiology professor Jack Gray, and denominational executive Jimmy Draper. What would be helpful would be the citation of someone with a Ph.D. in Greek or New Testament and a C.V. to boot who would make a language-based argument for why verse 1 should be treated entirely differently than the way we all—every last one of us—treat verse 2.
1 Corinthians 13:1 tells us only this about the nature of biblical speaking in tongues: It is of no value apart from love.
1 Corinthians 14:2
Does 1 Corinthians 14:2 tell us that the purpose of speaking in tongues is to speak privately to God in prayer? Here’s how the sentence reads:
For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God; for no one understands, but in his spirit he speaks mysteries.
Both occurrences of the English word “for” in this translation are renderings of the Greek postpositive particle gar. These words are the most important words for understanding the syntax of this sentence. If you’re a bit fuzzy on gar today, the BDAG is your friend. It tells us that this word expresses cause, clarification, or inference. It can be repeated, as it is in the sentence, for several reasons. Among those is for the second clause to confirm and clarify the first. That is the case in this sentence.
The first gar clause serves to explain why the gift of tongues is inferior: The one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men. Now, we can all agree that this is true. Unless there just happens to be someone else in the congregation who speaks the same language (whether through human study or through the gift of interpretation…and I’m presuming here that my brothers would concur that, whatever is the nature of the gift of tongues, the gift of interpretation applies to it), apart from their presence the tongues will not speak anything to any man. It is a mistake to take “speak” here to mean “intend to deliver a message finally unto.” The verb laleo concerns not the intended recipient of the final message, but just who it is who can discern the sounds.
I think Dwight chooses to construe 1 Corinthians 14:2 to mean something along the lines of “For one who speaks in a tongue intends not to communicate anything to men but to God,” or even “For one who speaks in a tongue is addressing himself not to men but to God.” But there are other verbs in Greek to convey the concept of addressing oneself to someone. Dwight’s chosen construal of the verse is not driven by the text itself. The meaning of this phrase is not to speak to the tongue-speaker’s intent or to the purpose of his gift. Rather, the succeeding gar clause expresses clarification of what Paul meant when he said that this person speaks to God rather than men:
…for no one understands…
Quite simply, this is what it means that he is not speaking to men—nobody understands him. Now, does this mean that nobody in the world could possible have understood him, or does it simply mean that the members of the Corinthian church were Greek-speakers and Latin-speakers, with a few Aramaic speakers thrown in to boot, and that miraculous tongues-speaking, drawing from the vast panoply of human language, regularly (or nearly exclusively) featured languages unknown to anyone in the congregation? I see no reason why the latter cause would be out of bounds. Especially since, once again, the point of this verse is to explain what it is about the gift of tongues that makes it inferior to the gift of prophecy.
And, in fact, just a few verses down we get a clarification about exactly what Paul means. The entire paragraph from verses 6 to 12 is nothing but an explanation of how it is that nobody understands what he is saying. In no place is it more explicit than it is in verse 11
If then I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be to the one who speaks a barbarian, and the one who speaks will be a barbarian to me.
Would speaking in tongues have to be private prayer language in some angelic language for this to be true? Not at all. Paul explicitly is talking about the “many languages in the world” here. Everything in this passage is equally true whether you take my view or Dwight’s view of the nature of the gift of tongues.
OK, back to verse 2. The final clause of this sentence reads:
…but in his spirit he speaks mysteries.
In his recent blog post Pastor McKissic made much of the idea that the word “mysteries” in that verse is incompatible with my view that this paradigmatic tongues-speaker could be speaking in a human language:
The word “mystery” in the original language means “a hidden or secret thing not obvious to the understanding.” The meaning of the word mystery here contradicts the “legitimate language of some people group” based on which the IMB policy is founded. Paul said “…in the spirit he speaks mysteries.” Paul referred to tongues here as a spiritual language—not a human language—as the IMB and Barber asserts.
Well, that’s just not a sound understanding of the word musterion as employed in the New Testament. The word, after all, had a long and healthy life before Agatha Christie ever got ahold of it. The article on this word in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT) is lengthy. Very lengthy. The “mystery religions” were the most ubiquitous religious rites in the Greek world. The best way for you to understand something like the Eleusinian Mysteries is to think of the Masonic Lodge. The Masonic Lodge has secret rituals that people can only learn by being inducted into the membership of the lodge. The Eleusinian Mysteries had secret rituals that people could only learn by being inducted into the membership. Those were the “mysteries.” Those were the “secrets.” They weren’t difficult to understand; they were just withheld from the uninitiated. Excerpts from the article:
Mysteries are cultic rites in which the destinies of a god are portrayed by sacred actions before a circle of devotees in such a way as to give them a part in the fate of the god.
Integral to the concept of the mysteries is the fact that those who wish to take part in their celebration must undergo initiation; the uninitiated are denied both access to the sacred actions and knowledge of them.
By entrance qualification and dedication the candidate is separated from the host of the uninitiated and enters into the fellowship of initiates who know each other by confessional formulae or symbolical signs.
All mysteries promise their devotees salvation by the dispensing of cosmic life.
In all the mysteries the distinction between initiates and non-initiates finds expression not only in the ritual of the celebrations but also in the vow of silence laid on devotees. This is essential to all the mysteries, and is a feature implicit in the etymology.
The secular use is obviously a later phase in the development of the term. Its history moves from the cultic and religious to the general and profane, not vice versa. The fact that examples of secular use are on the whole rare, and are repeatedly shown by the context to be figurative, demonstrates that the term was never wholly secularised. The religious use maintained its dominance.
So, in the New Testament period a “mystery” is a secret initiatory rite that brings salvation to the person who undergoes it. For Christians, the “mystery” is the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus hid it in parables as a mystery (Mark 4:11, e.g.), not because He used inscrutable language, but because Jesus’ teachings were truly the secret by which the initiated were able to unite with the fate of their Divine Lord and experience salvation. Like Jesus, Paul used the word in precisely this way.
In the Pauline corpus the term musterion is firmly connected with the kerygma (Bart: “preached message”) of Christ.…Christ is the musterion of God
The section 1 C. 2:6–16, which receives its theme from the phrase quoted from 2:7, arouses at first the impression that Paul is presenting a mystery teaching which is designed only for the mature and which must be kept from the immature. This is how he actually begins in 2:6, in clear polemical dependence on the Corinthian Gnostics, whose terminology may be seen plainly throughout the section. In fact, however, Paul never abandons the logos tou staurou (Bart: “word of the cross”) which has been proclaimed to the whole community. Indeed, he is resisting the ecstatic demand of Corinthian mystery gnosis for a sophia (Bart: “wisdom”) which will go beyond the message of the cross, and pointing to the wisdom of God which in this message is concealed from the world and its rulers, but revealed to those endowed with the Spirit of God. The addition en musterion (Bart: “in a mystery”) in 2:7 characterises, not the nature of the mysterious instruction of 2:6, but the sophia (Bart: “wisdom”) of God, which for its part is the divine will to save fulfilled in the crucifixion of Christ (1:24).
It is, of course, equally possible to combine en musterion (Bart: “in a mystery”) with laloumen (Bart: “to speak”); the phrase would then refer to the form of the instruction which is reserved for the teleioi (Bart: “mature ones”) and as yet inaccessible to the nepioi (Bart: “little children,” especially with the implication of those who lack power and understanding). But it should be noted that in this case 2:6f. is a purely formal and polemical accommodation to Corinthian gnosis, and that for Paul the antithesis which arises with ref. to the wisdom of God is not that between mature and immature Christians, as it was for his Corinthian adversaries, but a radical and absolute antithesis between the rulers and ourselves, the spirit of the world and the Spirit of God, human wisdom and spiritual wisdom, the psuchikoi (Bart: “fleshly ones”) and the pneumatikoi (Bart: “spiritual ones”). Materially, then, 2:6–16 remains within the sphere of the logos tou staurou (Bart: “word of the cross”). It is thus misleading to seek in this section thoughts which are not included in the kerugma (Bart: “preached message”) itself.
The TDNT isn’t afraid to take the high dive into the deep end, and I know that our readership extends far beyond those who have studied Greek. Nevertheless, I hope you have understood the emphasis in this article on the close connection in 1 Corinthians between the word “mystery” and the message of the cross. Nearly two millennia have passed since the book of First Corinthians was written. “Mystery” is among the more difficult words in the New Testament for us to read and comprehend precisely because the word is still in popular use in English today, yet the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear “mystery” is nowhere close to the first thing that came to the mind of Paul or Corinthian Christians when they heard the word “mystery.” My point in delving so deeply and at such length in this article (beyond my innate tendency to do things like that) is that not only in the Greek language, not only in the New Testament, not only in the writings of Paul, but in the very book of First Corinthians, the word “mystery” is used precisely to refer to the gospel of Christ articulated to bring former nonbelievers into initiation into the community of salvation.
This is quite relevant for our conversation not because Paul’s use of the word “mystery” proves that speaking in tongues was the miraculous ability to speak in human languages not known to the speaker, but because it doesn’t prove anything at all about the nature of the gift of tongues—the matter over which we are kindly disputing. The word musterion as it appeared in Greek culture, was understood by the Apostle Paul, and functioned in 1 Corinthians itself, was not a statement about the delivery method of the content, but was instead a description of the content itself. In other words, if the believers in question had uttered what they were uttering in Greek or Hebrew (or, for us, in English), the content would still have been a “mystery.” We’re being told not what language they were speaking but what things they were saying.
“Yes, Bart,” you say, “but it says that this person is speaking mysteries ‘in the Spirit.’ Doesn’t this mean that there’s something supernatural going on here?”
Absolutely, there is. The ability to speak other human languages apart from studying them is as miraculous as (MORE miraculous THAN, I would say) the ability to speak in a “private prayer language.” So nobody here is disputing the power of the Holy Spirit or the miraculous nature of what is going on in the Corinthian church. Also, it is important to keep up with what Paul is saying in this very discussion of tongues—that it is a miraculous spiritual work for anyone to speak the “mystery” of the gospel even in HIS OWN language:
…no one can say “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.
In 1 Corinthians 12-14, the miraculous musterion wrought by the Holy Spirit IS the gospel confession. Speaking in tongues is something more than that, but speaking mysteries to God in the Spirit is simply the declaration of the glorious gospel of the cross.
So, how to understand 1 Corinthians 14:1-2? Here’s my attempt at a translation that sets aside the misunderstandings and makes the message clear. Let’s expand the ABWTSV translation we considered last week (certainly not because any “popular demand” has arisen to go ANY further with that project!):
Chase love down unrelentingly, through the swamps and sloughs and briar patches and cane thickets, until you catch it, but be people who think the spiritual gifts are the best thing since sliced bread and who really want to have them—most of all that you might prophesy instead of speaking in tongues. After all, when someone is speaking in tongues, he is not successfully communicating to men, but God only knows what he is saying, because nobody can understand him. But we believers, even if we can’t pick out the words, we know that by means of the Spirit he is speaking the gospel mysteries.
1 Corinthians 14:4
One who speaks in a tongue edifies himself; but one who prophesies edifies the church.
Here is a verse that proponents of “private prayer language” will sometimes use to address the question of what purpose could possibly be served by such a spiritual gift. Praying in such a language, so goes the theory, is a good thing because doing it builds you up. This is a problematic interpretation for a number of reasons:
First, the effect of this theory is the exact opposite of the major point of 1 Corinthians 12-14. If this is true, then speaking in tongues really is a means to personal spiritual superiority. Everyone has a chance to mature by means of the gift of prophecy, and indeed, through all of the other spiritual gifts. Those who possess the gift of tongues, however, have an extra means of building themselves up to spiritual maturity that is privately beneficial to themselves alone. This is the advantage that sets their spiritual growth apart from all of the rest. It is no mistake that such sentiments of spiritual superiority have appeared in such close proximity to this approach to tongues-speaking—it is an inescapable consequence of approaching this verse in this manner.
Second, this approach fails to comprehend the statements in 1 Corinthians 12 about the purpose of spiritual gifts—”for the common good.” (12:7) The theory of private prayer language approaches spiritual gifts as though this “for the common good” approach pertains only to corporate worship. Corporate worship services should only contain items for the common good, so we are told, and therefore tongues belong not in corporate worship (where items for the common good belong), but instead ought to be relegated to private prayer.
The problem with this approach is that the Bible ties “the common good” not to the venue of the corporate worship service, but to God’s very act of giving the spiritual gifts in the first place. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about the corporate worship experience or the privacy of one’s prayer closet—if we’re talking about a spiritual gift at all, then we’re talking about something that must edify the church in order to be valuable.
Third, this approach misses the immediate context of 1 Corinthians 14:1-19, which exists entirely to depict and delineate the inferiorities of the gift of tongues. And by the way, as a brief excursus, it is noteworthy that the gift of tongues is the only gift in the New Testament about which so many negative things are declared by scripture. Please take note, the Bible does not limit itself to decrying the abuses of the gift; it speaks explicitly of the relative inferiority of the gift in and of itself, however it may be used. 1 Corinthians 14 is the chapter most dedicated to this task of devaluing the gift of tongues in comparison to the other spiritual gifts.
Explicitly, pointedly, this concept of self-edificaiton is not an explanation of the purpose of tongues; rather, it is the most prominent vulnerability of the gift of tongues to failure. That is, the gift of tongues is the one gift that, in order to succeed, must have a partner gift: interpretation. Apart from that sister gift, the gift of tongues falls short. Of course, the passage is careful to explain that the gift of tongues suffers these weaknesses only when deprived of the gift of interpretation: “greater is one who prophesies than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may receive edifying.” (emphasis mine) With interpretation, the gift of tongues is just as valuable as any of the other gifts. Without interpretation, the value of the gift is lost, since spiritual gifts derive their value from their contribution to “the common good.”
Again, all of this is true whether we’re talking about someone who is speaking Uzbek in Memphis or about someone exercising some sort of an angelic language. None of this has given us any help in resolving the question of what is the essential nature of the gift of tongues.
1 Corinthians 14:13-17
13 Therefore let one who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret.
14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful.
15 What is the outcome then? I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also; I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also.
16 Otherwise if you bless in the spirit only, how will the one who fills the place of the ungifted say the “Amen” at your giving of thanks, since he does not know what you are saying?
17 For you are giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not edified.
A few things are worthy of note in this passage. First, this is the first time that prayer has been mentioned in connection with speaking in tongues, and here the reference is clearly to public prayers offered aloud during the corporate worship of the church. This much is obvious, since Paul was worried about how people would know when to say “Amen.” Of the words and concepts in the term “private prayer language,” after all of this time we’ve seen “language” over and over, but only this mention of “prayer” and nary a word of “privacy” yet. I dare to think that this tells us at least something of the nature of the gift—if the primary nature of the gift of tongues is as a “private prayer language,” then it is remarkable indeed that discussions of the gift in the Bible so rarely associate it with prayer and only suggest privacy as a last resort (more on that in the final passage).
But here, in this passage alone, the gift is associated with the word “pray.” To have such a passage is not that remarkable, since the act of speaking itself is associated with prayer. Since speaking in tongues is, in fact, speaking, whatever one can do by speaking one can do by speaking in tongues, including the offering of prayers.
Why is the “mind unfruitful” when prayer is conducted by means of the gift of tongues? Although this verse does not resolve the difference in opinion between Dwight and myself, it does tell us something helpful about the nature of the gift of tongues. I have known of people who would remove the miraculous nature from the gift of tongues. Such people teach that the gift of tongues is mere facility with human languages acquired by the natural means of language study. For example, I have native use of the English language, functional enough use of the French language to argue at length with Senegalese street vendors and cabbies over their prices, adequate use of Hebrew and Greek for biblical studies, and sufficient knowledge of the German language to despise it appropriately. I learn languages more easily than most people do. Some would say that this natural facility with languages amounts to the gift of tongues. Such people are wrong.
With regard to all of the spiritual gifts, we must differentiate between spiritual gifts and natural talent. Spiritual gifts are the manifestation of the spirit. When a spiritual gift is in operation, the Holy Spirit is working supernaturally through a Christian believer.
In the course of writing this first installment, I’ve spent a lot of time with my Greek New Testament. My mind has been fruitful as a part of this process—so fruitful that I’ve had to take many breaks to give it a rest. So fruitful that this is already around the 6,400th word that you have read in this post. But in the exercise of the spiritual gift of tongues, the mind is unfruitful. If you were to hear someone who was speaking in tongues, you would not be hearing the fruit (the product) of his mind. The spirit is fruitful, but the mind is not.
This is not true of all of the spiritual gifts. Indeed, it appears that this state of affairs is ONLY true with regard to the gift of tongues. In every other spiritual gift both the spirit and the mind are involved (that is, the mind of the prophet comprehends what the prophet has uttered in prophecy). Even with regard to the gift of tongues, it can engage the mind if it is paired with the gift of interpretation (or, I would say, if it just so happens that someone in the congregation speaks that language naturally).
There are two relevant questions that arise out of this verse. The first is this: If the spirit is engaged while the mind is unfruitful, does this require that we regard speaking in tongues as “private prayer language” rather than the miraculous speaking of human languages? Not at all. If I were to begin to speak Ndebele, my mind would not have a thing to contribute to that process.
The second question is this: Is 1 Corinthians 14 advancing prayer with a disengaged mind as a good thing that Christians ought to pursue? The Apostle’s response was “I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also. I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also.” This response deserves our attention. The spirit/mind contrast does not resolve our differences, because it can be understood in one of two different ways. Dwight, perhaps, will interpret it along the lines of “On some occasions I will pray with the spirit, and on other occasions I will pray with the mind.” I would take it to be saying, “Rather than praying with the spirit alone, I will pray with both the spirit and the mind.”
But the other interesting part of this sentence is how quickly Paul moved from prayer to singing. Again, this strengthens the idea that there is no particular association between speaking in tongues and prayer that does not equally apply to singing and other forms of discourse. An emphasis upon “praying in tongues” or tongues as “private prayer language” as the essential nature of the gift is not a biblical emphasis. The Bible tells us about SPEAKING in tongues, which may express itself in prayer, singing, discourse, public praise, etc. It INCLUDES prayer, but nowhere does the Bible restrict the purpose of this gift to prayer alone.
1 Corinthians 14:20-25
20 Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; yet in evil be infants, but in your thinking be mature.
21 In the Law it is written, “By men of strange tongues and by the lips of strangers I will speak to this people, and even so they will not listen to Me,” says the Lord.
22 So then tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers; but prophecy is for a sign, not to unbelievers but to those who believe.
23 Therefore if the whole church assembles together and all speak in tongues, and ungifted men or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad?
24 But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an ungifted man enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all;
25 the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you.
This is a key passage, because in it the Apostle Paul undertakes the task of declaring to us the purpose of the gift of tongues and then contrasting that purpose with the purpose of the gift of prophecy (all of this as the next point in Paul’s overall effort to demonstrate the inferiority of tongues). Inerrant scripture tells us that the nature of the gift of tongues is as a fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah 28:9-13. This expands our corpus a little bit. If we will understand this relevant non-narrative New Testament passage, we now must consider an additional passage from the Old Testament. Now we know that Isaiah 28:9-13 is a passage about the gift of tongues, too.
9 “To whom would He teach knowledge,
And to whom would He interpret the message?
Those just weaned from milk?
Those just taken from the breast?
10 “For He says,
‘Order on order, order on order,
Line on line, line on line,
A little here, a little there.’ ”
11 Indeed, He will speak to this people
Through stammering lips and a foreign tongue,
12 He who said to them, “Here is rest, give rest to the weary,”
And, “Here is repose,” but they would not listen.
13 So the word of the Lord to them will be,
“Order on order, order on order,
Line on line, line on line,
A little here, a little there,”
That they may go and stumble backward, be broken, snared and taken captive.
Understanding the relationship between Isaiah 28 and 1 Corinthians 14 is both critically important and too often ignored or done very poorly. Chapter 28 proclaims a condemnation upon “the proud crown of the drunkards of Ephraim,” including “the priest and prophet [who]
reel with strong drink, they are confused by wine, they stagger from strong drink; they reel while having visions, they totter when rendering judgment. For all of the tables are full of filthy vomit, without a single clean place.
The “he” in verse 9 is speaking of a representative of these prophets and priests. They are fit to teach no one but a baby. Isaiah mocks the kind of teaching that comes from this sort of “teacher” by giving a stammering and nonsensical monologue to represent the sort of thing that they would say. In Hebrew, the text sounds like this (please note, the Hebrew pronunciation that I learned is more influenced by the Sephardic than the Ashkenazic tradition, I think):
Tsav-latsav, Tsav-latsav, Qav-laqav, Qav-laqav, Tsuh-ehr-sham, Tsuh-ehr-sham.
That’s hardly Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity. It’s a repetitive, stammering, nonsensical utterance of the sort that a drunkard could manage while he could hardly manage to stand upright. Isaiah is mocking them. Rather than giving people the Word of the Lord, as they ought to be teaching, they are giving them this gibberish. Isaiah delights in ridiculing them.
But then things take a darker turn in Isaiah 28. God declares that He is going to send a real Word of the Lord to them, and it is going to sound just like the stammering of these drunken priests. But this time, it will come from “stammering lips and a foreign tongue,” as the Assyrians (speaking their own foreign language) come barking inscrutable instructions (perhaps ordering their vanquished subjects to order up into lines to march away from their burning homes?) that amount to God’s judgment upon those who, given the chance to rest in God’s provision for them, refused to listen and believe.
So, what can we deduce from Isaiah 28 that might help us to move forward?
Well, first of all, we can point out that Isaiah 28 is clearly talking about foreign human languages. There is no indication here of anything beyond the realm of human language. Second, we clearly observe that nothing private could ever fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah 28. God declared his intention to use the sound of these foreign tongues to say something to the world. Third, we note that God’s strategic intent was to use these tongues as a harbinger of destruction upon those who overheard it.
My view of the gift of tongues fulfills all of these requirements: (1) It involves foreign human languages, (2) it makes a public announcement on behalf of the Holy Spirit, (3) it declares the musterion of the gospel which is, all at the same time, the secret word of salvation to the insiders and the secret word of condemnation and destruction to those who refuse to listen and to believe. This works well with the episodes in Acts, where speaking in tongues declared the glories of God in a miraculous sign accompanied by the proclamation of the gospel to a people, most of whom, because they refused to believe, were condemned and are in Hell today because of their rejection of the message. This connection is all the more clearly revealed when we take into account the accusation in Acts 2 that the tongues-speaking apostles were drunk (like the priests of Isaiah 28).
Back to 1 Corinthians 14:20-25
How does this apply within the context of 1 Corinthians 14? We’ve already seen that this is a chapter dedicated to the demonstration that the gift of tongues without interpretation is an inferior spiritual gift. In these verses we learn that our sovereign God does indeed accomplish some limited purpose when people speak in tongues without interpretation—lost people get to hear something that, unbeknownst to them, fulfills a prophecy of God’s judgment and marks their progress toward Hell. Paul, however, aspires to a higher purpose for the Corinthian church, who through interpreted tongues or the other spiritual gifts can give people an opportunity to be believers and to begin their journey toward Heaven.
Here I think we actually do have some evidence that the nature of the gift of tongues involves human languages. I admit, however, that this is nowhere near conclusive evidence. It’s just stronger evidence than the meager stuff that we’ve seen so far.
1 Corinthians 14:28
but if there is no interpreter, he must keep silent in the church; and let him speak to himself and to God.
Does 1 Corinthians 14:28 promote “private prayer language” as a good thing, since it instructs a person with this gift to “speak…to God?”
I think it is important to ask in this context what it means for the person to “speak to himself.” Certainly it is not prayer for a man to “speak to himself.” I wouldn’t have a problem categorizing the “let him speak…to God” part as prayer, but the most important thing to note is that this person is talking to himself in the service and praying in the service not because this is the purpose of this spiritual gift, but because he doesn’t have any other options open to him in the absence of an interpreter. It is one thing to believe that there was a gift of tongues generally (or at least often) accompanied by a gift of interpretation and used then to communicate something to others, but that on occasion, when the interpreter was unavailable, the person with that gift would have to resort to the private use of the gift. It is an altogether different thing to assert that the initial purpose of the gift of tongues is for private use in prayer without any use for the gift of interpretation.
The cessation of the former way of working (or, at the very least, the near cessation of it) is undeniable. Where is the gift of interpretation? Why don’t we have Southern Baptists hard at work fighting to defend the continuation of the gift of interpretation as an ongoing practice among the churches? Seriously, how many blog posts have been written by continuationists over the course of the past seven years along those lines? I’d love to see the stats, and they’d be paltry in comparison. It’s all about tongues. But in the heat of the moment, I digress a bit.
This verse does not promote private prayer language as a “good thing.” It permits it as the only alternative available to the tongues-speaker who lacks an interpreter. Also, it tells us nothing about whether this speaking in tongues is speaking in another human language or is some other non-human language.
1 Corinthians 14:39
and do not forbid to speak in tongues.
Our difference is over what it means “to speak in tongues.” I agree that, whatever it is, we absolutely should not forbid anyone to do it. It is the work of the Holy Spirit.
The non-narrative passages of the New Testament do not offer sufficient evidence for any of us to draw any firm conclusions about the essential nature of the gift of tongues. The key section in 1 Corinthians 12-14 has a single verse that mentions the “tongues of angels” in the protasis of a conditional sentence that appears in a sequence of other contrary-to-reality protases of conditional sentences. The entirety of the New Testament witness on the subject of tongues is compatible with the view that the gift of tongues is the speaking of other human languages by those who cannot speak those languages by natural means.
Of course, as things still stand, we have only a little bit of evidence against the view that the gift of tongues is the utterance of non-human angelic languages. Certainly we are not ready to draw conclusions. Before we can do that, we must consider the narrative passages of the New Testament. We have done well to consider these non-narrative passages first, but we have received from them not much in the way of prescriptive information that will limit what we will find in the narrative passages.