The Essential Nature of Speaking in Tongues

{Editoral Note: This last and final response to Tony’s post on Cessationism has taken a while to get out given that he published it in the end of March.  I intended on responding sooner, but with planning a wedding, getting married, and getting established in our new home in Chicago, I have not had the time necessary to dedicate to getting out something worth posting.  I also decided to put a little bit more effort into this post since a number of people have asked me to lay out a more  in-depth overview of a generally Charismatic approach to tongues.  So a response to Ross Jr.’s post is no longer the main intention of this being written. However, it was the the launching pad of the discussion so I have added it as a final reference to our dialogue.  I want to thank him for his willingness to go back and forth with us and he is free to respond, but this will be our last entry in this series.}

At the end of Tony Lee Ross Jr.’s post he asked a number of questions of Continuationists that pertain to the content of his article. This post is a response to his second and third questions, which are presented and answered in their published order.

2.) What is the purpose of tongues today, if as Paul said, they are a sign for unbelievers?

In my previous response, I addressed what Paul meant by tongues “as a sign for unbelievers” so I will simply refer to it here – Tongues – A Sign of Judgement: A Response to Tony L. Ross Jr. Regarding Tongues in 1 Cor. 14.  In short, when Paul makes that statement, he is not describing the normative nature of tongues, nor its divinely designed purpose.  The passage is merely laying out what the result of tongues without interpretation is to the perception of an unbeliever in the church assembly.

However I will lay out what the Bible does describe as the purpose of tongues. First of all, it is a common error among Cessationists to interpret all accounts of the gift of tongues through the events of Pentecost in Acts 2, in which tongues was clearly understood by the Jewish observers as human languages/dialects. This is a grievous error, because instead of taking all of the accounts of tongues in to account and then forming a theology of the nature of the gift, Cessationists force the well-rounded peg of the full Scriptural witness through the square hole of one passage.  The Pentecostal interpretation, on the other hand, takes all of the passages into account first, and then puts together a holistic theology of tongues.  So first I will make a number of observations from all the passages on tongues and then will pull together a number of conclusions that can be drawn for a whole-picture view of the Scriptural witness.

Acts 2

It is almost universally recognized that the tongues in this chapter were understood as human languages.  However the entire passage is merely a description of what happened and Luke does not, in any way, seek to explicitly or implicitly lay out a definition of the gift of tongues.  It is simply not his focus.  These are the concrete deductions that can be made from this passage:

  • The tongues were existing human languages that the speakers had not previously learned, or at least mastered (Acts 2:6-11).
  • The tongues served as a evangelistic sign to the yet-unconverted Jews. (However, it was actually Peter’s preaching that lead to their final conversion (Acts 2:14-41).

Acts 10:44-48

In Acts 10, Peter is accompanied by a few Jewish Christians to visit Cornelius (a Roman Centurion from the Italian Cohort and a Gentile) and his household.  When they get there, Peter preaches the Gospel to the Gentile audience and all at once Cornelius, his household, and all of his guests are regenerated by the Holy Spirit falling on them and they begin to speak in tongues and extol God.  Now, the interesting thing is that everyone is now a Christian in the room because everyone Peter brought were believers and all the unbelievers just got converted.  Additionally, everyone spoke the same language since they all had faith in response to Peter’s preaching and they were all from the same region (Cornelius and his household were well known in the area among the Jews and would have spoken the language of the locals even though they were not Jewish, and most Jews would have spoken Greek or Latin if the Romans didn’t know Aramaic).  So there was no need for the tongues in the audience at hand nor was there any indication of a gift of interpretation.  So here are the observations.

  • Unlike Acts 2 the tongues are not used evangelistically since everyone was a Christian at that point (10:44).
  • They would not have understood the tongues spoken since they already could speak each other’s languages. (NOTE: this does not necessarily speak to the nature of tongues, it merely opens the door to other interpretations than just human languages).
  • There is no indication that any gift of interpretation was utilized nor is there any indication that the Jewish believers understood what was being spoken.

Acts 19:1-7

In this passage, Paul basically preaches the Gospel to 12 Ephesians who were disciples of John at some point and they all end up converting.  Once Paul baptizes them, he lays hands on them and they all begin to speak in tongues and prophecy. The same observations of Acts 10 are present in Acts 19.

  • Tongues is not used evangelistically in Acts 19 either.  In fact, tongues in both 10 and 19 are simply a worshipful result of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
  • Everyone spoke the same language since Paul was able to successfully preach to the Gospel to them and have a conversation about their level of discipleship, so there was no communicational need for the tongues.
  • The tongues must have been different than the tongues that they all understood.
  • There is no indication of a gift of interpretation present in the scenario either.

1 Corinthians 12

The only passages relevant to the discussion in this chapter state the fact that the gift is not universally given to all believers (thus ruling out the Classical Pentecostal doctrine of initial evidence) (12:30).

Additionally, 12:10 informs us that the Spirit gives various kinds of tongues and the gift of interpretation of tongues to different people.  Not much can be asserted about the gifts just based on this list but I think it is important to note that both the tongues and the interpretation are flowing from the Spirit.  This is significant because if tongues was simply human languages, you wouldn’t necessarily need someone with the the gift of interpretation to interpret.  You would simply need to find someone who spoke that language.  This would not always be a solution, but in major cities such as Corinth this would be a definite possibility.

1 Corinthians 13

In this chapter, Paul states that the tongue-speaker, whether he speaks in a tongue of men or of angels, is nothing unless he/she has love (13:1).  Additionally, Paul states that tongues will pass away when the perfect/complete arrives (13:8-9).

Not much can be conclusively deduced about the nature of tongues from these two verses, however there are somethings worth noting:

  • Paul mentions both the tongues of men and the tongues of angels.  This provides one possible explanation of the nature of tongues, vis-a-vis tongues, at least in one mode, can be the language of angels.  It is possible that Paul is speaking hyperbolically here and does not intend it to be understood as the language of angels. However, there is some historical precedence for interpreting tongues as angelic speech, since the Jews already believed that angels had their own language and that the Spirit of God could cause someone to speak it (Fee 200-201).  A Pentecostal understanding of the gift of tongues does not hinge on whether or not tongues is the tongue of angels however.
  • For a number of reasons the cessation of tongues in 13:8-9 can only refer to Christ’s final return and not the completion of the canon or the apostolic age.  Paul says it will happen when we “see face to face” and that “we will know even as we are fully known” (13:12).  Which could only take place at Christ’s return when he restores all things.

1 Corinthians 14

Almost this entire chapter addresses the subject of tongues so I won’t go verse by verse through it, I will highlight the general characteristics of the gift of tongues that we can see in the passage.

  • When one speaks in a tongue he/she “speak not to men but to God” (1 Cor. 14:2) This is a major hole  in the argument for tongues merely referring to human languages. The object of the speech is not actually directed towards men, but to God. Therefore it can properly be understood as praying in tongues.
  • Additionally it states that “no one understands him, for he utters mysteries in (or by) the Spirit”(14:2). This shows that at least the tongues Paul is speaking about is not understood by anyone unless it is accompanied by interpretation.  This does not rule out that sometimes tongues is manifested in a mode that is understood in someone’s birth language, such as in Acts 2.  But it does show that tongues exists in one mode or way, in which is not naturally understood by anyone.
  • Tongues builds up/edifies the person who is speaking/praying in tongues (14:4). – Since it is mysteries that are being uttered an explanation of how this exactly happens may be outside the realm of what we can objectively conclude.
  • The use of tongues in the congregation should only be for the upbuilding of the body (14:5-6, 12, 26).
  • Tongues is only valuable to others if it is understood (14:6).
  • Someone who speaks in a tongue can also be the person who interprets the tongue, but only if God gives them the power to do that (14:13).
  • When a person prays in tongues they are praying with their spirit (14:14), yet still by the Holy Spirit (14:2, 12:10-11).
  • When praying in tongues, the mind is unfruitful (or inactive) (14:14).
  • Paul prays with his spirit, and with his mind – or in tongues and with known languages (14:15).  Since Paul does both, it is clear that praying in tongues with the mind unfruitful is not sinful and is actually apart of Paul’s spirituality.
  • Paul sings in tongues as well (14:15).  So clearly tongues can take the form of a song, which possibly could be one manifestation of what it means to sing “spiritual songs” in Col. 3:16 and Eph. 5:19.
  • Speaking/singing in tongues can be viewed as acceptable thanksgiving to God.  But only if it is not done in the congregation, unless it is interpreted (14:16-17).
  • Paul spoke in tongues frequently, but never in the congregation unless it was interpreted (14:18-19).  This further solidifies the idea that tongues can be uses as a “private prayer language” if you will.
  • For tongues as a sign to unbelievers in 1 Cor. 14:20-25 see Tongues – A Sign of Judgement: A Response to Tony L. Ross Jr. Regarding Tongues in 1 Cor. 14.
  • Only two or three people should be allowed to speak in tongues in the congregation (14:27).  The focus of the service should not be on based on messages in tongues.
  • If there is no one to interpret the tongue, the speaker can pray quietly in tongues, but should do it silently so that it is not a disturbance to the rest of the congregation (14:28).
  • Tongues should not be forbidden in the congregation (14:39).  Paul’s instructions are on how to use it correctly and in order, not to condemn its use (14:40).

Summary

Given the breakdown above, tongues is clearly shown to have multiple manifestations. Image result for Paul in Corinth Three possible uses/manifestations of tongues are made evident: 1) A human language used for proclamation of the Gospel, 2) A prayer language that edifies the individual believer, 3) A message in tongues for the congregation that is accompanied by the gift of interpretation for the edification of the whole assembly.  Although members of the Charismatic movement have sometimes abused the gift of tongues and have perpetuated false teaching regarding tongues in some situations, the Pentecostal understanding of the gift is a much more accurate understanding of the biblical witness than the one presented by Classical Cessationism.

3.) Why do we only see abuses and copycat errors of the gifts and not the gifts themselves?

This question is simply fallacious. Tony assumes (without proving) his own understanding of the gifts and then makes another assumption that we only see abuses of those gifts today.  It is the personal experience of the writer, and the confession of many respected leaders in the Church, that many 1st hand examples of the gifts are witnessed and experienced around us that are both in line with the biblical witness and beneficial for the church at large.  I actually have been the person in a church that gave a message in tongues by the prompting of the Spirit, which was subsequently interpreted by a member of the congregation, also by the prompting of the Spirit.  This was done under the authority of the elders and during a point in the service when it would not be disruptive.  All of it was perfectly in line with the scriptural guidelines for the use of tongues in 1 Corinthians 14.

For some respected Christians talking about their experiences and understandings of the gifts check out these videos:

John Piper:

Sam Storms:

Matt Chandler on another gift of the Spirit:

 

For a link to Tony Lee Ross Jr. article:
For Kyle Rouse and I’s other responses:
Works Cited
Fee, Gordon D. God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994. Print. – In reference to the Testament of Job 48:3
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