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Tuesday, August 5, 2008


The gift of tongues is a major component of most charismatic movements, due to the charismatic assumption that the NT's description of the experiences of the first century church is wholly indicative of what our modern experience should be. For me, this was one of the first columns to crumble, and it led to my eventual recognition of cessationism. So what do I do with tongues as described in the Bible?

In Acts 2, we see the definition of tongues, and find no reason to believe that there is a redefinition elsewhere. The words used are glossa and dialektos, which never meant “tongues” as we understand it, but “languages” and “dialects” (roughly speaking). The text is quite clear that the apostles spoke in actual human languages. Now, why should we expect the glossolalia discussed throughout the rest of Acts to be different? What competent author or historian, having taken pains to describe a phenomenon in detail, would suddenly start describing another, distinct phenomenon using the same terms he used for the already defined phenomenon?

Even 1 Corinthians 14 affirms Luke's description. Paul is somewhat impatient with the Corinthians who were using glossolalia in worship services uninterpreted. Accusing them of “thinking like children,” he points out the true purpose of glossolalia as prophesied by Isaiah in chapter 28: speaking in “strange tongues” and with “the lips of foreigners” was meant as a confounding sign of judgment (cf. Babel) for unbelieving Israel. In fact, the Old Testament proclaims in multiple places that the language of foreigners spoken in Israel was to be a sign of God’s displeasure with and judgment of Israel. (cf. De 28.49; Je 5.15)

Have a look at this webpage, which lays it down pretty much as I believe it. The gift of tongues was “a sign, then, not for believers, but for unbelievers” (1 Cor 14.22), and was used to warn Old Covenant Israel of the judgment that eventually came on them when God, through the Roman armies under Titus Vespasian, sieged and destroyed Jerusalem and her beloved temple in A.D. 66-70. That this judgment was accomplished is seen by the Diaspora and the resultant dysfunctional nature of Judaism sans a temple or the genealogical records necessary to determine the priestly Levite line.

But wait - human language is simply one type of tongue, and the heavenly language is completely different....right? Well, even accepting for the sake of argument that tongues were of two types, my argument still stands that Paul's intent in 1 Cor 14 is to correct the abuse of glossolalia in the church. The stinger that closes this subject is the passage I cited, in which he reminds them of the purpose of glossolalia, without making any distinction between what he was describing in verse 2 and the sort that was a sign for unbelievers in verse 22.

However, I don't think there is any evidence for two types of glossolalia. Different kinds of languages? There definitely are, as any linguist can tell you! But different kinds of glossolalia? I am aware that charismatics talk about "prayer languages" as opposed to the "language of heaven" and use 1 Cor 14 verses 2 and 14 as their prooftexts, but here again, you have his statements just a few verses later, without any redirection or distinction made, that talk about "tongues" (same word) as a sign "not for believers". If you put this passage in the larger context of the letter, viz. the correction of abuses of God's gifts in worship services, you'll see that when Paul said that "he who speaks in a tongue edifies himself" (v. 4), he was not putting this in a positive light, but was describing its abuse: some Corinthians were showing off the charismatic gift, "speaking into the air" (v. 9), even when no one was profiting by it. Glossolalia was ecstatic prophecy in actual languages of men, apparently uninterpretable even to the speaker without a special dispensation (v. 13). Putting that gift on display when no one was there to profit by it was simply "speaking mysteries" that only God could understand, to the speaker's glorification alone.

In fact, to use it in the presence of people who were already believers when no one present could understand the language was useless ("not for believers"); and if no one was there who actually understood or could verify it as an actual language, what good would it be as a sign? Anybody can babble meaninglessly. "Will they not say that you are out of your mind?" (v. 23) Surely that unfortunate situation sounds like the norm today in charismatic/Pentecostal settings!

One more thing: the idea that "praying in a[nother] language" is referring to personal prayer time in one's prayer closet is unlikely given the immediate context of worship services, as well as the cultural context in which prayers were most often (if not always) spoken aloud rather than silently (cf. 1 Samuel 1:13). This is why Jesus told people to go into their prayer closets for prayer so they wouldn't be heard and thought to be showing off for passersby -- he could have told them to just pray silently with their eyes open! I think, therefore, that this passage is probably referring to prayer offered in a corporate setting. Regardless, my other points stand.

I think the other charismata, as well, were signs of the times, and not something meant to carry over. In fact, the author of Hebrews (written sometime in the mid 60’s) implies that the age of signs and wonders as embodied in the ministry of the apostles had dwindled to the point that those manifestations could be spoken of in the past tense (2.3-4). But nevertheless, although the Old Covenant was passing away (8.13) it was being replaced by a “better covenant” (8.6). It is this we live in today.

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