Thursday, October 17, 2013

Modern Tongues Versus Ancient Tongues – Avoiding Anachronism


It is difficult to miss the current debate surrounding the Pentecostal-Charismatic practice of speaking in tongues. In the interest of transparency, the reader should know that I was regenerated and converted to Christ in 1979 in a Church of God. In case you didn’t know, the Church of God is the oldest Pentecostal denomination in the world. In addition, I was a licensed minister in that denomination. I say this so that no one can accuse me of being inexperienced or uninformed. I am very experienced and informed when it comes to the Pentecostal-Charismatic movement.

In order to understand the New Testament phenomenon of tongues, it is desirable that we do our best to remove our modern experience with the phenomenon. We have to dismiss every single thing that has been written about the experience from modern writers attempting to explain to us exactly what it is. We have to erase the blackboard, if you will. What we have to do is travel back in time to the ancient Mediterranean world, open the Greek New Testament, and do our best to glean our information on the phenomenon of “tongue-speaking” beginning with the Scripture. In order to evaluate the claim of modern Pentecostals that their practice is the very same practice that took place in the early church, we also have to examine the modern practice. But we will save that for last. First we have to examine all the information we have on the ancient practice of speaking in tongues.

The very first mention of tongues in the New Testament is located in Acts 2:3-4. The “other tongues” that these new believers experienced on Pentecost signified the birth of the Church and the ushering in of the end times. Moreover, this event was the coming of the Holy Spirit as promised by Christ to His disciples. The Holy Spirit is promised to all who believe into Christ Jesus, placing their faith and truth entirely in Him. The tongues mentioned here by Luke were actual languages. We know this because the crowd was amazed and astonished to hear these Galileans speaking in foreign languages. Indeed, a miracle was taking place before their eyes. In fact, so amazing was this event that the people were utterly perplexed according to Luke. Whatever this ability is, it can only be accounted for by attributing it as a miraculous gift from God.

The next incident of tongues is recorded in Acts 10:46. Peter travelled Caesarea to preach to the centurion, Cornelius. Cornelius was converted to Christ and he spoke in tongues. Peter associated this event with God’s acceptance of the Gentiles. Later, this event proved to be instrumental in demonstrating that God was indeed pouring His Spirit out on all flesh just as Joel had prophesied. The next account of tongues is mentioned in Acts 19 when the disciples of John were converted to Christ and consequently spoke in tongues and prophesied. These are the only three records from history that we have in Scripture of men speaking in tongues. It is likely that the Samaritans also spoke in tongues although we cannot prove it. This phenomenon is indelibly associated with the New Covenant and the birth of the Church of Jesus Christ. In every case, it served as a sign pointing to Jesus Christ as the Messiah, to the fact that God was initiating a new work. But it is clear that Luke’s tongues were real languages. Any attempt to argue otherwise is anachronistic. Since Acts 2 is our first record of tongues and since Luke clearly informs us that foreigners understood them, it is only reasonable that we take his description of tongues and apply it elsewhere to mean the very same thing. It would be exegetically illegitimate not to do so. It would be serious error to redefine tongues based on personal experience.

All remaining references to tongues are located in Paul’s correspondence to the Corinthians. Paul lists kinds of tongues as a gift that God placed in the Church in 1 Cor. 12:10, 28. Note that Paul uses the word genos, which means kind. The word is used to describe different kinds of fishes, races, languages, etc. Tongues are kinds of languages that are apparently understood by men. So far, as we read the Greek Text of Scripture, we have no reason to think otherwise. When we see the word glossa appearing in the text, we immediately recall the experience at Pentecost. That is the grid through which we look in order to understand the meaning of this word in the NT context. The reformation principle that Scripture interprets Scripture is essential to understanding the meaning of tongues. So far then, we have no reason to view tongues as anything other than a gift from God by which men are miraculously enabled to speak in languages they were never taught.

Paul then implies, quite emphatically, that not everyone has the gift of tongues. Apparently, the gift is given according to the will of the Spirit who is viewed as sovereign over the administration of these gifts. The next mention of tongues is found in 1 Cor. 13:1 where Paul says that even if he has the tongues of men and of angels and does not have love, he is nothing. Paul is concerned that the Corinthian Christians exhibit love in their Christian walk above all else.

Now, we come to an interesting text in Corinthians. Paul tells the Corinthians that the one who speaks in tongues does not speak to men but to God for no one understands him. Now, before we rush to anachronistic eisgesis, we must remember what I said from the start. We must understand “tongues” in light of Luke’s description in Acts chapter 2. There is no reason for us to take it any other way. Moreover, the difficulty of the passage should not intimidate us into resorting to a lazy man’s way of handling the text. First, this tongue is a language that some men understand and that some men do not understand. The men that Paul refers to are not all men without exception, but the men in the local Church in general. These men do not understand the language that the individual is speaking in, even though God does. While he speaks mysterious revealed by the Spirit, only God understands what he is saying, in the context of the local Church. God understands all languages. Again, the reason we conclude this is because we know from Acts 2 that some men do understand tongues. Therefore, Paul cannot mean that no men understand him. The reason he is not speaking to man is because these men do not understand him. The “for” is epexegetical. The reason the tongue speaker only speaks to God in such circumstances is because his audience does not understand him. In other words, he only speaks to God because only God understands him. But is this how it should be. Based on the remaining exhortations from Paul in this chapter, it seems obvious that it is not as it should be.

The predominant theme in 1 Cor.14 is the edification of the body. Paul is extremely concerned with speech and service that have, as their central concern, the edification of the body of Christ. In fact, if you go back to chapter 12, we see the whole purpose of the gifts was for the edification of the body, not the individual. Paul then tells the Corinthians that prophesy is a superior gift because it immediately edifies the body while tongues does not because it is a foreign language that the body does not understand, unless of course the speaker interprets the language so that the body can understand what was said. Paul then makes the point that it would be useless for someone to come to the Church speaking in a foreign language unless he were to reveal or make known what he was saying. In other words, tongues are useless to the hearer unless they are interpreted. Paul then uses the analogy of a bugle that makes a sound no one recognizes. He makes the point that no one will respond to it because they do not recognize the “charge” sound for example. It is utterly useless, a meaningless noise.

We now come to verses 9-10 and these represent a real problem for the Pentecostal theory regarding tongues. Paul informs the Corinthian believers that unless they speak in a language that is understandable, they are speaking into the air. The phrase “speech that is clear” literally means “readily intelligible.” Verse 2 must be understood in light of verse 11. Paul tells the Church that there are many kinds of languages in the world but none without meaning. However, even though they have meaning, they are useless when employed around someone that does not understand them.

Paul then commands that the Corinthians must seek to edify the Church, something the speaking in tongues does not do unless it is interpreted or unless the person understands the language of course. Paul then says that the person speaking in tongues should pray that he will be able to interpret it. Paul says that praying without understand what you are praying is unfruitful. Paul then says that when he prays in tongues, he will pray also with the interpretation and when he sings in tongues, he will sing with the interpretation also. The point is that he will know what he is saying even when he is speaking in this language. In this way, tongues, at a minimum can edify the speaker. However, to contend that unfruitful understanding is still edifying seems to me to be extremely mystical.

In verse 16 Paul once again reminds the Corinthians that the goal is always the edification of others. Therefore, if we bless in tongues, in this foreign language, how can the one present say amen? You may very well be giving thanks just fine, but the other person is not edified. Paul then says he speaks in tongues more than all of the Corinthians. However, in the Church, where there is one known language, he would rather speak five words with his mind than ten-thousand in a tongue. The reason is clear: so that the Church would be edified. This raises the question as to where Paul might be speaking these foreign languages. It would seem to me that he must have been speaking in foreign languages outside the Church in his evangelistic efforts to spread the gospel.

In 1 Cor. 14:22, Paul gives us the purpose for tongues: it is a sign for unbelievers. The only way we can see how this makes sense is if we go back to Acts 2 where Luke records that these foreigners were utterly amazed and astonished. The sign is that the followers of Christ were supernaturally endowed to speak in foreign languages. Rightfully so, the foreigners were utterly amazed at this miracle. Now, Paul says that if outsiders come in and everyone speaks in these languages, the outsiders will think the Church is insane. Notice that this is the same experience that happened at Pentecost, but with a distinctly differently outcome. How could this be? The answer is easy: the audience is different. At Pentecost, the hearers understood the languages, but here, Paul’s assumption is that they do not.

Paul then forbids the members from speaking in tongues in the Church service unless there is an interpreter present. This word for interpret literally means to translate. There is no reason for us to suppose that this interpreter was supernaturally endowed with this gift. This could be the case but it could just as easily be the case that the speakers were expected to know in advance if there was someone present who could interpret their language naturally or otherwise. If not, they were to keep silent. The point is that translators must be present so that the Church can be edified.

The overarching theme of 1 Corinthians 14 is not the proper use of tongues. Rather, it is the proper edification of the body of Christ. All behavior must be directed toward that goal. Seemingly, there were some in the Corinthian Church that were quite puffed up with themselves due to their gifts. In fact, Paul said that they were not lacking in this department. But he also called the same people carnal because of their ungodly attitudes. The Corinthian Church had a very carnal attitude toward the spiritual gifts and were prone to spiritual pride. It is obvious they viewed tongues in an unhealthy way.

Paul ends his exhortation by instructing the Corinthians to desire prophecy, but he does not encourage the Corinthians to take the same disposition toward this ability to speak in foreign languages. Instead, he merely tells them not to inhibit people from the tongues gift. The central point was that all things should be done for the edification of the body.

This is all the information we have on the subject of tongues in the NT. This information is 2,000 years old. Some things we can say are clear about tongues. Other things are admittedly somewhat obscure. We acknowledge and confess that we do not know all there is to know about the ancient phenomenon of tongues. I admit that my understanding of Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians on the subject of tongues is imperfect and clouded by nearly 2,000 years of history, not to mention a significant cultural divide. I leave open the possibility that my explanation in some places could be inaccurate. Indeed, it would be quite arrogant of me to put forth my views with dogmatic certainty under these conditions. However, at a minimum I do think I have been able to point out that we do know some things about the ancient New Testament phenomenon known as tongues. And these things we can know with dogmatic certainty.

·         New Testament tongues were actual languages according to the only detailed description we have of them. Luke described them as such in Acts 2.
·         The gift of tongues was given by the Holy Spirit according to His will and it was the supernatural ability to speak in foreign languages.
·         The gift of tongues was not given to every Christian.
·         Untranslated tongues were strictly forbidden in the presence of other Christians, be it worship, or prayer.
·         Untranslated tongues were not edifying to hearers.
·         New Testament tongues were given as a miraculous sign, hence, the only way this could be true was if they were actual languages.

        From what we can say dogmatically about New Testament tongues, it follows that we can also say, dogmatically, that the modern phenomenon witnessed in Pentecostal-Charismatic churches is not the same phenomenon recorded in the historical writings of Luke or Paul. The nature of modern tongues is fundamentally different from the nature of ancient tongues practiced in the early Church.

For an excellent article on this subject, see Nathan Busenitz in TMSJ HERE.


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