Sunday, November 3, 2013

Seeing Tongues as Languages: An Alternative Approach in Exegetical Exercise

In my series of posts regarding NT tongues, I have argued repeatedly that the NT phenomena should be regarded as real languages. To reinforce that concept, this post will perform an interpretive exercise to see if it is possible for us to read 1 Corinthians 14 with the view that every time Paul refers to tongues, he means languages. In fact, many commentators believe it is unfortunate that English versions are still translating glossolalia as tongues. Now, the game I propose is that we make an honest effort to understand every occurrence of tongues in 1 Corinthians 14 to mean languages and determine if it is possible to make better sense of the verse and the chapter looking through that interpretive grid. We should remember that the Corinthian believer would have understood Paul’s instructions and statements much more clearly than we do. Moreover, there is the tendency in such communication to leave minute details out because of this presumption of knowledge. We do not have the luxury of being the in the shoes of the Corinthian believer. Therefore, Paul is likely to have assumed a certain level of knowledge among the Corinthians that unfortunately we do not possess.

I also want to suggest that we interpret this NT experience in light of other NT experiences. Is it possible to understand the phenomena of tongues as real languages and nothing more without doing damage to the text of Scripture? In other words, is it safer to interpret Corinthians in light of Acts 2 and 10 without resorting to the practice of inventing an entirely new kind of tongue that is nowhere else mentioned in Scripture? Is it necessary for us to invent the PC “prayer language” position in order to give sound and adequate interpretation to 1 Corinthians 14? From the standpoint of the literary context, can we glean Paul’s main points in that chapter without inventing the “prayer language” idea? I believe we can. The best way for you to practice this exercise is to replace tongues with languages and to replace interpret with translate. Remember, resist the urge to return to modern tongues. Glossolalia means languages and diermeneuo means translate. When the Corinthian heard these words, that is the definition that came to mind.

The first text that demands our attention is 1 Cor. 14:2, “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.” Notice the word “For,” which is an epexegetical. What this means is that we have to step back at least to the previous verse in order to understand why the “for” is there for. Paul begins this chapter with the command to pursue love and desire earnestly spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy. The reason for this command is that Paul is concerned with those gifts that edify the body. This is the central concern of 1 Cor. 14. We must read 1 Cor. 14 with the understanding that Paul’s message to the Corinthian believer is that they’re goal is to edify one another. Now, with this understanding in mind, we can recognize that Paul is not describing the universal practice of tongues in general. He is dealing with tongues in Church. More than that even, he is specifically dealing with tongues in the Corinthian worship service. He begins by commanding them to seek out the gifts that edify and then he says “For” the one who is speaking in this language in your worship service is not speaking to men (because they can’t understand him) but to God (because only God can understand him). To miss the epexegetical in this verse is a serious literary misstep and it results in serious interpretive deviation. One misses the contextual meaning and significance of what Paul is getting at. This is reinforced by the next verse, which begins with the logical contrastive “but.” So we see that it is in fact possible to read 1 Cor. 14:2 with the understanding that “tongues” in this verse is a real language. Moreover, not only is it possible, it actually makes better sense than the alternative non-cessationist interpretation.

Now we turn to v. 4: “One who speaks in a tongue edifies himself; but one who prophesies edifies the church.” This is not a good thing. Paul is after the edification of the church. In addition, can we read this as a real language? I think so. How can someone speaking in this language also engage in self-edification? The presumption is that they and only they can interpret it. In this case, edification takes place but only for the individual who is also interpreting the language. Those who cannot understand the language are not edified at all. And this is why Paul wants the practice to stop. Notice in the next verse that Paul makes sure he is guarding against a bad knee-jerk reaction where the pendulum swings to the other extreme. God gave the gift of tongues for a very specific reason and it is not to be neglected. What Paul wants is that it be used in the way God intended. Therefore, we can see how it is reasonable to interpret this verse to mean real languages.

Paul makes it clear in verse 9 that God is a rational communicator. He goes on to illustrate that the use of languages that others do not understand is indeed a waste of time. Others will think we are barbarians, or foreigners who do not understand our language. Then in v. 12 he once again restates his main concern, “So also you, since you are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek to abound for the edification of the church.” This is the central focus of Paul’s concern. Paul concludes that everyone that prays in tongues should also pray that they might be able to interpret it, or translate it. The better word for διερμηνεύω (diermeneuo) is translate. It means to translate from one language to another. You cannot translate a non-language. There is nothing to translate. The whole idea is to take what is being said in one language and translate it into another language. If some speech is non-language, there is no meaning there to translate. Our English bibles really should render the word “tongues” as languages and the word “interpret” as translate. That would go a long way to help mitigate the confusion introduced by the PC movement on this subject.

Now we come to another Pentecostal favorite in 1 Cor. 14:14, “For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful.” The PC movement claims that the purpose for tongues is so that they can pray directly to God. But can we take this verse to mean the supernatural ability to speak in a real language? I think we can. If I pray in the spiritual-gifted language, I don’t do so from my mind but from my spirit. My mind cannot generate this language because it was not acquired by the mind. Therefore, in this sense, my mind is unfruitful. What should I seek to do then? I should seek the gift of translating this language. So, as Paul says in the next verse, “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.” Paul is saying, I will pray in the gifted language and I will seek to translate it. Why does Paul speak this way? We understand why when we read the very next verse; “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?” This indicates that v. 15 deals not with private prayer, but public prayer and the Corinthian must translate any prayers or songs that he gives in his gifted language(s). That is the principle theme that continues to occupy Paul’s thought.

Paul then issues the most ignored principle among Pentecostals-Charismatics in v. 19. He says that he would rather speak 5 intelligible words in Church than ten thousand in the gifted languages so that others would be edified. I can tell you that PC Churches ignore this statement completely, arguing that Paul is not talking about the prayer language here, but rather the gift of tongues, which is different. Such an argument is completely arbitrary. It is interesting to note that Paul issues a pretty stern rebuke in v. 20 as one gets the sense that he is very annoyed with this subject: “Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; yet in evil be infants, but in your thinking be mature.” It is apparent that Paul thinks the Corinthians should have been able to figure this out without his instructions.

We move to verse 22, which is the culmination or summary of Paul’s argument regarding the use of Tongues in the NT Church. Paul informs us in no uncertain terms of God’s purpose for tongues: “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.” It is easy to see now how this phenomenon of tongues had to be divinely gifted languages. There is no way that unintelligible gibberish could meet the definition of sign. It is simply untenable to contend that the modern gibberish we witness in the PC movement could be some sort of sign from God for unbelievers. How could it? Anyone can do it. Non-Christian pagan religions do it. Anyone can copy it. There is nothing supernatural about it. It has no distinguishable miraculous features. Therefore, Paul had to be speaking about a real language in this context. In addition, it is fool-hardy to attempt to arbitrarily claim here that Paul means the gift of tongues, but in the previous section he means the prayer language. PC Churches weave their way back and forth in this chapter, bending the text to mean whatever they need it to in order to support their modern practice of tongue-speaking. The Scripture becomes literally, putty in their hands.

We now come to the very next verse, which seems somewhat confusing and contradictory. Verse 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?” The only way to take this is that Paul means in one sense, men who do not understand the language but in the other, some men do understand the language. Tongues can only serve as a sign for those who actually speak that language. So then, tongues are a sign to unbelievers as was demonstrated in Acts 2. But if men do not understand those tongues, then they will think you are mad. This is also a response we see in Acts 2. Paul’s point is that everything in the Church should be done with the goal of edifying the body. Tongues clearly do not do that. Tongues would typically be used outside the Church service in evangelism of the unbeliever. In this way it can serve as a sign. In the Church however, you should refrain from such practices, seeking to edify the other. Tongues are a sign for the unbeliever. They only edify when they are translated into an intelligible dialect, be it for the speaker or for the hearer.
I am not so naïve as to think that I have cut a new path through the maze of the ancient practice of glossolalia. I fully recognize that my interpretation is not without its difficulties. However, I have yet to investigate an interpretation of 1 Cor. 14 that was without difficulties. They are all filled with difficulties. The difficulties are the result of the distance of time, the distance of culture, and the distance of experience. However, I do think my interpretation has the following advantages:

·         It allows me to retain the more descriptive definition of tongues given by Luke in Acts 2.
·         It avoids the arbitrary and baseless view that invents a new kind of tongue known as the “prayer language.”
·         It does no violence to the text of 1 Corinthians even if it might leave some things open for discussion.
·         It contains no contradictions.
·         It retains the basic purpose of tongues given by Paul in 1 Cor. 14:22 as a sign for unbelievers.
·         It avoids the lack of distinction between the Christian phenomenon and the pagan parallel.
·         It avoids the conclusion of linguists that modern PC tongues are no different from tongues in other non-Christian mystic cults and religions.

From my perspective, it seems only reasonable that we hold this interpretation until better evidence can be given for why we should conclude that the tongues in 1 Corinthians were somehow different from the tongues mentioned in the rest of the NT text. This latter view is anachronistic, looking at ancient tongues through the grid of modern tongues. The fact that modern tongues are not real languages in any since of the word is not a legitimate reason for us to postulate that the same is true of ancient NT tongues at Corinth. The contrary should be our response. Why it is not is nothing short of baffling.

If it were true that modern tongues are the heavenly language mentioned in 1 Cor. 13, then linguists should at least be able to connect American tongues with Chinese tongues with Russian tongues, and with all tongues across all dialects. It should be something uniquely differently even if not entirely explicable. The Russian sounds should be the same as the Americans and the Chinese and the French and everyone else who speaks in tongues. The reason is that heaven has only one language. Moreover, that language is rational the same as our own. Man was created speaking that language if you remember. It wasn’t until the curse at Babel that that changed. No matter how you slice it, modern PC tongues is remarkably different from what was witnessed and experienced in the NT Church.

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