This study of cessationism focuses on three essential questions. Focusing on the gift of tongues, Part 1 began to address the first of these: What were the gifts in the New Testament, and how does that biblical description compare to what is happening in contemporary charismatic circles?
Seven similarities provide strong evidence that the gift of tongues in Acts was the same gift of tongues in view in 1 Corinthians 12–14. In Acts and 1 Corinthians, tongues share the same source, recipients, substance, terminology and primary purpose. They also share the same connection to the other gifts and the same reaction from unbelievers.
Several additional exegetical comments might be made about the gift of tongues:
1. Some, not all
First Corinthians 12:8–11 and 27–31 make it unmistakably clear that not everyone received the gift of tongues (cf. 14:26). Note that there is no contextual or grammatical warrant for seeing 1 Corinthians 12 as one type of tongues (that only a few receive) and 1 Corinthians 14 as a different type (that everyone is to receive). Along those lines, Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 14:5 (“Now I wish that you all spoke in tongues”) is almost identical to his earlier statement in 7:7 regarding singleness. (“Yet I wish that all men were even as myself”). Thus, Paul’s wish does not indicate that everyone in the Corinthian congregation actually spoke in tongues.
2. “Tongues of angels”
The “tongues of angels” in 1 Corinthians 13:1 should be interpreted hyperbolically in keeping with the context of the passage (as Paul’s subsequent examples demonstrate). It may even be a figure of speech meaning “to speak very eloquently.” If one insists on taking it literally, there are still two things to consider: (1) It is the exception and not the rule, as evidenced by the rest of the New Testament teaching on tongues and as evidenced by the other examples Paul uses in vv. 1–3. (2) Every time angels spoke in the Bible, they spoke in a real language that people could understand (cf. Gen. 19; Exod. 33; Joshua 5; Judges 13).
3. “To God and not to men”
Paul defines what he means by “speaking to God and not to men” when he says that “no one understands” (14:2). This would be true of a foreign language that someone spoke but no one else knew. The hearers would not be edified because they would not understand what was being said.
4. Rational message
The concept of interpretation implies a rational message. As Norm Geisler (Signs and Wonders Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1998, p. 167) explains: “The fact that the tongues of which Paul spoke in 1 Corinthians could be ‘interpreted’ shows that it was a meaningful language. Otherwise it would not be an ‘interpretation’ but a creation of the meaning. So the gift of ‘interpretation’ (1 Corinthians 12:30; 14:5, 13) supports the fact that tongues were a real language that could be translated for the benefit of all by this special gift of interpretation.”
5. Edifying the body
The purpose of the gifts (within the church) is to edify the body (12:7; cf. 1 Pet. 4:10–11). Paul’s whole point is that love is superior to the gifts (chp. 13). The intended use of tongues, therefore, occurs when the message is translated so that fellow believers are edified. Tongues (languages) that are not translated do not profit the body because the message cannot be understood (14:6–11). Paul is not promoting a private use of tongues, since that does not edify others—cf. 14:12–19.
6. Public prayer
The context implies that Paul’s prayer in 14:14–15 is a public prayer, not a private prayer, since the entire discussion regards the use of the gift in the church, and since verse 16 mentions that the ungifted person (who does not understand the language being spoken) will not be able to affirm a public prayer that he does not understand. Again, verses 14–15 do not mitigate against the view that tongues are authentic foreign languages. The person who prays in a foreign language should also pray that he will be able to interpret the foreign language so that all who are present will be blessed by the translation of the message.
The gift of tongues was to be used in an orderly manner in the church (14:27–28, 39–40). Any disruptive or disorderly use of tongues-speaking goes against the way God intended the gift to be used.
There are no other passages that specifically teach about the gift of tongues. Some charismatics try to find tongues in Romans 8:26 and 2 Corinthians 5:13, but the context in those passages makes it clear that the gift of tongues is not in view.
9. Foreign language
Viewing tongues as authentic foreign languages is the only natural interpretation of Acts 2 and has the least number of problems in interpreting 1 Cor. 12–14. As Thomas Edgar notes observes, “There are verses in 1 Corinthians 14 where foreign language makes sense but where unintelligible ecstatic utterance does not (e.g. v. 22). However, the reverse cannot be said. A foreign language not understood by the hearer is no different from unintelligible speech in his sight. Therefore, in any passage where such ecstatic speech may be considered possible, it is also possible to substitute a language not familiar to the hearers. In this passage there are no reasons, much less the very strong reasons necessary, to depart from the normal meaning of glossa and to flee to a completely unsupported usage” (Satisfied by the Promise of the Spirit. Kregel, 1996, p. 147).
Testimony of the church fathers
While not authoritative, the universal testimony of the church fathers supports the cessationist understanding of tongues. The church fathers agreed that the gift of tongues in 1 Corinthians was the same as that described in Acts. Moreover, they interpreted that gift as consisting of rational, foreign languages. Though many could be cited, here is a small sampling from several early Christian leaders.
Augustine (354–430): “In the earliest times, ‘the Holy Ghost fell upon them that believed: and they spoke with tongues,’ which they had not learned, ‘as the Spirit gave them utterance.’ These were signs adapted to the time. For it was necessary for there to be that betokening of the Holy Spirit in all tongues, to show that the Gospel of God was to run through all tongues over the whole earth” (Homilies on the First Epistle of John, 6.10).
Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 329–390): “They spoke with strange tongues, and not those of their native land; and the wonder was great, a language spoken by those who had not learnt it. And the sign is to them that believe not, and not to them that believe, that it may be an accusation of the unbelievers, as it is written, ‘“With other tongues and other lips will I speak unto this people, and not even so will they listen to Me” saith the Lord’” (The Oration on Pentecost, 15–17).
John Chrysostom (c. 344–407), commenting on 1 Cor. 14:1–2: “And as in the time of building the tower [of Babel] the one tongue was divided into many; so then the many tongues frequently met in one man, and the same person used to discourse both in the Persian, and the Roman, and the Indian, and many other tongues, the Spirit sounding within him: and the gift was called the gift of tongues because he could all at once speak divers languages” (Homilies on First Corinthians, 35.1).
Severian of Gabala (d. c. 408): “The person who speaks in the Holy Spirit speaks when he chooses to do so and then can be silent, like the prophets. But those who are possessed by an unclean spirit speak even when they do not want to. They say things that they do not understand” (Pauline Commentary from the Greek Church. Cited from 1–2 Corinthians, Ancient Christian Commentary Series, 144, in reference to 1 Cor 14:28).
Based on the biblical and historical evidence, the gift of tongues was a supernaturally endowed ability, given by the Holy Spirit to select Christians, enabling those believers to speak in previously unlearned human languages. The intended use of the gift involved the translation of the message for the general edification of fellow believers or evangelism of unbelievers. This ability was not given to all Christians nor were they commanded to seek it. It was not considered the hallmark of the early church, nor is it ever highlighted as a normal part of the Christian experience.
When we compare the biblical evidence to modern charismatic and continuationist experience, we find that the two are not the same. The New Testament does not present two types of tongues; but only the miraculous ability to speak previously unlearned foreign languages. Clearly, that does not match the contemporary phenomenon. As Norm Geisler observes,
Even those who believe in tongues acknowledge that unsaved people have tongues experiences. There is nothing supernatural about them. But there is something unique about speaking complete and meaningful sentences and discourses in a knowable language to which one has never been exposed. This is what the real New Testament gift of tongues entailed. Anything short of this, as “private tongues” are, should not be considered the biblical gift of tongues. (Signs and Wonders)
When we approach the continuationist/cessationist debate by first defining the gifts biblically, it becomes apparent that modern charismatic practice does not match the New Testament phenomena. The gift of tongues provides a vivid illustration of that reality—but the same is also true for prophecy and healing. Though continuationists use New Testament terminology to describe their contemporary experience, the reality is that such experiences are far different than what was actually happening in the first-century church.
Nathan Busenitz has served in teaching roles at The Master’s College or The Master’s Seminary since 2000. Since 2009, he has served full time as an instructor of theology at the seminary. Prior to ‘09, Nathan served on the staff of Grace Community Church, and as managing editor of Pulpit magazine. He is also the author of The Gift of Tongues: Comparing the Church Fathers with Contemporary Pentecostalism.