Are Tongues for Today? Part 4

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Are Tongues for Today? Part 4

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Originally published as a single article: “Tongues—Are They for Today?,” DBSJ 14 (2009). Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

The argument from the biblical function of the tongues as edifying the church

The following is not so much an argument against tongues per se, but a collection of snipes at the practice of tongues in the broad church today. In short, they argue collectively that if speaking in tongues continues in the church today (which I grant only for sake of argument), most of what passes for glossolalia today does not fit the biblical criteria for tongues as set down in 1 Corinthians 12–14. Specifically, the following four expressions of “tongues” in the church today fail because they do not fulfill the primary function of spiritual gifts—the edification of the church.

Tongues as incoherent, inherently meaningless utterances

Great debate swirls over the identity of the use of glōssa (γλῶσσα) in the NT. Poythress reduces the options to the following five:

(a) a connected piece of a known human language, (b) a piece not identifiable as a known human language, but having language-like structures according to the criteria of modern linguistics; (c) a piece with fragments of known human languages, but with other unknown parts; (d) a piece without fragments from known human language, having linguistic deviations from patterns common to human languages, yet being indistinguishable by a naïve listener from a foreign language; (e) disconnected pieces, muttering, groaning, and other miscellaneous material easily distinguishable from normal human verbal utterance.1

The suggestion that glōssa was used by extrabiblical sources to reference an “utterance outside the normal patterns of intelligible speech” (option [e] above) is one raised in the standard Greek lexicon for the period.2 However, others have disputed this suggestion, demonstrating that ancient writers restricted their usage of the term glōssa to antiquated and foreign languages, preferring alternate terms to denote incoherent utterances.3 Further, there are several demonstrable differences between the pagan practice and biblical practice,4 the latter which is surely determinative here.

Turning then to the biblical record, we find the options significantly narrowed. Here, we find that all clear instances of glōssa (which in accord to the basic principle of the analogy of faith inform the unclear instances) unequivocally reference known languages.5 In Acts 2, the definitive event to which all other glossolalia in Acts points (see, e.g., Acts 10:46; 11:15), the tongues were clearly human languages, because they were heard and understood by various foreigners.6 Uses of the term (and its cognates) in 1 Corinthians 14:21, Revelation 5:9, and Revelation 7:9 also represent undisputed references to people speaking various languages. Additionally, the fact that Paul calls for the interpretation of tongues in 1 Corinthians 14:13, 26–28 argues convincingly for objective and cognitive meaning, i.e., intrinsically propositional linguistic material that is subject to normal translation procedures.7 Finally, as if in anticipation of the modern practice of tongues, Paul announces clearly in 1 Corinthians 14:10 that every valid instance of tongues contains intrinsic, propositional meaning—a meaning that must be divulged if it is to be permitted in the church: “There are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning” (NIV).

That the tongues mentioned are “in the world” suggests further that these are ordinary human languages. While Paul speaks of a language known only to God (1 Cor 14:2), it is unlikely that this references a “divine” language that is untranslatable, but rather an ordinary language that is untranslated, and thus illegitimate in the assembly. Paul’s mention of a language of angels in 1 Corinthians 13:1 could possibly suggest a language unique to angels, but it is more likely that he was using hyperbole to reference a hypothetical use of tongues that exceeded even the claims of the Corinthians—yet still fell short of the greater virtue of love.8

In any case, what emerges with some clarity is the understanding that tongues are coherent, contain intrinsically propositional meaning, and can be translated by normal linguistic conventions. Any proposed expression of tongues that falls short of these criteria does not qualify as a biblical expression of tongues.

Tongues practiced without an interpreter

In keeping with the foregoing, Paul is insistent that tongues must be practiced sparingly, one at a time, and only with an interpreter (esp. 1 Cor 14:26–28). His reasoning is clear—anything else cannot edify because it creates chaos and bewilderment in the meeting of God’s church (14:23, 33). And it is here that we find the guiding thread for the whole of Paul’s message in 1 Corinthians 14. Any practice that takes place in the house of God must edify the assembly or else it must be eliminated (vv. 4, 5, 12, 17, 19, 26). Clearly all modern-day expressions of tongues that do not include orderliness, translation, and careful explanation in the assembly are categorically unbiblical.9

Tongues foisted upon the whole congregation

It has been mentioned that most conservative expressions of tongues no longer demand tongues of all believers as proof of conversion. Nonetheless, there remain many expressions of modern-day tongues-speaking that demand glossolalia of all believers as necessary expressions of saving faith or of Spirit baptism. Against these Paul clearly affirms that “all do not speak with tongues” (1 Cor 12:30). Any practice of glossolalia that requires tongues-speaking of all believers under pain of the lost assurance comes perilously close to being another gospel.

Tongues practiced privately

In the midst of his diatribe against the non-edifying nature of untranslated tongues, Paul on several occasions seems to suggest that tongues that are of no use in the assembly may yet edify the speaker (1 Cor 14:4, 14, 28) and be used to communicate with God himself (14:2, 14, 28). These curious comments have led many continuationists to argue for a private, devotional use of tongues outside of the assembly—one that is not edifying to the body, but edifying nonetheless to the individual and to God. However, this understanding misses the force of Paul’s argument, for two reasons.

First, Paul’s argument, as we have seen, is that the function of tongues in the church, like all gifts, is the mutual advancement and edification of the body, and not the advancement of self. Taken this way, Paul’s comment that non-interpreted tongues edify only the speaker (14:4) emerges not as a virtue, but as a vice: it is an instance of self-aggrandizement that meets with Paul’s disapproval and should be eschewed.10

Second, Paul’s statement that uninterpreted tongues speak only to God (14:2) and his subsequent directive to speak [in tongues?] to oneself and to God (14:28) are not to be construed as a positive statements about tongues. Again, Paul’s concern is the mutual edification of the body, which is not furthered by untranslated tongues. He thus instructs tongue-speakers to be quiet and to engage in private communion with God. This final injunction could be taken two ways: (1) Continuationists generally suggest that Paul is commending a private usage of tongues as a positive alternative to speaking publicly in untranslated tongues in the assembly. But in view of the nature of tongues, this seems unlikely. How, indeed, can a believer be edified and God glorified by the sustained iteration of words whose meaning is lost to the speaker? In the absence of any sensible answer to this question, it would seem that Paul’s positive commendation of tongues (if such it is) is sarcastic.11 We might paraphrase Paul, thus, as saying something like this: “If there is no interpreter, then be quiet, but if you can’t shut up, go far, far away and chatter in seclusion, somewhere where you will not be a distraction to the assembly.” (2) Perhaps a better understanding, offered by Robert L. Thomas, is that the δέ (“but”) that punctuates 1 Corinthians 14:28 is not adversative (i.e., giving an alternative course of action) but explanatory (i.e., detailing the person’s silent response within the assembly).12 As such we might paraphrase Paul as saying something like this: “If there is no interpreter, then be quiet, and engage in silent communion with God.” One might possibly conclude from Paul’s comments that the believer is to silently commune with God in tongues (a form of “thinking in tongues”), but this is an inference from silence, and as the foregoing has shown, a poor one. Paul simply tells his readers to be silent and commune to God, commending neither private speaking in tongues nor thinking in tongues.

To summarize this section, then, even if we concede for sake of argument that the practice of tongues-speaking has a valid expression in the church, virtually none of what passes as tongues-speaking in the church at large passes the muster of biblical scrutiny.

Conclusion

While I believe the case for cessationism has been objectively made for decades, the continually changing landscape of evangelical, dispensational, and even fundamentalist theology is such that the case needs to be made again and again to meet new challenges and emphases in the theology and practice of continuationism. And while there is a significant trend in conservative evangelicalism to dismiss differences on this issue as non-essential in nature, the foregoing has attempted to stress that this issue is one with first-order doctrinal implications. May God give us grace to defend cessationism as having crucial implications for “the faith once delivered” (Jude 3–4).

Notes

1 Vern Poythress, “The Nature of Corinthian Glossolalia: Possible Options,” WTJ 40 (Fall 1977): 132–33.

2 BDAG, s.v. “γλῶσσα” pp. 201–2.

3 Edgar, Satisfied by the Promise of the Spirit, pp. 120–48.

4 Ibid.; also esp. T. M. Crone, Early Christian Prophecy: A Study of its Origin and Function (Baltimore: St. Mary’s University Press, 1973).

5 The only possible exceptions here are Isa 29:24 and 32:4 (LXX), where the term is used to reference stammering speech.

6 Cyril G. Williams’s suggestion that the charge of drunkenness precludes the possibility that these were human languages (Tongues of the Spirit: A Study of Pentecostal Glossolalia and Related Phenomena [Cardiff: University of Wales press, 1981], pp. 31–32) is unconvincing. The text clearly says that what was spoken were the birth languages of specific people groups (Acts 2:6, 8, 10). The charge of drunkenness undoubtedly arose from those who could not discern one or more of the languages and thus deduced incorrectly that they were drunken gibberish.

7 Anthony Thiselton’s suggestion that the term ἑρμηνεύω might possibly mean to “put into words” (“The ‘Interpretation’ of Tongues: A New Suggestion in the Light of Greek Usage in Philo and Josephus,” JTS 30 [April 1979]:15–36) is rendered unconvincing by the fact that the original utterances in 1 Corinthians 12–14 already took the form of spoken words, not just thoughts or “precognitive mumblings” (Max Turner, “Spiritual Gifts Then and Now,” Vox Evangelica 15 [1985]: 18–20; so also Carson, Showing the Spirit, p. 81). Equally unconvincing is the suggestion offered by D. A. Carson and Vern Poythress that the term ἑρμηνεύω might be used to describe a kind of deciphering of encrypted codes through a supernaturally supplied “key” (Carson, Showing the Spirit, pp. 84–88; Poythress, “Linguisitc and Sociological Analyses of Modern Tongues-Speaking: Their Contributions and Limitations,” WTJ 42 [Spring 1980]: 374–77). While both Poythress and Carson are to be commended for their insistence that tongues contain intrinsic, coherent meaning, the suggestion of secret encryptions has no historical basis, and appears to me to reflect a bit of psychological speculation in an effort to equate the disparate phenomena of NT tongues and modern “tongues.”

8 So Thomas, Understanding Spiritual Gifts, p. 68.

9 We might also add that the incidence of a translation, while necessary to the legitimate use of tongues, falls short of a guarantee of legitimacy. D. A. Carson offers the illustration of a colleague who “rather cheekily” quoted a portion of John 1 in Greek at a charismatic church service, and solicited an immediate “interpretation” that had nothing at all to do with John’s words (Carson, Showing the Spirit, p. 87). As Carson goes on to note, this “is not comprehensive enough to serve as a universally damning indictment”; nonetheless, he is obliged to concede that this fabrication of interpretations is “frequent” (pp. 87–88).

10 Thomas, Understanding Spiritual Gifts, p. 89; also Edgar, Satisfied by the Promise of the Spirit, pp. 170–71. For a similar negative usage of οἰκοδομέω see 1 Cor 8:10.

11 So Edgar, Satisfied by the Promise of the Spirit, p. 177.

12 Understanding Spiritual Gifts, p. 254, n. 24.


Mark Snoeberger has served as Director of Library Services at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary since 1997, and as a part-time instructor here since 1999. Prior to coming on staff at DBTS, he served for three years as an assistant pastor. He received his M.Div. and Th.M. degrees from DBTS in 1999 and 2001, respectively. Dr. Snoeberger earned the Ph.D. in systematic theology in 2008 from Baptist Bible Seminary in Clarks Summit, PA. He provides pulpit supply for area churches on an active basis and teaches in the Inter-City Bible Institute. He and his wife, Heather, have two sons, Jonathan and David.

Aaron Blumer's picture
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Much appreciate this series. It has filled in some important gaps for me as well as bringing me more up to date on the cessation/continuation question.

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Are Continuationists Self-edified?!

Thank you Mark. Wonderful article. Thank you for all your research and pulling together so much. I have been richly stimulated to better understand tongues, and especially, how to teach on it for the folks in my church. We have many "repentant Charismatics," if you will (tongue firmly planted in cheek), and they are so wildly interested in the topic. I feel completely confident sending them to your article and teaching. Thanks for your ministry.

As always I have a point for discussion Smile . This one relates to our discussions with continuationists. I have found that any time I can biblically find a point of contact with them, it ends up strengthening my arguments for cessationism. So when I tell them prophecy and tongues were superlative gifts in the NT, and full of positive value for the church, they perhaps find in me someone who tracks with their experience (albeit wrongly interpreted experience). The same happens when we agree that that the spiritual tongues does/did edify the tongues speaker.

You wrote:

Mark Snoeberger wrote:
(1) Continuationists generally suggest that Paul is commending a private usage of tongues as a positive alternative to speaking publicly in untranslated tongues in the assembly. But in view of the nature of tongues, this seems unlikely. How, indeed, can a believer be edified and God glorified by the sustained iteration of words whose meaning is lost to the speaker? In the absence of any sensible answer to this question, it would seem that Paul's positive commendation of tongues (if such it is) is sarcastic.

I believe the answer to your question can be an analogy to the spiritual gift of giving (Romans 12:8). Such a person is self-edified in the exercise of that spiritual gift, even when exercised (especially?) in private. Taking this principal a bit further, even an immature believer, who thereby uses his/her spiritual gift in an immature manner, is still self-edified in its use. For example, teaching. A young believer with a teaching gift is self-edified in his/her own teaching, while yet the listeners - perhaps not so much. The point I'm making is that people partly discover their spiritual gift through the use of it, because in part they experience self-edification in the use of it. Of course, that's not the only way we discover our gifts, but I'm only making a point for the value of self-edification - that it is not bad, or to be distrusted as something less than spiritual.

Therefore, I would say that Paul is not being sarcastic in commending private tongues, although he certainly down plays them. Yes, the meaning of the tongue to the tongues speaker was lost on him when he spoke a tongue privately. He lost out on the edifying power of the interpretation. But the edification to the tongues speaker did not come only by the mental comprehension of the meaning of the tongue, but also in the use of the spiritual gift itself. This is Paul's point in 1 Cor. 14:2, and I don't see him changing it later in the chapter.

This understanding has the following benefits.

1) We don't have to assume sarcasm in Paul. Our prejudice against tongues could lead us to wrongly assume he is being sarcastic, and thereby dismissive of the thing we ourselves would like to dismiss - tongues.

2) He is giving careful counsel to immature believers who have a great spiritual gift, but are immature in its use. We uphold a stronger pastoral model of loving teaching that doesn't demean the reader with sarcasm.

3) We have a point of contact with the continuationist that shows them we read the text closely, and can listen to their experience sympathetically. They themselves experience some form of edification when they speak what they believe is prophecy and tongues as described in Scripture. They are mistaken, I believe, in their self-edification, but this is how they experience it.

4) We affirm that God, who gave the gift of tongues in the apostolic age, was glorified in it.

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Correction

My reference to 1 Cor. 14:2 should have been 1 Cor. 14:4. :~

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Self edification

Ted, I think your view on that is plausible... and I have never been uncomfortable w/the sarcasm view. But Snoeberger offers a good alternative to the sarcasm view also (Robert L Thomas' view) and suggests he prefers it.
There is a sense in which use of a gift edifies the user and maybe sometimes edifies him more than the listeners. But it's a little bit doubtful that the gift is really being exercised at all if there are no listeners. I mean in the teaching example, am I "teaching" if I talk to an empty room? But perhaps tongues is different on that point. Is tongues prophecy in another language or teaching in another language?
Just musing out loud here. I'm not sure yet that we've solved the 1Cor.14.28 problem yet with any of these views. But the idea that "let him speak to himself and to God" may not mean "let him speak in tongues to himself and to God" strikes me as a powerful possibility and rings true.

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Sarcasm is not in 1 Cor. 14:28

Hi Aaron:

We might be having a difference in understanding Mark’s writing and resultant position on tongues. Does Mark understand Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 14:, 28 are sarcasm? I think he does, but you seem to think he does not.

At the top of his paragraph under consideration, he writes:

“Second, Paul’s statement that uninterpreted tongues speak only to God (14:2) and his subsequent directive to speak [in tongues? ] to oneself and to God (14:28) are not to be construed as a positive statements about tongues.”

That phraseology, “not a positive statement about tongues” usually accompanies the sarcasm position.

Then, his statement in the middle of the paragraph, “In the absence of any sensible answer to this question” is also negative toward the idea that tongues can be spoken privately to a good purpose. It was to this statement that I attempted to provide a sensible answer above. We’ll see if he responds, for it is in this statement that Mark claims Paul's commendation of tongues in 1 Cor. 14:28 is sarcasm. As we'll see below, it more than a commendation; its an apostolic command.

Third, he dismisses Thomas’ position with the words, “but this is an inference from silence, and as the foregoing has shown, a poor one.” Thomas’ position is that the speaker in 1 Cor. 14:28 is speaking tongues. Mark’s position is that the speaker in 1 Cor. 14:28 could be doing any kind of speaking, including prayer.

But Thomas’ argument is hardly from silence. We can know that the speaker who is commanded to speak privately in 1 Cor. 14:28 is a tongues-speaker since Paul writes “let him speak to himself and to God.” This “speaking to himself and God” was established by Paul as tongues-speaking all the way back at the beginning of the discussion in 1 Cor. 14:2.

Regarding your doubt “that the gift [of either tongues or teaching ] is really being exercised at all if there are no listeners,” might be cleared up by thinking a bit more on the gift of teaching, for example. The gift has more to it than merely a speaking function; it is more than an “up front” gift. Included in the teaching gift is the grace to be able to understand Scripture when privately studying it, and the mental acumen to arrange it mentally and to order the teaching in such a way that hearers are thereby edified in the teaching. One with the gift of teaching will be self-edified to some measure in all aspects of the gift, the private parts, and the public parts.

Without going too long, all spiritual gifts have this aspect to them. They edify the doer, in both the private and public parts of their use. But others are only edified in the public use.

Therefore, tongues was no different, but its self-edifying value was limited due to the lack of comprehension. The tongues-speaker was self-edified in the private tongues-speaking, but the tongues-speaker’s mind was unfruitful (1 Cor. 14:14).

With that, then, I don’t see a problem at 1 Cor. 14:28. Paul’s rule is simple. If there was no one in church that day with the spiritual gift of interpretation (1 Cor. 12:10), then the tongues speakers are commanded not to speak in tongues out loud, but only within himself, and thereby to the Lord (1 Cor. 14:2). The tongues speaker is being commanded to speak in tongues privately by Paul. This is a hard saying for cessationists until we come to see that tongues was a superlative revelatory gift, and so completely different than anything anyone claims today.

I think Mark’s position on this point is contradictory, and the way out of his position (and many cessationists) is to assume Paul didn't think too much of tongues (hey, just like us), and so used sarcasm to speak derogatorily of them. He reads the imperative “laleito” (let him speak [to himself ]) in 1 Cor. 14:28 as sarcasm. Paul was denigrating tongues by commanding them?

Continuationists are justly miffed when cessationists claim than an apostolic command to do a particular action is actually a prohibition not to do the very action they command. This is part of the reason they have gained so much ground through their authors in recent years. Some of our points simply do not pass the sniff test, and more importantly, leave good exegetes like Carson, et., al, casting our whole position aside.

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Not how I read it

Ted, the paragraph does read that way to me.
Looks to me like he is saying there are two ways to take Paul's satement as not being positive. And he numbers them. The first is the sarcasm view. Then he adds...

Quote:
(2) Perhaps a better understanding, offered by Robert L. Thomas, is that the δέ (“but”) that punctuates 1 Corinthians 14:28 is not adversative

And the "inference from silence" he rejects is the preceding sentence. Here it is in context...
Quote:
One might possibly conclude from Paul’s comments that the believer is to silently commune with God in tongues (a form of “thinking in tongues”), but this is an inference from silence,

He goes on to explain that it's better to take Paul's advice to speak to oneself and God as a directive to do so in one's own language and not in tongues.

Then he sumarizes the view in the sentence that follows...

Quote:
Paul simply tells his readers to be silent and commune to God, commending neither private speaking in tongues nor thinking in tongues.

So there is clearly an option here other than the sarcasm view.

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"not positive statements"

Neither option proposed speaks positively of tongues. Option 1 is sarcastic; option 2 says nothing at all of tongues (they're not in view). I prefer option 2, but I've not closed the door on the sarcastic option. Hope this clarifies.

MAS

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Option 2 is not negative, its neutral

Thanks for all the qualifying. I read and re-read, but I wasn't getting it.

I still don't see option 2 as negative. This is the "let him speak of 1 Cor. 14:28 is silent as to whether it refers to tongues-speaking" argument. If the "let him speak" does not refer to to tongues-speaking, then it doesn't speak negatively or positively about tongues. That's where I was confused.

The third option I'm advocating is that Paul is commending tongues, In fact, Paul is commanding how tongues-speaking should be done if there is no interpreter in church.

This is by far the simplest explanation of the imperative "laleite," and the only option that rests on the contextual indicators, especially 1 Cor. 14:2 and the use of this verb "lalo.". This verb is used an astonishing 19 times in this chapter up through 1 Cor. 14:28. Of these instances, 14 clearly refer to speaking in tongues, including verse 27. To claim the verb "lalo" is silent on tongues-speaking in v. 28 simply can't be maintained in the face of how language works.

Once you start down the path of sarcasm in the passage, or even negativity, you have to go back and read sarcasm into verse two, because the reader cannot pick up any sarcasm reading verse 2 in its contextual flow following 1 Cor. 14:1. In other words, its eisegetical.

Certainly, if Paul had wanted to speak negatively about tongues, a few verses would have sufficed instead of almost 30 verses on the topic. He could have simply said, "don't speak tongues in private, and don't speak tongues in church if there's no one with the gift of interpretation. This gift is only for missionary contexts. Got it? OK. Now, moving on...."

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Quote: "the fact that

Quote: "the fact that interpretation of tongues in 1 Corinthians 14:13, 26, 28 argues convincingly for objective and cognitive meaning i.e.... material that is subject to normal translation procedures"

Normal translation procedures are not required if there is someone in the assembly who has the gift of interpretation of tongues. The gift of interpretation is not equivalent to a prior knowledge of the language being spoken.

"While Paul speaks of a language known only to God it is unlikely that this references a "divine" language that is untranslatable but rather an ordinary language that is untranslated"

It is only unlikely if you approach the text on the cessationist presupposition. Its plain sense does not imply this.

The 1 Corinthian 14:2 passage indicates that its use was permitted even though none there understood the language through prior learning of it so the gift of interpretation was necessary.

"Paul's mention of a language of angels in 1 Corinthians 13:1 could possibly suggest a language unique to angels but it is more likely he was using hyperbole"...etc.

This seems a desperate argument...resort to hyperbole to go against the plain meaning... I would read the passage in its plain commonsense manner without resort to linguistic gymnastics.

The plain reading of 1 Corinthians 14:4 does not suggest to me that Paul esteemed private use of tongues as a vice.. your suggestion was totally new to me...again it does not come out in the plain reading of the text.
When it says let him speak to himself and to God at face value suggests that Paul is saying to speak in tongues quietly.
If you yourself are edified you are more able to edify others is my take.

The case for cessationism flies in the face of the plain reading of Scripture. I continue to hold that true fundamentalism and cessationism are conflicting.

Richard Pajak

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A different case

Today's article offers a different approach.
Personally, I find Dr.Snoeberger's (sorry if I've misspelled that) persuasive on most points.
But Ted argues that tongues have ceased because we having nothing today that is as great as the tongues gift described in 1 Cor.14.

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