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.
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).
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 : 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.