Last week we posted an article which argued that the idea of a heavenly prayer language is untenable based on Jesus’ command concerning prayer in Matthew 6:7. Additional questions arise on the issue concerning Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 14.
For example, some continuationists claim for the existence of two different types of tongue gifts. The argument claims that there is one gift in Acts 2 and another in 1 Corinthians 14. Among others, Nate Busenitz has demonstrated that this position is unsound from Scripture.
Other continuationists hold to the position of a heavenly prayer language on the grounds of various details in 1 Corinthians 14. As somewhat of a part two of last week’s post, this will briefly address some of the popular continuationist arguments therefrom. It will not deal with every detail in 1 Corinthians 14, but merely a few of the more common arguments posed in favor of the continuationist position.
A common continuationist position is that there exists a gift of tongues which is a Spirit-given language, understandable by God, that is exercised in prayer between the believer/Spirit-filled individual and God (e.g. Gordon Fee, NICNT: The First Epistle to the Corinthians; and David Guzik, Guzik Bible Commentary). Variations of this position exist within charismatic and continuationist theology.
Before a conclusion can be made from 1 Corinthians, an understanding of the context is needed.
The Context of 1 Corinthians
Overall, the book of Corinthians is written to answer several questions about biblical issues, while offering correction of spiritual pride and error rampant in that church. Many in the Corinthian church were overly fascinated and influenced by the culture. It seems they erred by using the spiritual gift of languages in a disorderly, unedifying fashion, while possible engaging in the popular Greek pagan practice of non-language ecstatic utterances. Though it gave a spiritual high, a sense of elevated spirituality, and a feeling of superiority in the culture and above others, Paul rebukes them because it was disorderly and absent of edification. He will argue for intelligibility and order in the worship service, since that is the prerequisite to edification, which is the goal of gathering (1 Cor. 14:12, 40).
If someone did have the legitimate first-century gift of languages, Paul is correcting the failure to translate the languages in the gathering. While some in Corinth may have manufactured the gift with ecstatic utterances, others likely had the legitimate gift. To these he gives corrective instruction on ensuring translation of the language to ensure edification.
The Context of the NT
The New Testament is absent of a teaching on the existence of Spirit-endowed private prayer language. However, we do see the existence of “tongues,” described with some detail in Acts 2:4-11. In that passage, intelligible human languages are listed (Acts 2:6-11). A natural reading of the text reveals that it is the miraculous ability to speak a previously unlearned foreign language for the purpose of exalting Christ and building up others in a foundational way during the early, first-century church. As with any interpretive issue, the less clear is to be interpreted with the help of the more clear. Thus, 1 Corinthians should be understood in light of Acts 2. The idea of a private prayer language as an endowment from the Spirit, called “tongues,” contradicts the more clear description of the gift in Acts 2.
Second, the Greek word, glossa, used both in Acts (e.g. Acts 2:4, 11; 10:46; 19:6) and 1 Corinthians 14 for tongues means either “language,” or the anatomical organ. The burden of responsibility lies with the continuationist position to demonstrate that the word means something other than an earthly, human language in 1 Corinthians 14.
The Context of Redemptive History
The language gift appears at a specific time in redemptive/salvation history for a specific reason. In Israel’s wake were centuries of nationalistic pride. She had presumed upon her pedigree and broken covenant with God. Her Messiah came, but was rejected to the utmost. In God’s sovereignty, however, he was unfolding a mystery. God would no longer center his redemptive plan on one nation with one language, but all nations and all languages (cf. Matt. 28:18-20, Rev. 7:9). So, at the birth of the church, God made it creatively clear with the miraculous gift of previously unlearned foreign languages that his new nation would be made up of the world’s people groups.
This new language gift was a sign of judgment upon Israel for failing her purpose (cf. 1 Cor. 14:21). An era of hardening had come upon her as God gave time to the nations (cf. Rom. 11:25). What better way to demonstrate that than to endow the early Christians with the ability to speak the word of God in the languages of the people whom Israel despised? The old was fading and the new was dawning. The temporary gift of languages, then, served the transitional period to make it absolutely clear what God was doing in birthing and building the church. As the other apostolic-era gifts, it served a wonderful purpose during those foundational days. But, just like many things which occur in the birth of a human are unique and not repeated, so it was with these miraculous gifts and the birth of the church. Later in the epistles, the gift of languages is never seen or mentioned.
Some continuationists have argued, “See, you cessationists have to craft this elaborate argument just to arrive at your position. If you simply read 1 Corinthians 14, the continuationist position pops right out of the text.” As every book of the Bible, 1 Corinthians was given to a particular church, dealing with particular issues, in a particular town and culture, while God was doing particular things in a particular time in redemptive history. Context is key to meaning. When we read in Alfred Lansing’s, Endurance, of Ernest Shackleton and his sailors shooting their dogs, we understand that Lansing is not prescribing lessons for dog assassination and animal control. There is a context involving Antarctica, sailing in the early 1900’s, starvation, epic voyages, and the like. So, to understand the authorial intent, it behooves the reader to dive into the contextual particulars, lest we violate the meaning of Scripture. Doing so in 1 Corinthians 14 is especially important to properly understand the text.
With that, a few responses to some of the stronger arguments in favor of the continuationist position from 1 Corinthians 14. In each, a continuationist position is given, with a cessationist response.
- “The gift of tongues as a prayer language is the act of speaking to God by the Spirit in prayer, just as it says in v. 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” (1 Cor. 14:2).
Continuationists often hold that, as stated in v. 2, those speaking in tongues are speaking to God, not people. Tongues cannot be the miraculous ability to speak a previously unlearned foreign language to other people because Paul describes the gift as the act of speaking to God. Therefore, some sort of prayer language from the believer to God is in view.
This position clashes with the context of Paul’s correction. The discussion is not about a private prayer language, but intelligibility in the worship service. It would not make sense, for example, to say, “One who prays a private prayer language doesn’t speak to men, but to God, for no one understands him.” Why? Paul is not talking about anything private, but everything corporate; about the public gatherings.
Further, the problem happening in the Corinthian congregation was using the spiritual gift of languages/tongues with no translation. The church was spiritually proud. Individuals with the gift would speak languages miraculously, but no one would translate, which means no one understood. Consequently, the word of God was not taught and no one was edified. It was simply a spiritual fireworks show for the self-exalting benefit of the speaker.
Also, it is possible that others in the congregation were attempting to mimic the gift out of jealousy. As was popular in Greek culture then, some may have been imitating the Greek pagan practice of non-language, ecstatic utterances. However, it seems most likely that Paul is addressing is the genuine gift of languages being used without interpretation.
So what does it mean that “no one understands” and he “does not speak to men but to God”?
Since no one was interpreting the languages, the only one who could understand the languages was God. Consistent with Acts 2, individuals in Corinth spoke real languages. However, only God could understand since no one who spoke the language was present to translate. It was a mystery in that sense.
Additionally, if there were a Spirit-endowed private prayer language, we might expect Paul to say something like, “One who prays in a tongue,” in v. 2, using one of the Greek words for prayer, such as proseuchomai or deomai. However, he uses the Greek word laleo, which refers to human speech. Thus, it is not a Spirit-endowed utterance that is in view, but known, human languages.
But this brings up another issue.
- “Paul does mention praying in a tongue later in v. 14, so, the continuationist position is viable.”
“If I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful” (1 Cor. 14:14).
Both Guzik and Fee argue that Paul’s point is to simply observe how things are in the act of praying Spirit-endowed utterances to God. And, in doing so, they both assert that it is perfectly fine for one’s mind to be unfruitful.” Guzik writes,
“For some, this bypassing of the understanding is undesirable. They never want to relate to God except by and through their understanding…If someone is perfectly satisfied with their ability to relate to God through their understanding, they really have no need for the gift of tongues. But if the day comes when they desire to relate to God beyond their ability to understand, they should seek God for the gift of tongues.”
This position seems to violate the plain teaching of the passage. Again, Paul is correcting abuse of the gift of languages.
First, the Greek term translated, “unfruitful,” has the idea of “useless” (Louw-Nida, 65.34). This term is never used in a positive sense within the New Testament. In fact, the term “fruitful” refers to genuine attitudes and behavior that evidence the true work of the Holy Spirit in the Christian’s life (cf. Matt. 3:8, 14:23; Gal 5:22-23). And, we could go to Matthew 21:19 to see what our Lord things of unfruitfulness. Peter exhorts us to avoid being “useless” or “unfruitful” (same Greek word) (2 Pet. 1:8). From passages like John 15:2 and Jude 12, we see that the unfruitful person is not a Christian. Every use of the term is speaking of unbelievers, sin, or false teachers. And, we are to love the Lord our God with all our mind, not with an unfruitful, useless mind.
Paul teaches here that to pray in a way that is unintelligible is not something he wants them doing. They are to pray in a way that is understandable to them and others. Otherwise, they risk mimicking the drunken Greek oraclers and the pagans who do not know God.
From scenes in heaven, to the Temple, to the Garden of Gethsemane, to boats, and more, Scripture is full of prayers. Yet, not one of them records an occasion of a non-earthly language. They are all known human languages. Thus, Paul is not describing something he wants them doing, but correcting misuse and misunderstanding of the gift. Paul is saying, in effect, “Christians, though it might make you feel good, I don’t want you to be caught up in mindless activity in prayer. Use simple, plain language, just like every other prayer recorded in God’s word.”
- “The gift of tongues as a private prayer language is greatly used to draw me to God and, thus, edify me, just as it says in v. 4.”
“One who speaks in a tongue edifies himself; but one who prophesies edifies the church” (1 Cor. 14:4).
Continuationists teach a variety of positions. Some, like Fee, teach that Paul corrects the use of the Spirit-endowed utterances in corporate worship (657). Gruzik argues that this is not correctional, and there is nothing wrong with the edification of self.
Keeping with the context, v. 4 is corrective in nature. Edifying self is never to be the focus of spiritual gifts. If Paul were teaching that there were such a spiritual gift to be exercised for self-edification, that would contradict everything said in the previous two chapters on spiritual gifts. In fact, Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 12 and 13 in large part precisely to correct the idea of serving oneself. It’s no coincidence that the content of chapters 12 and 13 precede that of 14.
In chapter 12, Paul taught that the purposes of spiritual gifts are: 1) to shine the light on Christ, and, 2) to build up other people in tangible ways. Or, we could say, spiritual gifts are: 1) Jesus-centered, not me-centered, and, 2) community-benefitting, not self-serving.
Paul gives additional insight on spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 13 which rule out the idea of a private gift exercised for self-edification. He exhorts the church in a corrective way, explaining that spiritual gifts are to be used in love. Among other things, love “does not seek its own” (v. 5).
Furthermore, the validity of a spiritual gift is based upon falling in the category of building up others; (12:7;14:3-6, 12-13, 19, 26-28). Spiritual gifts are to put Christ in lights and be used for the common good, which is the opposite of serving myself. We are built up when others use their spiritual gifts while we are the recipients. Paul explained this idea with “the body of Christ” metaphor in chapter 12. A body part does not exist for itself (to edify self) but for the benefit of the other parts. A human lung does not exist for the lung, but to provide the body with oxygen. This rules out the possibility of a Holy Spirit-given gift or ability which is a private practice used for self-edification.
Further, Scripture delineates the gifts generally as speaking and serving gifts (1 Pet. 4:10-11). The cessationist position is consistent with 1 Peter 4:10, in that it was a speaking gift, just like exhortation is a speaking gift. The miraculous ability to speak a previously unlearned foreign language to preach Christ was a wonderful speaking gift used to greatly edify others.
Much more could be said of 1 Corinthians 14 in favor of the cessationist position, for example, the absolute necessity that the gift is a known, human language (v. 11) and how the gift is for unbelievers, indicating that God would now include non-Jews in his redemptive plan (v. 22, consistent with Acts 2 as a spoken, human language),
Therefore, from these verses in 1 Corinthians 14, it is clear that, as in Acts 2, the gift of languages was the miraculous ability to speak an unlearned language that is known by others for the purpose of exalting Christ and building up others. It served as a loud statement at the birth and foundational time of the church to declare that God’s plan of redemption is no longer restricted to one nation, but all nations. It served as a statement of judgment by God on Israel for failing their mission to be a light to the nations. This gift ceased with the apostolic era in the first century as the New Testament church foundation was established.