September 3, 2013

Carson and the gift of tongues, or something

by Jesse Johnson

First, let me encourage you to read Clint’s post yesterday. I know many of our US readers might have missed it in light of the holiday.

Second, while Don Carson’s book Showing the Spirit is a few years old, of late it has taken on a life of its own in the blogosphere. Charismatics (the kind that say “don’t call me charismatic, but don’t say tongues have ceased either!”) point to this book as a defense of their position. Frank Turk reviews the book itself over at Pyromaniacs, but I think the best critique of it is to simply read the section where Carson explains his view of modern tongues. I posted this a year ago, but with the renewed interest in the book, I thought it might be helpful to post it again:

My continuationist friends (and I do have a few) proudly trumpet D. A. Carson as being one of them. In fact, I have met more than one person who has told me that they are continuationist in large part because of Carson’s book, Showing the Spirit, which is his exegetical work on 1 Corinthians 12-14.

And, truth be told, this is one of Carson’s best books, and certainly is one of the best books on spiritual gifts ever written. It is thorough, compelling, and takes the reader deeper into the meaning and significance of every verse in those chapters…with one obvious and comical exception.  

In the NT, the gift of tongues was the ability to speak in actual languages. Just about every NT scholar grants that. Carson establishes that as well, and his case is unassailable. With that in mind, there are really only two semi-plausible ways to legitimize the modern use of “tongues.”

One is to say that what happens today is an actual known language. What you hear at your local Pentecostal church is some language that you simply are not familiar with, such as Swahili.  But with the advent of tape recorders and airplanes (and the field of linguistics), these claims are really untenable. Carson even grants that to be the case.

Instead, Carson opts for a second approach, which I dub the Vern Poythress way: grant that NT tongues were actual languages, and also grant that the modern day use of tongues is not the speaking in actual languages. But if that is the case, why does Poythress say that the gift is still on going? Because what happens today, Poythress argues, is analogous to the NT gift of tongues. It may not be the same thing, but it is the same family of thing. This view is critiqued remarkably well over at Pyromaniacs, and I will not rehash it here.

Which brings us back to the strange section in Showing the Spirit where Carson defends this view. He too grants that the NT gift was actual languages. But the tongues spoken today, he writes, are more like a computer language (picture Pig Latin put to code) than Swahili. While human language is decipherable, Carson’s understanding of the modern day gift of tongues is that it is just like a real language, except that it is undecipherable. Tongues may sound like gibberish, but that is because we don’t have the key to unlock the code.

I want to reprint Carson’s argument here because I think reading it (out loud, please) is actually the best critique of it. Keep in mind as you read it that these two pages are surrounded by some of the best exegetical work of our generation, and the overall benefit of Carson’s book far, far, far outweighs the nature of these two pages. In fact, what makes these two pages astounding is the contrast between this argument and the rest of the book. Finally, keep in mind that this argument is what is often put forward as one of the best defenses of continuationism out there. So if you are a cessationist, read this and weep (or slightly chuckle). It is pages 85-86:

“Suppose the message is:

Praise the Lord, for his mercy endures forever.

Remove the vowels to achieve:


This may seem a bit strange; but when we remember that modern Hebrew is written without most vowels, we can imagine that with practice this could be read quite smoothly. Now remove the spaces and, beginning with the first letter, rewrite the sequence using every third letter, repeatedly going through the sequence until all the letters are used up. The result is:


Now add an ‘a’ sound after each consonant, and break up the unit into arbitrary bits:


I think that is indistinguishable from transcriptions of certain modern tongues. Certainly it is very similar to some I have heard. but the important point is that it conveys information provided you know the code [bold reflects Carson’s use of italics]. Anyone who knows the steps I have taken could reverse them in order to retrieve the original message…

It appears, then, that tongues may bear cognitive information even though they are not known human languages–just as a computer program is a ‘language’ that conveys a great deal of information, even though it is not a ‘language’ that anyone actually speaks. You have to know the code to be able to understand it. Such a pattern of verbalization could not be legitimately dismissed as gibberish. It is as capable of conveying propositional and cognitive content as any known human language. ‘Tongue’ and ‘language’ still seem eminently reasonable words to describe the phenomenon…”

Carson goes on to say that not all that is practiced today under the auspices of tongues is the real deal (phew!), but that there may be uses of it that are an actual language (in the computer sense of the word), and that the biblical gift of interpretation is the ability to know the code, and thus unlock the meaning.

And that, my friends,  is one of the best exegetical defenses of the modern day continutationist movement.


Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • Dan Phillips

    And why add an “a”? Why not add an “f”? Then we could conclude (with precisely as much exegetical validity) that every whoopee cushion has a deep divine message for us.

  • Hahaha. Waaaaaaaaay too funny. Like arguing w a flat earther or someone who believes the stork delivers babies.

  • Scott Welch

    So, does anyone who uses this argument realize that encryption is designed to conceal the message? It’s a sensitive message that must only be seen by approved recipients. Seems to go against the public and clear proclamation of God’s Word.

  • Jim

    Here’s something I’ve been wondering about in this whole recent debate: What about an explanation of tongues like that suggested in Anthony C. Thiselton’s commentary on 1 Corinthians? I’m only a layman, so maybe I’ve misunderstood it, but the suggestion seems to be that what Paul refers to as tongues in 1 Corinthians is related to what he writes in Romans 8:26 about the Spirit and groanings too deep for words. So “tongues” in 1 Corinthians may simply be Spirit-led, inarticulate expression of deep feeling or emotion. If that’s the case, it would benefit the one doing it but would need to be articulated in words to benefit others. Even so, it still isn’t “tongues” as practiced among most charismatics today.

    • Rebecca Schwem

      Jim, I’m thinking of that saying,”there are no words to express how feel”. So in that case, you may be correct, in that the one moaning gibberish is releasing perhaps some sort of primal emotion? The rest of us are just curious onlookers. It’s still no language at all. If it was, then screaming like a banshee could be considered a language too.

    • Jim

      Perhaps my comment was too tangential to the intent post; I’m sorry if it was. My point was intended to be more or less the same as Carson’s larger point in that section of his book.

      This is what Carson writes immediately before the portion quoted in the post: “[Poythress] offers his own amusing illustration; I shall manufacture another.”

      This is what he writes after the portion quoted in the post: “This does not mean that all modern tongues phenomena are therefore biblically authentic. It does mean that there is a category of linguistic phenomenon that conveys cognitive content, may be interpreted, and seems to meet the constraints of the biblical descriptions, even though it is no known human language. Of course, this will not do for the tongues of Acts 2, where the gift consisted of known human languages; but elsewhere, the alternative is not as simple as ‘human language’ or ‘gibbersih,’ as many noncharismatic writers affirm.”

      Just as “brad” writes below, Carson is offering an illustration — an “amusing” one — of a possible third category that is neither “human language” nor “gibberish.” As I wrote in my comment above, Anthony Thiselton seems to offer another in his commentary of 1 Corinthians.

      As I suggested, no one in this debate seems to be addressing the possibility that “tongues” in 1 Corinthians falls into such a third category. So, is it possible that “tongues” is neither an actual human language nor gibberish but is still a biblical practice? Addressing that issue would be an actual response to what Carson writes in his book that rises above mere ridicule.

    • elainebitt

      “In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26)

      Who is groaning?

      I have always found interesting that people who use Rom. 8:26 to biblicaly support their gibberish talking don’t really pay attention at the grammar. But that would be too much to ask I guess.

      • Jim

        Fair enough: In Romans 8:26 it’s the Holy Spirit who intercedes with groanings. But does that necessarily mean that the person who doesn’t know how to pray as he should and for whom the Holy Spirit is interceding is expressing nothing while he’s trying to pray?

        The larger issue, however, is still whether it’s possible that the “tongues” Paul is referring to in 1 Corinthians falls into a third category besides known human languages and, as you put it, “gibberish talking.” Carson gives an example of such a third category and concludes that, outside of Acts 2, “the alternative is not as simple as ‘human language’ or ‘gibbersih,’ as many noncharismatic writers affirm.” Thiselton seems to give another such example.

        Below, Mr. Chantry condemns Carson because “he undermines his argument and gives the lie to his respectable credentials by allowing preconceived prejudices to intrude.” Is it possible that some noncharismatics are completely unable to see the point that Carson is making and respond to it because they’re the ones who are allowing their preconceived prejudices to intrude?

        • elainebitt

          “But does that necessarily mean that the person who doesn’t know how to
          pray as he should and for whom the Holy Spirit is interceding is
          expressing nothing while he’s trying to pray?”

          They can bark, meow, whatever sound they wanna make. That doesn’t make the sound a “language”. I mean, I sometimes cry when I pray. Is that crying a language in itself?

          Which brings me to this question: what is “language”?

          You see, once we allow ourselves to think because something says X it doesn’t mean it necessarily exclude Y, the door is open to all kinds of interpretation. That is why the bible explains the bible, as it’s often said “the Bible is its own best commentary”.

          The more I think about what Carson proposes the more I shake my head. A “code”? Really???

          • Brad

            Hi Elaine,

            Carson is saying that if you study the use of the word “tongues” in the Bible, you will find that it sometimes refers to neither a human language nor gibbersish. He is saying that you find that third category in the Bible.

            Hope that helps!

      • Jim

        Let’s even assume for the sake of argument that what passes for “tongues” in most charismatic circles today is in fact unbiblical “gibberish talking.” Is it possible that that there is still a category of “tongues” that is neither a human language nor gibberish and still biblical? That seems to be the issue that both Carson and Thiselton are raising.

        • elainebitt

          In the realm of hypotheticals everything and anything is possible. Thankfully that’s not what we have to deal with when we come to the Word.

          Therefore: “Is it possible that that there is still a category of “tongues” that is
          neither a human language nor gibberish and still biblical?”, where would you find that in the Bible?

          • Jim

            I guess when I ask if it’s possible, I’m asking if you can entertain the possibility that Paul’s use of “tongues” is broad enough to include something that is neither a recognized human language nor pure gibberish. Or are you adamant that those are the only two alternatives. Can you entertain the possibility and consider Carson’s — and Thiselton’s — argument that such a third category fits Paul’s description of “tongues” in 1 Corinthians better than human language does?
            With this I think I’m finished: All I’m saying is that it’d be nice to see someone in this debate interact with Carson’s entire argument, which isn’t limited to the portion on pp. 85-86, quoted in the post, but spans pp. 77-88. Or Interact with Thiselton’s even longer discussion.

  • Tom Chantry

    Why exactly is everyone falling over himself to say what a great scholar Carson is, even while pointing out pure and unadulterated nonsense such as this? Is it helpful to the church to say, “Carson is a brilliant exegete, except when he’s not, which he often isn’t”?

    I like your post; honestly I do. I like the approach of simply presenting Carson’s argument as something truly beyond parody. But please, stop being so nice.

    Of the writer of such thoroughgoing twaddle we can say the following: he is not a reliably faithful exegete, he is not a reliably insightful theologian, he is not a reliably wise Christian, and he is not a reliably skillful leader of any sort of coalition – gospel or otherwise.

    • Tom: well, I’ve not made a secret about my lack of admiration for TGC, and the way that whole thing unfolded has to hurt credibility. That said, I don’t want to judge a person by their lowest point. I also don’t want to judge Showing the Spirit by its lowest point (captured above). It really is a good book. The reality is that he really makes an air tight case for cessationism, but then tries to inject air into it, and that looks like what you read above. But the rest of the book demonstrates exceptional and careful exegesis, making the final product very helpful–with the exception noted above. So I’m not being “nice” out of any kind of necessity, but simply because I like what Carson writes.

      • Tom Chantry

        Fair enough. If it was that good, then treat it as such.

        My own observation is that time and again Dr. Carson does exactly this: he undermines his argument and gives the lie to his respectable credentials by allowing preconceived prejudices to intrude. It is common enough to make me read everything from him very skeptically.

  • Kofi Adu-Boahen

    I’m gonna go ahead and grab my copy and check that. Because that has to be one of the most hilarious defenses of tongues in print!

    • Rebecca Schwem

      I agree. I was getting all ready to be stumped. I tried to read all the instructions and it was so silly, I was waiting for the punch line! Gotcha!

  • As Mr. Friel would say..aye yi gefilte fish ..(!!)

  • brad

    I just read the section from Carson’s book. He is using it as an illustration. It actually makes a lot of sense when read in the context of his argument.

    • sure. its an illustration of how tongues can still exist, after having proved that it must be a real language, and that modern tongues is not. this is his illustration of how that does not contradict. is there a way i could have introed it differently/

      • brad

        Hi Jesse,

        I think Dr. Carson’s argument is quite a bit more nuanced. Here is the paragraph that helped me understand his argument and see its validity:

        “There is a category of linguistic phenomenon that conveys cognitive content, may be interpreted, and seems to meet the constraints of the biblical descriptions, even though it is no known human language. Of course, this will not do for the tongues of Acts 2, where the gift consisted of known human languages; but elsewhere, the alternative is not as simple as “human languages” or “gibberish,” as many noncharismatic writers affirm. Indeed, the fact that Paul can speak of different kinds of tongues (12: 10, 28) may suggest that on some occasions human languages were spoken (as in Acts 2), and in other cases not— even though in the latter eventuality the tongues were viewed as bearing cognitive content.”

  • Brian Roden

    Regarding your claim that there is no evidence of modern tongues among Pentecostals and Charismatics being known human languages, I suggest you check out Global Witness to Pentecost by Jordan Daniel May. Over 80 documented cases of modern-day xenolalia

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