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:
PRS TH LRD FR HS MRC NDRS FRVR.
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:
PATARA RAMA NA SAVARAHA DAHARA DAFARASALA FASA CARARA.
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.