March 4, 2014

Did Cornelius Speak in Non-human Languages?

by Nathan Busenitz

What are believers today to think about the gift of tongues?

D. A. Carson asks that question in his book, Showing the Spirit. On pages 84–85, he writes:

How … may tongues be perceived? There are three possibilities: [1] disconnected sounds, ejaculations, and the like that are not confused with human language; [2] connected sequences of sounds that appear to be real languages unknown to the hearer not trained in linguistics, even though they are not; [3] and real language known by one or more of the potential hearers, even if unknown to the speaker. . . . Our problem so far is that the biblical descriptions of tongues seem to demand the third category, but the contemporary phenomena seem to fit better in the second category; and never the twain shall meet.

Storms_GuideAs Carson helpfully articulates, contemporary tongues “appear to be real languages . . . even though they are not.” By contrast, biblical tongues consisted of “real language known by one or more of the potential hearers, even if unknown to the speaker.”

But if biblical tongues consisted of real human languages (i.e. a real language known by one or more of the potential hearers), then how can modern continuationists advocate tongues-speech that produces nothing more than the appearance of language? (Those interested in Carson’s unique solution to this dilemma can find it here.)

In his book The Beginner’s Guide to Spiritual Gifts, author Sam Storms — like most continuationists — attempts to answer that dilemma by giving a list of reasons why he believes the New Testament gift of tongues did not necessarily produce real human languages. If he can show that biblical tongues were not always actual languages, he can demonstrate a precedent for the modern gift of tongues. We addressed his first reason in last week’s post. Today we will consider his second argument.

Continuationist Argument 2: The tongues of Acts 10 and 19 were of a different kind than the tongues of Acts 2.

One of the essential tenets of Storms’ position is that Acts 2 (where tongues were clearly real foreign languages) represents an exception, and not the norm. Storms is explicit on this point. He writes:

Acts 2 is the only text in the New Testament where tongues-speech consists of foreign languages not previously known by the speaker. This is an important text, yet there is no reason to think Acts 2, rather than, say, 1 Corinthians 14, is the standard by which all occurrences of tongues-speech must be judged. (emphasis added)

Even in the book of Acts, he seeks to drive a wedge between the tongues of Acts 2 and the tongues of Acts 10 and 19. Storms phrases his case this way:

If tongues-speech is always in a foreign language intended as a sign for unbelievers, why are the tongues in Acts 10 and Acts 19 spoken in the presence of only believers?

In essence, Storms’ argument here is that because the audiences in Acts 10 and 19 were different than the audience in Acts 2, then the nature of the tongues spoken on those various occasions must have been different too.

But it is difficult to see how this argument actually supports the notion of a non-human-language form of tongues. After all, cessationists would readily agree that the immediate audiences of Acts 2, 10, and 19 were different. But they would insist that the tongues spoken on all three occasions consisted of authentic foreign languages previously unlearned by the speakers. In other words, the essence of the phenomenon did not change even if the immediate audience did.

Storms describes the tongues-speech of Acts 2 as that which was “intended as a sign for unbelievers.” He sees that distinction as a key difference between the tongues of Acts 2 and the tongues of Acts 10, 19, and 1 Corinthians 12–14. Based on that distinction, he places the foreign languages of Acts 2 in a separate category from those other New Testament texts. Yet, the force of Storms’ argument at this point is overturned by the words of 1 Corinthians 14:22, where Paul explicitly states that the tongues being spoken in the Corinthian church were also “a sign for unbelievers.”

Moreover, it is not difficult to see how the tongues of Acts 10, for example, served as a sign to the apostate nation of Israel by marking the inclusion of Gentiles into the church. Speaking of the tongues at Pentecost (in Acts 2), John MacArthur explains,

The blessing of that sign [of foreign languages] was that God would build a new nation of Jews and Gentiles to be His people (Gal. 3:28), to make Israel jealous and someday repent (see Rom. 11:11–12, 25–27). The sign was thus repeated when Gentiles were included in the church (Acts 10:44–46). (John MacArthur, First Corinthians Bible Study Guide, 36).

But were the tongues of Acts 10 and 19 something categorically different than the tongues of Acts 2? Did Cornelius and his family utter speech that only appeared to be a language, but really wasn’t? Or did they speak in authentic foreign languages as had happened years earlier to the Jewish believers at Pentecost?

Evidence from the book of Acts confirms that the tongues of Acts 10 and 19 represent the same phenomena as the tongues of Acts 2. For starters, the terminology Luke uses to describe all three events is the same—a combination of “laleo” with “glossa” (in Acts 2:4, 10:46, and 19:6). Luke clearly defines what he means by those terms in Acts 2 (i.e. speaking foreign languages). Nothing in either Acts 10 or Acts 19 suggests that he suddenly and inexplicably changed that definition later in his narrative.

Furthermore, Peter expressly states that the phenomenon experienced at Cornelius’ house in Acts 10 was the same as the experience in Acts 2. In Acts 11:15–17 (cf. 15:8), Peter told the Jewish believers in Jerusalem:

And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as He did upon us at the beginning.  And I remembered the word of the Lord, how He used to say, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ Therefore if God gave to them the same gift as He gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?

It was only after the Jewish Christians heard that these Gentiles had received the Holy Spirit in the same way as those at Pentecost that they were willing to accept them into the church. As Luke writes in verse 18, “When they heard this, they quieted down and glorified God, saying, ‘Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life.’”

If the Gentiles of Acts 10 had experienced something categorically different than what Jewish believers experienced on the Day of Pentecost, the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem would have remained reluctant to embrace them into the church. But because their experience was the same, it was obvious to all that the Holy Spirit was, in fact, welcoming Gentiles into the church.

In light of Peter’s clear statement, there is no reason to assume that the tongues of Acts 10 (and by extension Acts 19) were categorically different than the tongues of Acts 2. Consequently, most continuationists retreat to the book of 1 Corinthians in order to make their case for a second category of non-human glossolalia. (This is, in fact, where Sam Storms develops most of his arguments.) Over the next few weeks, we will consider key texts from 1 Corinthians, such as 12:10, 13:1, and 14:2.

Today, however, our focus has centered on the book of Acts. Based on Luke’s consistent use of key terms and Peter’s clear testimony, there is no compelling reason to abandon the historic understanding of Acts 10 and 19—namely, that the tongues spoken in those chapters consisted of real foreign languages, just like the tongues of Pentecost in Acts 2.

If that is true, then Storms’ premise (that Acts 2 is the only text where tongues-speech consisted of authentic foreign languages) is shown to be false.

Nathan Busenitz

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Nathan serves on the pastoral staff of Grace Church and teaches theology at The Master's Seminary in Los Angeles.
  • Brad

    Great points Nathan! Thanks!

    • Nate_Busenitz

      Thanks Brad. I expect the discussion to become more lively when we get to 1 Corinthians next week.

  • Dan Phillips

    ” (Those interested in Carson’s unique solution to this dilemma can find it here.)”

    You misselled “seeing how far some are willing to go to avoid saying the obvious about Charismaticism.”

    • Nate_Busenitz

      I thought Jesse Johnson’s response to Carson’s view provided a sufficient rebuttal. That’s why I simply linked to Jesse’s article and moved on to address Storms. Like you, I find Carson’s proposed solution regarding modern tongues (as a code language) unconvincing.

      • Dan Phillips

        It was yooma, not a criticism of your writing. The serious point in the humor is: in recent years I’ve taken a step back and looked at the mountains of redefinitions and excuses and deflections, all crafted to “save face” for Charismatics, and asked myself, “Why?”

        In most contexts, we’ll call a fraud a fraud. If you advertise hamburgers and I order one, and you then bring me a plate with an orange on it, I’m not going to search the Nag Hammadi texts to find some way to “explain” how an orange is analogous to a hamburger. I’ll just say “I know what a burger is. That’s not a burger.”

        But here’s an entire movement that is still alive in part only thanks to folks like Carson, willing to embarrass themselves like this, to prop up something that should have died a merciful death long ago.

        • Philip

          Honestly I don’t think anything would change even if guys like Carson, Storms, and Piper reversed their positions. I was previously in an international church that leaned heavily charismatic and in discussions with the charismatics there I got the impression that in their minds there was no Christianity without tongues, hearing God’s voice every minute of the day, and “miracles” happening all around us – even if the stories are always secondhand and unverifiable. Two guys in particular who I had ongoing conversations with over about a year and a half just would not even consider the Biblical arguments against charismaticism, were not open to examining church history, and wouldn’t listen to arguments that the tongues and miracles in Acts were of an entirely different nature than the supposed tongues and miracles of today. They had their experiences and that was the end of the discussion.

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  • It is so easy to understand the way you break it down. Thanks.

  • Josh Marquez

    Thank you very much, your articles have been of much help, specially in this time where me and my family are in the transition to find a new church (non charismatic) …….

    • Steve

      Awesome, Josh. I pray that God would lead you and your family to go right where He wants you. He’s faithful, and He will. Amen!

  • Steve

    This was very helpful for me, thank you so much. And thanks be to God the Holy Spirit for using his servants to make things clear for us.

  • Harry

    [Paul explicitly states that the tongues being spoken in the Corinthian church were also ”a sign for unbelievers.”] The wherefore in V22 indicates a conclusion and application of what has just been said. Tongues are a sign to the unbeliever; from your perspective Nathan, the unbelieving hearer may respond to this phenomenon of “tongues” because it was their own language (spoken by another person untrained in that linguistic skill) and then another person translates that message in the most common language in room, so that all are blessed. Your assumption here is the language is recognized by the unbeliever therefore they are amazed. But why would they be amazed… can only be the content. But the amazement for the unbeliever could be the manifestation of the phenomenon itself in an unknown unlearned language. Surely the unbeliever, knowing it is unknown to both himself and the speaker and requiring interpretation; would be a sign? But Paul’s point in this passage is order and overall benefit.

    Paul points out that the purpose of prophesy is to minister to believers especially. In verse 23 he has said it produces edification, exhortation and comfort. Notice the results of tongues for the unbeliever or of prophecy for the believer depends on the hearer. The manifestation comes from God, but the hearer must respond in a proper way. If no unbeliever was present at the beginning of the service they should edify each other and that requires prophecy. Paul’s point is that others be edified.

    I think your main point of attack should be V17-19. Regarding “tongues” v18 (glossais) I expect you may hold that Paul’s tongues were his linguistic versatility; well educated; multilingual acquired skill; and NOT a gift of the Holy Spirit. Hence Paul would resort to his various linguistic skills as he preached the gospel. As he did in Jerusalem preaching to the Hellenistic Jews.

    It really depends on how you treat “glossai” —glossa (tongue) and laleo. Speaking in tongues was not the focus of Peter’s speech, the coming of the Spirit was. Tongues, therefore corroborate that the Spirit, last days and new covenant has indeed come. …Jews and gentiles .

    1 Corinthians the main emphasis shifts for tongues being a functional gift within a community with the purpose that God is speaking “heteroglossos” I Co 14:21 citing Isa 28:11 through his covenant people. The shift of emphasis is that 1 Corinthians presupposes the inclusion of Gentiles into the covenant community, therefore possession of the Spirit served not so much as to confirm its status as it did to ensure the continuity of this community of the last days; hence the common denominator with Acts is the Spirit’s presence as a sign of the last days.

    The perspective of the Corinthians is eschatological; however, in pursuit of realizing their eschatological privileges they abused gifts of the Spirit which were given to strengthen them. How or when the Corinthians were “baptized in the Spirit” with tongues following is irrelevant in Corinthians. They had the Spirit’s fullness; what they needed was restraint. Tongues and obvious gift to possess, as it is today, suffered abuse because too much emphasis was placed on it. The overemphasis was leading to the abuse of tongues and devaluing of other equally valuable gifts. Paul did not downplay tongues, rather he encouraged diversity of the charismata. He spoke in tongues (14:6) and he advised them not to “hinder” speaking in tongues, despite the problems ( 1 Cor 14:39).

    Tongues originate in the Holy Spirit and they glorify and bring honor to God. When interpreted they direct men and women to God. In a personal sense, tongues directed to God edify the individual (14:4) and offer thanks to God (14:17). They are prayers offered to God “in the Spirit” but on the community level can potentially complicate the order of service. I see no argument for cessation.

  • mrkerryh

    I am ready to hit the hay but I think to help those future tongue talkers
    One reads in Isaiah 28:9-13 of the Prophet giving an exhortation some 90 years prior to Joel’s also great exposition concerning the Great Awakening of the Baptism of the infilling of the Speaking in Tongues to the Great Congregation i.e. Believers to come in the Ladder Days Including our Day the End Times !!
    Why did Isaiah forewarn the People in Peter’s time and our time ??? as cited so very well in His writings 28:9- ff Whom shall he teach knowledge? and whom shall he make to understand doctrine? they that are weaned from the milk… For precept must be upon precept…line upon line…here a little and there a little: vs:11 For with stammering lips and another tongue will he speak to this people. vs:12 To whom he said, this is the rest wherewith ye may cause the weary to rest; and this is the refreshing: AND THIS IS THE CRUX OF ALL THE CONTENSIONS REGARDING THE SPEAKING IN TONGUES, UNKNOWN TONGUES, ETC. those who deliberately refuse to accept this Gift from the Holy Spirit are subjugated to vs. 13 YES THE REBELLIOUS VERSE 13 !!! it tells us so succinctly “BUT THE WORD OF THE LORD WAS UNTO THEM PRECEPT UPON PRECEPT…LINE UPON LINE…HERE A LITTLE AND THERE A LITTLE; THAT THEY MIGHT GO AND FALL BACKWARD , AND BE BROKEN, AND SNARED, AND TAKEN. !!!
    Do you Unbelievers not understand your building this false doctrine denying Tongues are for the Believer Today for a Great continual Blessing is causing a CURSE upon you !!! so Isaiah forewarns all Christians to come !!!
    You are truly grieving the Spirit of Grace and He will in the time of judgment say to you deniers ” I never knew you ” !!!

    • Philip

      Can you tell me if I have understood your position correctly? Are you saying that a person who does not believe that what Pentecostals/charismatics call speaking in tongues today is the same as the occurrences of speaking in tongues in Acts and 1 Corinthians is not saved? Will a person who has repented and trusted in Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins suffer eternal damnation if, as a result of studying the Biblical texts and examining church history, they come to the conclusion that the gift of tongues ceased sometime in the first century?

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