In last week’s post, we introduced a series about the gift of tongues. Cessationists generally define the gift of tongues as the supernatural ability to speak authentic foreign languages that the speaker had not previously learned. Continuationists, by contrast, generally allow for the possibility that the gift produces speech that does not correspond to any human language. The question we are asking in this series is whether or not that possibility is biblically warranted.
Does the Gift of Tongues Produce Non-Human Languages?
Most continuationists acknowledge that modern tongues-speech predominately consists of something other than human foreign languages.
Of course, some continuationists point to anecdotal evidence to claim that modern glossolalia (tongues-speaking) can sometimes consist of human languages. But even supporters of modern tongues, like George P. Wood of the Assemblies of God, admit the infrequency of such reported occurrences. After commenting on alleged accounts “where one person spoke in a tongue that a second person recognized as a human language,” Wood is quick to state: “Admittedly, such occurrences are rare” (from his review of Strange Fire, published Jan. 13, 2014).
Such occurrences are so rare, in fact, that continuationist claims about modern glossolalia producing real human languages remain unconvincing to everyone outside the charismatic movement (including both Christians and non-Christians). As we saw in the previous post, professional linguists (like William Samarin of the University of Toronto) who study glossolalia have concluded that it “fundamentally is not language.” D. A. Carson, himself a non-cessationist, represents an objective assessment of the evidence when he writes: “Modern tongues are lexically uncommunicative and the few instances of reported modern xenoglossia [speaking foreign languages] are so poorly attested that no weight can be laid on them” (Showing the Spirit, 84).
The evidence, or lack thereof, leaves continuationists like Sam Storms in the necessary position of contending that modern tongues-speaking is legitimate, even if it does not consist of genuine human languages. According to Storms, the gift of tongues in New Testament times did not always express itself in human language either. In his 2012 book, The Beginner’s Guide to Spiritual Gifts, Storms gives nine reasons why tongues were not necessarily human languages. His arguments are typical of other continuationist authors, and as such provide a representative sampling of the continuationist position.
Storms’ chapter on tongues (chapter 9 in the book) begins by asking the very question we are asking in this blog series. He writes, “Are tongues human languages? This is a key question for those who say the gift of tongues has ceased for today” (p. 179). After distinguishing the cessationist position from that of the continuationist, Storms reiterates the heart of the issue: “Is it true that ‘all tongues in the New Testament were human language’?” (ibid.).
Storms, of course, answers that question in the negative, which brings us to his first reason for concluding that tongues in the New Testament were not necessarily human languages.
Continuationist Argument 1: The manifestation of tongues described in Acts 2 is not the only kind of tongues described in the New Testament.
There is no question that the tongues in Acts 2 consisted of authentic foreign languages. Luke states, in Acts 2:4, “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance.” Luke continues in vv. 9–11 to list some 16 different languages and dialects that were spoken.
Storms readily admits that the tongues described in Acts 2 were human foreign languages. But he proceeds to argue that this is the only place in the New Testament where that was true. To quote Storms:
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 (p. 180).
Storms’ view—that there are two types of tongues in the New Testament (only one of which consisted of human languages)—is fairly common among continuationists. As Adrian Warnock once explained on his blog: “One thing that most of us [continuationists] agree on is that there are different kinds of tongues. . . . I think it is fair to say that the tongues of 1 Corinthians are different from those of Acts 2.”
But does the biblical evidence allow for this distinction? More specifically, is the gift of tongues in 1 Corinthians categorically different than the gift described in Acts? I certainly don’t believe so.
Here are seven observations from the biblical text that indicate the gift of tongues is the same in both Acts and 1 Corinthians:
1. Same Terminology: In both Acts and 1 Corinthians 12–14, the same words are used to describe the gift of tongues. Both Luke and Paul repeatedly describe the phenomena using the combination of laleo (“to speak”) and glossa (“languages”) (Acts 2:4, 11; 10:46; 19:6; 1 Cor. 12:10, 28; 13:1, 8; 14:2, 4, 5, 9, 13, 18, 19, 22, 23, 26, 27, 39).
2. Same Description (as languages): In both Acts and 1 Corinthians 12–14, the gift of tongues is directly associated with foreign languages. In Acts 2, foreign languages are clearly in view, and Luke lists a number of them in vv. 9–11. In 1 Corinthians 14:10–11, Paul associates tongues with the “many kinds of languages in the world.” Moreover, Paul’s reference to Isaiah 28:11–12 in 1 Cor. 14:21 supports the notion that he has foreign languages in mind.
We might add that the gift of interpretation confirms that the nature of tongues in 1 Corinthians consisted of authentic foreign languages (cf. 1 Cor. 12:10; 14:5, 13). On the day of Pentecost, Jewish pilgrims from various parts of the world did not need an interpreter to understand the languages that were being spoken. But in the congregation in Corinth, an interpreter was needed so that anyone who did not understand the language being spoken could be edified. As Norman Geisler explains: “The fact that the tongues of which Paul spoke in 1 Corinthians could be ‘interpreted’ shows that it was a meaningful language. Otherwise it would not be an ‘interpretation’ but a creation of the meaning. So the gift of ‘interpretation’ (1 Corinthians 12:30; 14:5, 13) supports the fact that tongues were a real language that could be translated for the benefit of all by this special gift of interpretation.”
3. Same Source (the Holy Spirit): In both Acts and 1 Corinthians 12–14, the gift of tongues was given by the Holy Spirit. The miraculous tongues in Acts were directly related to the working of the Holy Spirit (2:4, 18; 10:44–46; 19:6). In fact, tongue-speaking is evidence of having received the “gift” (dorea) of the Holy Spirit (10:45). As in Acts, the gift of tongues in 1 Corinthians was directly related to the working of the Holy Spirit (12:1, 7, 11, etc.). Similarly, the gift of tongues is an evidence (or “manifestation”) of having received the Holy Spirit (12:7).
4. Same Recipients (both apostles and non-apostles): In both Acts and 1 Corinthians 12–14, the gift of tongues was experienced by both apostles and non-apostles. On the Day of Pentecost it involved all of those gathered in the Upper Room. In Acts 11:15–17 (and 15:8), Peter explains that the experience of Acts 10 was the same as that of Acts 2, even noting that Cornelius and his household had received the same gift as the apostles on the Day of Pentecost. In 1 Corinthians, Paul, as an apostle, possessed the gift of tongues (14:18). Yet he recognized that there were non-apostles in the Corinthian church who also possessed the gift.
5. Same Sign (to unbelievers): In both Acts and 1 Corinthians 12–14, the gift of tongues was given as a sign to the nation of Israel that God was now working through the Jew-Gentile church. In Acts, it is presented as a sign for unbelieving Jews (2:5, 12, 14, 19). In 1 Corinthians, as in Acts, the gift of tongues was a sign for unbelieving Jews (14:21–22; cf. Is. 28:11). Thus, the Corinthian use of tongues was a sign just as the apostles’ use of tongues was a sign on the day of Pentecost.
6. Same Connection (to prophecy): In the book of Acts, the gift of tongues is closely connected with prophecy (2:16–18; 19:6) and with other signs that the apostles were performing (2:43). In 1 Corinthians, as in Acts, the gift of tongues is closely connected with prophecy (all throughout 12–14). Interestingly, continuationists contend that the gift of prophecy in Acts is the same as the gift of prophecy in 1 Corinthians. Only the gift of tongues gets redefined.
7. Same Reaction (from unbelievers): In Acts 2, some of the unbelieving Jews at Pentecost accused the apostles of being drunk when they heard them speaking in other tongues (foreign languages which those particular Jews did not understand). Similar to Acts, in 1 Corinthians, Paul states that unbelievers will accuse the Corinthians of being mad [not unlike “drunk”] if their tongues are not interpreted (14:23), and are therefore not understood by the hearer.
Also: Added to this is the fact that Luke (the author of Acts) was a close associate of Paul (the writer of 1 Corinthians), and wrote under Paul’s apostolic authority. Moreover, the book of Acts was written after the first epistle to the Corinthians. It is unlikely, then, that Luke would have used the exact same terminology as Paul if he understood there to be an essential difference between the two gifts (especially since such could lead to even greater confusion about the gifts — a confusion which plagued the Corinthian church).
And: There is also the issue of sound hermeneutics: In interpreting the Bible, we use the clearer passage to help us understand the less-clear passage. In this case Acts 2 is the clearer passage. So it is appropriate to allow our understanding of Acts to inform our interpretation of 1 Corinthians. Author Gerhard Hasel put it this way:
There is but one clear and definitive passage in the New Testament which unambiguously defines “speaking in tongues” and that is Acts 2. If Acts 2 is allowed to stand as it reads, then “tongues” are known, intelligible languages, spoken by those who received the gift of the Holy Spirit and understood by people who came from the various areas of the ancient world to Jerusalem. We may raise a question of sound interpretation. Would it not be sound methodologically to go from the known definition and the clear passage in the New Testament to the less clear and more difficult passage in interpretation? Should an interpreter in this situation attempt to interpret the more difficult passage of 1 Cor 12–14 in light of the clearer passage of Acts 2? Is this not a sound approach?
And, as we noted in last week’s post, the church historically equated the tongues of Acts with the tongues of Corinth.
Conclusion: The biblical (and historical) evidence leads us to conclude that there is only one gift of tongues, and (based on its description in Acts 2) it consisted of authentic foreign languages that the speaker had not previously learned (Mark 16:17; Acts 2:4, 8–11; 10:47; 11:17). Storms’ claim that the tongues of Acts 2 were categorically different than the tongues of 1 Corinthians falls short.
To quote again from D. A. Carson:
If [Paul] knew of the details of Pentecost (a currently unpopular opinion in the scholarly world, but in my view eminently defensible), his understanding of tongues must have been shaped to some extent by that event. Certainly tongues in Acts exercise some different functions from those in 1 Corinthians; but there is no substantial evidence that suggests Paul thought the two were essentially different. We have established high probability, I think, that Paul believed the tongues about which he wrote in 1 Corinthians were cognitive. (Showing the Spirit, 83).
Such a conclusion has significant ramifications for contemporary charismatics: when they acknowledge that the modern form of tongues-speaking does not involve actual foreign languages, they are simultaneously acknowledging that their contemporary experience does not have any New Testament precedent.
(We plan to continue this series next week.)