April 1, 2014

The Tongues of Angels

by Nathan Busenitz

angelThis post is part 5 in our series on the gift of tongues. (To access previous posts, please click here.)

In particular, we are considering the continuationist claim that tongues in the New Testament were not necessarily real human foreign languages. One leading evangelical proponent of this position is Sam Storms, who articulates his views in The Beginner’s Guide to Spiritual Gifts. In this series, we have been responding to the arguments presented by Storms in that book.

In today’s post, we will consider one of the most common arguments for a type of tongues-speech that is non-earthly and non-human in character.

Continuationist Argument 4: The reference to “tongues of angels” in 1 Cor. 13:1 demands the possibility of heavenly (non-earthly) languages.

Sam Storms articulates this argument as follows:

Paul referred to ‘tongues of men and of angels’ (1 Cor. 13:1). While he may have been using hyperbole, he just as likely may have been referring to heavenly or angelic dialects for which the Holy Spirit gives utterance.

I am thankful that Storms (as well as other continuationists like D. A. Carson) allow for the possibility of hyperbole in 1 Corinthians 13:1, because I am convinced from the context that that is exactly how the phrase ought to be understood. Why?

The phrase in 1 Corinthians 13:1 is parallel to Paul’s subsequent statements (in v. 2) of knowing “all mysteries and all knowledge” and of having “all faith so as to [literally] remove mountains.” Both of those statements articulate hyperbolic impossibilities (since no one can know all mysteries or have all knowledge or possess all faith). In verse 3, Paul gives additional extreme examples: giving “away all my possessions” and giving “my body to be burned.” While martyrdom is obviously possible, it still fits the pattern of Paul’s use of extreme examples in order to illustrate a crucial point: even the most superlative expression of any gift (including that which is impossible) would be worthless if it is devoid of love. As John Calvin observed in his commentary on 1 Corinthians 13:1: “When he [Paul] speaks of the tongue of angels, he uses a hyperbolical expression to denote what is singular, or distinguished.”

One of the things that is important to note about the grammar of 1 Corinthians 13:1 is that, in the Greek, it literally reads: “If with the tongues of men I speak and of angels.” That construction is unique and occurs only here in the New Testament. The grammar suggests that Paul intentionally separated the tongues of men from the tongues of angels, articulating the normal expression of the gift of foreign languages before emphatically inserting a hypothetical hyperbole. This pattern is seen in Paul’s subsequent examples as well.

A simple chart shows the parallel between 1 Corinthians 13:1 and Paul’s other superlative statements in the immediate context:


Based on a comparison of all of Paul’s hypothetical examples in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3,  a strong case can be made that the apostle was using superlative, hyperbolic, and extreme examples to showcase the superiority of love. This contextual consideration leads us to conclude that the “tongues of angels” was a rhetorical expression, used by Paul to make a point. It did not describe the actual gift of tongues, which consisted only of “the tongues of men.”

However, for the sake of argument, if one insists on taking the phrase “tongues of angels” literally, there are still two important factors to consider:

(1) It represents the rare exception and not the rule, as evidenced by both the unique grammatical construction of 1 Corinthians 13:1 and the other parallel examples Paul included in vv. 2–3. Consequently, this verse cannot be used to establish “angel-speech” as the normal expression of the gift of tongues.

(2) When angels spoke in the Bible, they spoke in a real language that people could understand (cf. Gen. 19; Exod. 33; Joshua 5; Judges 13). Thus, this phrase “tongues of angels” does not support the notion of non-cognitive speech.

It should be noted that some charismatics, including Sam Storms, point to an ancient document called the “Testament of Job” to buttress their case. The Testament of Job was likely written by a group of mystical Jews in Egypt shortly before the time of Christ. It is an apocryphal expansion of the story of Job, and in a couple places it mentions that Job’s daughters sang in the language of the angels.

The assertion is then made that Paul may have been familiar with this apocryphal work and was referencing a similar phenomenon when he wrote 1 Corinthians 13:1.

But there is no reason to assume that Paul was influenced by the Testament of Job or that the Corinthians knew anything about it. Nor is it safe to build our exegetical conclusions on passages from a highly imaginative, mystical, non-Christian, apocryphal account. It is much better to interpret 1 Corinthians 13:1 in its immediate context, as an example of hyperbole used for rhetorical effect to accentuate the superiority of love—rather than insisting that Paul was influenced by a group of heterodox Jewish mystics from Egypt.

When the grammatical and contextual evidence is considered, the “tongues of angels” simply does not provide charismatics with biblical support for a non-human form of tongues.

Nathan Busenitz

Posts Twitter

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

    Nathan, or anyone else, do you know when charismatics began claiming that modern tongues were the tongues of angels? I know you documented in the earlier entries that the Pentecostal movement began with people who thought they were speaking real human languages. Did anyone suggest that Biblical or modern tongues were the tongues of angels prior to it becoming clear that modern tongues speakers were not speaking known languages or anything even remotely resembling a known language?

    • Nehemiah Ryan

      WICCA calls their tongues an “Enochian tongue” which they believe to be an angelic language. Coincidentally, WICCA came on the scene in the 1940s-50s; just a few years before before the charismatic movement started to snowball. In the 1960s-70s there was the charismatic “Jesus movement”; many hippies, who came from a WICCA background, became followers of Christ in the Jesus movement.

    • Link Hudson

      I don’t think the belief that speakign in tongues is ‘tongues of angels’ is that widespread. I’ve heard WOFers believing that, but I don’t know if that is universal in the Word of Faith movement. Mostly I’ve heard it from Reformed people and other people who study theology, maybe Anglican Charismatics. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the idea that speaking in tongues IS tongues of angels in a Pentecostal church.

      • Rod Phillips

        I heard it all the time growing up in Pentecostal, Elim Fellowship, Assembly of God, Charismatic churches…

  • george canady

    Pastor Nathan, thank you for a civil tone. I hope I can learn to move away from rudeness in my own speech as you have chosen to do here.

    • Jon

      I hope I can as well. Thank you for the good example brother.

  • Josh Marquez

    Thanks you just confirmed what i explain to a Pastor Friend, almost word by word but not as well written… : )

  • “Nor is it safe to build our exegetical conclusions on passages from a highly imaginative, mystical, non-Christian, apocryphal account.” — Seems like such an obvious statement you shouldn’t have to make it…

    Thank You

  • Harry

    “The grammar suggests that Paul intentionally separated the tongues of men from the tongues of angels, articulating the normal expression of the gift of foreign languages before emphatically inserting a hypothetical hyperbole.”

    Paul identifies two languages. One was given too much status in Corinth. Paul expands his list to include a variety of the charismata from the previous chapter. Context is critical.

    Paul is seeking to identify what it means to be spiritual. In other words to be full of the Spirit; sanctified in Christ, called to be a holy people of which the ultimate expression is always to: walk in love. The Corinthians thought they had arrived at ultimate spirituality, but lacked the primary evidence of the Spirit as having love. They misused this

    The phrase “tongues of angels” does reflect something distinct, especially to the Corinthians. I acknowledge your view regarding the Testament of Job 48-50 and the ‘charistmatic sashes’ but the verse itself is definitely NOT talking about nor inferring a foreign language or a gift of languages. That is a stretch.

    It is speaking of something different. The key is context especially 1 Cor 14:2 which states it is “speech to God not understood by men” even a “mystery by the Spirit.”

    Hyperbole does not necessarily apply to all the examples Paul uses. Hyperbole may appear as he goes further into his examples. But to blanket it all as hyperbole places an undue inference.

    I do wonder if the Reformed worldview has a tendency to re-interpret the plain meaning of the text and as a result have to ignore large portions of the New Testament….perhaps like the Marconians attempted to do to the Old Testament because of their incorrect understanding of God’s nature. Too harsh? Perhaps.

    In Christ….always.

  • tovlogos

    Greetings Brother Nathan — It is impossible to lose sight of the Holy Spirit and the abilities He gives us, in coursing through exegetical positions. Intelligence is one thing, but to see how far off the path some theological statements fall makes me appreciate the work you gentlemen do at Cripplegate. Of course, abiding in the Spirit — the thrust of the New Covenant — is a must.

    Good point here: “(it remains to be seen if their course reversal is enough to keep those law suits at bay for a little longer).”

    Of course the law suits are only the outer scab of the enemy’s work. I can’t help notice the interjection of Daniel 11:37 into the theological picture. Here it profiles the anti-Christ, including the fact that he will show no regard for the desire of women. It wouldn’t mean as much if this statement referred to other men in the Bible. Certainly men throughout the ages did not engage females; but to mention it here is like a sore. He may be very busy, but that’s not enough, many of us were or are very busy. It, at least, tells me he will appeal to virtually every type of person. Those who inadvertently reject the Son will have it their way for a little while.


    • Mark: I think you posted a comment on the wrong post. Check the “recent posts” tab on the top right of this page, and post the comment at the bottom of the appropriate post. Thanks brother,

  • Link Hudson

    I suspect that the continuationists, including all Pentecostals, Charismatics, and varieties of evangelicals that believe spiritual gifts continued, that believe that most speaking in tongues is ‘tongues of angels’ are a minority.

    Reading this passage, though, shouldn’t we at least allow for the idea that there may be tongues of angels and that speaking in tongues in tongues of angels is possible? Giving all one’s possessions away is possible. Being martyred by being burnt at the stake is possible. If moving mountains is just a metaphor for doing impossible-seeming things, then that is possible. If Christ meant it literally, then it is possible to do such a thing.

    I don’t like the word ‘hyperbole’ for this passage. I prefer ‘extremes.’ In I Corinthians 12, Paul also presents some extremes, cursing Christ versus calling Jesus Lord. Neither of these are impossible. ‘Hyperbole’ is probably not the right word. But Paul introduces two extreme possibilities.

    I’ve got a bachelors in Linguistics. I did not study speaking in tongues as a part of my program. I did do a little reading on the topic in a my university library. There are linguists who have dismissed speaking in tongues as not real languages saying it is a repetition of the speaker’s phonemes. One other professor said it didn’t have the right intonation to be a language. The big objection is that the speaker doesn’t understand the language, and if language involves sounds or other means to convey meaning, by definition, they would argue speaking in tongues cannot be a language. But if understanding being ‘unfruitful’ means the speaker does not understand, speaking in tongues in the first century, by the apostles or other early believers, may not have fit these linguists definition of a language.

    In my own experience, I’ve heard speaking in tongues that contained phonetic sounds different from those of the speaker’s language. I’ve also heard speaking in tongues with natural-sounding intonation. I’ve heard very little of the high pitched monotonous type that the professor I saw on video dismissed as not a language due to it’s lack of intonation. But I’ve heard people pray like that in English, too, without normal tone, so I don’t think that’s a good basis for judging whether something is a language. ‘Proper’ intonation is not required to carry meaning in all cases.

    I have been in a situation overseas where I did not know if someone was praying in a local language I did not know or speaking in tongues until someone interpreted into the national lingua franca. I’ve studied 7 or 8 foreign languages at university (depending on how you count Anglo-Saxon) and I’ve picked up a language in the ‘real world’. Some speaking in tongues does sound like real languages to me. It sounds like there are phonemes being repeated in the language, too, not just babbling. And I’ve heard what sounds to me to be babbling.

    Tongues of angels does throw a monkey wrench into linguistic analysis, though. If meaning in angelic languages is communicated through different ‘variables’ from human language, then you can’t say ‘that’s not a language.’

    There are accounts from the time of the Azusa Street revival of people who knew the language understanding speaking in tongues and in some cases the interpretation. An author named Paul Harris wrote a book that used to be available online, and may still be, called ‘Spoken By the Spirit’ that contained 70 cases of testimonies of events of this nature. I have even known a couple of people who report that other people understood them on occasions when they spoke in tongues.

    Some of the people at Azusa Street who went out as missionaries expected that when they went on the mission field, they would preach in tongues. They may have been spurred on by similar events happening during the time of the revival.

    But exegetically, there is no reason to think that speaking in tongues is used for preaching the Gospel. In Acts 2, speaking in tongues got people’s attention, but Peter stood and preached and men were saved through the preaching. God has chosen the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.

    And there were missionaries who left Azusa Street hoping that they would speak in the tongue they wished to reach and wouldn’t have to study the language, and it didn’t work out for them. I have heard a testimony about someone preaching in tongues in a native language. But it certainly doesn’t seem to be the norm, and it wasn’t the scenario Paul addressed for how the gift speaking in tongues worked in a church context, either, according to I Corinthians.

    • Josh

      Hi Link, I am currently finishing my undergrad in linguistics and I am writing a paper(right now actually) on tongues. My hypothesis that though linguistically tongues have no communicative or systematic meaning, they nevertheless have the appearance of language and share many features with human language, and therefore tongues will behave the same way that languages do sociolinguistically – they will vary across different social groups. It would be great to have a conversation about this from a linguist’s point of view and I can send you my paper when it’s finished. shoot me an email joshuaj.lau@mail.utoronto.ca if you’re interested.

      In Christ,


    • Link: I think you shared this comment before here too. Let’s narrow this down. If you are going to say that moving mountains is a metaphor, then can we at least take the tongues of angels as “metaphoric.” Right? I mean if you are granting that there is parallelism between these uses, and one of them is a metaphor, I don’t understand what you mean.

      • Link Hudson

        I don’t take moving mountains as a metaphor, but some people might. My question is are the things in the list impossible things, things that can’t happen? If ‘moving mountains’ is a metaphor here– or idiom may be a better term– then moving mountains is possible. Christ said it is possible. (Again, I see that as literal, but applying to other situations as well.)

        So moving mountains is possible. Giving oneself to be burned is possible. giving one’s possessions away is possible. So why would speaking in tongues of angels be impossible. These are ‘extreme’ things but not impossible things.

  • Link Hudson

    The Testament of Job is not proof of anything, but it could theoretically be an indication that the term ‘tongues of angels’ was a common concept that just happened to show up in the Testament of Job. But how would anyone know that? One problem with taking a historical and cultural approach like this is when people take some tiny sliver of evidence and try to interpret New Testament passages like this. An example of this would be Feminists insisting that since Paul talked about women teaching men, that he must have been talking about problems caused by pagan priestesses, even if he builds his argument on Adam and Eve.

    Another example of crazy use of cultural information is John MacArthur insinuating that since Paul called speaking in tongues speaking a ‘mystery’ that this is some sort of reference to mystery religions, even though Paul uses musterion to refer consistently to good things in his writings. Yet another example, would be John MacArthur arguing that the Corinthians were speaking ‘pagan tongues’ based on a possible theory about how the Oracle of Delphi spoke or possibly other pagans, even though such an argument would lead to the conclusion that Paul wanted the Corinthians to interpret pagan utterances and that these utterances would edify the assembly.

    Out of the millions of documents and pieces of pottery from the Grecco-Roman world, we’ve got a small percentage of all that. And to assume that some document or writing on a piece of pottery or mythological story is the key to interpret a scripture passage is quite a leap unless there is a very, very clear reason to do so. We may have such a reason with the passage about ‘to the unknown God’.

    • TheMacArthur argument about tongue (singular) being gibberish is not so much from the oracle of Delphi, as it is a grammatical argument. Check out his 1 Cor commentary, page 331, then again on page 370-387. I think it is a strong textual argument, regardless of the oracle of delphi.

      • Link Hudson

        Is it his ‘a god’ versus ‘God’ argument? You can find the exact same words clearly in reference to God. His argument is similar to Russel’s of the JW movement about John 1. Ireneaus, in his ‘against heresies’ spoke against Marcion’s false teaching that I Corinthians was talking about a gift by a different god, btw. I don’t know that Marcion would have done this from JM’s grammatical argument, since Marcion since his audience may have been familiar with Greek.

        In context, it makes no sense that Paul would be encouraging the congregation to interpret pagan tongues to edify the church.

  • Tim

    Could you define, or link to your definitions, of “continuationist” and “charismatic” please?

    • I think those two phrases are used interchangeably (although Nate can correct me if I’m wrong. If there is any distinction meant, it might be this:
      Continuationist: that all spiritual gifts (esp. the sign gifts of apostleship, prophecy, miracles, healing, and tongues) continue to this day.
      Charismatic: that those sign gifts should be a normative part of church life.
      In other words, continuationists are the broad group, and charasmatics are a sub group of that. But I really thing for the purpose of today’s discussion that they are used interchangeably.

      • Tim

        Thanks Jesse! Do you know historically where the list in 1 Cor. 12 was divided between “sign” and “non-sign” or “edifying” gifts?

        It appears to me that Paul meant for the Corinthians to understand that the lists in chapter 12 were not a divided set. I find myself curious where and/how the list became divided.

  • Joy Crider

    So may I ask is Pentecostal religion not considered to be a godly religion? Just asking

  • Pingback: Nathan Busenitz on the Gift of Tongues | Reformed Bibliophile()

  • Pingback: Saturday Shout-Outs: Watson, Indwelling, & Ministry Links | H.B. Charles Jr.()

  • Pingback: Cessation of Tongues Resources | Faith Bible Church()

  • Pingback: test - Faith Bible Church()

  • Pingback: Cessation of Tongues Resources - Faith Bible Church()

  • Pingback: Battalogeo and a Private, Heavenly Prayer Language | the Cripplegate()