March 11, 2014

Various Kinds of Tongues

by Nathan Busenitz

Today’s post is Part 4 of a series focusing on the gift of tongues. (Click here to view Part 1, Part 2, or Part 3.)


In particular, we are considering the continuationist claim that tongues in the New Testament did not always consist of real human foreign languages. Wayne Grudem, in Making Sense of the Church, represents the continuationist position when he writes:

“Are tongues known human languages then? Sometimes this gift may result in speaking in a human language that the speaker has not learned, but ordinarily it seems that it will involve speech in a language that no one understands, whether that be a human language or not” (emphasis added).

In his book, The Beginner’s Guide to Spiritual Gifts, continuationist author Sam Storms echoes that same thesis, insisting that “Acts 2 is the only text in the New Testament where tongues-speech consists of foreign languages not previously known by the speaker.” Storms’ assumption is that, even in the New Testament, the majority of tongues speech consisted of something other than human language.

Storms marshals nine arguments to defend that assumption. We have already considered his first two arguments (in the previous two posts). Today we will consider a third.

Continuationist Argument 3: First Corinthians 12:10 states that there are different kinds of tongues, therefore not all tongues are human languages.

In 1 Corinthians 12:8–10 Paul writes,

For to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, and to another the word of knowledge according to the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, and to another the effecting of miracles, and to another prophecy, and to another the distinguishing of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues.

Because Paul says that there are “various kinds of tongues,” continuationists assert that this means there are at least two categories of tongues speech: human (earthly) languages and non-human (heavenly) languages. Storms articulates the argument like this:

Note also that Paul describes various kinds [or ‘species’] of tongues (gene glosson) in 1 Corinthians 12:10. It is unlikely that he means a variety of different human languages, for who would ever have argued that all tongues were only one human language, such as Greek or Hebrew or German? His words suggest that there are different categories of tongues-speech, perhaps human languages and heavenly languages.

Based on that interpretation, Storms believes 1 Corinthians 12:10 provides exegetical support for the notion that tongues can be something other than human languages.

So what are we to make of the phrase “various kinds of tongues”? Is Paul differentiating between two fundamentally different categories of tongues (as Storms and other continuationists contend)? Does this verse really distinguish between earthly (human) languages on the one hand, and heavenly (non-human) languages on the other?

I certainly don’t think so.

Here are four reasons why:

1) First, though not a major point, it should be noted that the word “various” is not in the Greek. Literally, Paul says, “to another, kinds of tongues” (etero gene glosson). Thus, no interpretative emphasis should be placed on the English word “various” or “different.” If continuationists are going to make their case from this verse, it cannot come from that word.

2) Second, though the phraseology is slightly different, when Luke speaks of “other tongues” (eterais glossais) in Acts 2:4, no one suggests that he had in mind fundamentally different categories of language (e.g. human vs. non-human dialects). Rather, as Acts 2:8–11 makes clear, the “other tongues” simply referred to a variety of human foreign languages. In fact, Luke lists 16 distinct foreign dialects in that text. (And, as we have already discussed, there are compelling reasons to see the tongues of Acts 2 as ontologically equivalent to the tongues of 1 Corinthians 12–14).

3) Third, the Greek word genos (or gene in 1 Cor. 12:10) means “kind” in the sense of “family,” “race”, “people,” “nation” or “offspring” (cf. Gal. 1:14; Phil. 3:5; 2 Cor. 11:26; Acts 7:19; 1 Pet. 2:9). It is the Greek word from which our English word genus (and words like genetics and genealogy) is derived. In this context, the most natural understanding of genos refers to various families of languages. As John MacArthur points out about this verse, “Linguists often refer to language ‘families’ or ‘groups,’ and that is precisely Paul’s point: there are various families of languages in the world, and this gift enabled some believers to speak in a variety of them” (Strange Fire, 141).

4) Fourth, and perhaps most significantly, Paul uses gene just two chapters later (in 1 Corinthians 14) to clearly refer to various kinds of earthly, human languages. In 1 Corinthians 14:10–11, Paul writes:

There are, perhaps, a great many kinds of languages [gene phonon] in the world, and no kind is without meaning. If then I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be to the one who speaks a barbarian, and the one who speaks will be a barbarian to me.

Here again, Paul uses the exact same word for “kinds” (gene) as he did in 1 Cor. 12:10. This time, he pairs it with a synonym of glosson (“tongues” or “languages”), using the word phonon (“sounds” or “languages”). The phrases gene glosson (12:10) and gene phonon (14:10) are grammatically identical and lexically synonymous. All commentators, including continuationists, acknowledge that the phrase “kinds of languages” in 14:10 refers only to that which is human or earthly. The phrase “in the world” makes that conclusion inescapable. Hence, even within the context of 1 Corinthians 12–14, we have at least one unquestionable example of Paul using gene (“kinds”) to refer to various families of human languages.

In 12:10, when Paul uses the very same word for “kinds,” continuationists insist that Paul must mean something other than various families of human language. But they do this contrary to the natural meaning of the Greek word genos, and contrary to Paul’s own usage of that word in 14:10. Coupled with Luke’s description of “tongues” in Acts 2, which we have already contended parallels Paul’s understanding in 1 Corinthians, the continuationist’s interpretation of 1 Corinthians 12:10 becomes difficult to maintain.

The much more natural reading of 1 Corinthians 12:10 is to see it as parallel to 1 Corinthians 14:10. There are many kinds of languages in the world, and the gift of tongues was the Spirit-given ability to speak fluently in one or more of those foreign languages (even though they were previously unknown to the speaker). Such an interpretation may not match up with the modern tongues of the contemporary charismatic movement, but it fits perfectly with the tongues of Pentecost as described in Acts 2.

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.
  • Philip

    I think 1 Corinthians 14:10 is one of the death blows to the modern tongues movement: “There are doubtless many languages in the world, and none is without meaning.” Linguists can tell that modern “tongues” have no resemblance to any known language. They are nothing more than a series of unrelated sounds with no meaning. Furthermore, no tongues speaker has been recorded making sounds that are not native to their language – English tongues speakers make English sounds, Chinese tongues speakers make Chinese sounds etc. Unless there are English and Chinese speaking angels the whole language of angels idea, or language of any kind, falls apart very quickly.

  • Greg Gibson

    Storms: “His words SUGGEST that there are different categories of tongues-speech, PERHAPS human languages and heavenly languages.”

    Charismatics rely on the backwards hermeneutic “the possible interprets the probable.” But the better hermeneutic is “the probable interprets the possible.”
    (Covenant Theology often relies on the same backwards hermeneutic.)

  • Jeff Rauf

    The idea of supernatural communication is a real hot topic and I’m thinking not a new one. Thanks to all for keeping this conversation on the table. It reminded me of John Owen on the Quaker’s ‘private revelations’: He was ‘…quick to deploy against them the old dilemma that if their ‘private revelations’ agree with Scripture, they are needless, and if they disagree, they are false.’ From Packer’s A Quest for Godliness’, pg.86

    • Steve

      “if their ‘private revelations’ agree with Scripture, they are needless, and if they disagree, they are false.'”…… thanks for that! so true!

  • Having spent over 12 years in the charismatic church I can testify that tongues as practiced by those in the charismatic movement today are nothing more than gibberish, induced by peer pressure and emotions which have been stoked. Think Danny Kaye in The Court Jester, flamboyantly demonstrating his “mastery” of Spanish, Italian and German.

    Or, this…

    • What exactly is the woman in this video doing? Is this “tongues” in the modern Charismatic sense or was she just pretending to speak those languages as a prank?

    • Jeremy

      This classic Danny Kaye clip is the perfect example of the “liguistic” process underlying tongues as practised in the charismatic church. While the Danny kaye sketch is brilliant as well as humurous, the following exchange between Rodney Howard-Brown and Kenneth Copeland is anything but – in fact it borders on being blasphemous.

      This is a prime example of modern tongues in operation.

      • 4Commencefiring4

        As long as they don’t ask for money, they can knock themselves out. The same kind of back-and-forth is heard on construction sites every day of the week.

  • This has been a good and helpful critique of the modern tongues movement. I’m looking foward to reading the next sections on this.

  • Another good post. Thanks for the clear argument.

  • elainebitt

    For those interested, here’s Nathan Busenitz’s TMS audio lecture on the subject:

    The entire series is worth listening to.

  • Josh Marquez

    Thank you !!

  • It’s amazing that you found a photo copy of this original article! We so enjoyed your teaching on this subject at the Strange Fire Conference. Thank you!

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  • Link Hudson

    You are beating up a strawman here. You might be able to find some Charismatics or Pentecostals who think ‘divers tongues’ refers to different human languages, human and angelic languages, tongues for private prayer versus tongues for the assembly, but this is not a ‘core belief’ of any movement. I’ve read the argument online, but never heard it in a Pentecostal sermon after a few decades n the movement, or in a Charismatic sermon.

    You mention Azusa Street, and yes the local newspaper was very prejudiced against it. But one thing you need to consider about Azusa Street were the many accounts of people in Los Angeles hearing people involved in the revival speaking in their own language while speaking in tongues. I’ve read some accounts of this. One that I can recall a source for is Valdez’s ‘Fire on Azusa’ (one account of it.) There is also a Vincent Synan (I think) interview from the early ’70s with some folks who went to Azusa Street concerning their meetings and other meetings in the revival at the time. It’s on YouTube. A woman he interviewed told about how that the various ethnicities got interested in the revival because they heard people speak their languages in tongues. Also, you might want to try to find a book that was at one point free online “Spoken by the Spirit” by Paul Harris, which contains 70 accounts of testimonies regarding tongues, including many where people could understand what was spoken in tongues. I’ve heard a couple of testimonies from people I know who’ve experienced that.

    I wouldn’t say that all speaking in tongues is genuine, and probably there are some preachers who have practices where it could be learned behavior. I have a degree in Linguistics and I’ve lived overseas for many years. I’ve heard speaking in tongues that sounds to my ears like true languages, and some that would honestly sound like babbling. I have also been in a situation overseas where I didn’t know if someone was speaking another language or speaking in tongues, until someone got an interpretation of tongues.

    Also, some of these gifts are obviously supernatural, like when someone prophecies specific details about another person. And there are cases where you go one place and get a prophecy, go somewhere else and someone prophecies the same thing over you (at least certain aspects of it). I’ve known people who’ve gotten an interpretation of tongues and someone else gave it before they could say it, the same words.

    Your series also has some serious eisegesis in it. You maintain, don’t you, that folks in the 300’s had no experience with tongues. Yet in the previous article, you quoted folks from this era’s opinion that tongues were used by the early church for evangelism. Exegetically, there is no basis for saying that anyone ever preached the Gospel in tongues. The disciples in Acts 2 spoke of the wonderful works of God in tongues. That drew attention and even scoffing. Then Peter stood up and preached the Gospel and many repented and were baptized. There is no indication that Peter preached in tongues.
    Back to Azusa Street, with all of the testimonies of people who understood speaking in tongues and could validate the interpretation from their own knowledge of the language, some of the missionaries that left there thought they could go preach in other countries in tongues. But the Bible gives us no such promise, or even an example of such a thing. It didn’t work out for them, so they had to re-analyze their beliefs about tongues.

    Acts 2 does show that God was willing to allow others present to understand tongues on one occasion. But I Corinthians 14 shows that in the church setting, those present didn’t understand without an interpretation. Acts 2 tells of a one event. I Corinthians 14 gives on-going instructions for the church. We should expect the use of tongues and interpretation that Paul instructs in I Corinthians 14 to be more common. I have heard of testimonies of people preaching the Gospel in tongues, but I have no promise of that. But we don’t have a promise in scripture that God will specifically use the gift in that way, nor any clear example of it.

  • Link Hudson

    Also, some cessationists INSIST that tongues of angels is impossible, asserting that it is hyperbole. Well, we know it is possible to give all one’s possessions to the poor. It is possible to give one’s body to be burned. If ‘moving mountains’ is meant as a metaphor, it is possible to do that. If Christ meant it literally, then it is possible to do it literally. Why would speaking in tongues of angels be the only one of these things that is impossible to do? Hyperbole is not the right word. Paul does speak in ‘extremes’ but the extremes are not impossible.

    It’s conceivable that Paul is using hyperbole, but it isn’t clear at all from the text. In fact the other examples being possible weigh against this interpretation. So we should allow for the possibility of tongues of angels, at the very leas. Cessationists will argue that whenever angels spoke to people in scripture they spoke human languages. That’s a silly objection. Well, of course they were. They were trying to communicate. If you spoke Chinese and you were in China, would you address a shop-keeper you didn’t know in English? Not if you wanted to communicate.

    I’ve also read in comments that there was a custom among the pagans of speaking something like pagan tongues. I think that’s stretching what we know about the oracle of Delphi. The legends could have been about riddles rather than babbling. But be that as it may, there is absolutely no hint at all that the Corinthians tongues were pagan or demonic. To suggest such in certain passages may indeed be blasphemous, and that is a dangerous thing to mess with. I Corinthians 14 is addressing a genuine gift of the Spirit. Paul uses ‘mysteries’ in a very positive way throughout his epistles. We may refer to certain Greek religions as ‘mystery religions’ but we don’t see this use in Paul’s vocabulary, and eisegeting the idea into the word in I Corinthians 14 leads to the conclusion that Paul is instructing the Corinthians to interpret pagan babblings to edify the congregation. Clearly, that is a blasphemous interpretation.

    Also, why is ‘tongues of angels’ taken as hyperbole, but not the verse that no man says that Christ is accursed while speaking by the Spirit not taken as hyperbole? Again, hyperbole is not the right word. Paul presents extremes– cursing Christ versus calling Him Lord. The one speaking by the Spirit will not curse Christ. No man says that Jesus is Lord but by the Holy Ghost. Paul does NOT say that anyone in the assembly was cursing Christ. He does not tie the idea directly to speaking in tongues. Some people have some really convoluted interpretations of I Corinthians, which is sad, since it shows an inability to comprehend an epistle of milk.

    • Heather

      Thank you Link Hudson for your level-headed, insightful, yet respectful comments. I appreciate them so much.

    • “If “moving mountains is meant as a metaphor”…”then it is possible to do it literally.”

      • Link Hudson

        You’ve butchered what I said by removing parts. If it’s meant as a metaphor, it’s possible to do it in the sense the phrase means. If it’s meant literally, then it’s possible to do it literally.

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