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.