The gift of tongues: What 1 Corinthians 14 describes

Pentecostal tongues: Unknowable utterances

Pentecostalism believes that 'speaking in tongues' is a God-enabled prayer language using unintelligable human utterances that have a spiritual effect. Though the Greek word for “tongues” (glossolalia) means “languages,” Pentecostals know that in most instances the tongues-speaking practiced in their movement is unknowable in its nature. Before the revival of 'tongues' at the turn of the nineteenth-century, Christians who later joined the Pentecostal movement were expecting the gift of languages to equip the Church for worldwide evangelism to the unreached millions in their mother-tongues. However after 1906 the movement recognised that the activity in their churches being called 'speaking in tongues' did not involve human languages and was not evangelistic.

Ideas about the nature of tongues developed in these early years. While still acknowledging that the tongues-speaking enabled by the Spirit in Acts 2:4 were known dialects of countries foreign to the speaker, Pentecostals began to view 1 Corinthians 14:2 as identifying another type of tongues. This was based upon the view that if “no one understands him” and his words “utter mysteries with his spirit,” then this tongues-speaking mustn't be actual languages but 'unknown utterances.' Since this passage describes 'praying' in a tongue, speaking to God not men, to praise God and give him thanks, Pentecostalism embraced the concept of tongues as a prayer language with God-empowered unintelligable human utterances that have an impact upon the spiritual realm (as opposed to preaching with foreign identifiable human languages as in Acts 2.)

Before examining the Pentecostal notion of two types of tongues, being the miraculous gift of languages and God-given utterances of unidentifiable meaning, it is important to realise that the practice of both types of phenomenon have been reported throughout history in the secular, religious and Christian world. (See The history of tongues).

Corinthian tongues: foreign languages

There are at least several reasons from the text why the type of tongues spoken by the Corinthians were identifiable human languages:

Different kinds

The passage in 1 Corinthians 12 first listing tongues as a manifestation of the Spirit describes the activity as “speaking in different kinds of tongues” (1 Corinthians 12:10, 28). The fact that there are different kinds of tongues suggests that languages are in view. 'Different' tongues are the 'other' tongues of the nations given on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:4), where after the crowd of foreign speaking Jews heard them praising God in each of their own native tongues. (Acts 2:11).

Speaking a tongue

Although the Spirit is described as generically giving different kinds of "tongues," (plural) or enabling people to speak in other "tongues" (plural), 1 Corinthians 14 does not describe individual persons speaking in "tongues." Every reference in 1 Corinthians 14 to an individual with this ability describes them as one who speaks in "a tongue" (singular). This activity is speaking a singular language with a specific identity.

None without meaning

The passage in 1 Corinthians 14 indicates that Paul thought of ‘a tongue’ as actually conveying meaning: In reference to tongues he says, “there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning.” (1 Corinthians 14:10) This is why they were capable of being interpreted.

Speaking words

When refering to tongues the Apostle implies that this activity involves communication. He describes it as “speaking” (1 Corinthians 14:13) and describes the utterances as actual “words,” (1 Corinthians 14:18) which by definition are units of language that communicate meaning. They are not merely sounds produced with the tongue. Paul describes the activity as 'speaking to God,' 'praying' to God, 'praising' God, 'thanking' God and speaking 'to oneself' (1 Corinthians 14:2, 14, 16-17, 28).

Saying “Amen”

Paul implies that someone who speaks in a tongue has an idea of the meaning of his words. He says, "If you are praising God with your spirit, how can one who finds himself among those who do not understand say "Amen" to your thanksgiving, since he does not know what you are saying? You may be giving thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified.” (1 Corinthians 14:16-17) Paul implies that the speaker has the ability to say “Amen” to his prayer as opposed to those who cannot because they do not know what he is saying. If the speaker himself was also among those who do not understand then he also would not be able to say "Amen" to his thanksgiving and would therefore also not be edified. Although the speaker does not have complete understanding of what he is saying, the Apostle does not include the speaker among those who do not understand at all.

Speaking to oneself

Paul clearly says that a tongue edifies the speaker (1 Corinthians 14:4) and that the he speaks to himself as well as to God (1 Corinthians 14:28). He implies then that the speaker is himself encouraged by the meaning of his message. (1 Corinthians 14:16-17) He is praising and giving thanks to God, saying "Amen" to the prayer and being edified by it, but the other man is not edified because he does not understand its meaning.

Speaking a message

In 1 Corinthians 14:26, Paul lists “a tongue” together along side “a hymn”, “a word of instruction”, “a revelation”, and “an interpretation,” all of which are capable of strengthening the church. All of these activities involve word-based messages. The fact that Paul insists that a tongue given in a church must be interpretted does not suggest that the original utternance was without meaning. Quite the opposite, to 'interpret' is literally the activity of explaining the meaning of a message given.

Is it possible that Pentecostal tongues have the same nature as those practiced by the Corinthians, as described in 1 Corinthians 12-14? These were not unknowable utternances, for they were not without meaning; this activity was not merely making sounds with the tongue, but speaking words of thanks to God; these speakers were not all-together ignorant of what they were saying, for they were at least edified by their words. The only similarity between the ‘tongues’ practiced in Pentecostalism and those described in 1 Corinthians 12-14 is that in both cases the mind of the speaker can be described as being 'unfruitful’. This is not an adequate basis for concluding that their identities are common.

Corinthian tongues: unknowable utterances?

There are other reasons in the text of 1 Corinthians 14 that leave open the possibility that the nature of the tongues spoken by Corinthian Christians were not miraculous gifts of foreign languages (that can be compared to those in the Acts narratives).

The mind unfruitful

Paul says in regard to the one in Corinth who spoke in tongues, "no one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit.” Paul is likely generalising the audience to say that no one present understands the speaker; He seems to be implying that his words are a mystery to his audience, though not necessarily to the speaker. However, Paul describes the mind as “unfruitful” when he prays in a tongue (1 Corinthians 14:14). He may mean that the speaker it not thinking through his words before he speaks; he is not deliberately choosing his words as a bilingual speaker would, but instead is being given in a foreign tongue words from the Spirit to speak and only retrospectively being aware of what he has said.

If however Paul means by 'unfruitful' that it is impossible to understand the meaning of a tongue by listening or speaking it (without God-given interpretation), his words may be a complete mystery to all except God alone. This would allow the possibility that the tongue-speaking is not referring to an actual language at all.

In the first-century Hellenistic world and earlier, ecstatic utterances in unknown or unintelligible speech were commonly practiced by pagan prophets, magicians and sorcerers. [1]. It is possible that the nature of the tongues spoken by Corinthians were actually this very human activity that the Corinthians brought into their Christian lives from this type of pagan past.

Stop thinking like children

Paul acknowledges that the Corinthian practice is from God, in the sense that everything is from God, whether good or bad, human or miraculous. (Romans 11:36) All things ultimately come from him and he uses all things to work for the Christian their good of conformity to Christ's image (Romans 8:28). Rather than simply instructing the Corinthians to stop using tongues, he sympathises with them and reframes their behaviour in the light of the gospel and God’s purposes for the church. Since this is Paul's approach, it should be ours also.

Paul's message to the Corinthians is nonetheless a rebuke for immaturity. They are like a two-year-olds who do not know how to do things for others. He portray tongues as an undesirable gift because it doesn’t achieve God’s goal for the church, which is mutual edification. Edification comes by prophesying to one another, by which God speaks his word through Christians to other Christians to encourage and comfort them. He instructs the Corinthians to cease speaking in tongues in the church unless they can interpret their messages. Without interpretation a tongue only encourages the speaker. Only with interpretation can a tongue work for the common good.

Since the Corinthian and Pentecostal tongues do not likely share the same identify, Pentecostalism should be more careful when applying verses such as 1 Corinthians 14:4 to their own practice: “he who speaks in a tongue edifies himself”. The great danger of the Pentecostal emphasis on tongues is that this activity does not bring edification as Paul explains it. The point of 1 Corinthians 14 is that Christian strengthening and Christian encouragment comes from mutually understanding God's word.

A sign for unbelievers

The tongues spoken of in 1 Corinthians 12-14 were a ‘sign’ for unbelievers: “Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is for believers, not for unbelievers.” (1 Corinthians 14:22) In its context 1 Corinthians 14:22 is preceded by a quotation from Isaiah 28:11-12 where unbelieving Israel are told they'd soon hear the foreign tongues of the Assyrians coming to destroy them. Here ‘tongues’ were given to unbelieving Israelites as a sign of their judgement. Paul uses this quote to warn the Corinthians that similarly if they speak with tongues that listeners do not understand it is a sign to them that they are under God’s judgement. People become Christians when they come to understand God’s word; a sign of being a Christian is understanding God’s word when it is heard. And so Paul says, “tongues are for unbelievers” who are under God’s judgement, for they are the ones to whom God’s word comes without meaning.

How do Pentecostal tongues function as a sign of judgment against unbelievers? The lack of explanation in Pentecostalism of 1 Corinthians 14:21-22 is telling. The tongues described in the Corinthian church were a sign to any listener not understanding their content that they were under God's judgment. Similarly, modern day tongues practiced by Pentecostals in churches, if they are indeed unknowable utternances, are a sign to any listener of God's judgment in the church on unbelievers. For these tongues divert attention from God's word and so deprive listeners of the only message that can save them.

Theological confidence

It is hard to believe how anybody could claim perfect confidence in her or his own reading of 1 Corinthians 14, for this passage contains so many difficulties. However, the meaning of the passage is clear enough. Much of what has been read into this passage and brought to it from personal experience can not justly be read out of it.

The Pentecostal practice refered to under the title of ‘tongues’ is given by God, as all things are. (Romans 11:36) Something that helps Christians maintain a focused adoration on God and brings no mutual or individual harm is a good thing. However, this is not reason enough for a theological position claiming that the present day exercise of Pentecostal tongues have the same identity as those described in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 or the Acts narratives.

More on this topic

How Pentecostalism developed over time

Tongues and Spirit-baptism: What Pentecostals believe

The history of tongues

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[1] Grant. R. Osborne (Ph.D., University of Aberdeen), “Tongues, Speaking in,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd Ed., Paternoster Press, 2001, p. 1206. | joe towns: christian discussion on pentecost, charisma, pentecostal and charismatic beliefs, the Bible and Jesus; including the origin and history of pentecostalism, baptism in the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, gifts and miracles, divine healing and word of faith, prosperity and wealth, praise and worship, guidance and hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit.