“And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance… the multitude… were confounded… ‘How hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born? Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judaea, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia…”
“He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself”
1 Cor. 14: 5
“Yet in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue.”
1 Cor. 14:19
Order of Contents
Intro: Tongues were Real Languages & Understood by the Speakers
Early Church History
Travis Fentiman, MDiv
(who used to be a Charismatic and can speak in modern ‘tongues’)
Introduction: Tongues were Real Languages & Understood by the Speakers
Speaking in ‘tongues’ in the Bible simply means speaking in various languages or dialects. The Biblical Greek word for this, which is a common term in the literature, is glossolalia.
In order to justify the modern practice of unintelligible tongues, 1 Cor. 14:14 is commonly claimed to teach that those who spoke in tongues in the Bible did not know what they were saying. The verse reads:
“For if I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful.”
However the verses immediately after this verse say that ‘the understanding’ is necessary for edification (1 Cor. 14:15-17) and earlier in the chapter it says that the person speaking in the ‘unknown tongue edifieth himself”. If the person edified himself, and edification only comes through being built up through one’s understanding, then the Biblical tongue-speaker understood what he was saying in tongues.
The ‘unfruitfulness’ of 1 Cor. 14:14 is not that the speaker did not understand what he was saying, but rather that his understanding did not bear fruit in the hearers, as they did not understand what he said. This is clear from Paul’s explicitly stated purpose in giving directives in this passage, which was for the edification of the assembly of Christians (1 Cor. 14:12-13) and not for the private person only.
That the tongue-speakers understood what they were saying is natural in that what they spoke were real, existing, languages of men which persons of foreign nationalities understood (Acts 2:6-11). There is no reason to believe that the real-language tongues of Acts 2 were different than the tongues later in the book of Acts or in 1 Corinthians. Rather, the later passages assume continuity and knowledge of the foundational precedent at Pentecost.
Thus, Paul explicitly identifies the charismatic tongues that he addresses at Corinth with the various known languages of the world, each of which, he says, without exception, were intelligible:
‘There are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world, and none of them is without signification.’ (1 Cor. 14:10)
Hence, when persons spoke in tongues unknown to the hearers, they became as a babbling ‘barbarian’ to them (1 Cor. 14:11), but there is no indication in the text that the tongue-speakers were unintelligible babblers to themselves.
Paul makes a comparison between tongues and musical instruments in 1 Cor. 14:7-8. His assumption is not that musical instruments are unintelligible (and hence tongues are completely unintelligible as well), but rather the reverse: that an intelligible message is conveyed by the trumpet sounding as an alarm to battle (1 Cor. 14:8) if it is executed clearly (as opposed to giving an ‘uncertain sound’). Paul’s distinction is between communicated revelation by tongues that are clearly interpreted for the understanding of others as opposed to an unclear and garbled revelation which is not interpreted (such being likened to ‘sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal’, 1 Cor. 13:1). Paul’s analogy in no way supports that tongues are inherently unintelligible babble.
The tongues of angels mentioned in 1 Cor. 13:1 (often cited as a proof-text for unintelligible babble) most likely refers to languages or modes of communications used between angels which would normally be unintelligible to men except by a special gift from God. All of the communications of angels to men and of men to angels in the Bible (Dan. 10:10-21; Mt. 28:5-8; Rev. 22:8-10; etc.), whether in physical reality or in visions, however they may have appeared to third hand observers (instance, Acts 22:9), were intelligible to the human speaker communicating with the angel, possibly, in some instances, in an angelic language. The prohibition to Paul not to speak of the ‘unspeakable words’ that he ‘heard’ in the ‘third heaven’ (spiritual heaven), is only meaningful assuming that he understood what he heard in heaven (2 Cor. 12:1-4).
The word ‘mystery’ in the Bible, does not mean something unintelligible, but rather is something great and glorious that has been kept concealed until it is revealed through intelligible revelation (Eph. 3:2-6; 1 Cor. 15:51-52; etc.). Thus, when 1 Cor. 14:1 says that the tongue-speaker ‘speaks not unto men but unto God’ (as those did at Pentecost who spoke in real languages, Acts 2:2-6, it was only incidental that others heard and understood them) ‘in the Spirit’, speaking ‘mysteries’, it simply means that he prophetically spoke of great things revealed by God to him, not that the tongue-speaker did not understand what he said to God.
The great objection to all of this is that if the tongue-speaker understood the things he spoke of, then why were prophetically gifted interpreters necessary? (1 Cor. 14:27-28; etc.) The simple answers to this are that:
1. The early Church was gathered from all nationalities (Acts 2:8-11) with a massive number of conversions (Acts 2:41; 4:4; etc.) in proportion to the miraculous signs and wonders that were testifying to the heavenly origin of the gospel. Corinth was a metropolis of diverse ethnicities and languages. Hence the Christian assemblies at Corinth more than likely had persons of many nationalities that may or may not all have understood each other’s spoken languages, and yet had interest in, and needed to be built up in, the Christian faith from God.
Thus, if God revealed an inspired message through a tongue-speaker in Coptic especially for the Coptic Christians there, and the tongue-speaker knew Greek and translated Coptic-tongue-revelation into Greek for most of the others in the assembly, yet all those who may not know Coptic or Greek, but only spoke their home language (e.g. Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin, Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Syriac, Berber, Iranian, Kurdish, Urdu, Georgian, Pashto, etc.) would be left out in the dark, and not edified.
This reason for interpreters is instanced in 1 Cor. 14 itself: if an unbeliever who is ‘unlearned’, not knowing foreign tongues, comes into the assembly when all are speaking with tongues, ‘will they not say that ye are mad?’ (1 Cor. 14:23-24) Hence the need for miraculously gifted translators beyond the native language of the tongue-speaker.
2. As everyone knows who speaks multiple languages, while one may be fluent in both languages, it can be very difficult to translate between the two languages, especially if the translation is to be held up to the bar of perfect, authoritative infallibility. Hence there was needed a special, Holy-Spirit-wrought gift of interpretation in order to translate the revelation into an inspired, authoritative, God-spoken revelation in the numerous languages of persons present.
Hence, the person speaking was not left to himself to attempt to translate the revelation, but was to ‘pray’ to the Lord ‘that he may interpret’ his own message by a divine gift (1 Cor. 14:13). This was the common (though not exclusive, 1 Cor. 14:28) occurrence (contra the modern practice where the ‘interpreter’ is almost always someone else), that the same person praying or singing ‘with the spirit’ in an unknown tongue, would afterwards then pray or sing ‘the understanding’, or the translation, by the supernatural influence of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 14:15):
“I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also… else, when thou shalt bless with the spirit, how shall he that occupieth the room of the unlearned say ‘Amen’… seeing he understandeth not what thou sayest?”
In light of these things, modern-tongues, being unintelligible to the speakers and not actual, human languages, must be considered a counterfeit of the Biblical practice, which truly was miraculous and not conjured up by the babbling faculties of men and women.
Sproul, R.C. – ‘Zeal Without Knowledge’ 14 paragraphs
Middletown Bible Church – ‘Twelve Reasons Why Biblical Tongues were Real Languages’
Hodge, Charles – ‘The Nature of Tongues’ from his Commentary on 1 Corinthians, 12:10, five paragraphs
Robertson, O. Palmer – The Final Word: a Biblical Response to the case of Tongues and Prophecy Today Buy 1993 136 pp.
Henderson, Ebenezer – pp. 215-232 of Lecture 4, ‘The Gifts of Inspiration’ in Divine Inspiration 1836
Robertson, O. Palmer – ‘Tongues Today?’ a chapter from his book, Final Word
Gentry, Kenneth – Articles on Tongues
Coppes, Leonard – The Cessation of Tongues
Durand, Greg Loren – The Cessation of Tongues and Prophecy
Dollar, George W. – Church History and the Tongues Movement
Cooke, Ronald – Tongues – Nonsense and Martyn Lloyd-Jones
Arnaud, Robin – The Truth About the Gift of Tongues
Brown, Daniel M. – Trichotomists, Charismatics, and 1 Corinthians 14
Schwertley, Brian – ‘Speaking in Tongues’ 2004 24 paragraphs
Zaspel, Fred – ‘The Gift of Tongues’ 1987 13 pp.
Encyclopedia & Dictionary
King, David – ‘Tongues, the Gift of’ in The Imperial Bible Dictionary, ed. Patrick Fairbairn of the Free Church of Scotland. Argues the traditional position.
ed. McClintock & Strong – ‘Tongues’ in Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature 1867-1887 Takes the ecstatic, unintelligible position.
Bellshaw, William G. – ‘The Confusion of Tongues’ $5 Bibliotheca Sacra 120, no. 478 (April 1963): 146-153
Beare, Frank – ‘Speaking with Tongues: A Critical Survey of the New Testament Evidence’ Journal of Biblical Literature Vol. 83, No. 3 (Sep., 1964), pp. 229-246
McDonald, William – ‘Glossolallia in the New Testament’ 10 pp.
Stegall, Carroll – The Modern Tongues and Healing Movement Buy 1940
“A penetrating analysis and critique.” – Cyril J. Barber
Lightner, Robert Paul – Speaking in Tongues and Divine Healing Buy 1965 64 pp. Regular Baptist Press
Koch, Kurt – The Strife of Tongues Buy 1966 48 pp. Kregel
What About Tongue Speaking? Buy 1966 155 pp.
Tongues and Spirit Baptism: A Biblical and Theological Evaluation Buy 1981 101 pp. Baker
Gromacki, Robert G. – The Modern Tongues Movement Buy 1967 180 pp. Presbyterian & Reformed
Burdick, Donald – Tongues – To Speak or Not to Speak: a Contemporary Analysis of Glossolalia Moody Press Buy 1969 94 pp.
Gentry, Kenneth – Tongues-Speaking Buy 2014 52 pp.
Commentaries Explaining the Traditional Interpretation of Tongues
Early Church History
McDonald, Richard – ‘Glossolalia: a Selected Bibliography’ 1975 21 pp.
Mills, Watson – Speaking in Tongues: a Guide to Research on Glossolalia Buy 1986 536 pp. Eerdmans
“Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not.”
1 Cor. 14:22
“But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God.”
1 Cor. 14:28
“I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes…”