Of all the gifts of the Spirit, I think the gift of tongues is the gift that I am most distanced from. I don’t mean this solely from a personal standpoint (as I have never spoken in tongues), but also from a biblical standpoint. Every time I do more research into this issue, I end up with even less certainty about it. Growing up, I was surrounded by people who spoke in tongues. Often, during worship services or youth gatherings, I would hear them exercise their gift. However, most of the people I knew only did so in private. Once or twice I remember hearing it during a sermon. Every time I got the chance I would ask them what they believed tongues to be. I received lots of varied answers. Sometimes, it was prophetic utterances of God meant to guide the church (so long as it can be interpreted correctly). Other times, it was simply praise to God spoken in a language that was not understood by other hearers. Many would say that it was the language of angels. But most of my acquaintances who spoke in tongues said it was an unintelligible, private prayer language (with these, of course, I never heard them exercise their gift).
The gift of tongues first appears in the pages of Scripture in Acts 2 (Mark 16:17 does not qualify due to the probability that it is a late, spurious addition). Here are the four definite places where the gift of tongues is mentioned: Acts 2:1-13; Acts 10:44-48; Acts 19:1-7; and 1 Corinthians 12-14.
I find that this must be placed in two categories: ontology and teleology (just to use some big words and sound like I know what I am talking about!). Ontology deals with the nature of tongues, asking What is the gift of tongues? Teleology deals with the purpose of tongues, asking Why did God give it? or What is its occasion?
Here are a few options concerning the “what” or ontology of tongues:
1. Human Language
2. Unintelligible or Ecstatic Utterance
3. Angelic Language
Here are a few options concerning the “why” or teleology of tongues:
2. Evidence of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit
3. Private prayer language
4. Prophetic utterance
Now, of course, a chart!
I am going to use this chart to work through the options.
1. Human Language for Evangelism
This is the most accepted view among hard and soft cessationists (those who believe the gift has ceased due to an exhaustion of purpose). According to this view, every time the gift of tongues was exercised, it was a known human language being spoken for the purpose of evangelizing. This notion seems to be supported by the first occurrence of the gift in Acts 2:6-7: “Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?'” The case is strengthened when Paul tells the Corinthians (who seem to be using their gift of tongues, uninterpreted, during church service) that tongues is a “sign” for unbelievers and then links it to the evangelization, in known “tongues,” of “foreigners”: “In the Law it is written, ‘By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.’ Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers.” (1Co 14:21-22)
Due to the purpose (teleology) of the gift, many soft cessationists would say that this gift can (and probably is) still exercised on a limited basis on the mission field.
It is obvious that those in Acts 2 who heard the Apostles speaking in tongues did not need an interpreter. This suggests that when a native speaker of the language is present, they are their own interpreter — they receive the ultimate end or purpose of the gift as they hear God being praised in their own language.
While this view does hold some appeal and biblical support, I think it has some significant problems.
1. While it is definite that the Acts 2 occurrence has an ontology of speaking in known languages, it does not seem to have an evangelistic purpose. After all, in Peter’s explanation of the phenomenon starting in Acts 2:14, he seems to return to his own native tongue (probably Aramaic or Hebrew) in order to evangelize. Therefore, he was no longer speaking in tongues when he shared with the Jews from every nation about Christ. I suppose we could say that the gift of tongues served an evangelistic purpose in gathering the people together, bringing “awe” and “bewilderment.” This would be a sort of “pre-evangelism” purpose. But wouldn’t that just make the gift of tongues a sub-gift of miracles? I suppose this could be.
2. The two other occurrences of the gift in the book of Acts do not include any evangelistic purpose (Acts 10:44-48; Acts 19:1-7). There were not even any unbelievers around. As to its ontology in these two cases, we just don’t know. Nothing is mentioned about speaking in any known tongue.
3. Paul seems to give a definite purpose (teleology) for the gift in 1 Cor. 14:2 and 1 Cor. 14:4 when he says that the one who speaks in a tongue edifies himself as he speaks not to men but to God.
2. Angelic Language
I am not going to match here as I think it is sufficient to deal with the “angelic language” option by itself.
Some people believe that the ontology of tongues is to be able to speak in the language of angels. They get this from 1 Cor. 13:1 where Paul says, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but do not love, I am nothing but a noisy gong or clanging cymbal.” It may seem reasonable to suppose this, since it is included in the same section where Paul is talking about the issue of spiritual gifts.
I suppose I don’t have much of a problem with this, other than the fact that Paul was probably being quite rhetorical here. In other words, his purpose was not to define the ontology of the gift of tongues, but to show how much greater love is than even something as magnificent as speaking in the language of angels. The Corinthians were elevating their gift of tongues above the virtue of love. I think Paul was saying that not only is the ability to speak in your gift of tongues not greater than love, but even the ability to speak in the tongue of angels is not greater than love. Therefore, this probably has nothing to do with the gift of tongues at all, except in an indirect way.
2. Evidence of the dwelling of the Holy Spirit
Again, I think it is important to deal with this teleological option by itself.
Classical Pentecostals have traditionally believed that speaking in tongues is the sign of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, if you speak in tongues, then the Holy Spirit dwells in you. If you have not, then you do not have the Holy Spirit. This option, at first, seems reasonable, as this is what happened on the day of Pentecost. Christ told the Apostles to stay in Jerusalem and wait for the baptism of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4-5). In Acts 2, this baptism came and they were “filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues” (Acts 2:4). As well, in Acts 10, when the Gentiles received the Holy Spirit, the primary evidence of it was them speaking in tongues (Acts 10:44-46). Finally, in Acts 19:1-6, the Ephesians whom Paul laid his hands on evidenced the presence of the Holy Spirit by speaking in tongues.
While it is true that in the three instances listed above, an evidence that the Holy Spirit had indwelt believers was their ability to speak in tongues, there are five major problems I see with this belief:
1) These are the only three places where tongues is mentioned in connection with people becoming believers. All the others do not mention tongues being present (Acts 2:41; Acts 4:4; Acts 7:12, 17, 39; Acts 8:18; Acts 13:12; Acts 16:30-34, et al). Therefore, this does not seem to be normative.
2) Personal and historical experience militates against this. Let’s face it, I have a dog in this fight. If tongues is the evidence that the Holy Spirit is present within a believer, I am in trouble, as I have never spoke in tongues. As well, this gift is hard to find in history. Virtually no saint of the past has experienced it.
3) If speaking in tongues was the sole way a person could know that the Holy Spirit was in them (i.e., that they are saved), then it goes without saying that it would be mentioned more explicitly elsewhere. John does not even mention this in 1 John, where one of his primary purposes is to show readers how they may know that they are children of God (1 John 5:13). If speaking in tongues is the evidence, then that is all he would have to say, right?
4) It may surprise people to know that other religions often have an expression of “worship” that is best described as tongues: Paganism, many shamans, Voodoo, and some forms of Hindu are just a few. Even Joseph Smith believed in the gift. In other words, it does not seem to be a uniquely Christian claim. Since tongues is a supernatural expression of God through us, it would seem that all expressions of the gift outside of Christianity are either from a different supernatural source, or are simply self-produced. Either way, they are illegitimate expressions. The point is that while the gift might have uniquely evidenced the presence of the Holy Spirit in the early church due to its novelty, now that it has been adopted by so many other faiths, it fails to qualify to fulfill this purpose today.
5) Most importantly, Paul clearly says that not all (Christians) speak in tongues (1 Cor. 12:30).
3. Unintelligible Utterances which are Prophetic
Many believe that the gift of tongues is (ontologically) unintelligible speech which (teleologically) is prophetic. In this case, tongues would be a subset of the gift of prophecy. The primary defense here, to me, would be the necessity of the gift of interpretation. Paul says that spiritual gifts are for the building up of the body. Therefore, according to this view, tongues is worth very little without communal understanding.
Listen to this:
1 Cor. 14:12-17
So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church. 13 Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray for the power to interpret. 14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. 15 What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also. 16 Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say “Amen” to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? 17 For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up.
Therefore, if you speak in a tongue, you need to have an interpreter. Otherwise, it is unfruitful. Paul’s rhetoric adds to the idea that tongues are prophetic in purpose:
1 Cor. 14:6
Now, brothers, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching?
In other words, the only way tongues has communal benefit is if it brings revelation, knowledge, or teaching. Therefore, there must be an interpreter. If tongues was anything other than revelation, knowledge, or teaching (i.e., simple praise), then Paul’s admonishment here makes little sense.
Finally, in Acts 2:17, Peter, in defense of the occurrence of the gift of tongues to the people, says that what they were seeing (all the Apostles speaking in tongues) fulfilled Joel’s prophecy. However, the passage quoted in Joel does not speak about tongues, but rather prophecy. Therefore, Peter seemed to be telling them that what they were seeing was the liberal distribution of the gift of prophecy taking the form of tongues:
“But this is what was spoken about through the prophet Joel: ‘And in the last days it will be,’ God says, ‘that I will pour out my Spirit on all people, and your sons and your daughters will prophesy, and your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.”
While I can see where those who believe this are coming from with regard to 1 Corinthians 12-14 and in the quotation of Joel, I see some more explicit statements conflicting with this. In the three occurrences in Acts, there is never an interpreter mentioned (unless you see the natives as their own interpreters in Acts 2). As well, it does not seem to qualify as “prophecy” in each of the Acts passages, but praise. In Acts 2:11, it is said that the Apostles were speaking of the “mighty works of God.” In Acts 10:39, Cornelius and his household were speaking in tongues and “praising God.” In Acts 19:6, it says that “they began to speak in tongues and prophesy.” The implication of this verse is that speaking in tongues is distinct from prophecy.
In addition to this, if tongues is nothing more than the gift of prophecy, what is up with Paul’s distinction between the gift of tongues and prophecy in 1 Corinthians 12:28-29? And why do we suddenly need a tag team to hear God speak?
Finally, in 1 Cor. 14:16-17, Paul specifically links tongues with praise.
(Of course, it could be that praise and prophecy are not mutually exclusive, which would modify my criticism here quite a bit.)
4. Unintelligible Utterance which is a Private Prayer Language (i.e., self-edification)
Finally, there are those that believe that tongues is (ontologically) unintelligible utterance which is primarily (teleologically) purposed for personal edification through private prayer. The support for this view comes from Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 14. There are three specific things he says that make the case for this view strong:
1 Cor. 14:2
“For the one speaking in a tongue does not speak to people but to God, for no one understands; he is speaking mysteries by the Spirit.”
1 Cor. 14:4
“The one who speaks in a tongue builds himself up, but the one who prophesies builds up the church.”
1 Cor 14:28
“But if there is no interpreter, he should be silent in the church. Let him speak to himself and to God.”
In each one of these, we see that tongues seems to be primarily for the purpose of self-edification; it is between the speaker and God. Of course, there can be times when tongues are spoken in church, but this is not ideal (unless there is an interpreter).
While on the surface, these passages of Scripture seem compelling, I do have four problems with this view as well.
1. This does not seem to be the way the gift was used in the book of Acts. Again, Acts 1 clearly records the use of other known languages. In all three occurrences in Acts, this is not a private event and it is not interpreted. However, it is praise (prayer) to God and I suppose it would be presumptuous to say that there was not personal edification happening.
2. More importantly, Paul says that the charismata are given by the Holy Spirit “for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). That is what the “body” illustration is about, is it not? We all need each other. The eye cannot say to the hand, I don’t need you. Neither can the foot say to the nose, you are no help. I don’t see how a gift given primarily (if not exclusively) for private prayer can be said to be for the “common good,” contributing to the whole. The passages listed above may not be meant to define what the gift of tongues is supposed to be, but to define how it could be misused for self-edification. “Let him speak to himself and to God” could be a bad thing, since Paul has just said that his mind is “unfruitful” when he speaks in a tongue without an interpreter (1 Cor. 14:14). The solution for this “unfruitful” prayer is to “pray with the spirit and the mind” (i.e., not in a tongue).
1 Cor. 14:15
“What should I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind. I will sing praises with my spirit, but I will also sing praises with my mind.”
Translation: I will not pray in tongues. In other words, Paul could be saying that if there is not an interpreter, there is no point to tongues. But if you must speak in a tongue without one (and be unfruitful), don’t do it in the church (1 Cor. 14:28).
Some may say that private edification will ultimately produce communal edification. I have a hard time seeing this, as one could say that about anything. For example, I may have the gift of giving, but I practice this alone. I just give to myself. After all, if I am happy, then this benefits everyone, as I will be more kind to them. I don’t think we can go in this direction as it would seem to nullify everything that Paul is arguing.
I need to focus a bit more on the gift of interpretation in relation to this private prayer language idea. If the gift of tongues is meant to be primarily a private prayer language that is between the speaker and God, then why do we need to “gift of interpretation” (1 Cor. 12:10; 14:26)? Is this a “just in case” gift? Just in case someone exercises their private prayer language in a public setting (a general no-no), God has provided those with the gift of interpretation. Not only would this be a superfluous gift, but I am afraid that whoever possess this gift in the body of Christ will find their body part dead due to a lack of oxygen (so long as tongues is exercised properly). However, if the gift was meant to be more than a private prayer language, such as speaking in another known language or, better, prophecy, then the gift of interpretation makes more sense.
3. How could it be that an unintelligible private prayer language can be said to be a “sign for unbelievers”? (1 Cor. 14:22). 1 Corinthians 14:23-24 seems to say just the opposite, as unbelievers will think you are “mad” for speaking in tongues. I don’t really know where to go there.
4. How does one legitimize the gift if it is an unintelligible private prayer language? Epistemic verification is very important to me. It answers the “how do you know?” question. When I hear people speak in tongues, I don’t automatically believe that it is legitimate. In fact, I don’t know if I have ever heard a legitimate expression of the gift. Why? Because if the gift of tongues is not a known language or prophecy, every time it is expressed it is not falsifiable. I would not even know how to evaluate its legitimacy if it came out of my mouth! Did I get tongue-tied? Am I having a stroke? Am I speaking out of my head? Is it a cave to emotional pressure?
Granted, when push comes to shove, if it is merely a private prayer language, I suppose it is not my job to know whether it is a legitimate expression. It is between the person and God. However, from a pastoral standpoint, it would be nice to have an answer to someone who asks how they are supposed to know whether they are speaking in tongues or not (and this is often asked; the “you just know” answer does not help much).
The gift of tongues is quite possibly the most bizarre of all the gifts of the Spirit. And when I say “bizarre,” I mean the word in its technically precise way: “odd, out of the ordinary, sensational.” I don’t really know what to do with it. I want to lean in the direction that tongues is the ability to speak in a known language, which is unknown to the speaker, only because that seems to make the most sense out of it, gives it a communal purpose, and is falsifiable. However, I am not sure I can go there due to the difficulties I have already discussed. I find that all the options have benefits and drawbacks. At this point, it is a matter of choosing the option that has the least difficulties. If you ask me where I stand today, I would say that the unintelligible, spoken, private prayer language (that can occasionally be understood as other languages) option in spite of all its problems, seems best.
I know that what I have said here does not speak directly to the issue of whether the gift of tongues continued or ceased, but it does help. If tongues is merely a private prayer language with no prophetic element to it at all, I am going to have little reason to argue that it ceased. As bizarre as it still may be, that is no reason to reject it. If such were the case, to me it would become more like an inarticulate expression of spiritual emotion, not unlike laughter or crying. Maybe it is something you cannot help (although, if that is the case, it would seem that everyone should get the gift).
In sum, I sympathize more and more with John Chrysostom, the fourth-century commentator who, in his commentary on 1 Corinthians 12, essentially says “I don’t know what any of this means. It’s too obscure” (Chrystostom, Homilies on First Corinthians, xxix, 1).