What Tongue is Tongues?

My first post in awhile and yes, it is on tongues. You would think I would come back from my hiatus with some mystical reflections, but no, just some thoughts on glossolalia and the Bible. What else do you expect from me, though?

So… what language is all this wacky tongues-speaking in? And does it matter?

From the New York Times' article "A Neuroscientific Look at Speaking in Tongues"

From the New York Times’ article “A Neuroscientific Look at Speaking in Tongues”

Some take bold stands against the charismatic practice of speaking in tongues because many examples of tongues that have been observed do not seem to resemble any known human language.  Many argue that tongues could not possibly be anything but a human language, turning for proof to Pentecost in Acts 2, when many Jews were able to understand the tongues that the disciples spoke, as well as to 1 Corinthians 14:10, which says, “Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning.” 1 Corinthians 14 sheds some light on the linguistics of tongues.

Many theologians would say there is a difference between the tongues of Pentecost and the tongues described in 1 Corinthians, saying that Pentecost was with known languages, as the Jews from different nations and regions were able to recognize their language being spoken by the disciples (vv. 5-8). Though this is very much possible, I tend to side with the view that the tongues that occurred during Pentecost were the same kind of ‘doxological’ (instead of evangelistic) tongues of the Corinthians. I would propose that the disciples were not actually speaking in known human languages but the unbelievers miraculously were able to hear the disciples’ praise in their own languages. The fact that Pentecost included 120 disciples who spoke in tongues simultaneously makes the probability of one of the foreigners hearing their own language and identifying the words quite slim, especially since these foreigners were on the streets while the disciples were in the Upper Room. The varieties of languages spoken at once would likely keep one from hearing the disciple(s) who’s praise was in their particular language. Even if the tongues at Pentecost were actually human languages, the gift of tongues that Paul speaks of does not always seem to be.

1 Corinthians 14 is obviously the chapter many use to dive into the topic of tongues and how this gift ought to be handled in fellowship. He writes that “no one understands them”, in reference to those who speak in a tongue, and goes on to say “they utter mysteries by the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 14:2). In the same verse, he makes known that this form of tongues is not for speaking to people but to God. Then he goes on to push believers to not come before the church speaking in tongues if there is no interpretation, for then it is but “unintelligible words” which does not edify the body (vv.6-12). It is clear that Paul does not see tongues as something to be understood by the natural ear and this is why he pushes believers to interpret (v.5), which does come from human knowledge but through the power of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:10). Tongues with interpretation are done so that the Church may be built up;3 tongues in personal devotion is only fruitful for an individual’s spirit (vv.4,14).

The interpretation of tongues is seen as vital whenever a tongue is spoken to the body (1 Corinthians 14:5-6) and Paul even forbids tongues that are not interpreted to be spoken to the body (vv.27-28). This seems to indicate that it was very unlikely for somebody to actually understand tongues if there was no interpretation. Would the gift of interpretation of tongues be vital in the corporate use of tongues if tongues were a human language?

As mentioned before, many of those who argue that tongues has to be a human language point to 1 Corinthians 14:10. They also make use of the following verse, which says, “If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and the speaker is a foreigner to me.” If I went abroad to a non-English-speaking country, I would be experiencing the same thing as one who hears uninterpreted tongues, which is Paul’s point in these verses. He is not saying that tongues are human languages but he is instead giving an analogy that reveals that tongues function like human languages.

In verse 18, Paul talks about how he is thankful that he “speaks in tongues more than” all the Corinthians. Wayne Grudem argues that if tongues “were known foreign languages that foreigners could understand… why would Paul speak more than all the Corinthians in private, where no one would understand, rather than in church where foreign visitors could understand?” (Systematic Theology, 1072)

So what is the language of tongues?

Now there are some speculative issues when it comes to what the language of tongues is exactly. The infighting in the Church over tongues often is whether it is angelic or human, or perhaps something else altogether.

Some believe the notion that tongues is an angelic language is ridiculous and say that 1 Corinthians 13:1, where the tongues of angels is mentioned, is hyperbolic. Though such an argument is consistent with the language of the beginning of 1 Corinthians 13, Gordon Fee proposes that the possibility of the Corinthians, as well as Paul, thinking of tongues as angelic is likely because of ancient Jewish sources speaking of angelic languages being spoken by humans by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. He also proposes that the Corinthians’ view of spirituality may have been skewed by a belief that they “already entered into some expression of angelic existence”, and that it is likely that Corinthians may have believed they were actually speaking in these angelic languages. This could possibly explain their bizarre view of sexuality (1 Corinthians 7:1-7, 11:2-16) and perhaps even contribute to why they often denied the future existence of a glorified body (15:12, 35). (Gordon Fee, New International Commentary of the New Testament: The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 630-631)

Some see the worship of our spirit through tongues as carrying a whole new language that can only be produced by the Holy Spirit, and though this is very much possible, there is not enough in Scripture to support this view, other than the fact that the tongues in Corinth very much do not seem human. Some see 1 Corinthians 13:1 as hyperbolic, in regards to not just the angelic tongues but also the human tongues. They see Paul making the idea of being able to speak in tongues of either men or angels to be extraordinary and not normative for tongues-speakers. Those who take such a view usually do not believe that the disciples in Acts 2 were speaking human languages but a language of the Spirit and that God performed a miracle of hearing on the unbelieving.

Some, such as D.A. Carson, view praying in tongues likely to be in some Spirit-guided code; though this is a minority view, It seems consistent with the view previously mentioned. Many, such as Sam Storms, take a broader view. In the first part of Storms’ essay called “Tongues: Praying and Praising in the Spirit”, he concludes that “tongues may be human languages never before learned by the speaker, but need not be. They may also be angelic dialects or unique linguistic utterances shaped specially by the Spirit and distributed to believers according to the will of God.”

Personally, I do hold to Storms’ view of tongues, acknowledging that there are in fact a diversity of tongues that can be spoken (1 Corinthians 12:10) and that it may just be beyond the tongues of men and angels. A lot of this is speculative, but restricting tongues to only that of humans would not fit 1 Corinthians. This gift for prayer, worship, and the edification of the Church should not be shut down simply because the language is unidentifiable by those present or hindered because of silly debates on its exact nature, but discerned, celebrated, and encouraged, especially when accompanied by interpretation. Let us heed to Paul’s encouragement in 1 Cor. 14:39, “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues.”