The Gift of Tongues in Corinth—and Today

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Editors’ note: 

This excerpt is from Themelios 44.1. The new April 2019 issue has 210 pages of editorials, articles, and book reviews. It is freely available in three formats: (1) PDF, (2) web version, and (3) Logos Bible Software.

1. Preliminary Observations

The issue of tongues is sometimes a matter of controversy and heat. As a result, let me state my intent at the beginning. I want to put forward an argument for the scope of speaking in tongues in the first-century church. But I do so in a tentative way. I hope not to stir up heat.

1.1. Tongues in Acts

Let us start with Acts 2. There are several interpretive views. For simplicity, we follow the majority view. It says that Acts 2 involves distinct languages, mutually unintelligible, rather than merely distinct dialects. But even if they were just dialects, the main point is that the utterances in Acts 2 were in natural human languages. We know that because hearers competent in the various languages were able to identify them.

1.2. Tongues at Corinth

Now we proceed to 1 Corinthians 12–14. For illustrative purposes, we may imagine ourselves sitting in the place of a member of the Corinthian church. What would we hear when other members spoke in tongues? Perhaps on occasion someone was present who recognized the utterance as belonging to a language that he already understood. Then he was able to interpret. That kind of case leads us back to the instances in Acts 2. The language in question was identifiable.

But the letter of 1 Corinthians seems to indicate that at Corinth such an identification of the language was the exception rather than the rule. Most interpretation of tongues seems to have taken place not because a listener confidently understood the language, but because of a special spiritual gift for interpreting tongues (12:10, 30; 14:13). The ordinary listener at Corinth heard utterances that sounded like a communication in language. But he did not know the meaning (14:2). Even the speaker did not know the meaning (14:13–14). For practical purposes, from the point of view of a naive listener, anything that sounded like speaking in tongues was speaking in tongues. “Speaking in tongues” is a loose category that easily covers every kind of language-like utterance in the church service that does not belong to any of the major languages spoken in the church.

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