Monday, November 12, 2007

Tongues Paper

In the last hundred years, the tongues issue has been thrust to the forefront of Christian discussion. A non-issue before 1900, it has now spawned a full-blown theological debate. Proponents of the use of tongues within Christianity now outweigh its detractors, as the Pentecostal and charismatic movements continue to mushroom in size. David Barrett estimated in 2001 that the Pentecostal and charismatic church is growing by 19 million adherents per year, far more than any other division of Christianity.[1] The numbers are staggering; the whole face of Christianity has changed in only a century. In four centuries, the Protestant Reformation hasn’t been able to do what the charismatic movement has done in one.

Along with this rapid growth comes the widespread teaching that tongues are a legitimate form of communion with God. The voices trumpeting tongues are many and varied, even among them that do not practice the use of tongues. An article in Christian Century from June 2007 showed that fully half of Southern Baptist pastors believe that tongues are still used today.[2] With such a prevalent influence, the use of tongues needs analysis to determine whether it is a valid practice from both Biblical and historical perspectives.

This paper will address the two primary issues concerning tongues. First, whether the charismatic and Pentecostal movements practice tongues. Second, this paper will address if tongues as seen in the New Testament could still be in use today.

The word for tongues in the New Testament, glossa, and is commonly at the core of this debate. The debate today centers on whether or not the use of tongues was in purely ecstatic speech (glossolalia), or was an actual language (xenoglossia). There is a diversity of opinions over the matter. Wayne Grudem, in his Systematic Theology, argues that while tongues may have been an actual language at the time of Pentecost, it had become something else entirely by the time of Paul’s second missionary journey, when he writes First Corinthians. Grudem argues, “Acts 2 simply describes one unique event at a significant turning point in the history of redemption. Therefore it would seem appropriate to take 1 Corinthians 14 as the passage that most closely describes the ordinary experiences of New Testament churches.”[3] The first point of this paper will be to argue against his interpretation.

1 Corinthians 14:21-22 states: 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.” This quote from the Old Testament is Isaiah 28:11-12. God is stating that the time is coming when Israel will receive God’s judgment. They will realize this when a foreign tongue will carry God’s judgment upon the nation. In context, this Scripture is a warning to Israel that God will use the surrounding nations to judge them. Paul uses the passage to prove that God has turned his face away from Israel. John Macarthur backs this up, “The gift of tongues was part of God’s judicial act of telling Israel that He was turning aside from them to the church. He had offered them the Kingdom, but they refused it. […] as a judicial sign of Israel’s covenant violation, God spoke to His people with other tongues and other lips.”[4] The primary implication behind this information is that the use of tongues, as understood from Acts 2 all the way through the New Testament period, constitutes the use of a foreign language. But what about after the New Testament period? What was the teaching of the church fathers on tongues?

Both sides of the tongues issue turn to the church fathers to support their view of tongues. Usually, this appeal to the fathers is made in order to show when tongues ceased, instead of what the use of tongues looked like. Nathan Busenitz, in a Master’s Seminary Journal article, summarizes the patristic view of tongues: “The gift of tongues was a solitary and supernaturally endowed ability, given by the Holy Spirit to select Christians, enabling those believes to speak in previously unlearned, rational foreign languages.” He cites Iranaeus, Chrysostom, Augustine, and a half-dozen others for direct support.[5] Yet, this is not what the modern tongues movement looks like today. In the Pentecostal and charismatic church movements, it is neither practiced by “select” persons, nor is it a “rational foreign language.”

Within the Pentecostal and charismatic movements, there are multiple definitions of what it means to speak in tongues. Tom Brown, the pastor of Word of Life Church in El Paso, Texas, describes tongues this way: “Many people inaccurately define speaking in tongues as ‘speaking gibberish’ or ‘talking nonsense.’ The truth is, speaking in tongues is the most intelligent, perfect language in the universe. It is God's language.”[6] Likewise, Gordon Fee, one of the most respected charismatic commentators concludes that the use of tongues does not constitute a foreign language, either in its biblical or contemporary uses.[7] However, as has been demonstrated, the Biblical interpretation that the use of tongues was a foreign language is sound. Additionally, it is clear that the use of tongues was viewed by the church fathers as referring to a foreign language. Thus, in conclusion of the first point, the modern Pentecostal and charismatic movements do not accurately reflect either the Biblical usage of tongues or the historical understanding of tongues.

Having demonstrated that the modern use of tongues is errant in its understanding of what glossolalia consisted of, this writer will now consider whether there is Biblical evidence for the cessation of tongues. 1 Corinthians 13:8-13 is typically the primary disputed passage in this debate. This writer will outline the argument for the cessation of tongues from first a Biblical and then a historical standpoint, and then offer a counterpoint.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul responds to a previous letter sent by the Corinthians, addressing many of their questions concerning various matters. One such matter is introduced in 12:1, where Paul is apparently responding to the Corinthian’s questions on spiritual gifts. He sums up his whole point in the last verse of this chapter, which is to show the Corinthians a more excellent way to follow: the way of love. He details this more excellent way in the following chapter, and concludes by showing the preeminence of love above any functional gift, and the practice of it as the key to the spiritual walk in verse 8: “Love never fails. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.” What is Paul’s basis for saying that love is the most important of the gifts? His reasoning is that the other gifts will cease to be used, but love will never cease. The theological debate under discussion in this paper centers on the question of when these other gifts will cease.

Much of the argument centers on a particular word in verse 10, the “perfect”. In verse 9, the cessation of prophecy is directly tied in with the arrival of the perfect, and it is thus assumed that the other two (knowledge and tongues) will disappear at the arrival of the perfect. The perfect is generally argued to be one of three things: the end of the apostolic age, the maturation of the church, or the coming of the eternal state.

Many have argued, especially since the outset of the Pentecostal movement, that the perfect can only refer to the completion of the canon or the end of the apostolic age. M.R. DeHaan writes: “With the completion of the apostolic testimony and the completion of the Scriptures of truth, ‘that which is perfect’ had come, and the temporary gifts were done away. For the Scriptures provided by God were ‘perfect.’”[8] But to be consistent, this would also require that ‘knowledge’ would have ceased with the completion of the canon, and this seems unlikely.

The second view is that the perfect will come at the maturation of the church. This view is considered in conjunction with verse 11: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.” This view purports that when the church is at its full maturity in number, then the gifts will pass away. This is certainly a possibility, but seems to be overshadowed by the third view.

The final view is that the perfect will be the eternal state. This writer is including many of the other views that are similar and not dealt with at length here, including the rapture of the church and Christ’s return. Neither of these have enough of a chronological difference from the eternal state to warrant their detailed consideration in this topic. Godet sums up the eternal state well, “… the apostle’s answer […] certainly makes the abolition of prophecy, as well as that of tongues and of knowledge, coincident with the advent of the perfect state.”[9] This seems to be the most popular point of view, and one that carries a significant amount of weight especially in light of the rest of the chapter. In verse 12, Paul writes: “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been known fully.” It appears here that Paul is still referencing the perfect. The time when this knowledge will come cannot be anything less than the eternal state. John Macarthur puts it well: “In other words, what Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians 13 is, ‘You’re going to need these spiritual gifts while you are existing in time, but love is all you will need for eternity.’ It is a contrast between time and eternity.”[10] This could possibly also reference the full maturity of the church, but both the full maturity of the church and the eternal state seem to be in such close proximity chronologically that the distinction has little weight in determining when the usage of tongues will cease.

There is one additional consideration before moving on to historical implications. The voice for “will cease” is different from “pass away.” The passive voice is used for both prophecy and knowledge, implying that an action will be done to these two by the coming of the perfect. However, the middle voice is used for tongues and their cessation. This could possibly signify that tongues will cease without interference from the perfect. This is a debatable meaning. Daniel Wallace, one of the premier authorities on Greek, comments on the ambiguity of the passage in reference to tongues:

The implication may be that tongues were to have “died out” of their own before the perfect comes. The middle voice in this text, then, must be wrestled with if one is to come to any conclusions about when tongues would cease. […] Paul seems to be making a point that is more than stylistic in his shift in verbs. But this is not to say that the middle voice in 1 Cor [sic] 13:8 proves that tongues already ceased! This verse does not specifically address when tongues would cease, although it is giving a terminus as quem: when the perfect comes.[11]

Thus, the argument that the cessation of tongues will occur before the arrival of the perfect cannot be solidly proven. The Scriptures are ambiguous as to whether tongues will have died out before the arrival of the eternal state or at the arrival of the eternal state. Thus the Scriptural support for or against cessation of tongues is inconclusive from this writer’s point of view.

However, the historical support for the cessation of tongues seems to carry much more weight. Again, both sides of the issue portray it alternatively. However, there is solid evidence that in the early church period, tongues were non-existent. Robert Gromacki notes the specifics behind this:

In the three centuries that followed the apostolic era, there are only two references to tongue-speaking (Montanus and Tertullian who was a Montanist). The fact that Montanism reflected a false, egotistical view of pneumatology (the doctrine of the Holy Spirit) can hardly argue for the genuineness of Biblical glossolalia in that period. Therefore, there are no genuine cases of glossolalia in the post-apostolic era. Speaking in tongues had definitely ceased. The testimonies of Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Origen, Chrysostom, and Augustine confirm this conclusion.[12]

It is apparent then that Biblical tongues were decidedly absent after the apostolic age. Specifically, it may have ceased after 70 AD, in conjunction with the destruction of Jerusalem. This would signify the fulfillment of God’s judgment upon Israel, as has been examined briefly above in 1 Corinthians 14 and Isaiah 28. This is the opinion of many commentators, including John Macarthur.[13] Thus there is strong historic evidence against the common usage of tongues after the first century.

The use of tongues today varies greatly. It can be safely stated that the modern charismatic and Pentecostal movements do not represent the Biblical use of tongues, despite their protestations to the contrary. The historical data proves that tongues were normative for the church in the apostolic age, but were altogether missing, or at least very limited, after the apostolic age. However, lack of Scriptural evidence causes this writer to be cautious in his examination of tongues. Is it possible that tongues still exist today? To state anything absolutely may be too hasty. What can be safely inferred is that the modern tongues movement is a farce, and shouldn’t be accepted as the standard for Christian practice.

[1] David A. Barrett, World Christian Encyclopedia (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 4.

[2] "SBC poll: Half of pastors say ‘tongues’ valid" Christian Century, 6 June 2007, 13.

[3] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 1072.

[4] John Macarthur, The Truth About Tongues (Panorama City, CA: Word of Grace, 1984),12-13.

[5] Nathan Busenitz, "The gift of tongues: comparing the Church Fathers with contemporary Pentecostalism," Master’s Seminary Journal 17, no. 1 (2007), in ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCO; 10 November, 2007.

[6] Tom Brown, “Speaking in Tongues”;; 10 November 2007.

[7] Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 665.

[8] M.R. DeHaan, First Corinthians, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1965), 184.

[9] Frederic L. Godet, Commentary on First Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Kregel. 1977), 678.

[10] Ibid,. 52.

[11] Daniel Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 1996), 422-423.

[12] Robert G. Gromacki, The Modern Tongues Movement (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1967), 17.

[13] Ibid., 102.