Home > Speaking in Tongues > Tongues of Angels: Really… Angels? (pt 3)

Tongues of Angels: Really… Angels? (pt 3)

1 Corinthians chapters 12 through 14 deals with speaking in tongues extensively, especially how it should be used within the church. Many read 1 Corinthians as containing the primary passages explaining the nature of what the gift of tongues is like. I do think that it does say some important things about the spiritual gift and does help us to understand more what the purpose of its use is; however, Acts 2, being the first use of the spiritual gift, is still the lens that I am going to use as I look at what 1 Corinthians 12-14 has to say. This does not mean I force Corinthians to fit the Acts mold, but work to developing a cogent, interconnect, and somewhat holistic perspective on the spiritual gift of languages where there is harmony between the stories of Acts and Paul’s theology in 1 Corinthians.

There are a few places in the text of 1 Corinthians that, to some, seem to indicate that the gift of languages is about speaking unknown languages from the Spirit rather than speaking languages by the power of the Spirit that the speaker has never before learned. As I have already outlined improper uses of the gift of languages Paul discusses, I will be primarily only be explicating portions of text relating to the belief that the gift of tongues is a language unknown on earth.

The first place where the word is mentioned in chapter 12 is in verse 11 , which discusses that all the spiritual gifts are from the same Spirit (an attempt to remove any spiritual gift-based hierarchies). The translation here is a little tricky. NIV says “different kinds of tongues,” a more literal Greek translation says “various kinds of tongues.” Some argue here that “different kinds of tongues” means something unique, something other than the usual type of language. First of all, it’s a stretch of those words to assume it means speaking in a language unknown on earth. Speaking in different kinds of languages could just as easily mean speaking in languages that are different or foreign to the speaker, but are languages known by people in the world. Second, the word used prior to glosson (“of tongues,” or “of languages”) is genae. The meaning of the word in this context is “kinds.” There is no word here for “various” or “different,” those words were merely inserted in an attempt to make the translation more sensible to English ears, but there isn’t an indication in the Greek text that those words need to be or should be inserted. Thus, the interpretation that these two words, genae glosson, mean speaking in a language that does not actually exist on earth is, at best, a large stretch.

1 Corinthians 13:1 is what the title of this and the last two blog posts was based on. Paul says, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging symbol.” Oh, there it is, speaking the languages of angels. That sounds a lot like speaking in a heavenly language or a language that is unknown on earth. What are you going to do with that Jeremiah? You’re finished. Indeed, this is a slightly more difficult passage to demonstrate how it fits into my interpretation of the spiritual gift of languages, but I hope I can show that it does not in any way negatively impact my interpretation. I think that the biggest issue with this passage, the same issue that plagues the Scriptural interpretation of the gift of languages, is that people that speak in tongues or have close friends that speak in tongues cling hard to the passage as a proof text about what the nature of the gift of tongues is. It’s the language of angels, obviously.

There are two problems (maybe more) with jumping straight to this conclusion. One, the purpose of this passage was to talk about love, not the nature of the gift of tongues. If we are to develop a theology of the spiritual gift, shouldn’t we look more closely at the places where Scripture is focused on that gift rather than a place where it mentions it in order to talk about something else? Certainly, this verse contains truth about the gift of tongues, but there would have to be more texts confirming that the gift of languages is indeed referring to speaking in angelic languages. My argument is that there s not. Two, the three verses forming the intro to Paul’s brief love discourse are full of hyperbolic language. In verse 2 Paul also talks about knowing all mysteries, having all knowledge, and removing mountains – things we know to be impossible for a human. Paul talks in verse 3 about dying in flames and giving everything that he has away. The essential point of these verses is not about having the most amazing spiritual abilities, doing the impossible, or sacrificing to the extreme, but about everything being pointless if the motivation is not love. There’s a lot more going through my head, but for brevity’s sake, I will merely say this: It fits the interpretation well to infer that Paul was not talking about speaking in the tongues of angels as something that is actually performed by believers, but he uses hyperbole to emphasize the pointlessness of all spiritual abilities if one lack’s love.

On to 1 Corinthians 14, our thickest chapter yet. I’ll try to move through without loquacity. First point I want to make is about the King James Version. Many people use this version to formulate theology as it is generally regarded as a highly literal translation and has been around for so long. At points where the Greek talks about speaking in tongues, the KJV in 1 Corinthians 14 inserts the word “unknown” before tongues. This word is not present in the Greek, nor does it need to be to make sense of it. The insertion of this word is an example of reading theology into Scripture, instead of forming theology from Scripture. So, any arguments relying upon the word “unknown” in the KJV are void. We must interpret the original text and refrain from interpreting the interpretations of that text.

Difficult verse #1: 1 Corinthians 14:2 “For anyone who speaks in a language does not speak to men but to God. Indeed, no one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit.” This could mean that no man understands the language and only God does because it is a heavenly language not spoken on earth; it could also mean that no one understands the language because no one is a native speaker of that language within the church at that time. Paul is in the middle of a discourse where he is primarily teaching about the use of the spiritual gifts within the church, while a formal time of worship and teaching is going on. Thus, when one is speaking in a language during this time and there is not one with the gift of interpretation present (1 Cor 14:13) or someone else who understands the language being spoken and can tell everyone else what was said (1 Cor 14:27). Certainly, even if it were given that speaking in tongues was speaking in nonsense syllables, Paul did think that there were sometimes people who understood the language being spoken, which he shows later in the chapter when he talks about one who is able to interpret being present. So, we cannot take “no one understands him” in verse 2 at face value. Practically, what this appears to be is a statement about what has been typically seen in the Corinthians church, individuals are using their gift of speaking in foreign languages when there is no one around who understands that language. Not only this, but it seems in the church that there are a number of people using their gift of languages at once, flaunting their spiritual gift in a raucous church service. It seems indeed then, in these situations, no man would understand what was being spoken even if he could interpret. The mysteries uttered to God are mysteries not because they are highly special secrets, but because the God of all languages is the only one who actually understands them.

Difficult verses #2: 1 Corinthians 14:7-13
Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds, such as the flute or the harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes? Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle? So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air. Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and he is a foreigner to me. So it is with you.

For the person that believes speaking in tongues is uttering syllables that make no sense in any human language, this passage seems to be directly evidencing that. However, there is definitely another way to interpret this passage, it’s similar to many of the arguments that I have already been making. If someone stood up in church and started speaking Japanese, although the words might be true and distinctive to many Japanese speakers, the words would not be intelligible to me. I would not hear a distinction of syllables. Someone might as well be playing instruments with no regard for playing actual notes, neither the language or the song would be something that I could distinguish. A trumpet call that sounds like an animal won’t incite me for battle readiness, for I won’t know what it is. Neither will someone speaking a language I don’t understand prepare me for spiritual battle. The interpretation that Paul is talking about foreign languages here does work well. Again, like much of what we say, it does not preclude the possibility of Paul talking about heavenly languages, but we are repeatedly debunking everything that might seem like Scriptural evidence. At the end of this passage, Paul seems to be clarifying what he is saying and talking about. Indeed, he seems to be saying that as he was talking about the gift of languages, he was talking about speaking in languages that are spoken on earth all along. He says, in Jeremiah paraphrase, “Of course the languages that are being spoken by people in the congregation have meaning somewhere, because these languages are spoken all over the world, but if I don’t understand the language, the speaker might as well be speaking gibberish. Speaking foreign languages to each other only serves to distance us from one another.”

1 Corinthians 14:21-23
In the Law it is written:
“Through the men of strange tongues and through the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people, but even then they will not listen to me,”
says the Lord.
Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers, but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is for believers, not for unbelievers. So, if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind?

I recently ran into the interpretation that the gift of languages as a sign for unbelievers was actually a sign of judgment for unbelievers. This is a good interpretation, especially in light of Paul’s paraphrasic quotation of Isaiah 28. The interpretation I ran into basically said that because the unbelievers couldn’t understand the heavenly language spoken by the believers, they were doomed to destruction. It is a sign to unbelievers that they are the preterite, fated to hell. The working out of this man’s interpretation was essentially predeterministic, which is a nasty way of thinking about reality. A better way of working out the interpretation that this passage is talking about judgment is by using our Acts 2 event as a model for understanding this passage. The disciples were men of strange languages to many of the people listening, they were foreigners from different parts of the Roman empire than their hearers that spoke a different language and dialect, yet they spoke to the unbelievers in their own language and dialect. Therefore, the prophecy was fulfilled, through foreigners the unbelievers heard the gospel. Despite this, although many believed (Acts 2:41), some “made fun of them” (Acts 2:13) and did “not listen” to the Lord speaking through “men of strange tongues” (1 Cor 14:21). The gift of languages, then, is a sign for unbelievers, not so that they would know they will be destroyed but a sign for them, done on their behalf, that they might see the power of God in Messiah Jesus and then believe. The idea that tongues are a sign for unbelievers to be aware that they aren’t a part of the kingdom doesn’t work with Paul’s concern for unbelievers. Paul doesn’t say believers should avoid speaking in tongues because he fears unbelievers will hear, not understand, and be marked out as unbelievers, but that believers should be careful about making the Jesus way seem like the way of insanity. He doesn’t want unbelievers to hear believers speaking in various languages that don’t make sense to anyone because it might keep the unbelievers from coming to God. Their confusion and negative opinion that would develop of the followers would deter them from following the way of the Messiah.

Another point that invalidates the idea that speaking in tongues is speaking a single heavenly language is that 1 Corinthians 14 talks about speaking in a language or about speaking in languages. If the gift of speaking in a tongue meant speaking in one, singular language that is used in heaven, then we would find the Greek definite article (English “the”) present before the word glossa. Scripture talks about the gift of languages as if it meant multiple language and not a single one. If this were the case, we would find Scripture talking about “the language,” but we don’t see the definite article before glossa which would affirm it as a singular; rather we see Scripture talking about “languages” or “a language” (which implies that there are more languages). This doesn’t exclude the possibility that Scripture is talking about having multiple angelic languages, but typically the gift of tongues is interpreted by people as describing a single language from the Spirit. This is because tongues is sometimes seen as the redemption of what happened with the tower of Babel – a single language turned into many. Now, with the coming of Christ, many languages have become one and the original language, the one used in heaven, is now back on earth by the power of the Spirit. It is clear Paul is not talking about this because the grammar he uses requires us to interpret that he is talking about multiple languages.

In my Scripture based opinion, the gift of languages is the ability of a person to speak in languages they have not actually learned in order to communicate the message of Jesus Christ to unbelievers in a way that demonstrates the power of God and so verifies the message. I think it’s a stretch to interpret that the gift of tongues is the ability of people to speak in languages that are from heaven or that are unknown on earth. Like anything that stretches, interpretations of the words of Scripture can only be stretched so far before they break. I think rubber band of the Pentecostal interpretation has been stretched beyond the breaking point.

  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: