Therefore, from these verses in 1 Corinthians 14, it is clear that, as in Acts 2, the gift of languages was the miraculous ability to speak an unlearned language that is known by others for the purpose of exalting Christ and building up others. It served as a loud statement at the birth and foundational time of the church to declare that God’s plan of redemption is no longer restricted to one nation, but all nations. It served as a statement of judgment by God on Israel for failing their mission to be a light to the nations. This gift ceased with the apostolic era in the first century as the New Testament church foundation was established.
Last week we posted an article which argued that the idea of a heavenly prayer language is untenable based on Jesus’ command concerning prayer in Matthew 6:7. Additional questions arise on the issue concerning Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 14.
For example, some continuationists claim for the existence of two different types of tongue gifts. The argument claims that there is one gift in Acts 2 and another in 1 Corinthians 14. Among others, Nate Busenitz has demonstrated that this position is unsound from Scripture.
Other continuationists hold to the position of a heavenly prayer language on the grounds of various details in 1 Corinthians 14. As somewhat of a part two of last week’s post, this will briefly address some of the popular continuationist arguments therefrom. It will not deal with every detail in 1 Corinthians 14, but merely a few of the more common arguments posed in favor of the continuationist position.
A common continuationist position is that there exists a gift of tongues which is a Spirit-given language, understandable by God, that is exercised in prayer between the believer/Spirit-filled individual and God (e.g. Gordon Fee, NICNT: The First Epistle to the Corinthians; and David Guzik, Guzik Bible Commentary). Variations of this position exist within charismatic and continuationist theology.
Before a conclusion can be made from 1 Corinthians, an understanding of the context is needed.
The Context of 1 Corinthians
Overall, the book of Corinthians is written to answer several questions about biblical issues, while offering correction of spiritual pride and error rampant in that church. Many in the Corinthian church were overly fascinated and influenced by the culture. It seems they erred by using the spiritual gift of languages in a disorderly, unedifying fashion, while possible engaging in the popular Greek pagan practice of non-language ecstatic utterances. Though it gave a spiritual high, a sense of elevated spirituality, and a feeling of superiority in the culture and above others, Paul rebukes them because it was disorderly and absent of edification. He will argue for intelligibility and order in the worship service, since that is the prerequisite to edification, which is the goal of gathering (1 Cor. 14:12, 40).
If someone did have the legitimate first-century gift of languages, Paul is correcting the failure to translate the languages in the gathering. While some in Corinth may have manufactured the gift with ecstatic utterances, others likely had the legitimate gift. To these he gives corrective instruction on ensuring translation of the language to ensure edification.
The Context of the NT
The New Testament is absent of a teaching on the existence of Spirit-endowed private prayer language. However, we do see the existence of “tongues,” described with some detail in Acts 2:4-11. In that passage, intelligible human languages are listed (Acts 2:6-11). A natural reading of the text reveals that it is the miraculous ability to speak a previously unlearned foreign language for the purpose of exalting Christ and building up others in a foundational way during the early, first-century church. As with any interpretive issue, the less clear is to be interpreted with the help of the more clear. Thus, 1 Corinthians should be understood in light of Acts 2. The idea of a private prayer language as an endowment from the Spirit, called “tongues,” contradicts the more clear description of the gift in Acts 2.
Second, the Greek word, glossa, used both in Acts (e.g. Acts 2:4, 11; 10:46; 19:6) and 1 Corinthians 14 for tongues means either “language,” or the anatomical organ. The burden of responsibility lies with the continuationist position to demonstrate that the word means something other than an earthly, human language in 1 Corinthians 14.
The Context of Redemptive History
The language gift appears at a specific time in redemptive/salvation history for a specific reason. In Israel’s wake were centuries of nationalistic pride. She had presumed upon her pedigree and broken covenant with God. Her Messiah came, but was rejected to the utmost. In God’s sovereignty, however, he was unfolding a mystery. God would no longer center his redemptive plan on one nation with one language, but all nations and all languages (cf. Matt. 28:18-20, Rev. 7:9). So, at the birth of the church, God made it creatively clear with the miraculous gift of previously unlearned foreign languages that his new nation would be made up of the world’s people groups.
This new language gift was a sign of judgment upon Israel for failing her purpose (cf. 1 Cor. 14:21). An era of hardening had come upon her as God gave time to the nations (cf. Rom. 11:25). What better way to demonstrate that than to endow the early Christians with the ability to speak the word of God in the languages of the people whom Israel despised? The old was fading and the new was dawning. The temporary gift of languages, then, served the transitional period to make it absolutely clear what God was doing in birthing and building the church.