The overall testimony of Scripture is that the gift of tongues refers to known languages that were unknown to the one speaking them. There is only one gift of tongues presented in the Bible, with nuanced purposes. It is always intended for public use and to be a sign to unbelievers.
“This book will make or break me,” I remembered thinking to myself. Perhaps I was a bit too dramatic, but the reality was that if this book was correct, it would alter my world. The book was Charismatic Chaos by John MacArthur. I was a very young 21-year-old Christian who had been sitting under the preaching of a local Assemblies of God church since I became a believer. I did not know much theology at the time but was in the process of devouring books by MacArthur and Sproul. While many of those books should have challenged what I was learning on Sundays, the fact was that I was oblivious to the differences between what I was reading and what I was hearing on a typical Sunday from the pulpit. But a book arguing against “tongue-speaking” was a direct challenge I was aware of since I had heard of the phenomena quite often. It literally felt like a watershed moment. I grabbed the book and dove in. Needless to say, it did not end with me nailing a thesis nailed to a door or anything of the kind, but it did begin a shift in my thinking as a young Christian interested in theology. While I still know many beloved Christians in the denomination, that book began my exit out of the Assemblies of God church—as short as the time was.
What I have learned since then it that there is a plethora of books written on this subject. I have also learned that it is not only those in the Pentecostal tradition that hold that the gift of tongues is still operative today. Continuationists—those that believes the charismatic gifts still continue—come in all denominational shapes and sizes. While there is much to be said regarding the charismatic gifts, the gift of tongues is often a discussion that comes up. What is the gift? Is there more than one kind of gift of tongues? It was these kinds of questions that I sought to wrestle with early on in my Christian walk, and particularly what I would like to address in this article. The book of Acts and 1 Corinthians are two key places where tongues are mentioned, and 1 Corinthians specifically prompts questions about the nature of this gift. Are the tongues of Acts the same as the tongues of 1 Corinthians? Does 1 Corinthians postulate two different kinds of tongue-speaking? Is there a gift of tongues that is particularly private in nature and one that allows the individual to communicate with God for personal edification? Many would suggest that 1 Corinthians 14:2 argues for the latter. For example, continuationist Sam Storms writes:
Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 14:2 is crucial for understanding tongues…first, tongues-speech is directed or addressed to God, not to men. Tongues, whether spoken or sung, are fundamentally worship and intercession!
According to Storms, one manifestation of the gift of tongues presented in Scripture is a private communion with God that is particularly for worship and intercession. The idea behind this is that there are actually two different manifestations of tongues presented in the Bible. The general understanding is that there is one manifestation of tongue language that was given on the Day of Pentecost that were actual human languages, while there are others that are of heavenly origin and are for private use. The questions that we want to ask in this article are: (1) Is the gift of tongues in the book of Acts the same as the one in 1 Corinthians? (2) Does Paul suggest that there is a private form of tongues that can be edifying to the one speaking them? (3) Finally, how do we understand the gift of tongues in the context of 1 Corinthians 14?
Are the Tongues in Acts and 1 Corinthians the Same?
Some commentators argue that the tongues in the book of Acts and 1 Corinthians are not necessarily the same. In fact, Storms goes as far as to say that “only in Acts 2 are tongues explicitly said to be human languages not previously learned by the speaker.” There is no question that the tongues spoken of in Acts 2 were human languages. This is not only derived from the context (Acts 2:5-11), but also from the use of the word διαλέκτῳ in verses 6 and 8. Our word “dialect” derives from this term and it is clear that this can refer to nothing other than human language.
But even if Acts 2 was clearly the only case where the tongues were human language, the burden of proof would rest upon those who would attempt to argue that other occasions in Acts are anything but human language. This is not only refuted from implicit evidence in Acts itself, but the majority of commentators, continuationists included, would argue that tongues in Acts were actual human language. But what about the tongues in 1 Corinthians? While the book of Acts could consistently refer to human languages, is it not possible that Paul could be referring to another kind? It does not seem likely. Again, the burden of proof is on those suggesting there is a difference. Where are the passages of Scripture that demonstrate Paul had a fundamental different kind of theology of tongues in mind?
Furthermore, the case can be made that 1 Corinthians, like Acts, associates the gift of tongues with human language. In Acts, it is clear that these specific tongues were languages (Acts 2:5-11). Similarly in 1 Corinthians, Paul alludes to Isaiah 28:11 in 14:21, which is a clear description of a foreign human language. If Paul was talking about something other than known human language, his citation of the prophet would have been unintelligible. Paul also uses the term φωνή (language) in 1 Corinthians 14:10-11 that leaves no doubt Paul is connecting the gift of tongues to human language. These kinds of reasons render the idea that Paul has any other kind of tongues in mind improbable.
Tongues of Angels?
One may object to our reasoning by suggesting that Paul does have other kinds of tongues in mind, particularly when he uses the phrase “tongues of angels” (1 Cor. 13:1). Was this a kind of special tongue that a believer could speak in? Both Sam Storms and New Testament scholar Gordon Fee maintain that this is a special kind of dialect that believers are given by the Spirit. In response, it should be noted that Paul does not define these tongues of angels, nor does he specifically connect these to the gift of tongues. Therefore, without a specific definition, the context ought to help navigate how to interpret this passage. Paul is emphasizing things to the extreme in this verse to make a point. He describes himself in a hypothetical case as knowing all of the languages of men and even going beyond this and conceiving of the ability to speak in the celestial language of angels. He then continues his hypothetical to conceive of knowing all of the mysteries of God, having the highest of faith and being burned as a martyr.
In a hyperbolic fashion, Paul is describing someone who is an impeccable Christian, yet one that has no love. The point of the hyperbole is that, even if someone was an amazing Christian with unsurpassable wisdom and knowledge, all of it would be meaningless without the most important Christian virtue, that of love. Paul’s hyperbolic example was one that transcended even Paul himself and would certainly not have been something that was a part of the common Christian experience. It is also important to note what else this passage is not saying. Paul is not saying he possessed this language of angels any more than he possessed all faith, or knowledge, or mysteries (13:2). Furthermore, it is important to point out that we have no basis to say that the tongues of angels were anything other than a real language. As Busenitz points out:
If one insists on taking the phrase “tongues…of angels” as a reference to the language of heaven, it is important to note that whenever angels spoke in the Bible, they spoke in a real language that people could understand (Gen. 19; Exod. 33; Joshua 5; Judges 13).
Thus we would argue that even if one connects the “tongues of angels” with a heavenly language, the only thing we can infer from Scripture is that they were real genuine languages. However, we believe ultimately that there is no basis to connect the phrase “tongues of angels” with a heavenly language, let alone a language that was a part of the gift of tongues given to believers.
Paul and Private Tongues?
Another argument to consider is that Paul himself used tongues as a form of private prayer. This argument is extracted from 1 Corinthians 14:18-19 where Paul writes:
I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. Nevertheless, in the church I would rather speak five words with my mind.