03 Are Tongues for Today?

Are Tongues for Today?
Posted on March 7, 2013

Almost immediately after we had completed our article “Are Tongues in the New Testament unknown languages” we located an other excellent article on this issue. This article answers the question from a little different perspective. Guess what? We located another booklet on the same subject by Theodore Epp of Back to the Bible Broadcast entitled The Use and Abuse of Tongues. We may also place this third item on our website. See the second article below. It is very informative.

Spirituality For the Common Good


by Glenn Peoples

1 Corinthians 14:1-25 Notes

This was presented as a two-part seminar at the Bible College of new Zealand in 2001. The first part was an exegetical presentation on 1 Corinthians 15:1-25, and the second part was a presentation of a “cessationist” view of the gifts of tongues and prophecy.


1 Corinthians 14:1-25 has got the Corinthians into all sorts of trouble over the last 2000 years (more specifically in the last 100). It has become the basis of accusing them of “swinging from the chandeliers” and of being raving Charismatics (in the 20th century sense of the word). With the somewhat controversial issues that lie ahead, textual tradition has been kind to the interpreter in that there are no significant textual variants at all from verses 1 to 25.

Context: Thematic and Cultural

The Apostle Paul is evidently dealing with a situation where certain persons or groups in Corinth are causing disunity through (un)spiritual indulgence. Elsewhere in the book, we see reference to the “weak Christian who are being offended by the behaviour of the “strong” – probably labels that were contrived by the so-called “strong,” exercising their bold liberty regardless of how it affected others (in the case of eating meat offered to idols in particular). In chapter 12 Paul has been stressing that (contrary to some in Corinth), it is not the case that only an elite group of Christians are “spiritual.” Rather, he emphasised that all members of the body of Christ have unity because they have all been baptised “in one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:13). That is what makes them members of the one body, and therefore everybody in the body is equally endowed with the Spirit. Paul particularly seems to have been arguing that being endowed with spiritual gifts doesn’t require that all have the same gifts, and also that no person who believes they have a particular gifting should snub a fellow believer who they do not think has the same gifting, because all such giftings come through one and the same Spirit (12:4-11, 18-21).

The main issue of discussion from verse 1 to 25 is tongues, although some comments are made about prophecy as well. The thrust of the passage is the superiority of prophecy to tongues.

An Unavoidable Issue: The nature of these “languages”

Explicit reference to the phenomenon of “tongues” in the New Testament is restricted to Mark 16:17 (generally regarded as a later addition); Acts 2:4; 10:46; 19:6 and 1 Corinthians 12-14. [1] There are a couple of crucial questions related to this phenomenon. They will hopefully be answered at least in part as this passage is covered, but for now, let’s just outline what some of the questions might be.

– Are the glossai “real languages?

Glossa means “tongue,” and as in English, is used metaphorically for “language.” Greek has two main words for language, glossa and dialektos. The difference between the two is effectively illustrated by Hudson F. McKenzie in Natural Tongues:[2]

For examples of the way these two are used, cf. Rev 14:6 and Acts 22:2. Or even better, on the day of Pentecost the disciples spoke in foreign tongues (glossai), but the recipients of their preaching heard the message in their own language (dialektos).

Glossa has the connotation of foreign tongue and dialektos has the connotation of local or common tongue. E.g. I’m presenting this seminar, as far as New Zealanders are concerned, in the English dialektos. For Koreans, I’m using the English glossa. Wherever this phenomenon (speaking in languages in connection with the work of the Spirit) occurs, the word glossa is used.

– If so, are they human languages?

Fee says, with reference to the “head covering” passage in 1 Corinthians 11,

We can only guess what they were doing (probably doffing a customary head covering) and why (probably because they considered themselves already as the angels, where sexual distinctions no longer mattered – and especially so in Christian worship where all spoke in tongues,[3] the language of angels, as evidence of their having attained to this degree of heavenly existence).[4]

For Fee, then, his understanding of what glossai means contributes to (and is contributed to by) his wider understanding of what was going on in Corinth, namely an over-realised eschatology. This framework is then used to explain difficult passages such as the one regarding women and head coverings.

Fee’s suggestion is something of a novelty (even if he is correct). At no time in this passage does Paul clearly attempt to put on the eschatological “brakes” as it were, and remind the Corinthians in response to their excess that the end has not yet come, so they are misguided for supposing that it has. Indeed, Paul doesn’t for a moment challenge the belief that we ought to be partaking in the life of the Spirit to our utmost here and now, his concern is how this is to be done. His concern is not so much that the Corinthians were trying to be too spiritual too soon, it is that their behaviour was not truly spiritual at all, but misguided.

A note on glossolalia before we begin

The word glossolalia has become a popular piece of theological jargon to refer to this phenomenon. It is a combination of glossa (language) and laleo (to speak). If we translate glossa in an archaic way as tongue, then glossolalia = “tongues speaking.”

However, it needs to be said that while the word is a common one in contemporary charismatic theology, it is never used in the New Testament. This might not seem like a hugely significant fact at first. After all, while glossolalia as a noun isn’t used, the noun glossa is used in connection with the word laleo often enough. In other words, while “tongues speech” isn’t referred to, people are still said to “speak” in “tongues.” But the reason the point is a significant one is that glossolalia is used as a technical term, which expresses a strong doctrinal bias. For example, if a foreigner came to us and spoke in Chinese, the Pentecostal theologian will tell us that while he has spoken (laleo) in another language (glossa), he hasn’t performed glossolalia. Obviously what is being implied is that glossolalia is something more than just speaking in a glossa. It is used to talk about a particular interpretation of what “tongues” means in Acts and 1 Corinthians. This is seen clearly expressed by J. Morris Ashcraft:

The word glossa is used in the New Testament in three different senses: (1) the tongue as the physical organ of speech; (2) tongues as a definite human language and (3) tongues as glossolalia or ecstatic speech.[5]

Using the coined term glossolalia then can be very misleading, for when the interpreter believes that the person speaking in tongues (languages) is speaking a known human tongue – when the word glossa is used, she will call it speaking in other languages. When, however, the same interpreter believes that “tongues speech” in the ecstatic sense is being implied because of the appearance of glossa, she will call it glossolalia, and even though this word literally means nothing more than speaking in languages (as in the first example), it now somehow has the appearance of something more – something mysterious.

The same is true to a degree about the use of the word “tongues” at all. When the KJV was translated, there was no problem using the term, since it was the ordinary everyday word to refer to languages. It is unfortunate that modern Bible versions have held on to the archaic term (“tongues” rather than “languages”), since it effectively creates a term with an unclear meaning, and whenever this is done, it can be said to have any number of curious meanings.[6]

For these reasons, the word glossa will be read here in the light of its ordinary meaning with regard to speech – namely, a language generally. If the text itself

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