by Eric Davis
August 2, 2018
From time to time pastors are asked about a phenomenon common to Christianity in the past one hundred years called “the gift of tongues.” The phrase generally refers to a spectrum of experiences, ranging from a supposed private, non-earthly prayer language spoken between the believer and God enabled by the Holy Spirit, to an angelic, non-earthly prayer language by the believer in prayer and worship, to an ecstatic non-earthly utterance enabled by the Spirit spontaneously in the believer in private and/or public worship.
Understandably, the phenomenon has created much excitement and inquiry since its rise in the early 1900’s. Professing Christians who experience it often testify to things such as the encouraging feeling it brings, comfort in the Christian life, and joy. Notwithstanding these, and many other experiences, God’s people must evaluate all things claimed to be of God by proper interpretation of Scripture. When done so, it becomes apparent that this phenomenon cannot be justified from the word of God. Having said that, Scripture does teach that there existed a miraculous gift of languages during the foundational, apostolic era of the New Testament church. As clear from Scripture, this was the miraculous ability to speak an unlearned language that is known by others on earth for the purpose of exalting Christ and building up others, while pronouncing judgment on Israel. This was a critical gift for laying the foundation of the church, and, as such, has ceased. However, phenomena as previously mentioned and beyond the biblical gift of languages cannot be justified from Scripture. Briefly, here are eleven reasons why there is no gift of tongues.
The meaning of the word “tongues.”
“Tongues” is an unfortunate rendering of the Greek word γλῶσσα. The word refers either to the tongue organ or spoken human languages understood by other people groups on Earth. Thus, references both in Acts and 1 Corinthians 12-14 refer, not to a private prayer phenomena, but a gift of languages, involving human earthly languages.
The definition of New Testament spiritual gifts.
In 1 Corinthians 12-14, the gift of “tongues,” or “languages,” is referred to as a spiritual gift. There, the apostle Paul teaches that a spiritual gift is an enabling of the Holy Spirit given to regenerate individuals to exalt the lordship of Christ, serve the common good of others, to be used in love for others’ edification, and exercised in an orderly manner. Therefore, the idea of an individualized, private communing contradicts the meaning of New Testament spiritual gifts and renders a gift of tongues as unsubstantiated from Scripture.
The transitional nature of redemptive history in the first century.
Tragically, Israel had spurned Yahweh for centuries, culminating in the rejection of her Messiah. Consequently, God judged Israel in faithfulness to his word and covenant warnings. In part, this judgment involved setting Israel aside for the sake of the church. God would no longer center his redemptive plan on the ethnic nation of Israel, but a spiritual nation; the church. Acts records this glorious transition, as the Spirit empowered believers to make disciples from and among all nations. The idea of an individualized private prayer language contradicts the redemptive historical purpose of the gift of languages in the transitional time of Acts.
In a very vivid way, the God of the nations showed with the gift of languages that one need not immerse themselves in Israeli ethnicity to enter his favor. Believers need no not speak Hebrew and become a Jewish proselyte. Instead, God miraculously enabled people to speak the languages of the nations in order to speak the good news of Christ to the nations. Thus, the transitional nature of salvation history in the first century forbids the idea that this gift was a private prayer language. In no way is it a private phenomenon, but a corporate marvel for the nations and in judgment of Israel (cf. 1 Cor. 14:21).
Jesus’ teaching on prayer in Matthew 6:7.
In Matthew 6:7, Jesus teaches Christians how to pray:
“And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words” (Matt 6:7).
The word translated “meaningless repetition,” is from the Greek verb, battalogeo. Similar to the TDNT (1:597), A.T. Robertson comments that the word carries the idea of “stammerers who repeat the words,” “babbling or chattering,” “empty repetition.” John Nolland says it’s the idea of the repetition of either intelligible or unintelligible sounds in order to multiply effectiveness (Osborne, Matthew, 226). Many commentators agree that the prefix, “batta,” is onomatopoetic. In other words, the prefix sounds similar to the thing it describes; prayers sounding something like, “batta, batta, batta.” Being onomatopoetic does not mean that the word exhaustively covers everything which it describes, but the general idea.
Christ forbids praying this way for two reasons. First, because it is characteristic of Gentiles (Matt 6:7). Praying in a way that piles up language, or non-language, unintelligible, or babbling sounds is prayer characteristic of those who do not know God. Second, our heavenly Father already knows what we need before we think to pray about it, thus we need not pray or worship in a non-earthly linguistic, unintelligible way (Matt 6:8). Therefore, Christian prayer must consist of simple, earthly languages to our God.
The context of 1 Corinthians 14.
Proponents of the gift of tongues often refer to 1 Corinthians 14 to support their position. In that chapter, the apostle Paul corrects the chaotic frenzy which characterized Corinthian church gatherings. The purpose of the chapter was not to give details on the practice of non-language utterances and trances (whether private or public practice), but just the opposite: intelligibility and orderliness must characterize Christian worship gatherings.
Paul is correcting error with respect to what a spiritual gift is and how things ought to operate in the corporate gathering. In the Corinthian congregation there appears to have been a frenzy surrounding this spiritual gift.
The Corinthians seemed to be erring by: 1) using the spiritual gift of languages in a disorderly, unedifying fashion, with no translation happening and 2) were engaging in the popular Greek pagan practice of non-language ecstatic frenzied utterances which were meaningless noises. Though it may have delivered a spiritual high, a feeling 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). Thus, 1 Corinthians 14 does not validate the practice of a tongues phenomenon.
The similarities between Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians 14.
It is often proposed that Acts 2 speaks of a gift involving earthly languages, but 1 Corinthians 14 speaks of a different kind of phenomenon, thus, justifying a personal gift of tongues. But this understanding of the two passages will not do. Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians 14 both use the same Greek word, γλῶσσα, which means “languages.” First Corinthians 14:10-11 and 21 all refer to earthly foreign languages. Further, in both Acts and 1 Corinthians 14, the gift of languages is said to have served as judgment upon Israel, demonstrating that God was now working through an ethnically mixed church. Consequently, Scripture does not teach that there exists a heavenly prayer language/utterance enabled by the Spirit on the grounds that Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians 14 teach different phenomenon.
The meaning of “tongues of angels” in 1 Corinthians 13:1.
Some proponents of the gift of tongues teach that 1 Corinthians 13:1 suggests that there exists a heavenly or angelic language enabled by the Holy Spirit. However, the passage is a use of hyperbolic extremes.
“If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13:1-2).
To remove mountains, know all mysteries, have all knowledge, and possess all faith are not possible. We are not omniscient nor omnipotent. More to the point of the passage, the purpose is to teach that even the greatest manifestation of a spiritual gift is worthless without love. Even more, the passage teaches that gifts are to be used in love towards others, while expressing the eternal nature of love and temporal nature of spiritual gifts. So, “tongues of angels,” better rendered, “languages of angels,” is hyperbole to serve the point.
Further, it should be noted that throughout history, when angels spoke, they did so in intelligible earthly languages without the need of an interpretive gift (e.g. Gen. 19:2, Jos. 5:14, Isa. 6:3, Luke 2:30-33, Rev. 21:9). Of all the times angels spoke, not once did they do so in ecstatic utterances. Therefore, there is no such thing as a gift of tongues which is a heavenly/angelic language.
God’s provision of 66 books containing intelligible words by the work of the Holy Spirit.
The existence of the Bible is an utterly extraordinary thing. By God’s doing, we have the pure, eternal words of the Creator and Redeemer. The Bible is pure and special revelation from God. Without intending to insult anyone’s intelligence, the Bible is a book of words. The words are human words; words of earthly language. The Bible is not a book of unintelligible words which require a special endowment to comprehend. What does that say about God? And what does that say about God’s desire for our fellowship with him? It involves simple, intelligible words featured in earthly languages.
Furthermore, the Bible is the work of the Holy Spirit. He carried men in profound acts of providence to perform a great work. The result is 66 books of logical, orderly earthly language. Since the Bible is the pure word of God, it’s safe to conclude that there exists no higher form of communication with God than that which is based upon his word. There exists no spiritually superior form of interaction or communication that that which is observed in the word of God. And, in all of the prayers, praises, letters, psalms, and books of the Bible, we observe common earthly language. There is nothing more profound or spiritual than the language of the Psalms or Jesus’ intelligible prayers in John 17 or the Garden of Gethsemane, for example.
If someone desires to pray and speak lofty, spiritual words to God, we have the Psalms, for example, which contain profound expressions of worship. On top of that, every single word in the 150 Psalms was inspired in an intelligible language by the Holy Spirit (normal intelligibility, with noun-verb-object, structure). Furthermore, when we observe the prayers of Scripture (e.g. 1 Kings 8, John 17), in every instance, whether Christ or others, individuals are praying in normal, human intelligibility.
The existence and content of the Bible teach us that the most profound expressions of worship to God are to be done in God-given, human languages with normal intelligibility.
The biblical scenes of Heaven.
At times, advocates of the tongues phenomenon suggest that the practice is a higher, more spiritual, or superior experience. Believers who do not seek or experience it are missing out or settling for less.
One way to evaluate the claim is to observe the biblical scenes of heaven. What type of communication do we observe in heaven? What type of worship? Fellowship? Praise? Certainly, a God as great as ours would showcase the highest forms of communication, worship, and praise in his holy word. And, as heaven is the place of glorified, perfected individuals, we could expect the most superior, spiritual phenomena. What do we observe?
Throughout the Old and New Testaments, we are given several glimpses of Heaven. There are things like singing, speaking to the Lord, worship, adoration, and lament. In each scene, they are speaking intelligible language and not ecstatic chances are private prayer language (e.g. Rev. 4:8, 11; 5:5, 9-10, 12-14; 6:6, 10; 15:3-4; 16:7; 18:2-4; 19:1-6). Not once are individuals experiencing a phenomenon similar to that of tongues.
Pagan religious practice.
As Jesus taught in Matthew 6:7, non-linguistic utterances are characteristic of pagan religious practice. In fact, even today, tongues-type phenomena is quite common in false religion.
For example, the type of repetitive prayer phenomenon prohibited by Jesus is common in Buddhist prayer wheels, the Roman Catholic practice of prayer candles, Ave Maria’s and Pater Nosters, and prayers of the Rosary. Tongues phenomena was common in ancient Greek culture (partly what the apostle Paul corrects in 1 Corinthians 12-14). At various points in Phaedrus, for example, Socrates praises the idea of ecstatic mania. A form of non-language, ecstatic prayer was reported to have been practiced through out-of-their-mind, ecstatic oraclers at Delphi and Dodona. (http://sparks.eserver.org/books/plato-phaedrus.pdf, 7). Many more examples could be cited of ancient and contemporary pagan practice.
The predominant position of the church.
Up until the early 1900s, the church did not adhere to the contemporary position of tongues. A large number of sound Christian scholars held to a language interpretation, dating back several centuries: John Chrysostom (4th century), Augustine (4th), Theodoret of Cyrus (5th), Martin Luther (16th), John Calvin (16th), John Owen (17th), Thomas Watson (17th), Matthew Henry (17-18th), John Gill (18th), Jonathan Edwards (18th), David Brainerd (18th), R.C. Sproul, Ian Hamilton, and Iaian Murray (contemporary).
Some of these points are sufficient on their own to demonstrate that the contemporary tongues phenomenon cannot be substantiated from Scripture. Taken together, we conclude that the “gift of tongues” was the foundational-era gift of languages. This was the miraculous ability to speak an unlearned earthly language 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, while proclaiming God’s judgment on Israel. This gift ceased with the apostolic era in the first century as the NT church foundation was established.
The question is frequently asked, “Then what is this tongues phenomena which many Christians claim to experience?” I do not know. What we do know, however, is that one cannot justify the experience from Scripture, and, therefore, the practice must not be sought, practiced, or propagated by Christians.