PMT 2014-063 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.Tongues 1

Eschatology is not an addition to Christian theology. It stands at the very heart of it. Consequently, it impacts and colors all areas of biblical truth. Oftentimes we can understand a biblical phenomenon better if we see in terms of its implications for the outworking of redemption, for redemptive-history’s progress to its climax.

Willem Van Gemeren succinctly notes that eschatology is “the totality of the teaching of Scripture on the redemption of God” (Van Gemeren, Progress of Redemption, 458). Thus, as Michael Horton observes: “Eschatology should be a lens and not merely a locus. In other words, it affects the way we see everything in scripture rather than only serving as an appendix to the theological system” (Horton, Covenant and Eschatology, 5).

One of the most remarkable (and tragic) phenomenon of our times is the outbreak of the charismatic movement in the last fifty years. Christianity has moved from a foundationally Word-based approach to God to an almost total experience-based approach. And when charismatics even attempt to root their experience in Scripture, they fail to understand the Scriptures generally and eschatology particularly.

The charismatic movement is also multi-faceted, of course, boasting a wide variety of charismatic experiences. Among its adherents we read of prophetic utterances, miraculous healings, being “slain in the Spirit,”“holy laughter,”and so forth. Nevertheless, “speaking in tongues” (or glossolalia, as it is technically known) is certainly one of the most distinctive features of the movement. In this series I will investigate the Scriptural data regarding three fundamental issues relating to tongues-speaking: (1) The nature of tongues, (2) the purpose (or function), of tongues, and (3) the transience of tongues. These issues impact our understanding of eschatology. Or rather, our understanding of eschatology should impact our analysis of tongues.

The Nature of Tongues

In studying biblical tongues we must consider their nature in terms of both form and content.

The Form of Tongues in Scripture. Basically two standard positions are used to explain the biblical form of tongues-speaking: One claims that tongues were ecstatic utterances. These utterances were rhapsodic, incoherent, spiritual ejaculations of prayer and praise with no formal, linguistic structure discernible. Frequently adherents of this view speak of tongues as a “heavenly language.” This view almost universally prevails in charismatic circles today.

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The other view holds tongues were a miraculous endowment of the Holy Spirit whereby the charismatically-endowed Christian could speak an historical, foreign, human language which he had never learned. Thus, tongues were a truly miraculous phenomenon of a remarkable nature.

That tongues were structured, coherent, foreign languages is evident from the Scriptural record. The following provides incontrovertible evidence in this direction.

First, the evidence from first occurrence. The definitive, first-occurrence of tongues was indisputably in the form of structured foreign languages. In Acts 2 the first historical manifestation of tongues-speaking confirms its biblical form:
And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were bewildered, because they were each one hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and marveled, saying `Why are not all these who speak Galileans? And how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born. . . . We hear them in our tongues speaking the mighty deeds of God.’” (Acts 2:6-8, 11)
This first occurrence is definitive of biblical tongues, for this is the very experience prophesied by God through the prophet Joel (Joel 2:28-32; Acts 2:16-19) and by the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 1:5).

Second, evidence from later episodes. Subsequent occurrences of tongues-speaking in Acts conform to the pattern established in Acts 2. The very next express reference to tongues is found in Acts 10:45-46. When the Lord opens the hearts of Cornelius and his household to the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ, they immediately exercise the identical gift: “And all the circumcised believers who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out upon the Gentiles also. For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God.” When this event is related to the Jerusalem Church, Peter reports that “as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, just as He did upon us at the beginning. . . . If God therefore gave to them the same gift as He gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” (Acts 11:15, 17).

Note that Peter carefully defines this experience in terms of the Pentecost event. This is the “same gift”; it falls upon Cornelius’s household “just as” does upon Peter and the 120 “at the beginning.” Clearly the original Pentecost tongues serve as the paradigm for later manifestations.

Third, the evidence from identical terminology. All references to tongues-speaking in Scripture employ the same basic terminology, thus indicating identity of form. The Greek word for “tongues” occurring in all instances of tongues-speaking is glossa. The Greek word for “speak” in every instance is laleo. Since tongues are not re-defined elsewhere, and since all instances employ the same terminology as in Acts, and since an obvious pattern is set early in Acts, we may safely conclude that the biblical form of tongues was constant. Tongues were foreign, human languages spoken under a miraculous movement of the Holy Spirit.

Fourth, the evidence from language analogy. The Corinthian tongues are defined in terms fully compatible with episodes in Acts. In 1 Corinthians 14:10-11, while in the course of speaking to the Corinthian abuse of tongues, Paul writes: “There are, perhaps, a great many kinds of languages in the world, and no kind is without meaning. If then I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be to the one who speaks a barbarian, and the one who speaks will be a barbarian to me.”

Here we must note two important facts: (1) Paul expressly asserts that no language is without meaning. He is comparing tongues to world languages, and he recognizes that all languages have coherent meaning. (2) He also observes that at Corinth the gift of tongues is being employed wrongly. That is, in such a manner that no one present could understand the particular foreign language spoken.

That tongues here are foreign languages is evident in that Paul compares the situation to a meeting between two foreigners. The Greek word “barbarian” indicates one who speaks a foreign language unknown by the Greek-speaking person. Foreigners do not babble incoherently; they speak structured languages — even though the one to whom they speak might not personally understand the language. This is precisely the failure of the Corinthian Christians: they are employing their gift of tongues (languages) indiscriminately and, thus, are not benefiting the congregation any more than would a preacher speaking a sermon to them in a foreign language.

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Fifth, Paul’s principle of speech. Paul enunciates a biblical principle which negates the possibility of tongues being rhapsodic frenzy. In 1 Corinthians 14:32 Paul writes that “the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets.” That is, it is not in keeping with the biblical concept of spiritual gifts for one to lose control of his psycho-somatic self in an emotional frenzy. In divine endowments the Lord gifts the whole man — the rational, as well as the emotional aspects of man’s being. It is only in paganism that those “gifted of the gods” lose control of themselves as their rationality is overridden by a surging of demonic power.

Consequently, the form of tongues in Scripture is that of miraculously granted ability to speak in foreign human languages previously unknown to the speaker. Before moving on to other matters, though, I will survey several leading texts employed in support of the ecstatic-utterance viewpoint.


As we continue our study, we will see that this miraculous endowment of foreign languages is an eschatological sign. But for now we are having to present tongues as they actually occur in Scripture. If tongues true meaning is lost, then its eschatological significance is distorted.

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8 thoughts on “TONGUES AND ESCHATOLOGY (1)

  1. jaredrabbott May 26, 2014 at 1:21 pm

    I agree with most of what is said here. Our faith needs to be based in the Word of God rather than personal, subjective experiences. Also, biblical tongues akways has meaning. But you also make a statement about the charismatic movement that simply is not factually accurate.

    “Basically two standard positions are used to explain the biblical form of tongues-speaking: One claims that tongues were ecstatic utterances. These utterances were rhapsodic, incoherent, spiritual ejaculations of prayer and praise with no formal, linguistic structure discernible. Frequently adherents of this view speak of tongues as a ‘heavenly language.’ This view almost universally prevails in charismatic circles today.”

    I was born and raised in charismatic and Pentecostal churches, and I literally know of no one in those circles who hold that view. The only Believers I’ve encountered that hold this view are actually cessatonists. Not that this their view view of tongues, but that this is their explanation what present-day charismatics and Pentecostals are doing.

    The popular view in charismatic and Pentecostal churches, which is equally erroneous but different, is that “heavenly languages” also called a “personal prayer tongues” are believed to be a private language between the individual and God, and are often described as a secret code which prevents Satan from understanding our prayer and doing anything to hinder the fulfillment of the prayer. While there isn’t any biblical basis for this view, it isn’t the meaningless ecstatic gibberish described here either.

  2. Tom Smedley May 26, 2014 at 5:41 pm

    As one who is both a Pentecostal Christian and an amateur linguist, I read this article with keen interest. As lesson 1 in my workbook on descriptive linguistics explains, “different phonemes in different languages are — DIFFERENT.” Anyone who has studied another language has wrestled with the task of wrapping one’s tongue around vowels and consonants that are not found in one’s native language. It took 15 minutes of patient coaching from a native speaker before I could hear, let alone pronounce, the differences between kar (profit) and ka^r (snow). ESL training guides for Chinese speakers often come with a mirror, so that the learner can visually master tongue and lip positions for two sounds that are distinct to English speakers, but indistinguishable to Chinese speakers.

    I had to quit attending the midweek prayer service at my church because the leader would not listen to reason vis-a-vis his practice of praying “in tongues” over the microphone, in order to stir up / encourage the other people in prayer. If it’s something so important that everyone should hear it, should there not be an interpretation?

    In my 40+ years of participating in this flavor of Christianity, I have personal knowledge of one (1) time when a brother was overheard by a native speaker worshipping God in a language he’d never studied.

    The rest of the time, what my American ears hears is — randomized ENGLISH phonemes. ENGLISH, not foreign. ENGLISH syllables re-arranged to extinguish meaning.

    Maybe there’s a spiritual benefit in this practice — after all, the Pentecostals are doing the heavy lifting in the area of world evangelization. But if God’s power is truly being manifested, trifling with it, trivializing it, is a dangerous thing to do. A few years after the emergence of Pentecostalism a century ago, the participants had to attend a wave of funerals.

  3. Kenneth Gentry May 26, 2014 at 7:37 pm

    But the question is to be resolved by Scripture, not experience. That is, we must determine what occurred in Scripture, not how many are doing it today. The Mormon Church is quite large and growing.

  4. Kenneth Gentry May 26, 2014 at 7:40 pm

    Perhaps you don’t like the phrase “ecstatic utterance” (though it has been used by many in the Pentecostal/charismatic movement). But however you may designate it, in the final analysis it can be described as an “ecstatic utterance.” The issue before us, though, is: How does the Scripture define the exercise of tongues. Read on!

  5. jaredrabbott May 26, 2014 at 7:51 pm

    Actually, I don’t take issue with the term “ecstatic utterance” at all. It certainly is an ecstatic experience. I’ve just never met anyone who teaches there is such a thing as a “private prayer language” who believes the language is without meaning. They think that it is a meaningful language, albeit unique to the speaker, while also not being something they just make up as they go. However, it’s really a minor disagreement between us since we both agree that the tongues spoken of in the Bible are actual languages (spoken by more than one individual).

  6. Kenneth Gentry May 27, 2014 at 11:01 am

    Thanks. My point is that the unstructured utterances of tongues-speaking is not what Scripture teaches.

  7. Rich May 28, 2014 at 1:54 am

    Paul doesn’t forbid it though. He just gives instructions on its order and interpretation. If it were unscriptural, would not have Paul forbade it as such? In fact Paul lists it as one go the gifts — the least — but one none the less. How can scripture sanction it if practicing it is unscriptural?

  8. Kenneth Gentry May 29, 2014 at 8:15 pm

    Paul does not forbid tongues because when he writes, they are functioning per God’s will. As the series continues, you will see that I believe true tongues faded with the destruction of the temple (which will be explained later). Tongues was a sign gift pointing to the end of the old covenant.

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