PMT 2014-064 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.
In this series I am analyzing tongues-speaking in Scripture. As we continue, we will see that this miraculous endowment of foreign languages is an eschatological sign. Yet, before we can understand tongues’ eschatological function, we must recognize their biblical and historical form.
In the last article I presented the positive evidence for the human-language nature of tongues. In this one, I will respond to biblical objections to my view by focusing on alleged negative passages. Four passages are especially important in the pro-charismatic defense. These are all easy to explain in terms of the analysis given above: 1 Corinthians 14:2, 14; 1 Corinthians 13:1; and Romans 8:26.
First Corinthians 14:2
Upon first blush, 1 Corinthians 14 seems to demand non-rational ecstatic utterances. There Paul states that “one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men, but to God; for no one understands, but in his spirit he speaks mysteries,” and “if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful.” Nevertheless, these statements are fully compatible with the foreign language interpretation, as we shall see.
Please note the fallacy involved in employing these texts against the human-language position. I will begin by illustrating the matter being dealt with in verse 2. If I were to stand up in my local church and begin speaking Yiddish, no one present would understand me. Not one person in my congregation can read, speak, or understand Yiddish, thus we could say “no one understands” because none could comprehend my speech. Nevertheless, God knows all languages, so I would be speaking to God!
Theological Analysis of Tongues (6 CDs)
This six part sermon series covers the key issues for understanding tongues-speaking
as intended by Scripture. Very helpful even for eschatology,
given tongues-speaking serving as a sign of covenant curse upon Israel.
See more study materials at: www.KennethGentry.com
We must realize that Paul is writing to a particular church about their particular situation. As with all epistles, 1 Corinthians is an “occasional letter,” that is, a letter dealing with particular historical occasions or issues. When we read, for instance, in 1 Corinthians 5:1, 2 that a public case of fornication is buffeting the church and no one mourns it, we need not conclude that this is a general principle operating in all churches. That is, that all churches have fornicators within them and a membership that does not grieve over the moral defection. Rather, we must understand that this is the situation at Corinth. Likewise at Corinth tongues are being used when no one present can understand them. Paul’s letter indicates serious problems with pride and division within the church (1 Cor. 1:10; 3:21; 4:7, 18; 5:6; 6:6; 11:18; 12:25; 15:31). Apparently, some are using tongues for prideful reasons rather for corporate ministry.
Furthermore, within the very context of the discussion Paul illustrates the problem by comparing it to a situation in which a foreign language is not understood: “Therefore, if I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be a foreigner to him who speaks, and he who speaks will be a foreigner to me” (1 Cor. 14:11). Surely we may not surmise that foreign languages are not understandable at all; rather they are often not understood in particular situations.
We discover an interesting parallel situation in Isaiah 33:19 where God promises future deliverance for Israel from subjugation by a foreign nation: “You will no longer see a fierce people, a people of unintelligible speech which no one comprehends.” Surely this does not prove that the nation dominating Israel spoke ecstatically or by means of incoherent babble and that no one in all the world could understand their language! The statement in Isaiah means the common Israelite present before the conquerors could not understand their conqueror’s language.
Consequently, 1 Corinthians 14:2 is not contrary in the least to the foreign language view of tongues. We must understand this verse in terms of its original audience: it teaches that at Corinth those who speak in tongues are not speaking to anyone present — because no one present knows the language spoken.
First Corinthians 14:14
In like manner we may adequately explain verse 14, which reads: “For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful.” Given all the previous support of the foreign language view of tongues, we may interpretively and contextually paraphrase this verse: “If I pray in a tongue, my spirit-gift prays, but my understanding of the truths being spoken bears no fruit in others untrained in the language spoken.”
In fact, several modern versions lean in this direction. The Beck translation of the Bible reads: “If I pray in a strange language, my spirit prays, but my mind isn’t helping anyone.” The Amplified Bible reads: “For if I pray in an (unknown) tongue, my spirit (by the Holy Spirit within me) prays, but my mind is unproductive—bears no fruit and helps nobody.”
Paul’s statement “my spirit” refers to his spirit-gift. When he says “my mind is unfruitful” he is not saying his rational understanding lay dormant as his emotions swelled within. Rather, he means that his understanding of divine truths known by means of his spiritual endowment produce no fruit in those who hear him when he speaks in a language unknown to them. The overriding point of Paul’s instruction in this context urges gifts be used for the benefit of others (cf. vv. 3-6, 12, 19). But if the Corinthians use tongues improperly — when no one knows the language — then they do not edify others in the church.
Interestingly, the word “fruitless” is used elsewhere in the sense of non-production of benefit for others. Note the following examples:
• Titus 3:14: “And let our people also learn to maintain good works, to meet urgent needs, that they may not be unfruitful.” Meeting the “urgent needs” of others is “fruitful” by implication here.
• Second Peter 1:8: “For if these things are yours and abound, you will be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The “fruit” sought is in others (at least in part), as indicated in the preceding verses where Peter lists various other-oriented virtues: self-control, brotherly kindness, love.
• Matthew 13:22: “Now he who received seed among the thorns is he who hears the word, and the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful.” The context deals with bearing seed, promoting the gospel among others, and so forth. Again, unfruitfulness is other-oriented.
First Corinthians 14:16 and 17 confirm this interpretation: “Otherwise, if you bless with the spirit, how will he who occupies the place of the uninformed say ‘Amen’ at your giving of thanks, since he does not understand what you say? For you indeed give thanks well, but the other is not edified.” The people who hear such tongues in those contexts cannot declare “amen”—they receive no beneficial impartation of knowledge. How could they say “amen” to something they do not understand? Thus, the exercise of the spiritual gift of tongues in such circumstances bears no fruit—it is “unfruitful.”
Tongues Radio Debate (1 CD)
Radio interview and debate between Dr. Gentry and a leading advocate of
modern day tongues speaking. Gentry argues that tongues have ceased,
having served their original purpose in the first century.
See more study materials at: www.KennethGentry.com
First Corinthians 13:1
Another passage often brought to bear on this discussion is 1 Corinthians 13:1: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become as sounding brass or a clanging cymbal.” Here those who hold tongues are ecstatic utterances argue that “tongues of angels” are set in opposition to “men’s tongues,” indicating a radical difference between them.
The linguistic structure of the phrase militates against the interpretation urged. The two genitival phrase “of men” and “of angels” are both controlled by the one noun “tongues.” The two types of tongues, then, are related; they are of a kind. The apparent governing relation between them seems to be that both “tongues” are tools of rational communication, either between men or between angels. They are both structured, coherent language systems.
Furthermore, a question arises in this context: On what basis are we justified in assuming angels communicate ecstatically? Surely they converse and commune in a rational way similar to men. As a matter of fact, everywhere we see angels speaking in Scripture they communicate coherently and rationally. The ecstatic utterance view of this verse is quite contrived.
A final passage we will consider as contra-indicative of our position is Paul’s statement in Romans 8:26: “Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.” Charismatics often take the “groanings” here as referring to ecstatic utterances in a special prayer language generated by the Holy Spirit.
This is verse is clearly misconstrued in the charismatic argument. The Greek word behind the translation “cannot be uttered” is alaletois. It is a compound of the negative a (“no”) and laletois, “to speak.” Thus, literally the groanings are “unspeakable,”“unutterable.” Whatever this verse refers to, it cannot refer to anything uttered, e.g., tongues-speaking!