Why There is Such a Thing as the Gift of Tongues (Part 1) image

Why There is Such a Thing as the Gift of Tongues (Part 1)

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The gift of tongues is weird. Let's be honest. But I've always believed in it. I've grown up in a church culture where the gift was believed to be for today and was expected and enjoyed. I've also never seen how a biblical case can be made that the gift isn't for today. So, as you can image, when I saw a prominent Christian leader post a link to a blog article called 'Why there is no such thing as the gift of tongues', I was intrigued and thought I'd take a look.

The post – written by Eric Davis at The Cripplegate – seeks to make a biblical case that there is no such thing as the gift of tongues, or more precisely, that ‘the contemporary tongues phenomenon’ cannot be defended from Scripture. Davis doesn’t deny that there was a gift of languages ‘during the foundational, apostolic era of the New Testament church’, but claims that this gift ceased at the end of this period and is not comparable to various forms of the gift claimed in the contemporary church. It’s a classic cessationist position.

Since I believe there is such a thing as the gift of tongues, and since I want my beliefs to be based on the Bible, I thought I should see if I could offer a response to Davis’ arguments. So here goes… 

Davis gives eleven reasons why there is no such thing as the gift of tongues. I’ll briefly summarise (in italics) and then respond to each one. If you want to get a fuller picture you might want to read Davis’ article first. The first five arguments are covered in this post, the remaining six will follow tomorrow.

1. The meaning of the word ‘tongues’

The Greek word glōssa can mean either tongue (as in the organ in your mouth) or language. Therefore, the gift of glōssai involves ‘human earthly languages’ and is not ‘a private prayer phenomenon’.

I agree that ‘tongues’ is an unfortunate rendering of glōssa in the relevant passages as few modern speakers of English immediately think of the sense ‘language’ when they hear ‘tongues’. But there is no reason to state that this means that the word cannot be used to refer to ‘a private prayer phenomenon’ or that it must refer to earthly languages.

2. The definition of New Testament spiritual gifts

Paul teaches that spiritual gifts are for the common good and to be used in an orderly way, therefore the gift of languages cannot be ‘an individualized, private communing’.

It’s true that 1 Corinthians 12 presents spiritual gifts as given for the common good (v.7). It’s therefore significant that languages and interpretation of languages are listed next to each other (v.10). The pairing of the gift of languages and interpretation ensures that languages are for the common good, thus the gift does fit the mould of a spiritual gift. This is the point Paul makes in 1 Corinthians 14:13-17 and 27-28: in a corporate setting a gift of languages must be followed by an interpretation so that it can be understood and build up the church. Thus 1 Corinthians 12 doesn’t prove that languages cannot be a spiritual gift, but simply reinforces the point Paul will go on to make that the gifts of languages and interpretation work together.

However, we also can’t deny that Paul sees the gift as benefiting the individual, even without an interpretation (14:4). Unless we are going to accuse Paul of being inconsistent we have to acknowledge that languages can be a spiritual gift even though they are not always for the (immediate) good of others.

3. The transitional nature of redemptive history in the first century

The gift of languages was given in the first century as a way of God showing ‘that one need not immerse themselves in Israeli ethnicity to enter his favor’. It, therefore, cannot be an individual activity. Languages were given so that the gospel could be communicated to others.

There are several problems with this argument. It is true that the extent to which Gentile believers needed to take on a Jewish identity was a matter of debate in the first century (see Galatians for the most obvious evidence), but there is no evidence that the speaking of Hebrew was part of these debates. (There is conflict between Hebrew-speakers and Greek-speakers in Acts 7, but the conflict was not about the language they were speaking). This view also doesn’t fit with the evidence of 1 Corinthians 14 where the gift is clearly not about enabling the communication of the gospel to other nations but is about building up individuals (v.4) and the church (v.5), and expressing thanksgiving to God (v.16). Paul makes no attempt to indicate a ‘redemptive historical purpose’ to the gift and Acts certainly doesn’t ever state such a purpose even if it could possibly be suggested based on the events that occur in Acts 2.

4. Jesus’ teaching on prayer in Matthew 6:7

When he teaches on prayer, Jesus forbids ‘mindless babble’ designed to ‘multiply effectiveness’ because it is how the gentiles prayed and because God already knows what we need. ‘Therefore, Christian prayer must consist of simple, earthly languages to our God’.

This is probably Davis’ strongest point, but even here there are weaknesses. The argument seems to be based on what many would recognise as a false understanding of contemporary beliefs about the gift.

Jesus criticises ‘the repetition of intelligible or unintelligible sounds in order to multiply effectiveness’, but this would not be a purpose many contemporary proponents of the gift would recognise. The fact that when the gift is used the speech is unintelligible cannot, on its own, render it inappropriate because Paul recognises this element of the gift (1 Cor. 14:9) and yet encourages the Corinthians in it (1 Cor. 14:5). It is also false to reason that because God already knows what we need, prayer in a (to us) unintelligible language is inappropriate. Jesus doesn’t tell us not to pray because God already knows what we need, rather he reminds us of this fact as a reason not to try and persuade God by many words. Again, if this is not what users of the gift are trying to do there is no problem. In addition, Paul seems to imply that the gift of languages is primarily for the expression of thanksgiving (1 Cor. 14:16), and so it is different from petitionary prayer.

5. The context of 1 Corinthians 14

The purpose of 1 Corinthians was to insist on intelligibility and orderliness in corporate worship, not to talk about ‘non-language utterances and trances’.

Much of what Davis says here seems correct. Paul is correcting misuse of the gift, which rather suggests he thought it was important and valuable when used rightly.

Paul does, it’s true, argue for ‘intelligibility and order in the worship service’, but he does this by explaining how the gift is to be used (in conjunction with interpretation), not by forbidding it completely (1 Cor. 14:5, 13-17, 27-28). In addition, Paul doesn’t think the gift is ‘absent of edification’; he clearly states that it edifies the individual (1 Cor. 14:4) and, when combined with interpretation, the church (1 Cor. 14:12-13). 

To forbid the gift of languages because of its misuse would be to throw the baby out with the bathwater, which is exactly what Paul doesn’t do in 1 Corinthians 14. 

Come back tomorrow for the remaining six arguments.

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