Weighing in on the perennial arguments about speaking in tongues, Nathan Busenitz at The Cripplegate posted an article last week entitled Two Kinds Of Tongues? Busenitz thought “it seemed fitting to post something related to the charismatic-cessationist debate” in view of this week’s (how else to put it?) anti-charismatic “Strange Fire Conference” being organized by John MacArthur.
Blogger Adrian Warnock seems to have provoked Busenitz’s post by asserting that there are different kinds of tongues. Busenitz for his part claims that the tongues of Acts and the tongues of 1 Corinthians are the same, but his real goal is to uphold the cessationist argument that there is no exegetical support for the idea of private or devotional tongues – something often referred to by Pentecostals and Charismatics as a “prayer language.”
As one who believes in the ongoing availability of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, I found the article disturbing. Like many who advocate cessationism, Busenitz seems to overlook or not connect other important things that we (and the Apostle Paul) are saying. Perhaps not interacting with Pentecostal and Charismatic writings going back 100 years also creates problems for his formulations. I wanted to respond to Pastor Busenitz and discuss the private, devotional use of speaking in tongues.
A Definitional Problem
I’ve been involved in Charismatic circles for over 30 years, and I don’t accept Busenitz’s quite limiting definition of the gift of tongues – nor, I imagine, do many others. He asserts that:
Charismatics generally define the gift of tongues as a devotional prayer language that is available to every believer. This prayer language, according to its proponents, is not bound to the linguistic structures of earthly, human languages. In other words, it is not a real language — but rather “angelic” speech which supposedly transcends human language.
But therein lies a problem. On the one hand, the charismatic version of tongues does not consist of real human languages. On the other hand, Acts 2 makes it clear that the tongues spoken at Pentecost were real human languages.
I have to respond to this first by saying that Busenitz’s definition is incomplete. Pentecostals and Charismatics do not assert categorically that this is the character of the gift of tongues. There is no agreed-upon definition, to be sure, but Classical Pentecostals would certainly first want to say that tongues today may indeed be real languages of this Earth. This is xenoglossolallia, speaking in a foreign tongue which can be recognized by someone hearing it.
Are there real instances of this occurring today? I believe there are, and I believe many thousands of people can bear witness to it. I myself have both done it (so I’ve been told) and also heard it in person. I was present to hear a young lady, newly baptized in the Spirit, speaking in Arabic, as identified by a medical doctor present who knew Arabic and had done his residency in Saudi Arabia. This gentleman is sober, missions-minded, and has suffered persecution for the cause of Christ. He has no reason to lie and was in fact amazed. Such stories are common, if not pervasive, in Pentecostal missions literature.
I would also add that not all Charismatics even accept the “tongues of angels” theory, although some do. But given that there are literally thousands of living human languages and thousands more extinct, who can know whether someone is giving voice to a language of Earth or a language of Heaven in any case? Who can say that tongues is not “real?” The source of the language is, after all, utterance given to us by the Holy Spirit, who knows all tongues of all the beings He has made.
[As an aside, this points to a broader problem in cessationist thinking: the Gifts of the Spirit as nearly-magical and automatic. In this view of things, a person with a healing gift should be able to run down to the hospital and lay his hand on the cornerstone to empty every bed. In that world, people with the gift of prophecy always gave out Scripture, although Paul said we prophesy in part; and people who speak in tongues are always speaking Spanish or Mandarin. Such a view is seeking, concededly, to give due honor to the Spirit, but don’t seem to comport with biblical and historical evidence of ministry in the Spirit. Jesus Himself could do no mighty works in Nazareth because of their unbelief. That shows that (1) Jesus was not doing everything He did out of His Divine Power; and (2) the administration of supernatural gifts is a complex matter involving many variables, including God’s sovereignty and even on occasion the faith of human candidates for prayer. ]
The Sign of Tongues and Tongues in Acts 2
Cessationists want to assert that tongues was always a human language because their claim is that tongues only has value as a sign of condemnation (a sign contra Israel) or to enable people to preach the Gospel, as helping with communication and as validating the messengers of Christ. As to the first matter, we know that the fact of tongues and the presence of the gifts of the Spirit in general were a part of the apologetic of the Early Church against Judaism. The idea of course was that the gifts had passed from natural Israel to the New People of God. We would have to agree that this idea is accurate. Both Jews and Gentiles who receive Jesus as Messiah participate in the New Age of the Spirit, in which we enjoy the promised universal outpouring of the Spirit, wished for by Moses.
However, there is no indication in 1 Corinthians 14:19 or anywhere else in Scripture that the purpose of tongues was preaching the Gospel to people of other languages, although there have been instances recorded in history where the phenomenon has been reported.
Even on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2, the Gospel was not preached in tongues. It fell to Peter to preach the Gospel in Acts 2, not the tongues-speakers. The text says that the assembled Jews could hear the tongues-speakers proclaiming “the wonderful works of God.” There is no reference in that report to them hearing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It was only when the Word was preached by Peter that they were cut to the heart and asked what they should do.
It begs the question: if preaching is the purpose of tongues, why would the completion of the Canon or the establishing of the Gospel in a given region render tongues unnecessary or withdrawn by God in other localities? If there yet remain many hundreds of languages whose speakers have not heard the name of Christ, why do we not still need tongues?
Devotional Tongues in 1 Corinthians and in Paul’s Life
Paul never suggests in 1 Corinthians or anywhere else that tongues should be intelligible languages, but he says prophecy is to be preferred, seeing it does not require interpretation. If tongues are used in the assembly, then they must be interpreted. This renders them intelligible and capable of edifying the congregation, which is his goal throughout 1 Corinthians 12-14.
This is why he also says in 1 Cor. 14:13, “Wherefore let him that speaketh in an unknown tongue pray that he may interpret.”
Paul also says very clearly towards the end of chapter 14 (v. 39) for us to be zealous to prophesy and not to forbid people to speak in tongues – a frequently-disobeyed commandment if ever there were one. Note that in 1 Cor. 14:28, Paul specifically says that if there is no interpreter present, the person speaking in tongues should speak to himself and to God. Because the person is to speak to himself and to God, verse 28 also therefore demonstrates that there is a private, devotional use of tongues for personal edification. Why is this so?
(1) If there were no private use of tongues, Paul would have said that in the absence of an interpreter present, the man ought to simply be quiet and not speak at all.
(2) If there were no private use of tongues, Paul would not have said that the man should speak to himself and God. If tongues were only useful as a sign, or to somehow fill in the gaps in our edification until the Canon of Scripture were complete, Paul could not say that the man ought to speak to God. In other words, if the content of tongues were only addressed to other people, cessationists could make a better case that tongues is for the purposes they assert. But if, as the Apostle Paul says, there is a use of tongues which is directed towards God, then the uses of tongues cannot be confined to a condemning sign, or to giving people edification before the close of the Canon.
As for the devotional practices of Paul himself, we have his own record in 1 Cor. 14: 18-19a: “I thank my God, I speak with tongues more than ye all: yet in the church…”
Where did Paul’s frequent tongues-speaking take place? By his own words, it was done mostly outside of the church – in other words, privately. He regulated his tongues-speaking by whether or not he was in church, as a place where tongues was not to be preferred over prophecy. Yet it seems to me that cessationists not only ignore the implications of this Scripture, they avert their eyes from its very existence.
Cessationists also overlook 1 Cor. 14:14-15, where Paul explains that tongues is a volitional activity to be regulated, again, by his situation, as measured by the rule of love. He says that he will pray with the spirit or with his understanding, depending on where or with whom he finds himself. If he was praying with his spirit, whether in the church or out, he was edifying himself, since, as he taught us, “he that speaketh in an [unknown] tongue edifieth himself.” (1 Cor 14:4)
Even to realize that Paul by his own words prayed in tongues should be sufficient to cause cessationists to simply leave the field of debate graciously. Will anyone doubt that his use of proseuchomai in verse 14 and 15 of 1 Cor. 14 means that he is praying to God? it is a normal New Testament word for prayer made to God. And if so, this must be a private use of a spiritual gift to assist Paul in his own, personal, private seeking of God.
An examination of Paul’s own, stated personal prayer practices as well as the rules for Christian assemblies he provides for us within 1 Corinthians 14 compels us to conclude that Christians can and should enjoy the private exercise of tongues in worship and in prayer. We can do no better than to conclude by echoing Paul’s own words, words which are not at all negative, but which are sadly cited often just to reinforce his promotion of prophecy over tongues in public assemblies:
θέλω δὲ πάντας ὑμᾶς λαλεῖν γλώσσαις…
I want you all to speak with tongues… (1 Cor. 14:5a)