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  • Writer's picturejaredrrolston

Demystifying the Gift of Tongues

Updated: 3 days ago

Thank you everyone for reading my Bringing Baby Babble into Battle blog. To my mind, there was enough positive feedback and genuine questions thrown at me to justify another post from another angle. I’ll keep my bag of mini whoopee cushions in the drawer this time and instead try to peel your eyes wide open with pure logic and reason.

Below is my verse-by-verse commentary (which reads more like notes) on 1 Corinthians 14. I’ve added a few extra arguments for my interpretation at the end as well. If you lose interest in the commentary, make sure to skip down and read these arguments before you go.

I'll make the case that the Corinthian church was much like your church, only it was multilingual and failed to navigate the difficulties that foreign languages present. They needed translators. Those who knew various tongues could do this, so they were appropriately called gifts to the body. The Corinthians were not using heavenly prayer languages and they were not receiving foreign languages miraculously.


In my interpretation, I'll be using the broader understanding of "prophecy" held by the reformers. The preachers and teachers of Corinth spoke for God, making them prophets. This is what John Calvin said about this understanding of prophecythe kind used in the church todayin his commentary on Romans 12:

"I extend this word [prophecy] wider, even to the peculiar gift of revelation, by which anyone skillfully and wisely performed the office of an interpreter in explaining the will of God. Hence prophecy at this day in the Christian Church is hardly anything else than the right understanding of the Scripture, and the peculiar faculty of explaining it, inasmuch as all the ancient prophecies and all the oracles of God have been completed in Christ and in his gospel. For in this sense, it is taken by Paul when he says, "I wish that you spoke in tongues, but rather that ye prophesy," (1 Corinthians 14:5;) "In part we know and in part we prophesy,"(1 Corinthians 13:9.)"


Verse by Verse Notes on 1 Corinthians 14


I’ll be using the LSB translation unless specified, and every time they use the word “tongues” I’m going to render it “foreign languages,” for that is the meaning of the word.

1 Pursue love, yet earnestly desire spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy. 

2 For one who speaks in a foreign language [that is, one unknown to others] does not speak to men but to God [who knows all languages], for no one understands [that is, no hearer understands what is foreign to him], but in his spirit [that is, the tongue-speakers spirit] he speaks mysteries [or secrets—that is, to those who do not know his language]

3 But one who prophesies speaks to men for edification [that is, building up] and exhortation and encouragement. 

4 One who speaks in a foreign language [that is, one known to himself but not known to others] edifies himself; but one who prophesies edifies the church. 

5 But I wish that you all spoke in foreign languages [he does not say why; we will get to this later], but even more that you would prophesy [this is what interpreted or translated or understood tongues is; see next verse]. And greater is one who prophesies than one who speaks in foreign languages, unless he translates, so that the church may receive edification. 

What we learn here is that prophecy is not greater than translated languages. They are of equal value because they both edify. They do the same thing in the body. They both have the power to edify.

6 But now, brothers, if I come to you speaking in foreign languages [that is, languages known to me but not you], what will I profit you unless I speak to you either by way of revelation or of knowledge or of prophecy or of teaching? [That is, what profit will the church get from a message that conveys no meaning] 


Paul then supports this with an extended argument from the lesser to the greater: lifeless things → human speech…


7 Yet even lifeless things, either flute or harp, in producing a sound, if they do not produce a distinction in the tones, how will it be known what is played on the flute or on the harp?

8 For if the trumpet produces an indistinct sound, who will prepare himself for battle? 

9 So also you [since even trumpets convey meaning], unless you utter by the tongue a word that is clear [that is, spoken in a known language—one that follows a knowable form and is submitting to the regular laws and structures of all human speech], how will it be known what is spoken? [This is an important argument because if two people speak to each other using different language laws, there can be no distinction between their lawless "notes." You don’t want to use your speech in a way that would be worse than a monkey on a trumpet do you? Who knows what tune a monkey is playing? Speak clearly so you are understood! We saw previously and will see again later that this is to be done by translation—conforming the one message to two sets of laws—two languages] For you will be speaking into the air [like a useless vapour that rapidly disappears].

10 There are, perhaps, a great many kinds of sounds in the world, and none is without meaning.

Now the baby babbler should ask: What about my private prayer language, Paul? If all sounds have meaning, my prayer language must have meaning! But Paul’s response would be: Was I unclear? If you babble, your sounds tell me that you’re putting on the sounds of a baby. You mean to sound like a baby.

We must apply Paul’s arguments consistently, without special pleading. That means what he says about language must apply to private prayer languages as much as any others. What he says about meaning must be true of any supposed language. What he says about being built up must be true of any supposed language. And it must be true for all people. All language must produce meaning, and without meaning, it is impossible to be built up by language—because that is the point of language. But if one cannot be built up by words one doesn’t understand, then that is true of a private prayer language just as much as a public one in the congregation.


If Paul taught that there are private prayer languages earlier, he then invalidates them here. His argument cannot be made to work in one case and not the other. Paul would never use a grab bag of contradictory arguments to defend his practice. He, like us, must apply his arguments across the board. Inconsistency is the sign of a failed argument.


11 If then I do not know the meaning of the sound, I will be to the one who speaks a barbarian, and the one who speaks will be a barbarian to me. [Not having a shared language destroys the possibility of relating to each other through language. The breakdown happens both ways.]

12 So also you [Corinthian church], since you are zealous for spiritual gifts, seek to abound for the edification of the church. [Use language in such a way that you can relate meaning to each other. You do not want to be barbarians toward each other].

13 Therefore [since something meaningful must be conveyed for the edification of all] let one who speaks in a foreign language [that is, a language known to himself but not to others] pray that he may translate. 

Paul is saying that the "one who speaks" using his own language must pray that he can convey his meaning through another language for the benefit of others. This is the first solution he gives—giving your own translation. This may be preferential, because the speaker understands his own thoughts better than a translator. This exhortation to pray is pastoral and wise. It is safe to presume that the speaker would be translating into a secondary language. Just say he has 30% less of a grip on his secondary language—since he is proclaiming the very word of God, he should, in his weakness, ask that God would help him translate with accuracy and clarity.


Now, in the next verse, Paul gives an argument to support this need for translation. He does this by shifting perspective from the one speaking it to the one who lacks translation. He also shifts from the general "speaking" of a tongue in the previous verse to the specific example of prayer. We see an example of what kind of prayer this man is praying in verse 17 (thanksgiving). This is why verse 14 cannot be about the one delivering the prayer—his mind is unfruitful. The content of his prayer comes from his thankful heart and mind.

Prayer is an important instance of tongues for Paul to assess, and quite natural to bring up here since it is the one instance where the congregation must use language together. Those praying corporately in an untranslated foreign language will pray with an unfruitful mind. Corperate prayer in foreign languages would have been a common occurrence in this multilingual church, established in a high-trade port city. Corporate prayer is also a fundamental element of every church service, so if the Corinthian church was not translating their prayers, there would often be many members missing out on edification. I believe Paul uses a universal “I” here to stand in the place of the congregation, representing all who are praying along with the one speaking. He could be speaking for himself alone, but his experience as a foreigner to the language is no different that any other foreigners. So, I believe Paul uses the universal "I" to make a universal principle. He uses this tool throughout his writings; e.g., “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.” Anyone's speech would be a cymbal crash without love. This isn't just true for Paul.

Paul's perspective shift increases the shame of the one who would leave his hearers in the dark. He is showing the one who does not translate what is happening on the other side of his prayer. His speech is loveless speech.


14 For [this is why you should translate] if I pray in a foreign language [that is, (in context) if I pray with an untranslated language], my spirit prays [I am engaging with my will, being covenantally one with the person praying, participating in the body of Christ], but my mind is unfruitful [I don’t know what I, or we, are praying—I don’t know what I am agreeing to].

Think about how absurd it is to draw from this passage, at this point, that there is a whole other branch of prayer, one with a separate nature and purpose, where we can pray privately with unfruitful minds. Charismatic interpreters are not paying close enough attention to Paul’s line of argument draw unnecessary implication. They also do not pay attention to the specific answer he gives to this problem. Paul tells the one leading the prayer what ought to be happening in the church—what his hearers ought to be doing. The following is his conclusion:

15 What is the outcome then? I [the one praying along] will pray with the spirit [that is, the will; e.g. “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak”] and I will pray with the mind also [that is, the intellect or faculties of thought. The “also” indicates that both the spirit and the mind must be in operation during prayer for it to be acceptable prayer. This produces true, ontologically sound prayer—prayer of a right nature, which fulfills the purpose for which it is given. This acknowledges the full frame of man’s being; his ontological make-up as a composite of spirit and mind, that is will and intellect]; I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also. [This is also true for ontologically sound singing.]

16 Otherwise if you bless with your spirit, how will the one who fills the place of the uninformed say the “Amen” at your giving of thanks, since he does not know what you are saying? 

The LSB messes up at the beginning of this verse. They have “spirit only,” but there is no “only” in the Greek, so I’ve taken it out. Notice the person speaking in a tongue here knows he is giving a blessing. His mind is engaged or “fruitful.” This verse makes no sense if verse 14 is talking about someone delivering a tongue he doesn’t understand.

Shifting to “you” in this verse, Paul goes back to the perspective of the one praying without translation. He’s not done dishing out the sting on this man, and wants to show his folly from a different angle. He is forcing individuals in his congregation to work contrary to their ontological make-up. We should not be dividing the spirit (will) from the mind (intellect), and that is what he is making them do. Again, this argument has to be applied to private prayer languages. We shouldn’t be doing this to ourselves either with a mindless prayer, employing our spirit only.

17 For you [the one praying] are giving thanks well enough [again, the tongue speaker has a fruitful mind: he is succeeding at what he intends, which is giving thanks. If it is the Spirit giving this tongue, then it is the Spirit's thanksgiving. But it is clear from the text that it is the man giving thanks, and he is giving it well], but the other person is not edified [that is, their mind is unfruitful. The one praying is not communicating his thanks. Those praying along cannot, in truth, say “Amen” to the thing being said, because they do not know what was said. This verse further proves that Paul had a corporate prayer in mind from the beginning].


Paul now shifts to something else in verse 19, reflecting on his own abilities, and how his knowledge of many tongues is useless if it doesn’t edify. He is not boasting in his private prayer language, but rather acknowledging his ability to speak many foreign languages. He doesn't try to prove this because the congregation knows Paul and his abilities already. This is not a contentious point.


18 I thank God that I speak in foreign languages [that is, languages that are known to him, along with all those who speak them] more than you all; [He does not supply a reason, but if my interpretation is correct, he thanks God because his knowledge of various tongues can bring edification to people of many languages.]

19 however, in the church [Paul is likely contrasting "in the church" with his mission work amongst foreigners. He argues later from the law that the church is a place for prophecy, not foreign tongues] I desire to speak five words with my mind so that I may instruct others also, rather than ten thousand words [he could have said 10 billion here and made the same point] in a foreign language [one that would be foreign to his hearers. Five words that are understood are better than a billion that are not. This is why prophecy is superior to tongues].

Perhaps the most difficult thing to explain from my position is why he says "with my mind" here. If the ten thousand words in foreign languages are also coming from his mind, why would he feel the need to say that the five came from his mind? Aren't those words redundant? It could be that the NIV rendering, which fits well with my interpretation, catches the essence of the Greek better than most other translations. "But in the church, I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a foreign language." I don't think my case is dependent on this rendering, though. It could be that Paul added "with my mind" to reinforce the ontological point he made earlier—that we must speak with our spirit and also our mind. He has already said that this is the proper outcome.


Paul shifts again now, highlighting the fact that prophecy, if it is delivered by a foreigner, is a sign of God’s judgement. How much more so if the message is veiled by uninterpreted tongues! He proves it with “the Law.” And since this is the case, they should cut it out, lest they put themselves under this kind of judgement:


20 Brothers, do not be children in your thinking; rather in evil be infants, but in your thinking be mature. 

21In the Law it is written, “By men of strange tongues and by the lips of strangers I will speak to this people, and even so they will not listen to Me,” says the Lord. 

22 So then tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers; but prophecy is for a sign not to unbelievers but to those who believe. 

Paul forbids uninterpreted tongues here, entirely. The Corinthian church are not unbelievers, so they should not act as though they were with their use of foreign languages. Why would they put the sign for unbelievers on themselves? The church should possess prophecy.

23 Therefore if the whole church assembles together and all speak in foreign languages [that is, languages not understood by each other], and uninformed men or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your mind? [Foreigner: “You guys don’t even understand what each other is saying. You all can’t know the three languages I’ve heard spoken this morning. What sort of a weird cult have I entered into, that happily listens to languages they don’t understand, being unedified as they stare at the speaker like spaced-out dummies?”]

24 But if all prophesy [that is, use languages to convey meaning to all], and an unbeliever or an uninformed man enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all; 

25 the secrets of his heart are disclosed [that is, his sins are exposed through a convicting word]; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that surely God is among you.

So, that’s my interpretation.


An Argument From Our Eyeballs


I know why most people do not come to this plain interpretation of the passage—and why, when it is put forward, it is initially met with scepticism. Living in an age where the Charismatics’ definition of the gifts is dominant, it looks as though I’m de-spiritualizing the passage.


But if the Charismatics are right, where are the churches that look like their interpretation of this chapter? Where are the churches with multiple prophecies or new revelations being given at each service, people being given unknown languages miraculously, and then others being given the miraculous ability to interpret them?


The Corinthian church was not extraordinary. Whatever is going on in chapter 14 should be the normal, plain-jane, vanilla experience of all churches. But it's not, according to the Charismatics. So, what should we think of this?


Either we do not have enough faith to perform these gifts, or God is not working as he did back then—or our expectations are wildly wrong. The Spirit is working as He did in Corinth. Interpreters before the Charismatic madness assumed this. It's the only option that makes sense.


I hope the interpretation I’ve given above has de-mystified this passage. It should be understood in a more natural frame. Our churches are much like the Corinthian church, so there should be no cause for concern.


An Argument From Administration


Have you noticed that what the Charismatics do with tongues, they don’t do with the gift of administration?


Consider 1 Corinthians 12:28.


"And God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, various kinds of tongues."


Now, if the Charismatics said the gift of administration looks like a man at his keyboard, eyes rolled back and eyelids flittering, typing stuff in the Spirit, while his mind is unfruitful, we would all say they're over-spiritualizing things.


But the Charismatics do not do this with the gift of administration, because we all know what is required to be an administrator. These gifted people have the special God-given ability to organise and keep track of things.


I don't have that gift.


In the same way, those with the gift of tongues have a gift of multilingualism.

I don’t have that gift either. But I believe I’ve shown that this gift of knowing various languages is not gone. It has largely become irrelevant in New Zealand because we all share a common tongue. My friend Henry has the gift of tongues. He knows Dutch and English. He could exercise that gift if we had Dutch-only speakers in our congregation. But, alas, his one gift will lie dormant.


(Just kidding, Henry. Will you be our administrator?)


The Eager Embrace of High Strangeness


Part of the Reformed world has recently embraced the reality that we live in an enchanted universe—a “haunted cosmos.” This is great, and I’m all for it. But I believe our current trajectory makes us vulnerable to accepting too much of the strange. 

Not all strange things are Christian things.


Baby babble being put to spiritual use is strange. We could swing away from the hardcore Cessationist positions of many in our tradition, to embracing every claim of the hyper-“spiritual”.


But what we need to be is people of the word. We need to be people who are willing to discard errant wooden traditions, but also people who are not novel inventors of new high strangeness.


So, in conclusion, don’t babble like a baby. Have babies, let them babble, hold down a job, and have fun…but don’t be weird.

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Tom Temple
Tom Temple
a day ago

I came here from Bnonn Tennant's recent blog post on 1 Cor 14 and tongues, this is the first time encountering this approach to 1 Cor 14 and it makes so much sense. The pentecostal interpretation makes absolutely no sense and pits multiple verses against eachother, i couldn't make heads or tails of it because i was always told it was some private prayer language/incomprehensible utterance. your 2 articles and Bnonn's have finally led me to the proper consistent exegesis of this chapter, thank the Lord for leading me to this. God bless you guys!

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