Tongues, Gift Of


1. Basic Character of 1 Corinthians 14:

A spiritual gift mentioned in Acts 10:44-46; 11:15; 19:6; Mark 16:17, and described in Acts 2:1-13 and at length in 1 Corinthians 12-14, especially chapter 14. In fact, 1 Corinthians 14 contains such a full and clear account that this passage is basic. The speaker in a tongue addressed God (14:2,28) in prayer (14:14), principally in the prayer of thanksgiving (14:15-17). The words so uttered were incomprehensible to the congregation (14:2,5,9, etc.), and even to the speaker himself (14:14). Edification, indeed, was gained by the speaker (14:4), but this was the edification of emotional experience only (14:14). The words were spoken "in the spirit" (14:2); i.e. the ordinary faculties were suspended and the divine, specifically Christian, element in the man took control, so that a condition of ecstasy was produced. This immediate (mystical) contact with the divine enabled the utterance of "mysteries" (14:2)--things hidden from the ordinary human understanding (see MYSTERY). In order to make the utterances comprehensible to the congregation, the services of an "interpreter" were needed. Such a man was one who had received from God a special gift as extraordinary as the gifts of miracles, healings, or the tongues themselves (12:10,30); i.e. the ability to interpret did not rest at all on natural knowledge, and acquisition of it might be given in answer to prayer (14:13). Those who had this gift were known, and Paul allowed the public exercise of "tongues" only when one of the interpreters was present (14:28). As the presence of an interpreter was determined before anyone spoke, and as there was to be only one interpreter for the "two or three" speakers (14:28), any interpreter must have been competent to explain any tongue. But different interpreters did not always agree (14:26), whence the limitation to one.

2. Foreign Languages Barred Out:

These characteristics of an interpreter make it clear that "speaking in a tongue" at Corinth was not normally felt to be speaking in a foreign language. In 1 Corinthians 14:10 English Versions of the Bible are misleading with "there are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world," which suggests that Paul is referring directly to the tongues. But tosauta there should be rendered "very many," "ever so many," and the verse is as purely illustrative as is 14:7. Hence, foreign languages are to be barred out. (Still, this need not mean that foreign phrases may not occasionally have been employed by the speakers, or that at times individuals may not have made elaborate use of foreign languages. But such cases were not normative at Corinth.) Consequently, if "tongues" means "languages," entirely new languages must be thought of. Such might have been of many kinds (12:28), have been regarded as a fit creation for the conveyance of new truths, and may even at times have been thought to be celestial languages--the "tongues of angels" (13:1). On the other hand, the word for "tongue" (glossa) is of fairly common use in Greek to designate obsolete or incomprehensible words, and, specifically, for the obscure phrases uttered by an oracle. This use is closely parallel to the use in Corinth and may be its source, although then it would be more natural if the "ten thousand words in a tongue" of 14:19 had read "ten thousand glossai." In no case, however, can "tongue" mean simply the physical organ, for 14:18,19 speaks of articulated words and uses the plural "tongues" for a single speaker (compare 14:5,6).

3. A State of Ecstasy:

A complete explanation of the tongues is given by the phenomena of ecstatic utterances, especially when taken in connection with the history of New Testament times. In ecstasy the soul feels itself so suffused with the divine that the man is drawn above all natural modes of perception (the understanding becomes "unfruitful"), and the religious nature alone is felt to be active. Utterances at such times naturally become altogether abnormal. If the words remain coherent, the speaker may profess to be uttering revelations, or to be the mere organ of the divine voice. Very frequently, however, what is said is quite incomprehensible, although the speaker seems to be endeavoring to convey something. In a still more extreme case the voice will be inarticulate, uttering only groans or outcries. At the termination of the experience the subject is generally unconscious of all that has transpired.

For the state, compare Philo, Quis rerum. divin., li-liii.249-66:

"The best (ecstasy) of all is a divinely-infused rapture and `mania,' to which the race of the prophets is subject. .... The wise man is a sounding instrument of God's voice, being struck and played upon invisibly by Him. .... As long as our mind still shines (is active) .... we are not possessed (by God) .... but .... when the divine light shines, the human light sets. .... The prophet .... is passive, and another (God) makes use of his vocal organs." Compare, further, the descriptions of Celsus (Origen, Contra Celsus, vii.9), who describes the Christian "prophets" of his day as preaching as if God or Christ were speaking through them, closing their words with "strange, fanatical, and quite unintelligible words of which no rational person can find the meaning." The Greek papyri furnish us with an abundance of magical formulas couched in unintelligible terms (e.g. Pap. Lond., 121, "Iao, eloai, marmarachada, menepho, mermai, ieor, aeio, erephie, pherephio," etc.), which are not infrequently connected with an ecstatic state (e.g. Reitzenstein, Poimandres, 53-58).

Interpretation of the utterances in such a state would always be difficult and diversities of interpretation would be unavoidable. Still, with a fixed content, such as the Christian religion gave, and with the aid of gestures, etc., men who felt that they had an understanding of such conditions could undertake to explain them to the congregation. It is to be noted, however, that Paul apparently does not feel that the gift of interpretation is much to be relied on, for otherwise he would have appraised the utility of tongues more highly than he does. But the popularity of tongues in Corinth is easily understood. The speaker was felt to be taken into the closest of unions with God and hence, to be an especial object of God's favor. Indeed, the occurrence of the phenomenon in a neo-convert was irrefragable proof that the conversion was approved by God (Acts 10:44-48; 11:15; 19:6). So in Mark 16:17 the gift is treated as an exceptional and miraculous divine blessing (in this verse "new" is textually uncertain, and the meaning of the word, if read, is uncertain also). Moreover, for the more selfish, the gift was very showy (1 Corinthians 13:1 suggests that it was vociferous), and its possession gratified any desire for personal prominence.

4. The Account in Acts 2:

The account in Acts 2 differs from that of 1 Corinthians 14 in making the tongues foreign languages, although the ability to use such languages is not said to have become a permanent apostolic endowment. (Nor is it said that the speech of Acts 2:14-36 was delivered in more than one language.) When the descent of the Spirit occurred, those who were assembled together were seized with ecstasy and uttered praises to God. A crowd gathered and various persons recognized words and phrases in their own tongues; nothing more than this is said. That the occasion was one where a miracle would have had unusual evidential value is evident, and those who see a pure miracle in the account have ample justification for their position. But no more than a providential control of natural forces need be postulated, for similar phenomena are abundantly evidenced in the history of religious experience. At times of intense emotional stress the memory acquires abnormal power, and persons may repeat words and even long passages in a foreign language, although they may have heard them only once. Now the situation at Jerusalem at the time of the Feast gave exactly the conditions needed, for then there were gathered pilgrims from all countries, who recited in public liturgical passages (especially the Shemoneh `Esreh) in their own languages. These, in part, the apostles and the "brethren" simply reproduced. Incomprehensible words and phrases may well have been included also (Acts 2:13), but for the dignity of the apostles and for the importance of Pentecost Luke naturally cared to emphasize only the more unusual side and that with the greatest evidential value. It is urged, to be sure, that this interpretation contradicts the account in 1 Corinthians 14. But it does so only on the assumption that the tongues were always uniform in their manifestation and appraisement everywhere--and the statement of this assumption is its own refutation. If the modern history of ecstatic utterances has any bearing on the Apostolic age, the speaking in foreign languages could not have been limited only to Pentecost. (That, however, it was as common as the speaking in new "languages" would be altogether unlikely.) But both varieties Luke may well have known in his own experience.

5. Religious Emotionalism:

Paul's treatment of the tongues in 1 Corinthians 12-14 is a classical passage for the evaluation of religious emotionalism. Tongues are a divine gift, the exercise is not to be forbidden (14:39), and Paul himself is grateful that he has the gift in an uncommon degree (14:18). Indeed, to those who treat them simply with scorn they become a "sign" that hardening is taking place (14:21-23). Yet a love of them because they are showy is simply childish (14:20; 13:11), and the possessor of the gift is not to think that he has the only thing worth obtaining (1 Corinthians 12). The only gift that is utterly indispensable is love (1 Corinthians 13), and without it tongues are mere noise (13:1). The public evidential value of tongues, on which perhaps the Corinthians were inclined to lay stress, Paul rates very low (14:21-23). Indeed, when exercised in public they tend to promote only the self-glorification of the speaker (14:4), and so are forbidden when there is not an interpreter, and they are limited for public use at all times (14:27,28). But the ideal place for their exercise is in private:

"Let him speak to himself, and to God" (14:28). The applicability of all this to modern conditions needs no commentary. Ultra-emotionalistic outbreaks still cause the formation of eccentric sects among us, and every evangelist knows well-meaning but slightly weak individuals who make themselves a nuisance. On the other hand, a purely intellectual and ethical religion is rather a dreary thing. A man who has never allowed his religious emotions to carry him away may well be in a high state of grace--but he has missed something, and something of very great value.



Plumptre in DB is still useful. Wright, Some New Testament Problems (1898), and Walker, The Gift of Tongues and Other Essays (1906), have collections of material. Of the commentaries on 1 Corinthians those of Heinrici (latest edition, 1896), Lietzmann (1907) and J. Weiss (1910) are much the best, far surpassing Robertson and Plummer in ICC (1911). For the Greek material, see ... in the index of Rhode's Psyche. Gunkel, Die Wirkungen des heiligen Geistes (1888, 2nd reprint in 1909), was epoch-making. For the later period, see Weinel, Die Wirkungen des Gelstes und der Geister (1899); Lake, The Earlier Epistles of Paul (London, 1911); and see Inge in The Quarterly Review (London, 1914).

Burton Scott Easton

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Bibliography Information
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. "Entry for 'TONGUES, GIFT OF'". "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia". 1915.