“Although trying to cool their ardor for congregational tongues-speaking, Paul does not disparage the gift itself; rather, he seeks to put it in its rightful place. Positively, he says three things about speaking in tongues, which are best understood in light of the further discussion on prayer and praise in vv. 13-17: (1) Such a person is “speaking to God,” that is, he or she is communing with God by the Spirit. Although it is quite common in Pentecostal groups to refer to a “message in tongues,” there seems to be no evidence in Paul for such terminology. The tongues-speaker is not addressing fellow believers by God (cf. vv. 13-14, 28), meaning therefore that Paul understands the phenomenon basically to be prayer and praise.” – Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (NICNT), p. 656, emphasis mine.
This is a significant statement by one of the premier NT scholars in the world. Why? Because Fee is not only a considerable NT scholar but a Pentecostal as well! Fee is helpful here because many Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians tend to see tongues as either communication between God and man (when uninterpreted) or communication between man and man (when interpreted). We are told by some Pentecostals that there are multiple functions to the gift of tongues: (1) tongues as the “sign” or “evidence” of the “Baptism of the Holy Spirit,” (2) one’s personal “prayer language” that can occur both privately and corporately, and (3) a “public” tongue, which is interpreted for the congregation and is seen as a “message” to the church.
However, as Fee notes, the concept of a “public” tongue that is interpreted and then called a “message in tongues” seems to completely ignore what Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians. I tend to believe that it most likely stems from a misunderstanding of texts such as Acts 2:11, as well as several verses in 1 Cor. 14. The interpretation of tongues was never horizontal in it’s function within the NT corpus, meaning that tongues is presented in the NT as communication by the Spirit between man and God, not man to man. It follows that the interpretation of a tongue would communicate the same. The concept of a “tongue message” seems to be a later invention. In the New Testament, messages communicated to man by the Spirit for man are referred to as prophecy!
There are several problems with this “message in tongues” concept. It would seem to me that many tongues often go uninterpreted due to the simple fact that what many people consider to be an interpretation is not! Furthermore, when the gifts of the Holy Spirit are mislabeled it is easy to see how they can quickly become misunderstood and worship practices can quickly become based more upon subjective experiences than what is clarified in the Scriptures. Both of these issues raise many other practical issues that can eventually become harmful to the church.
I plan to lay out a strong biblical and theological presentation of the gift of tongues and interpretation on this blog someday. Until then, I find Fee’s statement very compelling!