tongueWith all the “Strange Fire” dialogue here at ThinkTheology.org, (and everywhere else) over the past few days, I thought I’d chime in with something that can lead to further theological and practical dialogue about one of the practices that continuationists keep getting in trouble for with the cessationist brothers.

Yep. Speaking in tongues!!

I don’t say, “Speaking in Tongues” anymore…

I personally prefer to use the word languages, and in our church, when I refer to what most Pentecostals call “speaking in tongues,” I always habitually and consciously use the term spiritual language.  

As an aside, I’ve noticed that when an antagonistic cessationist (or one of their skeptical disciples) asks me if we (as he spits out the words) “speak in tongues” at our church, and I answer with, “Are you asking if we believe in spiritual language as it’s described in the Bible among followers of Jesus?” — I am able to get quite a bit further along in the discussion. Try it and see if you get the same result.

My decision to intentionally use “spiritual language” when speaking of tongues is based on two things: (1) I want to take the weirdness of the archaic “speaking in tongues” language off the table and have a reasonable dialogue with people, but (2) Since I am also a committed student of the Bible, I want my terminology and praxis to mesh with scriptural teaching. On this second point, it’s not a stretch at all to read Paul’s long treatment of “spiritual things” (cf. 1 Cor. 12:1) and see a natural and fluid connection of the word “spiritual” (pneumatikos) to the word “language” (glosson) in the immediate and intermediate context of 1 Corinthians 12:1.

If the things being discussed in that section of the letter are spiritual, and they are also explained as gifts, then putting all of these ideas together terminologically into an English translation (e.g., “The gift of spiritual language”) is completely reasonable.

In the same way, if these languages originate with the Holy Spirit, and are thus spiritual, then it is also reasonable to translate glosson as spiritual language, even though I understand that the word spiritual is implied by the immediate context.

Again, on a practical note, I find that when I change the terminology to spiritual language with people who are averse to the idea of something called “speaking in tongues” (wherein they possibly imagine frothing at the mouth while in a trance, having lost all self control), they are almost always more willing to engage about the subject without becoming nervous.

Spiritual Language is terminology that is more common in present-day vocabulary, so it is (in my personal experience) an easier way to talk about this gift.

What is Spiritual Language, then?

The real question is, what is Spiritual Language in the New Testament (and especially in 1 Corintians 12-14)?  Both the intermediate and remote contexts of scripture are needed in order to arrive at an accurate conclusion.

There are twenty-seven verses in the Bible that mention spiritual language. In each of these verses, one of the following English verbs is used: spoke, speak, speaking, speaks, and utter.

In other words, someone who is exercising this gift is always saying something. The real question is: what are they uttering or speaking, and to whom is this speech directed? In classical Pentecostal thinking, there are three possibilities depending on the situation:

(1) Prayer & Praise: They are praying to God or praising God in a personal, devotional prayer language.

(2) Prophecy: They are speaking a “language of God” which is then interpreted back into the common language as a prophetic message from God to His people.

(3) Preaching: They are miraculously preaching to the lost in an earthly foreign language that they never learned so that people who speak that language can hear the gospel.

As I already said, there are twenty-seven verses that mention speaking in tongues. Among all the verses, there are only four descriptions of the language as it is being spoken:

(1) It is sometimes Praise (Acts 2:11 & 10:46),

(2) It is sometimes Prayer (1 Cor. 14:2 & 14, 15),

(3) It is sometimes Blessing (1 Cor. 14:16)

(4) It is sometimes Giving Thanks (1 Cor. 14:16, 17).

Based on these scriptural realities, I do not hold to a traditional view of speaking in tongues as outlined in the classical Pentecostal view presented here. This is because in every case in scripture, the spiritual language is directed to God, and never to people. However, an interpretation of spiritual language most certainly is intended to be spoken to people, but not so that they can know what God is saying to them. It is, rather, so that they can know what the person manifesting spiritual language was saying (praying) to God.

What isn’t Spiritual Language?

From everything I can see, there is simply no scriptural basis for the claim that spiritual languages were either preaching or prophecy in any of the verses that mention languages and interpretation of languages. In other words…

This gift is never described as a message from God to people, first in a spiritual language – then interpreted into the language of the people present.

Also, in every case, spiritual language is mentioned as a distinctive gift. It is always different from prophecy, though some believers may flow from one gift, then into another (cf. Acts 19:6). The word “prophecy” was never used interchangeably with the words “interpretation of tongues.” If it had been interchangeable, Paul would not differentiate between the two gifts and list them separately in 1 Corinthians 12:10.

It is also possible in the Corinthian context that they were very attracted to this gift because it was similar to the ecstatic speech that they had observed in their previous participation in paganism. However, this is not enough for Paul to discount what is happening in Corinth among Spirit-filled followers of Jesus.  He recognizes that the Holy Spirit might indeed inspire a kind of prayer, praise, giving of thanks, and even singing that would sound like an unintelligible foreign language to others, but he is unwilling to write it off as either demonic or something conjured by the human spirit (not forsaking that in pagan worship something like this is altogether possible).

As an exhortation to my cessationist friends, please note that Paul’s response to this apparent similitude between the Corinthians’ spirit-birthed gift of language for praise, prayer, blessing, and thanksgiving, and the pagan manifestation, is not to encourage them to avoid this manifestation.  No, for Paul, spiritual language is legitimate among all other tauta energei to en kai to auto pneuma (things that are operations of one and the same Spirit, 12:11).  Rather, he encourages them to be open to another gift that would make this one edifying to the rest of the community; the gift of interpreting (note: not translating) the meaning of a gift of spiritual language. But that’s a subject for another post.

Okay friends, jump in! What do you make of this intentionality about the use of “spiritual language,” and what’s your feedback (push-back?) on my interpretive conclusions?  Jump in below in the comments and let’s think theology!

Update (10/19): The esteemed Luke just linked some work that he has done on this same subject (back in 2010). Read that too.

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