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Are tongues human languages? This is a key question for those who say the gift of tongues has ceased for today.

To answer that question, a study was conducted of people who claimed to speak in tongues (William Samarin, Tongues of Men and Angels: The Religious Language of Pentecostalism [New York: MacMillan, 1972]). The conclusion was that rarely, if ever, did any of the subjects speak in what we know to be human dialects. Cessationists have made much of this study because they feel it supports their premise that the gift of tongues has ceased. Their reasoning is quite simple: (a) all tongues in the New Testament were identified as human language; (b) no tongues today are human language; therefore (c) tongues are no longer a gift bestowed upon the church by the Holy Spirit.

I don’t intend to discuss whether the study is right or wrong, although I have anecdotal evidence that challenges it. For example, I have spoken to many who tell of undeniable instances, often on the mission field, in which a believer spoke in a genuine human language without any previous exposure to it or study of it. I am inclined to believe them. But the more important issue is whether the initial premise of the cessationist is correct. That is to say, is it true that “all tongues in the New Testament were human language”? No, and I will appeal to ten points in response.

(1) Acts 2 is the only text in the New Testament where tongues-speech consists of foreign languages not previously known by the speaker. This is an important text, yet there is no reason to think Acts 2, rather than, say, 1 Corinthians 14, is the standard by which all occurrences of tongues-speech must be judged. Other factors suggest that tongues could also be heavenly or angelic speech.

(2) To begin, if tongues-speech is always in a foreign language intended as a sign for unbelievers, why are the tongues in Acts 10 and Acts 19 spoken in the presence of only believers?

(3) Note also that Paul describes various kinds [or “species”] of tongues (gene glosson) in 1 Corinthians 12:10. It is unlikely that he means a variety of different human languages, for who would ever have argued that all tongues were only one human language, such as Greek or Hebrew or German? His words suggest that there are differing categories of tongues-speech, perhaps human languages and heavenly languages.

(4) Paul asserted that whoever speaks in a tongue “does not speak to men, but to God” (1 Cor. 14:2). But if tongues are always human languages, Paul is mistaken, for “speaking to men” is precisely what a human language does!

(5) If tongues-speech is always a human language, how could Paul say that “no one understands” (1 Cor. 14:2)? If tongues are human languages, many could potentially understand, as they did on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:8-11). This would especially be true in Corinth, a multilingual cosmopolitan port city that was frequented by people of numerous dialects.

(6) Moreover, if tongues-speech always is in a human language, then the gift of interpretation would be one for which no special work or enablement or manifestation of the Spirit would be required. Anyone who was multilingual, such as Paul, could interpret tongues-speech simply by virtue of education.

(7) Furthermore, Paul referred to “tongues of men and of angels” (1 Cor. 13:1). While he may have been using hyperbole, he just as likely may have been referring to heavenly or angelic dialects for which the Holy Spirit gives utterance. Gordon Fee cited evidence in certain ancient Jewish sources that the angels were believed to have their own heavenly languages or dialects and that by means of the Spirit one could speak them (Commentary on First Corinthians, 630-31). In particular, we take note of the Testament of Job, where Job’s three daughters put on heavenly sashes given to them as an inheritance from their father, by which they are transformed and enabled to praise God with hymns in angelic languages (see chapters 48 to 50). Some have questioned this account, however, pointing out that this section of the Testament may have been the work of a later Christian author. Yet, as Christopher Forbes points out, “What the Testament does provide ... is clear evidence that the concept of angelic languages as a mode of praise to God was an acceptable one within certain circles. As such it is our nearest parallel to glossolalia” (Prophecy and Inspired Speech in Early Christianity and Its Hellinistic Environment, 185-86).

(8) Some say the reference in 1 Corinthians 14:10-11 to earthly, foreign languages proves that all tongues-speech is also human languages. But the point of the analogy is that tongues function like foreign languages, not that tongues are foreign languages. Paul’s point is that the hearer cannot understand uninterpreted tongues any more than he can understand the one speaking a foreign language. If tongues were a foreign language, there would be no need for an analogy.

(9) Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 14:18 that he “speaks in tongues more than you all” is evidence that tongues are not foreign languages. As Wayne Grudem noted, “If they were known foreign languages that foreigners could understand, as at Pentecost, why would Paul speak more than all the Corinthians in private, where no one would understand, rather than in church where foreign visitors could understand?” (Systematic Theology, 1072).

(10) Finally, if tongues-speech is always human language, Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 14:23 wouldn’t necessarily hold true. Any unbeliever who would know the language being spoken would more likely conclude the person speaking was highly educated rather than “mad.”

My plea to all cessationists is simply this: refute each of these arguments with persuasive and biblically based counter-evidence, or cease (!) appealing to this notion (that tongues are always human languages) as a reason for embracing your view on the perpetuity of such gifts.


Hello Dwayne is there a email I can contact you?

Hello Dwayne is there a email I can contact you?

Thanks for this explanation! I first heard of you from Dr. Brown- on your "strange Fire" discussion. God bless you for the "biblical" explanation. I like it more when the bible is quoted to explain instead of quoting Calvin, Wesley etc. or a past tradition. Thanks again! I'll keep visiting your site for more spiritual nourishment! Blessings!

Another helpful argument is the way that Paul does not mention the need for interpretation with prophecy. However, if the situation envisioned by cessationists, is that Corinth was simply a multi-lingual community then even prophecy needs interpreted as only those whose language the prophecy was given in would be able to understand the message.. Paul does not see the need for prophecy to be interpreted, just tongues.

The only situation that plausibly suits the teaching of Paul in 1 Corinthians 14 is a church that has a common earthly tongue which prophecies would have been given in with tongues being an unknown tongue to all.

Remember him? He was my pastoral and theological mentor for more than 15 years and his portrait hangs above my desk (I guess you could say he oversees all I do as a pastor!). So I love him and greatly respect him, but in terms of what you posted from his sermon, I completely disagree. There isn't a single biblical text that supports the distinction he makes between temporary and permanent spiritual gifts. Not one. I don't have time to respond to everything he says, but I have responded in great detail in two of my books, The Beginner's Guide to Spiritual Gifts (Regal) and in my contribution to Are Miraculous Gifts for Today? Four Views (Zondervan). I'll have to refer you to those. If you'll read what I wrote there, I'll be happy to resume this conversation.

Thanks you for your compelling points from Scripture, they are much appreciated! I do have a question...I attend a reformed church that believes and practices the continuation of the miraculous gifts. I have a desire to speak in tongues and have prayed for it as well as have been prayed for to receive it. I have not received it, should I take this as God's will that I don't or shall i still persistently pray for them? My desire for them has not changed but I don't want my desire to cloud my discernment for what God would have for me..Thanks in advance for your guidance, God bless you and your ministry!

Sam, please comment on this from a sermon by S. Lewis Johnson. I'm sure you remember him as I remember you preaching once about the death of his wife and I was amazed when you said that she was in heaven and wouldn't come back if she could. What a glorious effect that had on my spiritual life.

"Now the history of the church with reference to spiritual gifts is characterized by two periods. That is, there is a period of temporary and permanent gifts in operation. Now the temporary gifts were confirmatory and revelatory. The permanent gifts were regulatory or, I don’t even know how to pronounce that [Laughter], edificatory an Australian would say, I know. But let me stop and explain what I mean by this. In the early days of the church men had the gift of tongues, men had the gift of miracles, men had the gift of healings, men had the gift of prophecy. But those gifts died out. Some of them were confirmatory, like prophecy and tongues; they were designed to confirm the message that was given. When the apostles preached the word these gifts took place in order to confirm the fact that God the Holy Spirit was with them. Some of them were revelatory like prophecy. For, you see, the local church did not have a New Testament. They met and all they had was the Old Testament. Now they weren’t poor because they had the Old Testament but there were some things that were not in the Old Testament. Spiritual gifts, for example, you won’t find that in the Old Testament. You won’t find instructions regarding the offices of elder, and deacon, and many other things which the New Testament has given us. What would the church do when it did not have a Bible which contained the New Testament? Well, God gave prophets. Now prophets are men who receive a message directly from God and give it to people like Agabus in the New Testament. And Philip, the evangelist, had some daughters who also prophesied.

In other words it was their responsibility to give direct instruction to the church of Jesus Christ. There were also the gifts of wisdom and knowledge. Now the gifts of wisdom and knowledge were temporary gifts. Nobody has that gift today. They were gifts which enabled a man in the local church to give instruction from God on significant things in the local church when they did not have a New Testament. In other words, the truth of 1st Corinthians chapter 5, for example, and chapter 6, since that is not found anywhere in the Bible, so to speak, then men were given certain gifts; wisdom, knowledge, prophecy. And the Holy Spirit led them as the church met to give instruction on these points. So gifts were confirmatory like miracles and tongues. They were revelatory like prophecy, wisdom, knowledge and so on.

Now there were also permanent gifts such as teaching, pastor-teacher, government, helps, ruling, etcetera. Some of them were regulatory like the gifts an elder might have. Some were edificatory like teaching which might be an elder’s gift or it might not be a teacher’s gift, it might not be an elder’s gift. Then after this early period of time, and by the way we do not have any historical record of, for example, anyone speaking in tongues from the early days, at least from about Tertullian’s day until the 19th Century.

In other words, that gift passed out of existence because its practical use was over. Now at this time and the period that we live in I have called a period of permanent gifts. And I am classifying these permanent gifts in two ways; utterance gifts, and non-utterance gifts. And the Bible does not say some gifts are utterance and some are non-utterance, but you can see that if you read them, for example, there’s the gift of teaching, there is the gift of pastor-teacher, there is the gift of evangelist; these gifts are utterance gifts. We place a great deal of importance on utterance gifts because we haven’t studied the New Testament very well."

The link below is one of his sermons on the gift of tongues. Would you be able to read and comment on that sermon, also. Thanks.

Very clear, very good. Thanks!

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