An Exhausting Set of Questions on Tongues

December 11th, 2008

As I’ve looked at the gift of tongues, I’ve found out that there’s a lot to work through. More than you might expect. The questions can get really complex. I want to find the straight-forward answers… But I want answers that seem to satisfy everything the Bible says about the gift.

I decided to write down all the questions & issues I can identify–every decision you have to make about the subject. What do you have to work through, when you’re studying it? Some of these have to do with the nature of the gift, and others are practical questions. Some are directly exegetical–about understanding a particular passage–and others are more general.

Note: Some of these questions have simple answers. Some seem like they have simple answers, but don’t. And maybe some seem complex to me, but they really aren’t. :)

Also Note: I’ve been sitting on this entry for a week or two, tweaking it & improving it.  I’m still not entirely happy with it… There are parts that might not be clear enough. But I can’t keep fiddling forever.

Invitation: If you can think of any additional questions, please, leave a comment. I’d like to make this as exhaustive as possible!

I. Summary: The Biggest Questions

  1. Is the gift of tongues still given today?
  2. Can all believers speak in tongues?
  3. Should all believers speak in tongues?
  4. Are tongues always directed to God, i.e. prayer or praise? Or does it include messages to other people?
  5. The gift of tongues seems to involve some kind of unlearned language. But is it a heavenly language–a “private prayer language”, i.e. glossalalia–or is it speaking in an unlearned human language? Or does it include both?
  6. Can you understand your own gift, when you speak it? Always? Ever?
  7. How are interpreted tongues to be practiced in church? 1 Cor. 14:28 says, “if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church“. How do you know if there’s someone to interpret?
  8. How does an uninterpreted tongue edify the speaker (1 Cor. 14:4)?
  9. Are there any differences between tongues in Acts and tongues in 1 Corinthians?
  10. What does it mean that tongues are a sign for the unbeliever, while prophecy is a sign for the believer? (1 Cor. 14:21-25) How does this fit into the flow of Paul’s argument? (Major question!)

Below I’ll list more questions–both additional questions, and more detailed questions about the above.

II. Unlearned Human Languages vs. Heavenly Languages

  1. Is the gift of tongues a heavenly language–a “private prayer language”, or glossalalia–or is it speaking in an unlearned human language? Or does it include both?
  2. In Acts 2, when people were speaking in tongues and the crowd says “we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God”, was that a miracle of hearing, or a miracle of speaking?
    1. Were different people speaking in different languages? Like… Some people heard Persian from Jeff, and others heard Greek from Bob, and others heard Coptic from Sue?
    2. Or did the crowd effectively have “universal translators” in their ears? If so, were the Jewish believers actually speaking in their native language of Aramaic, or were they doing glossalalia?
    3. Would “the gift of interpretation” from 1 Cor. 12-14 be this miracle of hearing? Would that mean that God was giving unbelievers this gift at Pentecost?
  3. Does “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels” (1 Cor. 13:1) mean that the gift of tongues is sometimes an earthly language, and sometimes a heavenly language? Or is it just hyperbole?
  4. Why does Paul sometimes seem to use “speak in a tongue” as shorthand for “unintelligible tongue”? 1 Cor. 14:2 says, “For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit.
    1. 1 Cor. 14:6-12 is also all about unintelligibility. Does that mean that the tongues are always unintelligible?
    2. So maybe in Acts 2, it’s a miracle of hearing? The gift of interpretation?
  5. But does 1 Cor. 14:10-11 imply that the languages are always earthly languages?
    1. In that case, would an unintelligible tongue be a human language–but one that no one in the room can speak?
  6. If tongues are always just human languages, then what is the gift of interpretation?
  7. Does “to another [is given] various kinds of tongues” (1 Cor. 12:10) mean that the gift of tongues has different kinds of manifestations–both human languages and heavenly?  Or does that just mean, “various languages”?
  8. When Rom. 8:26 says, “the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words“, is that a reference to glossalalia?
    1. If so, does that mean the Spirit isn’t interceding that way for those who don’t speak in tongues?
    2. If the groanings are too deep for words–if the groanings are unuttered, or inexpressible–then how can they be uttered in a tongue? Wouldn’t that contradict the idea that tongues are a heavenly language–words with real meaning?
  9. 1 Cor. 14:28 says, “if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church“. How do you know if there’s someone to interpret?
    1. Does this mean that tongues are human languages? Like, you have a tongue in Spanish, and you look around to see if their are any Spanish-speakers present?
    2. Is Paul talking about someone who has already demonstrated a repeated gift of interpretation of glossalalia?

III. The Content of Tongues

  1. What is the content of tongues, whether interpreted or not? What kind of thing is said? Is it praise? Is it thanks? Is it the Gospel? Is it another way for God to deliver a prophetic word–of any and every kind?
  2. Is the message of a tongue directed to God, or directed to other people, or directed to the tongues-speaker, or all three?
  3. Can it be a tool for evangelists to speak the Gospel in languages they haven’t learned?
  4. Are tongues directed to God? 1 Cor. 14:2 says, “For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit.Acts 2:10 says that people heard believers “telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.1 Cor. 14:14 says, “For if I pray in a tongue“. 1 Cor. 14:16 says, “if you give thanks with your spirit“.
    1. So are tongues only prayers? Messages directed to God? Or are they both prayers, and prophecies? Or evangelism?
    2. If they’re only directed to God, then shouldn’t every valid interpretation be a praise or prayer or exaltation of God? So if someone provides an interpretation where God is speaking, then it’s not valid?
  5. Does “mighty works” in Acts 2:10 refer to the Gospel? Or to general praise?

IV. Miscellaneous on the Nature of Tongues

  1. Can you understand your own gift, when you speak it? Always? Ever? Is it non-rational in any way?
    1. If you can understand it, why would you need to pray for the power to interpret? (1 Cor. 14:13)
    2. When Paul says “my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful” (1 Cor. 14:14), does that mean that you don’t understand your own tongue?
    3. Does that mean tongues are non-rational? So you don’t understand what you’re saying? Your mind isn’t engaged?
  2. How does an uninterpreted tongue edify the speaker (1 Cor. 14:4)? (And is self-edification “selfish”?)
    1. Update: Is it something like “feeling closer to God”, which is what charismatics say?
    2. Update: Or is it because the speaker is giving a revelation from God in a human language that only he can understand, so he’s the only one edified?
  3. Is glossalalia “ecstatic” speech, involving a frenzy or loss of control? Does the mockery of Acts 2:13 mean that people speaking in tongues seem like they’re drunk?
  4. If you have the gift, is it something you can do at will? Any time?
  5. Whether or not you can start at will, can you stop at will? Does 1 Cor. 14:39-40 imply this?
  6. Can all believers speak in tongues?  Should they?
    1. Does every believer have the gift, just waiting to be exercised?
    2. What about 1 Cor. 12:30?
  7. How do you start, the first time?
    1. Does it simply happen, without even seeking it?
    2. Were the believers at Pentecost expecting tongues?
    3. Is it possible to “try”? Can you start making sounds, and pray that the Spirit will turn them into the real gift?
    4. Does it happen only to those who are actively praying for it? Or, does it usually happen only to them? Or maybe only to those who are (in general) earnestly seeking to walk in the Spirit ?
    5. Can you have a class teaching people how to speak in tongues? A seminar? Tutoring? Or are all such things misguided?
  8. Does 1 Cor. 14:14-19 indicate that tongues are part of Paul’s regular private devotions?
  9. Is the sign of tongue given to every believer upon being baptized or filled or indwelt with the Spirit? Is it an “initial physical evidence”?
  10. Do tongues indicate that you are spiritually deep, or that you have a close walk with God? Is it a badge of spirituality?
    1. If not, is it a tool that God uses to deepen your walk with him? Is that the self-edification in 1 Cor. 14:4?

V. Practicing Tongues in Private & in the Church

  1. Should you always pray for the power to interpret, even in private? Or was that command just about public meetings? (1 Cor. 14:13-16)
  2. In 1 Cor. 14:28, when Paul forbids uninterpreted tongues in “ekklesia”–church/gathering/congregation–does that mean any gathering of believers?
    1. Only the main, regular gathering?
    2. Only gatherings where an unbeliever or outsider might enter (1 Cor. 14:24)?
    3. Are uninterpreted tongues OK in a small prayer meeting? Small groups/home groups?
  3. In church, is it OK to do it quietly to yourself? Does “let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God” (1 Cor. 14:28) refer to speaking in tongues in your thoughts? If someone does it quietly to themselves, are they violating this command?
  4. If uninterpreted tongues aren’t supposed to happen in church, then why would God ever give someone a tongue in church without also giving the interpretation?
    1. Does that imply that all uninterpreted tongues in church are “fake”?
    2. Or do uninterpreted tongues happen because tongues-speakers have control over their gift, and can speak at will?

VI. Tongues & Prophecy as Signs

  1. What does it mean that tongues are a sign for the unbeliever, while prophecy is a sign for the believer? (1 Cor. 14:21-25) (Major question!)
    1. What is Paul’s point in saying this, in these four verses?  Why does he bring it up?  What’s the application, and how does that follow?
    2. Paul says “thus” after reading Isaiah 28:11-12. Why? How does his conclusion follow from Isaiah? (And is Isaiah 28:11-12 based on what God said in Deut. 28:49?)
    3. Why does it imply that uninterpreted tongues are bad in church?
    4. Why does Paul say that prophecy is a sign for believers, and then talk about an unbeliever hearing a prophecy? (If we want unbelievers to hear prophecy… doesn’t that mean that it’s a sign for unbelievers?)
  2. Does Paul mean that uninterpreted/unintelligible tongues are a sign for the unbeliever, or does he mean that interpreted tongues are a sign for the unbeliever?
    1. Is he saying that hearing “gibberish” is a sign?  Perhaps a sign of God’s wrath on hard-hearted, unrepentant unbelievers?  (See question #3 below.)
    2. Is he saying that hearing the Gospel in your own language is a sign for unbelievers? (See question #4 below.)
    3. Is he saying that hearing some kind of interpreted prophetic word through tongues is a sign for unbelievers?  (But why would that be “a sign for unbelievers, not for believers”?)
  3. Does “tongues are a sign for the unbeliever” mean that hearing unintelligible speech is a sign of God’s judgment on hard-hearted unbelievers?
    1. That when God sends his wrath, he stops speaking understandably? Like he’s given up on bringing them to repentance?
    2. So, if you speak in tongues without interpretation, and an unbeliever sees, then it’s like a message of God’s wrath? You’ll be sending them the wrong signal? As Sam Storms puts it, “They are giving a ‘sign’ to unbelievers that is entirely wrong, because their hardness of heart has not reached the point where they deserve that severe sign of judgment.”
    3. This is a more charismatic view. And it assumes that the gift includes glossalalia.
    4. On the plus side: This makes sense with 14:23 (what happens when an unbeliever sees tongues) and the contrast with 14:24-45 (what happens when an unbeliever sees prophecy). It also makes sense with Deut. 28:49.
    5. On the negative side: Paul quotes, “By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me” (1 Cor. 14:21). Doesn’t that make it sound like they can understand, but won’t listen? Sort of like how God brought the Gospel to the Gentiles after the Jews rejected it? (See Romans 9-11.)  Also, 14:23 says that the unbeliever will think we’re crazy–but he doesn’t say anything about a misunderstood sign.
  4. Does it mean that the gift is meant as an attesting sign, during evangelism?
    1. Is it the Gospel preached in an unlearned language?
    2. When Paul says quotes Isaiah, “by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people“, Isaiah is talking about hard-hearted Jews.  So does the sign have something to do with how the Gospel went to the Gentiles after the Jews rejected it, and then the Gentiles went to the Jews again? Is it about evangelism of unbelieving Jews?
    3. This is a more cessationist view. And it goes well with the idea that tongues are only unlearned human languages, like in Acts 2.
    4. On the plus side: It sort of fits with 14:21 (see the “negative side” above).
    5. On the negative side: How does this make any sense of 14:23 (what happens when an unbeliever sees tongues)? Or the rest of the chapter, talking about uninterpreted tongues? (And for the Jew/Gentile idea: Where does Paul talk about Jews & Gentiles in 1 Cor. 14?)
    6. Also, if it’s evangelistic, why is the gift given in Acts 10:46 and 19:6, where there don’t seem to be any unbelievers present?
  5. Are there any possibilities other than these two, for the meaning of “tongues are a sign for the unbeliever, and prophecy for the believer”?
    1. How does any possibility fit with Isaiah 28:11-12, and with the argument Paul makes about an unbeliever entering?
  6. Does Paul misquote Isaiah? Does he change the meaning?
    1. Paul quotes the Law, “By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.” (1 Cor. 14:21) The bold part makes it sound like they can understand the strange tongues, but refuse to listen. But Paul is quoting Isaiah 28:11-12, and he leaves out part of verse 12. And in the original, it looks like Isaiah is saying, “God spoke to them in the past, and they wouldn’t listen back then, so now it’s time for judgment.” As though the “strange tongues” are a punishment for not listening earlier.
    2. This is really weird! The original text of Isaiah makes perfect sense in the flow of Paul’s argument. But Paul changes it so that it makes less sense! How does the change fit into the flow of Paul’s argument?
  7. Why does Paul say that prophecy is a sign for the believer, when in 14:24-45 it looks like prophecy is a sign for the unbeliever who enters?
  8. Does “sign for an unbeliever/sign for a believer” mean something like, “Tongues is a sign that hardens people in unbelief, while prophecy is a sign that moves people toward belief”? (Note: This makes the most sense to me… But I have no idea if “sign for believers” can mean that.)

Are you confused yet?

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5 Responses to “An Exhausting Set of Questions on Tongues”

  1. luke g. says:

    Let me know when you get all the answers :)

  2. ScottL says:

    Lots and lots of questions. Do you plan to answer them all over 30-40 articles? :)

  3. Tim says:

    Heh.

    I don’t have the answers to a lot of ‘em, sadly.

  4. Tim Stewart says:

    Tim,
    I think it’s a great idea to map out all sorts of questions such as these. Questions are the natural way to approach something new and mysterious. (How ironic that we are oftentimes sorely tempted to start with answers and go forth looking next for justification!) Keep on asking questions, brother, and share what answers you find. :-)
    –Tim

  5. A couple more questions:
    When we’re supposed to ‘earnestly desire the greater gifts’, are we supposed to think that tongues with an interpretation is ‘as great as’ prophesy? What’s a greater gift, anyway?

    When I was in college group, some leaders were encouraging ‘stepping out’ in tongues – meaning, pray and talk gibberish in the hopes that God will use that faith to get you to speak real tongues, whatever that is. Is tongues something that is ‘learned’ or ‘practiced’? The same goes for prophesy, healing, and other types of gifts as well, I suppose. I mean, encouragement, administration, etc, are all practiced to some extent… (I mean practice as in ‘practice makes perfect’, not as in ‘use’).

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