Questioning Modern Tongues

tonguesPentecostal/charismatics/continuationists (PCC) insist that the extraordinary sign gifts recorded in the NT like tongues and healings are still active in our modern day Church. Not only do PCCs believe those gifts are still active, they also maintain that Christians should experience them, and if they never manifest themselves in your local church or in your life, some how the Holy Spirit is being quenched.

As a sufficientist, I believe that IF the extraordinary sign gifts are still active, any and all manifestations of them will mirror those recorded in the NT. In fact, I would expect nothing less than for those displays of gifts to mirror the signs and wonders recorded in the NT.

The grim reality, however, is that the so-called sign gifts that PCCs claim are manifested in today’s church do not mirror in any fashion the description of those gifts recorded in Scripture. If the spiritual manifestation of the gifts did continue, then I would conclude there would be some consistency between what was manifested in the NT and what is allegedly manifest today. Yet the disconnect is so profound that in order to get around the inconsistency, the terminology for the “biblical gifts” has been redefined with fanciful eisogesis by PCC theologians.

For the sake of this post, let me illustrate my charge by taking the example of tongues.

The biblical description of the gift of tongues is only found in two NT books, Acts and 1 Corinthians. Beginning with Acts, If we were to simply read the narrative, it is clear that the gift of tongues was a supernaturally given ability to speak a foreign, human language the speaker did not previously know.

So, with the reading of Acts 2, where the gift of tongues is manifested for the first time ever, we can glean from the passage that tongues was,

1) A known, recognized human language (Acts 2:7-12)

2) Spoken by a person who never spoke that language before in his life,

3) Understood clearly by those that heard the person speak (2:11,12).

Additionally, the tongue speaker spoke what Luke records as “the wonderful works of God” (2:11), which I take to mean the Gospel message of what Jesus had done on the cross to secure the salvation of Israel and ultimately the world.

Moving to 1 Corinthians, we learn that at least two of those three points noted in the Acts narrative transfer over to Paul’s teaching on tongues when he discusses spiritual gifts in chapters 12-14: That the “tongue” was a known, human language and it was a language the speaker spoke by means of God’s supernatural gifting.

In fact, nothing in the reading of Paul’s teaching from 1 Corinthians on spiritual gifts gives the reader the impression that the gift of tongues is anything other than a human language and that it was spoken by a person who previously never knew that language, but was given a supernaturally ability to speak it.

But Paul does expand upon the purpose of the gift in 1 Corinthians 14 and adds to what we already glean from Acts.

1) The gift had the purpose of building up the church, the body of Christ, and was meant for that reason alone, not for one’s personal benefit, (14:5).

2) The gift was meant as a prophetic sign to unbelieving Israel, (14:21,22). The “unbelievers” in those verses having a specific referent to unbelieving Jews and not to just any “unbeliever.” In Acts 2, that purpose is seen in the fact that it was Jews living outside of Israel who understood their language on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:11,12).

3) The tongue speaker was required to work in tandem with one who could supernaturally translate his message (14:27,28). In other words, the language speaker would not be understood by those in the congregation who didn’t understand the foreign language and was to work with a person also gifted by the Holy Spirit to translate a language he didn’t know who could interpret the message spoken by the tongue speaker.

4) At most, only 2 or 3 individuals with the gift of tongues were to even exercise the gift in church and those individuals were to speak one after another with the use of an interpreter, (14:27,28).

Now, with that background in mind, considering what both Acts and 1 Corinthians tell us about the gift of tongues, it is clear that the “tongues” practiced today does not in any fashion resemble the tongues described in Scripture. Nor do modern day PCCs practice the gift according to the regulations and direction Paul outlined to the Corinthians.

Instead, the expression of tongues is for the most part chaotic, with the entire congregation or a big majority of the congregation, speaking in tongues at once. An “interpreter” is never present in those instances. Moreover, the “tongue” isn’t even a real language but more like repetitious, unintelligent garble.

In order to claim the gift of tongues is still active today, as well as explain the broad inconsistency between what is described in the NT concerning the gift and what is truly practiced within various PCC churches, PCC theologians have invoked some clever hermeneutical and theological gymnastics that redefines what the Bible teaches on the subject.  But those hermeneutics, however, create problems of consistency within Christian doctrine and raises a number of significant questions.

If tongues are clearly understood to be human language in the NT, why do PCCs believe the “gift” manifested today is ecstatic, heavenly speech that speaks back to God in a private prayer language?  I believe one telling, historical note is the fact Charles Parham, who, along with his church group in Topeka, Kansas, introduced the “tongue” phenomena to the mainstream of American Christian Fundamentalism in the early 20th century, genuinely believed they were speaking known, human languages, particularly Chinese. If the first real tongue speaking classic Pentecostals believed they were speaking real languages, why did the switch in definition happen? Could it be because the gift of tongues was phony?

Typically, PCCs will cite 1 Corinthians 13:1 where Paul says he speaks “with the tongues of men and angels” and the reason we hear the tongue as repetitious gibberish is because it is heavenly speech. That response, however, makes me wonder why angels speak in repetitious gibberish. Angels were created by God to communicate intelligently with each other just like flesh and blood human beings. All humanity speak to each other with intelligent speech that is composed by the rules of linguistic grammar and syntax. Am I to conclude that angels don’t use the same rules of grammar? That when I as a man hear “angel talk,” it comes out as repetitious nonsense, even though the “humbadeba, humbadeba, humbadeba” is really noun, verb, preposition, and direct object in angelise?

Moreover, rather than tongues being given to individual Christians as the Spirit wills (1 Cor. 12:11) PCCs believe the manifestation of tongues is now a significant part of the Christian experience after a person is saved and then receives the baptism by the Holy Spirit.

Consider, for instance, some key doctrinal statements from the major PCC denominations,

From the Assemblies of God

8. The Initial Physical Evidence of the Baptism in the Holy Spirit

The baptism of believers in the Holy Spirit is witnessed by the initial physical sign of speaking with other tongues as the Spirit of God gives them utterance. [Acts 2:4]

The speaking in tongues in this instance is the same in essence as the gift of tongues, but is different in purpose and use. [1 Cor. 14:4-10, 28]

And from the Pentecostal Church of God

8. The Baptism of the Holy Ghost​​ The Baptism of the Holy Ghost and fire (Matthew 3:11), is a gift from God, as promised by the Lord Jesus Christ to all believers in this dispensation of time, and is received subsequent to the new birth (John 14:16, 17; Acts 1:8; 2:38, 39; 10:44-48). The Baptism of the Holy Ghost is accompanied by speaking in other tongues as the Holy Spirit Himself gives utterance as the initial physical sign and evidence (Acts 2:4).

And then from Michael Brown’s home church,

We believe that Baptism in the Holy Spirit, primarily evidenced by speaking with other tongues as the Spirit gives utterance, is for all believers as promised by John the Baptist (Mat 3:11), Jesus (Acts 1:4, 5, 8), and Peter (Acts 2:38-41) and as witnessed by the early disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 2:1-4; 10:44-46; 19:6)

If the Spirit is the one who gives the gifts as He sees fit to the ones He so chooses, how come, according to those doctrinal statements, every believer should expect to speak in tongues AFTER the baptism of the Holy Spirit?

I also take it that PCCs believe non-PCC Christians are being baptized by the Holy Spirit, right? Certainly they aren’t going to think along the lines of exclusivity? Meaning, they wouldn’t say only PCC Christians are really experiencing the second blessing and the Baptism of the Spirit?

How come, then, there are thousands of folks “baptized in the Spirit” every year outside of PCC congregations who do not speak in tongues? It is not like they as brand new believers are conditioned against PCC experience. I wasn’t when I was baptized in water and excited about my new found faith. I was actually open and welcoming to the possibility as a new Christian. Yet I never spoke in tongues.

PCCs will also argue that tongues is a private prayer language. But I have always wondered what the point is to a “private prayer” language. Is the private prayer language meant to help you pray better? I have interacted with some PCC Christians who say yes, the private prayer language helps us pray with power and then they will cite Romans 8:26 where Paul writes of the Spirit making intercession for us when we do not know what to pray. However, Paul goes on to write, “with groanings which cannot be uttered,” or “expressed in words.” So how exactly does a private prayer language in the form of ecstatic tongues fit in with that passage? Especially seeing that intercession is not uttered, which means no sound?

And then one final question so as not to draw this out too much, how do the theologically orthodox PCCs explain the millions of cultists, heretical pseudo-Christian groups, and in some cases, non-Christian religions, that manifest the same exact tongues phenomena as they do? I guess one can conclude it is demonic counterfeits, but if demons can counterfeit the gift among those individuals how exactly does a PCC Christian know he or she isn’t experiencing the demonic counterfeit? Especially seeing that the manifestation experienced by the orthodox PCC guy is virtually the same experience the pseudo-Christian cultist has.

Along with the fact that modern tongues don’t look like anything I see practiced in the NT, those questions, and a number of others I have, cause me to conclude that the modern day manifestation of tongues is not at all from God as a genuine work of the Holy Spirit.

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13 thoughts on “Questioning Modern Tongues

  1. Correction: Paul does not say he speaks with the tongues of men and angels. He said “IF I speak with the tongues of men and angels.” (But you knew that)

  2. Great Post Fred.

    Also Joeseph Smith and the early Mormons (cult not true believers) claimed to do all of the sign gifts and speak in tongues. Page 226 of AutoBiography of Circuit Riding Preacher..Peter Cartwright. Joseph Smith was trying to get Peter Cartwright to leave Methodist Church and said “we have the gift of tongues and can speak in unknown languages…”

  3. Fred Butler: “As a sufficientist, I believe that IF the extraordinary sign gifts are still active, any and all manifestations of them will mirror those recorded in the NT. In fact, I would expect nothing less than for those displays of gifts to mirror the signs and wonders recorded in the NT.”

    I’ve read some folks who object to the expectation or definition that these sign-gifts today “mirror those recorded in the NT.”

    They’ll argue against the expectation or definition. And they’ll argue and complain if you say that they’re accepting counterfeits. What to do?

  4. Fred;
    I agree with everything you have written except with one comment on your “eisogesis” in
    point 2, “the gift was meant as a prophetic sign to unbelieving Israel”.
    If we are going to be careful with our understanding of Scripture in relation to the charismatic, we need to be extra careful that we don’t fall into the same trap. The passage in 1 Cor. 14; 21,22 is not referring only to unbelieving Israel, but to all unbelievers.
    As an aside, the promise spoken of in Acts 2 was also referred to by Peter with Cornelius, “and all the circumcised believers who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit (from Acts 2) had been poured out upon the Gentiles ALSO. For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God…” (Acts 10:45,46).
    My point being, the promise the circumcised believing Jews believed was meant solely for themselves, they discovered was always meant for Gentiles also.
    I know we may not agree on the Israel point, but I sure appreciate the content on all your other points.
    Thanks,
    Rich C

  5. I take the “unbelievers” referenced by Paul in 1 Cor.14:21,22 as Jews, because of the specific prophetic reference to Isaiah’s prophecy. A Roman gentile would have no clue what the tongue meant, but God had set up the gift as a particular sign to Jews, who would have recognized what was going on.

    John points out the parallels between this chapter in Corinthians and Acts 2 in the chapter talking about tongues in Strange Fire. The similarities are fairly clear when it comes to how tongues was meant to be a sign to Jews.

  6. You failed to mention Romans 8 where groaning is mentioned as an obvious next stage of tongues. Also, in Jakes 3:16 there is a reference to money if you have the baptism of the spirit and I think it is 2 Brown 4:5-6 where it says that only infidels and dung collectors will be more hateful than cessationists.

  7. Fivepointer;
    But the unbelieving Jews did NOT recognize what was going on. “And they continued in amazement and great perplexity, saying to one another, What does this mean? but others were mocking and saying, “They are full of sweet wine.” (Acts 2:12,13).
    Later on in his preaching, Peter explained, “For the promise is for you and your children, and for ALL who are far off, as many as the Lord our God shall call to Himself.” (Acts 2:39). It wasn’t until after Peter was finished with his preaching that, “those who received his word were baptized…” (Acts 2:41).
    Peter did not realize (then) the mystery of the OT gospel, the meaning hidden from the Jews, that the promise was always to ALL nations (of those who believe, both Jew and Gentile). It wasn’t until Cornelius that Peter (and other believing Jews) started catching on.
    Paul is simply using an OT text to prove that the gift of tongues (men speaking in other languages) was not in itself going to cause belief in either Jew or Gentile (Paul was writing to Corinthian Gentiles obviously). Paul was concerned with speaking so that people would understand. This is the crux of what charismatics don’t get, their gibberish tongues is not understandable!
    I don’t want to steal the thread, I just don’t want the charismatic to accuse us of doing what we accuse them of doing, that is, using verses out of context to prove a point. I just disagree that Paul is referencing unbelieving Jews only in the 1 Cor passage. I don’t think it helps the cause.
    But I still appreciate the post.
    Thanks,
    Rich C

  8. Just a few points putting on my UK charismatic hat again (after very many years).

    As to tongues and the bible, Acts 2 does define the gift (languages), but there is was praise and public, in 1 Cor it is prayer and in church or in private. The key idea for me is in 1 Cor 12 where Pauls speaks of the variety of gifts and workings, whereas modern discussions put them in a straight-jacket, one size fits all. Since the speaker doesn’t understand anyway (‘mysteries in the Spirit’), it’s a moot point whether literal human languages are used in private prayer or just ‘language’, joy unspeakable as it were. I do wish ecstatic utterance could be dropped, it implies being out of control.

    I’ve known two people personally whose ‘tongues’ were known languages, and I have no reason to doubt their testimony (and I don’t believe gullibility is a gift of the Spirit!). I’m not saying this validates all tongues speaking, but the existence of counterfeits doesn’t mean the authentic doesn’t exist. I’ve also heard tongues with interpretation that sounded very much like real languages, but there is no proof of exactly what they were one way or the other.

    The evangelicals with charismatic experience I have known have never believed the gifts, such as healing, were abiding abilities given by the Spirit, not even amongst the Apostles, they were only ever given sovereignly as the Spirit wills. That is clearly the case in the church setting. We did have on two occasions that I remember clear, medically verified supernatural healings. I have seen and personally experienced enough of the gifts to be unable to say this is ‘not for today’, though with some only a couple of times in 40-odd years.

    FWIW, I believe Rom 5 : 5 the ‘experience’ of pentecost for believers is absolutely married to Rom 5 : 1 justification by faith in Christ, and this is mainly how you discern the false from the true gifts. The world cannot receive the Spirit, but Christians can ask for him, and taste and see that the Lord is good by praying for gifts that through them bless others.

    The reason for so much past tense here is that I haven’t been in a church that asked for spiritual gifts for years, and not surprisingly they don’t receive. I also don’t use the label ‘charismatic’ anymore because of the lunatics, but I still believe my completed bible!

  9. I had some charismatics try to coach me to speak in tongues. That’s when I knew that it was nonsense.

    And to be perfectly honest…of the things on my list to pray for, the gift of a private prayer language would be at the bottom.

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