100 Answers in 100 Days

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Sharing answers to the various questions of faith I have faced, and which others have been challenged with also.

Monday, January 31, 2011

#31: Is there a difference between tongues in Acts and Corinthians?

In my last post I focused on those occasions in the Book of Acts in which people spoke in “tongues”, or “foreign languages” (that's what “tongues” literally means). I came to the conclusion that these were one off, miraculous events, where people spoke these languages that they had never learned. This was in order for God to communicate that the Holy Spirit had been given (in Acts 2), and that the Gentiles were included in God's kingdom to receive salvation no less than the Jews (Acts 10). There is another occasion in Acts where disciples of John the Baptist also begin speaking in tongues. This seems to have occurred because these were disciples of John and had a lot of knowledge about the coming Christ, whom John prepared them for, but had not yet put their faith in Jesus Christ. It showed that the Old Covenant, which they were under, would not save them; but that they had to put their faith in Christ.

Now, if this were the only mention of tongues in the Bible this would be a closed case. But when we read the letter to the Corinthians, we find tongues spoken of in several places, and even a chapter dedicated to the subject. It seems as though “tongues” were spoken frequently in this particular Church. Amongst those who hold the position I do; that tongues are not supposed to be part of the Christian experience today, there seem to be two main explanations for this. The first says that tongues was indeed practised by some of the early Christians up until the completion of the New Testament canon; (or more precisely, up until the last of the Apostles died). The reason for this was that, until the canon was complete, the early Christians needed this as a substitute for the completed canon. The main proof text for this is the following...

As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. (1 Corinthians 13:8-10)

This was written before the last of the New Testament books was authored. So “the perfect”, they suggest, is the completed canon of Scripture. When I was first confronted with the idea that tongues was not applicable today, this was the argument I was told. But in reading my Bible and thinking about it, it simply didn't make sense for a number of reasons. Firstly, as I showed yesterday, tongues were one-off signs, and never revelatory. The words spoken by someone speaking in tongues are never referred to as inspired, or put on the same level as Scripture. And I don't see from a straight forward reading of the Text that “the perfect” should be understood as the closed canon. There is a second alternative. This is the view that the tongues spoken of in 1 Corinthians are not miraculous. It can be difficult to shake the assumption that they were miraculous as they were in Acts, but there is actually no reason to read it that way. The word “tongues” simply means “languages”. Essentially, the problem at Corinth was that the sermons and the Scripture readings were probably being given in Hebrew, but the majority of the people didn't understand Hebrew – they understood Greek. Because the Old Testament had been given to mankind by God in Hebrew, the Jews probably felt that it was not right to translate them. But the Apostle Paul is telling them that there's no point in reading the Scriptures, or giving a sermon, if someone cannot understand you. And so we have comments in 1 Corinthians such as this:

If with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. (1 Corinthians 14:9)

It's comments like this that clearly deny the applicability of tongues today. But it also denies the applicability of tongues in the early Church, which is another reason that I don't accept the first view; that tongues were in use until the completion of the canon. There is no sense for a miracle where one would speak in a foreign language that they hadn't learnt, only to have someone else interpret what they'd just said. It's pointless.

This view is also held by a former Charismatic, Mark Haville. You can hear one of his sermons on this (in three parts) here: (1, 2, 3). Now, while this sermon might answer many of the questions that arise over the Text, Mark Haville does seem to stop short in his sermon. He deals at length with 1 Corinthians 14, but he doesn't speak much on chapters 12 and 13. However, with how I'd already come to understand chapters 12 and 13, along with a little thought and study, things readily fell into place. The gifts spoken of in 1 Corinthians aren’t necessarily miraculous, (such as teaching), and to have learned to speak another language is a gift from God much like having learned any skill with which we serve Him. “The perfect” of 1 Corinthians 13:10 is not the completion of Scripture, but the glorification of the saints... when we are “perfected”. In the resurrection, God will give us new bodies, and remove our sinful nature altogether. We will not “know in part”, as we do even now, but will know in full because we'll be free from the nature which limits our knowledge and understanding. “Knowledge will cease” (according to the 1 Corinthians 13 passage quoted above), in the sense that one person won't know more than another; we will all know and understand everything. This issue of one boasting greater knowledge than another was an issue for the Corinthians, as we see in 1 Corinthians 8, and this problem of people feeling superior because of their gifts is precisely what Paul is dealing with in this chapter; even that superiority the Jews may have felt because of their heritage.
But what does it mean that “tongues will cease”? Will there ever be a time when we won't have language? Well, when God first created mankind, there was just one language. But as we read the account of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11, we discover that God gave us many languages there, and this was in fact a judgement on mankind for their sinful idolatry. But when we are perfected, language barriers would no longer be an issue; we would understand and know all languages. But it may even be more literal than that. Zephaniah 3 speaks of this time, and says:

For at that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call upon the name of the LORD and serve him with one accord. (Zephaniah 3:9)

This would be a full reversal of the tower of Babel; perhaps even literally giving mankind one common language. So until tomorrow, I leave you with a passage of Scripture...

For through him we both [Jew and Gentile] have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you [Gentiles] are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone (Ephesians 2:18-20)

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