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Tongues: The Final Word … Was Not Ecstatic Gibberish

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“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son”  Hebrews 1:1-2

“Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.”  Hebrews 2:1

“All around me people have been swept up by an invisible force. And now they speak, what they believe is the language of Heaven. I can see it on their faces that they are genuinely somewhere else.” Morgan Freeman, National Geographic’s The Story of God, Episode 2, Season 2

Right now, today, there are more than 670 million people on the planet who claim adherence to charismatic theology. They outnumber non-charismatic evangelicals almost two-to-one. While the theological perspective of the charismatic movement is an interpretation of Scripture which claims to validate the continuation of the apostolic “signs and wonders” gifts of the Holy Spirit, the overwhelming practical feature of charismatic churches is the modern exhibition of “tongues.”  As Morgan Freeman said, tongue-speaking practitioners believe they are speaking “the language of heaven.”

(For more on the charismatic movement, see The “Dumb Dogs” of Charismania.)

The sheer preponderance of the practice of tongues in the modern church, considered in light of the warning from Christ about the wide, easy gate that leads to destruction, (Matthew 7:13-14) demands that the practice must be given diligent, Berean-like examination against what Scripture actually teaches. We must know if what we see in the charismatic movement is an authentic feature of the narrow, hard way, or whether it is merely an emotionally appealing trait of the wide path deceptively introduced by an enemy who seeks to “steal, kill, and destroy.” (John 10:10)  The author of Hebrews provides the weighty admonition that we “must pay closer attention” to the revelation of divine truth given “by his Son.”

As Phil Johnson rhetorically posited, in his 2002 Shepherds Conference Message, Combating Charismatic Theology:

“Can we agree that it is not a sin to examine charismatic claims by comparing them to Scripture?  Can we agree on that? In fact, can we agree that we are commanded to examine those claims by comparing them with Scripture?  And if we can agree on that, can we also agree that if we compare any doctrine or practice with the Bible and find it in conflict with Scripture, we are obligated by our duty to God and to His Word to reject that doctrine or practice?” (Source)

“If those gifts pertained to the apostolic era only, then the Charismatic Movement cannot be a true movement of the Holy Spirit and we need to expose the movement as unbiblical.”  Phil Johnson

“The test of anything calling itself Christian is not its significance or its success or its power, though these make the test more imperative. The test is truth.” Frederick Dale Bruner

“…all religious experience must stand the objective test of Scripture.” O. Palmer Robertson

“God’s Word is the highest court of appeal for all questions of spiritual truth.” Phil Johnson

“…notoriety is not a test of authenticity, or even of faithfulness … the only true test of whether a person or movement is from God is not signs and wonders, but teaching that conforms to God’s Word.” John MacArthur

The reason believers must be diligent in comparing all things to Scripture is not merely for the presumptive sense of Berean nobility that doing so might evoke within us. (Acts 17:11) The overriding motivation comes from the numerous warnings we are given in the New Testament about the increasing prevalence of false teachers and “other” gospels that will – and have – come in the wake of Christ’s Gospel. (See 1 Timothy 6:5, 2 Timothy 4:3-4, Matthew 7:15-17, Ephesians 5:11, 1 Timothy 1:18-20, 1 Timothy 1:3-4, Galatians 1:7-8, 2 John 1:10-11, Romans 16:17-18, Colossians 2:8, 1 John 4:1, Revelation 22:18-19, Titus 3:10-11, Ephesians 4:14-15, Jude 4, 2 Corinthians 11:13-15, 2 Timothy 3:5, John 8:44).

The voluminous warnings in the New Testament point to a clear reality about the nature of spiritual warfare – Satan and his followers also perform supernatural feats. John Calvin notably confirmed what Scripture teaches, “We must remember that Satan has his miracles, too.” Where does Scripture teach this? Consider Matthew 7:21-23, Matthew 24:24, Mark 13:22, and 2 Thessalonians 2:7-9.

“For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.” Jesus, Matthew 24:24

We must be ever diligent to compare all teaching and all behavior against the sound doctrine of Scripture, or else find ourselves “tossed to and fro.” It is sound doctrine to which we must adhere and which serves as divine guardrails on our trek down the narrow path. (See 2 Timothy 1:13, 1 Timothy 4:6, Luke 1:4, 1 Timothy 6:3, 2 Timothy 4:3, Titus 1:9, Acts 2:42, Titus 2:7, 2 John 1:9) It is sound doctrine from Scripture which is to drive out understanding and which, in turn, compels our behavior and emotions in response.

There are numerous reliable, helpful resources available to the questioning believer that soundly consider from Scripture the legitimacy of tongues and the claims of the charismatic movement. But one particularly helpful resource that deals specifically with two of the charismatic behaviors – tongues and prophecy – is O. Palmer Robertson’s The Final Word: A Biblical Response To The Case For Tongues and Prophecy Today. Originally published by The Banner of Truth Trust in 1993, it remains a very helpful resource today. It is available directly from Banner of Truth (HERE) or from Amazon (HERE).

Robertson’s approach to evaluating tongues is to carefully examine what Scripture teaches about the presence of tongues as they were exhibited within Scripture itself. In the chapter “Tongues Today?” he posits and defends four claims about tongues in the New Testament.

  1. “New Testament tongues were revelational;
  2. New Testament tongues were foreign languages;
  3. New Testament tongues were for public consumption;
  4. New Testament tongues were a sign indicating a radical change in the direction of redemptive history.”

New Testament Tongues Were Revelational

Robertson prefaces his discussion of this first point by making the unambiguous observation “that unless a person is willing to allow for continuing revelation beyond the Scriptures, the tongues being manifested today cannot be regarded as the same as the tongues in the New Testament.”

The initial Scriptural validation that tongues in the New Testament were actual revelation comes from Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 14:2, “He who speaks in a tongue utters mysteries.” As Robertson explains, “This term ‘mysterion’ in the New Testament has a very specific meaning which inherently includes the idea of the communication of divine revelation.”

In the context of the New Testament, and of Paul’s usage, “mystery” refers to something that was once hidden “but has now been revealed.” “In its very essence,” writes Robertson, “a New Testament ‘mystery’ is a revelational phenomenon.” The word ‘mystery’ appears some 28 times in the New Testament and, with the exception of its usage in 2 Thessalonians 2:7, it’s meaning is consistently about revelation.

Robertson cites and comments on a number of such “mystery” verses, including Matthew 13:11, Romans 11:25, Romans 16:25, 1 Corinthians 2:1, 1 Corinthians 13:2, 1 Corinthians 15:51, Ephesians 1:9 and Ephesians 3:3-4. The apostle throughout the book of Colossians maintains the meaning of “mystery” to be divine revelation: Colossians 1:25, Colossians 1:27, Colossians 2:2, Colossians 4:3.

When, in the New Testament, a believer exhibited the gift of tongues, their utterances were not concealing a revelatory truth from God. They were not hiding the divine mystery. Rather, they were revealing, exposing, explaining the mystery.

“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 Corinthians 14:2

This verse is often used as a proof text, not only to validate tongues as concealing divine spiritual truth, but also to validate the use of what is termed a “private prayer language” or “PPL.” It seems to serve as a confirmation of Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians 13:1, “If I speak in the tongues of men and angels.”

But Robertson offers a clear response to the obvious confusion.

“How could it make good sense that a message spoken in tongues is revelational if it is not understood?” He answers his self-posited question by stating that “It could make good sense if the ‘tongues’ described throughout Scripture are foreign languages. If ‘tongues’ are ‘languages’ foreign to the speaker which might not be known to the audience, then it would make perfectly good sense that ‘he who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God, since no one understands him. (1 Corinthians 14:2)”.

The tongue speaker of Corinth – a church, it must be remembered, was being chided by the apostle for its abuses of spiritual gifts – might be uttering mysteries in tongues without the aid of a readily-present translator. The fact that a ‘mystery’ was being uttered wasn’t being challenged by Paul. Rather, he was making clear that, apart from an interpreter, the revelation was not understood by the hearers, only known to God. Without an interpreter, edification of those hearing was absent, which is the point Paul was making to the Corinthians.  Far from being a Scriptural validation for ecstatic gibberish, or for a private, angelic prayer language, Paul was stating the obvious.  Tongues heard but not understood are known but to God, and they serve no edifying purpose.

The essence of a mystery being revealed is that it is comprehended by the hearers. The intent is for God’s truth to be proclaimed. As Robertson points out, “Edification through a verbal gift is linked intrinsically to understanding the utterance.”

In light of this, Robertson proceeds to explain Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 14:14, “For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful.” The superficial appearance of these words is that it is possible for the apostle to pray in his “spirit” but be otherwise unable to comprehend in his “mind” what he has just prayed. But this presumed superficial gleaning rests on a false dichotomy, according to Robertson.

As they occur in the New Testament, “The human ‘spirit’ (pneuma) and the ‘mind’ (nous) cannot be separated so radically from one another.” The distinction between spirit and mind implied by this verse from Paul is not correspondingly clear from other verses in Scripture. For example, in Mark 2:6-8, the Holy Spirit-inspired account of Jesus notes that the Lord perceived “in his spirit” the motives of His antagonists.

“According to the Gospel,” says Robertson, “Jesus possessed ‘rational knowledge’ in his ‘spirit,’ which clearly indicates that the ‘spirit’ does not contain simply the emotional side of man. ‘Mind’ and ‘spirit’ in man communicate with one another.”

“It is,” affirms Robertson, “a false dichotomy contrary to the scriptural teaching about man that suggests that man’s ‘spirit’ (pneuma) is an irrational, purely emotional aspect of man, while his ‘mind’ (nous) refers to his reasoning capacities.” Thus, when Paul in 1 Corinthians 14:14, says, “My spirit prays,” it is “not without full rational understanding.” Yet, at the same time, Paul says that his mind is unfruitful. “It bears no fruit,” explains Robertson, because “no others are edified because his thoughts are not being communicated to them in a way they can understand.”

An earlier verse, 1 Corinthians 14:5, emphasizes the importance of understanding, of edification: “He who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in a tongue, unless he interprets.” Interpreted tongues, according to Paul, are equivalent to prophecy. Why is that important? Because, as Robertson says, “God’s intent in prophecy was to communicate his verbally inspired, infallible, and inerrant Word to his people.”

New Testament Tongues Were Foreign Languages

“And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language.” Acts 2:6

The display of tongues at Pentecost reflected Paul’s explanation of the gift in 1 Corinthians 14:5, that tongues interpreted, tongues understood, were equivalent to prophecy. Why? Because the content of the message uttered in tongues was a revelation of God’s Truth, an explanation of what once was a mystery but was now being explained. Such is evidenced at Pentecost when those gathered from around the world heard “them speak in his own language.”

The continuing evidence within Acts at each subsequent “Pentecost” experience confirms that the tongues of Acts 2:6 – actual languages – was repeated wherever the Spirit came. In each of the areas in which the Lord said, “you will be witnesses,” (Acts 1:8), the book of Acts records the fulfillment of that command for each geographical area.  (Gripped by the forgiving, saving power of God’s Gospel, and driven by immediate, increasing persecution, the Lord’s Acts 1:8 command was accomplished by the end of Acts.  His followers were witnesses to Him in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and “to the end of the earth” within the timeline recorded by Luke in the book of Acts.  Though we remain under Great Commission orders today, Christ’s command to his Ascension-witnessing disciples is seen fulfilled in a “Pentecost” experience for each of the four targets He outlined in Acts 1:8.)

The Pentecost experience in Jerusalem in Judea, the most well known, is seen in Acts 2. But it is also recorded that the same experience occurred in Samaria (Acts 8:14-17), with the “Godfearers” (Hellenistic Greeks converted to Judaism) in Acts 10:44-48, Acts 11:13, and to the Gentiles in Acts 19:1-7. Each of the people groups identified by Christ early in Acts had been delivered the Gospel and received the Holy Spirit by the conclusion of the book of Acts.

The tongues that accompanied those experiences are consistent with the Jerusalem Pentecost experience. The record of Acts doesn’t imply a variation in tongues. It doesn’t imply that they were actual foreign language in Jerusalem but were different in Samaria or in the “uttermost” when the revealed Gospel arrived there. Peter is recorded in Acts 10:47, for example, that the Gentiles “have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” Acts 11:15 records Peter again stating that the post-Jerusalem Pentecost experience in Caesarea was “just as on us at the beginning.”

As Robertson writes, “evidence supports the conclusion that the tongues of the New Testament times, both in Acts and 1 Corinthians, were foreign languages.” Coupled with the intentionally revelatory nature of tongues, their exhibition as actual foreign languages would have been critical for their effectiveness in explaining the now revealed “mystery” of the Gospel.

But tongues in the modern church do not reflect these two fundamental characteristics. If tongues are not actual languages, but instead merely ecstatic utterances, then there can be no revelation of truth apprehended by them.

“Whatever may be going on today, it is not the kind of worship experience described by the Scriptures of the New Testament.” O. Palmer Robertson

On these two points then – that tongues were revelatory and that tongues were actual languages – the modern exhibition of the claimed phenomenon is found to be drastically different than what is evidenced by Scripture in the first-century church.

From the other side of the issue, the continuationist argument that affirms tongues continuing today – although, as we showed in a previous article, they are a relatively new addition to the modern church, having been birthed into the church in the early 20th-century – offers a curious defense for the practice.  As Robertson explains, “one view that has been promoted widely” in defense of tongues asserts that, though their modern exhibition does not meet the two New Testament criteria above (nor the other two, to be discussed in an upcoming article), they still “have a proper role in the life of God’s people today.”

“Because of the frantic pace of modern life, God’s Spirit,” writes Robertson, explaining this novel defense, “has devised this means by which the modern-day, stressed-out Christian may find emotional and psychological relief.  Through ‘speaking in tongues,’ an answer may be found to the tensions associated with living in today’s world.”

While there is little doubt that the ebb of modern culture has, in the waning years of modernism into postmodernism, found itself riding the crested flow of emotionalism and subjective experience, this stress-relief defense of tongues offers a conclusion that cannot be validated from Scripture.  Though charismatics offering this defense acknowledge that modern tongues are neither revelatory nor foreign languages, they cannot arrive at this tension-relieving defense from a careful exegesis of Scripture.  This subjective argument proffered in defense of a subjective experience is not even hinted at in Scripture.  “Modern-day tongues are presented as a legitimate element in worship today on the basis of a hypothesis about the way God might decide to meet the special emotional stresses of the modern world,” says Robertson.

Robertson concludes his point on tongues as foreign languages by stating:

“It would appear much more consistent with the biblical evidence to acknowledge that because the tongues of the first century were foreign languages, the tongues of today, which do not appear to be foreign languages, must be regarded as phenomenon not endorsed by New Testament Scriptures.”

The failure of modern day tongues on these first two of Scripture’s four-fold exhibition of them reflects a fundamental feature of the gifts of the Spirit that is missing in their modern presentation – spiritual gifts were not given by the Holy Spirit for the benefit of the individual believer, but for the benefit of Christ’s church. Individuals received the gifts in order to edify and minister to others.

“And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place” 2 Peter 1:19


(An upcoming article will look at the remaining two criteria from Scripture with regards to tongues: that they were for public consumption and that they were a divine sign.)


[Contributed by Bud Ahlheim]