Wednesday, December 27, 2017

What Was Going On At Corinth?

When this chapter is examined, it will be found that there are two places (verses 2, and 14-16) which could be under­stood to refer to the speaker in tongues using a non-human language, but neither of these places demands such an interpretation to explain them (both places could refer to the speaker speaking in a human language that he himself did not happen to understand, and indeed in both places Paul could be referring to the speaker using a human language which he himself did in fact understand - see my comments on these verses).

Some exegetes consider that verses 4 and 28 also indicate the use of non-human language (or at least a language not under­stood by the speaker), but this idea is being read into the text, not taken from it - there is absolutely nothing in the wording of those verses to suggest that a human language is not meant.

On the other hand, there is strong evidence in the passage for taking “tongues” to mean, as in Acts, human languages.

Verses 10-11 speak of the “all sorts of languages in the world”, and add that “none of them is without meaning” - which in context means “meaning to human beings”; and “if I do not know what that meaning is, then I and the speaker are foreigners to each other” (the Greek word “foreigner” here, βαρβαρος barbaros, specifically means a person speaking a foreign language). Paul’s next words, “So with yourselves” indicate that his comment is describing what is happening at Corinth, and thus is a comment about the nature of tongues.

V.21 quotes from “the Law” (Deuteronomy 28:47-51 and, in particular, Isaiah 28:11-12) which refers to “men of strange tongues”, and this prophecy from the Old Testament is immediately used (v.22) to explain the purpose of tongues in the church of Paul’s day. As the strange tongues then were a sign to the unbelieving Israelites of God’s judgement, so also now (i.e., in Paul’s day) tongues are a sign for unbelievers. But “tongues” in v.21 refers to the foreign language spoken by the Assyrian invaders! There is no basis upon which “tongues” in Paul’s consequence clause, “Tongues, then” (v.22), can be given a different meaning: it similarly is referring to human languages - foreign, but human.

Now that we have looked at all that Paul is saying about speaking in tongues (he doesn’t mention it again in any of his other Epistles), what are we to make of it? In particular, exactly what was going on at Corinth?

The core of the situation at Corinth is that there are some there who have the gift of being able to speak a foreign language that they never learnt. This is a perpetual miracle - and it can be called forth on de­­mand. Probably these people were some of the initial one hun­­dred and twenty (Acts 1:15) who were given this gift on the day of Pen­­tecost (Acts 2:1) - and like other grace-gifts, when once given they still have it.

Perhaps others also have subsequently been given this same gift: I do not see any evidence about this one way or the other.

We can imagine that these people are being encouraged by others in the church to use this gift - not for any useful purpose, but just to demonstrate that they have it. It brings them pres­­tige. It is a miracle on tap, they are happy to oblige. This is an example of what we might call the “wow!” factor at work.
But I believe the evidence indicates that there is another group at Corinth also: people who can speak a foreign language anyway (either because they learnt it in the ordinary way or because it is their mother tongue). They are also using this “ability” - as far as others are concerned, it all sounds the same! And they are thus able to gain the same prestige and recognition in the Corin­thian church as the first group.

Griffiths 57ff. says about this:
"How are we to understand this word γλωσσα [glōssa]? Does it mean that when we speak in ‘tongues’, we speak to God in prayer? That is certainly a possible understanding of it. Or could it mean [rather] that if you speak in your “mother-tongue”, which may be incomprehensible to the rest of the congregation, that you are certainly understood by God, who understands all languages, but you only edify yourself because nobody else understands what you are saying? ... After all, if on the day of Pentecost Jerusalem was full of people speaking many languages, then it is not too far-fetched to expect that in a large cosmopolitan seaport like Corinth, you would not infrequently have overseas visitors: Parthians, Medes, Elamites, dwellers in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappodocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphilia, Egypt, districts of Libya around Cyrene, Cretans and Arabians and visitors from Rome. In such a multi-lingual port, there must have been many occasions when someone wanted to speak in their own language, which would be incomprehensible to the predominantly Greek-speaking congregation. ... Should people be allowed to contribute in unfamiliar languages? Everything Paul says is explicable in terms of regulating this problem."
So, it is highly probable that there were these first two groups in the congregation. But Paul seems surprised by the number of tongues-speakers at Corinth, and I think he suspects there is a third group: those who are just faking it, to receive the same elite status held by these others. At any rate, there are parts of Paul’s teaching that seem to me to be deliberately wide enough to cover all three such groups, as if Paul himself is not totally sure what is going on at Corinth, and he is making certain he covers all possibilities.

If my suspicions are correct, there is a basic core at Corinth of what we could call “genuine” tongues-speakers, with a miraculous gift of speaking an unlearned foreign language, plus some others who have managed to join this elite group. But whatever the situation at Corinth, Paul can clearly see its bad effects, and his teaching is directed at bringing it under control without overtly denying the existence and genuineness of miraculous tongues-speaking as a grace gift from God.

Does this gift of tongues exist today?

The miraculous element - the ability to speak, unlearned, a foreign language? No: that is said by Paul (14:22) to be a sign gift, and it did not continue beyond the apostolic era.

But enhanced language ability? Most definitely “yes”.

This was Calvin’s understanding. In his Commentary on 1 Cor­in­thians [286] he describes “the gift of tongues” as “somebody speaking in a foreign language”, for “tongue” “means a foreign language”. Similarly he says [263],
"Interpreters translated the foreign languages into the native speech. They did not at that time acquire these gifts by hard work or studying; but they were theirs by a wonderful revelation of the Spirit."
Calvin holds that the miraculous ability of speaking and interpreting a foreign language is not ours today, but God gives to the Church those people who will study languages using natural ability: “knowledge of languages” continues in the Church to “serve the needs of this life” [280], but is now acquired through study. Then he adds [287],
God has bestowed no gift on His Church without there being some purpose for it; and tongues were of some use at that time. ... In our own day when there is a crying need for the knowledge of tongues, and when, at our stage in history, God in His wonderful kindness has rescued them from darkness and brought them to light, there are great theologians who, faced with that situation, are loud and violent in their protests against them. Since there can be no doubt that the Holy Spirit has bestowed undying honour on tongues in this verse [14:5], it is easy to deduce what sort of spirit moves those critics who make strong attacks against the study of languages with as much insulting language as they can muster.
To sum up then: I find that a consideration of the text leads to these conclusions:

(a) That “speaking in tongues” always has in the New Testament the meaning that it has in Acts 2, that is, speaking in a human language;

(b) that the “speaking in tongues” at Pentecost was the miraculous granting of ability to speak in a human language which one had not learnt;

(c) that this miraculous ability was used in the preaching of the gospel in those first years of the early church, and that this was a sign to unbelievers;

(d) that foreign-language-speaking at Corinth had become a distortion of the Pentecost gift, both in purpose and execution. The speaker may have been given the ability to speak the foreign language by miraculous divine gift, or by heightened natural ability - or in fact he may have been speaking a language he had learned in the ordinary way: or he may have been pretending to have this miraculous language-speaking ability. Quite possibly all three of these things were happening in the “speaking in tongues” at Corinth; and three similar equivalents apply in relation to “interpretation”.

(e) that this miraculous granting of the gift ceased in the early church by the time the writing of the New Testament was complete;

(f) that such miraculous ability to speak in a language which one has not learnt is not being granted to Christians today, but that the gift of tongues (without the miraculous element) is to have a facility in learning to communicate the gospel in a foreign language, and the gift of interpretation/trans­lation is the ability to translate the message of the gospel from one language into another. Both of these are skills in which by God’s choice some people are better equipped than others; and both of them God gives to his church today.

We may well say that so-and-so has a gift for languages, and we speak more truly than we realize. For we refer to a ­natural flair for learning another language, and this is a God-given ability, just as another person will have a flair for music, or mathematics, or teaching, or administration.

Such a gift is of immense value to a person called to be a foreign missionary. Michael Griffiths 58f., a world missionary leader, explains:
"Nowadays, before accepting somebody as a missionary, we give them a Modern Language Aptitude Test to get a rough idea of whether they have any natural aptitude for languages. ... No missionary discussion today can overlook the fact that an essential component in a missionary’s usefulness is going to be his ability to speak one or more languages. For the first term of missionary service, the time involved in learning a language and the restrictions of inadequate language will be a major factor. In several countries people really need to learn two new languages! Any missionary society constantly wrestles with this problem of communication. ... People who do not speak a language are always impressed by another’s apparent fluency, and readily call it a ‘gift for language’. Anybody who regularly has to preach in a recently-acquired language recognises how much he needs the grace gift from the Holy Spirit to speak effectively. It is an essential gift for taking the gospel to all nations!"
Indeed, if one has such a gift, one may recognize it as equip­ping you for missionary service. Oh that such people should test out and recognize their calling and equipping of God to take up the challenge of missionary service, whether fulltime or, like Paul for much of his ministry, as “tentmakers”! The need for workers in the fields white for harvest is immense, and a facility for languages is a great asset in preparing for this ministry, and responding to this call.
Similarly, the gift of interpretation for today means the ability to turn what is said in one language into its meaningful and accurate equivalent in another. This is more than just being able to speak both languages - it involves being able to recognize the equivalent of the one in the other. Michael Griffiths’s comment (65) about this is:
"Let us remember again that the understanding of the word as “trans­­­­lation” still involves a spiritual gift. Those of us who listen fre­­­quently to translated messages, or who have to be interpreted our­­­selves, are very clear that a gifted interpreter manifests the unction of the Spirit just as much or even more than the speaker whom he interprets. There can be no doubt that the plain meaning “in­ter­­­­preter” (of one known language into another) requires the grace of God to do it effectively to the blessing of the congregation."
Thus in today’s world the gifts of “tongues” and “interpretation” can be seen as natural abilities which God gives to one person or another. Michael Griffiths 68 describes them as “natural aptitudes which would subsequently become enriched by spiritual gifts”.
Griffiths goes on:
"While we must agree that we cannot succeed in spiritual work merely by relying upon natural aptitudes, the sovereign God may well give to his servants from their mother’s womb natural abilities which, when surrendered, sanctified and transfigured by spiritual blessings, can be effectively used to God’s glory."
This assessment of “tongues” and “interpretation” covers all the issues which arise in the understanding of 1 Corinthians 12 to 14, but it leaves unresolved one remaining major issue: what then is one to make of modern-day “speaking in tongues”?
I discuss this below, in Excursus Four, “Tongues Speaking Today: A Comment”.

For those of you who would like to look into this further, I recommend the very warm and helpful approach to answering this significant question found in J I Packer’s book Keep in Step With the Spirit.

(This is one of the “Practical and Pastoral Reflections” upon Paul’s Epistle, taken from


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