- …another person is given the ability to speak in unknown languages,1γένη γλωσσῶν, where γένη refers to “species,” “kind,” or “class” and γλωσσῶν refers to “means of verbal communication” or “language.” Here, tongues(-speaking) has been understood variously as unintelligible ecstatic utterance (1 Cor 14:2), heavenly language (1 Cor 13:1), or foreign languages not learned through natural means (Acts 2:4, 11). while another is given the ability to interpret what is being said. (1 Cor 12:10)
Nature of the Gift
Not Philological Skills
To the degree that people in a congregation exercise the speaking gifts, a healthy congregation should also seek for the gift of discernment.This isn’t the linguist’s philological skills or natural talent for picking up a language. Rather, it’s “the ability to speak in unknown languages” (1 Cor 12:10). Although some elevate this gift as though it were the preeminent gift, it should not predominate, even as the most common utterance gift. It definitely shouldn’t dominate the prophetic and pastoral teaching ministries in a church service. As we shall see when we get to the regulation of these gifts, Paul even limits the number of manifestations of this gift in a single service—and that was in a time when the preaching might run to midnight! (Acts 20:7).
The gift is “different kinds of tongues”
The gift is “different kinds of tongues,” which might indicate that we shouldn’t narrow down our understanding of their nature too much. Thiselton speaks of various understandings of what might be going on with tongues, and says these shouldn’t be treated as mutually exclusive:2Thiselton, 1 Corinthians, 972–83. angelic speech,31 Cor 13:1, cf. Testament of Job 11:24; 12:7; 1 Enoch 40; 71:11–12; 4 Macc 10:21. miraculous powers to speak other languages,4Acts 2:4–11. archaic liturgical rhythmic phrases, ecstatic speech,51 Sam 10:5–7; 19:20–22; 1 Kgs 18:29, 30; 2 Kgs 9:11, cf. the charge of drunkenness in Acts 2. and sighs too deep for words.6Rom 8:26. I wouldn’t vouch for every suggestion in the list, but I wouldn’t be quick to begin excluding options either. I certainly wouldn’t spend much time listening to see if I could identify a human language before accepting the message, and I would have no way of knowing if what I heard was the language of angels.
Not Glossolalia as a Sign
As examples, some think the Old Testament “prophesying” of such figures as the seventy elders and Eldad and Medad in the wilderness (Num 11:25–29). Saul could also have displayed tongues-like ecstatic speech in confirmation of his anointing as Israel’s king (1 Sam 10:11ff; 19:24ff.).
Note that these accounts say nothing about the propositional content of the prophesying. I remember once asking my students in Bulgaria, “What do you think Eldad and Medad did?” I was hoping to hear someone suggest that they may have acted somewhat like Saul, who had an ecstatic experience when the Spirit came on him. What I heard was, “We believe they spoke in tongues.” This certainly can’t be proven, but this answer showed a good awareness that they were correctly viewing the experiences of the seventy, of Eldad and Medad, and of Saul as being coupled with prophetic behavior that served as a sign of anointing rather than as a vehicle for propositional revelation to the people of God.
Clearly, in none of these cases was the speech intended to be revelatory or authoritative; rather, it was to indicate to onlookers that the speaker had received the promised anointing of the Spirit. And that’s the pattern in Acts.
Glossolalia as Revelation
But the practice that Paul describes and regulates implies propositional communication, rather than just a sign of anointing. This necessarily implies the requirement that public utternaces of this sort be interpreted so they can edify the congregation.
In the only New Testament examples of tongues as a speech gift, it’s about its abuse. Paul talks of the gift of tongues being abused in the Corinthian congregation, but worth correction for use as a gift that edifies the church.
As we’ll see in the section on regulating the gifts, the only way public proclamation in tongues is useful is if it’s interpreted so everyone understands; otherwise, it needs to be kept as a private utterance, used only in your closet of prayer, in your private prayer during a chorus of corporate prayer, or as a glad signal that you have been filled with the Spirit.7I believe uninterpreted tongues might be allowed in the church so long as they remain private as individual prayers can in times of corporate prayer among fellow-believers.