The subject of the gift of tongues and the gift of interpretation of tongues as presented in 1 Corinthians 12:10 may be divided into two parts. The first has to do with the question of the definition of that gift as found in the early church; and the second concerns the question whether or not such a gift exists in the church today.
As regards the Greek text of 1 Corinthians 12:10, the first expression under consideration is gene glossOn, translated in the King James Version "kinds of tongues," with the word "divers" supplied. This is translated in the Revised Standard Version similarly, except that the language is up to date: "various kinds of tongues." The second expression involved is hermeneia glasson, "the interpretation of tongues."
A word may be said about glosson, the genitive plural of glossa, "tongue." This word appears fifty times in the New Testament and is used both of the member itself and also of that which it produces, language, as in the phrase "kindred, tongue, and people." There is no doubt that in the text under consideration the word means oral sound, or language.
There is nothing in the Greek, as far as these expressions are concerned, that presents a problem. The translation of both the KJV and the RSV are adequate. There is also no textual variation in the manuscripts that is significant as far as meaning is concerned.
What Was This Gift?
In Mark 16:17 Christ is quoted as saying: "They shall speak with new tongues," referring to miracles to be performed by the disciples after His ascension. The fulfillment of this promise came a few days later at Pentecost. In Acts 2:4 it is recorded that on the day of Pentecost "they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance." There were Jews in Jerusalem from "every nation under heaven," and "every man heard them speak in his own language."
The gift given at Pentecost was one of speech and not a gift of hearing on the part of the Jews present. This is indicated by the fact that it is called the gift of tongues. It came "as the Spirit gave them utterance," not as the Jews were given hearing.
The fact that they spoke "as the Spirit gave them utterance" indicates also that the phenomenon was not just a human reaction to the impact of the presence of the Holy Spirit. The actions of the disciples at that time were directly under the control of the Holy Spirit. The speaking as well as the impulse was due to the Spirit. Furthermore, they spoke in actual languages understood by the non-Palestinian Jews present. That these were local dialects rather than Greek, which doubtless would have been understood by the majority present, is implied by the many localities mentioned.
In regard to this manifestation, Ellen G. White writes:
"Every known tongue was represented by those assembled. This diversity of languages would have been a great hindrance to the proclamation of the gospel; God therefore in a miraculous manner supplied the deficiency of the apostles. The Holy Spirit did for them that which they could not have accomplished for themselves in a lifetime. They could now proclaim the truths of the gospel abroad, speaking with accuracy the languages of those for whom they were laboring."—The Acts of the Apostles, pp. 39, 40.
This gift not only affected the use of foreign languages, but also purified their use of the native Aramaic. "From this time forth the language of the disciples was pure, simple, and accurate, whether they spoke their native tongue or in a foreign language."—Ibid., p. 40. It was a sign as well as a testimony: "This miraculous gift was a strong evidence to the world that their commission bore the signet of Heaven." —Ibid.
Peter and Cornelius
The next evidence of the gift of tongues was the experience of Peter with the family of Cornelius, recorded in Acts 10. Verses 45 and 46 state: "And they of the circumcision which believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Ghost. For they heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God."
There is no reason for believing that the gift of tongues in this instance was any different essentially from what it was among the disciples on the day of Pentecost. There was a very good reason why the household of Cornelius should speak in tongues that day, for those who had come with Peter did not believe a Gentile could receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. As at Pentecost, so here, it was a sign and testimony to Jewish Christians who were not prepared to accept the Gentiles into the church. While it is not known what language they spoke, it would not be unreasonable to suppose that they burst out in Aramaic or Hebrew, as this would most greatly have impressed the skeptical Jewish Christians.
The Converts of Apollos
The next instance recorded of the gift of tongues in the early church was among the converts of Apollos at Ephesus. Apollos had baptized his converts with the baptism of John, and when Paul came to Ephesus, he asked these believers whether they had received the gift of the Holy Spirit. When they replied that they had not, he instructed them and baptized them in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Paul laid his hands upon them; they received the gift of the Holy Spirit, and prophesied and spoke with tongues. Again there is nothing to indicate that the gift given here was any different essentially from the gift at Pentecost. It is not known whether there were those present who understood the phrases that came from these converts' lips when they received the gift. It is not known what tongues they spoke. It may well have been that Gentiles were present and that the gift was given especially for their benefit.
That this gift was an actual language, that it continued with these men, and that it was given for a purpose is indicated by Ellen G. White:
'They were then baptized in the name of Jesus; and as Paul 'laid his hands upon them,' they received also the baptism of the Holy Spirit, by which they were enabled to speak the languages of other nations, and to prophesy. Thus they were qualified to labor as missionaries in Ephesus and its vicinity, and also to go forth to proclaim the gospel in Asia Minor."—The Review and Herald, Aug. 31, 1911.
Essentially the gift here was identical with the gift on the day of Pentecost.
The Problem in Corinth
The one other reference to the gift of tongues in the New Testament is found in the First Epistle to the Corinthians, of which the text that is the center of this study is a part.
First Corinthians, chapters 12-14, constitute a unit. One of the chief subjects here is the gift of tongues and the interpretation of tongues. This seems to have been written shortly after Paul had had his experience with Apollos' converts. Evidently there was an overemphasis on the gift of tongues in the church at Corinth, and Paul was anxious to set things right in that regard.
Chapter 12 opens with a reference to the crux of the problem—spiritual gifts. Paul seems here to have had particularly in mind the gift of tongues, for in verse 3 he mentions the man en pneumati theou talon, "who speaks in the Spirit of God"—an expression almost identical with that used in chapter 14:2 concerning the gift of tongues. Throughout the twelfth chapter Paul dwells on the over-all picture of the gifts in the church, for his desire is to show that this gift of tongues that was being so emphasized was not the most important gift given by God to His people. He emphasizes the great variety of gifts, which all come from the same Spirit, and makes clear that one should not be set above another.
Paul opens the thirteenth chapter by again referring to tongues, and goes on to show that even greater than this gift is love. Tongues will cease and prophecy will pass away, but love will remain (verse 8).
Finally, in the fourteenth chapter the apostle faces the real problem, the gift of tongues. Paul's burden is that it should be used for the common good.
Thus far there is nothing to indicate that the gift here at Corinth was in any way different from the gift that had appeared at Pentecost or in Cornelius' family or at Ephesus. Now, however, Paul makes a serious distinction between the gift of tongues and prophecy (verses 2-5), which seems strange because heretofore they had been mentioned almost as synonymous. At Pentecost, when the apostles were accused of being drunk, Peter quoted from the Old Testament statements indicating that the gift of prophecy would be revived, and defended the gift of tongues on that basis (Acts 2:17). But here Paul makes a distinction between the two. What then was this manifestation in the Corinthian church?
There are at least two theories. One is that this manifestation was identical with the gift at Pentecost—actual languages given for the preaching of the gospel. The other theory is that these were ecstatic utterances, sounds that represented no actual language, but that were an involuntary reaction to the presence of the Holy Spirit. It is pointed out that the church at Corinth was largely a Gentile church. Its members had come out of heathen religions where they had been acquainted with such utterances, which were considered a language of the gods and were interpreted as oracles, either by the person speaking or by some other person. It is explained that these Gentile Christians had brought into the church with them a psychology attuned to such reactions, and when the Holy Spirit came upon them, the result was that to which they had been accustomed when they were heathen.
There are difficulties in both of these theories. As regards the view that the gift was the same as given at Pentecost, Ellen G. White indicates that there the disciples gained a proficiency that made possible the carrying on of evangelism. But Paul says things of the Corinthian manifestation that are difficult to square with the Pentecostal experience. "For if I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful" (verse 14). "Yet in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also, then ten thousand words in an unknown tongue" (verse 19). There was at least this difference between the gift at Pentecost and that in Corinth—the latter was at times manifested when there was no possibility of its use for communicating a message of evangelistic import.
In regard to the ecstatic theory, it must be pointed out that the same terminology is used here as in the account of the gift at Pentecost (compare Acts 2:4 and 1 Cor. 12:10). If the manifestation was really so different at Corinth, why does Paul use the same word for it here as was used repeatedly in Acts? It seems also very difficult to understand how an ecstatic gibberish could be considered as a reaction to the power of the Holy Spirit.
A Suggested Solution
While it is probably not possible to arrive at a final answer to this problem, the following tentative suggestions seem to offer at least a partial solution.
First, there is nothing in 1 Corinthians 14 to indicate that the gift was not an actual language that could be used in evangelistic endeavors. The apostle's declaration that "tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not" (1 Cor. 14:22), would seem to imply that they were actual languages. The gift of an actual language would certainly be a more meaningful sign to an unbeliever than would gibberish.
Second, the gift at Corinth was not entirely identical with that at Pentecost. This seems evident because those who manifested it sometimes spoke without knowing what they were saying (verses 13-15). This was profitable to the church if there was someone present who could understand. Even if there was not, there might still be a blessing for the one who spoke, for it is reasonable to believe that when the Holy Spirit was upon a man, he himself would receive a blessing from the very fact of His presence. Paul refers to this: "He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself" (verse 4).
Third, because of these differences there was another gift given, the interpretation of tongues. When there were those present who understood, there was no need of this gift. At other times a message would be spectacularly given to a church in a foreign tongue, and another person would be given the interpretation. The same gift could be used in preaching the gospel. If one who did not speak the local language came to a church with a message, and another brother had the gift of interpretation, the latter could aid in the presentation of that message. This gift of interpretation may also have included the explanation and application of the message given.
What has been said may be summarized as follows: The gift of tongues refers to the ability to speak a language under the presence and influence of the Holy Spirit. This may refer to the speaker's own language or to a language not previously known by him. As at Pentecost, the speaker may be conscious of the meaning of 'what he is saying; or as at Corinth it may be at times unintelligible to him. The gift of interpretation is a kindred gift, the ability to understand and interpret a language that the interpreter has not learned naturally.
Do These Gifts Exist in the Church Today?
The presence of these gifts in the apostolic church naturally raises the question as to whether they exist in the church today. Generally speaking, the answer must be No. Very early in Christian history the gift of tongues, along with the other gifts of the Spirit, was lost to the church. The only clear testimony to the presence of this gift after the days of the apostles is a statement made by Irenaeus, who wrote in southern Gaul near the end of the second century. (Heresies, book V, chapter 6.) By the end of the fourth century John Chrysostom testified concerning 1 Corinthians 12:
"This whole place is very obscure: but the obscurity is produced by our ignorance of the facts referred to and by their cessation, being such as then used to occur but now no longer take place."—Homily 29, in Nicene and PEW-Nicene Fathers, 1st Series, vol. 12, p. 168.
That such was the case is not surprising in view of the apostasy that so early entered the church. As early as the second century those who had the gifts of the Spirit fell into disrepute and were superseded in church leadership by the elected officers, the bishops, and the presbyters.
In our day God has not restored this gift generally, either in its Pentecostal or in its Corinthian form. Occasionally stories are received from the mission field of isolated instances where a missionary has been able to speak a language he had not learned, or where a native was able to understand a language he had not known. These experiences usually come in times of crisis. They are often very difficult to verify. Without doubt such providences can and do happen, but their manifestation does not seem to be identical with that in the New Testament.
There is a logical reason for this. Just as medical science has made unnecessary the presence of a standing gift of healing, so the widespread condition of the Christian church has made possible the spread of the gospel by those who speak the languages of earth naturally. The gift of healing and the gift of tongues are both given now only in times of crisis, when ordinary facilities are either inadequate or unavailable. The preaching of the gospel in more than a thousand languages, and of the third angel's message in more than seven hundred, is a fulfillment of the work for which the gift of tongues was given to the early church.
Writing from Europe in 1886, where she had spoken through interpreters in many languages, es Ellen G. White said:
"It is with an earnest longing that I look forward to the time when the events of the day of Pentecost shall be repeated with even greater power than on that occasion... Then, as at the Pentecostal season, the people will hear the truth spoken to them, every man in his own tongue. . . . Thousands of voices will be imbued with the power to speak forth the wonderful truths of God's word. The stammering tongue will be unloosed, and the timid will be made strong."—The Review and Herald, July 20, 1886.
This was a presentation made before the faculty and students of the Theological Seminary, fulfilling the requirement in the Bachelor of Divinity course.