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Ecstatic Utterance or Foreign Languages?

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Archives / 1974 / March



Ecstatic Utterance or Foreign Languages?

Bruce Edminster

-Master of Divinity student at the SDA Theological Seminary at the time this article was written. Previous to this he served as associate pastor in Garden Grove, California.



IF PAUL uses the word tongues or languages (which is a better rendering of the Greek word glõssa) differently in 1 Corinthians 14 than it is used elsewhere in the New Testament, one must conclude that he is talking about something other than "languages." If the word is used in the same way as in other places, one must conclude that Paul is referring to the same gift as is mentioned elsewhere, that he is speaking of foreign or non-Greek languages.

Since Paul is writing this letter to the church at Corinth, one must consider this chapter in the context of first-century Corinth, as opposed to twentieth-century neo-pentecostalism. Also, other passages must be considered where there are similar word usages. We should not assume that today's religious movement is what Paul was writing about.

In the first place, Paul was not speaking of the Greek language, which the Corinthians all spoke, because verse 2 says "no one understands him" (R.S.V.). If some one came to the Corinthian church speaking a non-Greek language, he would not be speaking to the Greeks of that church, because they would not understand him. He would be speaking mysteries in his spirit (mind). Unless the speaker or someone else translated, the discourse would remain a mystery to his hearers; and because he speaks (knows) the foreign language, he would be only edifying himself. Paul plainly states, in verse 5, that the one who speaks a foreign language in the church should have a translation ready so that the church might receive edification.

If Paul was talking about a gift of "unknown tongues," that is, unknown to man and God—a gibberish—he would have supplied the word unknown, but in the Greek manuscripts there is no such word anyplace! If he was writing about ecstatic speech, he should have used the word ecstatic, but neither does this word occur anywhere in the ancient manuscripts of 1 Corinthians 14!

Paul writes in verse 6, "Now, brethren, if I come to you speaking in tongues [languages], how shall I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching?" (R.S.V.). He goes on to illustrate this idea by means of instruments, to show that unless the hearer knows what is being said, he can not respond (see verses 7 and 8). Paul emphatically makes it clear that when we speak with our tongue, others must be able to understand or else we're just causing meaningless vibrations in the air (verse 9).

It seems likely that if there is more than one gift of "tongues" or "languages," Paul would have given the reader more than one classification of the gift in 1 Corinthians 12:28. Another evidence that this gift is not unmeaning gibberish or ecstatic utterance, is found in verse 10, where Paul tells us, "There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning" (R.S.V.). Paul here is talking about languages of the world, or "languages in the world," not "out-of-this- world language." In verse 11 he adds, "But if I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me" (R.S.V.). The Greek word for "foreigner" is barbaros and refers to all those who speak foreign languages—that is, languages which are not Greek. In verse 12 Paul urges the Corinthians to "strive to excel in building up [or edifying] the church" (R.S.V.). How can anything be edified or built up if knowledge or revelation is not imparted? Ecstatic utterance is not edification. And a word needs to be said about the meaning of the word edify or edifying. The concept inherent in the Greek word, which is translated "building up" in the Revised Standard Version and "edifying" in the King James Version, is that of imparting spiritual knowledge for intellectual and moral improvement. The meaning of edify carries with it no emotional connotations.

What would make one think that Paul is writing of some "out of this world" tongue? Paul does not use the words unknown or ecstatic anywhere in chapter 14 of 1 Corinthians. A Greek lexicon (Arndt and Gingrich's translation of Bauer) suggested that because the word glossa (tongue or language) appears without the definite article, one must conclude that Paul is writing about some ecstatic gibberish. But glossa appears in Acts 2 without the definite article, and no one contends that Luke is there speaking of anything but foreign languages. Also in Revelation 14:6, glõssa, again used without the definite article, refers to foreign languages. One cannot isolate 1 Corinthians 14 from other chapters in the Bible where the same word is used in the same way. We must depend on usage and not on what we think is being said.

Using the implication of verse 10 where Paul speaks of "lan guages in the world," and in verse 11, where the word barbaros (meaning "one who speaks a non- Greek language") is used, one can supply "foreign" with "tongue" in verse 14. "For if I pray in a [foreign] tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful" (R.S.V.). The word for "unfruitful" is the same word used in reference to the fig tree that Jesus cursed for being "unfruitful." It is true that if I speak in a foreign language, my spirit is praying but my mind is not producing fruit, that is, it is not benefiting anyone. Paul adds that one should "pray with the spirit" and "pray with the mind." He has .just told his readers that the speaker in a foreign language should pray that he may translate (interpret or expound) so that there might be a "fruitful" understanding.

In essence, verses 16 and 17 are saying, "How can a layman say Amen to your blessing if he doesn't understand what is being said? You can give all the thanks you want (if you know the language), but the listener isn't being edified." Paul had the gift of foreign languages more than all of the Corinthians, and, judging by what he says in verse 19, "in church I would rather speak five words with my mind . . . than ten thousand words in a [foreign] tongue" (R.S.V.), this gift was for use outside the church in witnessing to foreigners.

Next he exhorts those reading his Epistle to be mature in their spiritual understanding, but to be babes in reference to malice and wickedness. If one will notice children when they are around other children they seek to draw attention to themselves. So Paul is exhorting them to stop behaving like children, not to use the gift of "foreign languages" to draw attention to themselves, but to use the gift for the benefit of others (verse 20).

Paul does not leave the reader in the dark regarding his intent, and in verse 21 he does some thing that will help further clarify the answer to the question that is in the minds of many people. He quotes from the Septuagint of Isaiah 28:11 and 12b, which, literally translated, reads: "In other languages, and with the lips of others I will speak to this people and yet no one will obey me." In the Creek New Testament* there is also a cross reference under 1 Corinthians 14:21 to Deuteronomy 28:49, which speaks of a nation being brought from afar to punish Israel. They would speak a tongue that the Israelites would not understand. Paul, however, actually incorporates the words of Isaiah into his discourse in order to inform the reader of his meaning.

The Greek of 1 Corinthians 14: 21 contains a word that is transliterated as heteroglossois, meaning "other languages." It comes from the juxta-position of two words, heteros and glossa, which is the same combination of words that occurs in Acts 2:4, "And they began to speak with other tongues" (heterais glossais). Paul is obviously writing here about foreign languages.

Languages (foreign, that is) are for witnessing to unbelieving foreigners, as verse 22 of 1 Corinthians 14 indicates. "Thus, [foreign] tongues are a sign [or miracle] not for believers but for unbelievers" (R.S.V.). Verse 23 also ties in with Acts 2: "If, therefore, the whole church assembles and all speak in [foreign] tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad?" (R.S.V.). In the Greek New Testament* there is a footnote referring to Acts 2:13, which reads, "But others mocking said, 'they are filled with new wine' " (R.S.V.).

The people who didn't under stand what the apostles were saying "in other languages," thought they were mad with wine. It seems that Paul had this in mind when he said, "Will they not say you are mad?" (in verse 23).

A literal translation of verses 27 and 28 could read, "If anyone is speaking in a [foreign] language, let it be by two or at most three, one at a time, and let one translate." And furthermore, "If there is not a translation, let him be quiet in the church, let him talk to himself and to God." "Tongues" or "foreign languages" are not for showing off and saying, "Look, everybody, I have the Spirit and you don't," but foreign languages are for edification, to draw someone else to Jesus Christ, someone who doesn't know Him as their personal Saviour.

The same basic rule applies for prophecy, that two or three should speak, each in turn, and others should judge what was said.

Where there is confusion and disorder God is not present, for God is one who brings and gives peace. So there should be peace and order in all the churches of the saints.

Interestingly, Paul supports his thesis by suggesting that if any one has the idea that he is a prophet or a spiritual person, then he should take heed to what Paul is writing, because he'll recognize that it is a command from the Lord. Even after all this has been said, there may be some who want to remain ignorant to the truth about the gift of foreign languages. If so, the only thing that can be done is to leave him to his ignorance.

In final summary Paul says, to give a literal translation of 1 Corinthians 14:39, 40, "Therefore, my brothers, strive to prophesy, and do not hinder speaking in [foreign] languages, but let every thing be done decently and in order."

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* The Greek New Testament here and else where referred to is the American Bible Society edition, 1966.

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