Tongues Gift of
Tongues, Gift of. I. Γλω̈̂ττα, or γλω̈̂σσα, the word employed throughout the New Testament for the gift now under consideration, is used—(1) for the bodily organ of speech; (2) for a foreign word, imported and half-naturalized in Greek; (3) in Hellenistic Greek, for “speech” or “language.” The received traditional view, which starts from the third meaning, and sees in the gift of tongues a distinctly linguistic power, is the more correct one. II. The chief passages from which we have to draw our conclusions as to the nature and purpose of the gift is question are—
1. Mark 16:17. 2. Acts 2:1–13; 10:46; 19:6. 3. 1 Cor. 12, 14. III. The promise of a new power coming from the divine Spirit, giving not only comfort and insight into truth, but fresh powers of utterance of some kind, appears once and again in our Lord’s teaching. The disciples are to take no thought what they shall speak, for the spirit of their Father shall speak in them. Matt. 10:19–20; Mark 13:11. The lips of Galilean peasants are to speak freely and boldly before kings. The promise of our Lord to his disciples, “They shall speak with new tongues,” Mark 16:17, was fulfilled on the day of Pentecost, when cloven tongues like fire sat upon the disciples, and “every man heard them speak in his own language.” Acts 2:1–12. IV. The wonder of the day of Pentecost is, in its broad features, familiar enough to us. What views have men actually taken of a phenomenon so marvellous and exceptional? The prevalent belief of the Church has been that in the Pentecostal gift the disciples received a supernatural knowledge of all such languages as they needed for their work as evangelists. The knowledge was permanent. Widely diffused as this belief has been, it must be remembered that it goes beyond the data with which the New Testament supplies us. Each instance of the gift recorded in the Acts connects it, not with praise and adoration; not with the normal order of men’s lives, but with exceptional epochs in them. The speech of St. Peter which follows, like most other speeches addressed to a Jerusalem audience, was spoken apparently in Aramaic. When St. Paul, who “spake with tongues more than all,” was at Lystra, there is no mention made of his using the language of Lycaonia. It is almost implied that he did not understand it. Acts 14:11. Not one word in the discussion of spiritual gifts in 1 Cor. 12–14 implies that the gift was of this nature, or given for this purpose. Nor, it may be added, within the limits assigned by the providence of God to the working of the apostolic Church, was such a gift necessary. Aramaic, Greek, Latin, the three languages of the inscription on the cross, were media of intercourse throughout the empire.
Some interpreters have seen their way to another solution of the difficulty by changing the character of the miracle. It lay not in any new character bestowed on the speakers, but in the impression produced on the hearers. Words which the Galilean disciples uttered in their own tongue were heard as in their native speech by those who listened. There are, it is believed, weighty reasons against both the earlier and later forms of this hypothesis.
1. It is at variance with the distinct statement of Acts 2:4: “They began to speak with other tongues.” 2. It at once multiplies the miracle and degrades its character. Not the 120 disciples, but the whole multitude of many thousands, are in this case the subjects of it. 3. It involves an element of falsehood. The miracle, on this view, was wrought to make men believe what was not actually the fact. 4. It is altogether inapplicable to the phenomena of 1 Cor. 14. Critics of a negative school have, as might be expected, adopted the easier course of rejecting the narrative either altogether or in part. What, then, are the facts actually brought before us? What inferences may be legitimately drawn from them? (a) The utterance of words by the disciples, in other languages than their own Galilean Aramaic, is distinctly asserted. (b) The words spoken appear to have been determined, not by the will of the speakers, but by the Spirit which “gave them utterance.” (c) The word used, ἀποφθέγγεσθαι, has in the LXX a special association with the oracular speech of true or false prophets, and appears to imply a peculiar, perhaps musical, solemn intonation. Comp. 1 Chron. 25:1; Ezek. 13:9. (d) The “tongues” were used as an instrument, not of teaching, but of praise. (e) Those who spoke them seemed to others to be under the influence of some strong excitement, “full of new wine.” (f) Questions as to the mode of operation of a power above the common laws of bodily or mental life lead us to a region where our words should be “wary and few.” It must be remembered, then, that in all likelihood such words as they then uttered had been heard by the disciples before. The difference was that before, the Galilean peasants had stood in that crowd, neither heeding nor understanding nor remembering what they heard, still less able to reproduce it; now they had the power of speaking it clearly and freely. The divine work would in this case take the form of a supernatural exaltation of the memory, not of imparting a miraculous knowledge of words never heard before. (g) The gift of tongues, the ecstatic burst of praise, is definitely asserted to be a fulfillment of the prediction of Joel 2:28. We are led, therefore, to look for that which answers to the gift of tongues in the other element of prophecy which is included in the Old Testament use of the word; and this is found in the ecstatic praise, the burst of song. 1 Sam. 10:5–13; 19:20–24; 1 Chron. 25:3. (h) The other instances in the Acts offer essentially the same phenomena. By implication in ch. 14:15–19, by express statement in ch. 10:47; 11:15, 17; 19:6, it belongs to special critical epochs. V. The First Epistle to the Corinthians supplies fuller data. The spiritual gifts are classified and compared, arranged, apparently, according to their worth. The facts which may be gathered are briefly these:
1. The phenomena of the gift of tongues were not confined to one church or section of a church. 2. The comparison of gifts, in both the lists given by St. Paul—1 Cor. 12:8–10, 28–30—places that of tongues and the interpretation of tongues lowest in the scale. 3. The main characteristic of the “tongue” is that it is unintelligible. The man “speaks mysteries,” prays, blesses, gives thanks, in the tongue, 1 Cor. 14:15–16, but no one understands him. 4. The peculiar nature of the gift leads the apostle into what at first appears a contradiction. “Tongues are for a sign,” not to believers, but to those who do not believe; yet the effect on unbelievers is not that of attracting, but of repelling. They involve of necessity a disturbance of the equilibrium between the understanding and the feelings. Therefore it is that, for those who believe already, prophecy is the greater gift. 5. The “tongues,” however, must be regarded as real languages. The “divers kinds of tongues,” 1 Cor. 12:28, the “tongues of men,” 1 Cor. 13:1, point to differences of some kind, and it is easier to conceive of these as differences of language than as belonging to utterances all equally wild and inarticulate. 6. Connected with the “tongues” there was the corresponding power of interpretation. VI.
1. Traces of the gift are found in the Epistles to the Romans, the Galatians, the Ephesians. From the Pastoral Epistles, from those of St. Peter and St. John, they are altogether absent, and this is in itself significant. 2. It is probable, however, that the disappearance of the “tongues” was gradual. There must have been a time when “tongues” were still heard, though less frequently and with less striking results. For the most part, however, the place which they had filled in the worship of the Church was supplied by the “hymns and spiritual songs” of the succeeding age. After this, within the Church we lose nearly all traces of them. The gift of the day of Pentecost belonged to a critical epoch, not to the continuous life of the Church. It implied a disturbance of the equilibrium of man’s normal state; but it was not the instrument for building up the Church.