Thoughts on Tongues and the Interpretation of Tongues (Unfettered Spirit)

In our Bible study, we are working our way through 1 Corinthians. We’ve come to chapter 14, in which Paul addresses the value of tongues (glossolalia) and prophecy. It is clear that Paul is concerned about proper order in the church. In verses 39-40 Paul concludes the chapter with this admonition: “So, my friends, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues; but all things should be done decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:39-40). With speaking in tongues at the forefront of the discussion in 1 Corinthians 14 and in the church today, I thought I would share my thoughts on tongues and interpretation, as laid out in my book Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening, (Energion Publications, 2013).


Tongues (glossolalia)

Speaking in Tongues has been a distinctive mark of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements since the beginning of these movements. Some Christians believe that this gift is the singular marker of the baptism in the Spirit. That is, if one is truly filled with the Holy Spirit, they will give evidence of this presence with the gift of tongues. It does appear that in the book of Acts whenever an ethnic/religious barrier is crossed something akin to speaking in tongues occurs (Acts 2, 8, 10, 19). Thus, when Peter defended before the Jerusalem church his decision to baptize Cornelius and his household, he pointed to their common experience of speaking in tongues as confirmation that God had chosen to bring Gentiles into the church (Acts 11:16). There is, however, no pattern here that would suggest that this is the foundational and therefore essential sign of the Spirit’s presence.

When we look at the various discussions of glossolalia in the New Testament, we don’t find any definitive statement as to what it is. There’s a significant gap between what we find in Acts and in 1 Corinthians 12-14. In Acts it appears that these are human languages or dialects known to the listener, but not the speaker. In 1 Corinthians we have ecstatic speech. Although this form of glossolalia doesn’t appear to be unique to the Christian community, Paul wants to reclaim it for his community, especially since the church in Corinth valued it so highly. Paul’s primary concern in this discussion is the possibility of schism. This gift was of little value if it served to divide the community and undermined the community’s spiritual vibrancy.

What’s unique about glossolalia is that unlike almost every other gift, it appears to benefit the recipient not the community. This may be why it has often been a popular gift – whether in Corinth or in many modern Christian circles. Although it might have such a blessing to the individual, Paul told the Corinthians that glossolalia would only become a blessing to the broader community only when interpreted. It’s for this reason that Paul prefers prophecy over tongues – prophecy can be understood by all who hear it. Still, Paul can claim the gift for himself, but offers counsel on its proper and orderly use in the church. His counsel is this – if no one present is able to offer an interpretation (see below), then the one who feels led to offer a tongue should offer it to God and not to the community. In this sense, it may be seen as an expression of a personal, albeit nonrational, form of prayer.

Whether or not we have experienced for ourselves this gift of the Spirit, anecdotal evidence suggests that it can be a powerful ingredient in a person’s spiritual life. I myself have experienced this gift, and while I’ve found it to be helpful in my own spiritual walk, I’m not convinced that it’s essential means of communication with God through the Spirit. I would share Jürgen Moltmann’s view of this gift:

It would seem to me that speaking with tongues is an inward possession by the Spirit which is so strong that it can no longer find expression in comprehensible language, and breaks out into sighing, shouting and incomprehensible speech – just as intense pain expresses itself in unrestrained weeping, or overwhelming joy in laughing, “jumping for Joy” and dancing.[i]

As for me, I have drawn on this gift at moments when I’m overwhelmed by a need or experience, and I’ve found it to be a source of strength. My sense is that this has been true for others. While not a necessary part of one’s spiritual life, it can prove to be beneficial for some. But, if this gift is to have value it can’t be seen as a spiritual prize according to the recipient some special status before God. The reason for the gifts is the up building of the body of Christ, and even if this has a more personal usage, it can’t be the end but only a means to building up that body of Christ for the work of the ministry.

 Interpretation of Tongues

Paul made it clear that without an interpreter one should not publicly engage in speaking in tongues. If an interpreter (hermēnia glōssōn) isn’t present, then this message incased in odd sounding syllables should be kept private. Without an interpretation a tongue is addressed to God not the community, because any message to the community requires clarity (1 Cor. 14:13-19). When one is present who has the interpretation, then it can be shared with the congregation, which must receive it with discernment.

 If, as many presume, the form of tongues described by Paul is sub-rational ecstatic speech, then the interpretation that’s offered isn’t really a translation. Instead, as Anthony Thistleton suggests, it’s “an intelligible description of the pre-conceptual mood or attitude which is expressed in tongues.”[ii] In other words, the tongue grabs your attention, while the interpretation offers the message that God seeks to make known to the community. The tongue may serve then to catch the ear, so that the “interpretation” can communicate the message of God with clarity of voice. When properly vetted by the community, then this word will stand as a gift from God.

Each community of faith must come to grips with these twin gift sets. History suggests caution should be in order. Perhaps the use of these gifts is best left to the small groups, as long as participants don’t lose sight of the one who provides the gift. I would assume that public use of this gift would be disruptive, but it can also be disruptive if the small groups themselves begin to take on airs of spiritual importance. Therefore, any usage of this gift must keep the community’s welfare in mind. Those who aren’t so gifted should also keep in mind the biblical charge to refrain from stifling the movement of God’s Spirit. The key is respecting the good of the community.

[i]Jurgen Moltmann, Source of Life, 61.
[ii] A.C. Thistleton, "ὲρμηευω" in Brown, NIDNTT, 1:582.


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