The Linguistic Phenomena of Corinthian Tongue-Speech

One of the reasons often given against the modern use of tongue-speech is the fact that it does not consist of earthly language. The argument goes that since tongue-speech in Acts 2 consisted of earthly languages, so should tongue-speech be understood in 1 Corinthians. And if tongue-speech in Corinth consisted of earthly languages, then the same should be the case among modern tongue speakers today. But how can we be sure? What are the possible alternatives?First Corinthians 13:1–3, particularly verse one, is of interest when discussing the linguistic phenomena of Corinthian glossolalia (tongue-speech). This passage is viewed as a possible clue to either the Corinthians’ or Paul’s view about the linguistic phenomena of glossolalia. Was Corinthian glossolalia known earthly language, angelic language, or something all together different? If not known earthly language, was it still viewed by Paul and the Corinthians as having the quality of language, and therefore, could in fact be qualified as real language? Was there possibly a mixture of known earthly language and some other real language, whether angelic or otherwise? By reading the Scriptures, can one determine with certainty the linguistic phenomena of Corinthian glossolalia? It is these questions about the linguistic phenomena of Corinthian glossolalia that is discussed in the following section. Thiselton denotes six views about the linguistic phenomena of Corinthian glossolalia.[1] These are followed by the view that the linguistic phenomena of Corinthian glossolalia is indeterminable according to Scripture.

Glossolalia as Angelic Speech: C. K. Barrett

The position that Corinthian glossolalia was angelic speech rests on the idea that Paul was possibly influenced by such works as the Testament of Job. In Testament of Job 48:1–50:3, Job’s daughters are said to speak in an angelic language, while in an enraptured state. Barrett favors this view.[2]

However, this view has been met with several criticisms, the strongest of which are only mentioned here. First, it is debated whether or not Paul was speaking literally or hypothetically when he mentioned speaking in an angelic language. The context appears to favor a hypothetical understanding.[3] Second, Turner questions if all glossolalia is angelic speech, why then does it cease in heaven, in the presence of angels.[4] However, Turner does allow for the possibility that Paul or the Corinthians thought some types of tongue speech were angelic.[5]

Glossolalia as the Miraculous Power to Speak Other Languages: John R. W. Stott

Stott and other are some of the strongest advocates of this position.[6] Stott argues that glossolalia is the miraculous ability to speak earthly foreign languages. His starting point is that the glossolalia of Acts 2:4–11 is the same as 1 Cor 12–14. This leads him to draw the following conclusion. First, the Greek phrases in Acts and 1 Corinthians are nearly identical. Therefore, they are referring to an utterance with the same linguistic characteristics. Second, the term glōssa has only two known meanings, the organ of the mouth and a language. Further, the verb for “interpretation of tongues” means to translate a language. Third, the entire thrust of 1 Cor 14 is “to discourage the cult of unintelligibility as a childish thing.”[7]

Difficulties abound with this position. First, that the Greek phrases in Acts and 1 Corinthians are nearly identical only proves that Luke and Paul viewed tongue speech similarly. Second, only Acts 2:4–11 describe glossolalia as known earthly languages. Since glossolalia is not mentioned as such elsewhere, it is not necessary to impose Acts 2:4–11 on every other occurrence of glossolalia in the New Testament. If this is one’s hermeneutic, to what degree is Acts 2:4–11 used to interpret all other passages about glossolalia? Does tongue speech always consist of the language of Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamians, Cappadocians, those from Pontus and Asia (Acts 2:9)? Or is every occurrence of tongue speech in the language of those unbelievers who are present in the assembly? Third, that glōssa has only two meanings, one being language, does not mean that tongue speech must be an earthly language. The fact that Paul even makes mention of a heavenly language, “the tongues of angels,” serves to show that Paul and/or the Corinthians thought angels spoke in real language, although it was not an existing earthly language. If tongue speech is human language that will cease when “face to face” (1 Cor 13:10), then in what tongue will glorified human beings worship the Lord for eternity? Further, glōssa always refers to a cognitive utterance, whether known languages or not.[8] Tongue speech can also be interpreted, which indicates that it was understood as real language, whether earthy or not.[9] Finally, while Paul discourages childish thinking and behavior (14:1), he does not discourage the practice of glossolalia (14:26–28). He only discourages how the Corinthians practice the gift of glossolalia (14:20–25). Fee makes the following observation, “Some have seen this as related to 13:10–11 and have thus argued that Paul considered speaking in tongues itself as childish behavior to be outgrown, yet both the preceding argument—especially vv. 15 and 18—and the structure of this sentence suggest otherwise.”[10] Therefore, glossolalia is not in and of itself childish, rather the Corinthians emphasis and abuse of it was childish thinking and behavior.

Glossolalia as Liturgical, Archaic, or Rhythmic Phrases: C. F. G. Heinrici

Thiselton provides an analysis of this view as proposed by C. F. G. Heinrici.[11] Heinrici appeals to use of glōssa in Greek literature and “in relation to allusions to ecstatic expressions of joy and praise.”[12] He notes that glōssa is used to denote out of the ordinary speech, which often takes the form of poetic or lyrical phrases.[13]

However, Paul’s description of tongue speech in 14:7–12 as indeterminable music argues against the view that tongue speech takes the form of poetic or lyrical phrases. Paul speaks of glossolalia as the sound that comes from a musical instrument that is not lyrical in nature. This is the exact opposite of what Heinrici proposes. Later, Paul describes glossolalia as foreign language that one is not able to understand (14:20–25). This certainly cannot be described as poetic in nature. The speech Paul describes is incoherent, and like a musical instrument that does not make a distinct tone (14:8), is hard on one’s ear. Neither can this dissonance be described as poetic. Yet, earlier Paul states that there are various kinds of tongues (12:10; 12:28). This could include a kind of tongue that is lyrical in nature. Paul may allude to such in 14:15–16. Glossolalia is certainly more than this though.

Glossolalia as “Ecstatic Speech”: James D. G. Dunn

By way of introduction, the astute observation of Forbes is worth mentioning, “‘Ecstasy’ is one of the most misused terms in the vocabulary of New Testament scholarship in our area.”[14] Turner adds, “many New Testament scholars use the term [ecstasy] with little knowledge of sociological, anthropological or psychological typologies of ecstasy.”[15] Understanding that scholars use the phrase “ecstatic speech or utterance” in a variety of ways, this section will look at the use of the phrase by one scholar in particular, J. D. G. Dunn.

Dunn describes the linguistic phenomena of Corinthian glossolalia as “ecstatic utterance.”[16] He provides two main reasons for this position. First, Paul’s contrast between prophecy and glossolalia is a contrast between inspired speech that engages the mind, and in the case of glossolalia, speech that does not engage the mind (14:15, 19).[17] Second, the description of Corinthian glossolalia (12:2ff; 14:12, 23, 27ff, 33a, 40), which results in confusion and disorder, and that has a large number of the assembly “working themselves up into a state of spiritual ecstasy” is simply too close to the “mantic prophecy of the Pythia at Delphi and the wider manifestations of ecstasy in the worship of Dionysus.”[18] This is not to say that Paul’s experience of glossolalia was that of the Corinthians whom he was correcting. Dunn believes Paul spoke a quality of tongue speech that was not ecstatic, and so, different from what was practiced among some of the Corinthian Christians.[19]

However, the contrast between prophecy and glossolalia does not appear to be as neat a distinction as Dunn advances. True, both are inspired speech. It is also true that one is said to engage the mind, while with the other the mind is not engaged (14:15, 19). Equally possible though, is that the contrast concerns the intelligibility of the inspired speech. Prophecy is intelligible speech, and so, understood by those present. Glossolalia on the other hand is not intelligible speech, and so, not understood by those present. That is why it is necessary for the tongue speaker to pray for the ability to interpret, so that the assembly may understand (14:13). It is also possible that the contrast concerns speech that edifies the assembly and speech that only edifies the speaker. Here Dunn is too much of a reductionist.

Forbes and Hovenden have shown that the background of Corinthian glossolalia is not the Hellenistic linguistic phenomena that may be characterized as ecstatic in nature.[20] Turner adds that Corinthian glossolalia was “something of a religious novum” that the Corinthians probably learned from Paul.[21] Further, nothing in 1 Corinthians 12–14 states that what the Corinthian glossolalists spoke was of a different linguistic phenomenon than what Paul spoke. The difference between the two concerned their practice. Thus, Paul gives three limitations that are to govern all tongue speech (14:27–28).

Glossolalia as Conscious, Unconscious, and a Release: Gerd Theissen

This position is similar to that which is advocated by Frank D. Macchia in “Sighs to Deep for Words: Towards a Theology of Tongues.”[22] However, Gerd Theissen argues that glossolalia is “the language of the unconscious which becomes capable of consciousness through interpretation.”[23] Because of the similarity between this view and that of Macchia, the critique of this view is advanced in the next section.

Glossolalia as Language of the Unconscious Released in “Sighs Too Deep for Words”: Frank D. Macchia

Macchia draws the language of a “sighs too deep for words” from Paul’s remarks in Romans 8:26. Macchia sees these “sighs” or “groans” as the inward yearning of creation (including human beings) for the eschatological completion of redemption to take place. He notes that such groans are befitting of glossolalia, which “being involved in our eschatological weakness and in our yearnings for the redemption and liberation to come.”[24] Fee, likewise notes the parallels between glossolalia and the groans of Rom 8:26, “It is because of our ‘between the times’ existence that we desperately need the Spirit’s help in our present frailty. This is quite the point of Romans 8:26–27. The Spirit comes alongside, prays through us with ‘inarticulate groanings,’ as our help in this present time of weakness. At the same time glossolalia serves as a constant reminder that we, along with the whole of creation, continue to anticipate our final redemption.”[25]

While it is widely held that glossolalia, as with all gifts of the Spirit, are a sign of our “between the times” existence (the already-not-yet characteristic of realized eschatology), the idea that Rom 8:26–27 is expressly referring to glossolalia is debatable. Paul states that the Spirit prays on the behalf of the “saints” (Rom 8:27). Elsewhere, Paul states that glossolalia is not a shared experience of all believers (1 Cor 12:30). This would seem to call into question the exclusivity of the “groans” as glossolalia.[26] Second, these “groans” appear to be a vocalized response on the part of the individual to the intercessory work of the Spirit.[27] This indicates that the “groans,” although not exclusively glossolalia, may have included them.[28]

Inability to Classify the Linguistic Phenomena of Corinthian Glossolalia: Vern S. Poythress

In an article, “The Nature of Corinthian Glossolalia: Possible Options,” Vern S. Poythress addresses, among other issues, the linguistic phenomena of glossolalia. This article is his attempt to improve on the prior work of Robert H. Gundry.[29] The question of the linguistic phenomena of glossolalia is addressed from three perspectives: (1) the Corinthians’ understanding of glossolalia; (2) modern scientific classification of glossolalia; and (3) Paul’s classification of glossolalia.[30]

(1) Poythress notes the following alternatives that are advanced as the Corinthians’ understanding of glossolalia. (a) Glossolalia is “disconnected sounds, ejaculations, and other material which would not be confused with a natural human language.”[31] He rejects this position based on the work of Gundry,[32] who shows that use of glōssa, and the use of laleō and legō in 1 Cor 14 and 16, as well as Acts 2 was identified as language in the truest sense of the word.[33] That is how glossolalia can be differentiated into various kinds (genē) of glossolalia (cf. 1 Cor 12:10, 28). (b) Glossolalia is “a connected sequence of sounds that sounded to them like a human language that they did not know.”[34] Poythress believes this is likely what the Corinthians understood glossolalia to be.[35] (c) Glossolalia is an “utterance in a language that they did know.”[36] He rejects this view based on 1 Cor 14:28 and 14:13 that show “as a rule, Corinthian tongues were not in this category.”[37] He weighs in with additional support, noting this understanding would lead to an awkward reading of 1 Cor 12:10, 30 that would call for the tongue speaker to keep silent if no one is present with the gift of interpretation or no one who can interpret by natural means.[38]

(2) Next, Poythress attempts to determine the nature of Corinthian glossolalia according to modern scientific terms. He notes the following alternatives. (a) Glossolalia is “a connected piece of a known human language.”[39] He leaves this open as a possibility based on his interpretation of 1 Cor 14. However, he does note that this alternative is excluded “by those whose scientific presuppositions require its elimination.”[40] The events of Acts 1:8ff appear to leave this alternative as a viable option, that is, if the tongue-speech of the Corinthians corresponds to the tongue-speech of those on the Day of Pentecost. (b) Glossolalia is “a piece not identifiable as a known language, but having a language-like structure according to the criteria of modern linguistics.”[41] Poythress concludes this is a possibility. (c) Glossolalia is “a piece with fragments from known human language, but with other unknown parts.”[42] He concludes this is a possibility. This is based on the previous work of Samarin.[43] (d) Glossolalia is “a piece without fragments from known human language, having linguistic deviations from patterns common to human languages, yet being indistinguishable by a naïve listener from a foreign language.”[44] This is a possibility according to Poythress as well.[45] (e) Glossolalia is “disconnected pieces, muttering, groaning, and other miscellaneous material easily distinguishable from normal human verbal utterance.”[46] 1 Corinthians 14 excludes this possibility.[47]

(3) Finally, Poythress discusses Paul’s classification of Corinthian glossolalia. First, that Paul identifies Corinthian glossolalia as lalein glōssē, which indicates that he viewed glossolalia as “language-like, probably somewhat in the sense covered by the alternatives (a) – (d).”[48] Poythress concludes that Paul did not closely define the linguistic phenomena of Corinthian glossolalia.[49] He states the following in defense of this position. First, according to 1 Cor 13:1, Paul does not appear to be interested in describing in exact terms the linguistic phenomena of glossolalia. Like Gundry,[50] Poythress views the list in 13:1–3 as hypothetical in nature, and does not express what kind of linguistic phenomena glossolalia is.[51] Second, the distinctions suggested by modern scientific study were foreign to first century persons.[52] Finally, nowhere does Paul instruct the Corinthians concerning linguistically false and real glossolalia. Rather, he addresses the proper use of glossolalia in the assembly (14:26–33a, 39–40). Therefore, anything that resembled glossolalia, in sound and function, was viewed as glossolalia.[53] Based on the above evidence, the conclusion of Poythress, that the linguistic phenomena of tongue speech of the Corinthians and Paul is indeterminable, is the best that can be said based on the biblical evidence.


[1] Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 972–986.

[2] C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, Harper’s NT Commentaries (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1968), 299–300.

[3] R. H. Gundry, “‘Ecstatic Utterances’ (N.E.B.)?,” Journal of Theological Studies 17 (1966): 301; Vern S. Poythress, “The Nature of Corinthian Glossolalia: Possible Options.” Westminster Theological Journal 40 (1977): 134. Reluctantly, Hans Conzelmann, First Corinthians: A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, Hermeneia (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1988), 221 n. 27.

[4] Max Turner, The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts, rev. ed. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2000), 223. See also Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 973 where he misrepresents Turner’s position.

[5] Turner, The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts, 223; 223 n. 27.

[6] John R. W. Stott, Baptism and Fullness: The Work of the Holy Spirit Today, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1975), 112–113; Gundry, “‘Ecstatic Utterances’ (N.E.B.)?,” 299–307; Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., Perspectives on Pentecost: New Testament Teaching on the Gifts of the Holy Spirit (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1979), 81–82; John MacArthur, The Charismatics: A Doctrinal Perspectives (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1978), 159–160.

[7] Stott, Baptism and Fullness, 112–113.

[8] D. A. Carson, Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12–14 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1987), 81; M. M. B. Turner, “Spiritual Gifts Then and Now,” Vox Evangelica 15 (1985): 18, 23–24.

[9] Carson, Showing the Spirit, 87.

[10] Gordon D. Fee, God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 237.

[11] C. F. G. Heinrici, Das Erste Sendschreiben das Apostles Paulus an Die Korinther (Berlin, Germany: Hertz, 1880), 376–394, quoted in Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians.

[12] Ibid., 381.

[13] Ibid., 832 and 833.

[14] Christopher Forbes, Prophecy and Inspired Speech in Early Christianity and Its Hellenistic Environment, Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 2/75 (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr, 1995), 53.

[15] Turner, The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts, 232.

[16] James D. G. Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1975), 242.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., 242–243.

[19] Ibid., 243–244.

[20] Forbes, Prophecy and Inspired Speech, 103–181. Gerald Hovenden, Speaking in Tongues: The New Testament Evidence, Journal of Pentecostal Theology Supplement Series 22 (London, England: Sheffield Academic, 2002), 6–30. See also Turner, The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts, 231–232 who summarizes the conclusions of Forbes.

[21] Turner, The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts, 232.

[22] Frank D. Macchia, “Sighs to Deep for Words: Towards a Theology of Tongues,” Journal of Pentecostal Theology 1 (1992): 47–73.

[23] Gerd Theissen, Psychological Aspects of Pauline Theology, trans. by John Galvin (Edinburgh, Scotland: T & T Clark, 1987), 79.

[24] Macchia, “Sighs to Deep for Words,” 60.

[25] Gordon D. Fee, Listening to the Spirit in the Text (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 117–118.

[26] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 1078; Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), 328; F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Romans, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 175; Gaffin, Perspectives on Pentecost, 84–85.

[27] Fee, God’s Empowering Presence, 582–583.

[28] Hovenden, Speaking in Tongues, 138.

[29] Gundry, “‘Ecstatic Utterances’ (N.E.B.)?,” 299–307.

[30] Vern Poythress, “The Nature of Corinthian Glossolalia: Possible Options,” Westminster Theological Journal 40 (1977): 130.

[31] Ibid., 132.

[32] Gundry, “‘Ecstatic Utterances’ (N.E.B.)?,” 299–307.

[33] Cf. Carson, Showing the Spirit, 81; Turner, “Spiritual Gifts Then and Now,” 23–24. Against see Barrett, A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians (1968), 278, 320; Michael Green, I Believe in the Holy Spirit (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1975), 164; Anthony Hoekema, Holy Spirit Baptism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1972), 52.

[34] Poythress, “The Nature of Corinthian Glossolalia,” 132.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid., 133.

[41] Ibid, 132–133.

[42] Ibid., 133.

[43] William J. Samarin, Tongues of Men and Angels: The Religious Language of Pentecostalism (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1972), 73–128.

[44] Poythress, “The Nature of Corinthian Glossolalia,” 133.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Poythress, “The Nature of Corinthian Glossolalia,” 133. See also Carson, Showing the Spirit, 83; Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit, 244; Craig S. Keener, Gift and Giver: The Holy Spirit for Today (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 124. Against see Barrett, A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians (1968), 299–300.

[49] Poythress, “The Nature of Corinthian Glossolalia,” 134.

[50] Gundry, “‘Ecstatic Utterances’ (N.E.B.)?,” 301.

[51] Poythress, “The Nature of Corinthian Glossolalia,” 134.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid.

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