Three weeks ago I posted a slightly provocative post entitled Why Charismatics are not New Testament Christians. That post focussed largely on prophecy, today I want to look at the gift of tongues.
The Gift of Tongues
Of all the so-called charismatic gifts, tongues-speaking is the one that non-charismatics have the most trouble in understanding and accepting. Most Charismatics believe that “speaking in tongues is prayer or praise spoken in syllables not understood by the speaker”.1 Tongues, in other words, are understandable only with interpretation. Frankly, this turns the clock back on the reformation. Charismatics who practice tongues-speaking in public worship have given up the hard-won victory that the word of God should be in the language of the hearer.
But there’s a more important principle at stake here. There is absolutely no evidence, anywhere in the Old Testament, that speaking in unknown languages should be part of the New Covenant blessings. Indeed, the phenomenon is utterly unknown in pre-Christian Judaism. So either God is doing something in the New Testament that he has never even hinted at, or the Charismatics have got it wrong.
The evidence for the latter is very strong. It’s strong because the evidence from the Old Testament is that not being able to understand one another is a curse (see Genesis 11). This is precisely Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 14:20-22.
Not only so, but when tongue-speaking was first practiced (at Pentecost) it was precisely so that all would understand not so all would be confused! Clearly what happened at Pentecost is not what happens in charismatic churches, and not what happens in private prayer language either.
So, if charismatics are right, and “speaking in tongues is prayer or praise spoken in syllables not understood by the speaker”, where did this doctrine come from? It was never spoken of (or even hinted at) in the Old Testament. It wasn’t mentioned by Jesus. What other New Testament doctrine can you think of that suddenly springs up in the New Testament, that isn’t rooted in the Old Testament or the sayings of Jesus?
There’s no answer to that question. Unless, of course, the charismatics are wrong. Because the Old Testament does talk about a day when the Gospel will be spoken in every language. It is that age in which we now live. An age where God is praise in any and every language. This, truly, is tongues-speaking.
So, let’s not turn the clock back. Let’s not mis-interpret Luke and Paul and thus invent a doctrine that has no basis in the Old Testament nor in the words of Jesus. And let’s not become like that Catholics so that the majority cannot understand what God is saying. Let’s hold true to reformation principles, and re-affirm that speaking in tongues means speaking in real, human languages.
- See, for example, the charismatic scholar, Max Turner’s, “Early Christian Experience and Theology of ‘Tongues’: A New Testament Perspective,” in Speaking in Tongues: Multi-Disciplinary Perspectives, ed. Mark J. Cartledge, Studies in Pentecostal and Charismatic Issues (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2006), pg 29.