Rolling Right of the Tongue(s): or, a Few Thoughts on Arguments on Tongues Being Human Languages and Cessationism




On page 2,129 of the Reformation Study Bible (a fine study Bible) there’s a note on 1 Corinthians 12:10 that ends with: “There is no reason to conclude that the “tongues” of 1 Cor differ from the “tongues” of Acts 2”. This is possibly the worst note in this entire Bible. The first glaring reason we have for thinking it’s wrong: the tongues of Acts did not require an interpreter and were simply understood by the audience at Pentecost, since it was in their own language(s). The tongues of Corinthians require someone with the gift of interpreting tongues, something we see two chapters later in 1 Corinthians 14:


‘…if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in church, and let him speak to himself and to God.’ 


Right away we see that these tongues, just as the tongues in 1 Corinthians 13, need an interpreter, which is again markedly different from the tongues of Acts, where the entire point was that everyone heard in his own language. This is a serious point against the idea of both instances of tongues being the same, and the earlier parts of chapter 14 provide even more reason to think the two are completely different. Paul says that:


  1. No one can understand someone who speaks in tongues (v. 2) – in Acts, the express purpose of tongues is for everyone to understand tongues.
  2. Whoever speaks in tongues speaks to God and not men (v. 2) –  Why would tongues be merely a human language if the audience is God and it is explicitly *not* for other people who might speak that human language?
  3. Tongues are for the edification of the speaker (v. 4) – in Acts, the tongues are for the edification of those who hear it. 


Other issues abound. For example, if tongues are a human language, why would someone need to have the special gift of interpretation, when clearly, as in Acts, no special gift was needed to interpret the tongues? If the purpose of tongues is to speak directly to God, why does it need to be a different tongue, especially when the purpose is personal edification? 


So much then for the idea that the tongues of Acts and the tongues of 1 Corinthians are the same. What about the idea that tongues have altogether ceased? What arguments or reasons do we have for thinking that’s the case?


Put bluntly: almost none. The important text here is 1 Corinthians 13:8-10:


‘…As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away…we prophesy in part,  but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.’


This is a remarkably underdetermined set of texts, mostly because (a) we are only told that tongues will cease and (b) when they will cease is when the perfect (or complete) comes. A standard defense of cessationism along these lines is that there hasn’t been tongues, since, say the 3-4th centuries. Tongues only appear from the 1800s. Where were tongues, or even the Holy Spirit, for all that time? 


There’s a few things to note about these sorts of arguments. The first is that, granting the historical claim of there being no tongues for roughly 1500 years, it doesn’t follow that there are no tongues, nor does it follow from the (disputable) fact that tradition as a whole took tongues to have ceased that they have in fact ceased. Tradition has no normative force; what has normative force are the reasons for why the tradition believed what it believed. The second is that, if tongues were absent for 1500 years (again, a dubious claim), it doesn’t follow that the Holy Spirit wasn’t active, nor is this objection even one that has any force, since, if cessationism is true, the continuationist can ask the same sorts of question of the cessationist. So, if cessationism is true, the continuationist can ask, ‘what was ‘the perfect’ that came about in the 3rd-4th century, or at any point, that ended tongues? If tongues ceased, why did they come back in the 1800s?’ The same sorts of objections can be brought to either side, by either side. 


We’ve seen that there’s no good reason to think that all of the tongues in the New Testament are human languages, and we’ve also seen positive reasons for thinking that there’s two different kinds of tongues. We’ve seen that the arguments for cessationism have no force that arguments for continuationism don’t also have, and coupled with the evidence that tongues are not only human languages, we have no good reason to think that cessationism of tongues is true.


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