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Praying in the Spirit: Just What Is the Nature of the Prayer Language?

At least one non-charismatic believes these anti-charismatics started with an ulterior motive in arguing this position: “With the more widespread growth of Pentecostalism, the [foreign] language view became popular among evangelicals who opposed tongues because it so clearly rules out modem tongues” (C. R. Smith, p. 34). Non-Pentecostal J. I. Packer, though he concludes that Pentecostal-charismatic tongues-speaking is not the same as New Testament tongues-speaking, admits that the testimony and life evidence of millions of Pentecostals and charismatics demonstrate that their experience is valuable, worthwhile, and valid for them (Keep, pp. 224-225).

Although Packer does not discuss at length his reasons for rejecting twentieth-century tongues-speaking as the New Testament gift, others have been quick to develop what might be called the foreign language view. The first to expound the argument thoroughly was Robert H. Gundry, whose ideas appear as a response to the New English Bible translators’ “ecstatic utterance” rendering in 1 Corinthians. Anti-Pentecostal Thomas Edgar supplemented Gundry’s arguments in his book Miraculous Gifts (pp. 108-70). Let’s take a look at the reasons they say biblical tongues were always actual foreign languages.

First, Gundry asserts that the Greek work for “tongue,” glossa (from which we get glossolalia), usually means language (pp. 299-300). Edgar adds that glossa, when used in the linguistic sense, always means language. So far, so good unless Gundry and Edgar restrict the word language to mean intelligible, known, or human language. Pentecostals and charismatics are indebted to Gundry and Edgar for demonstrating that the tongues of the New Testament were languages—structured, articulate speech—and not delivered by out-of-control, hysterical enthusiasts. But they fail to prove (in my opinion) that these tongues were necessarily translatable earthly languages.

Nowhere does Scripture mandate that tongues-speaking must be a foreign language. There are indications, however, that the nature of tongues is unintelligible, transcendent, and without natural counterpart.

Actually, the lexical evidence suggests otherwise. As non-Pentecostal C. R. Smith asserts, “Every Greek lexicon, or dictionary, states that the word [glossa] is also used for unintelligible ecstatic utterances. All of the standard lexical authorities have so understood tongues. It just is not true that when the word does not refer to the physical organ it must refer to a language spoken by some group of individuals” (p. 28). A second argument reinforcing the view that the tongues of the New Testament had to be foreign languages is based upon the word interpret or interpretation. Gundry and Edgar argue that the Greek word from which we get interpretation must be understood as translation. This is difficult to understand since that same word is used by Luke to describe Jesus’ expounding of Scriptures to the men he met on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:27).

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Category: Fall 1999, Spirit

About the Author: Robert W. Graves, M. A. (Literary Studies, Georgia State University), is the co-founder and president of The Foundation for Pentecostal Scholarship, Inc., a non-profit organization supporting Pentecostal scholarship through research grants. He is a Christian educator and a former faculty member of Southwestern Assemblies of God College in Waxahachie, Texas, and Kennesaw State University (adjunct). He edited and contributed to Strangers to Fire: When Tradition Trumps Scripture and is the author of Increasing Your Theological Vocabulary, Praying in the Spirit (1987 and Second Edition, 2017) and The Gospel According to Angels (Chosen Books, 1998).

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