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

Let’s assume, however, that in 1 Corinthians 14 Paul did not mean translation (since we have seen that Paul considered tongues-speaking a language). The word for interpretation, therefore, according to Francis A. Sullivan,

could merely have been an apt word to describe what happened when one person spoke out in what sounded like a strange language, and another person gave the meaning of his utterance in plain Greek. It would be only natural to say that the second person “translated” what the first had said. But this would be true whether the “interpreter” actually understood the language that had been spoken, or whether he were given a prophetic insight into the sense of the message that had been spoken in tongues, without actually understanding the “tongue” as such. If the “tongue” sounded like a language, then the interpretation of it into plain Greek would also have sounded like a translation, and that, it seems to me is all that the use of these words necessarily implies.

(Malatesta, p. 35)

In addition, of course, God understands not only our gossolalic utterances, but also the groans and cries of our hearts (Romans 8:26-27). To Him, as I have written elsewhere, “the slightest tension of our souls, the warmth and wetness of our tears, reach linguistic formulation. He is indeed the Great and Ultimate Interpreter” (Paraclete, Fall 1986: 14).

In 1 Cor. 14:28 Paul tells the tongues-speaker to speak to himself and to God when no interpreter is present. One might ask why Paul would advise someone to pray silently to God in a foreign language (and why he boasted about speaking in a foreign language to God more than the Corinthians).

A third argument for tongues being actual foreign languages asserts that Luke clearly refers to foreign languages in Acts 2, and that since he was well aware of Paul’s teaching on tongues, he would not have used the same term Paul used to refer to something different. Therefore (goes this argument), Paul must also have meant foreign languages in his first epistle to the Corinthians.

Not necessarily. Writers of Scripture often used the same words with different meanings. There are other differences, too. Luke adds the qualifying adjective other in his discussion of tongues (Acts 2:4), and other terms related to language that Paul does not use.

It is also possible to make Luke’s usage of tongues conform to Paul’s instead of vice-versa since, as non-charismatic Baptist Dale Moody points out, the Corinthians passage was written first, and “the earliest passage, not the secondary, should control interpretation” (p. 63). This would mean that the tongues of Pentecost (Acts 2) could have been the same as Paul’s praise language, except that God worked the additional miracle of translating the utterances into the actual dialects of some of the observers (C. R. Smith, pp. 34-36; J. R. Williams, Gift, p. 31). Moody would also argue that, of all of Luke’s references to tongues, Acts 2 alone portrays tongues as actual foreign languages, and it is inappropriate to force all other instances into its mold.

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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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