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

A foreign language would have no value as a sign; and why would it be more edifying than speaking to God in one’s native language?

Edgar and others believe that Luke’s description of the onlookers as hearing the believers “speaking in tongues and praising God” (Acts 10:46) argues for foreign language; otherwise, how did they know they were praising God? But if praise and thanksgiving were already established functions of glossolalic utterances (1 Corinthians 14:16-17), those onlookers would have assumed the believers were praising God. Thus, Luke’s words may actually argue for Paul’s description of the gift as a language for praise and thanksgiving (1 Corinthians 14:16).

Fourth, Gundry argues that the “effectiveness of tongues as an authenticating sign … depended on its difference from the ecstatic gobbledegook in Hellenistic religion!” (p. 303). This argument mistakenly assumes that Christian tongues were primarily for “authenticating” an apostolic ministry (this will be discussed more fully in the future article “That Glorious Day When Tongues Are Not Needed, Until Then …”). Paul proves by his own practice that this was not the case; tongues were primarily for personal edification (1 Corinthians 14:4, 18-19). Also, there is no proof that the onlookers did not esteem pagan tongues rather than look down upon them, as Gundry assumes. Furthermore, why does Gundry insist that the difference must be one of nature instead of presentation and function?

A fifth argument is based on one of Paul’s illustrations, found in 1 Corinthians 14:10-12, that does have foreign languages in mind:

There are, it may be, so many kinds of languages in the world, and none of them is without significance. Therefore, if I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be a foreigner to him who speaks, and he who speaks will be a foreigner to me. Even so you, since you are zealous for spiritual gifts, let it be for the edification of the church that you seek to excel.

1 Corinthians 14: 10-12

There are many reported cases of xenoglossy, and I thank God for them. Normally, however, tongues will not take such a form.

However, arguing from this that Paul always meant foreign languages when he referred to tongues is weak on three grounds. First, Paul’s word for tongues is not used in this illustration. In fact, he seems to have gone out of his way to choose an entirely different word to distinguish between foreign languages and tongues (Conzelmann, p. 236; Meyer, p. 284). Second, it is inconsistent to interpret Paul’s illustration in verses 7-8 generally but Paul’s illustration in verses 10-12 specifically (Edgar, p. 151). If interpreted specifically, Paul’s illustration in verses 7-8 works against the foreign language view: “Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds [tongue-speech], such as the flute or harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes [interpretation]? Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle?” Third, in verses 10-12 Paul is not calling tongues foreign languages but comparing them to a foreign language not understood by the hearer, which sounds like gibberish (Moody, p. 98; Moffatt, p. 218). The point of both of Paul’s illustrations is that, unless tongues are interpreted, they are of no value to the addressed congregation (Edgar, p. 151).

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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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