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

A similar argument is based on I Corinthians 14:21: “In the Law it is written: ‘Through men of strange tongues and through the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people, but even then they will not listen to me,’ says the Lord.” Here, also, Paul uses a different word than he has been using to refer to tongues. The anti-charismatic position, however, asks us to see a definite parallel between tongues-speaking and Paul’s reference to Isaiah 28:11-12. The problem is apparent: carried to its logical conclusion, such a view mandates that tongues be of the Assyrian dialect spoken by native Assyrians! Obviously, Paul’s reference is to be understood in a more general sense.

Numerous non-Pentecostal New Testament scholars and commentaries reject the view that tongues in the New Testament were always foreign languages.

Anti-charismatic John F. MacArthur, Jr., argues that in 1 Corinthians 12:10, 28 Paul prefaces the word tongues with a word (kinds or families of tongues) that indicates he was speaking specifically of foreign languages (p. 160). This is doubtful since, in this context, the word Paul uses for kinds of tongues (genos) may refer to the unlimited languages of the soul or  different kinds of prayers (see 1 Cor. 14:10). The reference might include celestial or heavenly languages as well. Non-Pentecostals Plummer and Robertson say that kinds simply “indicates that the manifestations of this gift varied much” (p. 267). And MacArthur asks us to believe that Paul was thinking of not just individual foreign languages but families of foreign languages, such as Semitic, Indo-Germanic, or Turanian. The argument seems a bit farfetched (Godet, p. 630). Paul’s use of phÇn (sounds, or KJV voices) with genos in 1 Corinthians 14:10 also speaks against MacArthur’s exegesis.

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. Certain verses in 1 Corinthians 14 simply make better sense if tongues are understood in this way. For example, 1 Corinthians 14:2: “Anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. Indeed, no one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit.” Without divine intervention, in other words, no one can understand an utterance in tongues. Yet if it were a foreign language, would not the utterance be recognizable by native speakers? “The interpretation of tongues demands a special gift of the Spirit … not a nationality” (Goudge, p. 134).

Additionally, non-Pentecostal C. R. Smith notes that the foreign language interpretation of this verse (“For anyone who speaks in a language does not speak to men…”) is contradictory, since “speaking to men” is what human language is for. On the other hand, the Pentecostal-charismatic (and the majority of non-Pentecostal) interpretation of this verse (“For anyone who speaks in a spiritual language speaks not to men but to God”) is not contradictory, but reasonable (p. 31).

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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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