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

Throughout 1 Corinthians 14 the Greek verb for speak is different from the usual word used. This Greek verb, moreover, is often used to signify grunts, noises, cries, babble, chatter, and prattle (Laurentin, p. 62; C. R. Smith, p. 35). The word may convey the idea of either speech or these other variations.

C. R. Smith points out yet another possible fallacy in the foreign language view. “If speaking in tongues involved a supernatural speech in a real language,” he writes, “then every such utterance required a direct miracle by God. This would mean, in the case of the Corinthians, that God was working a miracle at the wrong time and wrong place! He was causing that which He was directing the Apostle Paul to curtail!” (p. 26).

The foreign language view seems fraught with difficulties. In addition to the ones I have already noted, I might also point out that the very phrase “speaking in a language” seems redundant. How else is one going to speak? (Moffatt, pp. 207-208). The necessary insertion of “foreign” takes the foreign language view beyond the straightforward reading of the Pentecostal-charismatic view. In both Acts and 1 Corinthians, when Luke and Paul wanted to designate an actual foreign language with the word glossa, they used the modifying adjective or prefix other (Acts 2:4; 1 Corinthians 14:21). They do not use this additional modifier to describe the charismatic manifestation of tongues.

Also, how was a congregation to know whether an utterance in a foreign language was simply that or was a prophetic utterance spoken by someone who was of a different nationality (language)? Finally, Mark 16:17 describes these tongues that will follow believers as new tongues. This adjective seems more appropriate for new spiritual languages than for age-old foreign languages (C. R. Smith, pp. 29-30; Godet, p. 630).

Some might say that the greatest weakness of the foreign language view is that it jettisons a twentieth-century phenomenon that is pumping new life into stale, dry, and worn souls and churches. Tongues is the hallmark of a phenomenon that has motivated Christians to read their Bibles more faithfully, fellowship more happily, attend church more regularly, pray more fervently, witness more effectively, work more committedly, love more sincerely, and care about others more passionately. Yet, certain anti-charismatics would discard this experience in order to keep their personal dogma intact. What a high price to pay!

Numerous non-Pentecostal New Testament scholars and commentaries reject the view (generally anti-Pentecostal) that tongues in the New Testament were always foreign languages. They include the following:

Abingdon Bible Commentary

Henry Alford

C. K. Barrett

Beacon Bible Commentary

Broadman Bible Commentary

F.F. Bruce

Hans Conzelmann

F.C. Cook

T.C. Edwards

C.R. Erdman

C.J. Ellicott

G.G. Findlay

F.L. Godet

H.L. Goudge

F.W. Grosheide

Interpreter’s Bible

Lutheran Commentary

H.A.W. Meyer

James Moffatt

Leon Monis

Alfred Plummer

Alan Redpath

A.T. Robertson

M.R. Vincent

Bernhard Weiss

Though I reject the foreign language view as biblically indefensible, I quickly add that a combination of the gift of tongues and the manifestation of a miracle could produce an actual foreign language (xenoglossy). There are many reported cases of xenoglossy, and I thank God for them. Normally, however, tongues will not take such a form. (See my article “Documenting Xenoglossy.”)




Works Cited

Christenson, Larry. Speaking in Tongues. Minneapolis, Minn.: Bethany Fellowship, Inc., 1968.

Conzelmann, Hans. I Corinthians: A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians. James W. Leitch, trans. Hermeneia-A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975.

Edgar, Thomas R. Miraculous Gifts: Are They for Today? Neptune, N.J.: Loizeaux Brothers, 1983.

Godet, Frederick L. Commentary on First Corinthians. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Publications, 1977.

Goudge, H. L. The First Epistle to the Corinthians, rev. ed. London: Methuen and Co., Ltd., 1926.

Graves, Robert W. “Documenting Xenoglossy.” Paraclete Spring 1987: 27-30.

—— “Praying in Tongues.” Paraclete Fall 1986: l4-l5.

Gundry, Robert H. “‘Ecstatic Utterance’ (NEB)?” Journal of Theological Studies, 17 (1966): 299-307.

Kelsey, Morton T. Speaking with Tongues: An Experiment in Spiritual Experience. London: The Epworth Press, 1964.

Laurentin, Rene. Catholic Pentecostalism. Matthew J. O’Connell, trans. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Co., Inc., 1977.

MacArthur, John F., Jr. The Charismatics: A Doctrinal Perspective. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1978.

Malatesta, Edward, ed. The Spirit of God in Christian Life. New York: Paulist Press, 1977.

Meyer, H. A. W. Meyer’s Commentary on the New Testament, I and II Corinthians. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1983.

Moffatt, James. The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1938.

Moody, Dale. Spirit of the Living God: What the Bible Says About the Spirit, rev. ed. Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman Press, 1976.

Packer, J. I. Keep in Step with the Spirit. Old Tappan, N.J.: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1984.

Smith, Charles R. Tongues in Biblical Perspective: A Summary of Biblical Conclusions Concerning Tongues, rev. ed. Winona Lake, Ind.: BMH Books, 1973.

Williams, J. Rodman. The Gift of the Holy Spirit Today. Plainfield, N.J.: Logos International, 1980. [Editor’s note: Every chapter from The Gift of the Holy Spirit Today by J. Rodman Williams, was reprinted in Pneuma Review, from Spring 2002 to Fall 2004, with minor updates from the author.]

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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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