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Tongues: The Controversial Gift

Cessationist John F. MacArthur Jr offers another scriptural argument for the passing of the gifts. In his book, Charismatic Chaos, he asserts that the last record of miraculous gifts in the New Testament took place in A.D. 58.[18] He also says that tongues are not mentioned in any of the later books of the New Testament.[19] This is the argument from silence, which is never really conclusive or convincing. As ex-cessationist Jack Deere has pointed out, the cessationist position is not one that naturally comes from scripture; it is a position that one has to be taught.[20]

Those who believe in the present day existence of the gift of tongues do not necessarily agree about what the contents of an utterance in tongues should be. Since one who speaks in tongues speaks in a language that neither he nor his hearers understands, the companion gift of the interpretation of tongues is necessary to make the utterance intelligible.

One popular opinion in Pentecostal/charismatic circles is that an utterance in tongues is a word from God. In fact utterances in tongues are commonly referred to as messages in tongues.[21] This indicates that God is speaking to his people via the gift of tongues and interpretation. This understanding of the gifts is widespread. It can be found in scholarly works such as commentaries.[22] It can also be found in books that are written on a more popular level.[23] This view is expressed in the writing of classical Pentecostal Donald Gee.[24] Even those who would not be considered classical Pentecostals hold this view.[25] This view is essentially, tongues plus interpretation equals prophecy.[26] This belief informs the contemporary use of tongues and interpretation. Many, if not most, of the modern day expressions of these gifts are messages in tongues.

One popular opinion is that tongues plus interpretation equals prophecy.

The scriptural foundations of this belief can be found in 1 Corinthians chapter 14. In verse 6 of this chapter the apostle Paul raises a question about what benefit he would be to the Corinthians if he came to them speaking in tongues. He implies that he would be of no benefit to them unless he brought them a revelation, prophecy or a word of instruction. One commentator sees in this text the possibility of tongues with the accompanying gift of interpretation being one of these things.[27] The other text used to support the view that tongues are a word from the Lord is verse 21. This verse, which is adapted from the Old Testament, refers to God speaking to people through strange tongues. Pentecostal writer, Donald Gee, sees in this grounds for tongues being a message from God.[28]

Another view regarding the gift of tongues sees it as a word to God. In this view the direction of the communication is reversed, God’s people are speaking to him. Of the two views regarding the contents of an utterance in tongues this is certainly less widely known and practiced. One advocate of this view is Gordon Fee.[29] Another scholar who leans strongly in this direction is Craig Keener.[30] Some of the previously cited authors such as the Bennetts and Donald Gee also accept this expression of the gift.

The understanding of the gift as communication from the believer to God sees tongues primarily as praise and worship. This seems to be a common understanding of the private use of tongues but not of the public gift with interpretation. While this may be the minority view, at least in practice, it has strong biblical foundations.

The scriptural support of this view is found in Paul’s direct statement in 1 Corinthians 14:2 that the one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. Also in favor of this understanding of the gift are the words that Paul uses to describe the gift of tongues. Paul describes tongues as prayer, praise and thanksgiving (1 Cor. 14:14, 16-17). All of these words describe activities that are properly directed to God.

The gift of tongues along with the gift of interpretation provides a supernatural connection between God and his people in which communication takes place. These gifts when properly exercised serve to greatly bless God’s people.

This now brings us to the consequences of the gift, that is, the effect or impact that the gift has when it is in operation. There are some in the church who do not like the word experience. To them it is a term that stands in tension with the authority of scripture. While experiences should never be exalted above scripture, this does not mean that all experience should be shunned. Scripture and experience are not mutually exclusive. Part of the purpose of scripture is to lead us into an experience with God. If God is still the living God (1 Tim. 3:15) it should be expected that his people will experience him as the New Testament church did.

The gift of tongues as described in 1 Corinthians 14 is for congregational use and the common good (1 Cor. 12:7). When tongues are expressed in a church meeting they come through an individual who is the first to experience them. This individual serves as the human vessel through whom God graces the meeting. Whether they are conscious of it or not this person experiences a number of important things.

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Category: Spirit, Spring 2019

About the Author: John P. Lathrop is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and is an ordained minister with the International Fellowship of Christian Assemblies. He has written for a number of publications and is the author of four books Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Pastors, and Teachers Then and Now (Xulon Press, 2008), The Power and Practice of the Church: God, Discipleship, and Ministry (J. Timothy King, 2010), Answer the Prayer of Jesus: A Call for Biblical Unity (Wipf & Stock, 2011) and Dreams & Visions: Divine Interventions in Human Experience (J. Timothy King, 2012). He also served as co-editor of the book Creative Ways to Build Christian Community (Wipf & Stock, 2013). Amazon Author page. Facebook

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