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Tongues: The Controversial Gift

The Christians at Corinth were very much people of the Spirit. As Paul writes to them they are already experiencing the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Paul said that they did not lack any spiritual gift (1 Cor. 1:7). This was certainly true of the gift of tongues. The amount of space given to it in 1 Corinthians 14 makes that clear. The gift of tongues held a prominent place in the Corinthian assembly even though it was not a gift for all (1 Cor. 12:30). It is significant to note that in all of his instructions regarding tongues Paul never speaks of them in a derogatory way. However, he does lay down some guidelines concerning the proper expression of the gift. This is not because there is anything wrong with the gift, but because the Corinthians were not using it correctly. They seem to have exercised it without restraint or interpretation. Paul’s correction of the Corinthians errors provides us with the most extensive information anywhere in scripture concerning the gift’s nature and function.

The scriptural teaching that Paul gives concerning the gift affirms a number of significant things about it. The first concerns its source. In 1 Corinthians 12 he repeatedly emphasizes that the gifts come from God (1 Cor. 12:4, 8-11). The second important point that he brings out is the purpose of the gift. The purpose of the gift of tongues, and all of the other gifts of the Spirit, is edification (1 Cor. 14:5,26). That is, they are meant to build up and strengthen the church. It is God’s intention that they make a positive contribution to the health and well being of the church. The third important point that Paul makes concerns the permanency of the gift. It is true that scripture says that tongues will be stilled (1 Cor. 13:8, NIV). The context indicates that this will happen when we see Christ face to face.[7] Thus, the gifts, including tongues, are a part of the church age and will continue until Christ returns. This truth is also affirmed in 1 Corinthians 1:7 where Paul says that the Corinthians lack no spiritual gift as they wait for Christ to be revealed.[8]

While there can be no argument that the gift of tongues existed in the apostolic church, there are those in the church who do not believe that this gift exists today. They believe that is has ceased (1 Cor. 13:8, KJV). These people are known as cessationists. Their theological position is built upon a combination of historical observation and scriptural interpretation.

When the Apostle Paul wrote what we now refer to as the first epistle to the Corinthians, what did he intend his readers to understand about the gift of tongues?

Benjamin B. Warfield is one of the better-known cessationists. His book, Counterfeit Miracles, first appeared a little more than a decade after the Pentecostal Movement was launched from Azusa Street. In this book he argues that the gifts have passed away.[9] But as cessationist Richard B. Gaffin Jr. points out, Warfield’s defense of the cessationist position rests predominantly upon historical rather than exegetical evidence.[10] Warfield notes the experience of the post apostolic church and some of the teachings of early church leaders.[11] Since their combined testimony seems to indicate that the gifts had largely passed from the scene, Warfield sees this as confirmation of the fact that the gifts have ceased. Some cessationists, however, allow for the continuation of the gifts up until the third or fourth century.[12] Warfield is more radical for he maintains that the gifts were the possession of the apostles and could not be conferred without them.[13] This reasoning confines the gifts of the Spirit solely to the first century. What is interesting about this position is that logic and experience rather than revelation become the measuring stick of truth. It is also ironic since the cessationists sometimes charge charismatics and Pentecostals with interpreting scripture by experience. Here we see that they too can be charged with the same thing.[14]

However, the cessationists do also offer a scriptural foundation for their position. One text that they appeal to is 1 Corinthians 13:8,9. This text specifically says that tongues will be stilled when perfection comes. A cessationist interpretation of the text is that the perfection to come is the completion of the canon.[15] As was stated earlier the context of 1 Corinthians 13 does not support this interpretation. Noted textual critic Gordon Fee dismisses the cessationist interpretation of this text, not only on the basis of context, but also on the grounds of Paul’s intention and the recipients understanding.[16] He maintains that Paul couldn’t have meant the completion of the canon and that the Corinthians couldn’t have understood him to be saying this.[17]

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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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