This is part two of a series on “speaking in tongues.” In part one I looked at the idea that there’s an angelic language, and those who speak in “tongues” might be speaking in the language of angels. There really wasn’t any good evidence that St Paul thought that way. However, most of what he wrote about speaking in other languages appears in 1 Corinthians 14, so that’s where we’re going to look in this article. I’m going to walk through part of that chapter here. Some people think that St Paul described speaking in tongues as the gift of speaking in a spiritual language that we do not understand, as a way of building ourselves up spiritually. Those who think this way, I maintain, need to read Paul a bit more carefully.
Many readers of 1 Corinthians have made the observation that reading it is like listening to one side of a telephone conversation. St Paul didn’t just wake up one day and decide that he was going to tell the Christians in Corinth how to have a worship session, or what to do about food sacrificed to idols and so on. That would be a pretty strange thing to do. This letter, like all letters, is occasional in nature. It was written because of and in response to an occasion that called for it. The Corinthians were having problems and they had questions for Paul, so some of them (perhaps those who had finally had enough of what was going on in the church!) wrote to him. At one point Paul refers back to this letter, saying “Now, concerning the matters about which you wrote….” (7:1).
By looking at the matters that Paul addresses with the Corinthians and how he does so, we can get some idea of what he had heard that he needed to correct. In particular, there’s a phenomenon where it looks like Paul quotes a saying that originates with the Corinthians and then responds to it with a correction. A number of translations acknowledge this by adding speech marks around the saying that Paul may be quoting from the Corinthians. Here are a couple of examples, where I have adjusted the layout to emphasise “conversation” that Paul is having. First, from the beginning of chapter 7.
Now concerning the matters about which you wrote:
“It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.”
But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.
And from 10:23-24
“All things are lawful.”
But not all things are helpful.
“All things are lawful.”
But not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.
What is crucial to see, if this is what is happening here (and I think it is), is that the first claim – the one to which Paul responds – is not Paul’s initiative. That’s not what he wants to say to the church in Corinth, it’s what they have said, and he is replying to it. This doesn’t mean that it must be completely false (for it might be true but simply misapplied), but it does mean that we shouldn’t regard it as anything like “Pauline theology” just because Paul wrote the words here.
As we look at the various issues that Paul tackles with the Corinthian Christians, a picture emerges where a big part of the Corinthian problem was their view of spirituality. They thought that being spiritual meant discarding the mundane things of life and embracing the invisible, other-worldy and perhaps overly mystical. For example, they advocated an ascetic view of sex (saying “it is good for a man not to touch a woman”), they may have blurred the line between physically male and female (prompting a mention of homosexual acts in chapter 6 and an extended response on men and women in the church in chapter 11 and then a brief instruction later in chapter 14), some of them even saw no need for a bodily resurrection (a fact for which I am, ironically, pleased, given that this prompted Paul’s magnificent discourse on the resurrection in chapter 15), and it is quite likely that in their worship some of them wanted to transcend the natural or rational and act in a state of ecstasy or altered consciousness – something that would have been a familiar tendency in the paganism of the Roman Empire (think of the various oracles, for example). That this was a big part of the Corinthian problem is a view very well supported by Paul’s discourse on tongues and prophecy (especially the former) in 1 Corinthians 14. So let’s start progressing through this section of the letter now.
Verses 1-5. Summary: Everything we do as part of the church should be done in love for the other. Giving a prophecy that people can understand is therefore better than bringing a message or a prayer in a language that they don’t understand, because the former edifies them, while the latter does not.
St Paul begins the chapter by saying that the Corinthians should desire gifts (literally, they should desire “spirituals,” pneumatika, perhaps meaning spirituality more generally), but in the “way of love,” rather than what they were now doing. They should desire to prophesy rather than to speak in other languages, because “The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church” (verse 4).
In context, “he who speaks in a language edifies himself” is not helpful advice on the purpose of the gift. On the contrary, it is a stinging rebuke, telling us what the gift is not for.
Countless guides to speaking in tongues that I have read or heard tell the audience something to the effect of: “The purpose of speaking in tongues in private is to edify yourself, see look: Paul says that anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies himself. So tongues can be used as a private prayer language where you pray, you do not understand what you say saying, and you are edified.” But in context, “he who speaks in a language edifies himself” is not helpful advice on the purpose of the gift. On the contrary, it is a stinging rebuke, telling us what the gift is not for. When the Corinthian audience heard the words “edifies himself,” the appropriate reaction would have been to turn red with shame. Throughout the chapter, Paul is trying to get the Corinthians to change their attitude. They had been making a show of their own liberty and spirituality at the expense of the good of the wider body of believers. When it comes to the use of the gifts, Paul’s efforts are devoted to trying to show that the use of all of the gifts should be governed by love, and their purpose is to benefit others. That is their fruit. If you bring a message in another tongue, then it must be interpreted so that whatever you say can benefit the others present. Otherwise you are benefiting only yourself, which is not loving and is hence not permissible. To infer from this that tongues therefore have a private proper function of self-edification quite misses the point. Once a message in another tongue is interpreted, it serves the same function as prophecy, namely the edification of others. If we’re going to infer that tongues has a proper function of private self-edification, we may as well infer that prophecy does too. After all, it edifies others, so why not ourselves?
Treating tongues as a private tool where one speaks in a language that they do not understand for the purpose of self-edification misses the point of Paul’s distinction between tongues and prophecy here. Why is prophecy edifying in a way that an uninterpreted message in another language is not? Because the hearers understand it. That is the only way it could be edifying. Why is a message in another tongue edifying to the gathered church when it is interpreted? Because they can now understand it. If they did not understand it then they would not be edified, which is why interpretation is required. So how then could Paul possibly have imagined that a person who is praying privately in a language that they do not understand could be edified by what they say? Throughout the chapter, Paul presupposes that a person understands what they are saying when they speak in a language that the others do not understand – or at very least, he never introduces the (quite unexpected) assumption that they speak but do not know what they are saying. Indeed, when he describes what happens without interpretation, he says that “you may give thanks well enough, but your brother is not edified.” In other words – it might make sense to you, but it doesn’t make sense to your brother, so you may be edified, but he isn’t.”
Following on from this, Paul uses the analogy of musical instruments. If you just played random notes, it wouldn’t really be music. But that’s how it sounds when you speak in a language that the other person doesn’t understand. And “so it is with you” (v.9) i.e. in the case of speaking in other languages in Corinth. Paul observes (verse 10) that there are many languages in the world (phonē strictly means “sound” rather than “language,” but a number of translations give “language” here because that’s what it clearly indicates in this sentence). But if I don’t know the meaning of that language (again, phonē), then I am a foreigner to the speaker and they are a foreigner to me (and that’s why “language” was used as the translation, because it is something spoken, and because it makes another person a foreigner to me if I don’t understand it). The comparison to a foreigner does not make the case, but contributes to it, that speaking in a language in this passage refers to a person speaking in a foreign language, i.e. one that they understand but we do not.
The fruit of using the gifts as they are intended in the church is the edification of the church.
Beginning in verse 14, St Paul writes that “If I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful.” There are some who read this as though Paul had written “my spirit prays, but my mind does not.” The New Living translation does an exceptionally poor job here: “my spirit is praying, but I don’t understand what I am saying.” This isn’t what Paul wrote, nor is it strictly implied. Paul says that his spirit prays, but his mind or understanding (nous can suggest either, as indicated in numerous translations) is “unfruitful.” This is the only time in this passage that Paul mentions the “fruit” of prayer or prophecy, or at least, fruitlessness (akarpos = “without fruit”). In all of this discussion, like a persistent theme that Paul won’t let go, what do we find that might amount to concept of bearing fruit? What is the fruit or end-product or goal of using the gifts here? At a quick count, I see Paul referring to this seven times in this chapter – edification. The fruit of using the gifts as they are intended in the church is the edification of the church. If Paul prays in a language that the others present do not understand (and nobody interprets what he says), then sure, he gives thanks well enough (v.17) – in other words, his spirit prays just fine, but that’s internal to himself. That’s in his own understanding or mind (nous), and what is only in his own head doesn’t bear any fruit. It doesn’t edify the church.
Next, Paul appears to go back to quoting from the Corinthians and then replying to them.
What should I do then?
“I will pray with the spirit!”
But I will pray with the mind also.
“I will sing praise with the spirit!”
But I will sing praise with the mind also.
Otherwise, if you say a blessing with the spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say the “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since the outsider does not know what you are saying? For you may give thanks well enough, but the other person is not built up. I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you; nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue.
To pray “with the spirit” does not mean “without understanding,” any more than praying “with understanding” means to pray without the spirit!
In light of contemporary discussions around speaking in tongues, something important stands out here.1 If anyone in this conversation with the Corinthians is saying that when they speak in tongues, they are praying in the spirit and not with their mind, so they do not understand what they are saying, it is not Paul but the Corinthians – whose error Paul is correcting. It is not as though Paul is saying of himself: “Listen, Corinthians, I want you to know that sometimes I pray with the spirit and without understanding, and at other times I pray with understanding.” This view of what Paul is saying misses the point entirely. To pray “with the spirit” does not mean “without understanding” (although the wayward Corinthians may have thought so), any more than praying “with understanding” means to pray without the spirit! Instead, Paul is responding to the cry “I pray in the spirit!” with the reply: “OK, but with understanding as well.” It is not an either / or. Paul is calling the Corinthians not to switch off and tune out in the ecstasy of incoherent worship, but to bring their full, earthly selves into worship – brains and all, praying and speaking in the spirit and at the same time with understanding.
This passage has – unfortunately, in my view – served as the main basis of a modern Pentecostal / understanding of “speaking in tongues” as a phenomenon of speaking ecstatically in a language one does not understand as a means of self-edification. It is largely a modern phenomenon and certainly a modern interpretation of the passage. In his commentary on this chapter, Calvin was able to say, as though it was not controversial at all in his time:
“the term [“tongue”] denotes a foreign language”
“What is meant by praying in a tongue, appears from what goes before – to frame a prayer in a foreign language.”
“It is lawful, indeed, to pray with the spirit, provided the mind be at the same time employed, that is, the understanding.”
But here a new question arises; for it is not credible (at least we nowhere read of it) that any spoke under the influence of the Spirit in a language that was to themselves unknown. For the gift of tongues was conferred — not for the mere purpose of uttering a sound, but, on the contrary, with the view of making a communication. For how ridiculous a thing it would be, that the tongue of a Roman should be framed by the Spirit of God to pronounce Greek words, which were altogether unknown to the speaker, as parrots, magpies, and crows, are taught to mimic human voices! If, on the other hand, the man who was endowed with the gift of tongues, did not speak without sense and understanding, Paul would have had no occasion to say, that the spirit prays, but the understanding is unfruitful, for the understanding must have been conjoined with the spirit.
See Calvin’s commentary on this chapter here.
Although what I am saying here may be jarring to those with a Pentecostal / Charismatic background, it is actually fairly mundane and natural if you read this passage without that background. Throughout church history, few people would even raise an eyebrow at my explanation of this passage. It is only a fairly recent and idiosyncratic reading of this passage in light of the Pentecostal experience of the twentieth century that has disposed so many of us to find the charismatic phenomenon of speaking in tongues in this text. If St Paul is left to his own devices, it doesn’t appear at all.
Next time I’ll look at the next part of this chapter, where Paul makes an Old Testament connection to the phenomenon of speaking in other languages.
- I am departing from the way most translations punctuate the above passage. Many translations recognise Paul’s practice of quoting and responding to the Corinthians and have punctuated accordingly. I am doing the same thing here, although modern translations do not. [↩]