Are tongues human languages? This is a key question for those who say the gift of tongues has ceased for today.
To answer that question, a study was conducted of people who claimed to speak in tongues (William Samarin, Tongues of Men and Angels: The Religious Language of Pentecostalism [New York: MacMillan, 1972]). The conclusion was that rarely, if ever, did any of the subjects speak in what we know to be human dialects. Cessationists have made much of this study because they feel it supports their premise that the gift of tongues has ceased. Their reasoning is quite simple: (a) all tongues in the New Testament were identified as human language; (b) no tongues today are human language; therefore (c) tongues are no longer a gift bestowed upon the church by the Holy Spirit.
I don’t intend to discuss whether the study is right or wrong, although I have anecdotal evidence that challenges it. For example, I have spoken to many who tell of undeniable instances, often on the mission field, in which a believer spoke in a genuine human language without any previous exposure to it or study of it. I am inclined to believe them. But the more important issue is whether the initial premise of the cessationist is correct. That is to say, is it true that “all tongues in the New Testament were human language”? No, and I will appeal to ten points in response.
(1) Acts 2 is the only text in the New Testament where tongues-speech consists of foreign languages not previously known by the speaker. This is an important text, yet there is no reason to think Acts 2, rather than, say, 1 Corinthians 14, is the standard by which all occurrences of tongues-speech must be judged. Other factors suggest that tongues could also be heavenly or angelic speech.
(2) To begin, if tongues-speech is always in a foreign language intended as a sign for unbelievers, why are the tongues in Acts 10 and Acts 19 spoken in the presence of only believers?
(3) Note also that Paul describes various kinds [or “species”] of tongues (gene glosson) in 1 Corinthians 12:10. It is unlikely that he means a variety of different human languages, for who would ever have argued that all tongues were only one human language, such as Greek or Hebrew or German? His words suggest that there are differing categories of tongues-speech, perhaps human languages and heavenly languages.
(4) Paul asserted that whoever speaks in a tongue “does not speak to men, but to God” (1 Cor. 14:2). But if tongues are always human languages, Paul is mistaken, for “speaking to men” is precisely what a human language does!
(5) If tongues-speech is always a human language, how could Paul say that “no one understands” (1 Cor. 14:2)? If tongues are human languages, many could potentially understand, as they did on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:8-11). This would especially be true in Corinth, a multilingual cosmopolitan port city that was frequented by people of numerous dialects.
(6) Moreover, if tongues-speech always is in a human language, then the gift of interpretation would be one for which no special work or enablement or manifestation of the Spirit would be required. Anyone who was multilingual, such as Paul, could interpret tongues-speech simply by virtue of education.
(7) Furthermore, Paul referred to “tongues of men and of angels” (1 Cor. 13:1). While he may have been using hyperbole, he just as likely may have been referring to heavenly or angelic dialects for which the Holy Spirit gives utterance. Gordon Fee cited evidence in certain ancient Jewish sources that the angels were believed to have their own heavenly languages or dialects and that by means of the Spirit one could speak them (Commentary on First Corinthians, 630-31). In particular, we take note of the Testament of Job, where Job’s three daughters put on heavenly sashes given to them as an inheritance from their father, by which they are transformed and enabled to praise God with hymns in angelic languages (see chapters 48 to 50). Some have questioned this account, however, pointing out that this section of the Testament may have been the work of a later Christian author. Yet, as Christopher Forbes points out, “What the Testament does provide ... is clear evidence that the concept of angelic languages as a mode of praise to God was an acceptable one within certain circles. As such it is our nearest parallel to glossolalia” (Prophecy and Inspired Speech in Early Christianity and Its Hellinistic Environment, 185-86).
(8) Some say the reference in 1 Corinthians 14:10-11 to earthly, foreign languages proves that all tongues-speech is also human languages. But the point of the analogy is that tongues function like foreign languages, not that tongues are foreign languages. Paul’s point is that the hearer cannot understand uninterpreted tongues any more than he can understand the one speaking a foreign language. If tongues were a foreign language, there would be no need for an analogy.
(9) Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 14:18 that he “speaks in tongues more than you all” is evidence that tongues are not foreign languages. As Wayne Grudem noted, “If they were known foreign languages that foreigners could understand, as at Pentecost, why would Paul speak more than all the Corinthians in private, where no one would understand, rather than in church where foreign visitors could understand?” (Systematic Theology, 1072).
(10) Finally, if tongues-speech is always human language, Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 14:23 wouldn’t necessarily hold true. Any unbeliever who would know the language being spoken would more likely conclude the person speaking was highly educated rather than “mad.”
My plea to all cessationists is simply this: refute each of these arguments with persuasive and biblically based counter-evidence, or cease (!) appealing to this notion (that tongues are always human languages) as a reason for embracing your view on the perpetuity of such gifts.