Freethought Archives > Walter R. Cassels > Supernatural Religion 


CHAPTER 2. (concluded)


The Gift of Tongues
We have reserved the gift of "tongues" for special discussion, because Paul enters into it with a fulness with which he does not treat any of the other Charismata, and a valuable opportunity is thus afforded us of ascertaining something definite with regard to the nature of the gift; and also because we have a narrative in the Acts of the Apostles of the first descent of the Holy Spirit, manifesting itself in "tongues," with which it may be instructive to compare the Apostle's remarks. We may mention that, in the opinion of many, the cause which induced the Apostle to say so much regarding Charismata in his first letter to the Corinthians was the circumstance, that many maintained the gift of tongues to be the only form of "the manifestation of the Spirit." This view is certainly favoured by the narrative in the Acts, in which not only at the first famous day of Pentecost, but on almost every occasion of the imposition of the Apostle's hands, this is the only gift mentioned as accompanying the reception of the Holy Spirit. In any case, it is apparent from the whole of the Apostle's homily on the subject that the gift of tongues was especially valued in the Church of Corinth. [779:1] It is difficult to conceive, on the supposition that amongst the Charismata there were comprised miraculous gifts of healings and power of working miracles, that these could have been held so cheap in comparison with the gift of tongues; but, in any case, a better comprehension of what this "gift" really was cannot fail to assist us in understanding the true nature of the whole of the Charismata. It is evident that the Apostle Paul himself does not rank the gift of tongues very highly, and, indeed, that he seems to value prophecy more than all the other Charismata (14:1 f.); but the simple yet truly noble eloquence with which (13:1 f.) he elevates above all these gifts the possession of spiritual love is a subtle indication of their real character. Probably Paul would have termed Christian charity a gift of the Spirit as much as he does "gifts of healings" or "workings of powers"; but, however rare may be the virtue, it is not now recognised as miraculous, although it is here shown to be more desirable and precious than all the miraculous gifts. Even Apostolic conceptions of the Supernatural cannot soar above the range of natural morality.

The real nature of the "gift of tongues" has given rise to an almost interminable controversy, and innumerable treatises have been written upon the subject. It would have been impossible for us to have exhaustively entered upon such a discussion in this work, for which it only possesses an incidental and passing interest; but fortunately such a course is rendered unnecessary by the fact that, so far as we are concerned, the miraculous nature of the "gift" alone comes into question, and may be disposed of without any elaborate analysis of past controversy or minute reference to disputed points. Those who desire to follow the course of the voluminous discussion will find ample materials in the treatises which we shall at least indicate in the course of our remarks, and we shall adhere as closely as possible to our own point of view.

In 1 Cor. 12:10 the Apostle mentions, amongst the other Charismata, "kinds of tongues" (genê glôssôn) and "interpretation of tongues" (hermêneia glôssôn) as two distinct gifts. In verse 28 he again uses the expression genê glôssôn, and in a following verse he inquires: "Do all speak with tongues?" (glôssais lalousi). [780:1] "Do all interpret?" (diermêneuousi). He says shortly after, 13:1, "If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels (ean tais glôssais tôn anthrôpôn lalô kai tôn angelôn), and have not love," etc. In the following chapter the expressions used in discussing the gift vary. In 14:2 he says: "He that speaketh with a tongue", [780:2] (lalôn glossôn[780:3] using the singular; and again (verse 22), of "the tongues" (ai glôssai), being a sign; and in verse 26 each "hath a tongue" (glôssan echei). The word glôssa or glôtta has several significations in Greek. The first and primary meaning "the tongue" -- as a mere member of the body, the organ of speech; next, a tongue, or language; and further, an obsolete or foreign word not in ordinary use. If we inquire into the use of glôssa in the New Testament we find that, setting aside the passages in Acts, Mark, and 1 Cor. 12-14; in which the phenomenon we are discussing is referred to, the word is invariably used in the first sense, "the tongue," [781:1] except in the Apocalypse, where the word as "language" typifies different nations. [781:2] Anyone who attentively considers all the passages in which the Charisma is discussed will observe that no uniform application of any one signification throughout is possible. We may briefly say that all the attempts which have been made philologically to determine the true nature of the phenomenon which the Apostle discusses have failed to produce any really satisfactory result, or to secure the general adhesion of critics. It is, we think, obvious that Paul does not apply the word, either in the plural or in the singular, in its ordinary senses, but makes use of glôssa to describe phenomena connected with speech, without intending strictly to apply it either to the tongue or to a definite language. We merely refer to this in passing, for it is certain that no philological discussion of the word can materially affect the case; and such an argument is of no interest for our inquiry. Each meaning has been adopted by critics and been made the basis for a different explanation of the phenomenon. Philology is incapable of finally solving such a problem.

From the time of Irenaeus, [781:3] or at least of Origen, the favourite theory of the Fathers, based chiefly upon the narrative in Acts of the descent of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, was that the disciples suddenly became supernaturally endowed with power to speak other languages which they had not previously learned, and that this gift was more especially conferred to facilitate the promulgation of the Gospel throughout the world. Augustine went so far as to believe that each of the Apostles was thus enabled to speak all languages. [781:4] The opinion that the "gift of tongues" consisted of the power, miraculously conferred by the Holy Ghost, to speak in a language or languages previously unknown to the speaker long continued to prevail, and it is still the popular, as well as the orthodox, view of the subject. As soon as the attention of critics was seriously directed to the question, however, this interpretation became rapidly modified, or was altogether abandoned. It is unnecessary for us to refer in detail to the numerous explanations which have been given of the phenomenon, or to enumerate the extraordinary views which have been expressed regarding it; it will be sufficient if, without reference to minor differences of opinion respecting the exact form in which it exhibited itself, we broadly state that a great majority of critics, rejecting the theory that glôssais lalein means to speak languages previously unknown to the speakers, pronounce it to be the speech of persons in a state of ecstatic excitement, chiefly of the nature of prayer or praise, and unintelligible to ordinary hearers. Whether this speech consisted of mere inarticulate tones, of excited ejaculations, of obsolete or uncommon expressions and provincialisms, of highly poetical rhapsodies of prayer in slow, scarcely audible, accents, or of chanted mysterious phrases, fragmentary and full of rapturous intensity, as these critics variously suppose, we shall not pause to inquire. It is clear that, whatever may have been the form of the speech, if, instead of being speech in unlearnt languages supernaturally communicated, glôssais lalein was only the expression of religious excitement, however that may be supposed to have originated, the pretensions of the gift to a miraculous character shrink at once into exceedingly small proportions.

Every unprejudiced mind must admit that the representation that the gift of "tongues," of which the Apostle speaks in his Epistle to the Corinthians, conferred upon the recipient the power to speak foreign languages before unknown to him, may in great part be traced to the narrative in Acts of the descent of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. Although a few Apologists advance the plea that there may have been differences in the manifestation, it is generally recognised on both sides that, however differently described by the two writers, the glôssais lalein of Paul and of the Acts is, in reality, one and the same phenomenon. The impression conveyed by the narrative has been applied to the didactic remarks of Paul, and a meaning forced upon them which they cannot possibly bear. It is not too much to say that, but for the mythical account in the Acts, no one would ever have supposed that the glôssais lalein of Paul was the gift of speaking foreign languages without previous study or practice. In the interminable controversy regarding the phenomenon, moreover, it seems to us to have been a fundamental error, on both sides too often, to have considered it necessary to the acceptance of any explanation that it should equally suit both the remarks of Paul and the account in Acts. The only right course is to test the narrative by the distinct and authoritative statements of the Apostle; but to adopt the contrary course is much the same procedure as altering the natural interpretation of an original historical document in order to make it agree with the romance of some unknown writer of a later day. The Apostle Paul writes as a contemporary and eye-witness of phenomena which affected himself, and regarding which he gives the most valuable direct and indirect information. The unknown author of the Acts was not an eye-witness of the scene which he describes, and his narrative bears upon its very surface the clearest marks of traditional and legendary treatment. The ablest Apologists freely declare that the evidence of Paul is of infinitely greater value than that of the unknown and later writer, and must be preferred before it. The majority of those who profess to regard the narrative as historical explain away its clearest statements with startling ingenuity, or conceal them beneath a cloud of words. The references to the phenomenon in later portions of the Acts are in themselves quite inconsistent with the earlier narrative in chapter 2. The detailed criticism of Paul is the only contemporary, and it is certainly the only trustworthy, account we possess regarding the gift of "tongues." [783:1] We must, therefore, dismiss from our minds, if possible, the bias which the narrative in the Acts has unfortunately created, and attend solely to the words of the Apostle. If his report of the phenomenon discredit that of the unknown and later writer, so much the worse for the latter. In any case, it is the testimony of Paul which is referred to and which we are called upon to consider, and later writers must not be allowed to invest it with impossible meanings. Even if we had not such undeniable reasons for preferring the statements of Paul to the later and untrustworthy narrative of an unknown writer, the very contents of the latter, contrasted with the more sober remarks of the Apostle, would consign it to a very subordinate place.

Discussing the miracle of Pentecost in Acts, which he, of course, regards as the instantaneous communication of ability to speak in foreign languages, Zeller makes the following remarks: "The supposition of such a miracle is opposed to a right view of divine agency and the relation of God to the world, and, in this case in particular, to a right view of the constitution of the human mind. The composition and the properties of a body may be altered through external influence, but mental acquirements are attained only through personal activity, through practice; and it is just in this that spirit distinguishes itself from matter: that it is free, that there is nothing in it which it has not itself spontaneously introduced. The external and instantaneous in-pouring of a mental acquirement is a representation which refutes itself." In reply to those who object to this reasoning, he retorts: "The assertion that such a miracle actually occurred contradicts the analogy of all attested experience; that it is invented by an individual or by tradition corresponds with it; when, therefore, the historical writer has only the choice between these two alternatives, he must, according to the laws of historical probability, under all the circumstances, unconditionally decide for the second. He must do this even if an eye-witness of the pretended miracle stood before him; he must all the more do so if he has to do with a statement which, beyond doubt not proceeding from an eye-witness, is more possibly separated by some generations from the event in question." [784:1]

These objections are not confined to rationalistic critics, and do not merely represent the arguments of scepticism. Neander expresses similar sentiments, [784:2] and after careful examination pronounces the narrative in Acts untrustworthy, and, adhering to the representations of Paul, rejects the theory that glôssais lalein was speech in foreign languages supernaturally imparted. Meyer, who arrives at much the same result as Neander, speaks still more emphatically. He says: "This supposed gift of tongues (all languages), however, was in the apostolic age, partly unnecessary for the preaching of the Gospel, as the preachers thereof only required to be able to speak Hebrew and Greek; partly too general, as amongst the assembly there were certainly many who were not called to be teachers. And, on the other hand, again, it would also have been premature, as, before all, Paul the Apostle of the Gentiles would have required it, in whom, nevertheless, there is as little trace of any subsequent reception of it as that he preached otherwise than in Hebrew and Greek. But now, how is the event to be historically judged? Regarding this the following is to be observed: As the instantaneous bestowal of facility in a foreign language is neither logically possible nor psychologically and morally conceivable, and as not the slightest intimation of such a thing in the Apostles is perceptible in their Epistles and elsewhere (on the contrary, comp. 14:11); as, further, if it was only momentary, the impossibility increases, and as Peter himself in his speech does not once make the slightest reference to the foreign languages; therefore -- whether, without any intimation in the text, one consider that Pentecost assembly as a representation of all future Christianity, or not -- the occurrence, as Luke relates it, cannot be transmitted in its actual historical details." [784:3]

The Gift of Tongues in Acts
Let us a little examine the particulars of the narrative in Acts 2. All the brethren were assembled in one place, a house (oikos), on the morning of the day of Pentecost. In the preceding chapter (1:15) we learn that the number of disciples was then about 120, and the crowd which came together when the miraculous occurrence took place must have been great, seeing that it is stated that 3,000 souls were baptised and added to the Church upon the occasion (2:41). Passing over the statement as to the numbers of the disciples, which might well surprise us after the information given by the Gospels (John 16:31; Matt. 28: 7), we may ask in what house in Jerusalem could such a multitude have assembled? Apologists have exhausted their ingenuity in replying to the question, but whether placing the scene in one of the halls or courts of the Temple, or in an imaginary house in one of the streets leading to the Temple, the explanation is equally vague and unsatisfactory. How did the multitude so rapidly know of what was passing in a private house? We shall say nothing at present of the sound of the "rushing mighty wind" which filled all the house, nor of the descent of the "tongues as of fire," nor of the various interpretations of these phenomena by apologetic writers. These incidents do not add to the historical character of the narrative, nor can it be pronounced either clear or consistent. The brethren assembled "were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues (lalein eterais glôssais), as the Spirit gave them utterance" (Acts 2:4). Apologists, in order somewhat to save the historical credit of the account and reconcile it with the statements of Paul, have variously argued that there is no affirmation made in the narrative that speech in foreign languages previously unknown was imparted. The members of the fifteen nations who hear the Galilaeans speaking "in our own language wherein we were born" (tê idia dialektô hêmôn en ê egennêthêmen) are disposed of with painful ingenuity; but, passing over all this, it is recognised by unprejudiced critics on both sides that at least the author of Acts, in writing this account, intended to represent the brethren as instantaneously speaking those previously unknown foreign languages. A few writers represent the miracle to have been one of hearing rather than of speaking, the brethren merely praising God in their own tongue, the Aramaic, but the spectators understanding in their various languages. [785:3] This only shifts the difficulty from the speakers to the bearers, and the explanation is generally repudiated. It is, however, freely granted by all that history does not exhibit a single instance of such a gift of tongues having ever been made useful for the purpose of preaching the Gospel. Paul, who claimed the possession of the gift of tongues in a superlative degree (1 Cor. 14:18), does not appear to have spoken more languages than Aramaic and Greek. He writes to the Romans in the latter tongue, and not in Latin, and to the Galatians in the same language instead of their own. Peter, who appears to have addressed the assembled nations in Greek on this very occasion, does not in his speech either refer to foreign languages or claim the gift himself, for in verse 15 he speaks only of others: "For these (outoi) are not drunken." Everyone remembers the ancient tradition recorded by Papias, and generally believed by the Fathers, that Mark accompanied Peter as his "interpreter" (hermêneutês).  [786:1] The first Epistle bearing the name of Peter, and addressed to some of the very nations mentioned in Acts, to sojourners "in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia," is written in Greek; and so are the Epistle to the Hebrews and the other works of the New Testament. Few will be inclined to deny that, to take only one language for instance, the Greek of the writings of the New Testament leaves something to be desired, and that, if the writers possessed such a supernatural gift, they evidently did not speak even so important and current a language with absolute purity. "Le style des écrivains sacrés," writes a modern Apologist, "montre clairement qu'ils ont appris la langue grecque et qu'ils ne la possèdent pas de droit divin et par inspiration, car ils l'écrivent sans correction, en la surchargeant de locutions hébraïques." [786:2] In fact, as most critics point out,, there never was a period at which a gift of foreign tongues was less necessary for intercourse with the civilised world, Greek being almost everywhere current. As regards the fifteen nations who are supposed to have been represented on this great occasion, Neander says: "It is certain that amongst the inhabitants of towns in Cappadocia, in Pontus, in Asia Minor, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Cyrene, and in the parts of Libya and Egypt peopled by Greek and Jewish colonies, the Greek language was in great part more current than the old national tongue. There remain, out of the whole catalogue of languages, at most the Persian, Syriac, Arabic, Greek, and Latin. The more rhetorical than historical stamp of the narrative is evident." [786:3]

Account in the Acts must be rejected
This rhetorical character, as contradistinguished from sober history, is, indeed, painfully apparent throughout. The presence in Jerusalem of Jews, devout men "from every nation under heaven," is dramatically opportune, and thus representatives of the fifteen nations are prepared to appear in the house and hear their own languages in which they were born spoken in so supernatural, though useless, a manner by the brethren. They are all said to have been "confounded" at the phenomenon, and the writer adds (11:7 f.): "And they were all amazed, and marvelled, saying, Behold, are not all these which speak Galileans? And how hear we every man in our own language wherein we were born?" etc. Did all the multitude say this? Or is not the writer merely ascribing probable sentiments to them? How, again, did they know that the hundred and twenty, or more, brethren were Galileans? Further on the writer adds more of the same kind (verses 12-13): "And they were all amazed and were in doubt, saying one to another, What may this mean? But others, mocking, said: They are full of sweet wine." Is it not a strange manner of accounting for such a phenomenon as (verse 11) hearing people speaking in their own tongues the great works of God to suppose that they are drunken? People speaking with tongues, in Paul's sense (1 Cor. 14:23, 24, 33), and creating an unintelligible tumult, might well lead strangers to say that they were either mad or drunken; but the praise of God in foreign language, understood by so many, could not convey such an impression. Peter does not, in explanation, simply state that they are speaking foreign languages which have just been supernaturally imparted to them, but argues (verse 15) that "these are not drunken, as ye suppose, for it is the third hour of the day," too early to be "full of sweet wine," and proceeds to assert that the phenomenon is, on the contrary, a fulfilment of a prophecy of Joel, in which, although the pouring out of God's Spirit upon all flesh is promised "in the last days," and, as a result, that "your sons and your daughters shall prophesy and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams," not a single word is said of any gift of "tongues," foreign or otherwise. The miraculous phenomenon in question is not mentioned in the prophecy, of which it is supposed to be the accomplishment. It does not much help matters to argue that the miracle, although not for future use, was intended as a sign. We shall see what Paul says regarding glôssais lalein as a sign, but we may here merely point out that the effect produced in the Corinthian Church is rather an impression of madness, whilst here it leads to a mocking accusation of drunkenness. The conversion of the 3,000 is by no means referred to the speaking with tongues, but simply to the speech of Peter (2:37 f., 41). From no point of view is there cohesion between the different parts of the narrative; it is devoid of verisimilitude. It is not surprising that so many critics of all shades of opinion recognise unhistorical elements in the narrative in Acts, not to use a stronger term. To allow such an account to influence our interpretation of Paul's statements regarding the gift of tongues is quite out of the question; and no one who appreciates the nature of the case, and who carefully examines the narrative of the unknown writer, can, we think, hesitate to reject his theory of a supernatural bestowal of power to speak foreign languages.

Origin of legend in Acts
It is not difficult to trace the origin of the account in Acts, and, although we cannot here pause to do so with any minuteness, we may at least indicate the lines upon which the narrative is based. There is no doubt that then, as now, the Jews commemorated at the feast of Pentecost the giving of the law on Sinai. It seemed good to the author of Acts that the prophet like unto Moses (Acts 3:22, 7:37), who was to abrogate that law and replace it by a dispensation of grace, should inaugurate the new law of love and liberty (cf. Gal. 4:21 f.), with signs equally significant and miraculous. It is related in Exodus 19:18 that the Lord descended upon Sinai "in fire," and that the whole mount quaked greatly. The voice of God pronounced the Decalogue, and, as the Septuagint version renders our Exodus 20:18, "All the people saw the voice, and the lightnings and the voice of the trumpet and the mountain smoking." According to Rabbinical tradition when God came down to give the law to the Israelites, he appeared not to Israel alone, but to all the other nations, and the voice in which the law was given went to the ends of the earth and was heard of all peoples. [788:3] It will be remembered that the number of the nations was supposed to be seventy, each speaking a different language, and the law was given in the one sacred Hebrew tongue. The Rabbins explained, however: "The voice from Sinai was divided into seventy voices and seventy languages, so that all nations of the earth heard (the law), and each heard it actually in its own language." [788:4] And again: "Although the ten commandments were promulgated with one single tone, yet it is said (Exodus 20:15), 'All people heard the voices' (in the plural and not the voice in the singular); 'the reason is: As the voice went forth it was divided into seven voices, and then into seventy tongues, and every people heard the Law in its own mother-tongue.'" [788:5] The same explanation is given of Psalm 68:11, and the separation of the voice into seven voices and seventy tongues is likened to the sparks beaten by a hammer from molten metal on the anvil. [788:6] Philo expresses the same ideas in several places. We can only extract one passage in which, speaking of the giving of the law on Sinai, and discussing the manner in which God proclaimed the Decalogue, he says: "For God is not like a man in need of a voice and of a tongue … but it seems to me that at that time he performed a most holy and beseeming wonder, commanding an invisible voice to be created in air, more wonderful than all instruments… not lifeless, but neither a form of living creature composed of body and soul, but a reasonable soul full of clearness and distinctness, which formed and excited the air and transformed it into flaming fire, and sounded forth such an articulated voice, like breath through a trumpet, that it seemed to be equally heard by those who were near and those furthest off." [789:1] A little further on he says: "But from the midst of the fire streaming from heaven a most awful voice sounded forth, the flame being articulated to language familiar to the hearers, which made that which was said so vividly clear as to seem rather seeing than hearing it." [789:2] It requires no elaborate explanation to show how this grew into the miracle at Pentecost at the inauguration of the Christian dispensation, when suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind which filled all the house where the disciples were, and there appeared to them tongues as of fire parting asunder which sat upon each of them, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, even as the Spirit gave them utterance, so that devout men from every nation under heaven heard them speaking, everyone in his own language wherein he was born, the great works of God.

When we turn to the other passages in the Acts where the gift of tongues is mentioned, we find that the interpretation of foreign languages supernaturally imparted is quite out of place. When Peter is sent to Cornelius, as he is addressing the centurion and his household, and even before they are baptised (10:44), "the Holy Spirit fell on all them who hear the word"; and the sign of it is (10:46) that they are heard "speaking with tongues and magnifying God" (lalountôn glôssais kai megalunontôn ton theon), precisely like the disciples at Pentecost (cf. 2:11, 11:15 f.). As this gift fell on all who heard the word (10:44), it could not be a sign to unbelievers; and the idea that Cornelius and his house immediately began to speak in foreign languages, which, as in the case of the Corinthians, probably no one understood, instead of simply "magnifying God" in their own tongue, which everyone understood, is almost ludicrous, if without offence we may venture to say so. The same remarks apply to 19:6. We must again allow an eminent Apologist, who will not be accused of irreverence, to characterise such a representation. "Now, in such positions and such company, speech in foreign tongues would be something altogether without object and without meaning. Where the consciousness of the grace of salvation, and of a heavenly life springing from it, is first aroused in man, his own mother tongue verily, not a foreign language, will be the natural expression of his feelings. Or we must imagine a magical power which, taking possession of men, like instruments without volition, forces them to utter strange tones -- a thing contradicting all analogy in the operations of Christianity." [790:1] The good sense of the critic revolts against the natural submission of the Apologist.

We have diverged so far in order prominently to bring before the reader the nature and source of the hypothesis that the gift of "tongues" signifies instantaneous power to speak unlearnt foreign languages. Such an interpretation is derived almost entirely from the mythical narrative in the Acts of the Apostles. We shall now proceed to consider the statements of the Apostle Paul, and endeavour to ascertain what the supposed miraculous Charisma really is. That it is something very different from what the unknown writer represents it in the episode of Pentecost cannot be doubted. "Whoever has, even once, read with attention what Paul writes of the speaking with tongues in the Corinthian community," writes Thiersch, "knows that the difference between that gift of tongues and this (of Acts 2) could scarcely be greater. There, a speech which no mortal can understand without interpretation, and also no philologist but the Holy Spirit alone can interpret; here, a speech which requires no interpretation. That gift serves only for the edification of the speaker; this clearly also for that of the hearer. The one is of no avail for the instruction of the ignorant; the other, clearly, is imparted wholly for that purpose." [790:2]

Paul does not mean foreign languages
It may be well that we should state a few reasons which show that Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, does not intend, in speaking of glôssais lalein, to represent speech in foreign languages. In the very outset of the dissertation on the subject, (14:2), Paul very distinctly declares as the principal reason for preferring prophecy to the gift of tongues For he that speaketh with a tongue (lalôn glôssê) speaketh not unto men, but unto God; for no one understandeth [790:3] (oudeis akouei)." How could this be said if glôssê lalein meant merely speaking a foreign language? The presence of a single person versed in the language spoken would, in such a case, vitiate the whole of Paul's argument. The statement made is general, it will be observed, and not limited to one community; but, applied to a place like Corinth, one of the greatest commercial cities, in which merchants, seamen, and visitors of all countries were to be found, it would have been unreasonable to have characterised a foreign tongue as absolutely unintelligible. In 14:9, Paul says: "So likewise ye, unless ye utter by the tongue (dia tês glôssês) words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? For ye will be speaking into air." How could Paul use the expression, "by the tongue," if he meant a foreign language in verse 2 and elsewhere? He is comparing glôssais lalein in the preceding verses with the sounds of musical instruments, and the point reached in verse 9 clearly brings home the application of his argument -- the glôssais lalein is unintelligible, like the pipe or harp, and, unless the tongue utter words which have an understood eaning, it is mere speaking into air. Is it possible that Paul could call speech in a language foreign to him, perhaps, but which, nevertheless, was the mother tongue of some nation, "speaking into air"? In such case he must have qualified his statement by obvious explanations, of which not a word appears throughout his remarks. That he does not speak of foreign languages is made still more clear by the next two verses (verse 10), in which, continuing his argument from analogy, he actually compares glôssais lalein with speech in foreign languages, and ends (verse 11): "If, therefore, I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian (foreigner) and he that speaketh a barbarian (foreigner) in my judgment" (1 Cor. 14:11). Paul's logic is certainly not always beyond reproach, but he cannot be accused of perpetrating such an antithesis as contrasting a thing with itself. He, therefore, explicitly distinguishes (verse 10) genê phônôn, "kinds of languages," [791:2] from (12:10, 28, etc.) genê glôssôn, "kinds of tongues." In 14:6 Paul says: "If I come unto you speaking with tongues (glôssais lalôn), what shall I profit you, unless I shall speak to you, either in revelation, or knowledge, or in prophecy, or in teaching?" (en apokalypsei ê en gnôsei ê en prophêteia ê en didachê); and then he goes on to compare such unintelligible speech with musical instruments. It is obvious that revelation, knowledge, prophecy, and teaching might equally be expressed in foreign languages, and, therefore, in "speaking with tongues" it is no mere difficulty of expression which makes it unprofitable, but that general unintelligibility which is the ground of the whole of Paul's objections. Paul exclaims (verse 18): "I thank God I speak with a tongue (glôssê lalô[792:1] more than ye all (19), but in a church I would rather speak five words with my understanding, that I may teach others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue (en glôssê)" (1 Cor. 14:18-19.) We have already pointed out that there is no evidence that Paul could speak many languages. So far as we have any information, he only made use of Greek and Aramaic, and never even preached where those languages were not current. He always employed the former in his Epistles, whether addressed to Corinth, Galatia, or Rome, and his knowledge even of that language was not perfect. Speaking "with a tongue" cannot, for reasons previously given, mean a foreign language; and this is still more obvious from what he says in verse 19, just quoted, in which he distinguishes speaking with a tongue from speaking with his understanding. Five words so spoken are better than ten thousand in a tongue, because he speaks with the understanding in the one case, and without it in the second. It is clear that a man speaks with his understanding as much in one language as another, but it is the main characteristic of the speech we are discussing that it is throughout opposed to understanding -- cf. verses 14, 15. It would be inconceivable that, if this gift really signified power to speak foreign languages, Paul could, on the one hand, use the expressions in this letter with regard to it, and, on the other, that he could have failed to add remarks consistent with such an interpretation. For instance, is it possible that the Apostle, in repressing the exercise of the Charisma, as he does, could have neglected to point out some other use for it than mere personal edification? Could he have omitted to tell some of these speakers with tongues that, instead of wasting their languages in a Church where no one understood them, it would be well for them to employ them in the instruction of the nations whose tongues had been supernaturally imparted to them? As it is, Paul checks the use of a gift bestowed by the Holy Spirit, and reduces its operation to the smallest limits, without once indicating so obvious a sphere of usefulness for the miraculous power. We need not proceed to further arguments upon this branch of the subject; although, in treating other points, additional evidence will constantly present itself. For the reasons we have stated, and many others, the great majority of critics are agreed that the gift of tongues, according to Paul, was not the power of speaking foreign languages previously unknown. [792:3] But for the narrative in Acts 2 no one would ever have thought of such an interpretation.

Kinds of tongues and their interpretation
Coming now to consider the two Charismata, "kinds of tongues" and "the interpretation of tongues," more immediately in connection with our inquiry, as so-called miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit, we shall first endeavour to ascertain some of their principal characteristics. The theory of foreign languages supernaturally imparted without previous study may be definitively laid aside. The interpretation of tongues may go with it, but requires a few observations. It is clear from Paul's words throughout this dissertation that the interpretation of tongues not only was not invariably attached to the gift of tongues, [793:1] (1 Cor. 14:13, 27, 28), but was at least often a separate gift possessed without the kinds of tongues (cf. 12:10, 28, 14:26, 28). Nothing can be more specific than 12:10, "…to another, kinds of tongues; and to another, interpretation of tongues"; and again, verse 30: "Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?" This is indeed presaged by the "diversities of gifts," etc., of 12:4 f. Upon the hypothesis of foreign languages, this would presuppose that some spoke languages which they could not interpret, and consequently could not understand, and that others understood languages which they could not speak. The latter point is common enough in ordinary life; but, in this instance, the miracle of supernaturally receiving a perfect knowledge of languages, instantaneously and without previous study, is as great as to receive the power to speak them. The anomaly in the miracle, merely to point out a suggestive discrepancy where all is anomalous, is that the gift of tongues should ever have been separated from the gift of interpretation. If a man understand the foreign language he speaks, he can interpret it; if he cannot interpret it, he cannot understand it; and if he cannot understand it, can he possibly speak it? Certainly not, without his having been made a perfectly mechanical instrument through which, apart from the understanding and the will, sounds are involuntarily produced, which is not to be entertained. Still pursuing the same hypothesis -- the one gift is to speak languages which no one understands, the other to understand languages which no one speaks. Paul never even assumes the probability that the "tongue" spoken is understood by anyone except the interpreter. The interpretation of such obscure tongues must have been a gift very little used -- never, indeed, except as the complement to the gift of tongues. The natural and useful facility in languages is apparently divided into two supernatural and useless halves. The idea is irresistibly suggested, as apparently it was to the Apostle himself, whether it would not have been more for the good of mankind and for the honour of Christianity if, instead of these two miraculously incomplete gifts, a little natural good sense, five words even, to be spoken in the vernacular tongue and requiring no interpretation, had been imparted. If, instead of foreign languages, we substitute the utterance of ecstatic religious excitement, the anomaly of speaking a language without understanding it or being understood becomes intelligible; and equally so the interpretation, unaccompanied by the power of speaking. It is obvious in both cases that, as no one understands the tongue, no one can determine whether the interpretation of it be accurate or not. But it is easily conceivable that a sympathetic nervous listener might suppose that he understood the broken and incoherent speech of ecstasy, and might interpret it according to his own stimulated imagination. The mysterious and unknown are suggestive texts, and there is nothing more infectious than religious excitement. In all this, however, is there anything miraculous?

We need not further demonstrate that the chief and general characteristic of "kinds of tongues" was that they were unintelligible (cf. 1 Cor. 14:2, 6-11, 13-19). Speaking with the spirit (pneuma) is opposed to speaking with the understanding (nous) (cf. verses 14-16, etc.). They were not only unintelligible to others, but the speaker himself did not understand what he uttered: (verse 14) "For if I pray with a tongue my spirit (pneuma) prayeth, but my understanding (nous) is unfruitful" (cf. 15 f., 19). We have already pointed out that Paul speaks of these Charismata in general, and not as affecting the Corinthians only; and we must now add that he obviously does not even insinuate that the "kinds of tongues" possessed by that community was a spurious Charisma, or that any attempt had been made to simulate the gift; for nothing could have been more simple than for the Apostle to denounce such phenomena as false, and to distinguish the genuine from the imitated speech with tongues. The most convincing proof that his remarks refer to the genuine Charisma is that the Apostle applies to himself the very same restrictions in the use of "tongues" as he enforces upon the Corinthians (verses 18-19, 6, etc.), and characterises his own gift precisely as he does theirs (verses 6, 11, 14, 15, 19).

Utility of the Gifts examined
Now, what was the actual operation of this singular miraculous gift, and its utility whether as regards the community or the gifted individual? Paul restricts the speaking of "tongues" in church because, being unintelligible, it is not for edification (14:2 f., 18 f., 23, 27, 28). He himself does not make use of his gift for the assemblies of believers (verses 6, 18). Another ground upon which he objects to the use of "kinds of tongues" in public is that all the gifted apparently speak at once (verses 23, 27 f., 33). It will be remembered that all the Charismata and their operations are described as due to the direct agency of the Holy Spirit (12:4 f.); and immediately following their enumeration, ending with "kinds of tongues" and "interpretation of tongues," the Apostle resumes (verse 11), "but all these worketh one and the same Spirit, dividing to each severally as he wills"; and in Acts 2:4 the brethren are represented as speaking with tongues "as the Spirit gave them utterance." Now, the first thought which presents itself is: how can a gift which is due to the direct working of the Holy Spirit possibly be abused? We must remember clearly that the speech is not expressive of the understanding of the speaker. The pneumatikoi spoke under the inspiration of the supernatural Agent, that which neither they nor others understood. Is it permissible to suppose that the Holy Spirit could inspire speech with tongues at an unfitting time? Can we imagine that this Spirit can actually have prompted many people to speak at one and the same time to the utter disturbance of order? Is not such a gift of tongues more like the confusion of tongues in Babel [795:1] than a Christian Charisma? "And the Lord said: …Go to, let us go down and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech." (Gen. 11:6-7).

In spite of his abstract belief in the divine origin of the Charisma, Paul's language unconsciously betrays practical doubt as to its character. Does not such sarcasm as the following seem extremely indecorous when criticising a result produced directly by the Holy Spirit? (14:23) "If, therefore, the whole church be come into one place and all speak with tongues, and there come in unlearned and unbelieving persons, will they not say ye are mad?" At Pentecost such an assembly was supposed to be drunken. [795:3] The whole of the counsel of the Apostle upon this occasion really amounts to an injunction to quench the Spirit. It is quite what might be expected in the case of the excitement of ecstatic religion, that the strong emotion should principally find vent in the form of prayer and praise (verse 15 f.); equally so that it should be unintelligible, and that no one should know when to say "Amen" (verse 16), and that all should speak at once; and still more so that the practical result should be tumult (verses 23, 33). All this, it might appear, could be produced without the intervention of the Holy Spirit. So far, is there any utility in the miracle?

But we are told that it is "for a sign." Paul argues upon this point in a highly eccentric manner. He quotes (v. 21) Isaiah 28:11-12, in a form neither agreeing with the Septuagint nor with the Hebrew -- a passage which has merely a superficial and verbal analogy with the gift of tongues, but whose real historical meaning has no reference to it whatever: "In the Law it is written, that with men of other tongues and with the lips of others will I speak unto this people; and yet for all that they will not hear me, saith the Lord." The Apostle continues with singular logic: "So that (hôste) the tongues are for a sign (eis sêmeion) not to those who believe, but to the unbelieving; but prophecy is not for the unbelieving, but for those who believe. If, therefore, the whole Church be come into one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in unlearned or unbelieving persons, will they not say that ye are mad? But if all prophesy and there come in an unbeliever… he is convicted by all… and so falling on his face he will worship God, reporting that God is indeed in you." The Apostle himself shows that the tongues cannot be considered a sign by unbelievers, upon whom, apparently, they produce no other impression than that the speakers are mad or drunken.

Under any circumstances, the "kinds of tongues" described by the Apostle are a very sorry specimen of the "signs and wonders and powers" of which we have heard so much. It is not surprising that the Apostle prefers exhortation in a familiar tongue. In an ecstatic state, men are incapable of edifying others; we shall presently see how far they can edify themselves. Paul utters the pith of the whole matter at the very outset of his homily, when he prefers exhortation to kinds of tongues: verse 2. "For he that speaketh with a tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God; for no one understandeth, but in Spirit he speaketh mysteries" (lalei mystêria). It is not possible to read his words without the impression that the Apostle treats the whole subject with suppressed impatience. His mind was too prone to believe in spiritual mysteries, and his nervous nature too susceptible to religious emotion and enthusiasm, to permit him clearly to recognise the true character of the gift of "tongues"; but his good sense asserted itself, and, after protesting that he would rather speak five words with his understanding than ten thousand words in a tongue, he breaks off with the characteristic exclamation (verse 20), "Brethren, become not children in your minds" (mê paidia ginesthe tais phesin). The advice is not yet out of place.

What was the private utility or advantage of the supernatural gift? How did he who spoke with a tongue edify himself? (verse 4). Paul clearly states that he does not edify the Church (verse 2 f.). In the passage just quoted the Apostle, however, says that the speaker "with a tongue" "speaketh to God"; and further on (verses 18, 19) he implies that, although he himself does not use the gift in public, he does so in private. He admonishes (verse 28) anyone gifted with tongues, if there be no interpreter present, to "keep silence in a church, but let him speak to himself and to God." But in what does the personal edification of the individual consist? In employing language, which he does not comprehend, in private prayer and praise? In addressing God in some unintelligible jargon, in the utterance of which his understanding has no part? Many strange purposes and proceedings have been attributed to the Supreme Being, but probably none has been imagined more incongruous than a gift of tongues unsuitable for the edification of others, and not intelligible to the recipient, but considered an edifying substitute in private devotion for his own language. This was certainly not the form of prayer which Jesus taught his disciples (Matt. 6:5 f.; Luke 11:1 f.). And this gift was valued more highly in the Corinthian Church than all the rest! Do we not get an instructive insight into the nature of the other Charismata from this suggestive fact? The reality of miracles does not seem to be demonstrated by these chapters. [797:2]

Probable nature of the Gift of Tongues
We have already stated that the vast majority of critics explain glôssais lalein as speech in an ecstatic condition; and all the phenomena described by Paul closely correspond with the utterance of persons in a state of extreme religious enthusiasm and excitement, of which many illustrations might be given from other religions before and since the commencement of our era, as well as in the history of Christianity in early and recent times. Everyone knows of the proceedings of the heathen oracles, the wild writhings and cries of the Pythoness and the mystic utterances of the Sibyl. In the Old Testament there is allusion to the ecstatic emotion of the prophets in the account of Saul, 1 Sam. 19:24 (cf. Isaiah 8:19, 29:4). The Montanists exhibited similar phenomena, and Tertullian has recorded several instances of such religious excitement, to which we have elsewhere referred. Chrysostom had to repress paroxysms of pious excitement closely resembling these in the fourth century; [797:3] and even down to our own times instances have never been wanting of this form of hysterical religion. Into none of this can we enter here. Enough, we trust, has been said to show the true character of the supposed supernatural Charismata of Paul from his own account of them, and the information contained in his Epistles.

Although we have been forced to examine in considerable detail the passages in the writings of Paul cited by Apologists in support of miracles, the study is one of great value to our inquiry. These are the only passages which we possess in which a contemporary and eye-witness describes what he considers supernatural phenomena, and conveys to us his impression of miraculous agency. Instead of traditional reports of miracles narrated by writers who are unknown, and who did not actually see the occurrences in question, we have here a trustworthy witness dealing with matters in which he was personally interested, and writing a didactic homily upon the nature and operation of Charismata which he believed to be miraculous, and conferred upon the Church by the immediate agency of the Holy Spirit. The nineteenth century here comes into direct contact with the age of miracles, but at the touch these miracles vanish, and that which, seen through the golden mist of pious tradition, seems to possess unearthly power and beauty, on closer examination dwindles into the prose of everyday life. The more minutely miracles are scanned, the more unreal they are recognised to be. The point to which we now desire to call attention, however, is the belief and the mental constitution of Paul. We have seen something of the nature and operation of the gift of tongues. That the phenomena described proceeded from an ecstatic state, into which persons of highly excitable nervous organisation are very liable to fall under the operation of strong religious impressions, can scarcely be doubted. Eminent Apologists [798:1] have gravely illustrated the phenomena by the analogy of mesmerism, somnambulism, and the effects of magnetism. Paul asserts that he was subject to the influence, whatever it was, more than anyone, and there is nothing which is more credible than the statement, or more characteristic of the Apostle. We desire to speak of him with the profoundest respect and admiration. We know more, from his epistles, of the intimate life and feelings of the great Apostle of the Gentiles than of any other man of the apostolic age, and it is impossible not to feel warm sympathy with his noble and generous character. The history of Christianity, after the death of its Founder, would sink almost into commonplace if the grand figure of Paul were blotted from its pages. But it is no detraction to recognise that his nervous temperament rendered him peculiarly susceptible of those religious impressions which result in conditions of ecstatic trance, to which, as we actually learn from himself, he was exceptionally subject. The effects of this temperament probably first made him a Christian; and to his enthusiastic imagination we owe most of the supernatural dogmas of the religion which he adopted and transformed.

One of these trances the Apostle himself recounts (2 Cor. 12:1 f.), always with the cautious reserve, "whether in the body or out of the body I know not, God knoweth," how he was caught up to the third heaven, and in Paradise heard unutterable words which it is not lawful for a man to speak; in immediate connection with which he continues: "And lest I should be exalted above measure by the excess of the revelations, there was given to me a stake (skolops) in the flesh, an angel of Satan to buffet me." [799:2] This was one of the "visions" (optasias) and revelations (apokalypseis) of the Lord" of which he speaks, and of which he had such an excess to boast. Can anyone doubt that this was nearly akin to the state of ecstatic trance in which he spoke with tongues more than all the Corinthians? Does anyone suppose that Paul, "whether in the body or out of the body," was ever actually caught up into "the third heaven," wherever that may be? Or doubt that this was simply one of the pious hallucinations which visit those who are in such a state? If we are seriously to discuss the point -- it is clear that evidence of such a thing is out of the question; that Paul himself admits that he cannot definitely describe what happened; that we have no other ground for considering the matter than the Apostle's own mysterious utterance; that it is impossible for a person subject to such visions and hallucinations to distinguish between reality and seeming; that this narrative has not only all the character of hallucination, but no feature of sober fact; and, finally, that, whilst it accords with all experiences of visionary hallucination, it contradicts all experience of practical life. We have seen that Paul believes in the genuineness and supernatural origin of the divine Charismata, and he in like manner believes in the reality of his visions and revelations. He has equal reason, or want of reason, in both cases.

Paul's Stake in the Flesh
What was the nature of the "stake in the flesh" which, upon the theory of the diabolical origin of disease, he calls "an angel of Satan to buffet me"? There have been many conjectures offered, but one explanation which has been advanced by able critics has special force and probability. It is suggested that this "stake in the flesh," which almost all now at least recognise to have been some physical malady, and very many suppose to have been headache or some other similar periodical and painful affection, was in reality a form of epilepsy. [800:1] It has been ably argued that the representation of the malady as "an angel of Satan" to buffet him, directly connects it with nervous disorders like epilepsy, which the Jews especially ascribed to diabolical influence; and the mention of this skolops in immediate continuation of his remarks on "visions" and "revelations," which a tendency to this very malady would so materially assist in producing, further confirms the conjecture. [800:2] No one can deny, and medical and psychological annals prove, that many men have been subject to visions and hallucinations which have never been seriously attributed to supernatural causes. There is not one single valid reason removing the ecstatic visions and trances of the Apostle Paul from this class.

We do not yet discuss the supposed vision in which he saw the risen Jesus, though it is no exception to the rest, but reserve it for the next chapter. At present, it suffices that we point out the bearing of our examination of Paul's general testimony to miracles upon our future consideration of his evidence for the Resurrection. If it be admitted that his judgment as to the miraculous character of the Charismata is fallacious, and that what he considered miraculous were simply natural phenomena, the theory of the reality of miracles becomes less tenable than ever. And if, further, it be recognised, as we think it necessarily must be, that Paul was subject to natural ecstatic trances, with all their accompanying forms of nervous excitement -- "kinds of tongues," visions, and religious hallucinations -- a strong and clear light will fall upon his further testimony for miraculous occurrences which we shall shortly have before us.

< Previous section      Contents      Home      Top of Page      Next section >
HTML © 2002 -