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Tongues in 1 Corinthians 14 were languages the speakers understood

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9 minutes to read If you’re speaking in tongues and you don’t know what you’re saying, you’re not speaking in tongues. You’re babbling like a baby.

Jared Rolston has recently written on the connection between tongues and baby language: Bringing Baby Babble Into Battle. This connection is more profound than it first appears; it’s not just an analogy. And since language shapes us just like it shapes creation (Jn 1:1), and since worship is warfare, the implications are disturbing at multiple levels.

However, his article does not attempt an exegetical handling of 1 Corinthians 14. That isn’t its purpose. But I would like to bolster its purpose by providing this exegetical examination—so no one can evade his point by claiming he just misread the text. We should especially speak to Paul’s expression of praying “with the spirit” versus praying “with the mind,” which in English is easily read like a difference between praying with understanding versus praying without it. That is not what Paul means in the slightest, and actually makes mincemeat not only of 1 Corinthians 14, but of his doctrine of the indwelling Spirit also.

To see this, we should start at the beginning of the chapter, because it is here that he frames everything that follows, setting in place a fundamental dichotomy which must govern our interpretation of his words later:

Pursue love, but seek earnestly the spiritual things, but rather that ye may prophesy, 2 for he who is speaking in a tongue—unto men he speaketh not, yet unto God, for no one can hear [i.e., understand], but in spirit he speaketh secrets; 3 but he who is prophesying to men speaketh building up, and exhortation, and comfort; 4 he who is speaking in a tongue, himself builds up, but he who is prophesying, the congregation builds up. (1 Co 14:1–4)

The distinction that Paul sets out as he opens is between speaking in a tongue, and prophesying. The key difference between them is not what is being spoken, but what language it is being spoken in. Both are speaking something that builds up. Both, in fact, are a kind of prophetic utterance; meaningful speech which conveys a true word to sanctifying effect.

The difference between them is that one is a language others cannot understand; one is a language they can. The language others cannot understand will not build them up; the word is lost. It only builds up the one speaking it, because he understands it.

This is the distinction that governs the entire passage, and makes interpreting it possible without confusion. A tongue is spoken “in spirit,” i.e., within the man, and is thus a secret (Gk. musterion) to anyone but himself. A prophecy is not like this; it is publicly comprehensible.

greater is he who is prophesying than he who is speaking with tongues, except someone may translate, that the congregation may receive building up. (1 Co 14:5)

Once again, it is plain and apparent that the speaking in tongues here is the speaking of a word which can be translated, and should be if the tongue-speaking is happening in the congregation. He continues the point in verse 6:

But now, brothers, if I may come unto you speaking tongues, what shall I profit you, unless I shall speak to you either by [way of] revealing, or of knowledge, or of prophesying, or of teaching?

In other words, what is said in the tongue must be revealed; it must become knowledge or prophecy or teaching to the one hearing. Paul then uses the analogy of musical instruments playing notes that can’t be made out, to explain his argument more simply in verses 7–9; from which he concludes:

There are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world, and none of them is voiceless [i.e., without meaning]; 11 if, then, I know not what the voice is able [to say], I shall be to him who is speaking a foreigner [lit. barbarian; i.e., a barker], and he who is speaking, is to me a foreigner/barker… 13 wherefore he who is speaking in a tongue—let him pray that he may translate…

On the surface, “let him pray that he may translate” might imply that the one speaking does not understand even his own words. But as I will shortly show, this is impossible. Rather, we should look to how Paul speaks in other places to grasp what he is saying here. For instance:

…praying at the same time also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to speak the secret of the Anointed, because of which also I have been bound, 4 that I may shine it forth, as it is necessary for me to speak. 5 In wisdom walk ye toward those without… your word always being in grace… to know how it is necessary to answer each one. (Col 4:3–6)

Here we see Paul asking for prayer, that he would have the ability to accurately and clearly convey what he must say—an ability he immediately goes on to commend to everyone in the church. This is not the ability to understand one’s own speech; it is the ability to translate what one knows into words that will be clearly understood and well received by others. This is critical to understanding verse 14, which is otherwise liable to be misconstrued:

for if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my mind is unfruitful.

What does he mean? That his own mind doesn’t know what he is saying? That what is happening in his spirit is unknown to him? That the word of truth we have already established is essential to speaking in a tongue is incomprehensible even to his own mind? But his mind is his spirit. Paul connects the mind and the spirit directly at the beginning of his letter, while simultaneously emphasizing their connection to comprehension, to understanding, to knowing:

for who of men hath known the things of the man, except the spirit of the man that is in him? so also the things of God no one hath known, except the Spirit of God… For who did know the mind of the Lord that he shall instruct Him? but we—we have the mind of Christ. (1 Co 2:11, 16)

The mind of Christ is the Holy Spirit. So also, the mind of a man is his own spirit. When Paul says, then, that his mind is unfruitful when his spirit prays in a tongue, he cannot mean that his mind is unable to know what his spirit is saying. This would make absolute nonsense of his own use of these terms. Indeed, this would make him a barker to himself! Paul’s entire purpose in 1 Corinthians 14 is to convince us that words we do not understand cannot build us up; therefore we should not use words that will be meaningless. This truth must be applied consistently—even when speaker and hearer are the same. You cannot be built up by speaking words that even you do not understand.

To elaborate on this a little: Paul is presupposing that language has a telos. Its purpose is to communicate meaning. If meaning is not being communicated, your speaking is contrary to nature because it cannot achieve its intended purpose. Now, if the point of the experience of speaking in tongues is emotional, then the words are unnecessary, because no meaning is being conveyed. The words are not adding anything as words. It is an unbiblical assumption that such meaningless babble could “build up” in any biblical sense. As Matthew Henry pithily observes, “Even fervent, spiritual affection must be governed by the exercise of the understanding, else men will disgrace the truths they profess to promote.”

I believe much of the confusion that comes with this part of the passage is a result of an unnatural focus on it, at the expense of everything else Paul says to sum up and apply it. For instance, in verse 28, he describes the man engaging in this alleged “private prayer language” with slightly more detail, saying, “but if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God.” Careful attention to such details straightforwardly refutes the idea that the language is only being spoken to God. But what a strained and tendentious reading is required to imagine that a man speaking to himself doesn’t know what he is saying!

To understand Paul’s meaning in verse 14, we must apply his arguments consistently, and account for all of the ways in which he describes the phenomenon. And the only reasonable, harmonious way to do this is to see him consistently pressing the same dichotomy throughout the chapter: between words only understood privately, and words that publicly build up. Words not even understood privately are contrary to his entire argument.

In light of this, there are two plausible ways to read “my mind is unfruitful” here:

  1. It refers to the person praying in tongues. The interpretation in this case is that his mind does not bring forth understanding for the congregation; he is not instructing the congregation. Note the connection between the mind and instruction in 1 Corinthians 2:16.
  2. It refers to the person present along with the tongue-speaker. On this reading, “my spirit prayeth, but my mind is unfruitful” could be taken to mean, “I am praying along in spirit, that is, willingly (cf. Mt 26:41); but my mind is not engaged because I don’t understand what this guy is saying.”

I favor the former view, and Jared favors the latter; but either is obviously more plausible than Paul saying the person praying in tongues has no idea what he is saying. The only viable way to read Paul is to have him continuing his discussion of the same distinction that he has been laboring throughout this passage: between building yourself up through words of truth that only you know, and building up the congregation by making your words known to others. Nothing whatsoever in this passage even hints that an incomprehensible ecstatic experience is in view. That is pagan religion; what does it have to do with speaking another language? On the contrary, the issue is speaking words that only benefit you, because only you understand them, when you should be speaking words that benefit the congregation.

Paul continues to labor this point in the verses that follow:

What then is it? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray also with the mind; I will sing psalms with the spirit, and I will sing psalms also with the mind; 16 since, if thou mayest bless with the spirit, he who is filling the place of the unlearned, how shall he say the Amen at thy giving of thanks, since what thou sayeth he hath not known? 17 for thou, truly, giveth thanks well, but the other is not built up! 18 I give thanks to my God—more than you all with tongues speaking—19 but in a congregation I wish to speak five words with my mind, that others also I may instruct, than ten thousand words in a tongue. (1 Co 14:15–19)

The contrast here is exactly what it has always been throughout the chapter: between internal and external understanding. To speak five words with his mind is to speak truth that others can understand; to speak ten thousand words in a tongue is to speak truth that only he can understand. He deliberately chooses three examples to drive the point home and make it especially obvious: praying, which is verbal communication with God; singing psalms, which is impossible without using the very words of God himself; and blessing or praising, which is propositional in nature since another can say amen (“so it is”).

Has anyone who thinks they are practicing this spiritual gift ever sung psalms in tongues? Let us see the evidence, and examine which psalm it is.

Either way, with this all laid out, there is no way to understand the distinction between speaking in the spirit and speaking in the mind as anything other than an expression of the distinction Paul has been rebuking the Corinthians for throughout chapter 14: instructing and building up oneself through speaking a foreign language, versus instructing and building up one’s congregation through speaking a shared language. No other reading of his words makes the slightest sense; nor does it comport with the plain reason that he gives for the very existence of tongues in the first place:

In the law it hath been written, that, With other tongues and with other lips I will speak to this people, and not even so will they hear me, saith the Lord; 22 so that the tongues are for a sign, not to the believing, but to the unbelieving; and the prophecy is not for the unbelieving, but for the believing. (1 Co 14:21–22)

Paul tells us specifically both the nature and purpose of tongues here. Their nature is revelatory—propositional. They involve God’s words being spoken in foreign languages that their speakers understand, but their hearers do not (cf. “hearing they will not hear”; Mt 13:13). Their purpose is a sign to those unbelieving people, namely the Jews. They are a judgment upon them that God has disinherited them in favor of the gentiles, reversing Babel.

Again, let anyone who has spoken God’s word to Jews in tongues come forward and testify. But that is not what we see, is it? Rather, tongues are practiced in the church as a sign to other believers, in direct contradiction to the purpose that Paul gives. Meanwhile, prophecy—the comprehensible communication of words of truth—which is supposed to be a sign to the believing, is neglected for this mindless babble.

The result? Exactly what Paul predicted:

If, therefore, the whole congregation may come together, to the same place, and all may speak with tongues, and there may come in unlearned or unbelievers, will they not say that ye are mad? (1 Co 14:23)

Let us rather aim for the better result which Paul predicts from the clear instruction of prophecy:

and if all may prophesy, and any one may come in, an unbeliever or unlearned, he is convicted by all, he is discerned by all, 25 and so the secrets of his heart become shone-forth, and so having fallen on his face, he will bow before God, declaring that God really is among you. (1 Co 14:24–25)

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