Tongues are Not Learned or Known Languages

Jason Dulle

There have been many attacks leveled against the Biblical teaching of speaking in "tongues," or speaking in "languages." One of the newer arguments against tongues-speaking surfacing among certain Christian circles is the notion that the tongues spoken of in the book of Acts and in I Corinthians 12-14 are not referring to unknown languages given to the speakers by God, but to languages learned and known by the speakers. It is particularly noted that the word "unknown" which appears before "tongues" in the KJV does not appear in the Greek text, and that most English versions no longer include "unknown" in their translations. It is believed that without the word "unknown" we have no reason to conclude that the tongues spoken of are referring to a supernatural gift from God, but rather that they are referring to learned languages spoken by the Corinthian believers (those who were bilingual and trilingual). I wish to demonstrate why it is impossible to conclude that the tongues spoken of in the Scripture are referring to learned languages.

"Tongues" comes from the Greek word glossa which can refer to the physical organ of the body, or to languages. When the Bible speaks of "speaking in tongues" it means that the people were speaking in other languages, supernaturally. The languages they spoke in were not learned, but were given them by God. These languages are not understood by the speaker, or by the hearer unless interpreted.

It is true that in I Corinthians 14 all appearances of the word "unknown" are supplied by the translators, not appearing in the original Greek text. While it is important to note that, it does not mean that the text is not inferring that the tongues are "unknown" to the speaker. The context makes it clear that the languages Paul was discussing were unknown. For example, Paul said that the person who speaks in a language is not speaking to men, but to God, because no man understands him (I Corinthians 14:2). If this was referring to a language known by men, then others would be able to understand him (Corinth was a seaport city that would have had people from all parts of the world who spoke all sorts of languages, so surely somebody would understand besides the speaker). What sense would it make to say that if I speak in Spanish, that I am speaking mysteries? I would not be speaking mysteries, because every other Spanish believer would understand what I was saying. Yet Paul said no man understands him.

If the languages Paul was discussing were normal human languages, why would an interpreter be needed (I Corinthians 14:5; 27-28)? Does every person in the congregation speak a different language? No. Besides, Greek was the language of the empire. While people would know other languages, virtually every person in that day spoke Greek. There would be no need for an interpreter because even if the guy speaking spoke in some language that only he knew, he would also know Greek and could communicate with the others in the Greek language.

If the languages Paul was discussing were normal human languages why is the person who speaks in them supposed to pray that he may be able to interpret them (I Corinthians 14:13)? Would he not understand them naturally seeing that he had learned the language which he is speaking? Of course. The reason he needs to pray to interpret the language is because the language is unknown to him.

If the languages being discussed were normal human languages why does Paul say that when he prays in languages that his spirit is praying, but his understanding is unfruitful (I Corinthians 14:14)? If they were known languages he was praying in his understanding would be fruitful. So what did Paul decide to do? He decided to pray and sing with the spirit (in context it means tongues) and with the understanding (meaning his known language). Why contrast these two (spirit, understanding) if Paul is only referring to known languages?

Paul thanked God that he spoke in tongues more than all the Corinthians, but would rather speak five words that he understood so that the whole church could be edified from his speech, and not just himself (I Corinthians 14:18-19). Why does Paul contrast speaking in languages with speaking words with understanding, if the languages that he thanked God for speaking in more than the Corinthians were languages he understood?

Clearly the tongues Paul is speaking of are languages unknown to the speaker by natural learning, but supernaturally imparted to the believer from the Spirit. That is why only God understands the believer unless another believer interprets what is being said.

In the Book of Acts we see that they spoke in languages "as the Spirit gave them utterance" (Acts 2:4). It was not of human initiative, but of divine initiative. Even the onlookers realized it to be of divine origin, for they knew that those 120 in the upper room could have never learned the languages they were speaking in, because they were all residents of Galilee and had not lived in countries where they could have learned those languages naturally (Acts 2:6-11).

There is no Biblical basis to believe tongues-speaking is of natural origin. Clearly they are supernatural in origin, unknown to the speaker as to their meaning, unless interpreted.

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