In recent days two bloggers have taken up the question of the gift of speaking in tongues in the New Testament: see http://adrianwarnock.com/ and http://www.teampyro.blogspot.com/. The latter of these two, written by Dan Phillips, argues that “the Bible only knows one kind of tongues . . . . That kind is supernaturally-acquired human languages.” The argument of Phillips and other cessationists is that modern manifestations of “tongues” have been shown not to be human languages and therefore are not the same as what we read in the New Testament.
I have a few comments in response (all of which are taken from my book, “The Beginner’s Guide to Spiritual Gifts” [Regal]). Acts 2 is the only text in the NT where tongues-speech consists of foreign languages not previously known by the speaker. But 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.
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? Note also that Paul describes various “kinds” or “species” (Thiselton, 1 Corinthians, 970) of tongues” (gene glosson) in 1 Corinthians 12:10. It is unlikely that he means a variety of different human languages, for whoever would 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.
In 1 Corinthians 14:2, Paul asserts that whoever speaks in a tongue “does not speak to men, but to God.” But if tongues are always human languages, Paul is mistaken, for “speaking to men” is precisely what a human language does! If tongues-speech is always a human language, how could Paul say that when one speaks “no one understands” (1 Corinthians 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 multi-lingual cosmopolitan port city that was frequented by people of numerous dialects. 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 multi-lingual, such as Paul, could interpret tongues-speech simply by virtue of his educational talent. Furthermore, in 1 Corinthians 13:2, Paul refers to “the tongues of men and of angels.” While he may be using hyperbole, he just as likely may be referring to heavenly or angelic dialects for which the Holy Spirit gives utterance. Gordon Fee cites 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 (Fee, 630-31; see Hays, 223). We should also take note of the Testament of Job 48-50, 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. 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 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” (185-86).
The fact that tongues are said to cease at the parousia (1 Corinthians 13:8) leads Anthony Thiselton to conclude that it cannot be angelic speech, for why would a heavenly language terminate in the eschaton (see his First Corinthians, pp. 973, 1061-62)? But it would not be heavenly speech per se that ends, but heavenly speech on the part of humans designed to compensate now for the limitations endemic to our fallen, pre-consummate condition. 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. 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 (Systematic Theology, 1072) notes, “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?” 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.”
I’m sure that much more could (and probably will) be said on the subject, but I hope these brief observations will prove helpful in the discussion.