Question: In previous articles you referenced the definition of tongues in Acts 2, but what about 1 Corinthians 14? And why does Paul use the word φωνή rather than γλῶσσα ?

Answer: In employing the literal grammatical-historical hermeneutic we acknowledge the progress of revelation. Though Acts 2 was written probably more than ten years after Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, the events described in Acts 2 took place, however, as many as eighteen years before Paul’s letter was penned. The Corinthians would have likely been quite familiar with the event. Note that Paul discusses the concept with them as if they understood what he was talking about. It is worth noting that Paul uses the term glossa, or tongues, sixteen times in 1 Corinthians before any definition or purpose is offered in chapter 14:22. It would be strange for Paul to speak of an issue repeatedly without expecting that his readers would already have at least some preliminary understanding. Of course this is not conclusive one way or the other, but when we observe the cumulative case here it seems quite consistent with the understanding of progressive revelation (that Paul is relying on earlier definition).

 Further, in chapter 14, the content is not what, but how. There is no purpose for tongues cited until 14:22, but only a discussion of how tongues is to be used. Further, in 14:14 praying in a tongue (even if not hyperbolic, as I understand it to be) is not encouraged, but rather Paul is discouraging prayer in tongues. When Paul does remind the Corinthians of the purpose in 14:22, he takes his readers back to prophecy, as did Peter in Acts 2. It is noteworthy that the example (Is 28:11-12) has to do with the revelation of God’s message, and not at all with prayer. Paul’s reminder is consistent with Peter’s explanation from Acts 2, and offers nothing that would expand tongues to a broader function. Again, in this context, expansion of the usage of tongues (to include prayer, for example) is discouraged, not encouraged.

 Finally, why does Paul use φωνή rather than γλῶσσα in 14:7-11? This pericope considers the purpose of sound (the best translation of the Greek φωνή) or voice, offering several examples of inanimate objects producing sound (flute, harp, bugle, etc.). The reason for the illustration is given in verse 10: “There are perhaps a great many kinds of sounds (φωνήν) in the world and no thing soundless (ἄφωνος).” That last word could be translated as “without meaning.” In other words, sounds have distinctness and are recognizable for what they are. If the sound is not recognizable, then how will anyone respond properly to the sound? Leading up to Paul’s reminder of the importance of the purpose for tongues, Paul actually discourages the unrecognizable use of tongues again. For Paul it is common sense that tongues should be used in its recognizable way.

 Is it possible that the Corinthians were using tongues as a prayer language? Not only was it possible, but that seems to be exactly what they were doing. At every turn, Paul discourages – if not prohibits  – this unrecognizable use of tongues, because it is not consistent with God’s design or purpose. Ironically, the chapter most often cited to try to support tongues as something other than a revelatory gift for purposes of a sign is the one chapter that repeatedly discourages any other usage.


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