Here, also, is an example of the Bible doing systematic theology on itself.
5 Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith— 6 just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”?
7 Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. 8 And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” 9 So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.
10 For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” 11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” 12 But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— 14 so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.
Galatians 3:5-14 (ESV)
Here, Paul is teaching on a single topic—faith, and not works of the law, as the basis for justification and receiving the Spirit. To do so, he quotes twice from Genesis, twice from Deuteronomy, once from Leviticus, and once from Habakkuk. He is gathering texts on different aspects of one topic and bringing them together in one place.
Given the premise that we should take our cues from the Bible on how to study the Bible, this passage is a clear indicator that there is an important place for systematic theology.
This is not an easy question.
I invite biblical observations and reasoning to help us wrestle through this together. Please try to keep each post “bite-sized” so we best consider all the different aspects and conclusions. Or, to put it another way, “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said.” (1 Corinthians 14:29)
Note: I have asked the question with the words “New Covenant” instead of “New Testament” to indicate I am speaking about the gift(s) given to believers after the resurrection and ascension—and so excluding John the Baptist and Jesus himself.
I have been addressing this question in a fresh way with the elders of my congregation as of late. It has been a challenging and thought-provoking inquiry. Recently, they asked me to summarize my current position. I present it here for your scrutiny. I would be more than happy for anyone to make a biblical argument poking at any of my present understandings and conclusions. Please just make the argument biblical—demonstrating your point(s) from specific passages.
My summary of the Bible’s teaching on tongues
As we see entire groups of new believers speak in tongues in the book of Acts (Acts 2, 10:44-46, 19:5-7), the plain purpose of such incidents is to testify to the giving of the Spirit of God (Acts 2:33, 10:45, 19:6). The gift of tongues discussed in 1 Corinthians is similar in some respects, but different in others.
Similarities common to Acts and 1 Corinthians
- Tongues were genuine languages (1Cor 14:8-10), meant to be understood—directly in Acts 2; via interpretation in Corinth (1Cor 14:12-16)
- The languages spoken were not known to those speaking, serving as a self-authenticating, supernatural wonder. (Acts 2:5-8)
Differences in tongues between Acts and 1 Corinthians
- In Corinth, tongues was a gift given to certain individual believers (1Cor 12:30), not to the entire group/church.
- In Corinth, tongues was a gift to be exercised over time (1Cor 12:4,10), not just a one-time experience (as the incidents in Acts appear to be).
- In Corinth, this gift’s purpose was to build the Body (as with all spiritual gifts; 1Cor 14:4-5), and in particular to reach non-believers (1Cor 14:22; perhaps alluding to Jews demanding a sign in 1Cor 1:22). On the other hand, in Acts it was to testify to the giving of the Spirit.
It is also important to emphasize that tongues as a testimony that the Spirit was given (in the book of Acts) did not extend beyond those first experiences. It is never presented in the epistles as a normative experience in conversion. And in 1 Corinthians, where tongues is discussed, it is explicitly said not to be something given to every believer (1Cor 12:27-30). Thus, the speaking in tongues clearly was not a general evidence of conversion. Moreover, it does not grant or indicate any spiritual standing or authority (1Cor 14:27-33, 37-38). It was just one gift among many present in the Corinthian church (and perhaps elsewhere), and, in fact, is given lesser prominence by Paul than any other gift (1Cor 12:7-10, 28; 14:5).
1 Corinthians 13 makes clear that tongues are not eternal (1Cor 13:8). However, I do not see any clear indicator in Scripture of when tongues will cease. I can understand the interpretation of 1 Corinthains 13 to indicate the time of ceasing to be with the completion of the NT, but have significant difficulty seeing how vs 12 describes this.
That said, there certainly are some good reasons why it would make sense that tongues would cease with the completion of the cannon. Some gift-positions mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12-14 certainly have ceased (i.e. apostleship) and so it is likely that God designed some of the others also for only certain times and/or in specific contexts. Also, miraculous activity in the Bible is concentrated with Moses and Joshua, Elijah and Elisha, and finally Jesus and the apostles—key points in history introducing new eras of revelation.
Thus, it is certainly possible that the Spirit would choose not to extensively employ tongues (and other miraculous gifts) at this point in history. At the same time, I do not see biblical warrant to absolutely rule it out. To date, however, I have never been exposed to any such practice of speaking in tongues which passes biblical scrutiny as genuine.
It seems interesting to me the things you state firmly (things I would say aren’t so firm) and other things a little more loosely. E.g., The plain purpose of such incidents is to testify to the giving of the Spirit of God (each verse you reference, I think would be quite a stretch to say is speaking to the purpose of God pouring out the Holy Spirit) compared to it is perhaps something that happened in other churches (do you really think it was only happening in Corinth? I grant that we don’t know but it is a gift of the Holy Spirit. Do you think teaching perhaps might not have been present in Ephesus?).
Great questions/challenges Ryan—they come across great! I’ll take up the first one in a different reply another time (Lord-willing!).
First, regarding the purpose of the incidents in Acts in which people spoke in tongues. I believe that there are only three passages in Acts which explicitly mention tongues. Here are the verses:
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. […everyone is amazed…Peter begins his sermon, including these words:] But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: “‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy. […Peter proclaims the death and resurrection of Jesus, and then talks of the present wonder once more:] Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. […Peter finishes the sermon.] (2:4-36)
While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (10:44-47)
And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying. (19:6)
I grant that the last one does not give a clear indication as to the purpose of their speaking in tongues. However, the first two seem quite clear to me.
In Acts 2, the effect of their speaking in tongues is that people are amazed and listening. Then, Peter interprets this wonder for those listening by explaining at length that they are witnessing the giving of the Holy Spirit. (The other parts of Peter’s sermon focus on the gospel and say nothing more about the speaking in tongues.)
In Acts 10, the Jewish believers are amazed because the gift of the Holy Spirit was given to Gentiles—this is the plain emphasis of the text. The way they knew that the Holy Spirit had been given was the fact they were speaking in tongues. This text (along with Acts 2 and 19) tells us nothing of the content of the speaking in tongues or any other such details—only that it made clear that the Holy Spirit had truly been given. For these reasons, I do find this to be the plain purpose of tongues-speaking in the book of Acts.
As for my uncertainty that tongues occurred in other churches besides Corinth, this is based upon the absence of any discussion of tongues in any other epistle, while there is discussion of other spiritual gifts. (Rom 12:6-8, Eph 4:11, 1Pet 4:10-11; and also non-list mentions: 1Tim 1:18, 4:13-14, 1Thes 5:20-21) To be clear, I am not arguing that the gift of tongues was not a gift exercised in other churches; I’m saying there is reason to ask the question. (As to why it might have been unique to Corinth, that is a whole different discussion!) Teaching, on the other hand, could be easily proven to be a normative gift.
I just published a page on 1 Corinthians 14. See the whole thing here. It includes my arc and a paragraph-level paraphrase phrase. I’ll put a couple highlights below and then begin addressing specifically asked questions in days to come.
Main point summary
Run after love, and in love be zealous to orderly exercise spiritual gifts so as to build the church. Particularly, [a] worship with both your spirit and mind (i.e. not in uninterpreted tongues), and [b] come to gatherings ready to contribute when/if it is appropriately your turn.
In another topic, one user called this foundational theological truth into question, stating that it “is not biblically accurate as a general statement.” I couldn’t disagree more! Thus, I am opening this topic as an invitation to gather together carefully exegeted passages demonstrating this to indeed be pure biblical truth.
Please add texts defending our salvation to be “through faith alone” and “in Christ alone” in replies below…
Did you Arc (or another method) 1 Corinthians 14? I’d love to see how you’re putting some of that together.
Sorry for dropping off the conversation for the last week and a half. There, is of course, much more to discuss with the new questions you have asked.
One of the things causing the delay is the fact I am arcing all of 1Cor 14 per your suggestion. (Not easy!) When I am done, Lord-willing, I will post it here and begin addressing your questions/challenges.
In the meantime, I’d like to give you (and anyone else reading along) the same encouragement to make an arc of 1Cor 14 and post it.
Individuals explicitly named or shown to be New Covenant prophets…
- Agabus (Acts 11:28, 21:10)
- One or more among the following: Barnabas, Simeon (Niger), Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen, and Saul (Act 13:1)
- Judas and Silas (Acts 15:32)
- John (book of Revelation) -
- The two witnesses (Rev 11:3)
Observation: With the exception of John, who was also an Apostle, there are no New Covenant prophets who are known to be foundational leaders in the early church. This is interesting in light of Eph 2:20.
 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,  built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, (Ephesians 2:19-20 ESV)
Explicit contents of New Covenant prophesies…
- Great worldwide famine foretold (Acts 11:28)
- Setting apart of Barnabas and Saul (Acts 13:1-2, cf Acts 21:10-11 to see that the Holy Spirit speaking was likely through the prophets just mentioned)
- The Jews in Jerusalem will arrest Saul (Acts 21:10-11)
- Timothy’s call to spiritual leadership (1Tim 1:18, 4:13-14)
In addition, the following are noted as things revealed by the Apostles and prophets…
- The mystery of Messiah—namely, the Gentiles as fellow heirs (Eph 3:5)
- The entire book of Revelation (John being an Apostle who was given a prophecy)
Also, we are told the purpose of prophecy in the New Covenant is upbuilding, encouragement, and consolation (1Cor 14:3), to the effect that the church would learn and be encouraged (1Cor 14:31).
Conclusion: While the prophets are spoken of as foundational to the Church, the Apostles seem to clearly be the ones who were given lasting authority in the production of scripture and the delivery of timeless (non-person-specific) truths. In other words, the role of New Covenant prophet seems to very much be a supporting role—not a lead role.
Verses which appear to directly speak to a New Covenant gift of prophecy…
 But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel:  “‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams;  even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.  And I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke;  the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day.  And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ (Acts 2:16-21 ESV)
 Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith;  if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching;  the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. (Romans 12:6-8 ESV)
 For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit,  to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit,  to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. (1 Corinthians 12:8-10 ESV)
 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues.  Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles?  Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? (1 Corinthians 12:28-30 ESV)
 So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues.  But all things should be done decently and in order. (1 Corinthians 14:39-40 ESV; note, all of 1Cor 14 connects to this topic)
 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, (Ephesians 4:11 ESV; note, 3:5 makes clear this refers to prophets in Paul’s day, not OT prophets)
 Do not quench the Spirit.  Do not despise prophecies,  but test everything; hold fast what is good. (1 Thessalonians 5:19-21 ESV)
- In saying that the purpose of the gift is to build up the body, are you saying if we are gathered together in the assembly? OR Always?
- And if you are saying always, how are you reading statements like 2a and 4a (bolded above)?
- Do you think that Paul is saying these things with pejorative undertones?
- Do you think something in the larger context qualifies how one would naturally* read this passage (here is how I take the natural reading: because the tongue/language is spoken to God, the person speaking it is in fact building themselves up just like prayer in one’s normal language would)?
In the full context of the 1Cor 12-14 section, I do think we need to take these statements as tongue-in-cheek. That is, I do not think Paul is saying “a is good, but b is better” in 1Cor 14:2-4. Instead, I think he is saying “sure you can do a, but b is what God wants.”
If, on the otherhand, Paul is communicating that the gift of tongues is meant to have an individual benefit, this would be the only gift of this sort and would contradict the biblically stated purpose for the gifts as a whole. “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (1 Corinthians 12:7) “So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church.” (1 Corinthians 14:12) “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-12) This is why love for one another is a natural subject for Paul to emphasize within his discussion of spiritual gifts (1Cor 13).
So would it personally encourage me if I had the gift of tongues and could praise God in languages I had not studied, all in the privacy of my home. Absolutely! But it would be exciting more than building, as my mind would be at a loss as to what I was praising God for (1Cor 14:14). But more significant still, it would be missing the aim of my gift—to worship God in a way that serves as a supernatural sign to unbelievers that (1) the Spirit is among us, and (2) God now seeks worshippers from all peoples and tongues.