The Tongues Conundrum (Part 3)

Recently I began a series on the gift of tongues (here is part 1 and part 2). From part 2, one major discussion point arose out of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13:1:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

The discussion surrounded whether or not people can actually speak in the ‘tongues of angels’. I didn’t give much time to discussing this particular aspect of tongues, but maybe I should have seeing some recent discussion that came forth at my other blog, To Be Continued and at Theologica. In particular, my first article stated these brief words on the subject:

Some will claim that this reference to ‘tongues of angels’ is a hypothetical situation and one should not expect to find themselves speaking in such a manner. But remember the first words of Paul’s statement: ‘If I speak in the tongues of men.’ Now, we know this is an actual certainty – speaking in the tongues of men that we have not learned. Thus, it seems highly unlikely that Paul would refer to one situation that is a reality and one situation that is hypothetical. And, noting that tongues are a Spirit-enabled language, it’s possible that one might speak in a heavenly tongue.

Nothing could be ‘proved’ in regards to this, since tongues can regularly come forth in languages one has never learned, and especially since there are thousands of languages and dialects in the world. But I would propose that, since it is possible to speak in tongues (languages) or men, then the same could be true with regards to tongues of angels.

Particularly, my great co-author and colleague at To Be Continued, and much better at biblical languages than I, Marv, gave some good constructive criticism on this same article posted at Theologica. And you can see some other challenging comments that follow the article over at To Be Continued.

One of the major arguments that came forth as probable cause for why Paul did not actually mean that humans can speak in the tongues of angels is the use of hyperbole, especially found in the first three verses:

1If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

I think this was an excellent challenge, one that I must admit I had not really considered. I mean, reading the text now, I see the hyperbole very clear – understand all mysteries and all knowledge (vs2); have all faith (vs2); and give away all I have (vs3). Depending on whether you take Jesus’s own words as hyperbole in places like Matthew 17:20, that will probably determine your view of the phrase, ‘as to remove mountains’.

But, regardless, no one, at least in this present age, can attain to the measure of the word all (Greek pas).

But, the passage does not contain hyperbole at every point, does it? I would suppose these things could actually happen:

  • Speaking in tongues of men – vs1 (This is what I briefly pointed out in the first article.)
  • Have prophetic powers – vs2 (Notice it doesn’t say all prophetic powers’, though I suppose some would argue that was intended.)
  • Deliver up my body to be burned – vs3 (Well, noting Paul’s suffering as stated in 2 Corinthians 11:23-29, I suppose Paul thought this was possible. But your thoughts on this phrase might be determined by whether you think this refers to suffering or offering your body to show one’s spirituality. Either way, to do such an action is possible.)

So, my conclusion is that I don’t believe it entirely impossible that Paul actually meant that human beings could speak in the languages of angels.

I also pointed out that, when we read accounts of angels communicating to human beings in Scripture, the angels actually verbally spoke. Of course, they spoke the language of the hearer. But angels do communicate, at least at times, via spoken medium. It’s possible they do the same amongst themselves or with God.

But, one final pointer I would like to bring up is Gordon Fee’s commentary thoughts on this passage of 1 Corinthians 13:1. Gordon Fee is both a well-known New Testament scholar and from a Pentecostal-Assembly of God background. And, though Fee is of the Pentecostal-Assembly of God circle, he has not been one who so easily accepts every single Pentecostal-charismatic teaching. He is solid and level-headed when approaching Scripture.

So I think his words are at least worth consideration, noting his long-standing studies on Pentecostal-charismatic issues, like that of tongues. This comes from the New International Commentary of the New Testament: The First Epistle to the Corinthians.

That the Corinthians at least, and probably Paul, thought of tongues as the language(s) of angels seems highly likely – for two reasons: (1) There is some evidence from Jewish sources that the angels were believed to have their own heavenly language (or dialects) and that by means of the “Spirit” one could speak these dialects. Thus in the Testament of Job 48-50 Job’s three daughters are given “charismatic sashes”; when these were put on they allowed Hemera, for example, to speak “ecstatically in the angelic dialect, sending up a hymn to God with the hymnic style of the angels. And as she spoke ecstatically, she allowed ‘The Spirit’ to be inscribed on her garment.” Such an understanding of heavenly speech may also lie behind the language of 1 Cor. 14:2 (“speak mysteries by the Spirit”). (2) As has been argued elsewhere, one can make a good deal of sense of the Corinthians view of “spirituality” if they believed that they had already entered into some expression of angelic existence. This would explain their rejection of sexual life and sexual roles (cf. 7:1-7; 11:2-16) and would also partly explain their denial of a future bodily existence (15:12, 35). It might also lie behind their special interest in “wisdom” and “knowledge.” For them the evidence of having “arrived” at such a “spiritual” state would be their speaking the tongues of angels. Hence they high value placed on this gift. (p630-631)

These same words can be found in his God’s Empowering Presence, p200-201.

Now, one might notice that some of these thoughts centre on what the Corinthians might have thought. And we know the Corinthians had some off-base theology, hence Paul’s corrective words not just on practical life matters, but doctrinal matters. But Fee also reckons that it was probable that Paul also held that humans could speak in tongues of angels. And, he then proceeds to share two main reasons why speaking in the tongues of angels is probable, with the first probably being more substantial for why Paul might believe this.

So, I thought it was interesting to share some of Fee’s thoughts on this passage.

In all, we cannot make a 100% conclusion either way. Again, I did appreciate some of the comments of Marv, as he pointed out his understanding of why he believes Paul didn’t actually believe this was a possibility. And there were other goods thought shared as well, like from commenter Ted Bigelow at To Be Continued.

For these reasons, though such is difficult at times, it might be good that we not be closed off to either views, respecting them both. This could be hyperbolic language right throughout the entire vs1-3, or it could be that some words could become part of real life and some were hyperbole. I lean towards the latter view, but am now much more aware of the former.

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4 thoughts on “The Tongues Conundrum (Part 3)

  1. I’d agree that it may still be possible for Paul to believe that someone could speak in an angelic tongue. On the other hand, even if he didn’t, this doesn’t take away from the gift as he acknowledges it elsewhere.

  2. This comes from the New International Commentary of the New Testament: The First Epistle to the Corinthians.

    Your accompanying picture is of Fee’s NICNT volume on 1 & 2 Thessalonians. 🙂

  3. Pingback: The Tongues Conundrum (Part 4) | The Prodigal Thought

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