Are the Anti-Pentecostal Arguments Valid?Posted: December 6, 2010
The Case of 1 Corinthians 12-14
Note: For purposes of this article, the term “Pentecostal” is used to refer to anyone who accepts and practices Pentecostal/charismatic gifts. The term “anti-Pentecostal” refers to those who argue against the validity of such gifts, “speaking in tongues” in particular.
. . . we believe that students who are a part of the modern-day tongues movement should seek their college education elsewhere as they would not be allowed to participate in or promote any charismatic activities.
—1994-95 catalog, Pensacola Christian College, p. 8.
G. Campbell Morgan called it “the last vomit of Satan.” To Dr. Reuben Torrey, it was “emphatically not of God.”1 Historically, many of those who practice this phenomenon have been ostracized from their churches and denominations. What could possibly elicit such a vehement response? Pentecostalism, of course.
Non-Pentecostals have traditionally denounced the so-called Tongues Movement and all related practices. They base their opposition on certain passages from the Bible—the same passages, in many cases, that Pentecostals use as part or their own theological foundations. It has often been assumed that, since the mainline denominations can summon the authority of numerous scholars in big-name schools, this “weight of scholarship” certainly proves that the orthodox interpretations are correct. But is this necessarily so? When a seminary student begins to study Greek exegesis, he is informed that the majority of manuscript “witnesses” to a particular reading do not always attest the most reliable reading. Likewise, the majority opinion does not necessarily prove an argument. The majority can be mistaken.
Anti-Pentecostals make many claims from Scripture, as well as from other sources. These claims have been widely publicized, and generally accepted by many Christians. But are they valid? In this study, each of the major anti-Pentecostal arguments in regard to 1 Corinthians 12-14 will be evaluated on its own merit to determine its strengths and weaknesses. Then perhaps the reader will be better equipped to decide the issue for himself.
The Biblical Foundations of Tongues-Speaking
Throughout the Bible, the Holy Spirit gave special power to God’s servants. He gave special wisdom to kings, and superhuman strength to some like Samson. He enabled the prophets to speak out God’s words with authority, as well as to predict future events. But this divine power and authority was not given to all who believed, only to those whom God chose. He anointed prophets, priests, and kings with the power of his Spirit.
However, God promised Israel that the day would come when He would “pour out [His] spirit upon all flesh” (Joel 2:28; cf. Isaiah 30:21; Jeremiah 31:33; Ezekiel 11:19-20, 37:14). The Holy Spirit would dwell in the hearts of all the faithful and teach them directly, just as the prophets were taught (John 14:26, 16:13-15).
Many commentators ascribe this prediction to the coming Kingdom Age. In that case, was Peter misapplying Scripture at Pentecost when he identified the strange occurrence of “other tongues” as “that which was said by the prophet Joel” (Acts 2:16)? Certainly, there are serious problems in trying to say that Pentecost was the total fulfillment of the prophecy (though both sides of the controversy have done so). After all, where were the “signs and wonders” Joel predicted, like the darkening of the sun, and the moon turned blood-red? John MacArthur, Jr., suggests that the Spirit’s outpouring in Acts was a “preview” or “pre-fulfillment” of what is yet to take place in the future Kingdom Age.2 This perspective, however, intimates that other New Testament “tongues,” including those in Corinth, were not genuine; and such a “pre-fulfillment” is never so much as hinted at in Scripture. Moreover, in proposing a “pre-fulfillment” of a later “dispensation,” i.e., that of the Kingdom, MacArthur seems to violate his own dispensational stance.
In his book, Exegetical Fallacies, D. A. Carson suggests that Peter did not mean that the occurrence at Pentecost was the literal fulfillment of Joel 2:28ff.3 Perhaps Peter was merely identifying Pentecost as the same type of outpouring. In any case, Peter does not seem to be at all surprised that Joel’s “signs and wonders,” other than tongues of fire over their heads and speaking in unknown languages, did not occur.
When the Spirit came upon the disciples, they spoke with “other tongues.” Jews and proselytes from faraway lands, gathered to Jerusalem for the great Feast of Firstfruits (Pentecost), were amazed when each one heard praises to God in his own native language, spoken fluently by these unlearned Galileans. Others (heteroi, “others of a different kind,” i.e., not the same Jews) mocked them, saying they were drunk. Nevertheless, through both this sign and Peter’s preaching, three thousand people were convinced and added to the church.
Elsewhere in Acts, the occurrence of tongues is repeated (10:44-46, 19:6), and at least implied in 4:31, 8:12-17, and 11:15. In other instances, it is unclear whether “baptism” refers to Holy Spirit baptism or water baptism (9:18, 16:15, 18:18, etc.). Other Spirit-endowed gifts are evident in the Acts, such as healings and the casting out of demons (3:1-8, 5:l2-16, 14:8-10, 16:16-18). Prophecy was active throughout the period (13:2; Agabus, 11:28, 21:10-11; Philip’s daughters, 21:9). Clearly, such gifts were not limited to the Day of Pentecost.
First Corinthians illustrates such gifts still being in operation. Paul enumerates them thus: “word of wisdom,” “word of knowledge,” “faith,” “gifts of healings,” “workings of powers” (miracles), “prophecy,” “distinguishing of spirits,” “kinds of tongues,” and “interpretation of tongues” (12:8-10). The purpose of these gifts is, first, to edify the whole assembly of believers (esp. prophecy, cf. 14:3, 5, 12, 19, 31), and secondly, for personal edification (especially tongues, 14:4, 14, 15, 18). The nature of the gifts is spiritual, not natural: they are “manifestations of the Spirit” (v. 7), not the product of natural talent. They are not possible by natural means.
Having engaged in an overview of the subject, it is now possible to proceed with a study of the anti-Pentecostal arguments.
Many of the anti-Pentecostal claims are based upon the same few basic points. However, one should note inconsistencies, instances in which commentators draw differing conclusions from the same evidence, and follow entirely divergent lines of reasoning.
The Corinthian Tongues Were Not Genuine
One of the most basic arguments stems from the premise that the tongues mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12-14 were not genuine. Paul disapproved of the practice, it is presumed, and hoped to channel the church’s attentions into other areas without expressly forbidding the use of tongues.4 One wonders why he should do so. As an apostle, Paul is not afraid to forbid other actions on his own authority (cf. 14:34, I Thessalonians 4:11, II Thessalonians 3:30). Critics look to Chapter 13, wherein love, the “more excellent way,” is elevated above spiritual gifts; and such verses as 14:19, wherein Paul states, “In the church I would rather speak five words with understanding . . . than ten thousand words in a tongue.” Meanwhile, they minimize attention to passages such as, “I wish you all spoke in tongues” (14:5), “I shall pray with the Spirit and I shall pray with the mind also” (14:15), and “I thank God I speak in tongues more than all of you” (14:18).5
Many scholars see the Corinthian tongues as an illegitimate attempt to mimic the tongues of Pentecost. They point back to pre-Christian records of “dark sayings” and mysterious tongues in various cults.6 The use of “magic words” and mystery languages by hucksters through the ages is an historical fact, and demonic activity cannot be ruled out. But Acts records genuine tongues being practiced as late as 19:6, after Paul’s first visit to Corinth; and if the Corinthian tongues were spurious, would it not have been well within the character of Paul to utterly denounce its practitioners as he did the false teachers in 2 Corinthians 11:1-15?
Anti-Pentecostals often refer to tongues experiences as “ecstatic utterances.”7 This lends to them the connotation of a heightened emotional state, i.e., a frenzy. In this out-of-control state, perhaps induced by shouting, shaking, running, jumping, loud music, etc., a person is likely to do anything. The “language” produced is simply “gibberish.” This experience, they say, can happen to anybody, however sincere and well-meaning.8 Dr. Charles Smith remarks,
All the evidence suggests that biblical tongues were in all cases ecstatic utterances and essentially unintelligible. Any such utterances (today as well) may occasionally have included foreign words or phrases, but these were only bits and pieces in the mass of unrecognizable sounds.9
This, however, puts the tongues at Pentecost in the category of “gibberish,” as well. How then, one might ask, did the witnesses “hear them in [their] own tongues speaking the greatness of God” (Acts 2:11)? Few commentators presume to label the Acts 2 episode as gibberish. Rather, many attempt to draw a line between the Acts experience and that at Corinth: the tongues at Jerusalem were real languages that could be understood (i.e., xenolalia or xenoglossae), while at Corinth “interpretation” was necessary. According to Dr. Carl Tuland,
And the verb meaning to interpret [hermeneuein] is what is used in First Corinthians 12:10; 14:13, 26, and 28, a clear sign that the speaking in tongues at Corinth was not the natural talent or the charismatic gift of speaking foreign languages, for which no translation was required. The tongues-speaking in Corinth was ecstatic utterance or babbling. To be understood by others it had to be interpreted, but not translated.10
Moreover, John MacArthur notes further differences between the two passages.11 Dr. Tuland’s claim, however, is ably fielded by H. M. Ervin:
As for Dr. Tuland’s New Testament exegesis, a comparison of methermeneuo [“translate”] with hermeneuo shows that they are used interchangeably . . . .
The confusion . . . is further compounded by his statement that “the verb meaning to interpret is what is used in First Corinthians 12:10; 14:13, 26, and 28.” Actually, this verb is not used in any of these places. In First Corinthians 14:5, 13, 27 a third verb, diermeneuo, is used, while its cognate noun occurs in 14:28. In Luke 24:27 this verb means “to interpret,” while in Acts 9:36 it means “to translate” . . . there is no exegetical support for his view that tongues in First Corinthians 14 are “ecstatic utterance or babbling.”12
Furthermore, even a skeptic, S. Lewis Johnson, Jr., notes:
It is well known that the terminology of Luke in Acts and of Paul in First Corinthians is the same. In spite of this some have contended for a difference between the gift as it occurred in Acts and as it occurred in Corinth. This is manifestly impossible from the standpoint of the terminology. This conclusion is strengthened when we remember that Luke and Paul were constant companions and would have, no doubt, used the same terminology. . . .
. . . . it is most likely that the early believers used a fixed terminology in describing this gift, a terminology understood by them all.13
This issue, like so many others, cannot apparently be “proven” to everyone’s satisfaction. Nevertheless, there is much evidence that casts the shadow of doubt on this particular line of reasoning.
The Gift of Tongues Ceased after the Apostolic Age
The major thrust of this argument is based on 1 Corinthians 13:8 and 10:
. . . and whether prophecies [prophesyings], they shall be done away with; whether tongues, they shall cease; whether knowledge, it shall be done away with; but when the perfect [perfect thing, completion, fulfillment] comes [occurs, arrives, appears, comes into being], the partial shall be done away with.
In verse 8, prophecies and knowledge “shall be done away with” (katargethesetai, passive voice), but tongues “shall cease” (pausontai, middle voice). The significance of the middle voice in regard to tongues is, anti-Pentecostals state, that this means tongues will act upon themselves, i.e., cease without the action of the “perfect thing.” According to John MacArthur,
Prophecy and knowledge will be acted upon by some other force, and they will be done away. That other force Paul called “the perfect thing.” It will cause prophecy and knowledge to cease while the gift of tongues will have ceased by itself before the perfect thing.
The verb pauo tells us that tongues were to cease, meaning they would never start up again.14
These are broad assumptions, especially since the middle voice ending does not, in fact, bear temporal significance (“before the perfect thing”?). By MacArthur’s rationale, tongues could just as well cease after the perfect thing. Moreover, the assertion that tongues shall cease without the action of the perfect thing contradicts the clear meaning of the text, which implies that it is the perfect thing that causes cessation in all three cases.
It is always dangerous to base theological stances on isolated occurrences of a particular word or verb ending—or, for that matter, on an isolated verse or verses. In its analysis of the middle voice, a standard Greek grammar states that “any analysis of the uses of the middle is of necessity more or less arbitrary. No rigid lines of distinction can in reality be drawn.”15 Concerning 1 Corinthians 13:8, D. A. Carson writes:
. . . [pauo] regularly appears in middle form. In the active voice, its lexical meaning is “to stop, to cause to stop, to relieve”; in the middle, either “to stop oneself” (reflexive usage), or “to cease” (i.e., it becomes equivalent to a deponent with intransitive force). It never unambiguously bears the meaning “to cease of itself” (i.e., because of something intrinsic in the nature of the subject) . . . .16
The idea behind the anti-tongues interpretation is to prove that tongues-speaking as a legitimate spiritual gift passed away with the first-century Church. Many anti-Pentecostal scholars maintain a “dispensational” view here: tongues, along with some or all of the other “gifts,” were for a sign, through which many would come to believe. After the “dispensation” was complete, and the Church was established, the signs were no longer needed, and ceased.17
There are mixed views of what “the perfect thing,” which does away with the gifts, actually means.18 It remains popular to interpret this as the New Testament canon—though there is no Biblical inference that such a single-volume canon is to be formed. The admonition not to “add” or “take away from the words of the book” in Revelation 22:18-19 properly refers to that single scroll (as was its original form); and the warning provides closure, serving as a “bookend” or mirror image to the blessing pronounced in 1:3. Therefore, it cannot justifiably be wielded as a weapon against any who would dare “add,” as critics presume, to the overall mass of revelation by practicing charismatic gifts.
This view also denies the possibility of a secondary level of personal or corporate revelation below that of inspired Scripture. Most Pentecostals are careful to subordinate all charismatic revelation to the teachings of Scripture, and not to literally “add” them to “the book.” Many do not believe prophecies or interpretations should even be written down or recorded, lest they come to be considered equivalent to Scripture. Such revelation is for a particular person or a particular need, on an immediate basis, and not necessarily meant for universal declaration or preservation.
Many commentators look to the maturity of the Church as “the perfect thing.” First Corinthians 13:11 is used to illustrate this: “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, thought as a child, reasoned as a child; when I became a man, I did away with the childish.” The gifts, they say, were merely the springboard for the Church.19 Essentially, they were just that. But was the Church indeed mature after the death of the Apostolic generation? When one explores the history of the early Church, one wonders if they had truly reached “maturity” by the time tongues were to cease; and indeed, whether we have yet to reach that point.
Now, however, even many non-Pentecostals come to the conclusion that “the perfect thing” refers to the Rapture or Second Coming of Christ. Stanley Toussaint writes that “the picture in verse 11 is not illustrating the church; rather it portrays the principle stated in verse 10,” and continues, “First, the perfect thing mentioned in verse 10 best finds its meaning in the rapture. Second, verse 12, which explains verse 10, clearly refers to the coming of Christ for his own.”20 If the perfect thing is the Rapture or Christ’s Second Coming, that implies that neither prophecy and knowledge, nor tongues, have yet been done away with. Moreover, Pentecostals assert that Pentecost inaugurated the Church Age (the Age of Grace, the Acceptable Year of the Lord, the age of the preaching of the Gospel, etc.), that the charismatic gifts were provided for this very time and purpose, and that they remain not only useful but necessary until the end of the age.
Finally, anti-Pentecostals point to a supposed void of spiritual gifts in the Church, particularly tongues, after the time of the apostles.21 For instance, they adduce as evidence this excerpt from the commentary of John Chrysostom (c.347-407) on 1 Corinthians 12:1-11:
This whole passage is exceedingly obscure; and what creates this obscurity is both ignorance in these matters and the cessation of things which happened then but do not now occur . . . . “Why indeed did they happen then, but do not happen any longer?”22
But one can also look to such references as Irenaeus (second century), “We hear many brethren in the church . . . who through the Spirit speak all kinds of languages;”23 and Justin Martyr (c.100-165), “For the prophetical gifts remain with us, even to the present time. And hence you ought to understand that [the gifts] formerly among [the Jews] have been transferred to us.”24 “Prophetical gifts”—note the plural—probably includes tongues and interpretation, which also constitute messages from God.
It is a matter of opinion which references are more reliable. One thing that must be kept in mind is that, by the time of Chrysostom, the emphasis in the churches was upon the development of creeds in order to stem heresies, and upon catechetical training. The missionary zeal of the first century had faded; the character of the Church had changed.
The question remains whether those post-apostolic manifestations were, perhaps, erroneous. Eusebius (c.265-c.339) tells the story of Montanus who, speaking in demonic tongues and uttering false prophecy (in Eusebius’ opinion), deceived some of the Phrygians.25 Eusebius definitively labels many of the utterances as anti-Christ, thus failing the scriptural tests of prophecy (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:3, 1 John 4:1-3.). However, from these episodes and scant references alone, one cannot assume that all manifestations were, therefore, spurious. Modern scholars are ill-equipped to make a satisfactory examination of the phenomena, due to lack of evidence. If one follows the New Testament model, each prophetic message is to be judged by its content and character (1 Corinthians 14:29).
Tongues and Interpretation are Inferior Gifts
To the anti-Pentecostal, whether true tongues exist today or not, Paul certainly makes it clear that this is a lowly gift, hardly worth having.26 After all, Paul puts it at the bottom of his lists (1 Corinthians 12:8-10, 28), declares it to be worthless without love (chapter 13), and explains its inferiority to prophecy (14:1-33).
However, simply by listing tongues and interpretation as spiritual gifts, Paul immediately elevates them above all human talents, abilities, wisdom, etc. Ministry without love, whether by tongues or other gifts, is worthless—yet love, too, is for now imperfect, being subject to the limitations of the present world. Ungifted man cannot love perfectly. What is the Christian to do until “the perfect thing” comes? He must let the Holy Spirit work through him. Love is, after all, not a gift of the Spirit but a fruit (Gal. 5:22-23, 2 Peter 1:3-9), and is “grown” in the one who allows the Spirit to work in and through him—one might presume by allowing spiritual gifts to flow through him. Spiritual gifts are intended to facilitate mighty works far beyond the limited capabilities of finite humanity.
Uninterpreted tongues are, clearly, inferior to prophecy—but when interpreted, so that all can hear and understand the message from God, tongues become essentially equal to prophecy. As Paul writes, “Greater is he who prophesies than he who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets . . . .” (14:5).
Fourth Allegation: Modern “Tongues” are Fake
Regardless of whether tongues and interpretation passed away with the Apostles, many critics believe that today’s manifestations are not genuine. They propose, variously, that manifestations may be “faked” in order to justify an attitude of spiritual superiority; that they can be “taught” and “learned”; that they can be psychologically induced upon a well-meaning person; or that they could be of demonic origin, designed to lead astray the unlearned and unsuspecting.27 More generally, the popularity of tongues is attributed to a desire to escape the spiritual dryness of many traditional denominations, or to recapture the miraculous element found in the New Testament.28 But Pentecostals themselves are quick to denounce mechanical methods and psychological inducements.29
Abuses have, indeed, occurred. But should these be allowed to cast a shadow upon all manifestations? Even Kenneth Gangel, a non-Pentecostal, proposes liberality: could not God, in his sovereignty, choose to outpour his Spirit at sundry times, in order to edify his Church, or as a sign to unbelievers? Gangel calls for openmindedness.30
E. Lorna Kendall goes on to state that
. . . the authenticity of tongue-speaking in the Christian community must be judged by its effects in the lives of those who practise (sic.) it, as, for example, in the mutual growth in the fruits of the Spirit, love, joy, peace, and the rest. Those who have received the gift, whether in answer to their own prayers or to the prayers of others, or whether it has come upon them without previous seeking, should be amongst those who are following what St. Paul called the better way, the way of love . . . .31
Perhaps Pentecostalism’s effectiveness in this regard is attested by its profound expansion and growing acceptance with spiritually and emotionally hungry people around the world.
This study is not conclusive, but it was not intended as a proof that the gifts of tongues and interpretation as practiced today are genuine; indeed, how does one “prove” such a thing, any more than one can prove that Jesus Christ is risen? Such belief comes when the reality is experienced. Rather, this has been a study of the other side of the query: are the arguments against tongues valid?
In some instances, only questions have been raised. Elsewhere, the anti-tongues activists are called to account for dubious exegesis and slanted use of the evidence. They have been shown to be prejudicial in their use of “ecstatic,” as well as in their description of Paul’s attitude toward tongues. Their exegesis of 1 Corinthians 13:8-10 has been shown to be much less clear-cut than they infer. Likewise, they have too quickly identified modern tongues with pagan religion and fakery, without offering concrete proof.
To the serious student of the Bible, such malpractices are disappointing at best. It bears upon every Christian to be a seeker of the truth from God’s word, regardless of traditional views or personal prejudices. Whether the “tongues question” will ever be answered to the satisfaction of all remains a mystery. Yet, God is in control of the situation. As Christians, we can yet hope in the expectation of Christ’s coming, when all things will be known, and we all shall be one.
- Harold V. Synan, “The Pentecostal Movement in the United States” (Ph.D. dissertation, Univ. of Georgia, 1967), p. 179; and Frank J. Ewart, The Phenomenon of Pentecost (St. Louis: Pentecostal Publishing House, 1947), cited in William W. Menzies, Anointed to Serve (Springfield, MO: Gospel Publishing House, 1971), p. 72.
- John MacArthur, Jr., The Charismatics: A Doctrinal Perspective (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978) pp. 171-72.
- D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), pp. 61-62.
- See Chris W. Parnell, “What About Speaking in Tongues?” in The New Wave of Pentecostalism (Evangelical Foundation, Inc., 1973), pp. 35-36; W. M. Horn, “Speaking in Tongues: A Retrospective Appraisal,” Lutheran Quarterly 17 (1965):325; F. W. Beare, “Speaking in Tongues,” Journal of Biblical Literature 83 (1964):243.
- See MacArthur, pp. 158, 162-66; Parnell, p. 35.
- See Stuart D. Currie, “‘Speaking in Tongues’: Early Evidence Outside the New Testament Bearing on ‘Glossais Lalein,”‘ Interpretation 19 (1965):285; E. Lorna Kendall, “Speaking with Tongues,” Church Quarterly Review 168 (1967):12; MacArthur, p. 163; Parnell, p. 32.
- Contrast H. M. Ervin, “As the Spirit Gives Utterance,” Christianity Today 13 (1969):624.
- See S. Lewis Johnson, Jr.. “A Symposium on the Tongues Movement: Introduction,” Bibliotheca Sacra 120 (1963):225.
- Dr. Charles Smith, Tongues in Biblical Perspective (BMH Books, n.d.), p. 40, cited in Kenneth O. Gangel, Unwrap Your Spiritual Gifts (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1960), pp. 46-47.
- Carl G. Tuland, “The Confusion About Tongues,” Christianity Today 13 (1968):208.
- See MacArthur, pp. 159-62.
- Ervin, p. 626.
- S. Lewis Johnson, “The Gift of Tongues and the Book of Acts,” Bibliotheca Sacra 120 (1963):310, 311. Cf. Kendall, p. 14.
- MacArthur, pp. 165, 169.
- H. E. Dana and Julius R. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament (New York: Macmillan, 1927; rpt. ed. 1955).
- Carson, pp. 78-79, cites examples of the New Testament use of pausontai in Luke 8:24, Acts 21:32.
- Gangel, pp. 50-51, lists the comments of several anti-Pentecostals on this subject.
- For a discussion of this question, see Stanley D. Toussaint, “First Corinthians Thirteen and the Tongues Question,” Bibliotheca Sacra 120 (1963):312-15.
- See MacArthur, pp. 74-75, 166-69.
- Toussaint, p. 313.
- See Currie, pp. 274-76; and Cleon L. Rogers, “The Gift of Tongues in the Post Apostolic Church (A.D. 100-400)” Bibliotheca Sacra 122 (1965):143.
- Chrysostom Homily 29, cited in Currie, p. 276.
- Irenaeus Adversus Haereses 5.6.1, cited in Rogers, p. 138.
- Justin Martyr Dialogue with Trypho 82, cited in Rogers, p. 137.
- Eusebius Ecclesiastical History 5.16.7-10, cited in Currie, p. 287.
- See Parnell, pp. 35-36; Tuland, p. 209.
- Parnell, p. 32; MacArthur, pp. 175-79; Horn, pp. 320-21.
- Johnson, “Symposium,” p. 225.
- See Menzies, p. 127.
- Gangel, pp. 50-51.
- Kendall, p. 18.
*Originally submitted to the late Dr. Gary B. McGee, The Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, May 28, 1985. Previously published in Christ in Us: the Exalted Christ and the Indwelling of the Holy Spirit (2006), available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other retailers, and listed on the AGTS alumni bookshelf.