The Gift of Interpretation of Tongues

Are tongues and the interpretation of tongues really spiritual gifts? The Bible says that they are:

1Co 12:8-10; For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit; To another faith by the same Spirit; to another the gifts of healing by the same Spirit; To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues:

What do you suppose would happen if we put the gift to the test? What do you suppose would happen if two people with the gift of interpretation of tongues were to interpret the same utterance from someone who had the gift of tongues? A test would be easy to set up: get someone with the gift of tongues to speak in tongues into a microphone. Put two people with the gift of interpretation of tongues in different rooms and let them hear the utterance of tongues over headphones. Let them interpret the utterance while someone else records the interpretations. Compare the interpretations; they should be identical or nearly so.

If the interpretations are not identical, it could simply mean that at least one of the two interpreters was a phony; if the speaker of tongues was a phony, then neither interpreter should be able to interpret at all. To be fair, in the off chance that the interpretations don’t match, repeat the test with new interpreters. If the interpretations are still not identical, it could mean the at least one of the two new interpreters is also a phony. Try it again. And again.

The real test is this: how many interpreters would you test before you would admit that the bible is wrong: there is no such thing as the gift of interpretation of tongues?

18 Responses to The Gift of Interpretation of Tongues

  1. Jason says:

    I attended a pentecostal church as a child, and I remember this happening on one occasion. One person spoke in tongues, and two people provided different interpretations. **Awkward**.

    But, now that I think about it, so was the whole damn situation…

  2. The Atheist says:

    Jason,

    I would have loved to be a fly on the wall during that service! :)

    Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Hi – I’m in the middle of research for my exegesis of 1 Cor. 12:4-11 for my paper on 1 Corinthians I’m taking, so I can’t comment much (easy to get distracted!); but my view (which is shared my a good deal of other Christians) is that (like in Acts 2) ‘tongues’ are human languages, and ‘interpretation of tongues’ equates to knowing both languages (i.e. the ‘tongue’ language, and the vernacular – or language of the meeting, etc.). Paul – who in my passage reminds them that God works in all things; which is quite Jewish of him – is trying to humble some of the arrogant Corinthians by (re)framing their abilities as gifts (charisma) from God – as opposed to them being a cause for boasting or seeing themselves as a more important part of the body (following verses). Now, I’m not interested in starting anything about whether God exists or not – just thought I’d share that about ‘tongues’ and ‘interpretation’ – cheers, Dale

  4. The Atheist says:

    Dale,

    Welcome to the blog! And you can relax here – discussions here might sometimes lead to questions about the God’s existence, but that’s not typically the case. So you can feel free to just share you exegetical views without being always on your guard to “defend the faith”.

    I think you are right about Act 2:4 (given Act 2:11) – the writer was relating an event where the evangelists were speaking in other regional languages:

    Act 2:11 “…both Jews and converts to Judaism Cretans and Arabs–we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues…!”

    However, I’m not so sure that is what Paul is describing in 1 Cor. Here are some statements that seem awkward to interpret as other human languages but quite natural to interpret as glossolalia:

    1Co 13:1 – If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels

    Presumably, the language of angels is not a natural human language.

    1Co 14:2 For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. Indeed, no one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit.

    It seems that others who spoke that particular language would understand. Uttering mysteries with his spirit seems more akin to the “language of angels”.

    1Co 14:4 – He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church.

    I would expect a clarification of a tongue (language) edifies only those who know the language, but Paul seems to presume that no one would know this type of “language”.

    1Co 14:5 – I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy…

    Is Paul saying that it would be nice if everyone learned a foreign language? Probably not.

    1Co 14:13 – …anyone who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret what he says

    This is quite telling – it is not necessary to pray for the interpretation of a language that you can speak.

    1Co 14:14 – For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful.

    This does not at all seem to describe a prayer in a familiar language.

    1Co 14:27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, two–or at the most three–should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret.

    How can an interpreter interpret the utterance of 3 people speaking at once!? This does not seem like a description of a naturally spoken language.

    In addition to the difficulty of interpreting “tongues” in the passages above to mean a regional human language, it seems to me that if speaking other languages withing the church community was the problem that Paul was addressing, the problem would be that the majority of the church would feel left out while only a handful were speaking a language that only they could understand. But that doesn’t seem to be Paul’s complaint. Paul’s complaint seems to be about speaking unintelligibly.

    Your thoughts?

  5. having trouble leaving a comment…

  6. trying again…

    -have a look at my view in more detail in this post:
    http://rhsorgnz.ipower.com/fruitfulfaith/2007/04/tongues-another-look-4-18-07/

    p.s. – your last bible reference says ‘one at a time’ not ‘at once’ as in your subsequent comment. the Greek is kai ana meros, with meros connoting a ‘sectioning’ or ‘division’ of the speakings – as opposed to ‘at once’. Cheers.

  7. The Atheist says:

    Dale,

    You said you might be too busy to respond much, so before I comment on your other points, let me begin with this one (to make sure you are still around and able to respond!):

    On your post that you linked to above, you comment on 1Cor 13:1-3:

    If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels
    If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge
    If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames…

    You make an interesting observation about the form of these verses: a more mundane statement followed by a related loftier statement. But Paul seems to be using this as a literary device to point out that even the loftiest things are valueless without love. Because of the strength of the specific statements in chapter 14 (see above), about tongues being a non-human utterance that the church in Corinth practiced, I think it would be incorrect to presume that he meant by the chapter 13 statement that “the tongues…of angels” was unatainable. Note that “all mysteries” (pas musterion) and “all knowledge” (pas gnosis) may also be translated as “all kinds of mysteries” and “all kinds of knowledge” (example: we had all kinds of red wines at the tasting). But possibly we can see by the form of this statement that Paul reveres the Corinthians practice of speaking in non-human tongues as more lofty than speaking in human languages. Either that or he was simply condescending to them to make his point.

    your last bible reference says ‘one at a time’ not ‘at once’ as in your subsequent comment. the Greek is kai ana meros, with meros connoting a ’sectioning’ or ‘division’ of the speakings – as opposed to ‘at once’.

    You’re right! I missed that. Thanks!

  8. Got time for a quick comment:
    Thanks for the response. Re: tongues of ‘angels’: The various commentators I’ve looked at (both pentecostal and non-pentecostal) provide a wide diversity of perspectives – a diversity in which I feel quite comforable with my view. As a clarification, while I see no reason to question that the Corinthians (more specifically those he is correcting here) indeed may well have considered their tongues to be ‘angelic’, it remains far from certain whether Paul himself endorsed their view. My vote is that he’s correcting it. I respect those who disagree here. :)
    -d-

  9. The Atheist says:

    Dale,

    I’m glad you had time to stop back by.

    while I see no reason to question that the Corinthians … indeed may well have considered their tongues to be ‘angelic’, it remains far from certain whether Paul himself endorsed their view.

    If we agree as we seem to that that Paul is talking to the Corinthians about the speaking in a real, non-human, angelic or spiritual language (and not gibberish), then we may only disagree about whether Paul believes that tongues is in fact not gibberish and whether he holds speaking in tongues in high regard. I think the following are compelling reasons to conclude that Paul indeed believes that tongues is a spiritual language and that he endorses the practice of speaking in tongues:

    As you pointed out earlier, Paul categorizes the “tongues of angels” along with other more lofty concepts (1Cor 13:1) which is at least one reason to suspect that Paul holds it in high regard. In 1Cor 14:1, Paul says “anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God.” – presumably Paul holds speaking to God in high esteem.

    Paul seem primarily concerned in 1Cor 14 with edification of church over self as he points out in verse 4. However that does not negate his admitted esteem for speaking (to God) in tongues. Verse 5 does not sound at all like a reprimand against speaking in tongues. Just the opposite, he encourages it: “I would like every one of you to speak in tongues…” and goes on to subsequently say that it is good, but only as long as it is interpreted for the edification of others who are present. In verse 8, Paul says: “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you.”

    Paul goes on in verses 26 and beyond to give guidance about how and when to prophesy and how and when to speak in tongues. If we believe that Paul holds prophesy in high esteem, then his guidance here does not support a view that he holds tongues in low esteem. Paul’s message here is about how and when to do the thing (either speaking in tongues or prophesying) so that it is done in an orderly fashion which enhances the experience of all who are present, and not just the individuals who indulge in these acts.

    Paul’s priority seems to promote collectivism over individualism: that is, edification of church over edification of self. He doesn’t say at all that the spiritual gift of tongues is undesirable, only that interpretation is required when speaking in tongues so as not to erode the edification of the collective. At the end of this chapter (verses 39 and 40), Paul concludes: “Therefore, my brothers, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.”

    I respect those who disagree here.

    I agree that we can respectfully disagree, and I’m always willing to do that. But we should never disagree simply out of reluctance to change our own position! Rather we should do so because after examining both positions, we discover that both positions are equally valid. I’m not sure we both have examined both positions yet (and I understand that it may not be practical on your end, due to your time constraints that may prevent you from responding). But to the extent that you can devote time to commenting, I’d be interested in your views about these points (above), and I hope you will point out what I may have yet to understand about your perspective. Cheers.

  10. Hi – I do interact in some detail with all this in my post which I linked to… my comments here are quite brief in comparison. Do have a read (apparently you haven’t yet?), and even better, leave a comment there. Cheers…
    By the way, my exegesis is finished (and will be up soon), but I was only able to treat ‘tongues’ in summary form (but I did chuck heaps of quotes from commentaries in the footnotes, and you may find some of them helpful – Thiselton in particular.).

  11. and…
    just to interact with your comment more…
    I certainly don’t doubt that Paul held ‘tongues’ (whatever they may be) in well-enough esteeem. But it is still possible that Paul could both a) hold ‘tongues’ in high esteem and b) not literally think of them as the (literal) language of angels.
    -d-

  12. The Atheist says:

    Dale,

    Hi – thanks for the comments! How is your paper on 1 Corinthians coming along?

    Do have a read (apparently you haven’t yet?)

    Yes, I read it when you first posted it and I enjoyed it and thought it was nicely done (I should have said this earlier – sorry). It may surprise you that I agree for the most part with your interpretation of the Corinthians I verses. So I don’t have many bones to pick, other than what I have already pointed out, and a few comments that I’ll make below.

    What I couldn’t find in what you wrote is support for your disagreement with what I wrote in my initial post (I did see that your conclusions were in conflict with what I wrote – but your supporting arguments didn’t seem to be). Could you point out how what you have written is at odds? That would make it much easier for me to react and for us to discuss. You did point out earlier that I was mistaken about 1Co 14:27, but what about my main thesis and what about the other verses in 1Cor that I used to support the thesis?

    Here are a few comments I had on what you wrote:

    The distinction between the so-called ‘natural’ and ’super-natural’ is a post-Enlightenment distinction, not a Biblical one.

    Then by extension, do you view human languages and spiritual/angelic languages as just languages?

    God can and does give people TODAY miraculous language-speaking-abilities in similar fashion to the Acts 2 occurrence. But again, these are not private, heavenly languages, but languages of humans.

    If you indeed view a distinction between the natural and supernatural as artificial and not biblical, then by extension, isn’t a distinction between natural and supernatural language also as artificial? If God gives people “miraculous language-speaking-abilities” as you say, what is the basis for denying that this includes spiritual/angelic languages?

    is still possible that Paul could both a) hold ‘tongues’ in high esteem and b) not literally think of them as the (literal) language of angels.

    I think Paul holds tongues in high esteem, and unless he is intentionally equivocating the meaning of the term, he also thinks of tongues as the language of angels. In 1Co 14:2, he says “For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. Indeed, no one understands him…”
    Cheers.

  13. cheers,
    Allow me to clarify further still.
    1) As far as I can tell, the main difference between your post and mine is that we disagree regarding ‘tongues’ as an ‘angelic language’.
    2) Now, as for the natural/supernatural distinction and ‘the basis’ for denying… spiritual/angelic languages’…
    I am not saying a) that God could not (in principle) ‘gift’ someone with some kind of strange, non-human and/or ‘angelic’ speaking-ability…
    …I am suggesting that b) this kind of (literal) ‘angelic language’ is just not what Paul is endorsing or proposing in 1 Cor 12-14.

    As for 1 Cor 14:2 “For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. Indeed, no one understands him…”
    I don’t think this necessitates a view of ‘tongues’ as always God-directed in content. It could well be that Paul is making the point that when someone speaks (either a prayer or instructive words to the gathering) in a (foreign) ‘tongue’, it is as if they are speaking only to God, because no one (or most?) present can understand what was said… enter the need for interpretation (‘translation’?).

  14. The Atheist says:

    Dale,

    Sorry to take so long getting back to this discussion. I’ve had some family issues to help with, as well as a larger-than-usual workload this week. But without further ado – back to the fun stuff!

    I don’t think this necessitates a view of ‘tongues’ as always God-directed in content.

    In general, I agree: glossa simply translates to “language” without specifying spiritual or human. However, in 1 Cor, Paul’s uses glossa to mean spiritual languages since he is addressing the Corinthian’s practice of glossolalia in church. In 14:2 he says explicitly that “anyone who speaks in a tongues does not speak to men but to God” – this statement is nonsensical if he is talking about a human language. When Paul says (14:9) that “Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue…”, he means words that humans can understand – which is not what the Corinthians are doing when they speak in tongues in church. In the next verse (14:10), Paul contrasts the glossolalia spoken in church (14:10) with human language: “there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning.”

    Paul is making the point that when someone speaks (either a prayer or instructive words to the gathering) in a (foreign) ‘tongue’, it is as if they are speaking only to God, because no one (or most?) present can understand what was said… enter the need for interpretation (’translation’?).

    Paul says in (14:13): “anyone who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret what he says.” – clearly there is no need to pray that you can interpret a human language you know. However, this statement would make sense in the case of a spiritual language that is unintelligible to men.

  15. The Atheist says:

    Dale,

    Sorry – I should have added: I think you are right; I think our disagreement is that we disagree regarding the meaning of tongues in 1 Cor – whether it is a spiritual or a human language.

  16. Cheers,
    It is quite possible for ‘tongues’ at Corinth to be someone to be speaking in a language not well known. Paul could easily make the various statements he makes if this was the case. It’s also important to remember that each and every statement he makes need not (and is even likely not to) be directed at the same person (and/or the same specific example of ‘tongues’).

    We may have gone as far as we can here… :D

    -d-

  17. The Atheist says:

    Dale,

    It is quite possible for ‘tongues’ at Corinth to be someone to be speaking in a language not well known. Paul could easily make the various statements he makes if this was the case.

    Let’s not confuse what’s possible with what’s likely. It’s possible that they were speaking a language from another planet, or a human language that has yet to be invented. But given Paul’s comments, it appears most likely that he means spiritual languages.

    It’s also important to remember that each and every statement he makes need not (and is even likely not to) be directed at the same person (and/or the same specific example of ‘tongues’).

    I think that’s the case in general, but I don’t see evidence for that within the boundaries of 1 Cor 14 (and even 12 & 13). In fact, it appears that he is speaking to the same group about the same issues throughout these chapters. Again, it is important to make a distinction between what is possible and what is most likely based on the evidence (Paul’s words and any information we have about Corinth and it’s Christian communities in the 50’s)

    We may have gone as far as we can here

    I think you may be right here! :) So I’ll give you the last word: In light of the verses I posted in my previous comment, about praying for a translation, etc., why would you find it more compelling to understand that Paul means human language and not spiritual (without an a priori assumption that the Corinthians were speaking human languages when speaking in tongues)?

  18. Dale says:

    I think the Acts passages have a lot to do with how likely the Corinthian ‘tongues’ are to be human languages. Also, the ‘gift of interpretation’ makes sense as ‘translation’. No view can claim 100% certainty, of course. Any truly interested, should look up A.C. Thiselton’s treatment of various possible options in his New International Greek Commentary on 1 Corinthians.

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