Exactly why did the gift of languages cease?

More to the point, why did it start? After all, there is no Old Testament precedent for the gift of tongues, and (unlike the ecstatic glossolalia shared by many groups) it is not a common feature of religion like prophecy, divine healing,or exorcism.

As I have pointed out before, we are talking about a God-given ability to speak in a genuine human language one has not learned, and cannot understand without a separate gifting. Its occurrence at that first Pentecost of the Spirit is commonly explained as the reversal of the curse of Babel, which scattered mankind by confusing their language, but no Bible text actually says that. I’ve always thought that, since all the initial hearers were Diaspora Jews, it is more likely to represent the ingathering of Israel from exile amongst the nations, but again no text actually supports that.

The only direct explanation for tongues in Scripture is when Paul, in 1 Corinthians 14, looks behind the practice of tongues to a Scriptural explanation that they are a sign for unbelievers, quoting Isaiah 28:11-12 :

“With other tongues
and through the lips of foreigners
I will speak to this people,
but even then they will not listen to me,
says the Lord.”

As always, Paul assumes his readers will note the context, which is God’s judgement upon sinful Israel, its priests and its prophets. Since they won’t listen to God, Isaiah says, God will speak to them via foreigners – that is, foreign soldiers of (in this case) Assyria, as a sign that they will soon destroy the nation.

Paul does not appear, as it may first appear, to be primarily explaining “tongues in church,” for he tells them not to all speak in tongues, which will any unbelievers to dismiss them as mad (as a few did at Pentecost), but to prophesy, which will cause the same unbelievers to repent and believe. His explanation, then, does not explain either “private tongues,” which unbelievers will not hear, nor “public tongues” in church, which Paul forbids apart from translation.

Justin Peters suggests – and it seems to me rightly – that Paul is actually explaining the Pentecost origin of tongues as a sign for unbelievers, of which their use in Corinth is a secondary manifestation. Can we justify that view from Peter’s Pentecost sermon?

Here is a summary of the Acts 2 sermon:

  • Peter addresses mainly the Judaean unbelievers who think the disciples are drunk because they only speak the local tongue.
  • He explains the phenomenon as the promised general outpouring of the Spirit on God’s people in the last days (but doesn’t explain tongues as such).
  • His Joel quote links this outpouring to judgements before the end, but the direct context of the quote is a warning to sinful Israel and Judah of foreign invasion and exile on the Day of the Lord, after which the faithful will receive the Spirit and the gentile nations will, in turn, be judged.
  • He explains King Jesus, his death and resurrection, and their national bloodguilt for murdering their Lord and Messiah.
  • He calls on them to repent and be baptized, quoting Deuteronomy 32:5 to save themselves “from this wicked generation.” The context of this is the Song of Moses, which – not coincidentally – also warns of coming judgement on Israel through “a nation that has no understanding” (32:21).

And so both of Peter’s quotations, in their wider context, carry the same warning of Judaea’s destruction as a nation by foreigners as does Paul’s Isaiah passage. So as Justin Peters suggests, tongues was given as a warning to unbelieving Jews that judgement was coming on that generation for its unbelief in God’s salvation through Christ. They didn’t listen to God when he stood in their midst, so like Isaiah’s generation they will get foreigners instead. It is Peter’s note of warning that cuts the hearers to the quick and leads them to plead, “What must we do?”

Now we must turn to consider Jesus’s key prophecy in the Olivet discourse, of the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple by foreign (in the event Roman) forces in AD69-70. N. T. Wright has comprehensively shown how central this prophecy was to early Christianity, as it was the public validation of Jesus’s ministry, coming just within the span of one scriptural generation of forty years from his rejection by the nation. To the Jewish Church, including of course Peter and Paul, this judgement was hanging over their own people, giving an urgency to the evangelism of the Jews that we see in Acts.

It therefore seems plausible to me that Paul saw that, whilst that judgement was still awaited, tongues remained as a sign to Jewish unbelievers in particular, as they were to Peter’s audience at Pentecost. The fact that the sign was ongoing accounts for its repetition in the case of the gentile Cornelius (given the Spirit, of course, as unbelieving Jews in that region were passed over), and in the case of John’s disciples in Ephesus. These instances are included in Acts, of course, to show discrete stages in the expansion of the Church, but the association with tongues in particular indicates God’s concern that his chosen people Israel should take heed.

Acts 18 tells us that Corinth, too, had a large Jewish community on whom Paul first concentrated his evangelism, abandoning the effort only when they became abusive. “Your blood be on your own heads,” he warned as he shook out his clothes in protest. And so a Pentecost-like public use of tongues by the church there would be a warning of the same urgent kind as that of Pentecost. Because we are so used to the novel Charismatic theology, we assume that if Paul limited the use of tongues in church, its proper use was in private prayer. But the text does not say that – what if it were a manifestation given for use in public evangelism to the Jews out in the market place? Such an understanding unifies and accounts for the gift of tongues in every scriptural instance, according to Paul’s own explanation.

It also accounts for the disappearance of the gift. In a previous post I suggested that the listing of “apostles” amongst the gifts proves that Paul’s list, in any case not exhaustive, is about what the Spirit gives to the Church in its catholicity, and not necessarily to every individual church such as Corinth. This would explain how those gifts that are “marks of apostleship,” that is, the ability to produce “signs, wonders and miracles” (2 Corinthians 12:12) might be expected to fade as the apostles themselves passed away.

But there appears to be no necessary linkage of tongues with apostleship. However, according to my argument above, there is a close link to a particular judgement on Jesus’s own generation of Jews, and particularly those within his homeland of Judaea. That judgement fell, as I have shown, when the Romans destroyed the temple, and razed Jerusalem. Judgement having fallen on that “wicked generation,” there no longer remained any need for the warning sign of Isaiah 28, and so the gift of tongues disappeared. All that has been seen intermittently since are psychological glossolalia promoted by successive sects, and latterly by the Charismatic movement.

As an aside, I have recently found out that the Victorian cricketer C. T. Studd, and two others of the “Cambridge Seven” who went as missionaries to China (and who included the grandfather of the founder of my GP practice), sought the gift of tongues as they journeyed across China. No doubt hearing of Charles Parham’s claims in that direction, they thought they could avoid the labour of learning Mandarin the hard way. It seems that Henry Martyn, the founder of China Inland Mission, told them that even if they acquired such a gift, it would do them no good without a deep knowledge of the culture and people. And so we learn how wide the Pentecostals spread their seductive net even way back then, but also how the gift of wisdom developed elsewhere.

Prophecy, it seems to me, is a different kettle of fish. I don’t really buy the cessationist argument that since the Church is built on the “foundation of the apostles and prophets” (Ephesians 2:20) that prophecy, like apostleship, is no longer required. I’m pretty sure that the prophets Paul refers to are the Old Testament writers, on whom Jesus built his own teaching. I don’t see how Agabus’s prediction of a Judaean famine, or that of Paul’s arrest, laid a foundation of any doctrine, and neither can I see that the complete Christian Bible would substitute for his undoubted contribution to the edification of the Church in his day.

So there may well be genuine prophets to this day, though the Charismatic Movement and Pentecostalism have shown no signs of producing anything except false examples. Once again, the catholicity of Paul’s list of gifts may well show that the ministry of prophet is as rare as it seems to have been through most of the Old Testament period. There might be only one genuine prophet at a time in a nation, or even in the world. Such prophets would be validated by exactly the same criteria as the Bible lays out, and which invalidate every one of the self-styled prophets of the NAR.

But even if there is just one prophet in the world, giving the kind of counsel that benefited the church at Antioch in Paul’s day, that would, on my argument here, be one more individual than there are speakers in tongues, after the manner of Acts 2, in our day.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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4 Responses to Exactly why did the gift of languages cease?

  1. Peter Hickman says:

    Apostleship no longer required? How so?

    An interesting take on tongues, Jon.
    Like many others I used to understand tongues as being primarily for private use, for self-edification, and that this is what Paul meant when he said he spoke in tongues more that anyone in the Corinthian church. However, I think that evidence is lacking for the claim that tongues self-edifies, or for the belief that ‘interpretations’ of tongues given in churches are edifying; and tongues are not employed for evangelistic purposes. So it seems that speaking in tongues is redundant; we agree on this, having arrived at our conclusions by slightly different routes.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Peter, I might be more open to persuasion about ongoing apostles if all the current candidates were not heterodox frauds with doubtful morals…

      But apostles as founders of the faith, witnesses to the resurrection, chosen directly by Jesus would be hard to organise nowadays. Anything less is just a glorified missionary – and worse, an authoritarian undermining the priesthood of all believers.

      I like your practical critique of modern tongues. I agree that in public they serve the function of vanilla prophecy with the added necessity for Googletranslate… except that the interpretation of non-language doesn’t appear to need the original message at all.

  2. Peter Hickman says:

    Jon, like you I’ve never been impressed with the credentials of modern self-styled apostles or prophets.

    However, I don’t rule out the possibility that genuine apostles may arise, even if, like true prophets, they are (currently) as rare as hens’ teeth. Your definition of an apostle certainly applies to ‘the twelve apostles’, but perhaps it is too narrow since, as I suspect you are aware, a study of the occurrences of ἀπόστολος (‘apostolos’) in the NT indicates that there were others who qualified for the description, e.g. Barnabas (Acts 14:14), Andronicus and Junia (Romans 16:7), Epaphroditus (Philippians 2:25), and James the brother of Jesus (Galations 1:19). Perhaps there were also others, though not specifically labelled as such, like Silas and Apollos.

    It might be asked whether apostles are necessary now. Ephesians 4:11-16 implies that they are:

    “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ …”. (NIV).

    The text implies that these gifts were required not only at the start of the building process but are required throughout it. Unless it can be legitimately claimed that the body of Christ has already attained ‘the whole measure of the fullness of Christ’ the gifts are still needed. If correct, my analysis raises more questions than I can answer.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Peter, I agree that αποστολος has a wider usage than the 12 (or 13, with Paul), but with absolutely no indication in the text of the sense of that role, as opposed to the former, whose establishment of Jesus’s doctrine for the Church, notably in writing, is clear.

      One may say that we don’t have writings from most of them (and we include those of Jesus’s brothers James and Jude), but if they agreed on their teachings that is unimportant. Remember that Paul says that when he checked out his gospel with the apostles in Jerusalem, they agreed and authorised him to preach to the Gentiles. I think there’s a reasonable case for suggesting that Matthew’s gospel was, in effect, a communal recollection of this teaching (John Wenham argues for that, not least from Luke’s prologue). And that ongoing written ministry fits with Ephesians 4 in the same way that it fits with 1 Corinthians 14 – just as Corinth had the apostles even without any home-grown ones, so the Church still has the apostolic faith through the word.

      Perhaps the biggest counter-argument for ongoing apostles is that the first Christians, who were closer to the meaning of the term, did not continue the office when the first generation died – I’m not aware of any hint of their continuation in the Fathers. You’d have expected apostles to have chosen successors, or at least taught that they ought to be chosen.

      The biggest danger in accepting apostles nowadays, in the absence of any clear Scriptural job description, is that exemplified by those claiming the title now – and that’s the claim to hear new doctrine from God which is binding on everyone else, and like the later parts of the Quran, supercedes what we have in Scripture. It seems to me that is the main reason anyone claims apostleship in the first place now.

      As I said before, I might (without any biblical warrant) be willing to see those breaking entirely new evangelistic ground as small “a” apostles. We passed through Crediton today, coincidentally the day after the Saints day for Boniface, who was born Winfrith in that town, and was the first to take the gospel to Barbarian (getting martyred, of course!). “Apostle to the Germans” might fit the bill – but where in the world is there any equivalent today? Isolated tribes now have access to the gospel via their phones (in between watching porn, according to the media!). If they plug in to the NAR, they’ll see all the false apostles confirming each others’ calling – and until Jesus returns, what higher authorisation is there?

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