The Nature of Corinthian Glossolalia: Possible Options

WTJ — V40 #1 — Fall 1977 – 130

The Nature Of Corinthian Glossolalia: Possible Options

Vern S. Poythress

[Published in the Westminster Theological Journal 40/1 (1977) 130-135. Used with permission.]


Exegetical discussion of the nature of speaking in tongues at Corinth has sometimes been hampered by insufficient clarity about the available options. For example, Robert H. Gundry’s article in J.T.S. confines us to two options: “ecstatic utterance” or “the miraculously given ability to speak a human language foreign to the speaker.”1 But the label “ecstatic utterance” describes the psychological state of the speaker, whereas the description in terms of “a human language foreign to the speaker” deals with the scientific classification of the utterance (the speech product). This is mixing apples and oranges. For a clearer discussion, we need to distinguish at least five different parameters of classification.2 ( 1 ) What was the psychological state of the speaker at the time of utterance? (2) How far did the speaker “understand what he was saying,” either at the time or afterwards? (3) How did Corinthian hearers perceive what was uttered ? (4) What is the classification of the speech product in modern scientific terms? (5) How did the Apostle Paul classify the utterances linguistically? I shall discuss these questions one by one.3


WTJ — V40 #1 — Fall 1977 -131

1. What was the psychological state of the speaker at the time of utterance?

The alternatives are (a) normal waking consciousness and (b) altered states of consciousness. Altered states of consciousness can be of many kinds: dozing, drunkenness, emotional “high,” self-hypnosis.4 As Cyril G. Williams puts it, “Ecstasy is much too vague a term to employ unless it be abundantly qualified to make clear that there are many degrees of it, ranging from mild dissociation to extreme uncontrollable rapture.”5 1 Cor. 14:28 is indeed an indication that, at least ordinarily, the state of consciousness did not alter so severely that the speaker lost all “self-control.”6 But, nevertheless, it is psychologically improbable that no Corinthian tongue-speakers were ever emotionally stimulated. Their state of consciousness may have ranged from the normal to some kind of emotional rapture. Since different tongue-speakers at Corinth would have different psychological make-up, there is no reason why they might not differ when they spoke in tongues. The data in I Corinthians do not permit us to speak more narrowly.

2. How far did the speaker “understand what he was saying”?

The alternatives are (a) he understood fully, as fully as someone who speaks his native tongue; (b) he understood partially, either by picking up the general drift or by identifying words or meaning-units here and there; (c) he understood not all. In the case of a tongue-speaker without the gift of interpretation, 1 Cor. 14:14 seems to put things into category (c), though a bit of (b) ought not to be dogmatically excluded.7 If the speaker was also an interpreter, he would presumably fall in category (a). In theory, an interpretation could take place in at least two ways. (i) The interpreter could be given something like a native speaker’s command of the language of the utterance, and hence

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be able to give the meaning of morphemes, words, phrases, and syntactical constructions, as well as of complete utterances. (ii) The interpreter could be given the interpretation “full-blown,” without mastery of a language. This latter method is what is supposed to occur in modern charismatic circles. In any case, “pure” tongues (without interpretation) was not understandable to the speaker.

3. How did Corinthian hearers perceive what was uttered?

Of course, they understood it as a manifestation of the Spirit. But what did they perceive in linguistic terms? The main alternatives are (a) disconnected sounds, ejaculations, and other material which would not be confused with a natural human language; (b) a connected sequence of sounds that sounded to them like a human language that they did not know; (c) utterance in a language that they did know (Greek, Latin, or some minority language). As Gundry has argued, the use of glōssa, the use of laleō and legō (I Cor. 14:16), and the parallel with Acts 2 tend to exclude option (a).8 This separates the Corinthian phenomenon from a good deal of the oracular and ecstatic phenomena in Hellenistic religions. Next, 1 Cor. 14:28 and 14:13 together show that, as a rule, Corinthian tongues were not in category (c). In general, a special gift of the Spirit, not merely the natural ability to understand another language, was necessary for the interpretation of tongues (1 Cor. 12:10, 30). However, if there were some cases of type (c) at Corinth, they would conceivably be included in the rule of 1 Cor. 14:28. 1 Cor. 14:28 would then have the sense: if there is no one present who has the spiritual gift to interpret, and also no one who can interpret by natural means, let the tongue-speaker be silent in church. Still, this is a bit awkward. How would the tongue speaker know beforehand what identifiable human language he was going to speak, in order to check whether someone in the assembly had natural ability to translate? Thus our impression is confirmed that most if not all of Corinthian tongues was in category (b).

4. What is the classification of the speech product in modern scientific terms?

The major alternatives are (a) a connected piece of a known human language; (b) a piece not identifiable

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as a known human language, but having a language-like structure according to the criteria of modern linguistics; (c) a piece with fragments from known human languages, but with other unknown parts; (d) a piece without fragments from known human language, having linguistic deviations from patterns common to human languages, yet being indistinguishable by a naive listener from a foreign language; (e) disconnected pieces, muttering, groaning, and other miscellaneous material easily distinguishable from normal human verbal utterance. Much of modern glossolalia is in category (d). A few cases are in category (c).9 For Corinthian tongues, the information that we have already gleaned from 1 Corinthians 14 excludes option (e), but all the other options are still possible. (a) is possible, since a Corinthian tongue-speaker might speak in a human language unknown to the whole assembly, but known somewhere in the world (e.g., Bantu, Chinese). Option (a), of course, will be eliminated by those whose scientific presuppositions require its elimination. But with the available evidence, there seems to be no hope of deciding between alternatives (b)-(d), or showing whether several of them occurred at Corinth.

5. How did the Apostle Paul classify the Corinthian utterances linguistically?

The Apostle’s use of lalein glōssē indicates that he classified them as language-like, probably somewhat in the sense covered by the alternatives (a)—(d). He regarded them as meaningful and intelligible at least to God (1 Cor. 14:2). However, neither he nor the Corinthians could have distinguished between alternatives (a)-(d) by natural means available to them. By natural means, they could not have determined whether all the utterances were in just one of the categories (a) -(d) or whether some were in different categories. Of course, at Corinth there might be a few cases of “tongues” where someone identified the human language—for alternative (a)—or language fragment—for alternative (c)—somewhat after the manner recorded in Acts 2.10 But, according to I Corinthians 14, in the usual case there was no such identification.


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What then? Did the Apostle Paul have (or think that he had) supernatural special revelation on the subject, defining more closely the linguistic status of some or all of the cases of Corinthian tongues? This is theoretically possible, but I don’t think that it is likely. In the first place, the Apostle seems not to be too interested in the exact linguistic status of tongues (I Cor. 13:1). As Gundry has pointed out, the conditionals of 13: 1–3 are hypothetical.11 Paul put forward no theory to the effect that tongues were angelic or human language, but rather maintained that that was not of first importance.

Second, the interest in making distinctions among the alternatives (a)-(d) above stems from the modern scientific spirit, and is alien to the first century. The typical first-century Christian was likely to have no “theory” at all about the linguistic status of tongues. He simply accepted the dictum of 1 Cor. 14:2 and left it at that.12

Third, there is no indication that the Apostle Paul ever communicated to the Corinthians any distinction about linguistically different types of tongues, or about “real” vs. “false” tongues. Rather, Paul’s method was to affirm that tongues in general are a gift of the Spirit (I Cor. 12:10, 30), and then to distinguish between a proper and an improper use (I Cor. 14:26–33a, 3940).13 Even if Paul had once mentioned to the Corinthians a linguistic distinction, he did not bring it up in I Corinthians. When no such distinction was introduced, the Corinthian reader would be bound to assimilate quickly the meaning of lalein glōssē to something that he could grasp phenomenally. Hence, for the Corinthian, anything that sounded like speaking in tongues and functioned like speaking in tongueswas “speaking in tongues.” In other words, if anything of the nature of (a)-(d) had oc-


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curred in a Corinthian worship service, it would most likely have been regarded by the ordinary Corinthian Christian as a case of tongues. If Paul thought otherwise, he didn’t communicate it in the Corinthian epistles.

Hence we have no means of determining from the Corinthian epistles which of the cases (a)-(d) occurred, or whether all of them occurred. A historian’s guesses must therefore be based on his estimate of the intrinsic likelihood of God performing or not performing various kinds of “miracles” at Corinth, not upon specific indications in the Corinthian epistles themselves.

Westminster Theological Seminary,


1 Gundry, “‘Ecstatic Utterance’ (N.E.B.)?” J.T.S. N.S. xvii (1966), p. 299. Similarly Carl G. Tuland, “The Confusion About Tongues,” Christianity Today xiii (1968–69), pp. 207-09; J. Massingberd Ford, “Toward a Theology of ‘Speaking in Tongues’,”Theological Studies xxxii (1971), p. 3. Ford’s article contains a valuable survey of scholarly opinion.

2 Less elaborate distinctions, proceeding in the same direction, are found in Cyril G. Willarns, “Glossolalia as a Religious Phenomenon: ‘Tongues’ at Corinth and Pentecost,” Religion v (1975), pp. 16-32.

3 The partial independence of these parameters is attested by modern behavioral-science research on glossolalia. Cf. William J. Samarin, Tongues of Men and Angels (London, 1972) ; E. Mansell Pattison, “Behavioral Science Research on the Nature of Glossolalia,” Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation xx (1968), pp. 73-86; Watson E. Mills, “Literature on Glossolalia,” Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation xxvi (1974), pp. 169-73. All three of these sources have extensive bibliographies.

4 Cf. Arnold M. Ludwig, “Altered States of Consciousness,” Trance and Possession States, ed. Raymond Prince (Montreal, 1968), pp. 69-95.

5 Williams, op. cit., p. 21.

6 Simon Tugwell, “The Gift of Tongues in the New Testament,” Exp. T. lxxxiv (1972–73), p. 137; Gundry, op. cit., p. 306.

7 Against Archibald Robertson and Alfred Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians, 2d ed. (New York, 1929), p. 267.

8 Gundry, op. cit., pp. 299-307.

9 Samarin, op. cit., pp. 73-128. Cf. the classification in Emile Lombard, De la glossolalie chez les premiers chrétiens et des phinomènes similaires, étude d’ exégèse et de psychologie (Lausanne, 1910).

10 On the perceptual difficulties with such identification, cf. Williams, op. cit., p. 26; and Samarin, op. cit., pp. 107-15.

11 Op. cit., p. 301, against C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the First Epistles to the Corinthians (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), pp. 299f.

12 Thus to say, “St. Paul understood glossolalia to be speaking in foreign languages” (J. D. Davies, J.T.S. N.S. 3 (1952), p. 231), is basically correct, yet it is too specific in its suggestion that we must have to do with some ordinary human language like Chinese or Bantu. As Williams has pointed out, glōssa and hermēneuō do not have this specificness when “the subject of investigation is what appears to be a new phenomenon or at least one that is unfamiliar in a particular context” (op. cit., p. 17).

13 But 1 Cor. 12:2f sets a boundary for all extraordinary manifestations of the Spirit. Cf. Tugwell, op. cit., pp. 139f.

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