In the past few weeks, there has been a lot of discussion on social media concerning the announcement and promotion of a conference to be hosted by John MacArthur's Grace Community Church in October 2024. The title of the conference is Cessationist, and is associated with a documentary film of the same name that debuted in September 2023 at the G3 Conference in Atlanta, Georgia. The announcement of the upcoming conference has made waves not only in the United States, but among many of my Facebook friends in Latin America.
The topic became part of a discussion in a Facebook group I am a member of (where the primary topic is the doctrine of soteriology, and debates between Calvinists, and Arminians and other non-Calvinists, such as Provisionists). One commentor made the claim that
tongue speakers have been tested by linguists and their so-called tongues were not languages but gibberish. Second many former Charismatics have admitted that modern tongues can be of the devil. Also it's a learned behavior and or it's an emotional experience. What's really telling is no charismatic or Pentecostal can ever tell me what language they are supposedly speaking. It's nothing more than gibberish. It's not biblical tongues!! Tongues and all sign gifts have ceased!
I asked the commenter if he had a citation for these studies by linguists, and he said he did have sources, and had cited them in a paper in his seminary studies. I asked for a copy of the paper, which he sent to me. In this blog post, I will address the arguments he made for the cessation of tongues, and point out how his arguments fail to make his case.
First, I want to address the subject of the interchange that caused me to receive a copy of the paper. In the comment on Facebook, my interlocutor mentioned studies that had been done by linguists showing that modern tongues are not actual languages, but simply gibberish, a collection of disjointed, meaningless syllables. He mentions studies by clinical psychologist John P. Kildahl, and one by University of Toronto linguist William J. Samarin (whose last name he misspells, but Google helped me find the correct book anyway), but he doesn't cite the actual studies. He only cites a book by Jerry Vines, Spiritworks: Contemporary Views On the Gifts of the Spirit and the Bible, which is apparently where this commentor heard about those studies. But he did not provide the actual studies, which he claimed to have. I question whether he has actually read the studies themselves, and suppose he is just taking Vines' word concerning the conclusions of those studies. In a comment responding to the writer of the paper, I suggested he read a book by a linguist with experience in the gift on the topic, such as Del Tarr's The Foolishness of God: A Linguist Looks at the Mystery of Tongues.
Now, with that out of the way, I will address other claims made in the paper, and how I would respond to them as a classical Pentecostal Christian. Please forgive the somewhat disjointed organization of the sections below; I have tried to group things as best I can, but the paper to which I am responding was quite scatter-shot in its own sequencing of issues. Responding in margin comments in Word was relatively easy; grouping the responses I have reproduced here in a logical manner has proven to be much more challenging.
Some Claims About 1 Corinthians 12-14
The writer claims that those who believe tongues are for today "make a clear distinction between Spirit baptism in the book of Acts and the gift of tongues in 1 Corinthians. The experience in Acts is for every believer but the latter is given to those that God chooses." I replied, "While some Pentecostals and Charismatics may hold this view, many classical Pentecostals would argue that once someone has received tongues as the initial physical evidence, they should become a regular part of their spiritual practice, even if only in private prayer (not all will be given an utterance in tongues for use in public worship, which would require subsequent interpretation). But the description you cite from Elwell is not completely accurate, at least not across the board for P/C groups."
His next claim against tongues consists of citing Merrill Unger, who he says "argued that the perfect in 1 Corinthians 13:10 meant the canon and at the close of the canon, tongues ceased in and of themselves." Here, the writer uses an argument that has been abandoned by all but the most hardcore cessationists. Baptist scholar Thomas Schreiner, who holds to cessationism himself, has stated that this passage cannot be talking about the closing of the canon and completion of the New Testament.
In another citation of Vines, the writer quotes: “Any casual survey of the New Testament… will reveal that tongues is not one of the major truths taught there. Far more is said about Christ and his salvation for us.” (1) I pointed out that William Seymour, the leader of the meetings at the Azusa Street Mission, is known for telling people going out from Azusa after being Spirit-baptized that they should preach Jesus, not tongues. So the implied allegation that Pentecostals emphasize tongues over the cross doesn't hold water.
Purposes of Tongues
The author of the paper claims that "there is only one purpose for speaking in tongues and it is stated clearly in 1 Corinthians 14:21-22," referring to tongues as a judgment on unbelieving Israel. He claims that if tongues ever served for evangelism, confirmation of the Apostles' status, or praise to God, these were at best secondary effects. But verses 16-17 just prior to the text he references seem pretty clear that the content of tongues speech is praise and thanksgiving to God. The Corinthian believers seemed to think that by all of them speaking in tongues at the same time, they were demonstrating a higher level of spirituality, but Paul is telling them that just as the ancient Israelites were not brought to repentance by the foreign tongues of invading armies mentions be Isaiah, unbelievers would not be brough to faith by their uninterpreted tongues speech. (2)
This writer goes on to state that apart from being a sign of confirmation upon the ministry of the Apostles (which he previously claimed was at best a secondary function of tongues, but at this point seems to treat as a principle purpose), tongues were also "temporary signs upon the temple/priesthood and Levitical structure....Today we no longer need the Levitical priesthood, because it is no longer necessary to sacrifice animals in the temple for sins and for the worship of God. This obviously ceased, therefore, the tongues (languages) ceased with it." But this raises the question: If tongues were a sign of judgment against the Levitical system, which was centered around the temple in Jerusalem, why would the gift of tongues be manifested among Gentile believers in Corinth, instead of in Judea? Claiming that uninterpreted tongues in Corinth was a sign of judgment upon the Jerusalem religious establishment seems to be a total non-sequitur.
In another place, the author writes, "A sign signifies something or points to something. As a sign, the purpose of tongues ended when that to which it pointed ended." This assumes that the purpose of tongues was to point to the authority of the Apostles, or the closing of the canon (which we have already addressed). But isn't the purpose of the gifts to point to Christ? I'm fairly certain Christ hasn't ended, and therefore, there would be no reason for signs that point to Him to end before His return.
The author quotes noted Reformed scholar Anthony Hoekema: "What is the value of praying in tongues for private devotions if one does not even know what he is praying for? As a matter of fact, if one does not know what he is saying at the time, how can he be certain that he is praying at all?" I would respond that one can know one is praying based on knowing one's own heart posture and attitude. As for the value of praying in tongues when one doesn't know the exact content of the prayer, if the Spirit is giving the utterance, the supplicant can be assured that the words being prayed are in perfect accord with the will of God, and that is of great value.
In a section claiming that the modern practice of speaking in tongues, apart from being inconsistent with the New Testament use of tongues, is inconsistent across the range of practitioners, he writes:
What has been presented so far is completely and extremely contradictory in each experience of speaking in tongues. One tongues speaker claims that in his practice of tongues, it was a form of praise and worship. Another claims that it overshadows thought out prayer. While another says that it is unfruitful to the mind because it cannot be understood, and one former tongues speaker admits that he practiced it out of his flesh, while another former tongues speaker describes it as a dream state.
While people who experience speaking in tongues definitely have described the experience in various ways, this alone does not automatically invalidate their experiences. Different individuals can describe their salvation experiences/testimonies in ways that may appear to differ greatly, but that doesn't mean none of them had a valid conversion. What the writer claims are contradictory experiences seem to amount to nothing more than different people describing their perceptions of what happened to them, using the words that make the most sense to them.
Repeatedly in the paper, the author makes claims that tongues were "a temporary sign gift practiced only in the early church" and that "the testimony of church history proves cessationism." I'll be charitable and assume this brother is simply not aware of the work of scholars like Stanley Burgess, who have documented recurring outbreaks of the charismata in pockets of the church across the centuries. (The writer does appear to rely totally on cessationist sources for claims about church history. When writing about Chrysostom saying that speaking in tongues no longer took place, he doesn't cite one of Chrysostom's works, but simply references John MacArthur's book Charismatic Chaos.)
The author also makes the claim multiple times that "modern tongues are not intelligible languages." H is either unaware of, or chooses to ignore, documented instances where someone spoke in tongues in the modern age, and someone present recognized the language and could interpret what was said. He simply repeats the talking points of other cessationist writers, taking them as gospel truth, without considering any evidence that would not fit into his preconceived paradigm.
Regarding 1 Corinthians 13:8, he repeats the claim advanced by many (including Greek scholar Daniel B. Wallace), that based on the middle voice of the verb used, tongues will cease "of themselves." Writing in Pneuma, B. J. Oropeza states:
This viewpoint is an example of Greek grammar being used in a way that allows for support of a particular interpretation of a text, when the context of that text does not support the interpretation. The argument is not new. Gordon Fee, contesting earlier sources such as T.D. Toussaint’s “First Corinthians Thirteen and the Tongues Question,” addresses essentially the same point about the verb and voice alteration as somehow signifying the possibility of the early cessation of tongues. Fee responds, “The change of verbs is purely rhetorical … Just as one can scarcely distinguish between ‘cease’ and ‘pass away’ when used in the same context, neither can one distinguish between καταργέω and παύω in this context … The middle voice came along with the change of verbs.” A change of verbs in relation to tongues as opposed to the verb used for knowledge and prophecy, as Bruce Fisk affirms, avoids “tedious repetition.” I can add to this that the simple chiastic pattern of the verbs used with prophecy (A), tongues (B), and knowledge (A1) in 13:8 may warrant a stylistic change in verb usage with point B. (3)
The writer quotes MacArthur, saying, "The Greek verb used in 1 Corinthians 13:8 (pauō), means ‘to cease permanently.'" There are major problems with this claim, as the LXX of Job 31:40 uses παύω as the verb in the phrase "the words of Job are ended." That does not mean that Job permanently ceased from speaking. This verb is also the one used in Luke 5:4 in the phrase, "When he had finished speaking," referring to Jesus. Clearly, these were not the very last words Jesus ever spoke. MacArthur's claim about the permanent meaning of παύω is patently false.
At the very end of his conclusion, the paper's author writes, "The word of God should always overshadow any experience and experience should not overshadow any of the Scriptures. Experiences must always continually be tested in light of the truths found in God’s Word."
Continuationists can support these two sentences wholeheartedly. In fact, they would say it is because of Scripture that they believe in the continuation of the gifts, and it is cessationists' reliance on their own personal experience (or lack thereof) over clear teachings of Scripture that leads them to cessationism.
In fact, I know of many people who hold to a continuationist position based solely on exegetical grounds, who have yet to personally experience or witness any of the "supernatural" gifts such as tongues, prophecy, words of knowledge/wisdom, or healing miracles. But they are convinced that there is no scriptural warrant for these gifts ceasing before the Second Coming/parousia.
(1) Jerry Vines, Spiritworks: Contemporary Views On the Gifts of the Spirit and the Bible (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999), 86-87.
(2) Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, ed. Ned B. Stonehouse et al., Revised Edition., The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014), 754.
(3) B.J. "When Will the Cessarton of Speaking in Tongues and Revelatory Gifts Take Place?", Pneuma, 40(4), 489-497.