Recently I began a series on the gift of tongues (here is part 1 and part 2). From part 2, one major discussion point arose out of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13:1:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
The discussion surrounded whether or not people can actually speak in the ‘tongues of angels’. I didn’t give much time to discussing this particular aspect of tongues, but maybe I should have seeing some recent discussion here at To Be Continued. In particular, my first article stated these brief words on the subject:
Some will claim that this reference to ‘tongues of angels’ is a hypothetical situation and one should not expect to find themselves speaking in such a manner. But remember the first words of Paul’s statement: ‘If I speak in the tongues of men.’ Now, we know this is an actual certainty – speaking in the tongues of men that we have not learned. Thus, it seems highly unlikely that Paul would refer to one situation that is a reality and one situation that is hypothetical. And, noting that tongues are a Spirit-enabled language, it’s possible that one might speak in a heavenly tongue.
Nothing could be ‘proved’ in regards to this, since tongues can regularly come forth in languages one has never learned, and especially since there are thousands of languages and dialects in the world. But I would propose that, since it is possible to speak in tongues (languages) or men, then the same could be true with regards to tongues of angels.
Particularly, my great co-author and colleague, and much better at biblical languages than I, Marv, gave some good constructive criticism on this same article posted at Theologica. And you can see some other challenging comments that follow the article here at To Be Continued.
One of the major arguments that came forth as probable cause for why Paul did not actually mean that humans can speak in the tongues of angels is the use of hyperbole, especially found in the first three verses:
1If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
I think this was an excellent challenge, one that I must admit I had not really considered. I mean, reading the text now, I see the hyperbole very clear – understand all mysteries and all knowledge (vs2); have all faith (vs2); and give away all I have (vs3). Depending on whether you take Jesus’s own words as hyperbole in places like Matthew 17:20, that will probably determine your view of the phrase, ‘as to remove mountains’.
But, regardless, no one, at least in this present age, can attain to the measure of the word all (Greek pas).
But, the passage does not contain hyperbole at every point, does it? I would suppose these things could actually happen:
- Speaking in tongues of men – vs1 (This is what I briefly pointed out in the first article.)
- Have prophetic powers – vs2 (Notice it doesn’t say ‘all prophetic powers’, though I suppose some would argue that was intended.)
- Deliver up my body to be burned – vs3 (Well, noting Paul’s suffering as stated in 2 Corinthians 11:23-29, I suppose Paul thought this was possible. But your thoughts on this phrase might be determined by whether you think this refers to suffering or offering your body to show one’s spirituality. Either way, to do such an action is possible.)
So, my conclusion is that I don’t believe it entirely impossible that Paul actually meant that human beings could speak in the languages of angels.
I also pointed out that, when we read accounts of angels communicating to human beings in Scripture, the angels actually verbally spoke. Of course, they spoke the language of the hearer. But angels do communicate, at least at times, via spoken medium. It’s possible they do the same amongst themselves or with God.
But, one final pointer I would like to bring up is Gordon Fee’s commentary thoughts on this passage of 1 Corinthians 13:1. Gordon Fee is both a well-known New Testament scholar and from a Pentecostal-Assembly of God background. And, though Fee is of the Pentecostal-Assembly of God circle, he has not been one who so easily accepts every single Pentecostal-charismatic teaching. He is solid and level-headed when approaching Scripture.
So I think his words are at least worth consideration, noting his long-standing studies on Pentecostal-charismatic issues, like that of tongues. This comes from the New International Commentary of the New Testament: The First Epistle to the Corinthians.
That the Corinthians at least, and probably Paul, thought of tongues as the language(s) of angels seems highly likely – for two reasons: (1) There is some evidence from Jewish sources that the angels were believed to have their own heavenly language (or dialects) and that by means of the “Spirit” one could speak these dialects. Thus in the Testament of Job 48-50 Job’s three daughters are given “charismatic sashes”; when these were put on they allowed Hemera, for example, to speak “ecstatically in the angelic dialect, sending up a hymn to God with the hymnic style of the angels. And as she spoke ecstatically, she allowed ‘The Spirit’ to be inscribed on her garment.” Such an understanding of heavenly speech may also lie behind the language of 1 Cor. 14:2 (“speak mysteries by the Spirit”). (2) As has been argued elsewhere, one can make a good deal of sense of the Corinthians view of “spirituality” if they believed that they had already entered into some expression of angelic existence. This would explain their rejection of sexual life and sexual roles (cf. 7:1-7; 11:2-16) and would also partly explain their denial of a future bodily existence (15:12, 35). It might also lie behind their special interest in “wisdom” and “knowledge.” For them the evidence of having “arrived” at such a “spiritual” state would be their speaking the tongues of angels. Hence they high value placed on this gift. (p630-631)
These same words can be found in his God’s Empowering Presence, p200-201.
Now, one might notice that some of these thoughts centre on what the Corinthians might have thought. And we know the Corinthians had some off-base theology, hence Paul’s corrective words not just on practical life matters, but doctrinal matters. But Fee also reckons that it was probable that Paul also held that humans could speak in tongues of angels. And, he then proceeds to share two main reasons why speaking in the tongues of angels is probable, with the first probably being more substantial for why Paul might believe this.
So, I thought it was interesting to share some of Fee’s thoughts on this passage.
In all, we cannot make a 100% conclusion either way. Again, I did appreciate some of the comments of Marv, as he pointed out his understanding of why he believes Paul didn’t actually believe this was a possibility. And there were other goods thought shared as well, like from commenter Ted Bigelow.
For these reasons, though such is difficult at times, it might be good that we not be closed off to either views, respecting them both. This could be hyperbolic language right throughout the entire vs1-3, or it could be that some words could become part of real life and some were hyperbole. I lean towards the latter view, but am now much more aware of the former.
I appreciate you more every time I read your words. I love the fact that you are open to the text. May your tribe increase!
Just a quick comment on hyperbole, and then I’m outta here –
The hyperbole in 1 Cor. 13:1-2 is not
a) Speaking in tongues of men, b) Having prophetic powers, and c) Delivering up my body to be burned.
a) Speaking in tongues of men *but not having love*
b) Having prophetic powers *but not having love*
c) Delivering up my body to be burned *but not having love*
That’s the hyperbole – being able to do any of those things without love.
Why don’t those who speak in tongues of angels give their body up to be burned?
Thanks for your graciousness as well.
I agree. That was the parts I said were not hyperbole. But other parts would be hyperbole where the word all is used.
Maybe hyperbole was used differently in ancient Greek, but neither of those 3 statements sound like hyperbole to me. This is hyperbole: exaggerated statements or claims not meant to be taken literally.
As you wish.
My point is not that merely that Paul is describing hyperboles, but by them, impossibilities. You and asphelia(?) want to see these things as possibilities.
This is where we fundamentally disagree.
errata: You write:
“So, my conclusion is that I don’t believe it entirely impossible that Paul actually meant that human beings could speak in the languages of angels.”
I thought your point was that the spiritual gift of tongues might also include speaking in angelic languages. Sorry if I misunderstood.
I agree with that point. Hey, why not?
This statement of mine – “So, my conclusion is that I don’t believe it entirely impossible that Paul actually meant that human beings could speak in the languages of angels.” – it means that I believe that Paul meant it is possible to speak in tongues of angels.
Vs1-3 are not all impossibilities, as I explain in my article above. Some of them were impossibilities; some of them were possibilities.
Hmm…something I’ve never thought of before but I lean toward hyperbole. Angels have to communicate somehow. I won’t be surprised to learn on the last day, that I did speak in a language of angels.
Which ones are possibilities? Don’t forget to add the tag line on the end of your choice
It is possible to ____________…” without love.”
Marv and I have both argued that it is possible to function in these things but not with the motivation of agape love. That is the whole point with Paul’s reprimand to the Corinthians church – they were practicing the gifts, but without love.
Read vs1-3 carefully.
Formula: If I……but have not love….it is ultimately worthless.
Which three are definitely possible. Well, I share in my article:
a) Speaking in tongues of men – vs1
b) Have prophetic powers – vs2 (Notice it doesn’t say ‘all prophetic powers’, though I suppose some would argue that was intended.)
c) Deliver up my body to be burned – vs3 (Noting Paul’s suffering as stated in 2 Corinthians 11:23-29, I suppose Paul thought this was possible. But your thoughts on this phrase might be determined by whether you think this refers to suffering or offering your body to show one’s spirituality. Either way, to do such an action is possible.)
Again, remember that Paul is reprimanding them for practicing these gifts, but not doing so out of love motivation. Sure, we could argue if a person who does not have the motivation of the Christ-agape-love, then can they be used in such gifts. But again, great example is the church in Corinth. And I suppose we each fall into selfishness at times when it comes to the Spirit-gifts. I’ve seen it in others; I’ve seen it in my life.
Perhaps we have some confusion.
You and Marv apparently believe that the phrase in 1 Cor. 13:1-3 “do not have love” means to have love, but to not be motivated by it.
I believe it means “to not have love.”
You and Marv have added meaning into Paul’s words something he didn’t intend.
You also appear to think that when Paul repeats 3 times “I am nothing,” that means, “the exercise of my spiritual gift is nothing.” But that is not what Paul says.
He means, “I am nothing.” He doesn’t say my gift is ultimately worthless, but “I am.”
When you reckon with these two further issues in the text, perhaps you’ll understand why he is stressing not possibility, but impossibility.
I don’t know what else to say. The Corinthians were a great example. They were actually in Christ, but not practicing the gifts with agape love.
I agree – the Corinthians were not practicing the gifts with love.
But Paul’s mechanism to teach them the value of the fruit of the Spirit (“love”) vs. the gifts of the Spirit is two fold:
First, he uses himself as the example, not them: “If I speak with the tongues of men and angels…” and so on through verse 3. If he were only telling them that they were lacking love in the exercise of gifts, he could have skipped chapter 13 and just continued with chapter 14:1, “pursue love, yet earnestly desire spiritual gifts.” Or, he could have rebuked them directly, something Paul is hardly adverse to in this letter.
Instead, Paul deflects the sting of his rebuke about their pride and preference for gifts over fruit by using himself as an example of the unattainable, the impossible. By using himself, Paul ca now show them the greatest amount of giftedness without love is nothing. If he had used them, his words would have been condescending.
Second, Paul describes several scenarios that demonstrate the value of spiritual fruit over gifts: an impossible measure of the gift of tongues, an impossible measure of the gift of prophecy and knowledge, and an impossible of the gift of self-giving (or “boasting,” depending on which textual variant you go with). This last item in verse 3, the giving of self, would likely be an impossible level of the gift of helps.
So when it comes to tongues, Paul isn’t saying, here’s a possibility: to speak in all the tongues of men, and in all the celestial languages,” and to be able to do so without love. That’s as impossible as it is to speak all mysteries, or to give ones body to be burned for the edification of the body of Christ.
What he is doing is making an impossible case, saying all these things are impossible. In this way, he asserts in the strongest terms that love is superior to tongues, or any other spiritual gift.
If I try to make Paul’s words imply that speaking in celestial tongues without love is a possibility, I miss his argument. He is going for the absurd, the unattainable, to show the value of love.
Why is this important? Because this is all the scriptural evidence modern tongues speakers have to claim they speak in celestial languages. If that includes you, then you are attributing something to the Holy Spirit you have no real scriptural attestation to. You are hanging your practice on an impossibility – an impossibly high measure of the gift of tongues.
After all, who in the church can validate the gift of tongues is giving revelation when it is angelic languages?
If an interpretation comes forth following a public message in tongues, then we know that revelation is being spoken.
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The “tongues of angels” is a church jargon from literal translation. It’s not English. To avoid confusing English speaking people (not Biblish), why not render it as ‘languages of angels’, whatever they may mean?
Same for the ‘tongues of men’, which should rather be ‘human languages’. Only a few idiomatic phrases are acceptable English, e.g. ‘mother tongue’, ‘native tongue’.
I am fine to translate glossolalia as either tongues or languages. Both work.