Speaking in Tongues Debate - 05 - The Tongues of Angels

Chapter 5 


    There was an important point that often bothered me. It was the interpretation that followed the speaking in tongues, for in the first century every time someone spoke in tongues there was to be an interpretation. The text is clear, "If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet..." (I Cor 14:28). In this matter I noticed a definite disobedience, more or less generalized, to the command written by the one who spoke in tongues more and better than anyone. His teaching was rarely applied. Would you believe that there were times when I would have almost preferred that the interpretation not be given? I was actually ashamed of the interpretation. At least what was not interpreted and not yet understood could pass as being inspired. But once the speaking in tongues was interpreted, it was what I understood that bothered me. Most of the time the interpretation was so poorly done that even a dunce would have blushed with embarrassment. The interpretation was almost always commonplace. I thought that that which was said in tongues could just as well have been said in English. In fact, the pastor or another Christian brother exhorted better in English than in tongues. If interpretation were really a gift of the Spirit, where was the promised elevation, the sublime thought, the transcendental truth? Here, on the other hand, were commonplace, run-of-the-mill, pat ideas that everyone had heard a thousand times. When Paul was caught up into the third heaven he heard inexpressible words, words that man is not permitted to utter (II Cor 12:4). I did not understand. I thought to myself, "It's like taking a glass of water and, before drinking it, separating the hydrogen from the oxygen. Then after this laborious process, you put them back together to make the water you would finally drink. Wouldn't it be simpler just to drink the water directly from the fountain?" Sometimes I thought that I must have been really ignorant to ask so many questions. After all, Paul did say, "Now I wish that you all spoke in tongues..." (I Cor 14:5). What more did I need?

Tongues or Celibacy

    All of a sudden I remembered that the apostle who said, "Now I wish that you all spoke in tongues ... (I Cor 14:5), also said, "Yet I wish that all men were even as I myself am" (I Cor 7:7). That is to say, unmarried. (In the Greek the two expressions are identical.) It was at this point that I began to get worried. The same one who gave me the green light to speak in tongues, also gave me the green light to remain single! I wanted to follow the one but reject the other. It wasn't logical and I knew it. This may make you smile, but there is a definite theological implication behind Paul's two expressions and there was no way around it. Both commandments were given by Paul to the Corinthians in the very same letter. To those whom he says, "Now I wish that you all spoke in tongues..." he also says, "Yet I wish that all men were as I myself am..."-unmarried. (I realized how carelessly we overlook passages that bother us and cling to those that seem to teach our own beliefs.) We do mental gymnastics trying to reconcile the irreconcilable. Thus, it is a paradox that those who affirm that all should speak in tongues, nevertheless, by the same token, affirm that all should not remain single! By what principle of scriptural interpretation do people arrive at such unsound conclusions? Isn't it more honest to admit that all the Corinthians were not called to remain single and that neither were all called to speak in tongues. Paul accepts both of these ideas. On the one hand, all do not have the gift of celibacy (I Cor 7:7), and on the other hand, all do not have the gift of tongues. He answers his own questions when he writes-All are not apostles, are they? All are not prophets, are they? All are not teachers, are they? ... All do not speak in tongues, do they? (I Cor 12:29, 30) To ask the question is to give the answer.

The Language of the Angels

    It was at this time that I asked a pastor how he explained the incomprehensible aspect of speaking in tongues. He answered that it might be an angelic message. "Poor angels," I thought. "Can't they speak any better than that? Is that all there is to the heavenly tongues of angels?" I was disappointed. I expected something better. I even went so far (God forgive me) as to think that if angels didn't speak any better than that, then I spoke better than they did! And what's more, I thought that if Shakespeare (Voltaire in the original) were in heaven (God rest his soul) the angels would have a hard time carrying on a conversation with him. He would probably send them back to school! No, frankly the pastor's explanation did not satisfy me at all. His answer seemed to be a dishonest way of avoiding a relevant question. But since the Bible does speak about the tongues of angels, I consented that it might be true. By faith I had to accept it, admitting that I could be wrong and asking God to forgive me for questioning the form of expression that He chose to give His angels. Who is to judge God's choice (Rom 11:34, 35)? Since this pastor quoted the Bible, I decided to see for myself what the Scriptures had to say on the subject. I hoped ever so slightly that what he said was true. But all I found was a new disappointment to add to the others. I discovered that, without exception, every time the angels spoke it was in comprehensible, contemporary human language, never a heavenly tongue. The only reference I found to the tongues of angels was in I Corinthians 13:12, "If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels..." It made me sick. I felt that I had been duped by this distorted usage of the Scriptures. It is evident that in this passage Paul is using "though" or "if" as a hyperbole. Paul never had the knowledge of all mysteries since several verses later he states that he only knows in part (I Cor 13:12). Paul never gave his body to be burned. He never bestowed all his goods to feed the poor. Nor did he speak all the tongues of angels and of men. Paul makes it all the more evident that he could not speak the tongues of angels by referring to them as "words which man is not permitted to speak" (II Cor 12:4). He also uses the conditional mood with this hyperbolic "if". Even a child would understand this grammatical structure. How could a mature man, the shepherd of a flock, promote such an unfounded argument? I was stupefied. It was an isolated case, true, but this man was not just anyone, and I fear that many may have adopted his reasoning for their own, though in so doing, they would only be undermining their own position.