Did Cornelius Speak in Non-human Languages?

What are believers today to think about the gift of tongues?

D. A. Carson asks that question in his book, Showing the Spirit. On pages 84–85, he writes:

How … may tongues be perceived? There are three possibilities: [1] disconnected sounds, ejaculations, and the like that are not confused with human language; [2]connected sequences of sounds that appear to be real languages unknown to the hearer not trained in linguistics, even though they are not; [3] and real language known by one or more of the potential hearers, even if unknown to the speaker. . . . Our problem so far is that the biblical descriptions of tongues seem to demand the third category, but the contemporary phenomena seem to fit better in the second category; and never the twain shall meet.

Storms_GuideAs Carson helpfully articulates, contemporary tongues “appear to be real languages . . . even though they are not.” By contrast, biblical tongues consisted of “real language known by one or more of the potential hearers, even if unknown to the speaker.”

But if biblical tongues consisted of real human languages (i.e. a real language known by one or more of the potential hearers), then how can modern continuationists advocate tongues-speech that produces nothing more than theappearance of language? (Those interested in Carson’s unique solution to this dilemma can find it here.)

In his book The Beginner’s Guide to Spiritual Gifts, author Sam Storms — like most continuationists — attempts to answer that dilemma by giving a list of reasons why he believes the New Testament gift of tongues did not necessarily produce real human languages. If he can show that biblical tongues were not always actual languages, he can demonstrate a precedent for the modern gift of tongues. We addressed his first reason in last week’s post. Today we will consider his second argument.

Continuationist Argument 2: The tongues of Acts 10 and 19 were of a different kind than the tongues of Acts 2.

One of the essential tenets of Storms’ position is that Acts 2 (where tongues were clearly real foreign languages) represents an exception, and not the norm. Storms is explicit on this point. He writes:

Acts 2 is the only text in the New Testament where tongues-speech consists of foreign languages not previously known by the speaker. This is an important text, yet there is no reason to think Acts 2, rather than, say, 1 Corinthians 14, is the standard by which all occurrences of tongues-speech must be judged. (emphasis added)

Even in the book of Acts, he seeks to drive a wedge between the tongues of Acts 2 and the tongues of Acts 10 and 19. Storms phrases his case this way:

If tongues-speech is always in a foreign language intended as a sign for unbelievers, why are the tongues in Acts 10 and Acts 19 spoken in the presence of only believers?

In essence, Storms’ argument here is that because the audiences in Acts 10 and 19 were different than the audience in Acts 2, then the nature of the tongues spoken on those various occasions must have been different too.

But it is difficult to see how this argument actually supports the notion of a non-human-language form of tongues. After all, cessationists would readily agree that the immediate audiences of Acts 2, 10, and 19 were different. But they would insist that the tongues spoken on all three occasions consisted of authentic foreign languages previously unlearned by the speakers. In other words, the essence of the phenomenon did not change even if the immediate audience did.

Storms describes the tongues-speech of Acts 2 as that which was “intended as a sign for unbelievers.” He sees that distinction as a key difference between the tongues of Acts 2 and the tongues of Acts 10, 19, and 1 Corinthians 12–14. Based on that distinction, he places the foreign languages of Acts 2 in a separate category from those other New Testament texts. Yet, the force of Storms’ argument at this point is overturned by the words of 1 Corinthians 14:22, where Paul explicitly states that the tongues being spoken in the Corinthian church were also ”a sign for unbelievers.”

Moreover, it is not difficult to see how the tongues of Acts 10, for example, served as a sign to the apostate nation of Israel by marking the inclusion of Gentiles into the church. Speaking of the tongues at Pentecost (in Acts 2), John MacArthur explains,

The blessing of that sign [of foreign languages] was that God would build a new nation of Jews and Gentiles to be His people (Gal. 3:28), to make Israel jealous and someday repent (see Rom. 11:11–1225–27). The sign was thus repeated when Gentiles were included in the church (Acts 10:44–46). (John MacArthur, First Corinthians Bible Study Guide, 36).

But were the tongues of Acts 10 and 19 something categorically different than the tongues of Acts 2? Did Cornelius and his family utter speech that only appeared to be a language, but really wasn’t? Or did they speak in authentic foreign languages as had happened years earlier to the Jewish believers at Pentecost?

Evidence from the book of Acts confirms that the tongues of Acts 10 and 19 represent thesame phenomena as the tongues of Acts 2. For starters, the terminology Luke uses to describe all three events is the same—a combination of “laleo” with “glossa” (in Acts 2:410:46, and 19:6). Luke clearly defines what he means by those terms in Acts 2 (i.e. speaking foreign languages). Nothing in either Acts 10 or Acts 19 suggests that he suddenly and inexplicably changed that definition later in his narrative.

Furthermore, Peter expressly states that the phenomenon experienced at Cornelius’ house in Acts 10 was the same as the experience in Acts 2. In Acts 11:15–17 (cf. 15:8), Peter told the Jewish believers in Jerusalem:

And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as He did upon us at the beginning.  And I remembered the word of the Lord, how He used to say, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ Therefore if God gave to them the same gift as He gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?

It was only after the Jewish Christians heard that these Gentiles had received the Holy Spiritin the same way as those at Pentecost that they were willing to accept them into the church. As Luke writes in verse 18, “When they heard this, they quieted down and glorified God, saying, ‘Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life.’”

If the Gentiles of Acts 10 had experienced something categorically different than what Jewish believers experienced on the Day of Pentecost, the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem would have remained reluctant to embrace them into the church. But because their experience was the same, it was obvious to all that the Holy Spirit was, in fact, welcoming Gentiles into the church.

In light of Peter’s clear statement, there is no reason to assume that the tongues of Acts 10(and by extension Acts 19) were categorically different than the tongues of Acts 2. Consequently, most continuationists retreat to the book of 1 Corinthians in order to make their case for a second category of non-human glossolalia. (This is, in fact, where Sam Storms develops most of his arguments.) Over the next few weeks, we will consider key texts from 1 Corinthians, such as 12:10, 13:1, and 14:2.

Today, however, our focus has centered on the book of Acts. Based on Luke’s consistent use of key terms and Peter’s clear testimony, there is no compelling reason to abandon the historic understanding of Acts 10 and 19—namely, that the tongues spoken in those chapters consisted of real foreign languages, just like the tongues of Pentecost in Acts 2.

If that is true, then Storms’ premise (that Acts 2 is the only text where tongues-speech consisted of authentic foreign languages) is shown to be false.


Author: After Darkness, Light

Follower of Christ. Husband to one. Father of Three. Reformed. Aspiring Church Planter. Kids Ministry Director

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