Is the gift of tongues in 1 Corinthians 14 unintelligible utterances or foreign languages?
There are three main interpretations of the manifestation of the gift of tongues in the church at Corinth.
The first one argues that the gift was the ability to speak the language of angels. This is based on Paul’s reference to the “tongues of . . . angels” (1 Cor. 13:1).* The second interprets that the gift of tongues was the capacity to speak other languages through the power of the Spirit (Acts 2). The third interpretation states that the gift designates ecstatic or unintelligible utterances under the influence of the Spirit, in that Paul says the messages were unintelligible (1 Cor. 14:2).
To decide which is the right interpretation, we must begin with 1 Corinthians 14. Can we gain from it a clear understanding of the nature of the gift in that particular church? Paul does not provide a detailed description of the manifestation of the gift in that chapter. Therefore, we must allow for different possibilities. We can then ask, based on the Scriptures, which is the most probable interpretation.
1. Larger Context: The larger context is the biblical passages in which we find references to the gift of tongues. The best known is Acts 2. There is general agreement that the gift of tongues refers to foreign languages: they “began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them” (verse 4). Those listening understood in their own tongue (verse 6). This seems to be the nature of the gift in the rest of the book of Acts.
In Mark 16:17 the evangelical commission includes the phrase “they will speak in new tongues,” which could hardly refer to anything but foreign languages. Apart from 1 Corinthians 14, the gift of tongues designates the capacity granted by the Spirit to speak other languages.
Here we should recall the principle of biblical interpretation, according to which a difficult passage (1 Cor. 14) should be interpreted on the basis of passages in which the same topic is discussed and is clear in content and purpose (Acts 2; Mark 16:17). But we must look at the text to determine whether or not the identical phenomenon is being discussed.
2. Immediate Context: What do we learn about the gift of tongues from 1 Corinthians 14 itself? The first and most striking thing is that the gift seems to be unintelligible: “No one understands him” (verse 2). This is radically different from the manifestation of the gift in Acts 2 and has led some to conclude that the gift had more than one expression. Others try to harmonize both cases, arguing that in Corinth the gift was unintelligible because the languages spoken were unknown to the hearers and that translation was needed, as Paul himself suggested (verse 13).
Second, Paul states that the gift does not result in the loss of self-control. In church, only two or three should speak in tongues; and if there is no interpreter, those who are being used by the Spirit to speak in tongues should keep quiet (verses 27, 28). The capacity to control the expression of the gift seems to indicate that we are not dealing here with ecstatic utterances during which the individual loses self-control.
Third, over against prevailing ideas in the religious world today, Paul does not expect or encourage every church member to receive this gift. In fact, he seems to discourage it, at least in church. For Paul the gift of prophecy in the church is more meaningful and important than the gift of tongues. He does not consider it to be an indispensable sign of conversion or of the reception of the Spirit.
My comments simply illustrate the difficulty of coming to a definite answer to your question. The biblical support for the interpretation of the gift of tongues as languages is very strong. In fact, the Greek word glossa, when used to designate a gift, does not mean “tongue” but “language.” The modern manifestation of “speaking in tongues” should not be equated with the gift as described in the New Testament.
*Bible texts in the article are from the New International Version.