I Have Several Questions Arising Out of Malcolm Horlock’s First Article On 1 Corinthians 14

  1. If tongues were for worship as opposed to prophecy, what did God have in mind with this gift?
  2. Did speaking in a foreign language not understood by the speaker enable the worshipper to rise to greater heights and, if so, how?
  3. If tongue speaking was so valuable, why did the gift cease?
  4. How would a tongue-speaker have known if he was able to interpret and how would he have known if there was some else present who could?’

As you are no doubt aware, our source data comes from 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 – with some limited information from a few sections in the book of Acts. Given the limited details given in these passages, I am in no position to be dogmatic and can do no more than venture my opinion.

I begin therefore by noting a few facts, which we do know.

FIRST When someone was speaking in tongues, he was speaking mysteries ‘in spirit’, 1 Cor. 14. 2 lit. Presumably Paul meant ‘in his own spirit’ and not ‘in the Spirit’; compare the later references to the person’s own ‘spirit’, vv. 14-15.

A person’s ‘spirit’ was clearly

distinguished from his ‘mind’, vv. 14-19.

We must conclude therefore that, unless the tongue-speaker could himself interpret what he was saying, his spirit was engaged in praying, singing or blessing and giving thanks to God but that his mind (his understanding) was not so engaged. His mind was therefore ‘unfruitful’, v. 14 – either bearing no fruit in terms of the man’s own communion with God or bearing no fruit in terms of bringing benefit to others. And yet he was giving thanks ‘well’, v.17.

I note from verse 15 that Paul didn’t set ‘the understanding (viz the mind)’ in opposition to ‘the spirit’. Nor did he suggest that speaking with ‘the understanding’ alone was preferable to speaking with the ‘spirit’ or that speaking with ‘the spirit’ alone (leaving the conscious thinking faculty in abeyance) was preferable to speaking which involved ‘the understanding’. Paul’s stated preference is to speak (or sing) with both ‘the spirit’ and ‘the understanding’. In the context of tongue-speaking, I assume that praying with ‘the understanding’ would require that the tongues were being interpreted – either by the tongue-speaker himself, v. 13, or by some other gifted interpreter, vv. 27-28.

SECOND When someone was speaking in tongues, he ‘edified’ himself, v.4. (It is always possible that ‘he who speaks in a tongue edifies himself’ was in fact a Corinthian slogan and that Paul quoted the slogan back at them to strike the contrast with prophesying, which edified the church in general. But even if this is so, it is clear that Paul was in no way contesting the Corinthians’ claim).

THIRD The gift was altogether under the control of the person with the gift and its public use could therefore be regulated, vv.27-28.


1. On the basis of verses 2, 4 and 14-17, I suspect that Paul would have replied, ‘God’s intention was that the tonguespeaker should use his gift to pray and praise God beyond the range of his own understanding and thereby to receive edifying’.

2. I guess that it was not so much the foreign language itself which enabled ‘the worshipper to rise to greater heights’ but the fact that the prayer or praise came from the Holy Spirit – consider the description given by Luke, ‘they … began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance to speak out’, Acts 2.4. While not altogether the same subject, we might compare this with Paul’s comments about the Spirit’s intercession -’the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. Now He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is’, Rom. 8. 26-27.

Presumably, the Holy Spirit (who searches ‘all things, yes, the deep things of God’ -the ‘wisdom of God in a mystery’, 1 Cor. 2.7-13) enabled the tongue-speaker to speak out ‘mysteries’ in his spirit, 1 Cor. 14. 2.

3. Good question. Frankly, I don’t know, but briefly stated, my guess is along the following lines: The first century church lacked the complete canon of scripture. This meant at least two things for believers then,

(a) They didn’t possess the whole of God’s revelation to the church; nor did they know the whole of His will and purpose for them. This lack was made good to them by direct communications from God to men; viz by the gift of prophesying.

(b) They were unequipped to pray and praise God with deep and wideranging spiritual intelligence. This was because they lacked the necessary knowledge of much New Testament teaching – especially about what are termed ‘mysteries’ (i.e. things previously hidden but being then gradually revealed through the apostles and prophets, 1 Cor 2. 7-16; Eph. 3. 4- 6 etc.). This lack was made good to them by Spirit-given communications from men to God; viz by the gift of tongues.

If this was so, then it was to be expected that the need for both prophesying and tongue- speaking would cease once the church possessed the whole of God’s revelation. But, I emphasise, it is only a guess.

4. I take it that the gift of interpretation covered the ability to interpret (viz translate) all and any tongues.

In this case the brother with the gift of tongue-speaking would have known immediately if he possessed the gift of interpretation also because he would have understood what he was saying.

The gifted ‘interpreters’ would have been recognised by all in the church as those who possessed this particular gift. The tongue-speaker could therefore easily have looked around the meeting to satisfy himself that at least one of the interpreters was present before he took part audibly. I trust this will help to clarify what is in some respects a rather indistinct area of our understanding of New Testament practice.