Tongues at Corinth: Languages, not Ecstasies!

The Character of the Corinthian Tongues

Scripture itself suggests that these Corinthian tongues — just like those on Pentecost Sunday — were not incommunicable ecstatic utterances. They were clearly linguistic — that is, spoken in translatable and recognised human languages. Compare I Cor. 14:21f and Isa. 28:11f with Acts 2:4-11. As Dr. W.B. Godby rightly observes in his Commentary, cosmopolitan ancient Corinth was "really a mammoth mongrel of all nationalities."

The international ancient trading city of Corinth had a very unusual location — on the slender isthmus in Central Greece, between the two much larger land-masses of Northern Greece and Southern Greece, and also between the Adriatic and Ionian Seas to the west and the Aegean Sea to the east. Corinth's location there was thus similar to that of Panama City in the new world –on the thin waist of Central America, between the two great continents of North America and South America, and also between the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east.

In the international trading centre of Panama City today, at least twenty different languages are regularly spoken. So too in ancient Corinth. There, none of those various foreign languages was to be spoken during worship in the Corinthian Church –unless translated. If so used, those foreign languages were always to be translated into the Corinthian dialect — so that all present could understand the message concerned.

According to the earliest extant comments — those of the 185 A.D. Irenaeus and the 190f A.D. Clement of Alexandria — the Corinthians tongues were clearly linguistic (and therefore not ecstatic). So too Origen, Eusebius, Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianze, Gregory of Nyssa, Basil, Hilary, Jerome, Chrysostom, Epiphanius, Augustine, Theodoret, Vincent, Leo, and Gregory the Great. Likewise Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, and John Calvin. So too Matthew Henry, Lange, Plumptre, Meyer, Alford, Buswell, E.J. Young, Morton H. Smith, Robert Reymond, Richard Gaffin, Leonard Coppes, and Francis Nigel Lee. Indeed, even some (Neo-)Pentecostalists themselves — such as Harald Bredesen, Carl Brumback, Howard Carter, David J. DuPlessis, Donald Gee, Harold Horton and Oral Roberts — also concede this point.

The Protestant Reformation's John Calvin was quite the greatest of all post-apostolic Presbyterians. States Calvin, in the introductory Theme of his Commentary on First Corinthians: "It is well-known that Corinth was a rich and a famous city of Achaia…. It was near the Aegean Sea on one side, and the Ionian Sea on the other, and…on the isthmus linking Attica and the Peloponnesus."

Situated on the Grecian isthmus in perhaps the greatest international trading centre of the ancient world, Corinth — continues Calvin — was a truly multilingual citadel of "bombastic language" and "chattering speechmakers." Yet the Christian congregation there "had gone wrong in the use of spiritual gifts." Many demeaned the most excellent gift of prophecy, and "thought that tongues were more valuable." So Paul "condemns the fault of holding forth noisily in unknown tongues" — alias languages unknown to the listeners.

Certainly there was some miraculous language-speaking occurring in the Apostolic Church, and perhaps also at Corinth –until the completion of Scripture (probably around 70 A.D.). On the other hand, in those days too, even the Apostles themselves sometimes needed interpreters. I Cor. 14:5,27-28. For even the multilingual Paul (and Barnabas) apparently did not understand the Lycaonian dialect. Acts 14:11-14. Indeed, Peter too apparently sometimes used Mark as his interpreter. I Pet. 5:13 (cf. Eusebius's Hist. Eccl. III:39:15).

Upon the inscripturation of the last book of the Bible, God's special revelation terminated. This means that all miracles –which had indeed always been focussed toward and upon the completion of Holy Writ! — had then served their purpose. Thenceforth and until Christ's Second Coming, "those former ways of God's revealing His will unto His people" are "now ceased!" Thus the Westminster Confession of Faith 1:1f –doctrinal standard of Presbyterian and Reformed Churches worldwide.

Holy Writ was then completed. Now, "the whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary…is either expressly set down in Scripture or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture." Thus, to completed Scripture — "nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit or traditions of men." Westminster Confession 1:6m.

The Westminster Confession (21:1b) later warns that God "may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men or the suggestions of Satan." The Confession further insists (1:8u) that the word 'tongues' — in I Cor. 14:6,9,11,12,24,27,28 — uniformly refers to popular vernacular alias "the vulgar language of every nation. Indeed, it also insists (21:3m) that the command not to 'pray in an unknown tongue' — in I Cor. 14:14 — requires Christians who utter "vocal" or audible prayer, to do so only "in a known tongue."

Rev. Dr. Albert Barnes, former pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, states in the Introduction to his famous Commentary on First Corinthians: "The merchandise of Italy, Sicily and the western nations "was landed at Lechaeum on the west; and the islands of the Aegean Sea, of Asia Minor, and of the Phoenicians and other oriental nations at Cenchrea on the east. The city of Corinth thus became the mart of Asia and Europe….

"Its population and its wealth was thus increased by the influx of foreigners…. Public prostitutes…were supported chiefly by foreigners…. Individuals — in order to ensure success in their undertakings — vowed to present to Venus a certain numbers of courtesans, which they obtained by sending to distant countries [for shipment to Corinth]… Foreign merchants were attracted in this way to Corinth."