Fred A. Shewmaker
Evansville, Indiana

Note: Please read I Cor. 14:1-28 before reading this article.

Scholars have long debated the nature of the "tongues" mentioned in I Corinthians chapter 14. It is obvious that the word unknown in the King James Version is without warrant in the Greek. The translators indicated that the word has no equivalent word in the Greek text by using italics.

Apparently there are two keys to determining the meaning of the word in this chapter. The first key to the meaning of "tongues" is to determine whether or not the one speaking in a "tongue" comprehended what he was saying. The second key to the meaning lies in a realization of what the various usages of the words "understood" and "understanding" are.

What is the evidence regarding whether or not the one who was speaking in a "tongue" could comprehend what he was saying? In verse 2, "for no man understandeth," no more indicates that the speaker did not himself understand than to say, "The professor gave a brilliant explanation but no one understood it," would indicate that the professor himself did not understand what he was saying. "Speaketh . . . unto God" is contrasted with "speaketh unto men" by verse 3. In this verse the result of speaking "unto men" is said to be "edification and exhortation." Why are men edified and exhorted by the one who "prophesieth" and not by the one who speaks in a "tongue"? Obviously the difference lies in understanding. "Edification" is a result of understanding. This we should keep in mind as we proceed.

Verse 4 relates to be the fact, "he that speaketh in a tongue edifieth himself." To me this is overwhelming evidence that the one who spoke in a "tongue" comprehended what he was saying. I cannot conceive of him being edified (built up) if he had no comprehension of his utterances. All of the evidence in these four verses appear to me to indicate that the one who spoke in a "tongue" comprehended what he was saying. It- seems clear that comprehension is a prerequisite to "edification."

Verse 5 makes it abundantly clear that "tongues" refer to something that has meaning. The word "tongues" does not refer to meaningless utterances but rather to utterances containing meaning. If it did refer to meaningless utterances, then it would be utter folly to suggest that the one who spoke should interpret. ("Interpret means to unfold the meaning of what is said, explain, expound - Thayer, p. 147) What the one who spoke in a "tongue" said was meaningful when interpreted. When interpreted, those who were spoken to, would be able to understand. By understanding they would be edified.

Verse 6 is admittedly difficult. The difficulty lies in the words "revelation," "knowledge," "prophesying" and "doctrine." It is my belief that the meaning of verse 6 is to be found by constructing it as follows: "Now, brethren, if I come unto you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you, except I (also) shall speak to you either by revelation, or by knowledge, or by prophesying, or by doctrine?" It seems to me that the idea conveyed by the word also is an integral part of this verse. The "now" indicates that the point already made is to give help in comprehending what he is about to write. The preceding point, you remember, is that understanding is necessary to "edification." One who has been edified has been profited. Thus verse 6 conveys the message that coming to them "speaking with tongues" will not edify them but if he speaks "by revelation" (to uncover), thus openly, they will be profited, edified. He tells them that if he comes speaking "by knowledge," thus in words they can understand, they will be profited, edified. He tells them that if he comes speaking "by prophesying" they will be profited, edified. (Reread verse 3 where he has already explained the profitableness of prophesying.) He tells them that if he comes speaking "by doctrine," plain teaching, they will be profited, edified.

Verse 7 is to be understood in the light of verse 8. The trumpeter knows that he is sounding the warning that an enemy is approaching, but his warning is not the signal those who hear use as a warning that an enemy approaches. They do not comprehend the meaning of the sound they heard, thus are not warned of the danger. Verse 9 applies the illustration to the point he has made, i.e. 64 words" not "understood" do not edify, "profit" the hearers.

Verses 10 and 11 refer to languages of the nations of men. Every language is meaningful but a person who does not understand a particular language will find that language meaningless to him. It will not profit him, does not edify him. The subject and matter of the discussion does not change with verses 10 and 11.

Verse 12 continues the thought and specifically indicates this by the words, "even so." This verse reemphasizes that the important thing when speaking is the "edification" of those who hear.

Verse 13 urges that if you are "as a barbarian unto" those who hear you speak, "pray that" you "may interpret."

In verse 14 the second key becomes useful in unlocking the meaning of the word at tongues" as it is used in this chapter. We have already noticed the usage of the word "understood" in verse 9. There it is used to mean the ones who heard the words spoken comprehended what the speaker was saying. But does the word "understanding" refer to the comprehension of those who hear? In the verse before us Paul considers praying in a "tongue" and concluded, "my understanding is unfruitful." The word "understanding" here is from the Greek word nous which means mind. The "understanding" here is in the mind of the one praying. But the fact that the one praying understands will not produce the fruit that is profitable, edifying, to those who hear.

In verse 15 Paul resolves to "pray with the spirit" and "understanding also." He resolves to pray as guided by the spirit yet at the same time he would pray a fruitful prayer; a prayer that would be profitable and edifying to the mind of tho8e who hear. He makes the same resolve regarding singing.

Verse 16 uses the word "unlearned." This word refers to those who have not had the benefit of education. Paul wants to know how the uneducated can "say A-men" to the 46giving of thanks" by one who would "bless with the spirit." The point is that they cannot "say A-men" because they lack understanding due to not being educated in the language used by the one who would "bless with the spirit." The point is made obvious by a reading of verse 17. Why is "the unlearned" man not profited, "edified"? He has never learned the language in which the "giving of thanks" was offered to God.

Paul spoke in many languages. His travels provided a need for using several languages. The Corinthians did not have the same need. PAUL WAS THANKFUL THAT HIS NEED HAD BEEN SUPPLIED. (Vs. 18)

In verse 19 the word "understanding" is used the same way it is used in verse 15. Paul wants his speech to be fruitful; "that I might teach others also," he wrote.

In verse 20 the word "understanding refers to the faculty of mind pertaining to perceiving and judging. It is right to be childlike in our attitude toward "malice." But when it comes to perceiving and judging the value of spiritual gifts, be full grown.

In verse 21 Paul quotes Isaiah 28: 11 and 12. The word "tongue" in Isaiah refers to the language of the people who would take God's people captive. Because of their sins God would let a people of another language take them captive that they might learn to believe and obey God. Thus in verse 22 Paul applies this to show that "tongues" are to teach ("for a sign") the unbelieving. "Tongues" were not for teaching God's obedient children, therefore, were not to be used when they assembled. (Vs. 23)

Verse 23 also considers the impression speaking in a language no one besides the speaker could understand would make on an unbeliever who happens to attend the assembly. He would think that everyone there besides himself had gone crazy. The 14 gift of tongues" was to enable one to go into a land where the people had a language that the gifted person had never learned and teach those people the will of God in their own language. As Paid wrote in verse 22, "tongues are for a sign . . . to them that believe not."


Verses 24 and 25 consider the result of teaching so as to be understood by all who hear.

The consideration of speaking in "tongues" is concluded in verses 26 through 28. It is possible that a child of God from another land who came into the assembly would be unable to speak the language of those assembled. Paul gives the instruction to only let such persons speak when there is one who can interpret present.

I know of no record that indicates that God ever gave a message to man that was not in a language known to men somewhere on earth. I cannot find a shred of admissible evidence that I Corinthians 14 indicates an exception to God's ordinary way of revealing messages to his people. Elaborate theories have been constructed upon many assumptions in an effort to prove what I have here denied. But let it be remembered that assumptions are not admissible evidence in any court where truth is the object.

TRUTH MAGAZINE, XVI: 3, pp. 10-12
November 18, 1971