A Reformed Baptist Perspective on Public Theology: The Pauline Epistles, Part VIII – 1 Corinthians 12-14

You can read earlier posts in this series by clicking on the links below:

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We often place a divide between ecclesiology and public theology but, depending on where we draw that line, we can often be in error. What we do within the church walls can potentially reap major consequences outside the church walls. If the world looks upon the church and sees that she is behaving in an unloving, disunified, or disordered manner, it very well could be that we are setting up unnecessary, though unintended, divisions between us and the culture. If we are more concerned with putting on a show for the world than speaking forth the word of conviction to the world, the world may join in, but they will have no incentive to submit to Christ’s discipleship. Rather, we will inevitably be expected to bow to their customs, preferences, and cultural mandates. Christ’s disciples will be guilted, coerced, or seduced into becoming disciples of the culture.

Preliminary Considerations

In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul begins a discussion that follows through to 1 Corinthians 14. Many, both cessationists and continuationists, erroneously believe that chapters 12-14 center on the topic of tongues. Not only do people in both of these camps believe that tongues is the central theme here, but they falsely interpret tongues as an ecstatic utterance of an unlearned language.

While continuationists more commonly believe that this is not a known language but an angelic one, many cessationists argue that the tongue is a known, though foreign, unlearned, and thus ecstatic tongue. That said, there are also several people in both camps that could not be defined precisely by the descriptions detailed above. I would argue that the Reformers, Puritans, and Particular Baptists are certainly cessationists, though they would not fit the cessationist mold described above.

Before we get into a more detailed discussion of the character of tongues and the cessation or continuation of them, it is important to note what chapters 12-14 really are about. As I have stated, tongues is not the central concern of Paul in these chapters. His central concern, as is the case in much of the rest of 1 Corinthians, is their love and unity.

Chapter 12

Paul begins his current discussion of love and unity by making a general argument, in chapter 12, for the proper use of the gifts. Paul does not offer a spiritual gifts quiz and say, “Everyone needs to take this quiz and then you will know precisely what your gifts are and the committee to which you are to report.” Just as in Colossians Paul points his readers heavenward for their remedy for sin (Col. 3:1-2) rather than toward the traditions of man and worldly philosophies (Col. 2:8), here he points them to love and unity for their spiritual growth rather than some gifts test. To put it another way, the gifts are a circumstance of the argument, a necessary point of contact, but they are not the main argument. The main argument is love and unity.

Paul does not say, “Figure out your spiritual gift and then you will know how to love the body and be strengthened in the bonds of unity.” Rather, the assumption is that they are already working toward love and unity and, consequently, their spiritual gifts have been unearthed, but some on account of their spiritual gifts were thinking more highly of themselves than they ought. Thus, if Christians want to discern their spiritual gifts, they don’t need to take a test; they need to work toward strengthening the body in love and unity. As they serve the church in this manner, they will naturally walk in the spiritual giftings God has given them, whether or not they ever nail down precisely what those spiritual gifts are.

Chapter 13

It becomes all the more clear that Paul’s primary concern is the love and unity of the church when we get to chapter 13. 1 Corinthians 13 has often been enshrined “the Love Chapter,” and people often say it from the back of their throat, like someone mimicking a Barry White voice-over. Sadly, many do not even realize the context in which this love is meant to be displayed, because they have only heard these words read in romantic contexts such as weddings. If, however, people understood that the love described here is the love that is meant to exist between Spirit-indwelt Christians as they serve and are served within the local church, they may come to view the church quite differently.

There are three all-surpassing gifts God has universally given to each one of His people: faith, hope, and love. Regardless of our individual giftings, we are all called to excel in these. However, faith is only of temporal necessity, because we have not yet seen Him face to face. Hope is likewise temporary, because we will one day receive the fulness of the object of our hope. Love, however, is different. For the Christian who has truly experienced it, the love of the saints will endure forever (1Cor. 13:8-13).

1 Corinthians 14

Now we return to the gift of tongues. Earlier, I mentioned that I do not believe that the Reformers, the Puritans, and the Particular Baptists held to a particular view of cessationism, the view that says that tongue-speakers in Corinth were ecstatically speaking unlearned languages, whether known or unknown. It is my conviction that these forerunners of the current Reformed Baptist movement would not have even considered the idea that these languages spoken in the Corinthian church were either unknown or unlearned.

Reformed and Puritanical commentary. In his commentary on 14:2, Calvin wrote: “The term denotes a foreign language. The reason why he does not speak to men is — because no one heareth, that is, as an articulate voice. For all hear a sound, but they do not understand what is said.” Calvin was clearly convinced that, in the port city of Corinth, many nationalities and, therefore, languages were represented. Thus, in the multi-ethnic church at Corinth, many languages would have been spoken, especially as traveling apostles, preachers, evangelists, and other Christians of different nationalities passed through their doors. Matthew Henry further clarified, in his commentary on vs. 11:

“In this case, speaker and hearers are barbarians to each other (v. 11), they talk and hear only sounds without sense; for this is to be a barbarian. For thus says the polite Ovid, when banished into Pontus, Barbarus hic ego sum, quia non intelligor ulli, I am a barbarian here, none understand me. To speak in the church in an unknown tongue is to talk gibberish; it is to play the barbarian; it is to confound the audience, instead of instructing them; and for this reason is utterly vain and unprofitable.”

Particular Baptists. John Gill insisted that the tongue spoken by the “gifted” in 1 Corinthians 14 was the Hebrew tongue. He believed the language was insisted upon by some Hebrew-speaking members for the Corinthian church’s liturgy. This would have been very much like how Rome used Latin in the Medieval church, subsequently keeping many unlearned in darkness for centuries. Gill’s argument is a very interesting one, but it is also a highly unsubstantiated one.

In support of the view that these languages were learned by the speaker, the paragraph on translation of the Bible into the vulgar languages of the people (1.8), The Baptist Confession tellingly offers the following citations as support: 1 Corinthians 14:6, 9, 11, 12, 24, 28. It was my study of the confession that first alerted me to the possibility that there were other views of the nature of tongues in 1 Corinthians 14. After looking into the matter further, I am convinced that historical events such as the Azuza Street Revival of the early 20th century and the camp meetings of the early 19th century have distorted the way that both cessationist and continuationist theologians understand the nature of tongues in 1 Corinthians 14. To view these languages as unlearned by the speakers would likely have been considered a bizarre interpretation to the Reformers and their early theological heirs. For a more thorough argument for the “known, learned language” argument, see this article from Robert Zerhusen over at the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.

Applications. There are two major applications for our study of Public Theology that stem from this perspective on tongues. First, as is observed in The Baptist Confession, to say that these tongues were learned, known languages is to move them from the category of a miraculous, revelatory gift unique to the first century and into such categories as Bible translation, textual criticism, sermon translation, etc. That is to say that, while all revelatory gifts have certainly ceased, tongues being neither miraculous nor revelatory continues as a gift to this day.

Under this understanding of the nature of tongues, anytime a Christian learns one or more secondary languages for service in the mission field, a Bible translation society, or service in the local church, he or she is operating in the gift of tongues. When a Honduran pastor stands and translates for a visiting American pastor preaching before his church, he is operating in the gift of tongues. When a textual critique helps a Bible translation board determine the best manuscripts from which to choose, he is operating in the gift of tongues. When a linguist takes The Second London Baptist Confession and translates it for the first time into Romanian, he is operating in the gift of tongues. So, it is consistent, in one breath, to say that you believe the gift of tongues continues today while, in the very next breath, championing the cessationist view of the revelatory gifts of the first century.

This view is often contested under the assumption that spiritual gifts are only bestowed post-conversion. However, let us recall the fact that Paul was trained as a rabbi (Acts 22:3). Timothy had learned the Word from childhood (2Tim. 3:15). Apollos, though needing further instruction in theology and perhaps other practical matters of the faith, was a gifted orator (Acts 18:24-26), and all this before they were saved. God does not appear to work on a linear timeline with the gifts. The gifts cannot be neatly placed at any given point within the Ordo Saludis. God can use a person’s past education as a linguist, a carpenter, or an accountant to uniquely equip him or her for service in the local church.

Second, we see in 1 Corinthians 14 the necessity of doing all things in the local church in an orderly manner. When the world walks into the church and sees diversity, this is a good thing. When the world sees that all ethnicities and languages are welcome within the walls of the church, they know there is something right and proper about our proceedings. However, when the gifts we should be using to serve one another are used for self-aggrandisement, we do one another, the world, and the gospel a grave disservice.

Within the regulative principle of worship, music can be chosen that aids people in feeling at home in the church. Ethnic minorities within the body should certainly be asked to provide input into such matters. However, when such an effort moves the church away from biblical worship, and the culture begins to demand elements of worship not commanded in the Scripture, the church must be ready to lovingly put her foot down.

Accommodations are necessary and right. However, those accommodations must be in line with the Bible and must accord with proper church order. Thus, Paul does not forbid the speaking of other languages in the church, and he expressly forbids others from forbidding the speaking of foreign languages. What he does require is order, because we do not serve a God of confusion, but of order.

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4 thoughts on “A Reformed Baptist Perspective on Public Theology: The Pauline Epistles, Part VIII – 1 Corinthians 12-14

  1. Pingback: Will the Monologue NOW Become a Dialogue? | CredoCovenant

  2. Pingback: A Reformed Baptist Perspective on Public Theology: The Pauline Epistles, Part IX – 1 Corinthians 15-16 | CredoCovenant

  3. Pingback: A Reformed Baptist Perspective on Public Theology: The Pauline Epistles, Part VIII – 1 Corinthians 12-14 | Reformedontheweb's Blog

  4. Pingback: A Reformed Baptist Perspective on Public Theology: The Pauline Epistles, Part IX – 1 Corinthians 15-16 | Reformedontheweb's Blog

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