The trustees of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS) responded to Dwight McKissic’s chapel sermon advocating a private prayer language with the following statement: â€œSouthwestern will not knowingly endorse in any way, advertise, or commend the conclusions of the contemporary charismatic movement including â€˜private prayer language.â€™ Neither will Southwestern knowingly employ professors or administrators who promote such practices.â€
Pastor McKissic, who is himself a trustee at the SWBTS, has responded (here and here) to this statement implying that the trustees have a adopted a policy that forbids what the apostle Paul says must not be forbidden (1 Corinthians 14:39). I do not wish to debate on this blog whether Pastor McKissic should have said what he said in SWBTS’s chapel service last month. I believe that McKissic and the SWBTS trustees have come to terms on that question.
What I do wish to discuss is the following question. Does the apostle Paul teach in 1 Corinthians 14:39 that Christians should not forbid speaking in a private prayer language? The answer to this question depends entirely upon what Paul meant by speaking in “tongues” in 1 Corinthians 12-14. Some people interpret it such that tongues are sometimes a public manifestation of Spirit-inspired utterance, at other times they are a private utterance.
The idea of a private prayer language derives from a certain reading of 1 Corinthians 14:2-4, which says “2 For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men, but to God; for no one understands, but in the Spirit he speaks mysteries. . . 4 One who speaks in a tongue edifies himself; but one who prophesies edifies the church.”
Of course there is much more that could and should be said about this text. But I offer the following as just some of the reasons that we should not understand Paul to be teaching about a “private prayer language” in 1 Corinthians 14.
First of all, it’s a Spirit-inspired utterance, not a private one. In verse 2, the reference to the “spirit” is not talking about the human “spirit” of the one speaking in tongues. The Greek text of verse 2 does not have the possessive pronoun “his” as in the NASB and NIV translations. Actually, the speaking of the mysteries happens “in” or “by” the “Spirit,” that is, by the Holy Spirit (see ESV, NET, NKJV, NRSV, NLT, NJB). The reference to “Spirit” in this text cannot be used as a reference to the “privacy” of the utterance. That’s not the point at all.
Second, the content of the “tongue” is the speaking of “mysteries.” Many take this reference to “mysteries” to indicate that what is being spoken is either indistinct or unintelligible speech. Yet for the apostle Paul, the term “mystery” has a very specific referent. It is clear from his other uses of the term that a “mystery” refers to truth that was previously undisclosed but that is now revealed in the preaching of the Gospel (e.g., 1 Corinthians 2:7; 4:1; 13:2; 15:51). Whatever the language that is being spoken, the translation of it amounts to Gospel content, not giberrish, groans, or sighs.
Third, when Paul says that the one who speaks in a tongue “does not speak to men, but to God,” all he means is that the only one who can understand an untranslated tongue in the public assembly is God. This hardly amounts to a “private prayer language.” Paul rebukes this practice because the context is the public assembly of saints, and everything that is done there must be done for the edification of the body, not self-edification (1 Corinthians 14:5).
Fourth, it’s not clear that the speech is directed to God as a “prayer” per se. Paul says that the untranslated tongue is directed toward God only in the sense that God is the only one who understands, “for no one understands” (14:2). The untranslated tongue is described as “speaking into the air” in 14:9, so it looks like the grounds for regarding this as a prescribed prayer-practice is tendentious at best.
Please note that I have not thus far advocated a cessassionist reading of 1 Corinthians 14. All I have tried to show is that the Spirit-inspired utterances of 1 Corinthians 14 do not amount to a private prayer language. The real question is, what is the nature of speaking in tongues in this chapter? It does not appear that Paul teaches about two different kinds of tongues-speaking (i.e., private prayer language and glossalia). Rather, he is addressing the one gift that he began addressing in chapter 12:10, “tongues.”
The conclusion is this. Since Paul does not appear to have “private prayer language” in view in this text, 1 Corinthians 14:39 does not prevent Christians from forbidding “private prayer languages.”
In a previous post, I said that I would address three issues raised by the McKissic controversy. This is part one. Parts two and three will be coming later this week.