I am teaching a course on 1 Corinthians this semester, and one of the textbooks that I assigned my students to read is D. A. Carson’s 1987 work Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14. I required the book primarily because, for all the years I’ve been studying New Testament theology, I still had not taken the time to read it myself. Moreover, Carson is a reliable guide when it comes to studying the Bible, and I had confidence in advance that this book would not disappoint. I was right. His handling of the text and his assessment of the modern charismatic movement was thoughtful, pastoral, and illuminating. I would recommend this book to almost anyone.
That being said, there is one point with which I would like to quibble. As many readers already know, there is disagreement among interpreters about whether or not Paul advocates the use of a so-called “private prayer language” in 1 Corinthians 14. Carson takes 1 Corinthians 14:2 as an indication that the gift of tongues was primarily “directed to God” as “a form of prayer” in Corinth (p. 104). Thus when Paul says in 14:18-19 that he is thankful to speak in tongues more than the Corinthians but that in the church he desires to use intelligible words, he is clearly trying to say that he speaks in a private prayer language when he is alone. Here is Carson in his own words:
“Paul thanks God that he speaks in tongues more than all of his readers. . . If Paul speaks in tongues more than all the Corinthians, yet in the church prefers to speak five intelligible words rather than ten thousand words in a tongue . . ., then where does he speak them? . . . The only possible conclusion is that Paul exercised his remarkable tongues gift in private” (p. 105).
My quibble is with the phrase, “the only possible conclusion.” I would argue that this is not “the only possible conclusion” and that therefore this text does not constitute unambiguous evidence of a private prayer language in Corinth. Carson has overstated his case when he says that “there is no stronger defense of the private use of tongues” than Paul’s words in verses 18 and 19 (p. 105).
Carson’s argument at this point depends on an assumption that has no textual or historical warrantâ€”namely, that tongues were only practiced in one of two places: in private or in church. This is manifestly not the case, especially if one takes into account the evidence from the book of Acts (Carson himself links the gift of tongues in 1 Corinthians to the gift in Acts 2, see p. 83). When the gathered disciples spoke in tongues on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:4), they were neither in private nor were they in church (at least not in the sense that Paul means “in church” in 1 Corinthians 14:19). Thus when Paul refers to speaking in tongues outside of the church (14:18-19), he may be referring to situations akin to what we find in Acts 2â€”a situation in which the tongues-speakers spoke of the “mighty deeds of God” in languages that were not their own but that were understood by the foreigners visiting Jerusalem for the feast.
Would Paul have had occasion to speak in an unknown tongue about the “mighty deeds of God” to foreigners during his mission to the Gentiles? It seems likely that he would have, even though we don’t have any explicit evidence saying that he did. But neither do we have any explicit evidence saying that he spoke in tongues in private. All 1 Corinthians 14:18-19 confirms is that he used the gift of tongues outside of the gathered assembly. At the very least, everyone should acknowledge that we are not limited to the two possibilities Carson gives us (either in private or in the church).
There is much more to be said on this topic (not the least of which is my interpretation of 1 Corinthians 14:2, 9, 16), but I will conclude with this. Even after reading Carson’s book, I’m still not convinced that 1 Corinthians 14 implies a private use of the gift of tongues. If there is such a gift, I’m not seeing it here.