What Are the “Tongues of Angels” in 1 Corinthians 13:1?
“In one of your web site articles, Can Christians Speak in Tongues Today?, you stated that when Christians of the early church spoke in ‘tongues,’ they only spoke in foreign languages that were native to certain nationalities. You suggested that the ‘tongue speaking’ of the Pentecostal movement, in which certain ‘sounds’ of no known language are spoken, is not in harmony with the Bible. I attend a Pentecostal church, and though I’ve never spoken in tongues, I am told that Paul’s statement about the ‘tongues of angels’ (1 Cor. 13:1) implies a heavenly language, distinct from the languages of men. Would you comment on this?”
With all due respect, Paul’s reference to the “tongues ... of angels” (1 Cor. 13:1) affords no evidence for the so-called “Pentecostal experience,” in which the uttering a series of rapidly-spoken, indiscernible syllables is alleged to reflect a “heavenly” tongue of an inexplicable variety. The following lines of evidence discredit the Pentecostal theory.
Tongues: Intelligible Language
In an effort to exhort the Corinthian Christians toward a greater level of concern for one another in their use of “spiritual gifts,” Paul wrote this admonition. “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am become a sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor. 13:1).
If it can be established that the term “tongues,” when employed with reference to men, has to do with intelligent communication (and such can be demonstrated: see the article referenced above), then it must be conceded that the word “tongues,” when used of angels, similarly signifies an understandable language.
In order for the “Pentecostal” view to be valid, there would have to be some compelling contextual evidence to indicate that the term “tongues” is used in two different senses in this passage, and there simply is none.
Unintelligible Tongues Are Unloving
In chapter 14 of the first Corinthian letter, one of Paul’s major points of emphasis is this. If one employs his gift of tongues before an audience that cannot understand the language spoken, and no interpreter is present to translate the message, such would be a violation of God’s will. In fact, it would be an act of vanity, and not a demonstration of love for the listener.
This is the precise point of 13:1 as well. To speak in a tongue, when no one can understand the words, is an act void of love. Such would be nothing more than a sound (an irritating noise); it would not be an instructive message.
The implication behind the argument is this. If the gift were exercised properly, i.e., in conjunction with an interpreter, the audience could understand the instruction, and such would evince the speaker’s love.
But the identical point is made whether the allusion is to “the tongues of men” or to the “tongues of angels.” Even the tongues of angels, if it were possible to exercise such in an appropriate way, could be understood. There is nothing here suggesting a “gibberish” sort of utterance; just the opposite is the case.
Angels Always Spoke Understandably
There are numerous Bible examples of angels speaking to men. In not a single instance do they communicate in anything except in languages that are perfectly understandable — a communication that the recipient can process readily. There is not one shred of biblical evidence to suggest that angels speak in disjointed, incomprehensible sounds. As one scholar astutely observed:
With respect to the words of angels which are recorded in the Scriptures, nothing can be plainer, more direct, and, we may say, more unimpassioned. They seem to say with the utmost conceivable plainness what they have been commissioned to say, and nothing more. No words are less the words of ecstasy than theirs (Sadler, 217).
Angel’s Tongues: Hyperbole
Paul’s appeal to “angels” in 13:1 is a form of hyperbole (an exaggeration for emphasis’ sake) that is designed to accentuate his argument.
Consider a similar use of this figurative expression in the apostle’s letter to the Galatians. He wrote:
“But though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach unto you any gospel other than that which we preached unto you, let him be anathema” (Gal. 1:8; emphasis added).
The apostle is not suggesting that an angel actually is likely to proclaim a different gospel; the point is one of emphasis. Even if an angel were to preach a different gospel, there would be no validity in it, and he would fall victim to divine wrath.
So similarly, in 1 Corinthians 13:1, Paul is not indicating that some Christians speak an “angelic” (ecstatic) language. Rather, he is merely saying that even if one could ascend to a new height, and communicate on the level of angels, if he did not exercise love by speaking in an understandable fashion, he still would be nothing but a distracting noise. The apostle’s argument does not hint of a mysterious, unintelligible utterance; in fact, it reflects just the opposite.
When all the data is considered, there is no basis in 1 Corinthians 13:1 for the notion that there is a heavenly, ecstatic “glossolalia” that some saints are able to access, whereby they speak to God alone.
- M. F. Sadler. 1906. The First and Second Epistles to the Corinthians. George Bell and Sons: London, England.