One aspect of interpreting I Corinthians that the Cessationists certainly get right is that this chapter is written as a corrective to Corinthian abuse of the charismatic gift of tongues. Indeed, “most of what he had to say restricted the use of tongues in the church.” We must not lose sight of the fact that Paul desires that the gift of prophecy be exalted above that of tongues because prophecy is edifying to the entire congregation, not just the individual. Whereas our concerns may lie elsewhere, this is Paul’s.
However, losing Paul’s argument for their own, Cessationists quickly to jump from Paul’s rebuke to the Corinthians to their assertions of the cessation of this gift. This is done first through their attempts to show that Paul has a disparaging attitude toward tongues. One example of this is their interpretation of 14:4 where Paul says, “the one who speaks in a tongue edifies himself.” MacArthur asserts that this edification of the self is contrary to the others-oriented love of 13:5. Indeed, he even suggests that the use of the word edify (oivkodomei/) here is likely pejorative in nature, citing 8:10 where the word means “strengthening” one’s conscience to do evil, thus “the Corinthians were using tongues to build themselves up in a selfish sense. Their motives were not wholesome but egocentric.”
The Cessationists are certainly correct that the Corinthians were using tongues to bolster their own self of spiritual maturity. However, the question is, is that what Paul means in 14:4? First, from the context, if one takes this use of oivkodomei/ as pejorative, one must also take the parallel statement in vs. 2 as pejorative: “for anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God.” Second, the Cessationist case here is weak here because it unnecessarily assumes self-edification is a negative, self-seeking thing.
However, Paul’s problem is not with the gift, but the Corinthian’s use of the gift. Therefore, we need not assume self edification resulting from tongues is negative, for “edifying oneself is not self-centeredness, but the personal edifying of the believer that comes through private prayer and praise.” The issue is that self-edification is not what corporate worship is for. Furthermore, if tongues is ego-centric then it makes no sense for Paul to desire that they all speak in tongues (14:5), for he would be enjoining the entire congregation to practice egocentric, self-centered spirituality.
Another means by which Cessationists interpret Paul’s discussion of tongues as disparaging to the gift itself comes from Paul’s comments in vs. 14 where he states, “for if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unproductive.” It is suggested that “my mind is unproductive” is Paul’s way of rebuking the Corinthians for their mindless ecstasy. That is, Paul rebukes them for employing a worship method that does not engage the mind.
In the end, however, this conclusion is assumed from a prior theological position. Contextually, if tongues is looked at pejoratively by Paul, then this is probably a negative statement. But if one does not assume that Paul has a problem with the gift, itself, then there is no need to read this comment as a rebuke. Rather, Paul is simply stating that when one prays in tongues “it does not benefit the minds of others” or himself – the argument he has been making the whole time. Because it is an inarticulate gift, tongues simply does not engage the mind or call for a rational response in the same way prophecy does. “Only the human spirit is active if one prays of speaks in tongues without interpretation. Paul prays both ways (with spirit and mind) and urges others to follow his example.”
The Intention of Tongues
In the final argument we have room for, Cessationists make a move toward Cessation from I Corinthians 14 is in their discussion of the intention of tongues according to Paul. The intention of tongues, according to Cessationism, is a sign (shmei/o,n) to unbelieving Jews that they are under God’s judgment (14:20), particularly the covenantal curse of Deuteronomy 28:49.
Unfortunately this argument is exegetically unfounded. This reading is grounded solely on the basis of Paul’s citation of the Isaiah 28:11-12 (cf. Dt. 28:49, Jer. 5:15). It is argued that this sign is a sign of judgment upon unbelieving Israel and the OT citation is a forewarning of the fall of Jerusalem that results from Jew’s rejection of their Messiah. The problem, however, is that nowhere in this passage (or the rest of the Pauline corpus for that matter) does Paul explicitly touch on the issue of Jerusalem’s fall. Paul is not acting as a prophet predicting the fall of Jerusalem.
Rather, from the context of the Hebrew textof Isaiah 28:9-13, it is clear that the word of the Lord is heard as meaningless gibberish to Ephraim as a sign of judgment upon them in the form of Assyrian oppressors. The word of the Lord to them actually gives them meaningless sounds instead of an escape route and thus “functions as a word of judgment simply because it provides no clear guidance.” Thus Paul’s citation of this text is in full understanding that “when God speaks to people in a language they cannot understand, it is a form of punishment for unbelief.”
However, rather than applying to unbelieving Israel, Paul’s citation of Isaiah 28 has a much more contextually plausible solution: the unbelievers coming into the Corinthian assembly in the next verse, who may associate the Corinthian church with the other Greek pagan religions with their ecstatic experiences. In the immediate context, then, Paul is making the case that “for a stranger to enter a meeting in which the babbling of strange tongues was being manifest apart from any interpretation, the very act of speaking in tongues held the potential for confirming that unbeliever in a failure to discern the presence of God.” These inarticulate babblings would cause the unbelievers (vs. 23) to think the Corinthians were “mad.” Such a response would be the fulfillment of Isaiah 28:11-12 “to the effect that tongues do not lead sinners to obedience.” Contra MacArthur, the text never indicates that the unbelievers (avpi,stoij) Paul references are Jews. Even if my proposed reading of this text is wrong, it certainly deals with the contextual evidence of I Corinthians 14 better than the argument that restricts the sign to unbelieving Jews, as there’s nothing within this text that necessitates such a reading.
Finally, I think the structure of this passage should finally put the “unbelieving Israel” argument to rest:
Vs. 20 Exhortation: Redirect your thinking (about the function of tongues)
Vs. 21 OT Text: Tongues do not lead to obedience
Vs. 22 Application: So then –
Assertion 1 – Tongues a sign not for believers A.
But for unbelievers B.
Assertion 2 – Prophecy [a sign] not for unbelievers B’
But for believers A’
Vs. 23 Illustration 1 – Effect of tongues (1) on unbelievers (B)
Vs. 24-25 Illustration 2 – Effect of prophecy (2) on unbelievers (B)
It is important to notice, first, that the discussion is permeated by the response of unbelievers who are visiting the Corinthian community. They are not specified as unbelieving Jews but are just general unbelievers. The entire structure of the passage points to the inability of uninterpreted tongues to convict them of their need for obedience to God. This is emphasized by the fact that both illustrations are directed at unbelievers in general, one demonstrating the ineffectiveness of uninterpreted tongues, the other, by contrast, demonstrating the effectiveness of prophecy. In fact, the point of the entire argument is summed up in that uninterpreted tongues neither calls the unbeliever to obedience nor does it actually edify the believing community as a whole. Thus, it is inappropriate for the public assembly. To take Paul’s argument anywhere else is to ignore the flow of the argument and the structure of the passage.
The arguments for the Cessationist position are varied and nuanced. These are not ignorant people who lack hermeneutical prowess or simply want to read their theology onto the biblical text. I would never question their sincerity and desire to know the full revelation of God. However, I believe that in the case of these chapters, they are mistaken primarily because they let their theological agenda determine how the text should be read.
While critiquing their arguments from these passages does not demonstrate the truthfulness of the charismatic position, it does mean that Cessationists must use other texts and other arguments to make their points. Paul’s concern in I Corinthians 13-14 does not lie in giving us an indication of when tongues will cease. Rather, Paul’s concerns lie with the Corinthians having a proper eschatological and ecclesiastical understanding of this gift, especially in comparison with prophecy.
To take Paul’s arguments and make them answer our questions instead of his is a hermeneutical fallacy that should be avoided at all costs. This trap, unfortunately, is the trap I see scholars on both sides falling prey to. The questions determining the Cessationist answers are largely questions raised in their reactions to the abuses of the charismatic movement.
In the end, exegesis aside, I think this is the fundamental problem. In making Paul argue our points, we silence Paul’s voice in favor of our own. We then convince ourselves that Paul’s voice sounds amazingly like our post-Enlightenment voices. In the end, I agree with Craig Keener when he says, “I believe the position that supernatural gifts have ceased is one that no Bible reader would hold if not previously taught to do so. It is also a position based on a modern reading of the text shaped by Enlightenment culture.” Until we learn to discern Paul’s voice from our own, we will never escape this problem.