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Tongues of angels: real or imagined?

Published:Tuesday | July 28, 2015 | 12:00 AM
Clinton Chisholm
Sister Donnett Robinson speaking in tongues as she and members of the Faith Prayer House Church Of God and Power Of Faith Ministries conduct a prayer service in the hills of Spanish Town over looking Shelter Rock on January 15, 2014.

If you miss the centrality of love in 1 Corinthians 13, it is likely you will misread the issues dealt with in the first few verses of this love chapter. Indeed, the popularity of the King James Version (KJV) reading has misled a number of us into a misunderstanding of the statements made in verses 1-3.

The repeated 'though I ...' construction is imprecise and very misleading.

From this imprecise translation, some Pentecostals/Charismatics have gone on to argue for the reality and necessity of 'speaking in the tongues of angels'. The argument such persons advance from verse 1 is 'if Paul spoke in the tongues of angels, then all believers can and should'.

Let it be clear, the text neither says nor suggests that there is really such a thing as 'tongues of angels', and even if there is, it does not assert as fact that Paul spoke this language, even on the imprecise KJV reading.

Look closely at the verses, think critically and this becomes clear. Good critical observation is vital to interpretation. Hint: As you observe the text, think; if all that's said in verses 1-3 is factual of Paul's experience, there would be a major problem in the text. Have you spotted that problem?

If the construction 'though I speak with' introduces something factual in Paul's experience, then Paul would not only have spoken with the tongues of men and angels (v.1) but would have done all the things mentioned in v.2 and, most important, in v.3 WOULD HAVE GIVEN HIS BODY TO BE BURNED. How and when, then, could he have written this epistle?


No affirmation


So even on the KJV reading, something is wrong with the traditional approach of seeing Paul affirming as fact the things mentioned after the repeated construction 'though I'. So what alternative do we have for making sense of this chapter in 1 Corinthians?

The best defensible option is to see Paul as setting up a string of suppositions which is better rendered in English as 'if', rather than 'though'. This option has the support of the original language in which Paul wrote. Paul used in verses 1-3 a particular Greek construction which confirms the hypothetical nature of what he says in v. 1-3.

I have to indulge a bit of technical stuff now, but you can handle it.

The particular Greek construction is ean= if, plus the subjunctive mood.

If you will pardon a brief language lesson. The basic moods/atmospheres associated with verbs (action words) in English and Greek are the indicative (assertion, claiming something), the interrogative (question, finding out something), the imperative (command, demanding something), the subjunctive (supposition/wish, imagining something).

Returning to our text now, as Leon Morris says in his Tyndale commentary on v.1, "'Though' is perhaps too strong for ean (as also in verses 2,3), which is rather 'if'. What follows is put forward as a hypothetical possibility."

So, then, how should the first three verses of our text read to avoid misconceptions being drawn from it? It should read as the New Living Translation has it (now the NLT is not really a translation but a paraphrase).

1 If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn't love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God's secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn't love others, I would be nothing. 3 If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn't love others, I would have gained nothing.

So then, in summary, Paul is here trying to show the supremacy of love over even the mere possibility of tongues of angels.

- The Rev Dr Clinton Chisholm is a theologian. Email feedback to and