Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Trustee Jerry Corbaley's Defense of IMB Policy on Tongues

IMB trustee Jerry Corbaley has recently posted on his blog a rather lengthy defense of the new IMB policy disallowing missionary candidates who profess to have a "private prayer language" from missionary service.

I have sent a correspondingly lengthy reply to his comments page, which I hope will soon appear there. In the meantime, I am including my reply as the first comment on this post here (Go to comments).


David Rogers said...


I agree with Jeff, Tim, and Stephen in thanking you for the obvious time and thought you have put in to your post. However, I like them, must also respectfully disagree on a number of points…

Points 6, 7, 8, 10, 18, 19, 22

I agree with you that this is indeed a crucial question. However, I don’t think the answer is quite as “cut and dry” as you make it out to be. The truth is there are very learned conservative evangelical scholars who do not see it quite as “cut and dry” either. The following quote is quite long, but I think it bears considering in light of the categorical claims you make. It is from D.A. Carson’s exegesis of 1 Corinthians 12-14, Showing the Spirit, excerpts from pp. 77-87…

“What does glwssais lalein (glossais lalein), to speak in tongues) mean?…

Were the tongues at Corinth “real languages,” or something else? To put the matter in technical terms, is the phenomenon of 1 Corinthians an instance of xenoglossia (that is, speaking in unlearned human languages) or glossolalia (that is, speaking in verbal patterns that cannot be identified with any human language)? This is an extraordinarily difficult question to answer convincingly on either side, despite the dogmatic claims made by many proponents on either side …

MacGorman insists that glossolalia in 1 Corinthians is “Holy Spirit inspired utterance that is unintelligble apart from interpretation, itself an attendant gift. It is a form of ecstatic utterance, a valid charismatic endowment.” He goes on to affirm that if the modern reader reads real languages into the picture, then verses such as 14:2, 13, 14, 18, 26 degenerate to sheer nonsense. But in fact, not one of them is nonsense, even if the tongue is a real language, provided only that the tongues-speaker does not know what he or she is saying – a point Paul surely presupposes when he exhorts the tongues-speaker to pray for the gift of interpretation, and acknowledges it is possible to pray without the mind…

Moreover if tongues are principally unintelligible at the intrinsic level until the gift of interpretation is exercised, one wonders in what sense tongues are being “interpreted” at all…

On the balance, then, the evidence favors the view that Paul thought the gift of tongues was a gift of real languages, that is, languages that were cognitive, whether of men or of angels…

What bearing does the discipline of linguistics have on the assessment of modern tongues? To my knowledge there is universal agreement among linguists who have taped and analyzed thousands of examples of modern tongues-speaking that the contemporary phenomenon is not any human language. The patterns and structures that all known human language requires are simply not there. Occasionally a recognizable word slips out; but that is statistically likely, given the sheer quantity of verbalization. Jaquette’s conclusion is unavoidable: “we are dealing here not with language, but with verbalizations which superficially resemble language in certain of its structural aspects.” When studies have been made of tongues uttered in different cultures and linguistic environments, several startling conclusions have presented themselves. The tongues phenomena have been related to the speaker’s natural language (e.g., a German or French tongues-speaker will not use one of the two English “th” sounds; and English tongues-speakers will never include the “u” sound of French “cru”). Moreover, the stereotypical utterance of any culture “mirrors that of the person who guided the glossolalist into the behavior. There is little variation of sound patterns within the group arising around a particular guide,” even though other studies show that the tongues patterns of each speaker are usually identifiable from those of others, and a few tongues-speakers use two or more discrete patterns. In any case, modern tongues are lexically uncommunicative and the few instances of reported modern xenoglossia are so poorly attested that no weight can be laid on them.

What follows from this information? For some, the evidence is so powerful that they conclude the only biblical position is that no known contemporary gift of tongues is biblically valid, and ideally the entire practice should be stopped immediately. For others, such as Packer, modern tongues are not like biblical tongues, and therefore contemporary tongues-speakers should not claim that their gift is in line with Pentecost or with Corinth; yet on the other hand the modern phenomenon seems to do more good than harm, it has helped many believers in worship, prayer, and commitment, and therefore should probably be assessed as a good gift from God that nevertheless stands without explicit biblical warrant. I cannot think of a better way of displeasing both sides of the current debate.

Can we get beyond this impasse? I think so, if the arguments of Poythress stand up. How, he asks, may tongues be perceived? There are three possibilities: disconnected sounds, ejaculations, and the like that are not confused with human languages; connected sequences of sounds that appear to be real languages unknown to the hearer not trained in linguistics, even though they are not; and real language known by one or more of the potential hearers, even if unknown to the speaker. I would add a fourth possibility, which was later treated by Poythress though not at this point classified by him: speech patterns sufficiently complex that they may bear all kinds of cognitive information in some coded array, even though linguistically these patterns are not identifiable as human language.

Our problem so far is that the biblical descriptions of tongues seem to demand the third category, but the contemporary phenomena seem to fit better in the second category; and never the twain shall meet. But the fourth category is also logically possible, even though it is regularly overlooked; and it meets the constraints of both the first-century biblical documents and some of the contemporary phenomena. I do not see how it can be dismissed.

Consider, then, Poythress’s linguistic description of glossolalia:

Free vocalization (glossolalia) occurs when (1) a human being produces a connected sequence of speech sounds, (2) he cannot identify the sound-sequence as belonging to any natural language that he already knows how to speak, (3) he cannot identify and give the meaning of words or morphemes (minimal lexical units), (4) in the case of utterances of more than a few syllables, he typically cannot repeat the same sound-sequence on demand, (5) a naïve listener might suppose that it was an unknown language.

The next step is crucial. Poythress reminds us that such free vocalization may still bear content beyond some vague picture of the speaker’s emotional state. He offers his own amusing illustration; I shall manufacture another. Suppose the message is:

“Praise the Lord, for his mercy endures forever.”

Remove the vowels to achieve:


This may seem a bit strange; but when we remember that modern Hebrew is written without most vowels, we can imagine that with practice this could be read quite smoothly. Now remove the spaces and, beginning with the first letter, rewrite the sequence using every third letter, repeatedly going through the sequence until all the letters are used up. The result is:


I think that is indistinguishable from transcriptions of certain modern tongues. Certainly it is very similar to some I have heard. But the important point is that it conveys information provided you know the code. Anyone who knows the steps I have taken could reverse them in order to retrieve the original message. As Poythress remarks, “thus it is always possible for the charismatic person to claim that T-speech [tongues] is coded language, and that only the interpreter of tongues is given the supernatural ‘key’ for deciphering it. It is impossible not only in practice, but even in theory, for a linguist to devise a means of testing this claim.”

It appears, then, that tongues may bear cognitive information even though they are not known human languages – just as a computer program is a “language” that conveys a great deal of information, even though it is not a “language” that anyone actually speaks. You have to know the code to be able to understand it. Such a pattern of verbalization could not be legitimately dismissed as gibberish. It is as capable of conveying propositional and cognitive content as any known human language. “Tongue” and “language” still seem eminently reasonable words to describe the phenomenon. This does not mean that all modern tongues phenomena are therefore biblically authentic. It does mean there is a category of linguistic phenomenon that conveys cognitive content, may be interpreted, and seems to meet the constraints of the biblical descriptions, even though it is no known human language. Of course, this will not do for the tongues of Acts 2, where the gift consisted of known human languages; but elsewhere, the alternative is not as simple as “human languages” or “gibberish,” as many noncharismatic writers affirm. Indeed, that fact that Paul can speak of different kinds of tongues (12:10, 28) may suggest that on some occasions human languages were spoken (as in Acts 2), and in other cases not – even though in the latter eventuality the tongues were viewed as bearing cognitive content.”

Point 9

I would encourage you to study Wayne Grudem’s book The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today to for a scholarly alternative this view.

Point 15

I am very glad to hear you say this. I hope what you say here is indeed the truth regarding those who have been heavily influenced by Landmark thought as well.

Point 17.

While it is true the IMB is the largest missionary organization, I would recommend that we be a bit more measured in claims to be the “most effective” and “Biblically faithful”. I think that is for God to determine and not we ourselves.

Point 21.

I believe there is a “third option”: being open, with “charismatics” not judging “non-charismatics” and “non-charismatics” not judging “charismatics”.

Point 24.

I definitely agree with you about the point that there are hundreds of ways to go. I myself have done missionary service with 2 other mission organizations before serving with the IMB, Operation Mobilization and Bible Christian Union. I would, however, recommend extreme caution in inferring that those with a professed “private prayer language” are necessarily beset with defects or even “sins” comparable with gluttony, illiteracy, poor health, poor education and an uncooperative spirit. This is, in my opinion, very unfair stereotyping. Perhaps those with a professed “private prayer language” would feel more comfortable and affirmed with another missionary organization. But I am afraid, at least in the case of many potential candidates, the greatest loss would be ours as Southern Baptists.

Point 28.

I will not do it, but, if I chose to do so, could just as easily make a list of sins, defects, and problems associated with non-tongues-speakers.

Points 26, 27, 29 and 30

What about people, like me, who do not practice a “private prayer language”, but who believe it is a valid spiritual gift? Are you saying that I am a danger to the work of the IMB as well? That would seem to be the logical consequence of what you are saying. If that is the case, I don’t even begin to pretend to know the percentages, but I would not be surprised to hear that the number of folks like me in the IMB is much higher than what those who support the new tongues policy would like to believe.

Point 32.

I have found several texts that seem to lend credence to the possibility of a “private prayer language”, not due to a desire to back up my experience, but rather out of a desire to objectively and unbiasedly study the Word of God, and come to a conclusion about what it teaches. These include 1 Corinthians 14:2, 4, 5, 14, 15, 18-19, and 28.

Point 33

As I have never spoken in tongues, I cannot speak from personal experience. But I can testify to the sound Christian character, effectiveness in ministry, love for Christ, for lost souls, and for other brothers and sisters in Christ, I have witnessed in the lives of many who profess to have a “private prayer language.” I am not saying that speaking in tongues necessarily makes you any more spiritual than anyone else. But I am saying that, in and of itself, as far as I have observed, it does not seem to be a negative factor in regards to authentic Christian discipleship.

Point 40.

Is listening to Christian music inherently self-seeking? How about reading personal devotional books?, etc., etc.

Point 44.

I would say you are making unfair generalizations here. If you follow this point to its logical conclusion, we should get rid of all Calvinists as well because of the tendency of many Calvinists to de-emphasize the need for evangelism. Is that where we are going next?

Point 45.

Although I respect those who may choose to post anonymously, and give them the benefit of the doubt concerning their motives, I choose to post openly. I am happy for Southern Baptists, and anyone else, to know what I believe. I do not hope this leads me into confrontation with my superiors at the IMB. But, if it does, I pray to be able to cross that bridge with grace whenever that time might come.

Point 49.

I think that Wade Burleson has already posted an excellent alternative policy on his blog.

Points 51 and 52

I am unaware of what rumors you are referring to? Could you please enlighten me?

Bowden McElroy said...

Thank you, David, for a thoughtful rebuttal to Dr. Corbaley.

The central issue, for me, continues to be the forum used for "clarifying" what Southern Baptist believe about tongues.

Even if I were to be persuaded that Dr. Corbaley is correct, a policy that, in effect, changes the BF&M is simply wrong. If we don't want people who have a private prayer language to be on the mission field, then we need to change our doctrinal statement.

After six months of talking, reading blogs, and corresponding with others on both sides of the issue, I can't help but believe the IMB Board of Trustees have make an end run around the convention. Sincerity of belief doesn't make the policy right.

If the SBC amended the BF&M, then this would be a non-issue for me: I could decide to stay or go, but I would no longer question or criticize the BoT of the IMB.

Kiki Cherry said...

"I have found several texts that seem to lend credence to the possibility of a “private prayer language”, not due to a desire to back up my experience, but rather out of a desire to objectively and unbiasedly study the Word of God, and come to a conclusion about what it teaches."

AMEN!!!! I especially appreciated that statement.

This may be your best post yet, and you've written some other incredibly good ones.

If you were not already busy serving God overseas, I would recommend that YOU be the person to lead our convention.

I appreciate your sincere desire to be Biblical, passion for the lost, and willingness to cooperate with other Great Commission Christians.

David, you have got to keep writing. Thanks for being willing to speak the truth boldly.

Tim Sweatman said...


I found your comment to be thorough, logical, scholarly, and biblically solid. Gene Bridges may need to watch out! :^)

One of the issues I have raised with Jerry is that his definition of glossolalia is not the only one that can claim biblical support. As you have pointed out, conservative evangelicals who affirm the inerrancy and authority of the Bible have reached vastly different conclusions on this issue. Thus, we should be leery of using it as a doctrinal litmus test.


I raised the same concern in one of my responses on Jerry's blog. Why have a BFM if our entities can simply make up their own doctrinal standards?


"If you were not already busy serving God overseas, I would recommend that YOU be the person to lead our convention."

Would you really want to do that to David? I thought he was your friend! ;^)

Tim Batchelor said...

Brother David,

It seems that Poythress' understanding of tongues as code language is a far reach. Paul says the language of "men and angels." The plain meaning would be languages spoken regularly either in heaven or on earth. It would seem that Scripture speaks of human language, angelic language or nothing.

My conclusion and that of linguists is that most of what is spoken is made up jibberish. Isn't a rule of linguistics that it takes about the same amount of time to translate what was spoken as it took to speak? 99% of the time it takes the "interpreter" of tongues way longer to interpret than the words originally spoken.

David Rogers said...

Tim B.,

I would agree with you that "code-language" is perhaps a "far stretch". I believe my basic point still stands, though, that evangelical scholars of the caliber of Carson, MacGorman & Poythress don't necessarily dismiss modern tongues just because you can't analyze them "underneath a microscope" or "in a test tube".

I've heard my father say, on various occasions, while preaching:
"If God wanted to, he could reach down from heaven, lift the roof off this building, and say 'boo', and we all would become believers right away."

The reason God doesn't do that, in my opinion, is because he wants us to walk by faith, not by sight. Just because God's miracles cannot be seal-tight impeccably proven scientifically does not mean they don't really happen.

Anonymous said...

I was baptized in the ocean at the first beach baptism held by Calvary Chapel. 400 of us Jesus freaks turned up and shiverred our way out to be dunked under the oversight of Pastor Chuck Smith. Much later when we joined a SB Church, the pastor accepted our baptism and profession of faith. We transferred our membership to a second SB church who accepted our profession of faith and baptism. What would the cutrrent BOT policy say about my case?

David Rogers said...


I can't remember if Calvary Chapel in those days taught you can lose your salvation. From what I understand of the new baptism policy, that would probably be the key issue.

By the way, I'm a big "Lovesong" fan (and the other original Maranatha Music groups) from way back. That's cool to know you were a part of the original group back then.

Anonymous said...

I was also involved in the Christian commune movement that some of the earlier CC people were involved in like Lonnie Frisbee and Mickey Stevens. Here is a shocker I was also involved in producing big screen multi-media anti-drug productions and touring them to high schools in California. We used alot of Lovesong music. During those early days, CC was only supposed to hold 200 people but us hippies sat on the floor, the platform and broke the fire code - most of us came to church every night in barefeet, long hair and overalls. The Jesus Freak revival was very interesting and many of us went back to our traditional churches (like my Lutheran wife) and tried to spread the revival. However, CC now looks and feels much like my SB church. Very middle class. It always amuses me to hear sermons on the CC Radio network and the pastors sounding like Chuck Smith! Wow. What a trip down memory lane!

BUT, back to my question. My former SB pastor said that there was some traditional baptist document on immersion that us SBs go back to that cold, running water was the best place to get dunked! AND, what mystifies me on this policy is why should it matter what the dunker believed 35 years ago? Or the dunkee for that matter? It should be of concern NOW what our candidates believe!

David Rogers said...


Yeah, I'm completely with you. Hopefully, as you and I, and others like us, keep trying to speak up, and keep trying to maintain a Christ-like spirit, we will eventually help the rest who don't agree with us, or who are still on the fence, to come over and see our point of view.