Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers. If, therefore[?], the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.(1Co 14:22-25)

This is a confusing passage of scripture. Paul seems to contradict himself, and leaves many people wondering which sign is for who. In fact because of the confusion, many would rather just ignore this passage and not draw any conclusion from it at all.

But Scripture is not meant to confuse us, but instruct us. And there is no passage that is unimportant or without value.

Although I, like most, am wary of any exegesis that hangs on hidden meanings pulled out from the Greek, I think this is a case where an insight into the Greek can help.

In English the word "therefore" is a 'particle' that carries as strong sense of positive conclusion. In the Greek particles are used primarily to indicate a join and can be much more fluid in whether the clause joined is to be understood as supplemental or subtracting from what came before.

The only equivalent we have in English is the use of the particle 'or'. Consider my earlier sentence: "There is no passage that is unimportant or without value." All English readers will have implicitly understood that here 'or' was actually being used where strictly a 'nor' is needed. I was not saying "There is no passage that is unimportant, or there is no passage that is without value, (but it may be one or the other.)" Instead what is meant is, "There is no passage that is unimportant, nor is any without value." The negative particle exists and makes the meaning explicit, but in common use the positive particle can frequently be used in place of the negative. The context is important to determine which is intended.

This is even more prevalent in the Greek, where 'and' and 'therefore' can also be used in this way, where in English they cannot.

So, this passage could also be translated with "If, however" instead of "If, therefore" without any injustice to the fluidity of meaning that exists in the Greek. The problem being, of course, that as soon as you chose one or the other you make the connection concrete and remove the fluidity.

The Greek word used here is the positive particle "oun" (therefore, [however]). Paul could have use the negative particle "alla" (but, nevertheless) which would have made the meaning explicit, but the use of negative particles tends to be used for emphasis in Greek, and perhaps Paul did not want such emphasis (perhaps wanting to emphasise "all" instead?). So perhaps "however" is too strong the other way.

The best I could come up with, that preserves the meaning of what I believe Paul was trying to say, without adding any emphasis that is not there is to use the English phrase "All the same."

Using this, and separating the discourse on the two gifts, we get:

"Tongues is a sign for unbelievers, all the same, if an unbeliever comes into a context where all are speaking in tongues he will think you are crazy."

"Prophecy is for believers not unbelievers, all the same, if an unbeliever comes into a context where all are prophesying he will be convicted by the presence of God among you."

Does that make more sense? Does it fit the context of a discourse to those who were abusing the gift of tongues and neglecting prophecy? Does it fit with what we know about these gifts from elsewhere in the Word?... I think so.

If you accept this rendering of the passage there is more that can be said on the operation of these gifts. But I'll leave that for another day....

Update 8:45pm
Just thought of a phrase I like better than "all the same": even so.
This has the advantage that it could be written [even] so and thus show clearly what is explicit and what is inferred.


SLW said...

You've got it! That is the burden of what Paul was trying to say. When you go back to the Isaiah text that Paul is commenting on, it becomes clear that tongues are meant to say something to the unbelieving ("judgment is upon you") but because they are unbelieving they dismiss it a baby babble. That is, AYS, the point in 1 Corinthians 14. Good post.

Matthew said...

OK, I'm definitely out of my depth with my Greek now; but I like the conclusion!

And whilst we cannot base out exegesis or doctrine on experience - I have definitely exoerienced that exegesis!