This questions keeps coming around over and over again. Since tongues was (1) a spiritual gift, and (2) since it would be a part of early church history, we must look at both sources for the answer.
Was tongues a gibberish or an actual language? This is easy to answer. First, the Greek word glossa was a clearly understood idiom for describing a spoken and known language. Thus when the doctrine of linguistics first appeared in Acts 2 we find it describing spoken languages and identifiable dialects. It was defined as a miracle gift also: "... because they were each one hearing them (the disciples) speak in his own language. And they were amazed and marveled, saying, 'Why, are not all these who are speaking Galileans?'" (vv. 6-7). And the people hearing the miracle added: "And how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born?" (v. 8).
While most charismatics agree that Acts 2 was a miracle and was the speaking in a known language, they say what was happening in 1 Corinthians 12-14 was (1) an angelic utterance, (2) or an esthetic gibberish. The question: why would Acts 2 be considered a language but 1 Corinthians 12-14 would be some form of a mystical utterance or angelic vocabulary? Charismatics do this because that's what they want to do! There is no evidence that there would be a change in meaning and substance but instead, just the opposite. What was in Acts 2 would be the same in 1 Corinthians 12-14!
In Acts 2:4 there is a little idiomatic expression translated "other tongues." In Greek this is heteros glossa. This phrase is used almost identically in 1 Corinthians 12:10. There it is hetero gene glosson or, "other families of tongues (languages)." What happened in Acts 2:4 was the same thing happening in 1 Corinthians 12:10.
The miracle of linguistics will cease! The church at Corinth was apparently boasting about the gifts they possessed. Though these gifts were imparted by the Holy Spirit, still carnality set in. The believers forgot the fact that whatever they did for the Lord, it had to be driven by the principle of love. This is Paul's big point in 1 Corinthians 13:1-13.
Interestingly, Paul tells his readers the three communication gifts would someday cease. These are prophecy, languages, and knowledge. The canon of Scripture had not been completed and so there were some believers who were given special dispensations of understanding spiritual truth in order to clarify doctrine in the growing church. Apparently when the canon of the New Testament was finalized with the book of Revelation, as authored by John the apostle, such helpful gifts would stop.
The gift of prophecy was not the revealing of future things but the gift of what I would call a super teacher! Those who had this gift were used of God to edify, exhort the congregation about spiritual matters (1 Cor. 14:31). Future prophecy was not a part of this gift. If they had the gift of future prophecy, what they said would be absolute about some specific future event(s). But instead, what these men taught, through this gift of prophecy, was not absolute in nature. Their carnality could get in the way. That is why when they spoke, what they said had to pass judgment and be confirmed by two or three other prophets (v. 29). What was coming forth from their spirits had to be checked and balanced, that is, it was subject to approval by the other prophets (v. 32).
The gift of knowledge (13:8) was the imparting of special understanding about spiritual truth. The church dispensation was something brand new. There was a learning curve in place whereby the believers were receiving new information that had to be processed, assimilated, and then carried out in living. This special gift too would pass, be done away with, when the canon of Scripture, the final authority for the New Testament church, would be completed and put into place.
How do we know for certain the above gifts, plus tongues (linguistics) would someday cease? This is exactly what Paul writes in 13:8-13. How do we know such gifts have ceased? By looking what took place in the early church. Do we have testimonies and confirmations that they disappeared in the church? Yes we do!
But first let's exegete 13:8-9.
First Paul writes that "love never fails" (v. 8). "Fails" is pimpo used as a Present Active Indicative. "Love is never in the ongoing process of falling." It is not going away! But the Greek says, "Gifts of prophecy will be in the future made inoperative (set aside, katargeo)." Thayer says of this word, it will it will become inactive, done away with, made of none effect, abolished, annulled.
Of linguistics (tongues) Paul writes, "They will in the future stop (pauo) themselves." Paul uses pauo in the Future Middle Indicative Greek form. Thayer translates this word, to cease, to desist, to be restrained, to be left off. "They will in the future self-destruct themselves!"
The rest of the verses. The verses that follow (13:9-13) seem to verify that these gifts would stop and that there was something better to come. Paul writes, "When the perfect (teleion, the complete, mature) comes, the partial will be done away." Done away is that Greek word katargeo. Many of us believe the "perfect" or the complete, has to do with the completion of the canon of revelation. There seems to be no better explanation given. Maybe even Paul did not fully comprehend what this completion entails.
But on these verses, what do the old grammatical Greek scholars hold who had no ax to grind concerning charismatic issues? Let's take a look:
- T. Robertson writes about verse 8: "They shall be made idle, inoperative. ... All these special gifts will pass. ... To be made to cease. ... They shall make themselves cease or automatically cease of themselves."
- The great Greek scholar W. Robertson Nicoll says: "These gifts will cease, drop out of existence. These special gifts were bestowed on the way and served the wayfaring church, they cease each of them at a determined point. ...They will be done away by a completer realization of the objects they seek. ... They will stop. ... A temporary significance, they will lapse and terminate."
- C. K. Barrett writes: "Prophecies, tongues (linguistics), and knowledge were all at best partial revelations of God. They had their place, yet they were limited and temporary."
"We do also hear many brethren in the church, who possess prophetic gifts, and who through the Spirit speak all kinds of languages (not gibberish), and bring light for the general benefit, the hidden things of men, and declare the mysteries of God."
Note that Irenaeus spoke of the gift of legitimate languages not some kind of strange mystical babbling.
Speaking of one church leader Montanus said, "He became beside himself, gave the adversary (Satan) opportunity against him. He being suddenly in a sort of frenzy and ecstasy, he raved, and began to babble and utter strange things, prophesying n a manner contrary to the constant custom of the church handed down by tradition from the beginning. Some of those who heard his spurious utterances at that time were indignant, and they rebuked him as one that was possessed. ... He stirred up besides two women, and filled them with the false spirit, so that they talked wildly and unreasonable and strangely, like the person already mentioned."
What else could one add to this! It sounds just like many charismatic meetings held today!
While Chrysostom lived some 300 years after the apostolic period, he makes an interesting comment on 1 Corinthians 12:1-2. He wrote, "This whole passage is very obscure: but the obscurity is produced by our ignorance of the facts referred to and by their cessation, being such as then used to occur but now no longer take place." It is clear that by this time the gift of linguistics had disappeared from the church.
In the apostolic period, Augustine says, "The Holy Spirit fell upon them that believe and they spoke with tongues, which they had not learned, as the Spirit gave them utterance. These were signs adapted to the time. For there was this betokening of the Holy Spirit in all tongues (languages) to show that the gospel of God was to run through all [languages] over the whole earth. That thing was done for a sign, and it passed away."
Only the stubborn and the argumentative would deny the obvious historical evidence. In fact, I have heard, as others also have heard, charismatics say, "But I don't care what the Scriptures [or church history] says, I know what I have experienced." Experience then becomes the arbitrator of what is true, and not the Bible!
But we do not fly our airplane by what we emotionally feel or experience; we fly the plane by the instruments and by objective fact! Among most charismatics this is not being done today!