What is the gift of speaking in tongues?

Do some Christians have a private prayer language called “tongues”? What are the different views to this teaching and what does the Bible say?

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Introduction

One topic that can sometimes be controversial, and sometimes even cause accusations of “blaspheming the Holy Spirit,” is what is called in a technical sense “glossolalia.” That may seem like a strange word but it is a compound word from the Greek; you know how both scientists and theologians can be with terminology. Colloquially, it is referred to as “speaking in tongues” or the “gift of tongues,” and comes from the word γλῶσσα, glossa, for “language,” and λαλέω, laleo, for “speak.”

There are three primary views regarding such a gift, the first, that the gift is a supernatural or angelic language given for the edification of an individual’s spirit; the second, that the gift is merely the gift of speaking ordinary human languages; and the third view combines the first two views, holding that there are different kinds of tongues, some that are the supernatural ability to either speak or understand a language that one does not know and some that are supernatural. This is a very complicated topic that I have wrestled with on and off for several years trying to unravel. Therefore, before we examine the particulars of this topic we must first lay a general foundation of the Scriptural instances where we see this gift described.

An Overview of Tongues in Scripture

The only application of this gift by individuals in Scripture is twice in the book of Acts, in chapters 2 and 19, although the Lord prophesied it in Mark 16:17. The only teaching given in Scripture on this gift, however, is in Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth in chapter 14, although there is some lead-up in the previous two chapters.

Those who hold  that the gift is a supernatural language or at least includes both supernatural and ordinary language will typically focus on particular verses in 1 Corinthians 14. However, those who consider the gift to refer to only ordinary human languages point to the fact that the only times this gift is seen being exercised in Scripture by individuals it is clearly referring to ordinary human language (Acts 2; 19). This is a problem for the first view because if supernatural languages are included as a kind of “gift of tongues” then one would expect an example of it being applied in the church’s early history as recorded in Acts. We certainly have examples of the other form of the gift, the supernatural ability to speak or understand an ordinary language.

The Pagan History of Glossolalia

Although today we typically only think of “tongues” in the context of certain Christian denominations, the idea that divine beings spoke languages different from human languages was very common in the Greco-Roman world. For example, Alexander of Abonoteichus, a Greek mystic, oracle, and founder of the Glycon cult that briefly achieved wide popularity in the Roman world, exhibited glossolalia during his frequent periods of prophetic ecstasy. Also, the Neoplatonist philosopher Iamblichus linked glossolalia to prophecy, writing that prophecy was divine spirit possession that “emits words which are not understood by those that utter them; for they pronounce them, as it is said, with an insane mouth (mainomenό stomati) and are wholly subservient, and entirely yield themselves to the energy of the predominating God.”1

Merrill F. Unger also notes, “The very phrase ‘to speak in tongues’ … was not invented by New Testament writers, but borrowed from the ordinary speech of pagans. … Virgil graphically describes the ancient pagan prophetess ‘speaking with tongues.’ He depicts her disheveled hair, her panting breast, her change of color, and her apparent increase in stature as the god (demon) came upon her and filled her with his supernatural afflatus. Then her voice loses its mortal ring as the god (demon) speaks through her, as in ancient and modern necromancy (spiritism).” Unger then goes on to describe the practice in modern paganism, relating an example from the Sandwich Islands in which “the god Oro gave his oracles through a priest who ceased to act or speak as a voluntary agent, but with his limbs convulsed, his features distorted and terrific, his eyes wild and strained, would roll on the ground foaming at the mouth, and reveal the will of the god in shrill cries and sounds violent and indistinct, which the attending priests duly interpreted to the people.”2 Charles R. Smith further documents a large number of occurrences of tongues in various other settings, including accounts from Non-Christian Religions to Mental Illness to Spiritism and also Demon Possession.3

Yet, while instances of glossolalia were common in classical antiquity and even within paganism today, references among the church fathers are both rare and unclear as to the nature of the gift being described. Irenaeus, writing in the 2nd century, gives a first-hand account about many in the church speaking all kinds of languages “through the Spirit” and Tertullian at the beginning of the third century gives a second-hand account of some encountering in his day the gift of interpretation of tongues.4 However, there are no other known first-hand accounts resembling glossolalia among the church fathers and very few second-hand accounts.

Glossolalia in Scripture

Since the instances in Acts are universally acknowledged to refer to ordinary languages, at least the understanding of what is being said, I shall primarily focus on the Apostle’s teaching on tongues to the Corinthian congregation. However, although 1 Corinthian 14 is generally regarded as Paul’s teaching on tongues, the chapter is actually about the gift of prophecy – the ability to teach and expound the word of God – which he juxtaposes with the practice of glossolalia. The chapter begins thus:

Follow the way of love, and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy. For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the spirit. But the one who prophesies speaks to the people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort. Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church.

The main issue that must be addressed on which one’s understanding of this chapter hinges is what does the Apostle mean when he says in verse 2 that one “who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God.” The verse begins with the word “for,” but it is not used in the prepositional sense; the word is the adverbial causal conjunction γάρ, gar, meaning “since” or “because.” The Apostle’s point in the text is that communication in the church should be “to people,” that being the only way the church is edified for growth. Furthermore, the morphological form of the word for God, θεῷ, theo, is the exact same form used in Acts 17:23 and is better translated “to a god.” The Apostle in this chapter, therefore, is setting up a juxtaposition between the teaching of God’s Word in the church with the practices of the pagans, the pagans seeking only self-aggrandizement (V. 4).

It is also important to note that, although it is not always indicated consistently in some translation, the Apostle in this chapter makes an important distinction between the singular and plural use of γλῶσσα, glossa, “language; tongue.” The King James Version translators seem to have recognized this distinction in their decision to consistently add the word “unknown” before every singular form (Vv. 2, 4, 13, 14, 19, 27), the singular generally used to refer to the pagan practice since there are not many kinds of gibberish. There are, however, many languages in the world and, therefore, the Apostle uses the plural to convey ordinary language (Vv. 6, 18, 22, 23, 29). There are only three exceptions to this rule in the chapter (Vv. 13, 27, 28) in which the singular is used to refer to a particular person speaking a particular, ordinary language.

A Private Prayer Language?

Yet, is there a legitimate “unknown tongue” that God gives to some Christians to be used in private prayer? After all, Paul begins the previous chapter saying, “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” Yet, the word “if” expresses a hypothetical condition; the Apostle’s point is the futility of absolutely any speech in the name of God if one does not have love. He uses a similar hypothetical scenario in Galatians 1:8, saying, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse.” Obviously an angel “from heaven” would never preach such a message – maybe a fallen angel but not one from heaven. Paul’s language in both instances is hypothetical to emphasize his points.

Yet some point to the Apostle’s words in 1 Corinthians 14:14 and 14:18-19 as evidence that he himself privately prayed in a supernatural language. The problem with this, however, is that in verse 14 the apostle is also speaking hypothetically, saying, “For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful.” The next verse make plain that such was not the Apostle’s practice in which he says, “So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding” (V. 15).

Paul’s statement in verse 18 then shifts away from speaking hypothetically to emphasize that he was not condemning the true gift of tongues (plural), that is, of ministering to others in a language he or she has not learned and he contrasts the use of the true gift (V. 18, plural) with the pagan practice (V. 19, singular). As a missionary to many faraway places, he had had more occasions to use the true gift than all of them and he had used it properly. Interestingly, however, the New Testament makes no mention of Paul’s or any Christian’s particular exercising of the gift; it was a gift but not as important as prophecy, declaring the word of God, for which the biblical gift of tongues was a handmaiden. He emphasizes this point in verse 19, saying, “But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct other than ten thousand in a tongue.” This is the general principle of the entire chapter, that teaching and instructing others is the important matter and such requires understanding.

Conclusion

Therefore, it is clear from the context of this chapter that Scripture does not teach the ancient or modern paganism of spewing gibberish. Although we are most familiar with the practice from certain Pentecostal and other charismatic groups, the practice is wholly pagan. As the Apostle began the chapter, one who speaks such a tongue “no one understands, but in his spirit he speaks mysteries” (V. 2, NASB).

The counterfeit, ecstatic speech of paganism is done for the purpose of making a dramatic display, the spirit by which they are speaking being either their own spirit which they have convinced themselves to be the Holy Spirit or, in extreme cases, a demon. The mysteries they declare are of a similar type to the pagan mystery religions that only an initiated few were privileged to know and understand.


  1. Dale B. Martin. The Corinthian Body, New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1995, pp. 90-91.
  2. Merrill F. Unger. New Testament Teaching on Tongues. Kregel Publications, 1971, pp. 163f.
  3. Charles R. Smith. Tongues in Biblical Perspective. BMH Books, 1972, pp. 20f.
  4. Benjamin B. Warfield. Counterfeit Miracles. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1918. p. 10.

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