Speaking in Tongues

Laying on of hands via Wikimedia Commons

Laying on of hands via Wikimedia Commons

The phenomenon of speaking in tongues is common among Charismatic-Pentecostal type churches. It is also controversial, even though increasingly accepted in Christianity. Some Christians see the so-called charismatic spiritual gifts like prophecy and tongue speaking as ceased, i.e. the Holy Spirit no longer bestows such gifts to us anymore in this day and age. They argue that these gifts were necessary for the establishment of the early church as recorded in the book of Acts in the Bible but no longer necessary now that the church is well established. These gifts have ceased as they have fulfilled their purpose.

But Charismatic-Pentecostal Christians beg to differ, arguing that we cannot restrict the Holy Spirit and that through their own experiences of prophecy and tongue-speaking, it is evident that God still give these spiritual gifts to his people for his glory. In these churches, it is common to have Christians break out into ecstatic utterances that are believed to be praying in a heavenly or angelic language (or tongue). Those who believe in a “baptism of the Holy Spirit” often see tongue-speaking as evidence of the Spirit’s outpouring on an individual Christian.

In this blog post, I am going to share my thoughts on this supported by my research into Scripture. I will be drawing material from my previously published article, “Speaking in Tongues: A Cross-Cultural View” (The Banner, Sept. 2003, pp. 46-48).

I believe that the current practice of most Charismatic Christians is simply “ecstatic speech” or in technical terms, glossolalia, which can be spiritually edifying for the speaker and be led by the Spirit. But I don’t think that “ecstatic speech” is what the Bible specifically calls speaking in tongues. For me, ‘speaking in tongues’ is a Spirit-given ability to speak in a human language previously unknown and unlearned by the speaker, enabling cross-cultural communication of God’s Word. Its technical term is xenoglossia. How did I come to this conclusion? We need to look closely at the biblical texts that speak about tongue speaking.

(A question from a Facebook friend means I need to add this little nuance: We need to differentiate the New Testament’s use of glossolalia and our present usage of that as a technical term for ecstatic speech. Glossolalia is originally a Greek word used in the New Testament translated as “speaking in tongues”. But as I will show in looking at the passages that the New Testament writers use glossolalia to mean what we today call xenoglossia. Xenoglossia is a technical term coined much later by parapsychologists in the 20th century, combining two Greek words, xenos (stranger) and glossia (language/tongue). But the New Testament writers did not use xenoglossia because that term did not exist for them! The only other term they could have used was heteroglossia, which means speaking in a foreign or different language. But this term, I suspect, is used simply to refer to normal speaking of another language that the speaker has learned. There is no terminology other than glossolalia to refer to a supernatural speaking of a previously unlearned and unknown foreign language to the speaker. Hope this clears up some confusion to those who know New Testament Greek!)

Tongues in the Early Church

“Tongues” is often used in the Bible to mean human languages, e.g. the Greek word for tongues, glossa, is used in Revelation 7:9 for language – “I looked and there before me was a great multitude … from every nation, tribe, people and language (tongues), standing before the throne … of the Lamb.” This is the same Greek word in all the New Testament texts that mention tongue speaking. The word alone does not tell us if the “tongue” is a human language or if it is a heavenly language. But the normal usage suggests human language.

The first real description of speaking in tongues is found in Acts 2. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit is poured out onto the disciples and they “began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them” (Acts 2:4). It is clear in this instance that the tongues meant human languages. Luke goes at length to list out fifteen different native languages present in the crowd of Jewish pilgrims who heard “the wonders of God in [their] own tongues!” (Acts 2:11)

Now Jews in those days are fluent in Aramaic, the religious language of the synagogues, and in Greek, the commercial language of the Roman Empire. Thus, there is absolutely no need for God to enable the Jewish disciples to speak in different languages. As shown when Peter later stood up to address the crowd, there is a common language that everybody understood. So why use all these different languages? I think it’s because God wants a multi-cultural church. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit empowered an essentially mono-cultural group of disciples to minister and to establish a multi-cultural church. Pentecost anticipates the vision of Revelation 7:9 where people from every nation, tribe and language gather to worship Christ.

Speaking in tongues are mentioned two more times in Acts – chapter 10:46 and 19:6. Both of these passages do not clarify if the tongues were human languages or not. But interpreting them as speaking in human languages, similar to Pentecost, would not contradict the sense of the passages.

Paul and Tongues

If the clearest biblical description of speaking in tongues clearly suggests that it is speaking a human language and not a heavenly one, then where does the notion of speaking unintelligible utterances and sounds, what I call “ecstatic speech”, come from? I believe it comes from 1 Corinthians 13:1. In 1 Corinthians chapters 12 to 14, the apostle Paul addresses the use and misuse of spiritual gifts in the Corinthian church. In chapter 13, Paul emphasizes the priority of love over all other spiritual gifts: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” (1 Cor. 13:1)

Many Christians see this text as proof and support for the phenomena phenomenon of speaking in a heavenly language or in an angelic tongue. After all, the reasoning goes, the apostle Paul admits to doing it. But this kind of interpretation misses the point of the rhetorical pattern of verses 1 to 3.

The point of the passage is to emphasize the importance of love. The 1 Cor 13:1-4 passage increases in intensity and emphasis as it moves through the list of spiritual gifts from tongue speaking to the giving away of all possessions, even of one’s own body. The word “all” – as in, “all mysteries,” “all knowledge,” “all faith,” and “all possessions” – is repeatedly contrasted to “nothing”. Considered in this context, exaggeration is clearly being used here to make a point. Because when you think about it, the apostle Paul has never claimed elsewhere to understand all mysteries or have all knowledge or all faith. Nowhere in Scripture is it recorded that he has moved mountains or gave away all his possessions or gave his body to be burned (verses 2-3). This literary device is called hyperbole. Therefore, within the rhetorical strategy being used, it makes more sense to read verse 1 as saying: “Even if I could speak in all languages – tongues of men and of angels – I am only making noise if I do not have love”.

Thus, this passage actually does not support the phenomena phenomenon of speaking in unknown ‘heavenly’ tongues. In fact, it probably suggests that even Paul, who speaks in tongues more than all the Corinthians (1Cor. 14:18), does not speak in the tongues of angels, just as he does not fathom all mysteries and all knowledge or move mountains and surrender his body to the flames. Paul only speaks in the tongues of men, not of men and of angels. Just as he has faith but not all faith, and knowledge but not all knowledge, etc.

In conclusion then, the Bible teaches that speaking in tongues is a Spirit-given ability to speak in human languages previously unknown to the speaker. This definition fits consistently all the biblical occurrences of the gift. It still makes good sense of Paul’s command to have tongues interpreted in public worship, for otherwise the speaker is speaking only to God as only God understands all human languages (1 Cor. 14:2).

Tongues and Prophecy

What, then, about this text?

“Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is for believers, not for unbelievers. So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? But if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everybody is prophesying, he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all, and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare.”(1 Cor. 14:22-25 NIV)

Throughout the New Testament, tongue speaking and prophesying are often mentioned closely together. In fact, tongues that are interpreted have the same effect and are basically equivalent to prophecy (see 1 Cor. 14). I suggest that ‘speaking in tongues’ is, in all practical purposes, prophesying in a language unknown to the prophet.

So what is Paul saying here? I think the text is best understood this way: when unbelievers hear everyone prophesying in different languages that they do not understand, they will be confused. But if everyone prophesies in an understood language, the unbelievers will repent and believe. Speaking in tongues, therefore, is a sign for unbelievers who hear the prophecy in their own native language but is not beneficial for the local believers who don’t know the language, unless it is interpreted.

Ecstatic Speech

If biblical tongue speaking is speaking a language previously unknown to the speaker, then what are we to make of “ecstatic speech”, the practice of speaking in sounds and utterances that is not linked to any known human language? As far as I can tell, “ecstatic speech” is not really mentioned in Scripture. But ecstatic speech has been historically documented to occur in non-Christian religions as well. [See the Commentary section under “Glossolalia” in Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion, Vol. 2, L-Z (Springer, 2010) p. 349.] Over history and over the world, there have been cases where people experienced speaking unintelligible utterances and sounds during religious events.

This, however, does not mean that Christians cannot practice ecstatic speaking. From the testimonies of Charismatic-Pentecostals, I conclude that although Scripture does not directly sanction it, Scripture allows the practice of ecstatic speech within certain guidelines. Many Christians who practiced it testified to experiencing spiritual edification and a strong sense of intimacy or connection with God. I believe the Holy Spirit can make use of religious experiences, even those common to other religions, for the edification of his people. Even the apostle Paul suggested so: “He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself…” (I Cor. 14:4)

Furthermore, there are other current Christian practices that Scripture does not explicitly sanction but are practiced because we believe they do not contradict Scripture and are beneficial to believers. For instance, the Bible never asked us to celebrate the birth of Jesus. But the church at one point felt the Spirit’s leading to transform a pagan winter celebration of the sun into what is now Christmas, one of the highlights of the Christian liturgical calendar.

Similarly, the Spirit can use the religious phenomena phenomenon of ecstatic speech to uplift individual believers in their faith, as long as the practice does not contradict biblical faith. This is why I think it is important to distinguish ecstatic speech from speaking in tongues to prevent such contradictions. Tongue speaking is a spiritual gift from the Holy Spirit for the edification of the whole church. Ecstatic speech is not specifically a gift of the Spirit. It is a common religious experience that the Spirit uses to edify Christians. It benefits the individual believer rather than the whole church.

As long as Christians who experience ecstatic speech do not see themselves as “holier” or spiritually better than their brothers and sisters in Christ who have not, and as long as they contain their utterances to private prayers and not cause disorder in public worship, and provided they understand their experience as a providence from God to which they should be grateful, I think they should be allowed to continue doing so. Paul once wrote, “everything is permissible – but not everything is beneficial” (1 Cor. 10:23). I think likewise in this matter – ecstatic speech should be permissible as long as it is beneficial and constructive for one’s own good and for others.

A Multi-Cultural Vision

Clearly, not everyone has the gift of speaking in tongues: “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:4); “Do all have the gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?” (1 Cor. 12:30) The answer is clearly “No”. No one should feel guilty about not having the gift.

But the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues served a powerful purpose in the early church. It was a powerful sign of God’s multi-cultural vision for his people, a powerful concrete symbol for non-Christians to see that Christianity affirms different cultures and different languages. It shows that Christianity is not merely a Jewish religion that uses only Aramaic in the synagogues or an Imperial religion that idealizes the Greco-Roman culture, but a religion that blesses all languages, and hence all cultures, as equally suitable vehicles for praising and worshiping God, for bringing God’s Word to anyone and everyone, regardless of the language and cultural barriers. It equipped as well as concretely displayed God’s will for the early disciples to engage in cross-cultural missions. That is why the early occurrences of tongue speaking involve cross-cultural situations – the multi-cultural pilgrims at Pentecost (Acts 2) and the Gentiles at Cornelius’ home (Acts 10).

Many years ago, I met an old Chinese pastor who told me that he once spoke in tongues. In his travels, he met a stranger who spoke a different unknown Chinese dialect. They couldn’t really communicate to each other, as they didn’t understand each other’s dialects. But, miraculously, the old pastor began to speak in the stranger’s dialect and eventually told him the gospel, resulting in the stranger’s conversion to Christianity. That stranger later preached and converted others in his home village in China. The old pastor believed that the Spirit gave him the gift of speaking in the stranger’s ‘tongue’ or language in order to bring about this spiritual harvest.

Does the Spirit still give the gift of tongue speaking today? That old Chinese pastor would say, “yes”.

I find that Chinese pastor’s story more consistent with biblical tongue speaking – it is a natural human language that he did not previously learn or know and it was used by God to foster cross-cultural evangelism, just as it did in the early church occurrences in Acts. I see no reason why the Holy Spirit cannot have the freedom to bestow his spiritual gifts today wherever it furthers God’s kingdom. But the Spirit is also free to withhold his gifts as he sees fit. And Scripture is also very clear that the greatest gift that we should desire is love (1 Corinthians 13).

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About Shiao Chong

Editor in Chief of The Banner, official magazine of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). Formerly CRC Campus Minister serving at York University in Toronto, Canada. (All postings here are my personal opinion and does not necessarily represent the views of the CRC or of The Banner.)
This entry was posted in Cultural Diversity, Theology and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Speaking in Tongues

  1. Patrick says:

    Very insightful.
    I however disagree with some of your points.
    Like you, I once argued against the gift of speaking in tongues.
    I would turn and look around at others with complete contempt during church services.
    Then one day, God gave me an experience outside the church room, in my neighbourhood, in broad daylight that humbled me!
    I will not give you the details of my experience for now. But that which I greatly despised, I received. Not only that, my Christian walk improved and my bible study became deeper..

    We have to understand that God views the salvation of souls as a serious business-Luke 2:48
    No business minded person does anything without a purpose.
    God gave the disciples the ability to speak foreign languages because there were people around who could understand those languages!
    It was a sign for the unbelieving but devout people who had come to celebrate the feast of Pentecost. They were forced to conclude that only God could have given unlearned men the ability to speak all the languages in the known world then.

    However, if my native language is English and I don’t know how to speak French, why would God give me the ability to speak French when I am praying in my closet? If there is no one around to hear my pray in French, then the gift of speaking French supernaturally is no different from the gift of speaking in tongues because what I would be saying would make no sense to me.
    At that point, the fact that French is an existing language on earth would still hold no significance to me because I just don’t understand French. Therefore, if we interpret 1 Cor 14:2 to mean that Paul was referring to an already known language, if the speaker does not understand the foreign language he or she is speaking, then there is no difference between that experience and the gift of speaking in tongues in essence, because neither the speaker or his hearers understand what he is saying.

    Clearly, that is not what 1 Cor 14:2 is referring to. In most of the articles that denounce the gift of speaking in tongues, this verse is avoided like a plague.

    The verse clearly states that he who speaks in tongues cannot be understood by any man. I believe the phrase ‘any man’ is not restricted to people within earshot. Any man means any man.

    After reading 1 Cor 14 several times, we get to see the main point that Paul is trying to drive home-that it is better to prophesy in church than to speak tongues in church because no man will understand him.

    Finally, it would be presumptuous for Paul to claim that anyone who speaks a foreign language previously unknown to him will not be understood by any man in the congregation. Some congregations are multiracial and there would be at least one occasion where someone in the congregation would understand a foreign tongue. But Paul states categorically that anyone who speaks in tongue cannot be understood by any man- this clearly cannot be an existing earthly language. These are my thoughts on this issue.

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    • Shiao Chong says:

      Hi Patrick,
      Thank you for your comment, and sorry for my delay in responding.
      First of all, to be exact, I am not arguing against speaking in tongues. I am arguing that biblical speaking in tongues should not be equated to the phenomenon of ecstatic speech. And I did not argue that biblical tongue speaking is ceased either.
      Yes, I do believe that biblical tongue speaking is speaking in a human foreign language.
      Now, to your point about 1 Cor. 14:2 – I read it in its immediate context of verses 1-5. Verses 4 & 5 clearly shows that Paul is thinking of the church – the ekklesia in Greek, the assembly – hence, I understood verse 2 & 3, when Paul says “any man” or other translations, “other people”, he is thinking of people in the church assembly. I don’t see him to mean every individual person in the whole world – as you take it to mean.
      In fact, verses 1-5 has parallelism – a common rhetorical practice in Jewish writings, especially poetry – the same idea gets repeated creating parallel statements as means to emphasize a point. So, in this case, verses 4 & 5 parallels verses 2 & 3, repeating the same point with slightly different nuance – all to prove the thesis in verse 1 – “Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy” (TNIV).
      Here’s another reason why I strongly believe that biblical tongue speaking is speaking in a human foreign language rather than an unknown angelic language: 1 Cor. 14:21 – “In the Law it is written: ‘With other tongues and through the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people, but even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.’ (TNIV)
      Paul quotes this Isaiah 28:11, 12 to make a case about speaking in tongues. But note that as the English here properly translates it, it is “other tongues” NOT “unknown tongues”. The original Greek there is heteroglossia, and the word translated as “foreigner” is heterois, the same Greek root. It is not the Greek word, “agnoste” – unknown.
      So, the Isaiah passage that Paul quotes approvingly to bolster his arguments about speaking in tongues is clearly talking about other human languages, not heavenly unknown languages.
      Hence, I still hold to my view that biblical tongue speaking should be properly understood as a foreign language, and that Paul, in 1 Cor 14:2 does not mean that anyone who speaks in a tongue cannot be understood by any human being, but merely, from the context, that anyone speaking in tongues cannot be understood by the local church assembly, as the tongue speaker is speaking a language foreign to them.

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  2. Hugh says:

    Very insightful interpretation of the Biblical passages, Chong. (BTW, “phenomena” is plural of “phenomenon.” I believe you should be using the singular.)

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