Few issues in Christianity today are more controversial than speaking in tongues. The Lexham Cultural Ontology Glossary defines tongues speaking as:
The act of speaking a language one did not acquire by natural means. This is often related to either divine revelation or worship. The language may or not be intelligible by another human.1
The practice of tongues speaking lies at the heart of what is called “Pentecostal” doctrine and spirituality.
And yet many Christians disagree with the contemporary Pentecostal practice of tongues speaking. John MacArthur’s book Strange Fire, for example, condemns this practice as both blasphemous and heretical. MacArthur’s book title compares speaking in tongues with Nahab and Abihu’s offering of “strange fire” in Leviticus 10, the penalty for which was death.
What does the Bible say about speaking in tongues? While every interested party wants to claim that their answer to this question is the obvious one, the one based on a plain reading of Scripture, somehow the disagreements over tongues speaking among serious Bible interpreters do not go away.
Here we’ll explore some helpful distinctions concerning tongues, illustrated by biblical examples.
Perspectives on speaking in tongues
Very broadly speaking, there are two perspectives on speaking in tongues:
- The “cessationist” view sees tongues as a gift appropriate only for the early church, a gift that the Spirit ceased giving long ago.
- The “continuationist” or Pentecostal perspective sees tongues (and other gifts, such as healing or prophecy) as ongoing gifts for the body of Christ.
Cessationism was the dominant view of global Christianity between the time of the New Testament and the early twentieth century.2 But this began to change in 1901 in Topeka, Kansas.
In that place and time, through the ministry of Charles Parham, speaking in tongues re-emerged into the Christian spotlight. Parham’s student, William Seymour, took the renewed practice of tongues speaking to Los Angeles, leading to the Azusa Street Revival and the birth of modern Pentecostalism. Decades later, in the 1960s, in what is often called the “Charismatic Renewal,” speaking in tongues emerged in mainline denominations with no ties to Azusa Street. The practice spread rapidly, and in 1967 it reached Duquesne University, where it started a Charismatic movement within the Catholic Church.3
Though they share much agreement about tongues speaking, Pentecostal and Charismatic groups still differ on many theological points—including some ideas about tongues itself. What is common to all of them is that “speaking in tongues” refers to a miraculous act of the Holy Spirit who has transcended our human limitations to assist in communication.
Cessationists believe this, too, of course. They simply read the relevant Bible passages differently.
Speaking in tongues in Scripture
The first occurrence of tongues speaking in Scripture appears in Acts 2:1–13, where the gift of tongues seems to be functioning as a reversal of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1–9).4
Rather than scattering and confusing their language, people are gathered together, and they miraculously understand one another. This miracle is repeated for Gentiles in Acts 10:44–48 and again in Paul’s ministry at Ephesus in Acts 19:1–7.
One helpful exercise for those thinking about tongues is locating the miracle. In any discourse, there is a speaker and a listener. Is the miracle of tongues in the speech, the understanding, or both? In other words, is the speaker miraculously enabled to speak a language they didn’t previously know? Is the hearer miraculously enabled to understand words they didn’t previously know? Or do both occur? Perhaps the most important question, and one which is seldom asked, is whether the speech in question is directed toward God or humans. How one answers these questions determines how one will interpret passages related to speaking in tongues.
Acts 2: Known languages
In 2:4, we see, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability” (NRSV). These seem to be known languages unknown to the speaker but understood by the audience. Picking up in verse 6:
And at this sound, the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? … in our own languages, we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:6–8, 11–12 NRSV)
Peter’s explanation doesn’t give us the impression that he is trying to explain the language they are speaking. Instead, he’s concerned to point out that they aren’t drunk.
Then he contextualizes their speech as prophecy which results from the pouring out of the Spirit (cf. 2:14–36). It seems that what has occurred here is that the Spirit has enabled those involved to speak languages unknown to the speakers but known to the audience. Thus, this seems to be a miracle of speaking.5
This variety of tongues speaking is called “xenolalia.” This word comes from the Greek words xenos (“foreign”) and lalia (“speaking”); it refers, therefore, to speaking a language that is foreign to the speaker.6
There is broad agreement here, even among many Pentecostals: Acts 2 refers to known languages that are supernaturally spoken and naturally understood.7
Other passages: unknown languages?
But agreement between cessationists and continuationists does not extend to other passages in which tongues are mentioned. Luke Timothy Johnson argues, for example:
In Acts, tongues are treated as real languages. Galileans speak “other tongues” (Acts 2:4), each heard and understood as such (Acts 2:6–8). In contrast, Paul emphasizes the unintelligibility of tongues (1st Cor 14:2, 6–11) and carefully distinguishes this practice from prophecy (14:3–5).”8
So, not only is one’s view impacted by their theological camp, but conclusions are also impacted by how much weight is placed on either Paul or Luke. Let’s turn to Paul now.
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14:13–14,
Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray for the power to interpret. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unproductive. (NRSV)
This sounds like a type of miraculous speech that is unknown to the speaker even as they are speaking. Otherwise, they wouldn’t need to pray for the interpretation. It’s worth noting here that even prior to Pentecostalism, A.T. Robertson held the view that tongues in 1 Cor 14 were “not foreign languages, but a mode of utterance different from all human language.”9
This is similar to xenolalia, except that it also assumes that it’s not possible that anyone around the speaker could know the language either.
If this language were potentially known by someone else, we would expect Paul to say something like, “If no one around can understand it, pray that you might interpret.”
Instead, he assumes that no one could understand it:
Otherwise, if you say a blessing with the spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say the “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since the outsider does not know what you are saying? For you may give thanks well enough, but the other person is not built up. (1 Cor 14:16–17 NRSV)
Pentecostals view this as another type of speech, one different from that of Acts 2. Pentecostals often call this “glossolalia,” from the Greek phrase for speaking in tongues (glōssais lalein). So, while this is still a miracle of speech, like xenolalia above, it can be distinguished from it in two ways:
- First, the language in question here seems to be one no one knows or understands.
- Second, Paul explicitly limits this kind of speech.
Cessationist views generally collapse all these phenomena into one category and insist that they are a known language, albeit one unknown by the speaker (what we’ve called xenolalia above). Many, though not all, also affirm that the need for such miraculous speech either ceased early in the church (usually at the close of the canon of scripture) or that this speech only exists when no common language can be found.
They also tend to argue, by contrast,that the revelatory gifts of prophecy, tongues, etc. “are ‘the [signs] that mark an apostle’ [cf 2 Cor. 12:12] … and their continuation into the post-apostolic era may not simply be presupposed.”10
In other words, once no apostles are left, there is no longer a need for apostolic sign gifts.
It is worth noting that this view is not without historical support. Both Augustine and John Chrysostom seem to believe that tongues ceased.11
Those holding this view today usually base it on 1 Corinthians 13:10:
Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. (1 Cor 13:8–10 NRSV)
So, when “the complete comes,” all incomplete things will end. It seems clear from the context that prophecy, tongues, and knowledge are the incomplete things in mind here.
Paul goes on to say that now, while the incomplete things remain, we see “dimly” (1 Cor 13:12 NRSV), and we know “in part” (1 Cor 13:12 NRSV). But then we will see face to face, and we will know as we have been known.
Given that none of us see Jesus face to face, nor do we know him as we are known, it is hard to believe that prophecies, tongues, and knowledge have ceased. That said, Pentecostals may need to be reminded that tongues will, in fact, cease (1 Corinthians 13:8). Moreover, as Richard B. Gaffin helpfully points out, “Paul mentions prophecy and tongues because of his pastoral concern in the wider context (chaps. 12–14) about the proper exercise of these two gifts. But the time of their cessation is not a point he is concerned with, and it is gratuitous to insist on the contrary from verse 10. Rather, his interest is in showing the duration of our present, opaque knowledge—by whatever revelatory means it may come (and that would even include inscripturation82) and whenever they may cease.”12
Biblical limitations & the purpose of speaking in tongues
In the Pentecostal view, Paul limits “glossolalia” because, as a language unknown by both the speaker and his audience, any exercise of this kind of speech is necessarily isolating. No one understands what is being said but God; no one is edified.
So, this kind of speech should not occur in public without interpretation because, for Paul, the most important thing about speaking in church is the edification that occurs when people use words that can be understood. He values prophecy over tongues: the latter can be understood, and people can be edified (cf. 1 Cor 14:1–5).
From a Pentecostal perspective, what is striking here is the degree to which Paul seems to agree with the Corinthians about tongues.
- They are spiritual and potentially angelic languages (12:10; 13:1).
- They are mysterious, directed at God, and potentially useful in intercession (14:15).
Precisely where he corrects them is not their understanding of the nature of tongues but how they employ tongues in public.
Tongues are less significant than other comprehensible [spiritual gifts], and … uninterpreted (public) tongues are uncomfortably close to the “strange tongues” … of Isaiah 28:11–12.13
Glossolalia is then only appropriate in church when accompanied by an interpretation. Interpretation adds a miracle of hearing. If the Holy Spirit is not providing both the language and the interpretation thereof, then glossolalia should remain private.
That is perhaps the most interesting point here; and difficult to explain outside of Pentecostalism. Paul doesn’t indicate that glossolalia is forbidden without interpretation. Instead, he only limits it within a public gathering.
Again, Cessationists tend to see these gifts as only for apostolic purposes or in unique situations when the gospel’s spread depends on the supernatural ability to speak a previously unknown language.
Praying in tongues
According to Paul, praying in tongues is the result of his spirit praying, not his mind (cf. 1 Cor 14:14). But instead of saying that this shouldn’t be done, he says:
What should I do then? I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray with the mind also; I will sing praise with the spirit, but I will sing praise with the mind also. (1 Cor 14:15 NRSV)
This is why Pentecostals affirm what is often called a “private prayer language.” This type of prayer is a miracle of speaking (glossolalia) without a miracle of hearing (akouolalia). Still, it is reserved for communication between an individual and God because no one else will understand it.
This is why Paul says things like, “Those who speak in a tongue build up themselves” (1 Cor 14:4). The person isn’t building themselves up by saying things they understand.
Instead, Paul calls this type of speech “mysteries in the spirit” (1 Cor 14:2) and will go on to say that the mind of the one who prays is “unproductive.” (1 Cor 14:14). So, how the person is built up must be “transrational.” In other words, they are not edified by learning or meditating on something they know. Something is happening that transcends their intellect.
This use of glossolalia—expressed without the need for interpretation because it does not intrude into the community’s life in the same way as a loud vocal expression—may well be Paul’s intent. Paul’s own speaking in tongues may, in fact, have been expressed most frequently in precisely this silent manner. He celebrated the fact that he frequently spoke in a tongue (1 Cor 14:18), but his preference was not to do so within the context of a community meeting (1 Cor 14:19).
This suggests that when Paul spoke in tongues, it was either nondisruptive in a community setting or private as part of his personal devotional life.14
This type of ecstatic speech also seems consistent with the Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures.15
The gift of tongues today?
Perhaps the continuation of the gift of tongues only exists when there is a language barrier when sharing the gospel. This interpretation does not seem to account for historical accounts that seem to present counter-examples,16 it also does not seem to adequately account for the biblical data.
While Paul might caution against certain uses of tongues in a public gathering, he also encourages their uses and boasts of his own use. What would it mean to “strive for spiritual gifts” (1 Cor 14:1) if “speaking in tongues” refers only to speaking a language you don’t know?
How does one strive for such a thing?
Further, why would he say, “I would like all of you to speak in tongues” (1 Cor 14:5) if that’s what he means by “tongues”?
Does he want the entire church to be in a situation where their only chance of evangelistic success depends on the supernatural impartation of a known language? If so, why is prophecy valued more than tongues?
It should be said, however, that this does not quite settle the matter.
While it seems like the exegesis of 1 Corinthians leans the conversation toward the Pentecostal position, other Pauline letters provide some challenging questions for that position. First, and most importantly, if the gift of tongues was so important to Paul, why is it never addressed in any other letter?17
While the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, it does present us with a reason for pause in declaring a unanimous victory for the Pentecostal interpretation of passages about tongues. Its absence is especially noteworthy in his other two lists of spiritual gifts in Romans 12:3–8 and Ephesians 4:11.
Also, a central debate among many Pentecostals is the nature of tongues as it relates to the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. Here again, we have a distinction between Paul and Luke. Luke takes tongues as a sign of the reception of the baptism, but Paul makes no such connection.
The final word: love
As we’ve already said, this topic is far from simple. Pentecostals will often pray in tongues publicly during corporate services, which seems to contradict much of what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14.
Likewise, cessationist perspectives violate the same Scripture section but for different reasons. Verses 39–40 come to mind:
So, my friends, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues; but all things should be done decently and in order.
Perhaps Pentecostals could do with more order, and cessationists could do with more eagerness.
At the end of the day, we’re all doing the best we can to reconstruct the situation of the first century and understand Paul’s intention. As Luke Timothy Johnson has said, “Any definition of glossolalia in the NT must necessarily be more tentative than even in the mid-20th century.”18
Whether or not we agree that “the perfect has come,” we can agree that love will last. Paul would suggest that showing love towards those with whom we disagree is a greater spiritual gift than tongues or prophecy (1 Corinthians 13).
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- David Witthoff, ed., The Lexham Cultural Ontology Glossary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014).
- There are noteworthy exceptions to this. For instance, Tertullian charges Marcion to provide evidence of tongues or prophecy in his churches as proof that the Spirit is still there. See Tertullian: Against Marcion. Book V. 8:7-12. It’s also worth noting that there are several potential precursors to Parham in the 18th & 19th centuries (the French Prophets, the Irvingites, etc.), but Parham is generally considered the beginning of the modern Pentecostal phenomenon. For more on potential evidence of tongues between the 1st century and Parham, see the following works. Burgess, Stanley M., ed. Christian Peoples of the Spirit: A Documentary History of Pentecostal Spirituality from the Early Church to the Present. New York, NY: New York University Press, 2011; Oliver, Jeff. Pentecost to the Present. 3 vols. Bridge-Logos, 2017; Robeck, Cecil M. Charismatic Experiences in History, Hendrickson Pub., 1985.
- Michael Downey, The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000), 439.
- There is not much that could point towards tongues in the OT, though there are some interesting parallels in the OT Pseudepigrapha. See Testimony of Job 48–50, 1 Enoch 61:11–12; 71:11, and Apocalypse of Zephaniah 8. Cf. M. Turner, “Languages,” in The New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, ed. T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner, electronic ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 629.
- This is contra Luke Timothy Johnson, who takes Acts 2 as a miracle of hearing. Cf. Luke Timothy Johnson, “Tongues, Gift of,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 597.
- Other Pentecostals who take Acts 2 to refer to a supernatural language place the miracle in the hearing. This might be called “akouolalia,” from akouō (“to hear”) and lalia (“to speak”). Cf. Cecil M. Robeck Jr., “Tongues,” ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid, Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 940.
- This is alternatively sometimes called xenoglossy. Cf. Luke Timothy Johnson, “Tongues, Gift of,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 597.
- Luke Timothy Johnson, “Tongues, Gift of,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 596.
- Archibald Robertson and Alfred Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians, International Critical Commentary (New York: T&T Clark, 1911), 301.
- B. Richard Gaffin, “A Cessationist View,” in Are Miraculous Gifts for Today?: Four Views, ed. Stanley N. Gundry and Wayne A. Grudem, Zondervan Counterpoints Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 42.
- John Chrysostom, Homilies on 1st Corinthians, 29, 32, 35; found in Nicene & Post Nicene Fathers 1.12, pages 168, 186 & 208. Augustine, Homilies on the Epistle of John, 6.10.
- Richard B. Gaffin, “A Cessationist View,” in Are Miraculous Gifts for Today?: Four Views, ed. Stanley N. Gundry and Wayne A. Grudem, Zondervan Counterpoints Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 55.
- M. Turner, “Languages,” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, ed. T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner, electronic ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 629.
- Cecil M. Robeck Jr., “Tongues,” ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid, Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 942.
- 1 Sam 10:5–13; 19:18–24, while not tongues, demonstrate an ecstatic type of speech that might be similar to the prayer language expressed by the Pentecostal perspective. Also, “something akin to glossolalia is also found in the Hellenistic popular religious phenomenon known as mantic prophecy, usually distinguished from “technical” prophecy, which was nonecstatic (cf. Cic. Div. 18. 34). The divine spirit was thought to possess the prophet (mantis) taking over his or her mind (enthousiasmos) and directing the utterance of oracles.” Luke Timothy Johnson, “Tongues, Gift of,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 597. See Johnson for more examples.
- Hildegard’s Lingua Ignota is a fine example.
- The only contender for an exception to this is Romans 8:26, but it is far from clear that glossolalia is in view. Even many Pentecostals reject this reading of the passage.
- Luke Timothy Johnson, “Tongues, Gift of,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 596.
- Fee, Paul, the Spirit and the People of God, 170.