Spiritual Gifts: Tongues — What is the Gift of Tongues (Part 1)
Spiritual Gifts: Tongues — What is the Gift of Tongues (Part 1)

Spiritual Gifts: Tongues — What is the Gift of Tongues (Part 1)

Recently, we finished our sermon series on Spiritual Gifts, with a whistle stop tour through the final gifts. As we were not able to go into as much detail with these gifts as we did for some others, as promised, here are some more in depth notes about these final gifts, beginning with the my first notes on the Gift of Tongues — and specifically, how does the Bible describe the gift of tongues?

Two types of Tongues

Tongues are described in two ways in scripture.

Human Language

The first is what we see in Acts 2:4, during Pentecost, where the tongues being spoken are real, known, human languages. In this case, when the promised Holy Spirit is sent and falls upon the Apostles, one of the first gifts they receive is the gift of tongues. They are given the supernatural ability to speak in fluently in the languages of those visiting Jerusalem at the time, including the languages of the “Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome” (Acts 2:9-10) even though the disciples themselves have not learned these languages. We see direct evidence that they spoke (or were understood in — more on that later), at least, multiple proto-Iranian dialects, Akkadian, multiple local dialects of Greek, Persian, Latin, Anatolian, Coptic, Cretan, Berber, Arabic, and Elam, as well as Hebrew, and Aramaic (the only language that the Disciples would likely have spoken natively themselves). Even if we assume that the disciples may have picked up a little ceremonial Hebrew, and possibly some basic Greek — the common trade language of the day — it is indeed miraculous that they were able to communicate the Gospel in any of these other languages, something which the people themselves recognize. “[W]e hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”” (Acts 2:11-12)

We also possibly see this, where the gift of Tongues is manifest by speaking in natural, known, human languages in Acts 10:46 (the other reference to tongues in Acts 19:6 is unclear the nature of the Tongues being spoken). These are the only descriptive references to the gift of Tongues we see in Acts, and it seems likely that, at least two of the three describe tongues as human languages.

This has led some to conclude that the gift of tongues is always the ability to speak in known human languages.

Wayne Grudem — A charismatic theologian, who believes that the gift of tongues is still active today — begins his section on the topic in his book Systematic Theology this way.

It should be said at the outset that the Greek word glossa, translated “tongue,” is not used only to mean the physical tongue in a person’s mouth, but also to mean “language.” In the New Testament passages where speaking in tongues is discussed, the meaning “languages” is certainly in view. It is unfortunate, therefore, that English translations have continued to use the phrase “speaking in tongues,” which is an expression not otherwise used in ordinary English and which gives the impression of a strange experience, something completely foreign to ordinary human life. But if English translations were to use the expression “speaking in languages,” it would not seem nearly as strange, and would give the reader a sense much closer to what first century Greek speaking readers would have heard in the phrase when they read it in Acts or 1 Corinthians.” (It should be noted, while Grudem begins his argument here, he does not end it there, and does he does not, ultimately conclude that the gift of tongues is always known human language).

There are numerous examples of this gift in operation throughout church history, not just in scripture. For example, Dr. Brad Long, Executive Director of Presbyterian Reformed Ministries International, and President of the Dunamis Institute describes a particular instance at one of the Dunamis Project sessions he was running in San Mateo, California.

During this meeting, a woman stood up to deliver a message in tongues. Though she did not speak any Chinese languages, Dr. Long noted that it sounded Chinese to him, but that he did not really understand what was being said. They dutifully waited for an interpretation, but none came, until a particular Chinese man ran to the front, laid down, and began to weep, and cry out in his own language.

Dr. Long describes the encounter thus.

“In Mandarin Chinese, he cried many times, “Yes, Jesus! Yes, Jesus, I’ll go!  I’ll go! I’ll obey! Please fill me with your Holy Spirit to empower me to be your witness in that difficult place.” 

At our debriefing meeting that followed the service, the Chinese brother told us that he had been struggling with a call to return to China as an evangelist.

He was not sure that this was really from Jesus and did not want to go there unless he was sure of God’s guidance.

When the message from the woman was given in his this particular tongue, the gentlemen told us it was in his Grandmother’s dialect. 

She had been saying, “Come over and help us. Please come over and help us, come help us know the way of salvation.”

The giver of the message, the woman who spoke out in tongues, made it clear that she could not speak Chinese, much less an uncommon dialect.”

Many other similar occurrences are recorded throughout church history, and this seems to be the primary way the tongues described in scripture have been understood for most of church history.

Indeed, even Charles Fox Parham, revivalist, and one of the early pioneers of the North American Pentecostal outpouring of the early 1900’s — and the first modern theologian to argue that Tongues is the initial evidence of receiving the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” — understood tongues as natural human languages, and taught his people expect that when they spoke in tongues, they would always be known languages that someone would understand. He critical of other pentecostal revivals of the time, such as Azusa Street, for what he perceived to be “manifestations of the flesh, spiritualistic controls, [and] people practicing hypnotism at the altar over candidates seeking baptism” which he said included “chattering, jabbering and sputtering, speaking in no language at all” (Charles Fox Parham, quoted in “The Life of Charles F. Parham: the Founder of the Apostolic Faith Movement” by Sarah Parham — his wife — page 163).

Even though he believed the gift was guaranteed for all believers, when they received the baptism of the Holy Spirit, nonetheless, he was adamant that it would always be a known language.

Therefore, this belief — that the gift of Tongues always describes known human language that will inevitably be understood by someone hearing them, even if not the speaker — is popular, even to this day.

In addition to some charismatics, this has often been the standard conservative definition, with some cessationists going on to argue that the gift is no longer necessary or active (since, as the gospel has spread, it is now relatively uncommon for people to need to communicate the gospel in languages they cannot themselves learn first) or, at minimum relegating it to occasional, niche, or fringe situations, reserved for those in pioneering ministries among isolated tribes, who unexpectedly find themselves sharing the gospel with foreign visitors, or who are uniquely called to reach a specific people group, etc.

If tongues indeed exclusively refers to known human languages, this understanding makes a lot of sense. Not only is it fair to say that, experientially, the majority of us do not ever receive the miraculous ability to speak in another human language — indeed, many of Parham’s students found themselves incredibly frustrated and disillusioned when they went into the mission field and discovered that the native population could not, in fact, understand them — there is also a good argument that this spiritual gift is not, actually, nearly as important these days, and it is not biblically consistent to assume it would be a universal experience necessary for all believers.

Pentecost represents a relatively unusual and unique situation, where the total number of believers available to communicate the gospel message was incredibly small, overall, and they were in a unique situation where people from many nations were gathered together, and needed to hear the message as soon as possible, so they could carry it home with them. The other situation described in Acts, where Tongues (explicitly described as human languages) are being spoken would be similarly unique, where it serves to prove that the Gentile believers have received the outpouring of the Holy Spirit as the Jewish apostles, and therefore should not be expected to first be circumcised as Jews before being baptized.

Today, such a situation would be relatively uncommon, since there the fact that Gentiles can be saved is not in dispute, and there Christian believers throughout the world able to share the gospel in their own heart language, and Christians called to minister in other cultures usually have the ability to learn the local language first.

Indeed, as at 2022, Wycliffe Global Alliance estimate that over 97% of all people in the world have at least part of the Bible available to them in a language they understand fluently, with less than 129 million people remaining, worldwide, who do not have access to any scripture in language they understand. This is, of course, still a huge number of people, and an incredibly worthy endeavour for anyone called to these mission fields, but it would also certainly indicate that, if God is going to distribute spiritual gifts according to the need and effectiveness, Tongues would be an ever-decreasing gift, and probably not one we would expect to be essential in the majority or churches, in the majority of the world today.

Of course, this doesn’t mean God can’t, or won’t still give this gift today, and indeed, we see plenty of evidence that he does. We continue to hear stories of missionaries arriving in countries expecting to have to be the first to translate the local language, but discover that they can, in fact, communicate the gospel when they speak in tongues. We hear stories, where individuals deliver a message in tongues, only to discover that they are speaking a message directly to someone, in that person’s heart language, we here stories of encounters on the street with a foreign visitor, where the evangelist is shocked and surprised to discover they are communicating in another person’s native tongue, even though they thought they were speaking in their own language, or when recordings of people speaking in tongues, that were thought to be unintelligible, which later turn out to be some unknown or undiscovered language.

Heavenly Language

Nonetheless, it would be strange for Paul to say something like “Now I want you all to speak in tongues” (1 Cor 14:5) if we’re referring to natural languages, as it seems to be a gift with such limited scope and scale. Certainly, one could imagine more valuable gifts than Tongues that someone like Paul would desire for all believers, perhaps that they would all be evangelists, or gifts of mercy, or gifts of knowledge and wisdom — indeed, he is writing to the Corinitian church in no small part to correct them over all the ways they have gone astray, and his life would surely be easier if this were not necessary. Even some of the descriptions of Tongues we read in the epistles would seem strange and inconsistent if what was being described was purely human languages, such as phrases like “For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit” (1 Cor 14:2) would be hard to reconcile if, in fact, these tongues referred to human languages which would in fact be known to some people.

However, those who make that argument ignore the fact that scripture does seem to indicate at a second way which the gift of tongues operates, which, we would then expect to continue to this day, and which would have much more application in the majority of churches, even when there is not an obvious supernatural need to learn new languages.

This second way, then, is the ability to speak in unknown, heavenly languages, sometimes called a “private prayer language” or “ecstatic utterances”. While the same Greek root word glossa is used for “tongues” in both First Corinthians and Acts, and it seems that Paul would certainly have been aware of what happened at pentecost, at minimum through his close companion Luke who wrote the gospel of Luke, and the book of Acts, if not as an eyewitness (meaning his choice to use this word very likely indicates he recognizes they are both a manifestation of the same gift) what Paul describes in Corinth clearly has a fundamentally different “flavour” to what happened in Acts, and indeed, some things he writes to the Church in Corinth would seem to preclude them being the same kind of experience.

For example, as already mentioned, Paul clearly states that when the believers in Corinth speak in tongues, they are speaking to God, and not to men. In addition to 1 Cor 14:2, already mentioned, he says things like “For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unproductive” (1 Cor 14:14) and “The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church.” (1 Cor 14:4). That is entirely contrary to what we see in Acts, and could not have been said of these events.

In Acts, we see the Apostles speaking in tongues first to men, not to God. We see that the Apostles are communicating clear truth, and that they also seem to understand what they are saying. They are building up non-believers, not themselves, and are speaking in language that is known to the hearers.

Everything Paul says about Tongues in Corinth would seem to indicate that the tongues spoken in Acts are not genuine, and his description would be almost the exact opposite of what we see there, unless he understands that there are different types that operate at different times.

It is also important to note that, in Corinth Paul describes for a different purpose.

In Acts, the tongues spoken were clearly for the purpose of evangelism. When the apostles speak in tongue, they are delivering a message for the gathered masses, a proclamation of the gospel, where the clear purpose is that it is to be understood by those who hear.

Paul, however, recognizes that in Corinth, tongues exist either in the context of worship, where they are for the building up of the body (through interpretation, which we will discuss next) or for the edification of the individual. This distinction may seem trivial, but is in fact essential to understand this type of tongues.

If our definition of Tongues is limited to the supernatural ability to speak human languages which the speaker has not learned, one must wonder in what way it can be said that “The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself” (1 Cor 14:4, other translations read “edifies himself” or “is strengthened personally”). It would seem counterintuitive to suggest that an individual speaking a language unknown to themselves would be edified through words they do not understand, but a person hearing those words who actually understands that language would not be built up by them. If they are speaking known human languages surely, the opposite would be true — the speaker would be confused, but the hearer would be built up.

It would also be strange to read words like “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?” (1 Cor 14:23), when, of course, in Acts, the outsiders do hear the Apostles speaking in tongues, and are able to understand them clearly, and marvel at the miracle that is happening. If, as a stranger and outsider, my Father (who was born in India, and didn’t speak English when he first moved to the UK) had walked into a church and heard believers speaking in Punjabi, proclaiming the Gospel to him in his heart language, I cannot imagine his reaction would have been to say they are out of their mind.

We must therefore acknowledge that, whatever Paul is describing is the same gift as described in Acts, (Tongues, or Glossolalia) but a fundamentally different manifestation or outworking of that gift. This, of course, should not be surprising to us, and is not unique to tongues, as Paul also describes the gift of healing (or “gifts of healings“, as we thought about) as having multiple different expressions, and we recognize and understand that other gifts often work differently in different people, and different contexts, serving multiple different purposes, and having a unique expression.

Therefore, we can draw a simple conclusion. Whatever tongues they were speaking in Corinth were not known human languages, but something else.

When we look at what is being described, we see three common elements to the kind of tongues Paul describes in Corinthians.

First, they are normally unintelligible, and unknown languages. They are neither the local languages of the people, nor foreign languages that may be known to visitors, or strangers. “No one understands” these languages (at least, in the natural.).

Second, they are primarily for private edification and building up of the person speaking, not the listener. It allows a person’s spirit to speak directly to God, “one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God” and utter “mysteries” that, in some way, bypass a person’s cognitive faculties, and allow direct, supernatural communication with the Father. They are under the control of the believer, but do not originate in the person’s mind, but their spirit “my spirit prays but my mind is unproductive”

Third, for this kind of tongues to be beneficial to to the body, when spoken out loud in a public gathering, they require interpretation (which is different from translation, as we will see) and therefore come with some clear, and quite strict guidelines for their proper use. Natural languages (as in Acts) require no such interpretation (as they will be understood by the listener) and therefore, no such restrictions apply.

Paul seems to therefore be describing not human languages but heavenly ones, spiritual words whose meaning is concealed, often even to the speaker, but understood by God.

While we do not find the specific “private prayer language” or “heavenly tongues” in scripture, and the only reference to “the tongues of angels” doesn’t come directly in reference to the gift of tongues, when we consider what is being described, all of these words and phrases do appear, broadly speaking, to be reasonable summaries of what Paul describes.

And indeed, this seems to be consistent what we see today.

The majority of believers who speak in tongues today do not seem to experience this gift manifesting in normal, unlearned human languages. Though this still happens, the majority of believers speak in languages that have no clear parallels to established human language. Some have similar features, while others are incredibly unique to the believer, but all of them do not seem to be languages an outside observer could learn.

However, while some tongues speakers are sometimes mocked or derided for what may sound like “gibberish” what is significant is that, the more researchers have studied the phenomena, the more it appears that they are not just random noises. Kortney Babington, Mathias Bullerman, and Katarzyna Lupinska, of Rutgers University, understood a landmark study of glossolalia, and their observations were profound. They noted, for example, that there were repeated elements, that indicated the presence of a vocabulary that was being developed by the speaker, the presence of particular phonetic elements and consonant clusters, that were not part of the speakers native language (English in this case) and would not be natural for them to form spontaneously, be hard to account for if the person was just making random, meaningless noises. In one case they noted a rolled R sound combined with an L sound that do not occur in American English (but are common in languages like Spanish). The speaker did not speak Spanish natively, and many English speakers have a very hard time with this particular sound when they learn Spanish, but this particular speaker seems to have mastered them. Additionally, when he spoke in tongues, the language was missing certain sounds and common elements of English, and also included some sounds common in the speech of “non native English speakers” (those sounds and elements of pronunciation that only occur when someone has learned English as a second language). None of these things can easily be accounted for by a person simply making random, or meaningless sounds. Indeed, what has consistently been noted in such research is that, while the researchers are unable to develop a glossary, or grammar for the speech, it does generally include certain characteristics of language, and speech, and is not merely a collection of random sounds.

Furthermore, FMRI’s of the brains of people who speak in tongues consistently show that what is happening in their brain is consistent with the biblical description. When people speak in tongues, unique areas of the brain are active, that are neither the normal language centres of the brain responsible for learned speech, nor the areas one would assume would be active if a person were just “making it up”. Instead, it seems to originate in the caudate area of the brain, which is generally responsible for positive emotions, and establishing our “inner self”. One researcher, Dr. Newberg at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine notes that “These findings could be interpreted as the subject’s sense of self-being taken over by something else”, or put another way, while the person speaking in tongues is in control of themselves, the source of the language is spiritual, not cognitive. Dr. Newberg conducted the same studies on Buddhist and Franciscan Monks, and both of those groups’ brain images did not change to reflect the same results while praying. Although they appeared to be speaking in “unknown languages”, the brain mapping indicated that they were simply reciting made up words and phrases that they had learned. When other religious people spoke in “tongues” their brans looked like they were speaking an imaginary (but learned) language. When christians brains were scanned, there seemed to be a clear indication of a different source. In a very real way, it seems to demonstrate that the source of the language is truly something outside of their own cognition — I would argue their Spirit, influenced by the Holy Spirit. It truly seems that when a Christian with the gift of tongues prays in their prayer language, the words of scripture are confirmed, “my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful.”

So in summary, what seems clear is that Scripture describes the gift of Tongues in two, separate and distinct, ways. The first is when the Holy Spirit grants the believer the supernatural ability to communicate in a known human language that they have not learned. This is generally for the proclamation of the gospel, and is linked closely with evangelism, and the spreading of God’s word. It is for the purpose of drawing men and women to a saving knowledge of God, and is probably not something most of us are going to see, most of the time, in most of our churches.

However, the New Testament also describes a second manifestation of the same gift, where people speak in unknown, heavenly languages, which Paul says no-one knows, indicating clearly that they cannot be human languages. These “heavenly tongues” represent a way for our spirit, under the influence of the Holy Spirit living in us, to communicate directly with God, in a language known to him, in a way that is clearly real language but which is not originating in the mind or imagination, but in the spirit. It is under the person’s control, in the sense that they have the ability to start and stop at will, but does not originate from within the normal language centres of their mind, and instead seems to be influenced by some other source — namely the Holy Spirit.

This language is unique to the person, and normally unknown to hearers, but builds up the person in their spirit, and edifies themselves, while allowing the believer to communicate spiritual needs, requests, prayer, and thanksgiving directly to God. Like all gifts, not all have it, but those who do have the ability to build themselves up through its use. Scripture also describes it as being a tool for building up of the body, but requires interpretation to be beneficial (which we will look at soon) and also comes with guidelines for using it in a corporate setting, which we will look at in our next blog post.

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