Speaking in tongues is one of the strangest behaviours that is regularly practiced in modern Christianity. Is it the initial evidence of a believer’s salvation? A futile charade? A demonic manifestation? A tool for missionary work? All these views and more can be found in the official and unofficial doctrines taught by various churches. For better or worse, tongues and other gifts practiced by charismatics have radically reshaped the religious landscape over the last century. Both defenders and detractors cite the Bible to support their views of the nature and purpose of tongues without coming to agreement. The most extreme views on either side are held by Protestants, while Catholics tend to fall somewhere in the middle. Not surprisingly, the debate is often driven by theological agenda rather than a sober analysis of the Bible or — Heaven forbid — the considerable scientific literature on tongue-speaking.
In this article, I’ll be spending more time on historical and modern church practices than I usually do. I encourage my readers to let me know if they find that sort of thing interesting or not in the comments.
The Terminology of Tongues
The word tongues, of course, simply means languages. Since all normal speech involves language, a more precise description of the phenomenon would be useful, so modern commentators have coined the terms glossolalia and xenoglossy (or xenolalia). The former comes from the Greek words for “speaking in tongues” used in the New Testament, glōssais lalein, and it refers to ecstatic, unintelligible speech. Xenoglossy refers to the speaking of a foreign language that one has not learned. In this article, I’ll be using “glossolalia” except when there is reason to do otherwise.
Glossolalia in the New Testament
By all appearances, glossolalia was a rare practice in the early church. Descriptions of early Christian practices and rituals are rare enough in general, and the practice of speaking in tongues is an obscure one. Of the seven undisputed Pauline epistles, only 1 Corinthians discusses it. The deutero-Pauline and Pastoral epistles do not mention it. Nor do the Catholic epistles, Hebrews, or the Gospels — aside from a possible prohibition in Matthew. Only Acts depicts the practice “in the wild,” but as we shall see, the text is difficult to make sense of.
1 Corinthians provides essential background for the depiction of tongues in Acts, so let’s begin there.
“Various Kinds of Tongues” in 1 Corinthians 12–14
Now I appeal to you…that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you…. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s followers that there are quarrels among you, my brethren. (1 Cor. 1:10-11)
Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth was apparently written to address divisions among its members that concerned everything from apostolic loyalty conflicts to personal lawsuits, the purpose of the Lord’s Supper, and the disruptive exercise of spiritual gifts.¹ The details provided suggest that the Corinthians followed some unusual practices — particularly baptism for the dead (15:29) and glossolalia — not mentioned in conjunction with other Pauline churches.²
In chapter 12, Paul explains that there are various spiritual gifts, services, and works which he goes on to enumerate: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, “various kinds of tongues”, and interpretation of tongues. This is similar, but not identical, to the list given in Romans 12:6-8: prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, generosity, diligence, and cheerfulness. The inclusion of tongues only in 1 Corinthians suggests an unusual role for them in this congregation. The placement of tongues at the end of the list implies, according to some, that they are less important than the other gifts.
Although the expression “speaking in tongues” is ambiguous, the arguments that follow make it unmistakeable that Paul is talking about unintelligible utterances. Paul uses the phrase glōssais lalein as though it is an established idiom with a well-known meaning, but scholars are unable to find examples in other Greek literature, even though glossolalia played a role in some pagan religions.
Paul’s personal view of glossolalia is forcefully presented throughout in chapter 14, where he repeatedly compares it to the superior gift of prophecy.
…those who speak in a tongue do not speak to other people but to God; for nobody understands them…. On the other hand, those who prophesy speak to other people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. (vv. 2-3)
Those who speak in a tongue build up themselves, but those who prophesy build up the church. (v. 4)
One who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up. (v. 5b)
…if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I speak to you in some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching? (v. 6)
…in church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue. (v. 19)
It is abundantly clear that Paul prefers any articulate, comprehensible teaching to babbling that no one can understand. One gets the impression that he would dismiss tongues altogether if he didn’t fear alienating his audience — which, as we know, is divided between its loyalties to Paul and rival apostles. He thinks glossolalia is like “a lifeless instrument that does not play distinct notes” (v. 7) that leaves the mind unproductive (v. 14). Furthermore, he argues that while prophecy can make converts of nonbelievers, tongues will cement their unbelief — this is apparently the intended meaning of v. 22, which is somewhat hard to follow in English (Fitzmyer 520).
Tongues, then, are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is not for unbelievers but for believers. (NRSV)
Speaking in tongues will simply make you look crazy to outsiders, says Paul (v. 23) — an important point that will come up again. He associates tongues with childish thinking (v. 20) and backs up his teaching with a quotation of Isaiah 28:11, 12d (which he cites as “the Law” rather than Isaiah):
|1 Corinthians 14:21||Isaiah 28:9-12 (MT)||Isaiah 28:9-12 (LXX)|
|In the law it is written,
“By people of strange tongues
and by the lips of foreigners
I will speak to this people;
yet even then they will not listen to me,”
says the Lord.
|9 “Whom will he teach knowledge, and to whom will he explain the message? Those who are weaned from milk, those taken from the breast?
10 [Hebrew gibberish]
11 Truly, with stammering [or mocking] lip and with alien tongue he will speak to this people,
|9 To whom did we declare evil things, and to whom did we declare a message? Those who are weaned from milk, those pulled away from the breast?
10 Expect affliction upon affliction, hope upon hope, yet a little, yet a little,
Paul’s quotation doesn’t exactly match the MT or LXX (according to Origen, it was closest to Aquila), and the phrase “says the Lord”, which changes the speaking voice from Isaiah to God, is probably his own addition. The original passage in Isaiah is an oracle against Ephraim and Judah, whose drunken priests jabber unintelligibly like children. (Its exact meaning is open to interpretation; see Beuken 31-38.) As a result, the people who failed to hear Yahweh’s words will instead hear him speak through the foreign language of the invading Assyrians. Paul, who seems to have picked out numerous themes from Isaiah 28, uses this reference to “strange tongues” — certainly meaning a foreign language in the original — as a prooftext on the futility of glossolalia.
One can pick out statements of approval as well in chapter 14, such as the irony-tinged boast that he himself speaks more in tongues than the Corinthians (a statement that is difficult to interpret in context), but these are always followed by a counter-example that exalts other gifts and limits the usefulness of tongues.
In summary, we may say the following about Paul’s “speaking in tongues”:
- Within the Pauline church, glossolalia may have been limited to Corinth.
- For Paul, glossolalia is unintelligible speech, not a human language that listeners might understand.
- Paul sees glossolalia useless for attracting outsiders to the faith, in contrast to prophecy, knowledge, and teaching.
- Paul uses Isaiah 28 as evidence that glossolalia is futile for instruction within the church.
The Pentecost Event in Acts 2
Now we come to the New Testament’s only substantive depiction of tongues in action.
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. (Acts 2:1-4)
In the first chapter of Acts, Jesus spends forty days teaching his followers about matters that are not disclosed to the reader. Then, before ascending into the clouds, he promises that they will receive baptism by the Holy Spirit within a few days’ time.³
Ten days later, the 120 believers are in a house on Pentecost when the Holy Spirit suddenly manifests itself — first as a violent wind, then as visible tongues of fire, and lastly by filling the believers and causing them to speak in “other tongues”.
At this point, the narrative is a bit disjointed. The scene abruptly transitions to the outdoors, where a crowd of diaspora Jews “from every nation under heaven” hears the sound and is bewildered, “because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each” (v. 6). Note that the focus is on what the crowd heard, and not on what was being spoken. Richard Pervo observes (Pervo 120, emphasis mine):
The members of this crowd do not hear ecstatic speech, but a religious message in their respective native tongues, and all are astonished by this phenomenon. Rationally speaking, it means that each person would have heard someone speaking Latin or Egyptian, etc. The context demands a conversation in which one participant says to another, “Do you know what that language is? It’s Phrygian,” to which the companion replies, “Nah. You’re crazy! That’s the native language of rural Cyrene,” and so forth.
So we seem to have a miracle where the believers spontaneously produce ecstatic speech that is translated, in transit, into other languages in the ears of its listeners — a kind of xenoglossy. What a strange experience it would be to hear a hundred people speaking, in unison, in your own language, while the fellow next to you hears an entirely different language! Alternative interpretations, such as the 120 speaking all the different languages at once or taking turns, are “absurd” as one scholar notes (Beare 236).⁴
Unfortunately, we are not told the content of the speech everyone is hearing, but the lack of detail makes sense when we realize that the author is essentially adapting Philo’s description of the giving of the Law at Sinai in Spec. Leg. II.188-190 and Decal. 46. According to Philo, a thundering roar accompanied by fire flowed out from Heaven and was “transformed into articulate words in a language known to the hearers” so that everyone could understand it. Several Talmudic writers expanded on this, saying that the voice of God divided into seventy tongues that delivered the law to all seventy nations (see Talbert, p. 25ff, for sources). The author’s use of this tradition dovetails nicely with the fact that many Jews had come to associate Pentecost with the Sinai theophany, even if his original reason for setting the story at Pentecost was simply because it follows closely after Easter. Talbert concludes: “The echoes are unmistakable. Sound, fire, and speech understood by all people were characteristic of the Sinai theophany. The same ingredients are found in the Pentecostal events” (Talbert p. 43).
Next, the author introduces, as he often does, opponents who are unreceptive to the apostles. Hearing the noise, they conclude that the believers are “drunk on new wine.” But this does not fit the aforementioned miracle, as Bible commentators commonly point out. Speaking a foreign language does not make a person appear drunk. The charge of inebriation only fits if the believers are babbling unintelligibly. It also recalls Paul’s warning in 1 Cor. 14:23, as well as the charges of drunkenness commonly made against members of the Dionysos cult.⁵
Barrett writes, “Did Luke have in his own mind a clear picture of the Pentecostal events? …This does not fit what Luke has earlier claimed, namely that every person present heard not a meaningless noise but words uttered in his own language” (Barrett 115). Pervo notes that the claim of drunkenness “does not suit the linguistic wonder narrated” (Pervo 120).
The scene shifts again. Peter, addressing a rapt crowd of over three thousand in an open forum, refutes the accusations of drunkenness by pointing out that it is too early in the day to begin drinking. Thus, glossolalia serves as a bridge for Peter to launch into a speech (Haenchen 177). (At this point, I wonder, is Peter now speaking in his native Aramaic? Is the miracle of xenoglossy still in effect so that the listeners hear the speech in their own languages? It’s hard to know from the narrative.)
Peter uses the glossolalia miracle as evidence that an end-times prediction by the prophet Joel (2:28ff) is coming to fruition. The quotation in Acts, based on the LXX, is as follows:
In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.
Apparently, the reference to prophesying corresponds to the glossolalia that the crowd has been hearing (even though this gift is contrasted with prophecy in 1 Cor. 14) — specifically, the ecstatic utterances mistaken for drunken babbling (Haenchen 178).
As an aside, Haenchen points out that the text of Joel in Hebrew and the Aramaic Targums refers to Yahweh rather than the Lord, but because the author is quoting the Septuagint which has kyrios (“lord”), he is able to apply the prophecy to Jesus. In other words, the speech is not actually possible in its ostensible setting — Peter preaching in Aramaic to fellow Jews in Jerusalem — because this quote would not be applicable to Jesus. Such a “scriptural proof” would only have been available once Hellenistic Christianity was already established (Ibid. 179).
Although much more could be said about this passage, we can summarize with a few observations:
- The Pentecost story attempts to portray tongues both as speaking a foreign language (or rather, speech understood as a foreign language) and as an unintelligible utterance, even though the two ideas cannot be neatly harmonized.
- In the case of xenoglossy, the story is created from Philo’s description of the Sinai theophany and can hardly have been based on any genuine Christian tradition or practice.
- In contradiction to Paul’s teaching, Acts presents glossolalia as a powerful tool for attracting new believers.
- In contradiction to Paul’s teaching, Acts presents glossolalia as functionally equivalent to prophecy.
- Acts deflects the criticism of Paul (and perhaps others) that those who use glossolalia appear drunk or crazy.
- Peter’s speech and use of Joel as a prooftext for tongues as a sign of the last days and salvation through Jesus cannot have originated in pre-Christian Jerusalem, but belongs to a later era of Hellenistic Christianity retrojected into the past.
Other New Testament Mentions
Acts 10:44-48 — After Peter is invited to preach to the Gentile household of Cornelius at Caesarea, the Holy Spirit falls upon everyone who hears his words, and they start “speaking in tongues and extolling God.” No details are given, but the writer seems to have glossolalia rather than xenoglossy in mind (Esler 37, Haenchen p. 354). The point of the story is the admission of Gentiles into the community of believers and not the mechanics of tongues.
Acts 19:1-7 — Paul, during a visit to Ephesus, finds twelve “disciples” who were baptized by John but haven’t received the Holy Spirit. After Paul convinces them to be baptized again in the name of the Lord Jesus, they receive the Holy Spirit, whereupon they “speak in tongues and prophesy.” Once again, “tongues” appears to mean ecstatic utterances (Haenchen 554, 556). The author’s depiction of how the Spirit works is inconsistent; here, it is conferred by baptism when the correct formula is used. With Cornelius’s household, it came from hearing the Christian message and preceded baptism. However, we see the association between tongues with prophecy repeated.
The best summary I can provide of how Acts handles tongues is that they fulfill whatever function the author needs in order to propel the narrative forward. As historical data or doctrinal teaching, however, it offers little value.
Matthew 6:7–8 — As Beare observes, no canonical Gospel ever refers to ‘speaking in tongues’. “It is never attributed to Jesus and is never promised by him to any of his followers” (Beare 229). However, one saying of Jesus in Matthew appears to prohibit, or at least deprecate, glossolalic prayer. “When you pray, do not go babbling like the pagans,” Jesus instructs his disciples before teaching them the Lord’s Prayer. The rare verb used by Jesus, battalogeō, means something like “Do not go on saying batta, batta, batta”, i.e. meaningless sounds (Ibid.). To have put this statement in his Gospel, Matthew must have known of Christians behaving in this manner, and he opposed it as a pagan or un-Jewish way of praying.
Mark 16:17–18 — The “long ending” of Mark is not authentic to the Gospel, having been added sometime between the second and fourth centuries. However, as it is taken as authoritative by some today (particularly churches that use the KJV), it is worth noting. It includes this teaching by the risen Jesus: “These signs shall accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons, they will speak in [new] tongues, they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” “New” is not present in all versions, and it’s not specific whether it expects believers to speak unintelligible utterances or to preach in unknown languages.
Beare, in his thorough survey, concludes:
[Speaking in tongues] is not regarded by any NT writer as a normal or invariable accompaniment of the life in grace, and there is no justification in the classical documents of the Christian faith for holding it to be a necessary element in the fullest spiritual development of the individual Christian or in the corporate life of the church. (Beare 246)
Glossolalia in Other Texts
Arnobius of Sicca, who wrote during the late third century, mentions the use of xenoglossy by Christ. While recounting, in Against the Pagans (1.46), a summary of Christ’s miracles in the Gospels, he includes one in which Jesus, “when He uttered a single word, was thought by nations far removed from one another and of different speech to be using well-known sounds, and the peculiar language of each.” Although confusion with the Pentecost story has been suggested, this sounds to me more like Philo’s Exodus theophany being retold through the acts of Jesus.
The third-century gnostic writing Pistis Sophia also portrays the resurrected Jesus as praying in a heavenly language before his disciples. The text includes both the nonsensical words of Jesus and an interpretation of their meaning. Parmentier notes that the scene is much like a modern charismatic church service, with loud, repetitive sounds followed by an interpretation much longer than the original utterance (Parmentier 70).
Going back to Jewish scriptures, the most well-known example of glossolalia comes from the Testament of Job 46–48. In this text, Job gives his three daughters three multicolored cords from heaven as their inheritance. When they put on the cords, they begin speaking ecstatically, praising God in the languages of the angels, archons, and cherubs respectively. The Apocalypse of Zephaniah also briefly mentions the language of the angels.
Texts such as these last two are often seen as the background to Paul’s reference to the “tongues of men and of angels” in 1 Cor. 13:1, which I omitted from the analysis above. However, Paul’s cryptic phrase comes in the midst of his poetic interlude on love rather than his instruction on spiritual gifts, and what exactly Paul meant by it is debated, particularly given his strange and often negative views of angels (see Poirier 51f for discussion and citations). Fitzmyer concludes that “Even if some Corinthian Christians were so referring to their endowment [as angelic tongues], Paul considers such a language useless.” [Emphasis mine.]
To summarize everything examined so far, only Acts and 1 Corinthians have much to say about tongues, and they present very different views on the function and role of this spiritual gift. Theological differences aside, however, the phenomenon in its normal form would have been unintelligible, ecstatic speech.
From Ancient Christianity to Medieval
Our limited documentary evidence suggests that few groups in the early church practiced glossolalia. The most famous exception is that of the Montanists, a sect that arose in Phrygia in the late second century and lasted until at least the fifth. They apparently embraced the charismatic gifts but were viewed as heretical by the orthodox church for accepting new revelation through prophecy.
Augustine’s views on tongues are typical of the Roman church in later centuries. Influenced mainly by the Pentecost story, he regarded the gift of tongues as speaking foreign languages, but he believed it was a sign that had been “satisfied”, and now that the entire church spoke all the languages of the nations, the gift had become a corporate expression rather than an individual one.
Thomas Aquinas, the great medieval theologian, also viewed tongues through the lens of Acts and saw it strictly as the miraculous speaking of foreign languages. He posited that the apostles were actually given the ability to speak and understand all languages, and that their gift was a temporary ability that could only be used for teaching Christianity. (The apostles couldn’t, say, discuss the weather or haggle over the price of a donkey in another language.) Like Augustine, he believed the universality of the church was the newer manifestation of this gift. He also believed that public readings of the scriptures in Latin as a church rite was the proper way to exercise tongues. (See Aquinas, Lectures on I Corinthians 14.)
The Pentecostal Movement
The 19th century saw scattered attempts within Christendom to revive the gift of tongues and other charismata. These included a movement by Scottish clergyman Edward Irving that became the now-defunct Catholic Apostolic Church; and the Mormons, who were enthusiastic practitioners of the spiritual gifts in their early years.
At the end of the 19th century, Charles Fox Parham, a Methodist preacher-in-training, quit school and left Methodism to explore faith healing and latter-day religious movements. He founded his own small prayer-focused school in Kansas in 1900, and by 1901, he and his students had begun regularly speaking in tongues. Parham’s influence waned following allegations of homosexual conduct (a criminal offense at the time), but the movement accelerated with the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles — church meetings held from 1906 to 1915 that featured alleged miracles, tongues, and other supernatural experiences.
This first wave of charismatic fervour became known as Pentecostalism. It was closely linked with the Holiness movement but spawned numerous denominations of its own, such as the Assemblies of God. Most Pentecostals were premillennialists who believed that the outpouring of the Spirit was a sign of the last days, fulfilling the prophecy of Joel quote in Acts, and that Christ would return once a worldwide revival broke out (Melton 280; Anderson 597). Furthermore, they believed that the gift of tongues was given as a missionary tool that would allow them to speak in foreign languages without study — just as the apostles had done at Pentecost. The main Pentecostal newspaper, Apostolic Faith, declared: “The baptism with the Holy Ghost makes you a witness unto the uttermost parts of the earth. It gives you power to speak in the languages of the nations” (Apostolic Faith 1:4 p. 1).
Pentecostals who went into the mission field equipped with nothing but the gift of tongues soon discovered that it didn’t work. As belief in xenoglossy and the imminent Second Coming faded, Pentecostal ideology set eschatology aside and focused on glossolalia for its own sake, establishing the doctrine of tongues as the “initial evidence” of a believer’s Spirit baptism. Under classical Pentecostalism, the Holy Spirit is promised to all those who become saved, without exception,⁶ and tongues are the uniform sign granted to all who receive Spirit baptism.⁷ (Pentecostal theologians distinguish between tongues as a gift and tongues as a sign in order to get around the diversity of gifts in 1 Cor. 12:10.) Thus speaking tongues has become inextricably linked with the believer’s salvation.
Despite the failure of tongues on the mission field, Pentecostals remain committed to the idea that tongues involve speaking foreign languages, and such beliefs are often reinforced by anecdotal stories in which a foreigner present at a church service or revival meeting hears his or her own language being spoken amidst the glossolalic cacophony. I’ve heard many such stories over the years, and I’m sure many of my readers have too.
Charismatics and Neo-Pentecostals
The ranks of the glossolaliacs grew with the charismatic movement in the 1960s, as individual congregations in mainline Protestant denominations and the Catholic Church began to adopt charismatic practices. These second-wave charismatics did not, however, embrace the Pentecostal doctrines of a second spiritual baptism or tongues as initial evidence. Nor did they expect to use tongues as a missionary tool.
A third wave, the Neo-charismatic or Neo-Pentecostal movement, began in the 1980s and produced an array of new denominations, such as the Association of Vineyard Churches, an offshoot of the Pentecostal Calvary Chapel network. These groups embraced certain doctrinal positions not associated with classical Pentecostals, such as Dominionism, prosperity theology, and a strong focus on demonology and “spiritual warfare,” while remaining surprisingly vague on the nature of spirit baptism and the role of tongues.⁸ They tend to describe glossolalia as a “prayer language” and leave it at that.
Protestant Opposition to the Charismata
While the Catholic Church remains open toward the charismata, many Protestant groups oppose glossolalia and similar practices. Cessationism — the doctrine that spiritual gifts ended after the apostolic age — arose out of a commitment to the sufficiency of scripture and, in some quarters, the desire to eliminate Catholic influence from the Protestant church. The strong cessationist position held by many churches today was defined by Princeton Seminary theologian Benjamin Warfield in his 1918 treatise Counterfeit Miracles, which dismantled miracle claims made by patristic writers, Catholics, Irvingites, Christian Science, and other faith-healing movements. Several Protestant seminaries, including Dallas Theological Seminary and Moody Bible Institute, explicitly deny that tongues and other spiritual gifts are active today. Until 2015, the Southern Baptist Convention — the largest evangelical denomination in the US — would automatically disqualify missionary candidates who spoke in tongues.
Even fiercer opposition comes from Protestants who view the spiritual gifts not merely as make-believe, but as demonic practices controlled by Satan. Leaders of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, which encouraged the speaking of tongues in all its churches until the mid-1930s, came to see it as the counterfeit work of Satan in the great majority of cases by the 1970s (Richmann 145). Baptist pastor William McLeod, in an influential 1971 book, wrote that seeking for gifts is is “an invitation to demons to try and counterfeit the real” (Ibid. 152). Todd Friel, a popular evangelical radio host, frequently attacks glossolalia and other charismatic practices as manifestations of the “Kundalini spirit,” which he believes is the Satanic influence behind Hindu mysticism. Such views effectively rule out the possibility of salvation for practitioners of glossolalia.⁹
The Science of Glossolalia
Potentially an even greater threat to glossolalia than mere theological disputes is the publication of scientific research on the phenomenon. William J. Samarin, a Canadian linguist, has conducted several studies that involved recording and studying the sounds produced by Christians speaking in tongues. In his studies, he identified numerous characteristics of glossolalia that ruled it out as any kind of language. For example, glossolalia is simpler and more repetitious, containing fewer basic patterns that are reused more frequently than real language does. Glossolalia always uses an inventory of sounds and intonation patterns that come from the speaker’s native language; furthermore, the inventory of sounds used in glossolalia is always irregular in certain ways that natural languages are not. Glossolalia heavily prefers a simple consonant + vowel (CV) syllable structure; if real languages were being spoken, phonologically complex syllables would be expected much of the time (Samarin 1968: 61-63). Similar findings have been made by Heather Kavan, a linguist from New Zealand, who has studied glossolalia in both Christian and non-Christian religious contexts (see bibliography).
Samarin says that the similarities and differences between glossolalia and natural languages are “explained by the hypothesis that the speaker is subconsciously motivated to produce a new language. To do this he must make it as different from his own as he possibly can. Since his only resources are the linguistic habits he already has, he is as limited to them as a painter who works with only three colors” (Samarin 1973:138).
Accordingly, Samarin describes glossolalia as follows: A meaningless but phonologically structured human utterance believed by the speaker to be a real language but bearing no systematic resemblance to any natural language, living or dead. (Samarin 1968: 51) His definition has been adopted by others.
Regarding the interpretation of tongues, Samarin observes that “Interpretations do in fact take place, but they are usually pious exhortations in the language of the group where the glossic utterances are made. They are often strikingly longer or shorter than the glossic utterance. Never are they translations in the strict sense of the term; one would be unable to match the original text with the interpreted version.” Kavan states that fewer than one in fifty Pentecostal meetings includes interpretations of tongues (despite Paul’s instruction in 1 Cor. 14:5), and that the interpretations given are not credible.
Interpretations are limited by the vocabulary, intelligence and beliefs of the interpreter. Typically they contain a single platitude repeated in several ways. They are often full of mistakes; for example, one man speaking as God in the first person announced, “For as I say unto you in my Word — the Bible — the lion had a prickle in his paw…” and then proceeded to tell a story that was a mixture of Aesop’s Fables and Androcles and the lion. (Kavan 75)
While we do not have access to recordings of Paul and the Corinthian church, the overwhelming evidence from these and other studies is that modern glossolalia is a learned social behaviour that produces meaningless gibberish. As these studies become more widely known, the stage might be set for a showdown between science and religion not unlike the debates over creationism or the historicity of various biblical narratives.
Pentecostal Reactions to Science
But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease. (1 Cor. 13:8)
At least a few theologians are beginning to realize that the implications of science on charismatic beliefs cannot be ignored forever. A recent collection of essays entitled Science and the Spirit: A Pentecostal Engagement with the Sciences promises to examine the role of science and skepticism in Pentecostal beliefs; judging from its contents, another theological shift might be in progress.
Amos Yong of Fuller Theological Seminary, in his contribution to the book, briefly acknowledges several scientific studies, including Samarin’s work, before focusing on his own theological interpretations of glossolalia. He then assures the reader that his theological account does not detract from scientific insight. This seems like sleight-of-hand at first; surely it is the reverse we are concerned about! However, a closer read suggests some serious concessions on Yong’s part. For one thing, he does not contest Samarin’s findings, which I take to mean that he accepts them. For another, Yong has set about recasting glossolalia as a purely symbolic act — “a metaphor for understanding how many different linguistic and cultural perspectives can also be vehicles for declaring all truth as god’s truth” (p. 58) and “the language of the [eschatological] kingdom” (p. 61) — which in context must also be metaphorical. Yong’s proposal abandons the insistence that a believer is speaking in real unknown languages when engaged in glossolalia in favour of a fuzzier belief that the believer is being led by the Spirit to reenact symbols of God’s imminent kingdom.
Ultimately, I doubt Yong’s ideas will ever make it to the church pew. If they did, they would be ignored. The appeal of tongues is rooted in the shared emotional experience it produces, and churchgoers are not encouraged to come to their own conclusions based on the biblical texts. Paul’s warning on the futility of meaningless gibberish is as likely to fall on deaf ears now as it did two thousand years ago.
- According to Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Paul’s purpose for writing is not simply to resolve disputes, but to argue for his authority as the Corinthian church’s sole founder and apostle. See Fiorenza (1987). Rhetorical Situation and Historical Reconstruction in 1 Corinthians. New Testament Studies, 33, p. 397.
- Jonathan Z. Smith suggests, based on present-day anthropological parallels, that baptism for the dead is evidence of ancestor veneration among the colonists of Corinth, who had been displaced from their homes elsewhere in the empire. Glossolalia is likely to have involved the channeling of ancestral spirits to obtain oracular wisdom, and Paul may have either misconstrued these notions or blended them with his own ideas of the divine spirit. See Smith 29ff.
- The withholding of the Holy Spirit until Pentecost in Acts stands in stark contradiction to John 20:22, in which Jesus gives the disciples the Holy Spirit on Easter Sunday immediately following his resurrection. It has also been argued that in Mark, the rending of the Temple-veil (15:38) is the moment when the Holy Spirit is given to the world. See S. Moyter, The Rending of the Veil: A Markan Pentecost?. New Testament Studies, 33, pp 155-157. Talbert concludes: “There is no way to harmonize these diverse traditions.” (Talbert 32)
- Beare does not, however, consider that the same speech might be heard in different languages according to the listener. He simply concludes that any attempt to take Acts 2 literally would be absurd.
- For more on the considerable parallels between Acts and the Dionysiac cult as well as Euripides’ The Bacchae, see Dennis MacDonald, “Imitations of Euripides’ Bacchae”, Christian Origins and Greco-Roman Culture, and Moles, “Jesus and Dionysus in ‘The Acts of the Apostles’ and Early Christianity”, Hermathena, No. 180, 2006.
- However, Pentecostals continue to disagree on whether baptism of the Spirit is subsequent to conversion or an intrinsic part of one’s conversion. The Assemblies of God teaches that it is a subsequent gift “all believers are entitled to” (source), and encourages believers to “earnestly seek” it, even though this runs contrary to the exemplars in Acts where it is conferred automatically or even, in the case of Cornelius, granted before conversion. The larger problem of course is this: if all Christians are promised the Holy Spirit, why do only the converts to specific churches and denominations exhibit the gifts of the spirit?
- This doctrine started with Parham and Azusa Street. The Assemblies of God website states: “The Spirit’s fullness, evidenced initially by the phenomenon of speaking in other tongues, is the common experience all celebrate with joy.” The Apostolic Church of Pentecost, a major Canadian denomination, states: “We believe…in the Baptism with the Holy Spirit as an experience subsequent to salvation with the scriptural evidence; namely, speaking in tongues.”
- Vineyard’s 24-page Statement of Faith, for example, doesn’t even mention tongues despite its significant role in their services. IHOP (the former Kansas City Fellowship) makes no specific mention of tongues in its Statement of Faith either. The famous Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship, now known as the Catch the Fire network, has no doctrinal statement of any kind on its website.
- This is not just hyperbole. During a discussion panel at pastor John MacArthur’s anti-charismatic Strange Fire Conference, one presenter explicitly stated that the “vast majority” of charismatic Christians were not saved.
Joseph Fitzmyer, First Corinthians (Anchor Yale Bible Series), 2008.
C.K. Barrett, Acts: Volume 1: 1-14, 2004.
Willem Beuken, Isaiah: Part II, 2000.
Richard Pervo, The Mystery of Acts: Unraveling Its Story, 2008.
Ernst Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles, 1971.
Dale B. Martin, The Corinthian Body, 1999.
Christian Wolff, “Lalein glossais in the Acts of the Apostles”, Paul, Luke and the Graeco-Roman World, 2002.
Charles H. Talbert, Reading Acts: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Acts of The Apostles, 1997.
Jonathan Z. Smith, “Re: Corinthians”, Redescribing Paul and the Corinthians, 2011.
John C. Poirier, The Tongues of Angels, 2010.
Philip F. Esler, The First Christians in Their Social Worlds, 1994.
Frank W. Beare. Speaking with Tongues: A Critical Survey of the New Testament Evidence. Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 83, No. 3 (Sep., 1964)
M. Parmentier, “The Gifts of the Spirit in Early Christianity”, The Impact of Scripture in Early Christianity, 1999.
J. Gordon Melton, “Looking into the Future: Why Prophecies Will Persist”, Prophecy in the New Millennium: When Prophecies Persist, 2013.
Allan Anderson, “Pentecostal and Charismatic Theology”, The Modern Theologians: An Introduction to Christian Theology since 1918, 2005.
William J. Samarin, “The Linguisticality of Glossolalia”, The Hartford Quarterly, 1968.
William J. Samarin, “Glossolalia As a Vocal Phenomenon”, Speaking in Tongues, Let’s Talk About It, 1973.
Heather Kavan, ‘“We don’t know what we’re saying, but it’s profound”: The language and contexts of glossolalia’, New Zealand Linguistic Society.
Christopher J. Richmann, “Blaspheming in Tongues: Demons, Glossolalia, and the Christian and Missionary Alliance”.
Amos Yong, “How Does God Do What God Does? Pentecostal-Charismatic Perspectives on Divine Action in Dialogue With Modern Science”, Science and the Spirit: A Pentecostal Engagement with the Sciences, 2010.