The other night my wife and I were watching The Story of God with Morgan Freeman, and it happened to have a section in it about a female, Annie, and the Pentecostal church she attends which speaks in tongues. In one of the scenes during the worship, most of the members in the church began speaking in tongues. This act of the Holy Spirit has actually become more and more common in the American Christian scene. But are these people really speaking through the power of the Holy Spirit, or is it some other power altogether?
It’s hard to say exactly what empowers these people to act in these manners during worship services. One thing that can be done, however, is to look to our Bibles to find what it says about speaking in tongues and base what we see today on what the Apostles and the early Church believed and taught.
Tongues in Acts
The first mention of people speaking in tongues occurs in the book of Acts at the time of Pentecost:
When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together. And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were. Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem. At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd, but they were confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language. They were astounded, and in amazement they asked, ‘Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans? Then how does each of us hear them in his own native language? We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs, yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God.’ They were all astounded and bewildered, and said to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ (Acts 2:1-12)
One thing I would like to point out here, the most important thing about this whole event, is that “speaking in tongues” is referring to actually speaking another language that was understood by the others around them. The Apostles were speaking in foreign languages to teach those around them, who had gathered in Jerusalem from the diaspora, about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It was used to rapidly expand the Church.
Chrysostom wrote in his Homilies on First Corinthians, “Wherefore then did the Apostles receive it before the rest? Because they were to go abroad every where.” It was given to them so they could go out into the world and teach rapidly. The language barrier would have proven very difficult to overcome in order to teach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Therefore, the ability to speak in tongues, i.e. foreign languages, was given to them.
There are a couple of other mentions of tongue speaking in the book of Acts (10:44-46; 19:5-6), but they are very brief. I will note here that Peter mentions how the Gentiles had received the Holy Spirit just as the Apostles had (10:47), so there is no reason to believe these acts of tongue speaking were any different than what was experienced during Pentecost.
Tongues in 1 Corinthians
The Apostle Paul also talks about speaking in tongues in his first epistle to the Corinthians, however, it isn’t quiet as clear as what was spoken of in Acts. In this letter, Paul lists out different gifts that were given directly from the Holy Spirit. He mentions wisdom, knowledge, faith, the gift of healing, prophecy, “to another varieties of tongues; to another interpretation of tongues.” (12:10) In chapter 14 Paul begins to really expound upon the gift of tongues speaking, but he is always comparing its inferiority to the gift of prophecy. It is apparent that many in the Corinth church really wanted the ability to speak in tongues. Given their history of idol worship and similar acts during these rituals, it was probably intriguing to them that something so similar was occurring in the Christian religion. Not only this, but if others could do it, then everyone wanted to be able to do it as well. So the Corinthians began to abuse the gift of speaking in tongues, actually mocking true tongue speakers, when in fact a majority of them probably couldn’t do it in the first place.
As we continue through chapter 14, he continues speaking on tongues saying, “For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to human beings but to God, for no one listens; he utters mysteries in spirit” (v. 2) This is where things begin to become confusing. Reading this verse from Paul, it makes it sound as though a speaker of tongues isn’t speaking to the people around but to God alone, and no one can understand what is being said as “he utters mysteries in spirit.” This verse alone is the crux of the whole argument on modern-day churches speaking in tongues, as it is what one can experience by visiting one of these churches. The members are just babbling, for lack of a better word, and no one around can understand them, including themselves, save God alone. And they think this is correct as it appears to be what the Apostle Paul is saying. They believe it is some form of “angelic language.”
Tongues is an Actual Language
I would first like to look at some commentaries on this particular verse, to see what the early Church and others had to say about it.
And as in the time of building the tower the one tongue was divided into many; so then the many tongues frequently met in one man, and the same person used to discourse both in the Persian, and the Roman, and the Indian, and many other tongues, the Spirit sounding within him: and the gift was called the gift of tongues because he could all at once speak various languages. See accordingly how he both depresses and elevates it. Thus, by saying, “He that speaks with tongues, speaks not unto men, but unto God, for no man understands,” he depressed it, implying that the profit of it was not great; but by adding, “but in the Spirit he speaks mysteries” he again elevated it, that it might not seem to be superfluous and useless and given in vain. (John Chrysostom, Homily 35 on First Corinthians, 14:3)
“For one who speaks in a tongue, speaks not to people, but to God: for no one hears. But in the Spirit he speaks mysteries” (1 Corinthians 14:2) . . . For it was given to preachers, because of the diverse languages of people, so that one who was going to the people of India might bring the divine preaching in the language used by them. And again, when discoursing with Persians, and with Scythians, and Romans, and Egyptians, they would preach the evangelical doctrine in the languages used by each. (Theodoret of Cyrus, Commentary on 1 Corinthians)
He says in the outset — He that speaketh in another tongue, speaketh not unto men, but unto God: that is, according to the proverb, “He sings to himself and to the Muses.” In the use of the word tongue, there is not a pleonasm, as in those expressions — “She spake thus with her mouth,” and “I caught the sound with these ears.” The term denotes a foreign language. The reason why he does not speak to men is — because no one heareth, that is, as an articulate voice. For all hear a sound, but they do not understand what is said. (John Calvin, Commentary on Corinthians, Vol. I)
As you can see there aren’t many notes on the subject. Many mention briefly the occurrence in Acts (all of which agree it is an actual language), but not so many mention the occurrence in 1 Corinthians. This, in itself, points out to the little importance this ability actually had during their time of writing. But clearly, these early fathers (and even John Calvin) believe that Paul was clearly speaking of actual languages spoken at the time.
Another idea, which comes from J.B. Lightfoot and is supported by many other more modern commentators on the Bible, is this taken from Adam Clarke’s Commentary:
Dr. Lightfoot’s mode of reconciling these difficulties is the most likely I have met with. He supposes that by the unknown tongue the Hebrew is meant, and that God restored the true knowledge of this language when he gave the apostles the gift of tongues. As the Scriptures of the Old Testament were contained in this language, and it has beauties, energies, and depths in it which no verbal translation can reach, it was necessary, for the proper elucidation of the prophecies concerning the Messiah, and the establishment of the Christian religion, that the full meaning of the words of this sacred language should be properly understood. And it is possible that the Hebrew Scriptures were sometimes read in the Christian congregations as they were in the Jewish synagogues; and if the person who read and understood them had not the power and faculty of explaining them to others, in vain did he read and understand them himself. And we know that it is possible for a man to understand a language, the force, phraseology, and idioms of which he is incapable of explaining even in his mother tongue. (Adam Clarke’s Commentary; 1 Corinthians 14:2)
As we can see, Lightfoot, Clarke, and several others explain that the language these people aren’t understanding was the ancient Hebrew language in which the Old Testament prophecies were written. Over time the original Hebrew language had been forgotten through the exiles of the ancient Israelites, and as a result, no one could fully understand what was being spoken. Not to mention the fact that the prophecies and Scriptures had been changed by “the lying pen of the scribes.” (Jeremiah 8:8) Therefore, the ability to fully understand and speak the language of the ancient was the “mysteries in spirit.”
The Problem of Tongues only Being Understandable to God
If the modern-day understanding by Pentecostals and Evangelicals is correct in believing that Paul’s idea of tongue speaking is babble, or an unknown angelic language, that only God can understand, then we are still faced with several problems with the rest of what Paul teaches in the whole context of 1 Corinthians.
You see, the early Church, as well as many ancient churches today (such as the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Anglican), are all about unity. Edifying one another and building the Church up to be stronger in faith and unity. Most modern Pentecostal and Evangelical churches today are all about personal relationships with Jesus Christ. The problem here is building up oneself doesn’t build up the whole Church. Yes, it may build a stronger bond between that individual and God, but when in a public setting such as a church, the goal is to work together and grow as a unit, a community, just as the example of the Trinity.
With that being said, Paul compares speaking in tongues with prophecy and how it is much better to be able to prophesy than to speak in tongues, because prophecy builds up the church. Anyone can understand prophecy, but no one, save an interpreter of tongues, can understand someone speaking in tongues. Therefore, if one were to speak in tongues, then there must be an interpreter present “so that the church may be built up.” (14:5)
The problem with the tongues movement today is that no one knows what is being said. If you have never spoken in tongues before, or had ever heard anyone doing it, and you went into a church where the majority of people were doing it, what would you think? I, personally, would turn around and walk out. Even Paul mentions this: “So if the whole church meets in one place and everyone speaks in tongues, and then uninstructed people or unbelievers should come in, will they not say that you are out of your minds?” (14:23)
Furthermore, Paul goes on to say if some of the members of the church do posses the ability to speak in tongues, “let it be two or at most three, and each in turn, and one should interpret. But if there is no interpreter, the person should keep silent in the church and speak to himself and to God” (14:27-28). If there are no interpreters, which there never are in these modern churches, then no one should speak in tongues.
Also, in 1 Corinthians 13 Paul teaches that all these Spiritual gifts that have been given by the Holy Spirit will either cease to exist or be surpassed by something greater in the future. The gift of tongues was a gift that would cease completely. (13:8) The Greek word for cease is pauō (Strong’s G3973) meaning, of course, to cease or to come to an end. The use of tongues was very specific, that is, to spread the Gospel very rapidly during the time of the Apostles. Think about it. Once the Apostles had gone to these foreign lands and initially taught them the true doctrines of the Church, then the members of that nation could continue teaching, in their own language, the rest of the people. There would have been no need for tongues once each nation learned of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And it is for this reason many people believe that the gift of tongues ceased, save for a few rare cases, during or just after the time of the Apostles. Its purpose had been fulfilled.
Early writers such as Augustine and Aquinas agree to this point in saying that tongues had ceased to exist during their times. It should also be noted that these cases are the only cases mentioned within the text of the Bible, so it could probably be safe to say that tongues had began being less frequent even during the writing of the New Testament. This goes back to what I pointed out earlier when citing early Fathers on the topic. It didn’t exist anymore nor was it that big of a deal, so the mention of it was practically unnecessary. It is only mentioned in commentaries of Paul’s writings, not actual theological or apologetic writings.
The modern rise in the tongues movement may prove that it is simply not true. Why would the Church cease speaking in tongues during, or just after, the time of the Apostles but now give rise to huge amounts of people speaking in tongues? Something that Paul teaches would cease to exist and apparently did.
Finally, Paul points out that tongues are “a sign not for those who believe but for unbelievers.” (14:22) As I’ve stated several times throughout, the ability to speak tongues was given to the Apostles to rapidly spread the Church to the unbelievers. What benefit does it serve to the unbeliever today if the whole congregation of a specific church is speaking tongues within that physical church building? It was given to go out and spread the gospel of Christ. So then the question arises, shouldn’t the whole congregation already be believers? Why should they even be speaking in tongues if it’s for unbelievers? The only thing it will do, again as I stated earlier, is scare someone into thinking the whole congregation is mad, as Paul says. It isn’t in any way edifying today, nor is it being properly used if it is true tongues.
Whether or not these Christians today are speaking through the Holy Spirit in tongues, I cannot say with 100% certainty, but given what we are taught in the Bible, I would have to say that it isn’t a gift of the Holy Spirit. I do know that if everyone in the congregation is doing it at the same time and there is no interpreter present to translate what is being said, then 1) the teaching of Paul is being ignored and 2) the likelihood of it being a true language from the Holy Spirit is nearly brought to nil. There may be a spiritual presence there causing these people to do so, but as John says, “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1). It could simply be an evil presence causing these people to act as they are. Even pagan cults around the world still practice forms of tongue speaking, and it has been proven that modern Pentecostal tongue speaking is no different from that of the pagans. Not to mention the fact that many modern churches today are teaching people how to speak in tongues. If it were a true gift of the Holy Spirit, it would not need to be taught, but would be known from within.
Also, the fact that tongues ceased to exist is quite clear given what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13, as well as, the lack of mention of it in any writings beyond these few examples. To say that there has been a modern rise in tongues given by the Holy Spirit basically falsifies what Paul and the early Church have said about the topic.
In the end, even if tongues speaking were still around, Paul makes it very clear that it is of little importance. He claimed he would “rather speak five words with [his] mind, so as to instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue.” (14:19) Not only this, but all these gifts of the Spirit will pass away, but three will remain: faith, hope, and love. “But the greatest of these is love.” (13:13) Let us focus more on love as Christians than anything else. I mean, that is what Christ called us to do, right?
All texts taken from St. Joseph Edition of The New American Bible, Revised Ed.