The New Testament Teaching on 'Tongues'
Good News Magazine
February 1975
Volume: Vol XXIV, No. 2
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The New Testament Teaching on 'Tongues'
Lester L Grabbe  

A "tongues movement" is sweeping the religious world. Once confined to a few "fundamentalist sects," it now finds adherents in almost every denomination, including some of those considered the most staid and traditionalist. Is glossolalia a real manifestation of the Holy Spirit as in the days of the apostles? Here is the answer from both biblical and linguistic research.

   GLOSSOLALIA — coined from the Greek words meaning "tongue-speech" — was once confined to the scattered, small, usually emotion-charged meetings of "Pentecostal" groups. But the last few years have changed that picture entirely. From Catholic to Lutheran, Baptist to Presbyterian to Episcopalian, one finds enthusiastic believers in the "gift of tongues." Laymen and clergy alike participate.
   There are still many who oppose "speaking in tongues." But the number of those who actually experience the phenomenon is growing constantly, while the total of nonparticipants who favor tongue speaking also continues to swell.
   Is this a sign that the Holy Spirit is sweeping the religious world? Are we truly seeing a return to the faith of the Apostolic Church? Or is this only a devilish counterfeit being palmed off on naive people? This is not merely an academic question. The answer could concern your spiritual life.

   One of the views taken by many non-religionists — but also by some religious people — is that "tongues" both in the Bible and elsewhere is "ecstatic speech" — the incoherent ramblings of someone in a state of ecstasy. One theologian writes: "Paul goes to great lengths to hold before the church of Corinth the fact that their 'tongues' are not intelligible speech, only ecstatic babbling."
   Furthermore, The New English Bible uses the expressions "gift of ecstatic utterance," "language of ecstasy," "tongues of ecstasy," etc., for the Greek word (glossa, normally translated "language" or "tongue"). Some tongue speakers feel that glossolalia is not any particular language, though they might not agree that it is "ecstatic speech." But others adamantly insist that "tongues" are really actual languages of human beings — whether ancient or modern. Still others see them as a "Holy Ghost language" — the "tongues of angels."
   The only way to find the truth is to examine the Bible and then compare its message with the objective studies done on modern glossolalia by skilled impartial researchers.
   The first experience of "speaking in tongues" is described in Acts 2. The disciples were gathered together on the day of Pentecost. This was not a "tarry meeting" or some particular experience the disciples had. They were meeting to observe one of the annual holy days, the Feast of Weeks, described in Leviticus 23:15-21 and elsewhere in the Old Testament. "Pentecost" was the Greek name for this festival.

   The Holy Spirit suddenly came to them while they were assembled, just as Christ had promised, "and [they] began to speak with other languages [glossa], as the Spirit inspired them" (Acts 2:4). The word spread and Jews from many different areas came to listen in surprise and wonderment.
   The common vernacular language of Palestine at that time was Aramaic. But Greek was the lingua franca of the entire Roman Empire. Many Jews, especially in Judaea, were also conversant with Hebrew. If the disciples had spoken in one of these three languages, it would probably not have caused too much excitement — it wasn't that unusual (see "The Language Milieu of First-Century Palestine," R. H. Gundry, Journal of Biblical Literature lxxxiii, 1964, pp. 404-408).
   But notice what happened. Instead of hearing one of these common languages, the Jewish pilgrims were startled by the vernaculars from their own local areas. Those celebrating the Feast of Pentecost had come from many different areas: Mesopotamia and adjacent areas in the modern countries of Iraq and Iran; "Judaea," not the area in Canaan but another area in northern Syria (see Cyrus H. Gordon, The Ancient Near East, third edition, p. 219); various places in Asia Minor; countries in North Africa; and even from Rome.
   Almost all these people could speak Greek and many knew Aramaic. But that was not what they heard. Rather, the disciples were speaking the various local dialects from their native areas: Persian, Lydian, Arabic, Latin, Coptic, etc. No native of Judaea, much less of Galilee, was likely to know these languages. No wonder the visiting Jews were completely flabbergasted and could hardly believe their ears.

   There can be no doubt that the "tongues" of Acts 2 were real, intelligible foreign languages. Even a cursory reading of the chapter shows this. Furthermore, a careful reading of the chapter in Greek adds additional evidence. Notice the key words in the Greek text.
   The disciples "began to speak with other languages [glossa], so that "because of this sound [phone] the crowd came together and were astounded [sugcheo]." These same root words are found in the Septuagint version (Greek translation) of the Old Testament in Genesis II — the account of the confusion of languages at Babel! According to the Septuagint, in Genesis II God said: "Come, we will go down and confuse [sugcheo] their language [glossa] so that they will not understand one another's speech [phone]."
   Is this only coincidental? Luke, the author of Acts, has the confusion at Babel in mind and deliberately chooses words used in the Septuagint account of Babel in Genesis II. Scholars have long recognized that Luke was greatly influenced by the language and wording of the Septuagint. Luke obviously regards the phenomenon on Pentecost as a reversal of the curse at Babel. They were human languages at Babel — they were also human languages at Pentecost.
   But what about other references to "tongues speaking" in the New Testament? In Acts 10, we find the account of Peter's baptizing Cornelius, the Roman centurion, and others of his household. Just before they were baptized, the Holy Spirit came upon them and they spoke in "tongues" (verses 44-46).
   Was this a different phenomenon from that of Acts 2? Not in their speaking! "And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them, as on us at the beginning" (Acts 11:15). As in Acts 2, Cornelius and those with him spoke in genuine foreign languages — languages understood by the Jewish Christians present (10:46).
   In each case, the Greek word used is glossa. Elsewhere in the New Testament (and in the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament), this word always refers to genuine human speech.
   I Corinthians 14 also deals with "tongues" in detail. Yet the very same Greek word (glossa) is still used. There is absolutely no indication that something different is intended by Paul. As one investigator wrote: "The attempt to make a difference between the tongues of Corinthians and those of Acts is wholly artificial" (E. J. G. Titterington, "The Gift of Tongues," Faith and Thought 90, 1958, p. 65).
   New Testament scholar J. G. Davies made a study of the accounts in Acts 2 and I Corinthians 14, especially in connection with the Greek word hermeneuo (meaning "translate" or "interpret"). He concluded: "There seems, therefore, to be no adequate reason for denying that St. Paul understood glossolalia to be speaking in foreign languages. Consequently there is no conflict between his description and the account in Acts 2, which is a unity." ("Pentecost and Glossolalia," Journal of Theological Studies 3, 1952, p. 231. See also the article by R. H. Gundry in same journal, vol. XVII, 1966, pp. 299, 307.)
   Without a doubt, genuine languages are referred to in I Corinthians 14 as well as Acts 2. We will examine I Corinthians 14 in greater detail a little later in this article. But first, let's see what the scientific investigation of modern glossolalia has uncovered.

   The claim is made by some "tongue speakers" that theirs is a genuine foreign language. A stereotyped story is usually told as evidence. The stories vary in specific details, but they generally follow a consistent pattern. A person speaks in tongues at a group gathering. Among the group is someone having knowledge of an exotic language. He astounds (or maybe they expected it all along) the group by telling them that the glossolalist spoke this particular strange, foreign language "fluently."
   These stories are quite common and appear in many accounts of glossolalia, including those in newspapers and magazines. But in most cases, the story is second-, third-, or fourth-hand. Usually the story gives no positive identification of the tongue with a real language. Many such accounts mention identification of only one word — hardly compelling evidence of a real human language. Others carry such vague descriptions as it "sounded like" so and so or "I thought I heard a few words" of such and such a language.
   Professional linguists have investigated modern glossolalia, yet have found no evidence that it ever consists of actual speech. The scientists doing this work are seldom hostile toward glossolalists. Most are neutral observers; a few are actually sympathetic. But they are unanimous in finding no human language among the massive and growing library of recorded "tongue speech."
   A further discussion of the linguistic studies of glossolalia can be found in the box that appears on the next page.
   We are now ready for one of the major passages of the New Testament on speaking in tongues — I Corinthians 14. What does the Apostle Paul say about the subject? Do modern speakers measure up to his requirements?

   Certain minor points of this chapter are not crystal clear because we are not given the specific situation in detail. But the overall implications are quite distinct, and these we intend to concentrate on. We are not, of course, trying to provide an exhaustive commentary on the chapter. (The translation is directly from the Greek text, though a similar rendering can be found in most of the major modern English translations.)
   Verses 1-3: Pursue love, seek after the spiritual gifts, but especially that you might speak with inspiration. For the one speaking in a language does not speak to men but to God, because no one understands him — instead he speaks mysteries in the spirit. However, the inspired speaker talks to men of edification, comfort and encouragement.
   Speaking in a language, although one of God's gifts, is one of the lesser ones. It is not as important as speaking or preaching under inspiration (the Greek word propheteuo means "inspired speaking," which can — but does not have to — refer to predictions of the future). If a person speaks a language unknown to most of his audience, he has benefited himself, but no one else. God alone understands him unless there happens to be someone else present who knows that language.
   Verses 4-5: The one speaking in another language edifies himself, while the inspired speaker builds up the whole church. I wish all of you could speak in languages, but more that you spoke under inspiration. This latter is better than speaking in a language, unless someone translates so the church will be uplifted.
   Paul wishes all those at Corinth had the gift of speaking in other languages. But he would far rather see them with the ability to speak, God's Word with inspiration. As it was, those with the gift of language were not benefiting anyone. Only if someone translated was the message of any use to others in the meeting.
   Verses 6-9: Now, brethren, if I come to you speaking in languages, how do I benefit you, unless I bring to you either revelation or knowledge or prophecy or instruction? In the same way, unless inanimate objects, such as a flute or harp, give a clear sound, how will we know what is being played? And if the trumpet gives an indistinct call, who is going to prepare himself for, battle? The same is true with you: you must talk intelligibly or no one will know what is spoken — you will just be talking into air.
   The Apostle Paul emphasized the necessity, for intelligible communication. Who will go to a concert just to hear all the instruments playing the wrong notes, off-key or unclearly? Then why meet with other Christians to babble away in meaningless — to others — syllables?
   Verses 10-12: There are undoubtedly a great number of different languages in the world, and not one is meaningless. But if I do not know the meaning of the language, then I will be a foreigner to the one speaking and he a foreigner to me. So you, since you are zealous for spiritual things, set edification of the whole congregation as your goal if you want to excel.
   This passage nails down without question the identity of the "tongues" — they were foreign languages. Paul refers to, human speech and explicitly shows that those speaking in "tongues" are just like two. foreigners who do not understand one another's language. There is no change of atmosphere or wording in this passage. Paul has to be referring to actual human languages. Of course, the emphasis of the chapter — the need for communication instead of sideshow tricks — is continued.
   Verses 13-17: Therefore, let the one, speaking in languages pray for the ability of interpretation. For if I pray in a foreign language, my spirit prays but my understanding is unfruitful. What, then? Certainly, I will pray with the spirit but also to be understood. I will sing praises with the spirit but also with intelligence. For if you give thanks with the spirit alone, how is the one without instruction going to respond "Amen" to your prayer when he does not know what you are talking about? You may be giving thanks quite well, but that does not help the other person.
   God's Word shows that most prayer should be private — between the individual and God. In private prayer it doesn't matter what language you use because God understands. But public prayer in church services is for the edification of everyone, not just the individual praying. If someone prays in a language which most don't understand, the congregation is not benefited. How could the congregation say "Amen" — which signifies their agreement with the prayer — if they did not know what was said? Only the one single individual praying, instead of all present, would be benefited.
   Verses 20-24: Brethren, do not be children in understanding. Be childlike toward evil but be full-grown in understanding. In the law it is written, "In foreign languages by the lips of others, I will speak to this people, but not even then will they obey me, says the Lord." Therefore, languages are a sign for unbelievers, not believers, while prophecy is for believers rather than unbelievers. If the congregation comes together and everyone speaks in different languages, and uninstructed people and unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are crazy? But if all speak with inspiration and such a person come in, he would be convicted by all and called to account by all....
   This passage is somewhat puzzling and a great many learned attempts at exposition have been made. (For a recent discussion, see J. P. M. Sweet, New Testament Studies 13, pp. 240-257.) But two things are clear. First of all, tongues indeed function as a sign. This is also clear from Acts 2. But, secondly, they have the reverse effect if done in confusion and disorder. A disorderly appearance will only drive away the unbeliever.
   Verses 26-28: What then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each one of you has a psalm, a teaching, a language, or an interpretation. But let everything be done for edification. If anyone talks in a language, let it be done by two or the most three, one after another, and someone must translate. But if there is no translator, let each of them be silent, speaking only to himself and God.
   Notice that whenever someone speaks in a foreign language, there must be someone to translate. And even with a translator, only two or three at the most should speak.

   In verses 29-33, Paul also explains about the conduct of those giving inspired messages. He emphasizes that the speakers must also be in control of themselves, so that everything is done without confusion.
   Notice the Apostle Paul says "the spirits of the prophets are under control of the prophets" (verse 32). No "seizure by the spirit" here. No giving of one's mind up to an outside force. The person under God's inspiration is still able to control what he says and does. If a person can't control himself, he is plainly not being inspired by God.
   Then the apostle gives instructions which many moderns seem to feel are "out of date." But Paul was giving God's inspired directions — women are to keep silent in the churches (verses 34-37). He concludes that languages were not wrong but were to be used with proper order and decorum so that all might profit from the services.

   A number of points are brought up in I Corinthians 14. Compare carefully this summary of them with the practices of modern "tongue speakers":
   1. Whatever is spoken must be a real language.
   2. Someone must translate what is said. Some glossolalia groups claim to do this. But others do not, as I have personally witnessed. As we have already shown, even when the tongue is "interpreted," the "interpretation" found among modern "tongues" speakers shows no real correspondence with the tongue speech.
   3. Everything must be done in order. Only two or three at the most should speak, and they must speak one after another, not at the same time. Above all, they must be in control of themselves, not in a trance, "ecstasy" or "spiritual seizure." The true God is a God of "sound mind" (II Tim. 1:7).
   4. Women are not to participate, either as "tongue" speakers or as speakers of any kind in the service.
   5. Those who use such a gift must realize in humility that it is one of the lesser gifts, as shown by Paul in I Corinthians 14 and his order of spiritual gifts in I Corinthians 12.
   If you will carefully compare this list of essentials with the present-day glossolalia services, you will find many lacks. Most such services Just do not meet the requirements of God's own Word. As we have shown, there has been no proof of a real language being used, despite claims to the contrary. Many groups make no pretense of translating. Almost all will allow several people to speak at once; also a large total number will speak during the service, instead of the limit of two or three as given by Paul.
   Most groups allow women to participate actively. Certain groups emphasize the necessity of humility. But spiritual pride has unfortunately been a hallmark of glossolalists, one of the major sources of criticism from people of all views.
   The modern tongue speakers just don't match the biblical standards.

   Satan has his ministers and even appears as an angel of light himself (II Cor. 11:13-15). He also has his counterfeits for the gifts of God's Spirit. Because of this, God's Word plainly tells us to "believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God" (I John 4:1).
   How many of those participating in glossolalia have been told to "try the spirits"? Haven't they been told to give themselves over to the experience? How many are really determining whether the spirit is from God or Satan before allowing it in?
   God doesn't give warnings lightly. He makes it clear that Christians must fight "against the spirits of evil" which continually threaten (Eph. 6:12). Is it possible to resist these evil spirits if the person gives himself over to the first spirit which comes his way?
   Dr. John P. Kildahl, who recently finished a study of glossolalia under a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, warned of the "complete turning of oneself over to the leader" required to speak in tongues. According to one researcher, glossolalists actually go into a "trance" state very similar to hypnosis. This appears to be a universal trait even though experienced glossolalists may not show it. (See Journal for Scientific Study of Religion 8, 1969, p. 238.)
   As Dr. Kildahl points out: "The follower feels at peace because he has abandoned himself to the control of somebody else" (emphasis ours). A person with his willpower and self-control given up is open to any suggestion — whether from another person or an evil spirit. Surely the dangers are obvious!
   Too many feel this must be all right because it "feels so good" or is "such a wonderful experience." Such self-deception is dangerous! Isn't it plain that one who appears as an "angel of light" can also counterfeit a true spiritual experience? Feeling isn't the key. The key is God's Word — what does it say?
   It says plainly, clearly, unmistakably: "TRY THE SPIRITS"! Anyone who must relinquish self-control and give himself over to an outside influence is disobeying that command. This warning cannot be too strongly expressed!
   Glossolalia has sometimes been called "tongues of fire." Those who participate in it may well find they have been playing with fire!

Linguistic Study or Glossolalia

   In recent years a good deal of scientific linguistic study has been done on glossolalia. One qualified researcher who has worked a great deal with tongue-speakers is William J. Samarin. His recent "Tongues of Men and Angels" is currently the most definitive treatment of linguistic analysis of speaking in tongues.
   Dr. Samarin has had to conclude from his extensive study that there are just no known examples of glossolalists speaking an actual foreign language. In one article he commented that though speaking in real languages "is claimed by Christian charismatists to be part of the tongue-speaking experience, they would be unable to provide a case that would stand up to scientific investigation" ("Hartford Quarterly" viii, 1968, pp. 52-55).
   He later discussed the question of stories claiming the identification of real languages in his previously cited book: "Any time one attempts to verify them he finds that the stories have been greatly. distorted or that the 'witnesses' turn out to be incompetent or unreliable from a linguistic point of view" (pp. 112-113).
   Linguists who have studied recordings of tongue-speech point out that it is not gibberish in the linguistic sense of the word. That is, when passages of gibberish have been inserted into tapes of glossolalia, linguists have had no trouble distinguishing between the two. But there are a number of significant differences between features of glossolalia and real intelligible speech.
   Anthropologist Felicitas D. Goodman reported on a specific study of his in the "Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion" (vii, 1969, "Phonetic Analysis of Glossolalia in Four Cultural Settings, " pp. 227- 239). He listed six specific ways in which glossolalia differs from human language.
   Dr. Eugene A. Nida, of the American Bible Society Translations Department, has also studied tapes of glossolalia. Although he has not published his findings formally, he has read unpublished papers in scholarly meetings and has made available certain unpublished findings. He similarly concludes that there are distinct contrasts between glossolalia and real language.
   Dr. Samarin concluded in his article in the "Hartford Quarterly": "In the foregoing we have seen that glossas ["tongues"] are not natural languages, and they are unlike natural languages in very significant ways even though features are shared" (p. 65).
   One of the major characteristics of real language is the correspondence between form (grammar, syntax, sound, etc.) and meaning. A particular phrase carries a specific meaning. This is not true in glossolalia. Speakers may give a general description of what they thought they were saying. But they never try to interpret individual phrases or segments of the speech. The same applies to the "interpretation" practiced among many groups. Any translation of a real language will show a regular and systematic correspondence to the original. But in glossolalia there is no correlation between "tongue" and "interpretation."
   In one case an experiment was conducted in which a tape of glossolalia was played to several individuals claiming to have the "gift of interpretation." The interpretations were quite general in most cases. But even then the various interpretations of the same material varied widely from one another. Of course, there was no linguistic correspondence between the tapes and any interpretation given.
   More could be written on the subject. But those interested can read the reports of researchers themselves, especially in professor Samarin's book. The important thing is that modern tongue-speech is not real language. But that of the Bible can be nothing else. Modern glossolalia is only a poor counterfeit of the real thing.

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Good News MagazineFebruary 1975Vol XXIV, No. 2