Speaking in Tongues and the Importance of the Bible
So you want to learn about speaking in tongues, right? Or maybe you want to learn how to speak in tongues. Well, though you may be tempted to jump in, say a few tongue-twisters, work through the alphabet backwards until you start speaking in unknown syllables, you’d be better off starting with the Bible just to get a sense of the territory.
Speaking in tongues is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. For many churches, speaking in tongues is primary evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Something so desirable, so sought-after, can also be dangerous, if we seek this gift for the wrong reasons or, worse still, counterfeit the experience in order to join one of these communities. Think of pretending to be rich to get into a Country Club or falsifying your grades to get into a college you’re anxious to attend. What do you do once you’re in? In he same way, you don’t want to speak in tongues to get in or get accepted.
So let’s get speaking in tongues right before we screw the experience up. In order to do that, we need to go to the first recorded instances of speaking in tongues, which are described in the Bible.
Speaking in tongues, or glossolalia in Greek—the language of the New Testament—is an important sign of the Holy Spirit in the Bible, but the experience is set within very clear boundaries. You don’t want to trespass those boundaries because the gifts of the Holy Spirit can easily be counterfeited. Remember, counterfeits look almost real. But almost isn’t the real thing, is it?
Counterfeits are what Satan tested Jesus with in the desert, according to the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Satan even quoted the Bible—seems real enough, doesn’t it?—while testing Jesus in the wilderness. The exercise of speaking in tongues, or glossolalia, can easily be a counterfeit, which looks, smells, and tastes like the real thing, but isn’t. Again, remember how Satan tested Jesus in the desert three times. The offer of bread: tastes great when you’re hungry, but not if it is baked up by Satan. Health and well-being: being saved from a tumble off the temple is certainly a plus, but not on Satan’s terms. Power and prestige: nifty and convenient, except when they come from bowing down to Satan.
It’s important to avoid counterfeits, to duck imitations. So we’ll go to the first sources—the book of Acts and the letters of Paul. Before doing even that, we need to take some matters into consideration. Packing a chocolate bar, a raincoat, and a water bottle is essential for a good walk, even on what looks like a pleasant, sunny day. In the same way, let’s prep for our trip with a few precautions.
Speaking in Tongues: Proceed with Caution
Questions about the content and character of speaking in tongues lead back to 1 Corinthians 12-14 and Acts 2, 10, and 19. Before we go there, it’s important to realize that there are lots of reasons to proceed with caution when it comes to speaking in tongues (which we’ll sometimes call glossolalia, based upon the Greek).
First, in 1 Corinthians 12-14, Paul discusses glossolalia in detail. But he doesn’t use just one Greek term. He refers to this single experience in many ways:
- tongue(s) or language(s) (1 Corinthians 13:8; 14:22)
- speaking in (a) tongue/language (14:2, 4, 13, 27; see 14:19
- speaking in tongues/languages (13:1; 14:5-6, 18, 23, 39)
- praying in a tongue/language (14:14)
- speaking with the tongues/languages of angels (13:1)
- “various sorts of tongues” (12:10, 28)
These are a lot of ways to refer to what we often assume is one experience. Do they point to a single, seamless experience? It’s hard to say. In fact, the variety of expressions here raises all sorts of questions. Does the Greek word translated simply as tongues refer to incomprehensible sounds that arise from a psychological state in which the mind exercises no restraint, or does it refer to speaking in comprehensible languages? The word, tongue, in Greek can be just another word for dialect or language, though it’s not limited to such language. So both alternatives are possible. Another question is whether tongues are an angelic language, as in 1 Corinthians 13:1, or human languages—what the word, tongue, tends to mean in most contexts? Again, does the variety of terms mean that Paul is referring to different speech acts rather than just one, glossolalia? Have we made a mistake by supposing that all of these are about the same experience of speaking in tongues? It’s hard, maybe even impossible, to know.
Second, these questions become even bigger and harder to answer when we take the views of various New Testament books into consideration. Paul and Luke don’t seem to present glossolalia in the same way. According to Paul, this experience can be incomprehensible; the spirit prays but not the mind, and interpretation is required. As we’ll soon see, Luke consistently connects glossolalia to comprehensible speech that hearers can actually understand. The longer ending of Mark’s gospel (Mark 16:9-20) only makes the matter more confusing. Jesus promises that certain signs will follow believers, who will cast out demons, speak in new tongues, pick up snakes, drink poison with impunity, and heal the sick by the laying on of hands (16:17-18). What are new tongues? This isn’t Paul’s way of referring to speaking in tongues, and it certainly isn’t Luke’s. Are these new tongues what Paul refers to in 1 Corinthians 12-14? Is it what Luke refers to in the book of Acts? Again, it’s hard, maybe even impossible, to know.
One more challenge, if you don’t mind. Attempts to identify glossolalia with various psychological states, such as trance or communal hysteria, just don’t work, in part because of how little we can pinpoint the experience Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 12-14 and Luke describes in Acts 2, 10, and 19. Let me give you an example of why these modern parallels don’t work well. Paul writes, “for nobody understands them, since they are speaking mysteries in the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 14:2). Speaking in the Spirit usually for Paul means speaking in language that can’t be directly understood. But mysteries are another story altogether; mysteries are usually matters clearly revealed. For example, Paul, in one of his letters to the Corinthians, unfolds end-time mysteries that are perfectly comprehensible (1 Corinthians 15:51-52). So which is it? Is speaking mysteries in the Spirit a matter that can be understood or not? You guessed it. It’s hard, maybe even impossible, to know.
Obviously, if we want to speak in tongues like the early Christians, then it would help to figure out what exactly the early Christians experienced. Otherwise, we may experience something that we think is what the early Christians experienced—but be wrong or land off the mark (which, by the way, is the basic meaning of sin—to miss the mark—so we don’t want to do that, especially when we hope to experience something good). What we experience today may not be at all what they experienced two thousand years ago. But figuring out what they experienced is easier said than done. The challenges to our understanding of the first experiences of speaking in tongues, or glossolalia, mount up.
What should we make of this? What lesson should we take away? The more the challenges stack up, the more we should confess how little we know. The more our ignorance comes into the open, the more humble we need to be. There’s no room for hubris, nowhere to plant a flag of certainty, when it comes to the earliest experiences of speaking in tongues. Humility and openness are the marks of anyone with an earnest thirst to understand speaking in tongues, as the early Christians practiced it.
Speaking in Tongues: 1 Corinthians 12-14
Ecstasy pulses in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, where he responds to real problems, written and unwritten. He responds to their questions—they wrote a letter to him—one by one. Sex and marriage in chapter 7. Whether to eat food sacrificed to idols in chapters 8-10. Women who prophesy in chapter 11. The nature of resurrection in chapter 15. Wedged in between female prophets and bodily resurrection is his pretty lengthy response to their questions about spiritual gifts—chief among them glossolalia, or speaking in tongues. His response is generous and attentive, to say the least. They’ve really made a muck of it, to put it nicely. Paul is performing triage remotely, from a distance. By all counts, he does a terrific job of it, as he tries to stanch the bleeding of a fractured and frazzled church in Corinth.
Paul had many options available to him. He could squash glossolalia like a bug. He could avoid the problems glossolalia caused and sweep them under the rug. He doesn’t do either. He deals with the liabilities and promotes the promise. In short, he is a good pastor when it comes to this problem because he affirms and corrects.
Despite the problems it has clearly occasioned—not least a hugely unnecessary spiritual pecking order, with speaking in tongues at the top of the hierarchy—Paul heartily embraces the ecstatic quality of speaking in tongues. He recognizes that this is a form of prayer, in which “my spirit prays but my mind is unproductive” (1 Corinthians 14:14). Speaking in tongues is the essence of ecstasy, of being outside oneself.
Paul doesn’t deny the power or validity of speaking in tongues. This is important. Don’t ignore it.
No matter how perverted speaking in tongues becomes in the clumsy hands of the Corinthians, Paul won’t throw the baby out with the bath water. He prizes the gift too highly. He does, however, offer several subtle and sensitive correctives in an effort to draw the Corinthians away from their obsession with ecstasy and toward an appreciation of the power of comprehension.
In a list of spiritual gifts, Paul refers first to wisdom and knowledge and last to speaking in tongues and their interpretation (1 Corinthians 12:4-11). Speaking in tongues, this order implies, is not the sole or the principal source of inspired wisdom and knowledge. In another list later in the letter, Paul again locates speaking in tongues and their interpretation late in the list: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then powers, then gifts of healing, assistance, and leadership, and only then various kinds of speaking in tongues (12:27-28). Apostles, prophets, and teachers, who offer competent and comprehensible leadership, are the anchors of the “greater gifts” (12:31).
What Paul doesn’t say may be as important as what he does. In other lists of spiritual gifts, in Romans 12:3-8 and Ephesians 4:11-12, Paul doesn’t even mention speaking in tongues.
Later in his letter to the Corinthians, Paul again topples the Corinthians’ priorities by advising them to pursue prophecy rather than tongues in order to build up the community: “for those who speak in a tongue do not speak to other people but to God; for nobody understands them, since they are speaking mysteries in the spirit. On the other hand, those who prophesy speak to other people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. Those who speak in a tongue build up themselves, but those who prophesy build up the church” (1 Cornthians 14:2-4).
For the rest of chapter fourteen in 1 Corinthians, Paul shifts from speaking in tongues to the interpretation of speaking in tongues. He is now less troubled by speaking in tongues than by speaking in tongues because an interpreter makes tongues meaningful to those who are listening during worship. Paul tells them, “I would like all of you to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy,” though, he concedes, prophesying is greater than tongues “unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up” (14:6). Speaking in tongues, in other words, is of extraordinary significance if the message is accompanied by interpretation. The tongues-speaker, therefore, should pray for the power to interpret, so that those around may say amen in agreement, may be built up, may be instructed (14:13-19). Glossolalia is not an end in itself, speaking in tongues is not a goal in its own right, mindlessless is not to be enjoyed without intelligent communication. The goal of public glossolalia is the response, “That’s the truth! Amen!”
Paul offers still other notes of caution. Mindlessness, he warns, can disintegrate into meaninglessness. Speaking in tongues, at its worst, consists of chatter that benefits no one but the person who speaks: “nobody understands them, since they are speaking mysteries in the spirit” (1 Corinthians 14:2). Like a military bugle that bungles the battle cry with an indistinct sound, tongues is “speech that is not intelligible,” “speaking into the air” (14:8-9), an act in which the speaker is a foreigner to the hearer and the hearer a foreigner to the speaker (14:11). Speaking in tongues can’t even prompt a response of “amen” because no one understands the words in the first place (14:16). In fact, unbelievers who participate in a church in which tongues are spoken by everyone will be driven away from faith and say, “you are out of your mind” (14:23).
Paul continues with the mandate that everything should be done “for building up” the community (1 Corinthians 14:26). Paul gives extremely practical advice to this end: every gift in worship should be exercised one at a time, that is, in an orderly fashion. Whether speaking in tongues or prophesying or singing hymns or offering revelations—these must take place in order, while everyone else remains silent (14:26-33). This advice implies that interpretation and speaking in tongues are controlled and controllable acts. They are not involuntary experiences. So Paul can advise tongues-speakers to keep it to themselves, and to God, if there is no interpreter present (14:27-28). And why? Because the purpose of these gifts is to educate the community, and the gift does not educate the community if no one understands.
Finally, Paul returns to his own experience when he recommends that the clearest arena for the exercise of speaking in tongues is private, personal prayer. In a thinly veiled boast, he thanks God that he speaks in tongues more than all of the Corinthians. Despite the vitality of his personal prayer life, however, Paul would prefer to speak five words in public with his mind intact “in order to instruct others also” (1 Corinthians 14:18-20). Notwithstanding all of his emphasis upon order and comprehensibility in public worship, then, Paul never gives up on speaking in tongues, and he wholeheartedly champions the private experience of speaking in tongues. Even when the Corinthians threaten to transform inspiration into babble, divine order into chaos, Paul refuses to give up on glossolalia, which he considers a crucial companion to comprehensible speech.
Forced to confront the Corinthians’ fraying order, which has developed into an unhealthy pecking order, Paul’s dispenses excellent and generous advice. Rather than tossing away troublesome glossalia hook, line, and sinker, instead of dismissing tongues out of hand, Paul sends a series of subtle signals that glossolalia, if it is to build up the church, has to be joined at the hip to comprehensible speech and ordered worship. When Paul makes this case, step by careful step, he demonstrates that glossolalia without clear interpretation is a menace to the church’s life. Order without ecstasy is unthinkable, for glossolalia and learning are inseparable companions. Simply put, from Paul’s point of view, they are made for one another.
Speaking in Tongues in the Book of Acts
Spoiler alert. Speaking in tongues in the book of Acts is different from speaking in tongues in the letters of Paul.
At three key points in the book of Acts—the birth of the church (Acts 2:4), the expansion of the church to include non-Jews or Gentiles (Acts 10:44-46), and the completion of John the Baptist’s promise of baptism with the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:6)—you’ll discover a lucid association between the gift of the Holy Spirit and some form of speaking in tongues. It’s important to pay attention to exactly what’s in the Bible here. At none of these points is the phrase, speaking in tongues, left to stand alone.
Speaking in Tongues Take One
The story of the first Pentecost after the death and resurrection of Jesus vibrates with vitality:
When the day of Pentecost had come … 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. … And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? … in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s praiseworthy acts.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” (Acts 2:1-13)
In this story, on the Jewish harvest feast of Pentecost, Jesus’ followers “were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues.” Other tongues? Yes, other tongues.
The addition of the word, other, to describe the miracle of Pentecost turns what looks, at first blush, like ecstasy into a miracle of understanding. Jews, who had gathered from around the world, could understand the disciples’ preaching of God’s powerful acts in their own dialects or tongues (Acts 2:5-7). Luke underscores this through story: “each one heard them speaking in the native language of each” (2:6). He also emphasizes it through dialogue. Those gathered in Jerusalem say to each other, “And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? … in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power” (2:8, 11).
The words, God’s deeds of power, far from describing something unknowable, actually signal serious content. This phrase is shorthand for God’s powerful actions throughout Israel’s history. In Deuteronomy, Moses encouraged the Israelites to acknowledge God’s powerful acts, “God’s mighty hand and God’s outstretched arm, God’s signs and God’s deeds that God did in Egypt to Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, and to all his land … until you came to this place” (Deuteronomy 11:2-5). One of the most splendid poems in the book of Psalms begins,
O give thanks to the LORD, call on God’s name,
make known God’s deeds among the nations.
Sing to God, sing praises to God;
tell of all God’s wonderful works” (Psalm 105:1-2).
In the Greek Old Testament and New Testament, these are the same Greek phrase, despite different English translations. God’s praiseworthy acts encompass a wide sweep of divine initiatives: the agreements made with Abraham and Israel’s ancestors, the ten plagues, the astonishing exodus from Egypt, and finally God’s miraculous provision of food, water, and a divine GPS in the pillars of cloud and fire and an angel to guide them through the wilderness.
When the Holy Spirit first descends upon the followers of Jesus during Pentecost, then, the content is clear and crisp even if the dialects are puzzling. These inspired followers recite those praiseworthy acts that comprise the substance and story of Israel’s scripture and now, for the first time, lead through the life and death of Jesus to the resurrection, even up to Pentecost itself. For all the emphasis in the story of Pentecost upon the rush of a violent wind, for all the focus on speaking in other tongues, for all the talk of drunken disciples, for all of this, what rises when the dust settles is a group of undistinguished followers of Jesus who are inexplicably inspired to recite God’s praiseworthy acts.
Speaking in Tongues Take Two
Later on, the Holy Spirit comes upon Cornelius and his Gentile friends. Peter and his Jewish coterie hear them “speaking in tongues and praising God.” The association of speaking in tongues with praise draws the reader back to speaking in other tongues in Acts 2, where the recitation of “God’s praiseworthy acts” in other languages is clearly understood; the verb, praise (megalunein), in Acts 10:46 is even related to the noun, powerful acts (megaleia)—praiseworthy acts is a better translation—in Acts 2:11. This parallel shows that this second occurrence of speaking in tongues also consists of praise in foreign languages.
So again, we’ve got content. Concrete content. It’s less about the ability of the Gentiles to speak in tongues than it is this: they know God’s praiseworthy acts. They recite God’s story. In other words they’re in! God’s story is not their story.
Speaking in Tongues Take Three
Something similar happens in the third instance of speaking in (other) tongues, in which Luke’s readers meet a band of “disciples” who had not heard of the Holy Spirit; when Paul laid his hands upon them, “the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.” People always understand prophecy in the book of Acts. For example, the prophet Agabus correctly predicts a famine (Acts 11:27-28). Judas and Silas, themselves prophets, are sent to Antioch with a letter to interpret the Jerusalem Council’s decision “by word of mouth.” When they arrive in Antioch, they encourage and strengthen the believers; this speech, of course, makes perfect sense and gives the church in Antioch a cause for rejoicing (15:22, 27, 32).
The One, Two, Three of Speaking in Tongues
Luke has given us a remarkable trio of speaking in tongues.
- When the earliest believers are filled with the holy spirit, they speak the praiseworthy acts of God in completely understandable foreign tongues.
- When Gentiles speak in tongues, they participate actively in praise, as had the followers of Jesus during Pentecost; Peter and those with him understand what they hear: praise!
- When John’s disciples speak in tongues, they prophesy—an activity that is practical and understandable.
Three times Luke ties a form of inspiration—speaking in (other) tongues—with clear and comprehensible words of praise and prophecy.
The world Luke crafts in the book of Acts is an extraordinary one, full of signs above and wonders below (Acts 2:19). There is a lot here that we can’t quite understand. This is a world in which Peter, while standing at the door, is mistaken for an angel (12:12-17). It is a world in which even evil spirits do the divine bidding by chasing evil men away naked (19:11-20), a world in which belly-talking spirits in slave-girls grasp the essence of God’s design for humankind (16:16-18). This is a magical world indeed, a heady world. Yet speaking in tongues is not at the center of this incomprehension. Speaking in tongues, in every case, has content—content that offers witness to the power of the Holy Spirit. How? Through speaking God’s praiseworthy acts in other tongues (Acts 2), speaking in tongues with praise that hearers understand (Acts 10), and speaking in tongues with prophecy, which everywhere in Acts rings clear as a bell.
Luke’s portrayal of speaking in (other) tongues is, then, dramatically different from the Corinthians’ experience. In Acts 2, the believers speak in other tongues. In Acts 10, they speak in tongues and praise. In Acts 19, they speak in tongues and prophesy. All of these are speech acts that make sense to outsiders. How unlike the speaking in tongues that makes visitors to the Corinthian worship service wonder whether the Christians there are mad, crazy, Hell-bent on going wild. With his tendency to connect speaking in tongues with plain speech, Luke differs from the Corinthians, with their penchant for the incomprehensible; in this respect, Luke allies himself with Paul, who prefers five comprehensible words in worship to any number of incomprehensible ones.
Speaking in Tongues Then and Now
Wildfires are not what we want. A good fire is one in a fire pit or fireplace or a furnace. We harness fires in order to benefit from them.
It’s the same with powerful spiritual gifts. We need to harness them in order for them to benefit those of us who practice them and especially those for whom we practice them.
I’ve written a whole book on this, titled Inspired: the Holy Spirit and the Mind of Faith (Eerdmans, 2013). If you want to read more about the tension in the Bible between ecstasy and understanding, that’s your book. If you read that book, I’d suggest the wonderful study guide Ron Herms, who grew up in the Pentecostal tradition and is now a dean at Fresno Pacific University, wrote to accompany it. Ron’s study guide is a book in its own right and a terrific guide to gaining much deeper insight into the work of the Holy Spirit.
If you want a slightly more detailed study of speaking in tongues, with Greek words included, then turn to my entry on glossolalia/speaking in tongues in the New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, which pretty much any library with a decent religion section will have. For learning about speaking in tongues as part of a popular book on the Holy Spirit, see my Fresh Air: the Holy Spirit for an Inspired Life (Paraclete, 2012). For the fearless who want to keep going even further, I’ve included a bibliography at the end of this essay.
I don’t want to conclude with a bunch of readings, so let me end with some practical suggestions, most of which come from my ebook, 7 Questions About the Holy Spirit, which is available for free on my website.
Some Practical Suggestions
When it comes to speaking in tongues, you can be certain about one thing. Yes, one. In private, you can speak in tongues. In a thinly veiled boast, Paul thanks God that he speaks in tongues privately more than all of the Corinthians, though he concedes that he would prefer to speak five words in public with his mind intact “in order to instruct others also” (1 Corinthians 14:18-20). Pray in tongues alone. As long as you want. As often as you want.
But even praying in tongues has its constraints, which allow the fire to burn bright but controlled. In this way, you can experience the Holy Spirit without being burned or, more important, without searing others with a dangerous or counterfeit experience.
- In private, begin with the baseline confession, Jesus is Lord (1 Corinthians 12:1-3; 14:18-20). After Paul says he’ll answer their question about spiritual gifts, but before he does, he makes clear that the primary evidence of the Holy Spirit is not speaking in tongues, but the clear and straightforward confession that Jesus is Lord.
- In public, be sure an interpreter is present to build up the church (1 Corinthians 12-14).
- Make sure your experience of speaking in tongues leads to praise (Acts 2; 10). What is praise? Certainly not just your personal experience. Start from the start of God’s story, Gods praiseworthy acts, with you as a sliver of that grand story.
- Let your experience of speaking in tongues, together with prophesying, teach and strengthen others (Acts 19). This is basic to Paul’s discussion, fundamental to his logic, essential to his understanding of the Holy Spirit.
This may seem like a lot of limits, but you wouldn’t want a fire to burn in the open, would you? It’s the same with the exercise of spiritual gifts. The more powerful the potential, the more necessary the constraints. When you have the chance to speak in tongues, with its potential for excess and ostentation, then you need to apply the strongest of limits.
For In-depth Reading
- Mark Cartledge. The Gift of Speaking in Tongues: the Holy Spirit, the Human Spirit and the Gift of Holy Speech (2005)
- Mark J. Cartledge, ed. Speaking in Tongues: multi-disciplinary perspectives (2006)
- Gordon Fee. God’s Empowering Presence (1994)
- Christopher Forbes. Prophecy and Inspired Speech: In Early Christianity and its Hellenistic Environment (1995)
- Thomas Gillespie. The First Theologians: A Study in Early Christian Prophecy (1994)
- Felicitas Goodman. Speaking in Tongues: a cross-cultural study of glossolalia (1972)
- Gerald Hovenden. Speaking in Tongues: the New Testament Evidence in Context (2002)
- John R. Levison, Filled with the Spirit (2009)
- Max Turner. The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts (1996)
Citations of the Bible in general are from the New Revised Standard Version, though I have made occasional alterations.