Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Part One: Biblical accounts of speaking in tongues and their application

As in any theological discussion it is good to start with the Bible itself. In this first section I will try to limit my scope since many volumes could be written discussing the various aspects of this topic and I simply don't have the time or resources to discuss them all here. So let us begin by laying some groundwork.

1) Speaking in tongues in all Biblical accounts should be assumed to be referring to existing languages.

This point was actually a difficult one for me to accept. While reading certain verses, I just did not see how the New Testament writers (Paul in particular) could be talking about existing languages exclusively. But I realized that my difficulty came from a post Charismatic point of view. I was so used to seeing this verses in relation to modern day speaking in tongues that I was slanting my whole understanding. To understand how I came to my conclusion, let's begin at the beginning.
The first account of speaking in tongues in the New Testament is recorded in Acts chapter 2. Verses 1 through 13 read:

"When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 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. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs´┐Żin our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power." 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?" 13 But others sneered and said, "They are filled with new wine."

It seems pretty clear to me that, at least in this instance, that the apostles were speaking in actual existing languages. But it would be naive to think that all agree with me. In fact, there are some people who do not. A decent number of individuals in the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements believe that the apostles were speaking in an angelic language, the "prayer language" that is common in their congregations today. They believe that this is a twofold miracle, the first being the gift of tongues and the second being the gift of understanding by the witnesses. The problem with this logic is that it ignores the fact that Luke explicitly says that the Holy Spirit gave them the ability to speak in other languages or tongues. The author makes it clear that it is not a single angelic language that is being spoken, but many languages. Unless someone is willing to argue that there are many angelic languages, I think the theory that the apostles spoke an angelic language is out of the question. He drives the point home by listing the many places from which the witnesses came from thus the many diverse languages the apostles were miraculously able to speak! This event is a direct fulfillment of Christ departing words in Matthew:

"Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."

The events of Pentecost were a divine confirmation that Christ was still with them and sent his Spirit to guide them on the task they had been commanded to complete. Here, in the upper room, representatives from numerous nations heard the gospel and were made disciples that very day! Some may continue to argue for an angelic language because there were people who thought that they were drunk. They would argue that their unbelief made them unable to accept the Spirit and understand the apostles. I think a less far fetched understanding who be that these men were local Jews who did not speak any of these languages and therefore did not understand. This would be consistent with God's previous ways of dealing with His people as was seen in Isaiah

"Truly, with stammering lip and with alien tongue he will speak to this people, to whom he has said, "This is rest; give rest to the weary; and this is repose"; yet they would not hear."

This verse may seem familiar. It is the same verse that Paul quotes in 1 Corinthians 14, a chapter devoted almost exclusively to the subject of speaking in tongues, but we'll get into that more later. As a bit of a side note, I think it is strange that some Pentecostals will teach that some Christians are not filled with the Holy Spirit and therefore do not speak in tongues, yet in the same breathe they argue that these foreigners that were present at Pentecost were given the gift of interpretation before even converting to Christianity. In other words confessed Christians may not necessarily be filled with the Holy Spirit, but individuals who had not repented or received Christ could. Maybe it's just me, but that seems inconsistent.

Some of you may be thinking, "OK, so at Pentecost they were speaking existing languages, how does that disprove that other occurrences of speaking in tongues were an angelic language. " my answer is that it doesn't, at least not entirely. What it does do is puts us in a position where speaking an existing language is the default understanding of the term "speaking in tongues." That is not to say that other interpretations may not be correct, but it does mean that we would have to find specific evidence that such occurrences warrant such an interpretation. In my readings of verses dealing with speaking in tongues there are only two which support the possibility of some sort of angelic language. One would be Christ's words in Mark 16:17

"And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues."

Some see this verse as saying that the Holy Spirit would bring an altogether new language to the church. This is not a preposterous interpretation, but it is a hasty one that ignores several things. First of all, just as the with the verses in Acts, we need to be careful about singular and plural nouns. In the modern church we have gotten so used to people saying "speaking in tongues" when referring to a single "language" that we have overlooked an obvious blunder in our understanding of scripture. The verse says new tongues. So we can rule out the idea that Christ is promising a single Holy language unheard by human ears. It makes much more sense to see this as a promise that, just as the Spirit blessed the apostles with the gift of speaking in foreign tongues at Pentecost, so would the Spirit continue to bless saints with such a gift in the future, giving them the ability to speak languages unheard of at the time. For example, I doubt any during Christ's life had spoken or even heard Maori and it would be centuries before anyone from the West encounter anyone who spoke it. Christ's declaration here is that His grace would continue so that people who spoke such languages could be ministered to.

The other verse that may possibly defend the idea of an angelic language, and by far the most compelling, is 1 Corinthians 13:1.

"If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal."

Well, there it is plain as day. Paul says we can speak in the tongue of angels. Case closed. Right? Not necessarily. What we must remember about Paul is that he is a talented and educated writer. His works are full of rhetoric, poetics, allusions, humor, and even sarcasm. So before we start developing a theology based on this verse, let us understand what his point is here. This verse is not focused on speaking in tongues. In fact he is trying to shift focus away from tongues and place it on love. So how does this statement about tongues help further his point? Through the time honored tradition of hyperbole, that's how. All of us have had some sort of experience with our parents where we were talking on the phone or doing some other similar teenage activity and our parents want us to do our chores. We argue and say "But I'm talking to Susy!" and what wise retort did our parents come up with? "I don't care if you're talking to the President of the United States! Get off the phone!" This is exactly what Paul is doing here. chapters 12-14 are all devoted to Paul dealing with an un-Christlike focus on speaking in tongues. The congregation has put such a big focus on it, that they have neglected to love one another and have allowed divisions to occur because of it. In this verse, just as our parents might have done, Paul is saying "I don't care if you're speaking in the language of angels! That doesn't mean you can stop loving each other." This interpretation is furthered by the poetic nature of the rest of the chapter. The very next verse says:

"And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing."

Again Paul is exaggerating to make his point. There is no way for us to understand all mysteries and all knowledge (at least in this life). Paul makes this clear a few verses later when he says:

For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end."

He is using the same device for both verses. Why would we interpret the first verse one way and the second verse another? Clearly to believe that we can speak in the tongue of angels is to completely misunderstand what Paul is trying to tell us. The very fact that people have taken a verse, that was intended to show how a poor understanding of speaking in tongues destroys the church and Christian love, and used it to puff up their "gifts" is ironic and a bit disturbing.
Finally, some people reading this may be wondering, "If speaking in tongues is only speaking in existing languages then how does it help as a prayer language? Wouldn't an angelic language bring us closer to God and build us up more?" What we need to understand about speaking in tongues is that it's use as a prayer language is not a Biblical one. Paul makes it very clear through 1 Corinthians that, without interpretation, speaking in tongues is a lesser gift to say the least. It is not beneficial to the church at large (v. 4-10), neither is it beneficial to the individual (comparatively speaking). My latter point may rub some people the wrong way, so let us look at the verse I am specifically referring to.

For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unproductive.15 What should I do then? I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray with the mind also; I will sing praise with the spirit, but I will sing praise with the mind also."

Many people mistakenly assume that this chapter is only talking about speaking tongues in public, but these verses show an important application for tongues used in private as well. Paul is showing that, without interpretation, not only are tongues meaningless to others, they are meaningless to us! Also, let us not fall into the trap of thinking that when Paul says that tongues builds up the individual that he means it in a good way. If a Christian is built up in a good and holy way, wouldn't it follow that it would also build up the church? Yet Paul says that tongues (without interpretation) builds up the self but, unlike those who prophesy, do not build up the church. Nothing we do should build up ourselves at the expense of building up the church. Such an act is prideful and self serving, not self sacrificing as the church is meant to be.
Some individuals in the Pentecostal movement claim that tongues are a superior Prayer language because they are directly from the Spirit. They say that, when praying in tongues, it is our Spirit that prays and that makes it more powerful. To this I would respond, "how is that different from any prayer?" Nowhere in the Bible is tongues given a more Spiritual nature than any other prayer. This is the exact same mentality that Paul is trying to correct in Corinth. He writes in 12:3

Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says "Let Jesus be cursed!" and no one can say "Jesus is Lord" except by the Holy Spirit."

All prayer is inspired and led by the Holy Spirit and therefor tongues has no higher place as a prayer language. The only real difference between regular prayer and praying in tongues is that the mind is not involved when praying in tongues, which some people see as a good thing, but Paul says is absolutely not (as seen in the verses mentioned previously).

Even if we assume that speaking in tongues was meant to be a prayer language, how is it any less powerful if it is an existing language? Is it any less impressive if you started praying in Gaelic rather than the "tongue of angels?" Looking back at 1 Cor. 13, I would say that it does not matter if you are speaking in English, Mandarin, or the language of Gabriel himself, if the Spirit is moving in you and you are filled with the love of Christ then that is all that should matter.
This concludes my first post on the topic of speaking in tongues. I apologize for its length. I usually try to keep my posts on the short side, but with this sort of subject matter I don't want brevity to be mistaken for being flippant. Please continue to comment and share your opinions on this matter. I by no means consider myself to be an expert in this field and would appreciate feedback from any and all perspectives.


Dan, 10:21 PM



I agree on many points... yet as one who does speak in tongues, there are some errors in many of your points... sorry.

Now, the scripture I refer to mostly about tongues is Romans 8:22-25

It speaks of "inward groans"... it is not gibberish... nor can I most the time even claim it to be a known language... it is at times all I can muster so I let the Spirit Whom knows what to speak, speak. Sometimes I understand, but most the time I do not... it then opens me to be able to freely pray in knowledge... meaning it is like unclogging the drain... I am bound up and the Spirit releases me then enables me to pray.

I have seen tongues abused and misused... it is a gift to edify "self" as I have just explained... it is not about corporal worship... unless all are believers and know what is going on... or that God is using it to speak to someone there who knows that language...

I know of a time a young Chinese woman went to a church I attended... and again, the use of tongues was not always proper there, yet as we all prayed this woman heard, in her language, in her dialect... perfect praises to God in Chinese... she asked the person if they know Chinese and they did not... she accepted Jesus.

This does happen... more than we realize...

So, I consider that if the Spirit knows within me that Gaelic is the best language for me to express my inward groanings, then who am I to argue? (Grin)

Blogger iggy, at 12:18 PM  

You are jumping ahead of me here :) The Romans verses that you mentioned were actually the topic of a future post (hopefully tomorrow). I feel that Romans 8:26 is a great example of worshiping and praying in the Spirit to express things that we may not have the words for. This is what I feel modern day speaking in tongues actually is (or potentially is I should say). It is an excited and emotional utterance that we use when words fail. I do however think that it is a false assumption to link this with speaking in tongues. Paul never gives any indication that he is referring to speaking in tongues in this passage and there are a few problems with trying to make that leap. Verse 26 states "but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express." If this was actually speaking in tongues then words could express it, because speaking in tongues is a language and it is expressing things in words! They may not be words that we understand, but they are words that express what our soul is feeling. We are tempted to interpret this verse through a post charismatic lens and think to ourselves "the verse talks about groaning and those charismatics sound like they are groaning so it must be the same thing."
This is a beautiful verse that I feel becomes restricted when interpreted through Pentecostal theology. If we limit this verse to speaking in tongues we throw out the amazing array of ways the Spirit can express itself through us. I think that this verse is purposely vague to allow the reader to see prayer as not just limited to verbal articulation. It can be through sobs and laughter, music, dance, etc. This is why, in my first post, I say that Pentecostal glossolalia may still be scripturally supported, because I feel that the Spirit may genuinely be moving in these individuals and, overcome by emotion and the intensity of the experience, they seek to express something words cannot express. So they make noises as a release. Many I feel do this because it is what they see being done. It is the same with all of us learning how to express our emotions. Some of us learn to cry when we are upset, others learn to yell, some make jokes, and others become quiet. When we experience strong emotions we don't sit around and reason out what a good response would be, we look around us and grab what's available. For the most part there is nothing wrong with this. but when we stamp a label of "tongues" on it and build a theology around it, then it becomes problematic.
I hope this clarifies my views. Keep in mind I will be getting more in depth on these matters later.
Thanks for stopping by.
Blogger Dan, at 1:07 PM  
I looked over my post and wanted to clarify that when I speak of "Modern day speaking in tongues" I am referring to the Pentecostal/Charismatic tradition of speaking in "supernatural" tongues as opposed to the Biblical speaking in tongues that I outlines in my post.
Blogger Dan, at 1:19 PM  
Well said.
Anonymous Delilah, at 2:49 PM  

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