You can listen to an audio version of this article here:
The debate concerning the continuation or cessation of the gift of tongues is one that has brought more than its fair share of confusion and division among Evangelicals. This was a topic I wrestled with personally in my journey of faith, and one I know many more have or are wrestling with today. Many questions abound: Are tongues necessary today? Are tongues the sign of being truly “filled with the Spirit”? What are tongues anyways – are they humanly unintelligible utterances or some sort of real language?
I pray that these articles help to bring some clarity and fruitful consideration to a topic that is often misunderstood.
It is important to note that views, even within the charismatic and Pentecostal groups, are widely varied and have undergone a fair bit of change over the years. Some see tongues as real languages, some as a sort of ecstatic utterance not necessarily in a discernible human language. The opinions on its place in contemporary Christian life also varies greatly between cessationists and continuationists.
Due to the complexity and importance of this topic, this will be a longer ‘academic’ style three-part article series considering the theology of tongues, and the history of tongues and the Pentecostal Movement. I want to show respect and be careful with my arguments – which requires adequate space to flesh out arguments. I hope that by doing this, even for my friends who disagree with my position on tongues, that they would at least appreciate that I tried to be thorough and charitable. I’ve also included the bibliography of books and resources I used to research this article with endnotes at the bottom.
I want to say, clearly and upfront, that the issue of continuationism versus cessationism on the topic of tongues or any of the other spiritual gifts is not one over which to divide or kick anyone out of the Kingdom. I am a convinced Cessationist, yet I have dear friends, who love Jesus and serve Him faithfully, who come to different conclusions than I do. So, please understand that disagreement on this issue does not consitute calling the other party “heretical” or non-Christians. While these are important issues which I believe have practical implications to our life, faith and ministry, I do also recognize and honour the fact that there are many godly people, whom God has used powerfully, who land differently than I do on this matter.
The goal of this article
The questions surrounding the issue of tongues are numerous – and the one we will focus on primarily here in this series of articles pertains to the nature of tongues. This article will seek to determine the biblical nature of tongues as found primarily in Acts and 1 Corinthians. While there are other issues surrounding tongues, the main theological focus here will be on its intrinsic nature. What is its content? What is the nature if the genuine, Biblical gift?
Before we begin it is important to define two key terms I will be using in this article so as to avoid confusion:
- Glossolalia – a phenomenon of ecstatic utterances of unintelligible, language-like sounds which have no discernable linguistic meaning nor is in any known human language. Glossalalia is what the majority of modern (non-human language) tongues would fall under.
- Xenolalia – the miraculous phenomenon of being able to speak in an actual human language not previously learned to the speaker.
How do we determine the nature of tongues?
Many today advocate for the modern practice of tongues by pointing to personal experience. Bruce Johnson states that non-rational forms of communication are important to many Third World communities in Africa and Asia. He argues that speaking in tongues is non-rational prayer. He and others cite the practical benefits of glossolalia. He says, “A person’s being is activated with a language of the spirit which enables the unutterable soul of the person to communicate with the depth of the divine being.” However, this does not address the question of whether this “non-rational prayer” is something the Bible teaches. Though one cannot totally discount the value of personal experience, we should not build doctrine on religious experiences of glossolalia alone. Charles Alexander—an advocate of modern tongues—along with many others, recognizes the possibility of counterfeit experiences, and therefore our doctrines and experiences must be subject to the truth of scripture.
What we will be seeking to establish here is the biblical definition of the nature of tongues.
The big questions we’re seeking to answer here are:
- Were tongues discernable human languages or extatic unintelligible utterances in some non-human language?
- Does scripture teach that the gift of tongues would continue as the normative experience of Christians throughout time?
The Nature of Tongues in Scripture | Acts 2
One of the most logical Biblical starting places is Acts 2.
The tongues in Acts 2 is an instance of xenolalia (miraculously speaking real, known human languages). Objections by some that it could have been glossolalia are highly improbable. Luke clearly attests that the hearers were amazed that they heard utterances in their own dialects and lists some (see Acts 2:6-11)—this was not an occasional word accidentally spoken in a stream of lexical gibberish. The claim that the charge of drunkenness implies that the people only heard unintelligible utterances is also not well substantiated. Not all the people there could understand every language that was being spoken, so they could have mistaken other languages for incoherent babble. Also, a significant portion of the group would have been resident Aramaic-speaking Jews who would not have recognized any of the foreign languages and perhaps would have mocked what they didn’t understand as drunkenness.
Why must Acts be the definition of the nature of tongues?
Samuel Storms questions why Acts 2 is the standard by which the nature of tongues must be judged.  However, Acts 2 provides the only explicit description in scripture of the nature of tongues. To make another text, such as 1 Corinthians 14, the standard in order to allow for a “glossolalic” interpretation of tongues is essentially an argument from silence. Those passages do not provide clear evidence as to the nature or content of what is spoken.
It is much more reasonable therefore, in light of Acts 2, to see tongues in 1 Corinthians as languages. So, the ONLY scriptural passage we have that describes the nature or content of tongues is in Acts 2 – and there, tongues are real human languages.
Are tongues in 1 Corinthians different?
It is a weak assertion to say that tongues in 1 Corinthians is categorically different to what occured in Acts. Luke and Paul were closely related travelling companions and it is reasonable to assume that they would share similar views on tongues. Furthermore, one cannot assume that tongues in Corinth differ because it addresses a latter time period. Acts is thought to have been written in 60 AD after 1 Corinthians which was written around 53-57 AD. However, both are written at a similar time in history and thus, considering the relation between Luke and Paul, it is reasonable to think their understanding of tongues would be closely interconnected. Also both use exactly the same terminology to describe the gift, combining λαλέω [laleó] (speak) with γλῶσσα [glóssa] (tongues).
They do however differ in that the tongues in Corinth could only be understood via interpretation whereas in Acts 2 they are understood by the native speakers of the languages the disciples are able to miraculously speak. However, this does not automatically mean that Corinthian tongues were not real languages. Actually just the opposite! Since they could be translated, it implies they were in a language that carried intrinsic communicative value. Without any explicit statement to the imply that they were non-language utterances, this should not be assumed as it would be an argument from silence and possibly impose meaning not present in the text.
What about Isaiah 28 and 1 Corinthians 14?
A scripture commonly used to attest to the prediction of tongue-speaking is Isaiah 28:11-12.
For by people of strange lips and with a foreign tongue the Lord 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. (Isaiah 28:11-12)
However, in context this passage is in reference to the prediction of the Assyrians coming upon Israel as judgement for their disobedience. This text is quoted in 1 Corinthians 14:21.
In the Law it is written, “By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 14:21)
Paul’s quote of the text in 1 Corinthians 14:21 doesn’t support the traditional Pentecostal interpretation since he is making a comparison: that since in the Old Testament times tongues is a sign of judgement – therefore, it is a sign for unbelievers not believers.
To say that the rest spoken of in Isaiah 28 is a result of speaking in tongues is to twist the meaning of the text. Furthermore, one must ask – who are the unbelievers to whom tongues are a sign?
Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers. (1 Corinthians 14:22)
I believe that it is likely that Paul has in mind unbelieving Jews, as the text in Isaiah is addressed to Jews and he was writing in the period where the old (Jewish OT) age was coming to an end and the new covenant age was dawning. Thus, tongues were a sign to the yet still unbelieving Jews who still held to the old covenant age that it was passing away and being fulfilled in Christ and the birth of the New Testament church.
What about the “latter rain” in Joel?
Another commonly cited scripture is Joel 2:23 which is linked with James 5:7-8. The assumption is that since James is referring to the second coming, the “latter rain” must be something which signals the eminent return of Christ. So, the “former rain” is seen as tongues on Pentecost Day and the “latter rain” to be what is happening now in the modern expression. This carries the obvious implications that the Pentecostal movement is a sign of the nearness of Christ’s return and is probably tied to the Dispensational Eschatology of much of the movement.
However, in Joel the latter and former rains are symbolic of the blessings which follow the disasters and plagues Joel had written of before in the prior chapters. Whereas, in James it is used as an illustration to teach patience while waiting for the return of the Lord. Scripture gives us no clear indication that we should interpret the “latter rain” to somehow refer to the charismatic movement’s development centuries later. There is also a second problem, in that, some scholars believe that the “coming of the Lord” being referred to in James 5 is in reference to Jesus’s judgment coming upon unbelieving Jews in Jerusalem which was fulfilled in AD70 at the destruction of the city. This seems plausible as the context in verse 9 warns that “the Judge is standing at the door.” So, it seems like the event in mind was close to their time in the first century, not centuries away with the Final Second Coming. Thus, this passage is inappropriate to use to prove the continuation of the gift of tongues and it does not speak to the nature of tongues.
Why not use the longer ending of Mark?
A text commonly pointed to for the continuation of tongues is in the ending of Mark, citing Mark 16:17-18. However, this text is questioned by many as to its genuineness since this ending of Mark is missing from the earliest and most reliable copies (for example Codex Vaticanus and Sinaiticus) which is why this is noted in the footnotes of most Bible translations. Also, from a linguistic study of the longer ending, many scholars reject it as being authentically from Mark as it differs in the use of words and construction typical to the rest of Mark. So, from a reasonable standpoint, this puts this text on some shaky ground as a scriptural basis for the continuation of the gift by itself.
However, there is a further problem. Though Pentecostals will use this passage to advocate the continuation of tongues, not many would advocate two of the other signs in this passage – the drinking of poison and handling snakes (see verse 18). Now, it may be argued that these should be interpreted as should they happen inadvertently, the believer is protected. But, as we examine the Greek text, this could be conceded for drinking of poison, since it is put in the conditional form. However, the handling of serpents is in the future indicative the same as speaking in tongues. So then, if one is arguing from the longer ending of Mark that tongues should be a sign which confirms the faith of the believers, why not also taking up snakes? Indeed, some churches have done this very thing!
If Christians want to use this passage in their support, then they need to be consistent and go get some poisonous snakes.
Greek Word Study Fallacies
Another objection is concerning the use of two verbs for speak; λαλέω [laleó], which in classical Greek could mean “babbling or chatter,” versus λέγω [legó] which means “to speak.” It is argued that λαλέω [laleó] retains its older meaning and could hint at utterance empty of cognitive content.
However, this is not a very strong argument and is a common exegetical fallacy of relying too heavily on a word’s root or older meaning. Just because the word may have at one time in the past carried a certain meaning, does not mean that it did during the time of the NT writers. Words usually have a semantic range and their meaning must be determined in the context they are used. Looking at the context, Paul can also use λέγω [legó] for speaking in tongues. Also, λαλέω [laleó] is used in 1 Corinthians 14:19, 14:29 and 14:34-35 as obviously referring to understandable and cognitive speech. Thus, trying to make that distinction between the verb used is unwarranted and misleading.
Cyril G. Williams has argued that the word for tongue, γλῶσσα [glóssa], does not always have to mean real language, and also that the verb ἑρμηνεύω [herméneuó] (interpret) doesn’t always mean “translate” as that presupposes a real language. However, as D.A. Carson points out, “in none of the texts adduced by Behm or the standard lexica does γλῶσσα [glóssa] ever denote noncognitive utterance.” [emphasis added]  The hearer may be unable to comprehended them, but they cannot be non-languages or devoid of intrinsic communicative value. Furthermore, the use of the verb ἑρμηνεύω [herméneuó]—where we get the word hermeneutics—must also be understood as translation or interpretation in the context of 1 Corinthians due to its connection to tongues, which are understood as real languages.
Even Wayne Grudem (a continuationist theologian) in his Systematic Theology writes;
“It should be said at the outset that the Greek word glossa, translated “tongue,” is not used only to mean the physical tongue in a person’s mouth, but also to mean “language.” In the New Testament passages where speaking in tongues is discussed, the meaning “languages” is certainly in view. It is unfortunate, therefore, that English translations have continued to use the phrase “speaking in tongues,” which is an expression not otherwise used in ordinary English and which gives the impression of a strange experience, something completely foreign to ordinary human life. But if English translations were to use the expression “speaking in languages,” it would not seem nearly as strange, and would give the reader a sense much closer to what first century Greek speaking readers would have heard in the phrase when they read it in Acts or 1 Corinthians.”
The Interpretation of tongues
Furthermore, if tongues are unintelligible at the intrinsic level, then in what sense, if at all, are they being translated or interpreted? They might be ascribing meaning—but it would be difficult to say that they are being interpreted. Another attempt might be to try to connect the unintelligibility of tongues as expressing mysteries which are unable to be communicated in a known language. However, the mysteries in 1 Corinthians 13:2 is in reference to prophesy—not tongues—and Paul is well able to express mysteries in Greek! For example in 1 Corinthians 15:51-52, Paul introduces what he says plainly with, “I tell you a mystery. . .” Furthermore, the link is strengthened in 1 Corinthians 14:9-12, where Paul explicitly links tongues to real human languages.
“So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me.” (1 Corinthians 14:9-11 ESV – emphasis added)
Even most present-day interpreters of modern tongues assume that they have some intrinsic cognitive meaning and offer their interpretations as translations. However at times, “interpretations prove to be as stereotyped, vague, and uninformative as they are spontaneous, fluent, and confident” with many variations in translations offered by different interpreters for the same utterance.
D.A. Carson in his book Showing the Spirit provides a cheeky example of this where some of John 1-18 was quoted in Greek at a charismatic service and would-be ‘interpreters’ offered translations which were vastly different and not even vaguely related to the passage quoted. I have similarly had such experiences where a “tongue” is spoken in a service and multiple very different and conflicting interpretations are offered. How is this to be considered as translation in any real sense? This sort of subjective ascribing of meaning can be dangerous as it opens up to theologically deviant messages which have a sort of intrinsic “weight” to them because they are “a miraculous word from the Lord.”
Various Kinds of Tongues
Samuel Storms argues that Paul implies some tongues were not real languages in 1 Cor. 12:10 by the phrase “various kinds of tongues.” However, the word for various kinds used there is γένη [genē]—from which the English word genus is derived—and means families or groups of the same kind. So Paul’s point is that there are various families of languages which the gift enables some to miraculously speak. MacGorman objects that unless tongues is interpreted as inspired unintelligible utterance, then 1 Cor. 14:2, 13, 14, 18 and 26 don’t make any sense.
However, this plainly not true, as they make sense even if it is referring to real languages, “provided only that the tongues-speaker does not know what he or she is saying.” In fact, the reverse is true—foreign languages can make sense in ALL cases for 1 Corinthians 14, but unintelligible speech cannot. For example, it wouldn’t make sense of 1 Corinthians 14:21-22. Even the common objection of 1 Corinthians 14:2, that one speaks “to God” in tongues does not validate non-xenolalic interpretation because God as the Creator of all languages also understands them all.
Are modern tongues analogous?
Another way some try to justify modern tongues as miraculous, extatic, non-intelligable speech is to claim that they are analogous. Drawing on the work of Vern Poythress, Carson makes the case that modern tongues—though not the same as the biblical accounts of the phenomena as real languages—may be called the same thing because they bear an analogous similarity in their functioning. That is, they are also not understood by the speaker unless interpreted.
He makes the comparison to a coded message, where the vowels are taken out then replaced with another letter. The sentence at first glance seems like nonsense until the code by which to interpret the message is given. He says, “It appears, then, that tongues may bear cognitive information even though they are not known human languages. . . You have to know the code to be able to understand it.” This seems to be a good attempt at a middle ground to defend the modern version of the gift. It leaves open the possibility that modern glossolalic tongues can carry intrinsic encoded meaning and have a legitimate role in church life today.
However, there is a major problem with this. Just because something is superficially similar or analogous to something, doesn’t mean we should call it the same thing—especially when it is missing important parts about the first thing which set it apart. For example, just because a tire is round and a pizza is round, doesn’t mean that one wants to eat the former. And if the beef patty is removed from a burger, it would no longer be called a burger because it is missing a defining element of what made it a burger. We should not remove essential identifying characteristics of this gift in order to grant the modern glossolalic version validity. The unique and miraculous trait which set tongues apart was that they were real languages which had not been learned prior. There is no biblical warrant for a new interpretation.
Also, if the Spirit is restoring the gift today, would it only be analogous to the real gift of languages seen in the NT? And would the Spirit give a version that may cause ambiguity, confusion and disunity? Even Carson admits after his argument that this does not mean all modern tongues are therefore biblically authentic. So then by what standard can we equate glossolalic tongues to the biblical version?
Are tongues connected to Spirit Baptism or salvation?
When studying Acts, a common question about the nature of tongues is whether or not they always accompany the filling of the Spirit or Spirit-baptism. It is not possible to do an adequate treatment of the relation between tongues and the filling or baptism of the Spirit here.
It should be noted that there are many more instances in Acts of people being filled with the Spirit without any mention of tongues than there are with tongues accompanying. For example, Peter before the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:8), the believers praying together (Acts 3:1), the seven deacons (Acts 6:3), Stephen (Acts 6:5 and 7:55), Saul (Acts 9:17), Barnabas (Acts 11:24), Paul on Cyprus (Acts 13:9), and the disciples at Antioch (Acts 13:52). Therefore, in discussing the nature of tongues, it is not justified in light of all the other instances to assume that Spirit-baptism and tongues are intrinsically linked together.
Furthermore, it cannot be asserted either that tongues always accompany conversion because in many more instances people are saved without speaking in tongues. The examples in Acts alone are numerous: Acts 2:41, 3:7-9, 4:4, 5:14, 6:7, 8:36, 9:42, 11:21, 13:12, 13:43 and 48, 14:1, 14:21, 16:14, 16:34, 17:4, 17:11-12, 17:34, 18:4, 18:8 and 28:24. Richard Gaffin argues,
“[Those] who order the material in Acts to provide a model for a distinct postconversion power experience too easily gloss over problems in the text that make such a position all but impossible.”
Furthermore, it is problematic to pin down a definite time and place for tongues. Practitioners and advocates for modern tongues differ on whether it is post-conversion, after water baptism and whether it requires the laying of hands. There is no consistent answer offered in Acts because its focus is not to give us a systematic theology for tongues. Acts is a narrative history. To look for an experiential paradigm is to seek what Acts does not intend to provide. Acts is descriptive of what happened in the formation of the early Church, not prescriptive of what should be normative and constantly repeated. We must read the text on its own grounds and not look to extract answers to our own questions which the text is not concerned or addressing.
What about the tongues of angels?
A text commonly pointed to in support of a glossolalic interpretation of tongues is 1 Corinthians 13:1. It is argued that tongues are a “heavenly” or “angelic language” and that is why they are not readily understood as earthly languages.
However looking at the context, Paul starts this chapter hyperbolically, “if I speak with the tongues of men and of angles, but have not love, I am become sounding brass. . .” This is followed by a string of other hyperbolic statements where he takes a concept like giving money and extrapolates it to its extreme, “if I were to give all that I own,” then contrasts its worthlessness without love. His point here is not that anyone claimed to speak in tongues of angels—which is the only evidence in the Bible pointed to for the experience of “angelic tongues”—but rather to pose a hypothetical hyperbole to emphasize the supreme importance of love. His point is, had I reached the very highest peak of speech, that I was able to speak with some sort of heavenly eloquence, if I had no love it would be useless. 
We understand how exaggerations and hyperbole work, and know that we cannot take such statements as literal. Therefore, to use this as a proof text for tongues as a sort of non-human heavenly utterance or angelic language is a weak argument and ignores the context. In order to use “tongues of angels” as an argument for a heavenly language, some proponents have had to pull from extra-biblical apocryphal Jewish sources such as the Testament of Job. Even Brumback, a Pentecostal writer, also contends that glossolalia as described in the Bible and what it should be today is the speaking of an actual language unknown to the speaker not a heavenly language unknown to humankind. Furthermore, every time we encounter an angelic messenger in scripture, they talk in a human language which is intelligible and understood! There are no instances of angels speaking a non-human dialect, not even in heaven in John’s account in Revelation. So, this is an argument from silence.
What about groanings?
Another text which is often linked with discussions on tongues in 1 Corinthians is Romans 8:25-27. However, στεναγμοῖς ἀλαλήτοις [stenagmois alalētois] literally translated “the inexpressible or inaudible or unutterable groanings” is referring to something different, “namely a prayer of the Holy Spirit himself, a prayer that is not pronounced and therefore not audible.” So to link these with tongues which are audible with these groanings which are not is erroneous. Also, Piper argues, these “groanings” are not addressed to the Father, but as seen in verse 27—are connected to our hearts. Notice also who is groaning—it is the Spirit empathizing with the deep unexpressed groans of the human heart to testify to us that He is with us and understands. Thus, trying to connect modern tongues to these “groans of the Spirit” is also unwarranted.
After surveying the most popular defences of modern tongues, we see that they don’t have a sound Biblical foundation to stand on. Therefore, these redefinitions of tongues should be rejected. If we are claiming the Biblical gift of tongues, then we should expect that it would be of the same quality as the Biblical gift to miraculously speak in a language. Those who speak in an extatic indiscernable utterance, while they may be genuine, cannot say that they are exercising the Biblical gift as seen from the above consideration of the testimony of Scripture. If we are to claim that the gift of tongues is active today, then it needs to be the genuine Biblical gift and not a counterfeit.
In the next article in this series, we will take a look at the historical witness of the Church concerning the gift of tongues. What does history have to teach us about this sign gift? Were there authentic examples of it in Church history?
ARTICLES IN THIS SERIES
- The Nature of Tongues | A Theological Analysis
- The Nature of Tongues | A Historical Analysis
- The History of Pentecostalism | How was this movement birthed?
-  Studebaker, Defining Issues in Pentecostalism, 16-17
-  Hoekema, What About Tongue-Speaking, 35-37, 42-43
-  Mark 16:17-18 is intentionally left out as its genuineness is questioned. See Hoekema, What About Tongue-Speaking, 53-56 for a detailed examination of the text in Mark.
-  Johnson, Perpetual Pentecost, 14-15
- Alexander, Power to Serve, 44; Hoekema, What About Tongue-Speaking, 49
-  Williams, Tongues of the Spirit, 36 – Williams objects that the tongues in Acts 2 could have been glossalalia, which, in my estimation, does not have any strong support from the text.
-  Carson, Showing the Spirit, 138; MacArthur, Strange Fire, 138
-  Carson, Showing the Spirit, 139; MacArthur, Strange Fire, 138-139
-  Storms, A Third Wave View, 220
-  MacArthur, Strange Fire, 140
-  Hoekema, What about Tongue-Speaking, 81-83
-  Hoekema, What about Tongue-Speaking, 84-85
-  Hoekema, What about Tongue-Speaking, 50-51
-  Hoekema, What About Tongue-Speaking, 52-53
-  Hoekema, What About Tongue-Speaking, 53-54
-  Hoekema, What About Tongue-Speaking, 55-56
-  Carson, Showing the Spirit, 82-83
-  Williams, Tongues of the Spirit, 25-45.
-  Carson, Showing the Spirit, 80-81
-  Carson, Showing the Spirit, 81
-  Grudem, Systematic Theology, 1069
-  Carson, Showing the Spirit, 81-82
-  Packer, Keep in Step with the Spirit, 212
-  Carson, Showing the Spirit, 87
-  Storms, A Third Wave View, 220
-  MacArthur, Strange Fire, 140-141
-  Carson, Showing the Spirit, 81
-  Edgar, Satisfied by the Promise, 147
-  Carson, Showing the Spirit, 86
-  Johnson, Carson and the gift, online
-  See Gaffin, A Cessationist View, 60 who cites Gordon Fee as also arguing for modern tongues being analogous to the NT version of the gift.
-  Carson, Showing the Spirit, 86
-  Hoekema, What About Tongue-Speaking, 79-80
-  Hoekema, What About Tongue-Speaking, 80-81
-  Gaffin, A Cessationist View, 40
-  Gaffin, A Cessationist View, 40
-  Hoekema, What About Tongue-Speaking, 88-89
-  MacArthur, Strange Fire, 147
-  Storms, A Third Wave View, 221; Busenitz, The Tongues of Angels, online; In the Testament of Job, it says that Job’s daughters sang with the tongues of angels.
-  Hoekema, What About Tongue-Speaking, 43
-  Congar, I Believe in the Holy Spirit, 175
-  Piper, The Spirit Helps Us, accessed online
*NOTE: A full bibliography for this article series will be provided in Part 2.