Speaking in Tongues


What is a tongue? The word “tongue” means a language just as in the term “mother tongue” refers to the language of a native speaker.  It is used this way throughout the Bible.  A tongue might be Latin, Greek, Spanish, French, or any other known human language.

What was it not? A tongue is a language.  A language is not random, aimless babbling.   A babbling baby is not speaking another language.

* The Biblical phenomenon of speaking in tongues was NOT random, aimless babbling.  Random, aimless vocal production or babbling is sometimes caused in various primitive tribes around the world.  They might even use peyote, mushrooms, or other psychedelic chemicals to aid them in reaching a manic state. Sometimes they might dance around a fire, spinning and twirling and chanting, and working up a spastic sweat for hours before finally one of the participants becomes delirious and begins spouting nonsense syllables.  Many versions of this exist in various cultures.   None of it is what Paul wrote about in the New Testament.

Unfortunately, spinning, twirling, chanting, delirium, and spouting nonsense syllables is usually all that happens during episodes construed by the observers as "the work of the Spirit."   This is likely about all that the Quakers, Shakers, and Pentecostals of the 1800’s were familiar with.  It is easy to produce what seems like a foreign language by staging a highly emotional situation where the strong desire, suggestion, and expectation are present.  Psychologists and hypnotists are quite familiar with these factors.   It also happens that when one or more people begin what they believe to be speaking in tongues, others in the group find it even easier to release their inhibitions and join in, a phenomenon called “hysterical contagion.”   As a result of these proceedings, various religionists believed they were experiencing what Paul described long ago.  They were completely wrong.  The beginnings and growth of psychology and psychiatry began largely with Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung around the start of the 1900’s, and the experience of aimless babbling was known to them.   Such babbling had become familiar from church services who mistakenly thought that the Spirit was speaking through some participants.   Thus, the term glossolalia came to be used, referring to a string of meaningless syllables.  Since some denominations believed this was what Paul had described, it came to be known as Pauline glossolalia.  The erroneous conclusion made by these churches was compounded and carried over into the new field of psychology.  The term "glossolalia" is actually a conflation of two Greek words found in I Cor 14: the word glōssō means "dialect" or "language" (it can also mean the physical organ, "the tongue"); and lalia comes from the Greek verb laleō which means "to speak."  When Paul wrote about lalōn glōssē, "ones who speak a tongue," as he does in 1 Cor 14:2, he was contrasting these individuals with those who were said "to prophesy."  The distinction between glossolalia and prophecy is a linguistic one:  the difference between a person through whom a spirit speaks a language unknown to the inspired person and to the congregation (glossolalia), and a person through whom a spirit speaks the mother tongue (the native language) of the inspired person and the congregation (prophecy).

When the speech happened "in a tongue," it might be directed to a stranger who spoke another language.  In this way, each person could receive a message in his own native language from a group of speakers, as they were “moved” by a spirit.  This was the situation at Pentecost and some other occasions.  [See Acts 2:7-21, where it is pointed out that this situation is in fulfillment of a prediction made through Joel in the Old Testament.  Also Acts 2:4 … filled with a holy spirit and began to speak with other tongues (languages), as the Spirit(world) was giving them utterance.  Notice that a spirit was speaking, not the men.]

I Corinthians 14:1-33 are devoted to tongues and prophecy

Paul described two effects: (1) speaking in another language [tongue], and (2) speaking in the native language [prophecy].  I Cor 14:1-6 clearly describe prophecy as different from tongues. A person who was used by the spirit to speak in the native language of the audience was called a prophet, and the spirit causing the speech was called a spirit of prophecy.  The message may or may not have foretold anything about the future.   The term “prophecy” is actually a Greek term meaning “speak forth” while the term “prophet” is a person who “speaks forth.”  In I Cor 14:29 Paul calls those who speak in the native language prophets.  In Acts 10:44-46, spirits caused a group of Gentiles to speak in both foreign languages and exalt God in order be a sign to the Jews.  On another occasion, a group of men spoke both in foreign languages [tongues] and their native language [prophecy]:  Acts 19:6 “And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, a holy spirit came on them, and they began speaking with tongues and prophesying.”  

By the way, the speaker may know little or nothing about what is being said.   Yet on rare occasion, he might have some expertise, such as Jeremiah and others had.  Paul was especially committed to this sort of Spirit contact: “I thank God, I speak in tongues [foreign languages] more than you all” (I Cor 14:18).

Who is doing the speaking?  It is quite incorrect for any person to say he spoke in tongues and mean this literally.  The person himself is not doing the speaking.   When the speaking actually took place, as in the congregations led by Paul, the person’s body and speech apparatus was being used by a spirit and the human had nothing to do with the words spoken.  The words were from a spirit, whether in a foreign language or in the native tongue.  Literature from the first few centuries before and after Christ shows that a person whose speech equipment is being used by a spirit, often in a deep trance, has no memory whatever of what the spirit said through his vocal apparatus.  This can be understood as “prophetic amnesia,” and such amnesia has been reported by Anthropologists, Sociologists, and Psychologists who study spirit phenomena in modern primitive cultures as well as modern Western cultures.

It is important to note that in a true case of Pauline tongues or prophecy, the locus of control is with a spirit, not with the person.

Can the Spirit’s message be believed?  This gets off into a whole other topic, but we will just point out that deceptive, false spirits can intercede on occasion.   Thus, John writes, “Dearly beloved, stop believing every spirit, but test the spirits to see if they are from God,” or, in different translation, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world’ (I John 4:1 New American Standard).

Why did Paul’s congregations have speakers use foreign languages [tongues] at all if nobody understood them?  As part of a Pauline worship service, a person would sometimes lapse in a trance, either partial or deep, and another spirit would speak using his vocal chords.  In order that the congregation could understand the sermon and be uplifted, the speech needed to be in their own language [prophecy].  As a result, someone who didn’t believe it was in fact another spirit speaking and not the person’s own spirit needed proof.   If the message was given in another language [tongue], one that the speaker did not even know, then this was for proof [sign] to the unbeliever of what was going on.

Note that the “unbeliever” was a believer in God and Christ: he was present at the worship service, after all.  What he didn’t believe in was that a holy spirit was speaking in the native language through a person.  [I Cor 14:22, “So tongues are for a sign (a proof), not to those who believe, but to unbelievers …”]

Is the gift of tongues still in existence?  Various churches have a variety of different opinions on this subject.  Paul obviously was highly in favor of speaking in this way.   He did it frequently, he said.  He encouraged his congregations to do it also: “Therefore, my brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues” (I Cor 14:39).  This verse is often used by those churches who believe that the gift of tongues is still present in modern times.  Sometimes these churches might also invoke Mark 16:17-20, which says roughly, “And these signs will accompany those who have believed: in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues … pick up serpents … drink any deadly poison … lay hands on sick and they will recover …they went out and preached everywhere while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the word by the signs that followed.”

Other religious groups argue that the gift of tongues is no longer in operation.   They might point out that, in the previous verses, the group that Christ sent out to preach did in fact exhibit these gifts, but that the gifts weren’t necessarily for everybody and for all time.  Another argument frequently used is based on I Cor 13:8  “Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away.”  In this argument, everything was finished and over with 2,000 years ago and should not be expected to happen anymore.

In looking for evidence from other sources, we find that some studies have been done where linguists analyzed tape recordings of people “speaking in tongues”.   There were no recognizable foreign languages found in these studies.  (Obviously, only an infinitesimal sample of the millions of cases could be studied.)  Furthermore, the scientists found no grammatical structures or patterns among the syllables that could be attributed to any language at all, known or unknown.  Consequently, there was nothing of spiritual value in the process of simulated tongues, even though the participants thought they were reproducing the situations described by the Apostle in I Corinthians.

At the same time, there have been a few rare cases in which the communication did agree with Paul’s description of being in a different language.   In one verified case, the person delivered a brief spiritual message in an unknown language that was recorded and sent to the language lab at Stanford University in California.  The language was found to be Navajo Indian, of which the speaker had absolutely no knowledge.  In another case, a person in a church service was caused to move her arms and hands in an unfamiliar way to her.  The videotape of her was analyzed and it was found that she was giving an uplifting message in Standard American Sign Language to a deaf person in the congregation.  There are a small number of other cases similar to these.

In summary, it seems that almost all of the so-called messages in tongues delivered in the mainline churches of today are not at all as described by Paul, although on rare occasion they might be.  Therefore, a person who observes what appear to be speaking in tongues should insist that "the tongue" be translated.  But even here, we run into problems that help justify the nonsense babbling of modern-day tongues speaking that does not reflect the Pauline version of it.  For instance, some proponents of the practice of speaking in tongues as "babbling syllables" will say that they know how to translate the babble because of what they "feel" it means.  This feeling is often believed to be an inspiration of the Spirit, too.  And so whatever the person "feels" is the meaning of the babble will be understood as the true meaning of the babble.  But translating a language has nothing to do with what one "feels."  You either understand the words of another language, and are able to translate them into your mother tongue, or you do not.  There is no "feel."  For Paul, glossolalia bore cognitive content as we see in 1 Cor 14:16-19.  Hence, the translation of a tongue involves a knowledge of the tongue (language) spoken and the ability to translate that language into one's native language or the language of the congregation who will otherwise "not know when to say the 'Amen'" as Paul says in 1 Cor 14:16-18.