Questions About Tongues

An old friend messaged me on Facebook today, asking some questions raised in her mind when she visited a Pentecostal church yesterday. I’ll just quote her message verbatim here. The message is worded typically for Facebook messaging, so there are sentence fragments, abbreviations, improper punctuation, etc. But it more or less gets the point across.

“Went to my grandmother’s pentecostal church yest…they were talking bout holy spirit…used Acts, etc but did not talk about they were speaking foreign languages….so anyway…I asked about it. A lady said the gift of holy spirit is evident by speaking the spirit lang personally but not for the benfit of congregation it is between you and God. Name of father son holy ghost baptism is simple in Jesus name. ????”

“Spirit languages” is a common phrase you’ll hear in Pentecostal and many Charismatic circles. It reflects their interpretation of the Biblical references to “tongues,” especially 1 Corinthians 13:1. Now, before I say anything about that verse, I’ll say again, as I said in my post earlier this month (May 7th), “tongues” means languages.

But the expression “Spirit languages” itself is not a Biblical phrase. The wording in the verse just mentioned is “…the languages of men I speak and of the messengers…” (Or, more traditionally, “…the tongues of men and of angels…”) So, even though it’s not a Biblical wording, Pentecostals can call it speaking a “Spirit language” if they want to, but then that doesn’t change the fact that the gift of the Spirit in question involves actual languages. Personally, I think that the language of Heaven is either Hebrew, Greek or Spanish. (I’m kidding…sort of.)

I am already in the process of writing an article about the Pentecostal/Charismatic doctrine of speaking in tongues being “the initial physical evidence of the baptism in the Holy Spirit.” I will therefore pass over that question for now, but another (detailed) article on the subject is forthcoming.

Now let me address that aspect of miraculously speaking in a language “personally” and “not for the benefit of the congregation” but speaking “between you and God.” The wording of these common Pentecostal/Charismatic expressions isn’t verbatim literal, but the concepts are Biblically accurate.

1 Corinthians 14:1-5 makes this clear. I will translate significant portions of this passage quite literally, so that the force of Biblical language will be evident. A literal English translation of Greek will often read like a text that Yoda wrote, but it’s not too difficult to figure out, any more than it is to decipher Yoda backwards talking.

  • “The one speaking a language not to men speaks, but to God.” (1 Corinthians 14:2)
  • “The one speaking a language himself builds up, but the one prophesying the assembly builds up.” (verse 4)
  • “For if I should pray in a language, the spirit of me prays, but the mind of me is unfruitful.” (v. 14)
  • “I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray also with my mind.” (v. 15)
  • “…praise in the spirit…your thanksgiving…giving thanks” (v. 16)

So in 1 Corinthians 14, Paul clearly states that speaking in tongues is addressed to God, not man. The speaker is edified by the experience, but the congregation is not built up from the manifestation of tongues speaking, unless it is accompanied by the gift of interpretation. It is praying in an unlearned language with the spirit, that is, our human spirit, of course by the enabling of the Holy Spirit. It is praise in the spirit, and thanksgiving. Each of these descriptions—praying, praising, thanksgiving—confirms that the exercise of this manifestation gift is addressed to God.

This fact may be confusing to some coming from denominational or theological backgrounds that are cessationist. Cessationism is the belief that miraculous manifestation gifts ceased at the close of the first century AD, or at the close of the canon of Scripture. In these circles, the assumption is often made that the gift of speaking in tongues was essentially a missionary thing, that it was for miraculously communicating the gospel in the language of a foreigner. The fourteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians clearly contradicts that notion.

Cessationists have often believed that the second chapter of Acts confirms their belief that tongues is a kind of “missionary” gift, but it does not. At the outpouring of/immersion in the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, those speaking in tongues were speaking in fifteen languages of those Jewish pilgrims and proselytes from different regions (2:5-11). In verse 11, the hearers marveled that the Galileans were “speaking in our own languages the great works of God.”

Many have assumed that the miraculous telling of those “great works of God” on that momentous day was tantamount to preaching the gospel by means of speaking in tongues. Biblical evidence leads me to think otherwise.

The words “great works” (variously translated “wonderful works,” “mighty works,” “mighty deeds,” “wonders”) is my translation of the Greek adjective μεγαλεῖος (megaleios). It is an uncommon word in Biblical literature, but besides here in Acts 2:11, it occurs in Luke 1:49 and in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Septuagint) in Psalm 71:19. In both occurrences, megaleios is used in the context of direct expressions of praise.

That helps determine what was meant in Acts 2:11. Those speaking in tongues on the day of Pentecost were speaking expressions of praise concerning the great works of God, not preaching to an audience. And this understanding of Acts 2 tracks perfectly with the revelation concerning tongues in 1 Corinthians 14.

So, speaking in tongues directed toward God, not man, is indeed a Biblical concept. In fact, returning again to 1 Corinthians 14, verses 27-28, we find Paul admonishing the believers in Corinth to have interpretation accompany tongues speaking in the assembly. He then adds in verse 28, “And if there should be no interpreter, he should be silent in the assembly, but to himself let him speak, and to God.”

Therefore, telling tongues speakers to be silent in the assembly in this passage didn’t mean “Don’t ever speak in tongues in the assembly without an interpreter.” Paul admonished them to exercise the gift under the Spirit’s control. And if they were moved to speak in tongues in the assembly but they did not have the interpretation, they should keep silent as far as the assembly was concerned, but were allowed to keep their speaking between themselves and God.

Well, except for the matter of “baptism” in the Spirit in Pentecostal theology, that about covers it, I think. And again, an article on “the baptism” is forthcoming.