Misconceptions About Speaking in Tongues

There are numerous claims and theories about speaking in tongues. Numerous people do not actually know what to think of speaking in tongues. The main texts regarding speaking in tongues come from Acts 2:1-11 and 1 Corinthians 14:1-25. When one does not know the context behind the two main instances where the “speaking in tongues” was mentioned, one could have a biased view of what speaking in tongues actually means. Therefore, this present article will focus on the context behind both stories and how one should view speaking in tongues in the 21st century. Each text contains several subtopics, which will be discussed in this paper.

1  – Terminological introduction

The word “tongues” in Greek is “glosses”, which, interestingly, does not only mean tongues but also “languages”.1 In other words, when the Bible uses the word “tongues” the text refers to “languages” as this is the correct use of the definition of “tongues” as we will see in later sections. This use of “glossa” in this context is also seen in Mark 16:17, Acts 10:46, Acts 19:6, 1 Corinthians 12:10 and 28-30, 1 Corinthians 13:1 and 1 Corinthians 14. Interestingly, all these verses mention praising God, preaching and communication, further stressing the importance of reading glossa as languages. In Greek, “speaking in tongues” is glossolalia. With regard to Acts 2:1-8 this means that the disciples spoke in “languages” they were unfamiliar with. What is of critical importance here is the realization that they did speak existing languages as everyone heard them in their own language. This, therefore, means that any kind of gibberish language cannot be the speaking in tongues mentioned in the New Testament.

2  – Speaking in tongues in the context of Acts 2:1-82

The text from Acts 2:1-8 reads as follows:

“When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were confused, because everyone heard them speak in his own language. Then they were all amazed and marveled, saying to one another, “Look, are not all these who speak Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born?”.”

This text contains several important topics that should be further examined: Pentecost itself, fire as a symbol for the Holy Spirit, being filled with the Holy Spirit, and speaking in tongues. When examining speaking in tongues as mentioned in Acts 2:1-8 it is necessary to examine these significant terms in order to correctly understand what actually took place.

2.1 – Pentecost

Regarding the name Pentecost, Pentecost comes from the Greek pentekoste which means the fiftieth. In order to understand Pentecost, one has to understand which day exactly is the fiftieth day exactly. By this calculation Pentecost would come after the Feasts of Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Pentecost is not introduced in the New Testament but originates rather from the Old Testament, where it was called the “Feast of Harvest” or the “Feast of the Weeks” (Exodus 34:22; Leviticus 23:15-22; Deuteronomy 16:10) and came after the “Feast of the Firstfruits” (Numbers 28:26). The “Feast of Harvest” and the “Feast of the Firstfruits” were linked to harvesting periods. There were two yearly harvesting periods: The early and final harvesting periods, which were in spring and fall, respectively. The Feast of the Firstfruits was the celebration of the beginning of the early harvest, which is the wheat harvest. The newly harvested grain would be offered on the day after the sabbath (Leviticus 23:9-14). From that day one would count the fifty days, and the fiftieth day would be the Feast of the Harvest or Pentecost. Regarding terminology, the Septuagint uses pentekoste for the Hebrew Shavuot (literally: weeks), and pentekoste can also be translated as the Feast of the Weeks (Exodus 23:16). Later, some rabbinical traditions added the remembrance of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments on this day as well.3

2.2   – Fire as a symbol for the Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit is portrayed using several symbolisms, both in the Old and the New Testament. The Father and the Son can be more easily “understood”, while the Holy Spirit and its workings is harder to grasp. Therefore, the Bible uses different symbols for us to better understand the Holy Spirit and its role. Some of these symbols are: A dove (Song of Songs 1:5), water (Isaiah 66:12; John 7:38), wind (Acts 2:2; John 3:8) and fire (Isaiah 10:17; Luke 12:49).

The comparison between the Holy Spirit and fire on Pentecost is something that several Church Fathers wrote about.

Gregory of Nazianzus (390 AD) said:

“For this word Another marks an Alter Ego, a name of equal Lordship, not of inequality. For Another is not said, I know, of different kinds, but of things consubstantial. And He came in the form of Tongues because of His close relation to the Word. And they were of Fire, perhaps because of His purifying Power (for our Scripture knows of a purifying fire, as any one who wishes can find out), or else because of His Substance.”4

Cyril of Jerusalem (386 AD) said:

“And it filled all the house where they were sitting; for the house became the vessel of the spiritual water; as the disciples sat within, the whole house was filled. Thus they were entirely baptized according to the promise, and invested soul and body with a divine garment of salvation. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them; and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost. They partook of fire, not of burning but of saving fire; of fire which consumes the thorns of sins, but gives lustre to the soul.”5

In line with St. Cyril’s words, Severus of Antioch (538 AD) said:

“And there appeared to them separate tongues: So then, the thorns were consumed, that is, the transgression from Adam was consumed.”6

2.3   – Being filled with the Holy Spirit

The term “being filled with the Holy Spirit” is mostly used in the Book of Acts, and has deep spiritual meanings. One is “being filled with the Holy Spirit” is that one’s soul is full of the Holy Spirit and that the entire heart is “taken over” by it. This happens through the Mystery of Baptism, where one gets filled by the Holy Spirit. This means that one is transformed by the Holy Spirit and receives the gifts of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:1-11) and enjoys the fellowship with Christ and enjoys the fruits of the Resurrection. When someone is devoting himself as a living sacrifice to God (Romans 12:1) one is living a spiritual life. Just like someone who is living an earthly life is seen as being taken over by the earthly life, the one who is living a spiritual person is being taken over by the spirit.7 Multiple people were said to be filled with the Spirit: Uri the son of Hur (Exodus 31:3), Elisabeth (Luke 1:41), Zacharia (Luke 1:67), Peter (Acts 4:8), Stephen (Acts 6:5, 7:55) and Paul (Acts 13:9).

2.4   – Speaking in tongues

At last, we come to the speaking in tongues part. The disciples were from Galilee and did not have a formal education like Paul had (Acts 23:6; Philippians 3:5). The interesting part is that the disciples were formed from a diverse group of people. For instance, Andrew, Peter, James and John (the sons of Zebedee) were fishermen (Matthew 4:18-22), Matthew was a tax collector (Matthew 9:9-13) and Simon was a zealot8 (Luke 6:15). After the descending of the Holy Spirit there were two possible scenarios: The disciples learning every language, including vocabulary and grammar, and thereafter they would be able to preach to non-Jews and Jews in foreign countries (such as the Hellenised Jews in Alexandria who spoke Greek rather than Hebrew). Another scenario would be that God would make the people hear the disciples regardless of the language they spoke, in their native tongue. The second scenario is the more plausible one, therefore, the disciples were instructed to preach the Gospel everywhere.

Cyril of Jerusalem (386 AD) explained this by saying:

“The Galilean Peter or Andrew spoke Persian or Median. John and the rest of the Apostles spoke every tongue to those of Gentile extraction; for not in our time have multitudes of strangers first begun to assemble here from all quarters, but they have done so since that time. What teacher can be found so great as to teach men all at once things which they have not learned? So many years are they in learning by grammar and other arts to speak only Greek well; nor yet do all speak this equally well; the Rhetorician perhaps succeeds in speaking well, and the Grammarian sometimes not well, and the skilful Grammarian is ignorant of the subjects of philosophy. But the Holy Spirit taught them many languages at once, languages which in all their life they never knew. This is in truth vast wisdom, this is power divine. What a contrast of their long ignorance in time past to their sudden, complete and varied and unaccustomed exercise of these languages!”9

St. Cyril explicitly mentions that the disciples spoke existing languages that were foreign to them.

Gregory the Dialogist (604 AD) further stressed this by saying:

“And they began to speak in various languages: The Holy Spirit appeared over the disciples under the form of fiery tongues, and gave them the knowledge of all languages.”10

This also has been prophesied by Isaiah the prophet. Isaiah prophesied that God “with stammering lips and another tongue He will speak to this people” (Isaiah 28:11). The Church Fathers furthermore stressed the link between Isaiah 28:11 and Pentecost.

Augustine of Hippo (430 AD) said:

“Just as sometimes all the utterances of the Old Testament together in the Holy Scriptures are signified by the name of the Law. For the apostle, in citing a text from the prophet Isaiah, where he says, “With divers tongues and with divers lips will I speak to this people,” yet prefaced it by, ‘It is written in the Law.'”11

John Chrysostom (407 AD) added to this saying:

“Someone might well ask how the apostles drew to themselves all these people. How did men who spoke only the language of the Jews win over the Scythian, the Indian, the Sarmatian and the Thracian? Because they received the gift of tongues through the Holy Spirit. Not only did the apostles say this but also the prophets when they made both these facts clear, namely, that the apostles received the gift of tongues and that they failed to win over the Jews. Hear how the prophet showed this when he said, ” ‘In foreign tongues and with other lips I shall speak to this people, and in this way they shall not hear me,’ says the Lord.”12

Gregory of Nazianzus excellently summarized it saying:

“They spoke with strange tongues and not those of their native land; and the wonder was great, a language spoken by those who had not learned it. And the sign is to them that do not believe, not to them that believe, that it may be an accusation of the unbelievers, as it is written, “With other tongues and other lips will I speak to this people, and not even so will they listen to me, says the Lord.” But they heard. Here stop a little and raise a question. How are you to divide the words? For the expression has an ambiguity, which is to be determined by the punctuation. Did they each hear in their own dialect so that if I may so say, one sound was uttered but many were heard; the air being thus beaten and, so to speak, sounds being produced more clear than the original sound? Or are we to put the stop after “they heard” and then to add “them speaking in their own languages” to what follows, so that it would be speaking in the hearers’ own languages, which would be foreign to the speakers? I prefer to put it this latter way; for on the other plan the miracle would be rather of the hearers than of the speakers; whereas in this it would be on the speakers’ side. And it was they who were reproached for drunkenness, evidently because they by the Spirit wrought a miracle in the matter of the tongues”.

3  – Speaking in tongues in the context of 1 Corinthians 14:1-2513

The text from 1 Corinthians 14:1-25 is too long to cite it in its entirety, therefore the following key verses will be discussed:

St. Paul, 1 Corinthians 14:6-19

“But now, brethren, if I come to you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you unless I speak to you either by revelation, by knowledge, by prophesying, or by teaching? Even things without life, whether flute or harp, when they make a sound, unless they make a distinction in the sounds, how will it be known what is piped or played? For if the trumpet makes an uncertain sound, who will prepare for battle? So likewise you, unless you utter by the tongue words easy to understand, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air. There are, it may be, so many kinds of languages in the world, and none of them is without significance. Therefore, if I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be a foreigner to him who speaks, and he who speaks will be a foreigner to me. Even so you, since you are zealous for spiritual gifts, let it be for the edification of the church that you seek to excel. Therefore let him who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful. What is the conclusion then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding. I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding. Otherwise, if you bless with the spirit, how will he who occupies the place of the uninformed say “Amen” at your giving of thanks, since he does not understand what you say? For you indeed give thanks well, but the other is not edified. I thank my God I speak with tongues more than you all; yet in the church I would rather speak five words with my understanding, that I may teach others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue.”

Although St. Paul spoke in tongues, he used them solemnly for preaching purposes. Here, it might seem that St. Paul belittles the gift of speaking in tongues, in contrast to how St. Peter converted at least 3000 persons in Acts 2:1-8.

Although this passage seems to contradict Acts 2:1-8, St. John Chrysostom explained how this is not the case by saying:

“At this point he makes a comparison between the gifts, and lowers that of the tongues, showing it to be neither altogether useless, nor very profitable by itself. For in fact they were greatly puffed up on account of this, because the gift was considered to be a great one. And it was thought great because the Apostles received it first, and with so great display; it was not however therefore to be esteemed above all the others. Wherefore then did the Apostles receive it before the rest? Because they were to go abroad every where. And as in the time of building the tower the one tongue was divided into many; so then the many tongues frequently met in one man, and the same person used to discourse both in the Persian, and the Roman, and the Indian, and many other tongues, the Spirit sounding within him: and the gift was called the gift of tongues because he could all at once speak divers languages”.14

Interestingly, St. Paul compares musical instruments with speaking in tongues: Just as a musical instrument has no value nor purpose if no one is able to understand the music, speaking in tongues has no value nor purpose if nobody is able to understand it. In addition, just as musical instruments that produce inharmonious sounds irritate the listeners’ ears, so does the inappropriate or gibberish speaking in tongues irritate the listeners’ ears. In order to stress the importance of the listeners having to understand what is said, St. Paul further uses the example of trumpets in battles. St. Paul first explained that the sole focus should not be on speaking in tongues, and second, he stressed the importance of the listeners being able to understand what is said and at last he compares speaking in tongues to speaking with “known” languages.

The ones who promote speaking in tongues often neglect the most important verses: verses 11-12. Verse 11 explicitly mentions how the one who speaks in tongues must himself understand what he is saying, otherwise it is in vain. Verse 12 explicitly mentions how everything was done in (the name of) the Church must be for the edification of the Church. The correct understanding of these verses is crucial for the correct understanding of speaking in tongues. If everything that is done must be for the Church’s edification, then everything must be done with the purpose of achieving salvation. We should be “as newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word” in order to grow spiritually (1 Peter 2:2), and that we “may grow up in all things into Him who is the head-Christ” (Ephesians 4:15).

4  – Unifying speaking in tongues from Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians

Some claim that the two narratives mentioned in Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 have differences and therefore they cannot be viewed as one narrative that is mentioned twice. On the contrary, there are several parallels between the two narratives. In the discussion of whether the context behind Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 are similar or not, one must examine the terminology that is used in both narratives. The Greek word genos is used for kinds. Genos, more generally, refers to a group, family or a nation.15 Languages with common origins or derivatives are called “families” in linguistics. Therefore, Sst. Paul and Luke refer to different languages not different type of speech. Furthermore, St. Luke mentions several languages in Acts 2:9-11 (the language of the Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamians, Judeans, Cappadocians, Asian languages, Phrygians, Pamphylians, Egyptians and Libyans), and thereby his references to different genos refers to different existing languages and thereby debunking the claim that the “different kinds of tongues” mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:10 refer to both real and gibberish languages. Besides using the same terminology, the context of speaking in tongues from Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians 12 is also the same. Both narratives mention16 how:

  1. The Holy Spirit is the source for this gift (Acts 2:4, 18; 10:44-46 and 1 Cor. 12:1, 7, 11)
  2. The gift is not limited to the apostles (Acts 1:15; 10:46; 19:6; 1 Cor. 12:30; 14:18)
  3. The gift is actually a linguistic gift and not something of gibberish babble (Acts 2:4, 9–11; 1 Cor. 12:30; 14:2, 5)
  4. The message is actually translatable in real languages (Acts 2:9–11, 1 Cor. 12:10; 14:5, 13)
  5. The gift was a miraculous gift as a sign for unbelieving Jews (Acts 2:5, 12, 14, 19; 1 Cor. 14:21–22; cf. Isa. 28:11–12

Pentecostals use several other Biblical examples to back their concept of speaking in tongues: Acts 10:46 and Acts 19:6. The claim Pentecostalism makes is that the gift of speaking in tongues in Acts 2 differs from the one mentioned in Acts 10:46 and Acts 19:6. The question is whether this is the case or not. The Greek text in Acts 2:4 reads: “lalein heterais glossais” (to speak in other tongues). In Acts 10:46 the Greek text reads: “lalounton glossais” (speaking in tongues), and in Acts 19:6 the Greek text reads: “elaloun te glossais” (they were speaking in tongues). Lalein, lalounton and elaloun are all different conjugations of the Greek verb for speaking, laleo. This means that in all three instances, Acts 2:4, 10:46 and 19:6, read the exact same text and in the exact same context. In addition, Peter’s testimony about his experience with God regarding what foods are clean and unclean (cf. Acts 10:9-16) he mentioned how as he began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon the ones listening. He further mentioned how the Holy Spirit descended on the gentiles in exactly the same way as on the apostles (Acts 11:15-17). The Greek text in Acts 11:15 also uses lalein for speaking. The Greek words laleo (to speak) and glossa (tongues) are both used together in Acts (2:4, 11; 10:46 and 19:6), and in 1 Corinthians these terms are also used together (1 Corinthians 12:30; 13:1; 14:2, 4-6, 13, 18-19, 21, 27 and 39).17 It must be noted that St. Luke was a close companion of St. Paul. This is seen in multiple books of the New Testament. St. Luke uses “we” several times when he is describing St. Paul’s missionary trips. The fact that he is speaking about St. Paul and himself as “we” means that he not only his “colleague” as an apostle, but rather a close companion. St. Paul mentions him as his “fellow- labourer” (Philemon 1:23-24) and the “beloved physician” (Colossians 4:14). In the period of St. Paul’s imprisonment prior to his execution in Rome, St. Luke was the only one that was with him (2 Timothy 4:11, cf. Acts 28:16). Therefore, as St. Paul and St. Luke were companions in preaching the Gospel, they had the same definition of speaking in tongues, excluding the possibility that the tongues mentioned in Acts 2 are of a different type or nature than the one mentioned in 1 Corinthians 14.

5  – The purpose of speaking in tongues re-examined

5.1   – Summary of previous conclusions

Having examined the two narratives of speaking in tongues in the New Testament, the above-mentioned analysis can be summarized as follows: The speaking in tongues on the day of Pentecost can also be viewed as restoring the consequences of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9). Humanity tried to escape God’s wrath by building a tower and thereby protecting themselves from God. God interfered and He “confused the language of all the earth” (Genesis 11:9). Where all tongues were scattered at the Tower of Babel, the tongs of humanity were united at Pentecost, as mentioned by Jacob of Serugh (521 AD).18 Furthermore, the gift of speaking in tongues as seen in Acts 2:1-8 is no longer needed as there are several bridges that bridge language gaps (e.g. translators). This is also seen in the fact that although the disciples spoke in tongues, they were not (pre)occupied with it. For instance, Paul was fluent in several languages (1 Corinthians 14:18), yet he mainly preached using Hebrew/Aramean and Greek. When examining the two narratives where speaking in tongues is mentioned, one can clearly see that the narrative of Acts 2:1-8 and 1 Corinthians 14:1-25 do not contradict each other, but rather carry the same meaning: The disciples and apostles needed to preach the Gospel to every corner of the planet and they were able to overcome the linguistic barrier by God’s power. God made the listeners hear the disciples and apostles in his and her own native existing language. The emphasis here is on speaking in existing languages.

5.2   – Current theories

There are two “groups” of opinions with regard to whether speaking in tongues is still relevant in the twenty-first century. These two groups are: Cessationism and Pentecostalism. Cessationists argue that after the first century speaking in tongues ceased, whereas Pentecostalism argues that speaking in tongues ceased for a while, but appeared again in the twentieth century. Both groups defend their ideology using both Biblical and patristical arguments.19 Cessationists would define speaking in tongues as an ability to speak an existing yet foreign language through the help of God, whereas Pentecostals would define speaking in tongues as speaking in spiritual human-foreign languages. For Cessationists, speaking in tongues was speaking in already existing languages foreign to the disciples and apostles for the edification and evangelism of the Church. For Pentecostals, however, speaking in tongues is seen as one of the most essential characteristics, if not the most essential, of the Christian life. Defining Pentecostalism is beyond the scope of this article, however, the consensus is that the emphasis within Pentecostalism lies on the “works of the Holy Spirit”.20 In Pentecostalism there are “two types” of Christians: Those baptized in the Spirit and are spiritually mature and able to speak in tongues, and those unbaptized in the Spirit and thereby spiritually immature and unable to speak in tongues.21

As Busenitz mentioned in his review, most arguments have been about when speaking in tongues ceased rather than what speaking in tongues meant in the eyes of the Church Fathers.

5.3   – Patristic thoughts on speaking in tongues

With regard to the Church Fathers, there are citations from Church Fathers as early as Irenaeus.

Irenaeus of Lyons (202 AD) mentioned the speaking in tongues by saying:

“Now God shall be glorified in His handiwork, fitting it so as to be conformable to, and modelled after, His own Son. For by the hands of the Father, that is, by the Son and the Holy Spirit, man, and not [merely] a part of man, was made in the likeness of God… For this reason does the apostle declare, “We speak wisdom among them that are perfect,” terming those persons “perfect” who have received the Spirit of God, and who through the Spirit of God do speak in all languages, as he used Himself also to speak. In like manner we do also hear many brethren in the Church, who possess prophetic gifts, and who through the Spirit speak all kinds of languages, and bring to light for the general benefit the hidden things of men, and declare the mysteries of God, whom also the apostle terms “spiritual,” they being spiritual because they partake of the Spirit, and not because their flesh has been stripped off and taken away, and because they have become purely spiritual”.22

Hippolytus of Rome (235 AD) mentioned in his Apostolic Constitutions that the Apostles first received this gift in order to preach the Gospel everywhere.23 The Church Fathers unanimously agreed that there is only one “type” of speaking in tongues, and were of the opinion that the speaking in tongues in Acts 2:1-8 is the exact same as in 1 Corinthians 14:1-25, where the consensus is that God helped the disciples and apostles to overcome their linguistic barrier.

Speaking in non-existent gibberish languages “through” the Holy Spirit has been discussed in the Early Church. In the second century, Montanus claimed to be “the mouthpiece” of the Holy Spirit and considered himself the Paraclete mentioned in John 14:26 and John 16:7. Later on Priscilla and Maximilla were also “declared” to be the mouthpieces of the Holy Spirit. The Church argued against this ideology, declared it heresy and excommunicated Montanus.24

Eusebius of Caesarea (340 AD) wrote an account on the controversy of Montanus:

“But being recently in Ancyra in Galatia, I found the church there greatly agitated by this novelty, not prophecy, as they call it, but rather false prophecy, as will be shown. Therefore, to the best of our ability, with the Lord’s help, we disputed in the church many days concerning these and other matters separately brought forward by them, so that the church rejoiced and was strengthened in the truth, and those of the opposite side were for the time confounded, and the adversaries were grieved. The presbyters in the place, our fellow-presbyter Zoticus of Otrous also being present, requested us to leave a record of what had been said against the opposers of the truth. We did not do this, but we promised to write it out as soon as the Lord permitted us, and to send it to them speedily.” Having said this with other things, in the beginning of his work, he proceeds to state the cause of the above- mentioned heresy as follows: “Their opposition and their recent heresy which has separated them from the Church arose on the following account. … a recent convert, Montanus by name, through his unquenchable desire for leadership, gave the adversary opportunity against him. And he became beside himself, and being suddenly in a sort of frenzy and ecstasy, he raved, and began to babble and utter strange things, prophesying in a manner contrary to the constant custom of the Church handed down by tradition from the beginning. Some of those who heard his spurious utterances at that time were indignant, and they rebuked him as one that was possessed, and that was under the control of a demon, and was led by a deceitful spirit, and was distracting the multitude; and they forbade him to talk, remembering the distinction drawn by the Lord and his warning to guard watchfully against the coming of false prophets.”25

Here, Eusebius already mentioned how ecstatic babble and uttering strange things were seen as false teaching and condemned by the Church.

Another important argument is that the Church Fathers explicitly mentioned that not all Christians are supposed to speak in tongues. No Church Father has made a statement regarding himself or another Church Father that one was speaking in tongues. Clement of Alexandria (214 AD)26, Hippolytus27, Ambrose of Milan (397 AD)28, John Chrysostom29, Jerome30, Hilary of Poitiers (367 AD)31, Basil of Caesarea (379 AD)32 and Augustine33 stated that it is not necessary for each believer to have all the spiritual gifts, but every believer has his own specific and unique gift. Busenitz argued that the Church Fathers did not view speaking in tongues as losing self-control but rather argued that speaking in tongues was caused by the grace of God. The Church Fathers stressed that speaking in tongues was for the edification of the Church, and it must have had a spiritual purpose.34 Irenaeus35, Tertullian of Carthage (220 AD)36 and Origen of Alexandria (254 AD)37 mentioned how speaking in tongues was for the benefit of the other and thereby for the edification of the Church.

5.4   – Brief background on the formation of Pentecostalism

As Pentecostalism is the current proponent of the speaking in tongues doctrine as previously defined, one should have a background on the start and rise of Pentecostalism in order to understand the development of the doctrine of speaking in tongues. One of the key figures in Pentecostalism formation was Charles Parham, a Methodist preacher who left Methodism after a conflict with his leaders.38 Parham visited many churches and gatherings, most of them being charismatic in nature such as faith-healing, prior to developing his own ideology and starting the Pentecostal revival in 1901. Parham was influenced in 1899 by Benjamin Irwin, the founder of the Fire-Baptized Holiness Church39. Parham was mostly influenced by concepts such as the third blessing, baptism of fire, annihilation and more. The third blessing doctrine states that the believer is blessed thrice with the blessing of salvation, blessing of power and the blessing of sinless perfection. The baptism of fire doctrine states that the baptism with fire would lead to power and perfection for the believer, which the believer should experience in his post-baptismal Christian life. The annihilation doctrine states that there is no eternal damnation for the wicked and unsaved, rather that they would be annihilated in hell. In the same year Parham became influenced by Frank Sandford, the founder of the charismatic movement called The Kingdom. This led to him adopting the concept of Divine healing, which states that Divine healing from Christ was the “right” of every believer and that there was no need for doctors nor medicine. He stated that the use of medicine goes against the Bible and that the Bible even forbids it.40 Ironically, almost no one who attended Parham’s healing meetings did actually recover. Parham lost two sons due his opposition to medicine and was at times too ill to preach despite his ideology of guaranteed healing.41 The death of Nettie Smith, a nine-year-old girl, in 1904 sparked public outrage against Parham as her dad was one of his most dedicated followers who refused to treat his daughter despite her illness being treatable.42 At the same time Parham started praying over his handkerchiefs and proceeded to send them to those who wished to serve him, making him the first Pentecostal preacher to do so.43

Parham’s strange theology, which is actually a combination of several heresies, was not limited to speaking in tongues and Divine healing, but included a partial rapture (partly based on racial inequality) and a Latter Rain outpouring. Parham even claimed to be the John the Baptist of the latter days. He believed that there was another human race besides Adam and Eve, and that that race lived outside the Garden of Eden. These people would have had no soul and were destroyed by the flood. The believers who received the Spirit baptism would speak in tongues and be the bride of Christ. His partial rapture doctrine stated that those who speak in tongues will have a special place at Christs Parousia (Second Coming). Parham was an alleged racist, as he was against interracial marriages and even stated that interracial marriages caused the flood of Noah. Parham stated that black people could not be seen as the bride of Christ and was even suspected to have been associated with the Ku Klux Klan.44 In addition, he was charged with sodomy yet the charge was dropped by the authorities without comment. He was also a proponent of Zionism45, something which is still seen in the Protestant church of the twentieth first century.46 The Later Rain revival was an early name for Pentecostalism and was based on the latter rain mentioned in Joel 2:23. Whereas the rains mentioned in Joel are the rains that distinguish the beginning and the end of the Jewish harvesting seasons, Pentecostal interpretation linked the former rain and latter rain to the speaking in tongues during the Apostolic period and to the speaking in tongues that the true believers would attain prior to Christs’ Parousia, respectively.47 Between 1906 and 1908 the Pentecostal movement started to fragment in several groups due lack of organisation, and not too long after that the movement started to fragment even more due to theological controversies leading to numerous groups varying in number of followers and theology.48 When Parham lost his fame among the Pentecostals he tried to gain followers by relocating to Zion City, where he was met with harsh criticism, and later he claimed to have information about the lost Ark of Covenant yet he never visited Jerusalem.49

5.5   – Contradicting Pentecostal views

For many Pentecostals, speaking in tongues equates to their faith in God, and therefore their sole focus shifts to the ability to speak in tongues.50 This raises the following question on the actual importance of speaking in tongues: If speaking in tongues is such a significant characteristic of Christian life and a reflection of one’s faith in God, why did the Church Fathers not support this view? If speaking in tongues is such an essential Christian characteristic, would it make sense that it disappeared in the first century and resurfaced in the 17th century? This question is actually a question that troubles Pentecostal theology.51 The critique of the Pentecostal definition of speaking in tongues took place as early as the nineteenth century.52 Furthermore, the concept of speaking in tongues within Pentecostalism has changed over time. Some movements within Pentecostalism, such as the Classic Pentecostalism and neo-Pentecostalism, do agree that speaking in tongues refers to speaking in existing languages, however, the languages that are spoken are not necessarily languages of the present times. The existing languages, according to the above-mentioned groups, can be languages that existed a (long) time ago and are nowadays not spoken anymore. This broad definition of the languages spoken makes it difficult for linguistical analyses of said languages.53 For instance, audio recordings from speaking in tongues have been presented to linguistical institutes for validation studies. One example is how audio fragments of unknown languages were presented to the Toronto Institute of Linguistics, however, they did not recognize any human language in the audio fragment.54

When two Pentecostal interpreters were asked to listen to the same audio fragment they were not able to come to the same conclusion regarding to what the audio fragment said.55 The Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion explained glossolalia as: “Glossolalia is not a human language and cannot be interpreted or studied as a human language”,56 and the Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion also calls glossolalia not a real language.57

Charles Shumway tried to prove that the Pentecostal tongues were actual languages, yet failed to find one person who could confirm this claim in his Ph.D. dissertation. He further censored evidence against him from the Houston Chronicle.58 At one point Parham was questioned about whether others’ words were their or the Spirit’s words, he himself was not sure59 and others doubted his sanity when witnessing gatherings of him and his followers.60 An answer to this observation was that God gave every person a different interpretation.61 Proponents of speaking in tongues acknowledged that speaking in tongues could be somewhat gibberish languages, but it would help the believer to humble himself before God.62,63 This can easily be debunked by further looking at the context of speaking in tongues. Speaking in tongues is often associated with the interpretation of what is said in tongues (1 Corinthians 12:10; 14:27). The Greek word used for interpretation is hermeneuo, which in a broader definition refers to unfolding the meaning of words. In order to be able to unfold the meaning of words, these words must be real words that can be translated from one to another language, further emphasizing that gibberish words cannot be seen as speaking in tongues.

The linguistics professor William Samarin witnessed numerous Pentecostal gatherings for over five years, and concluded his experiences by saying:

“When the full apparatus of linguistic science comes to bear on glossolalia, this turns out to be only a façade language—although at times a very good one indeed. For when we comprehend what language is, we must conclude that no glossa, no matter how well constructed, is a specimen of human language, because it is neither internally organized nor systematically related to the world man perceives. .. Glossolalia is indeed a language in some ways, but this is only because the speaker (unconsciously) wants it to be like language. Yet in spite of superficial similarities, glossolalia is fundamentally not language”.64

Pentecostals argue against this by saying that glossolalia is rather a spiritual language and not a rational one,65 yet others do claim that glossolalia refers to rational (extinct) languages.66 Another attempt to make sense of speaking in tongues as mentioned in Acts 2:1-8 and 1 Corinthians 14:1-25 is done by dividing speaking in tongues in two types.67 Here the distinction is made between “public” and “devotional” speaking in tongues, which they link to Acts 2:1-8 and 1 Corinthians 14:1-25, respectively. This distinction is made based on John Chrysostom’s commentary on 1 Corinthians 14:14-15. Some scholars, among whom are John Kildahl, James Goff and Charles Shumway, argue that the speaking in tongues is not a gift but rather something made up by humans68,69,70 in order to gain attention71 based on the observation that some churches offer trainings on how to speak in tongues.72 There are multiple accounts of Parham’s ex-students who described their experiences with speaking in tongues during their gatherings. S. Riggings mentioned how students exclusively spoke gibberish words73 and Lilian Thislethwaite (Parham’s ex co-evangelist) described how she became confused during her experiences.74

S.C. Todd spoke to eighteen of Parham’s missionaries that went to Eastern countries (e.g. Japan, China and India) and he mentioned how they were disappointed when they were not able to speak Eastern languages.75 Another absurd claim of Parham was that his students were able to “write in tongues”. For instance, one of Parham’s students, Agnes Ozman, wrote him in tongues.76 One could argue that this behaviour is not remotely from God and even could be demonic possession.

5  – Conclusions

All of the above-mentioned arguments go against the teachings of the Early Church and the Church Fathers. Where Pentecostalism still lives in the time of the actual Pentecost, the Church Fathers stressed that speaking in tongues was a temporary need for the Church’s edification and preaching. Where Pentecostalism stresses that speaking in tongues is a characteristic of an adult Christian, the Church Fathers stressed that Christians are not ought to have all the Divine gifts (cf. 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4). Where Pentecostalism stresses that speaking in tongues expresses itself in non- existing and gibberish languages, the Church Fathers stressed that the languages that the disciples and apostles spoke were merely unfamiliar to them and not to humanity. Where Pentecostalism started to divide speaking in tongues into two categories, the Church Fathers stressed that the tongues mentioned in Acts 2:1-8 are the same as the one mentioned in 1 Corinthians 14:1-25. There have been numerous studies on how the Early Church and the Church Fathers interpreted speaking in tongues, which are at a disadvantage of Pentecostalism.77 Therefore, the speaking in tongues as defined by Pentecostalism is, ironically, going against the words of St. Paul.78 In previous examples one reads how Pentecostals lose control of themselves, have no idea what words they are uttering and are doing this in large gatherings. St. Paul, however, explicitly mentioned that “God is not the author of confusion” (1 Corinthians 14:33), that only one person should speak in tongues (1 Corinthians 14:27-28) and that one must be in control of himself when speaking in tongues (1 Corinthians 14:32). Sadly, the irony of speaking in gibberish is that it is part of a pathology when talking about schizophrenia, yet it is Divinely inspired when talking about Pentecostalism.

Gerhard Hasel summarized the concept of speaking in tongues by saying:

“The contemporary phenomenon of “speaking in tongues,” which is practiced by millions of Christians around the world at present, is of recent origin in Christianity. Even though there have been attempts by the score to demonstrate that the phenomenon of glossolalia in modern times has roots going back for centuries in Christian practice, it remains certain that it is of recent origin.” 79

W.A. Criswell also excellently summarized the speaking in tongues by saying:

“In the long story of the Church, after the days of the apostles, wherever the phenomenon of glossolalia has appeared it has been looked upon as heresy. Glossolalia mostly has been confined to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But wherever and however its appearance, it has never been accepted by the historical churches of Christendom. It has been universally repudiated by these churches as a doctrinal and emotional aberration.” 80

Norm Geisler added the following to this:

“Even those who believe in [modern] tongues acknowledge that unsaved people have tongues experiences. There is nothing supernatural about them. But there is something unique about speaking complete and meaningful sentences and discourses in a knowable language to which one has never been exposed. This is what the real New Testament gift of tongues entailed. Anything short of this, as “private tongues” are, should not be considered the biblical gift of tongues.” 81

Let us know in the comments if you learned something new!

Subdeacon Wasim Shehata

He is a subdeacon in readers’ order in the Coptic Orthodox Church and a theology enthusiast. Wasim particularly enjoys Church History and practical/contemplative aspects of theology and apologetics. He is currently finishing his Master’s degree in Biomolecular Sciences.

Read his other articles at https://www.copticnn.com/author/wasimshehata/


[1] “Strong’s Greek: 1100. Γλῶσσα (Glóssa) — the Tongue, a Language.” Bible Hub, biblehub.com/greek/1100.htm.

[2] Malaty, Tadros Fr. Patristic Commentary on the Book of Acts, pp. 71-91.

[3] For an analysis see: Conservative Yeshiva Online, “Shavuot: The Day of the Giving of the Torah?”

[4] Schaff, Philip. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Second Series, Volume VII: Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory Nazianzen. Hendrickson Pub, 1994, p. 383.

[5] Ibid, p. 128.

[6] Severus of Antioch on Acts 2:3. Catena: Bible & Commentaries.

[7] Inspired from the homily of Fr. Luke Sidarous on “be filled with the Holy Spirit”.

[8] A zealot is comparable to a politician.

[9] Schaff, Philip. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Second Series, Volume VII: Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory Nazianzen. Hendrickson Pub, 1994, p. 129.

[10] Gregory the Dialogist on Acts 2:4. Catena: Bible & Commentaries.

[11] Schaff, Philip. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: First Series (Augustine), Volume III: On the Holy Trinity, Doctrinal Treatises, Moral Treatise. Hendrickson Pub, 1994, p. 216.

[12] Savage, John. The Fathers of the Church: Saint John Chrysostom – Apologist. Catholic University of America Press, 1985, p. 215.

[13] Malaty, Tadros Fr.. Patristic Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, pp. 342-358.

[14] Schaff, Philip. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: First Series (Augustine), Volume III: On the Holy Trinity, Doctrinal Treatises, Moral Treatise. Hendrickson Pub, 1994, p. 216

[15] “Strong’s Greek: 1085. Γένος (Genos).” Bible Hub, biblehub.com/greek/1085.htm.

[16] Macarthur, John. Strange Fire. Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2013, p. 141.

[17] Ibid., pp. 139-140.

[18] Kollamparampil, Thomas. Jacob of Serugh, Select Festal Homilies. Dharmaram Publications, 1997, pp. 353-369.

[19] Busenitz, Nathan. The Gift of Tongues: Comparing the Church Fathers with Contemporary Pentecostalism, 2006, pp. 1-2.

[20] Gooren, Henri. “An Introduction to Pentecostalism: Global Charismatic Christianity.” Ars Disputandi, vol. 4, no. 1, 2004, pp. 206–09..

[21] J. Hollenweger, Walter. The Pentecostals. Hendrickson Pub, 1988, p. 9.

[22] Schaff, Philip. Ante-Nicene Fathers: Volume I: The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Hendrickson Pub, 1994, p. 531.

[23] Ibid, Volume VII: The Fathers of the Third and Fourth Centuries, Hendrickson Pub, 1994, pp. 479-480.

[24] Malaty, Tadros Fr. Panoramic View of Patristics in the First Six Centuries. St. George’s Coptic Orthodox Church, 2005, pp. 187-188.

[25] Schaff, Philip. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Series 2, Volume II: Eusebius Pamphilius: Church History, Life of Constantine, Oration in Praise of Constantine, Hendrickson Pub, 1994, pp.229-231.

[26] Ibid, Ante-Nicene Fathers. Volume 2: Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria, Hendrickson Pub, 1994, p.434.

[27] Hippolytus of Rome. Apostolic Constitutions, Book 7, chapter 4.

[28] Schaff, Philip. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Series I, Volume X: Ambrose: Select Works and Letters, Hendrickson Pub, 1994, p. 134.

[29] Ibid, Series I (John Chrysostom), Volume XII: Homilies on First and Second Corinthians, p. 187.

[30] Ibid, Series 2, Volume VI: Jerome: Letters and Select Works, p. 458.

[31] Hilary of Poitiers. On the Trinity, Book 8, sections 29-32.

[32] Bray, Gerald, and Thomas Oden. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Volume 7: 1–2 Corinthians. 2nd ed., Routledge, 1999, p. 121.

[33] Schaff, Philip. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Series I (Augustine), Volume I: Prolegomena: St. Augustine’s Life and Work, Confessions, Letters, p. 197.

34 Busenitz, Nathan. The Gift of Tongues: Comparing the Church Fathers with Contemporary Pentecostalism, 2006, p. 5.

[35] Schaff, Philip. Ante-Nicene Fathers: Volume I: The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Hendrickson Pub, 1994, p. 531.

[36] Ibid, Volume III: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, p. 447.

[37] Bray, Gerald, and Thomas Oden. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Volume 7: 1–2 Corinthians. 2nd ed., Routledge, 1999, p. 141.

[38] Martin, Larry. The Topeka Outpouring of 1901. Christian Life Books, 1997, p. 14.

[39] Cloud, David. The Pentecostal-Charismatic Movement: Its History and Error. Way of Life Literature, 1994.

[40] See: The 1899 September 13th issue from Parham’s “The Apostolic Faith” magazine.

[41] Goff, James. Fields White Unto Harvest: Charles F. Parham and the Missionary Origins of Pentecostalism. University of Arkansas Press, 1988, p. 94.

[42] Cloud, David. The Pentecostal-Charismatic Movement: Its History and Error. Way of Life Literature, 1994.

[43] Goff, James. Fields White Unto Harvest: Charles F. Parham and the Missionary Origins of Pentecostalism. University of Arkansas Press, 1988, p. 104.

[44] Martin, Larry. The Topeka Outpouring of 1901. Christian Life Books, 1997, p. 19.

[45] Goff, James. Fields White Unto Harvest: Charles F. Parham and the Missionary Origins of Pentecostalism. University of Arkansas Press, 1988, p 101.

[46] For a review see: Walker Robins. “Cultural Zionism and Binationalism Among American Liberal Protestants.” Israel Studies, vol. 23, no. 2, 2018, p. 142.

[47] “Latter Rain Revival | Pentecostalism.” Encyclopedia Britannica, www.britannica.com/event/Latter-Rain-revival.

[48] Goff, James. Fields White Unto Harvest: Charles F. Parham and the Missionary Origins of Pentecostalism. University of Arkansas Press, 1988, pp. 6-9.

[49] Cloud, David. The Pentecostal-Charismatic Movement: Its History and Error. Way of Life Literature, 1994.

[50] Jones, James. Filled with New Wine: The Charismatic Renewal of the Church. 1st ed., Harper and Row, 1976, p. 86. Cf: Busenitz, Nathan. The Gift of Tongues: Comparing the Church Fathers with Contemporary Pentecostalism, 2006, p. 9.

[51] Hinson, Glenn. “The Significance of Glossolalia in the History of Christianity” in Speaking in Tongues: A Guide to Research on Glossolalia, 1986, p. 182.

[52] Cf. Clemen, Carl. The ‘Speaking with Tongues’ of the Early Christians, 1899.

[53] McDonnell, Kilian. “The Theology of Speaking in Tongues,” in The Holy Spirit in Today’s Church, 1973, pp. 93-95.

[54] Criswell, W. A. “Facts Concerning Modern Glossolalia,” in The Holy Spirit in Today’s Church, 1973, p. 92.

[55] Kildahl, John P. “Six Behavioral Observations about Speaking in Tongues,” in Gifts of the Spirit and the Body of Christ, 1974, p. 77.

[56] Leeming, David. Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion. Springer, 2010, pp. 348-349.

[57] Harrison, Peter. The Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion. Cambridge University Press, 2010, p. 201.

[58] Goff, James. Fields White Unto Harvest: Charles F. Parham and the Missionary Origins of Pentecostalism. University of Arkansas Press, 1988, p. 76.

[59] Martin, Larry. Skeptics and Scoffers: The Religious World Looks at Azusa Street, 1906–1907. Christian Life Books, 2004, pp. 47-48.

[60] See the 1901 issue of January 7th of the “Topeka State Journal”.

[61] Kildahl, John P, “The Psychology of Speaking in Tongues.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, vol. 11, no. 4, 1972, p. 413.

[62] Jones, James. Filled With New Wine. HarperCollins, 1976, p. 86.

[63] Jorstad, Erling. The Holy Spirit in Today’s Church. Abingdon Press, 1973, p. 87.

[64] Samarin, William. Tongues of Men and Angels: The Religious Language of Pentecostalism, Macmillan, 1972, pp. 127-128.

[65] Williams, J.R. “Charismatic Movement” in Evangellical Dictionary of Theology, 1984, p. 207.

[66] Goff, James. Fields White Unto Harvest: Charles F. Parham and the Missionary Origins of Pentecostalism. University of Arkansas Press, 1988, p. 98.

[67] Barnett, Donald Lee, and Jeffrey McGregor. Speaking in Other Tongues. Community Chapel Publications, 1986, pp. 326-327.

[68] Kildahl, John P. “Six Behavioral Observations about Speaking in Tongues,” in Gifts of the Spirit and the Body of Christ, 1974, p. 74.

[69] Goff, James. Fields White Unto Harvest: Charles F. Parham and the Missionary Origins of Pentecostalism. University of Arkansas Press, 1988, p. 76.

[70] Macarthur, John. Strange Fire. Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2013, p. 134.

[71] Goff, James. Fields White Unto Harvest: Charles F. Parham and the Missionary Origins of Pentecostalism. University of Arkansas Press, 1988, p. 98.

[72] Maloney, H. Newton, and J. P. Kildahl. “The Psychology of Speaking in Tongues.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, vol. 11, no. 4, 1972, p. 413.

[73] See the 1906 issue of January the 6th of “Topeka Daily Capital) and the 1906 issue of January 7th of “Topeka State Journal”.

[74] Martin, Larry. The Topeka Outpouring of 1901. Christian Life Books, 1997, p. 61.

[75] Anderson, Robert Mapes. Vision of the Disinherited: The Making of American Pentecostalism. Oxford University Press, 1979, p. 91.

[76] Goff, James. Fields White Unto Harvest: Charles F. Parham and the Missionary Origins of Pentecostalism. University of Arkansas Press, 1988, pp. 76-80.

[77] Cf. Gumerlock, Francis. “Tongues in the Church Fathers” in Reformation & Revival Journal, vol. 13, no. 4, 2004.

[78] Macarthur, John. Strange Fire. Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2013, p. 137.

[79] Hasel, Gerhard. Speaking in Tongues: Biblical Speaking in Tongues and Contemporary Glossolalia. Adventist Theological Society Publications, 1991, p. 17.

[80] Jorstad, Erling. The Holy Spirit in Today’s Church. Abingdon Press, 1973, pp. 90-91.

[81] Geisler, Norman. Signs and Wonders. Reprint, Tyndale, 1998, p. 167.

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