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The Nature of Tongues

Ever since 1906 Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles, from which the current Pentecostal and charismatic movements flow, speaking in tongues has been the subject of controversy. Some of the confusion concerns the nature of the gift. One idea is that tongues is a mode of utterance that can be understood by anyone regardless of his native language. Another is that tongues are a “private prayer language” that is uniquely created by the Holy Spirit for each tongues-speaker. 

Neither idea is correct, and both stem from a failure to appreciate what the word “tongues” means. Contemporary English speakers often look on the term as if it were mysterious and hard to understand. It’s not. When discussing speech, “tongues” has a simple and established meaning. It just means “languages.” Obviously, the word tongue can refer to the physical organ in our mouths. This organ is part of human anatomy, and every language has a word for it. But because of the association the tongue has with our power of speech, the tongue is invariably used as a metaphor for the manner of speech. Thus in almost every language the word for tongue is the same as the word for language. We speak of “the Spanish tongue,” “the French tongue,” and so forth. Over time, this usage became less common in English, and the word “language” has become dominant. That is why the term “tongues” can sound mysterious. We don’t use it to refer to languages most of the time anymore. Today, for English speakers, “tongue” more often will bring to mind the physical organ rather than the idea of a language.

Confusion is also caused by the fact that English Bibles switch back and forth between “tongue” and “language,” even though they are translating the single Greek word glossa. It would be clearer if they were consistent in using the term “language,” allowing us to talk about the gift of languages and to read in our Bibles of the apostles and the early Christians speaking in languages. By keeping in mind that this is what Scripture means, we more easily can understand what “tongues” is. It is an supernatural endowment by which one is able to speak in another language. One may not understand what one is saying (Paul suggests that people should pray to be able to interpret what is said in tongues; 1 Cor. 14:13-14). The content of one’s speech is determined by the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:4), so one’s own understanding is not essential, as it is in normal speech. This corrects the first misunderstanding of the gift: If tongues could be understood by all listeners, no matter what language they spoke, then Paul would not exhort people to pray for the gift of interpretation. 

The second misunderstanding of the gift-that tongues is a spontaneous, Spirit-created “private prayer language” — is rebuffed by the text of Scripture. As the multinational crowd gathered on the day of Pentecost showed, the languages in which the apostles spoke were real human languages that could be understood by anyone who spoke them (Acts 2:11). This has prompted some Pentecostals and charismatics to assert that the gift of tongues in Acts is different from the gift of tongues mentioned by Paul, but there is no basis for that. The claim would appear to be rooted in many Pentecostals’ and charismatics’ awareness that what they are speaking in is not a real language (not to say that the gift of tongues doesn’t occur; it does, just not as frequently as some claim). Paul nowhere hints that the phenomenon he refers to as “speaking in languages” (Greek, glossais lalon, from which we get “glossalalia”) is different from the phenomenon his companion Luke referred to by the same name when writing Acts. 

Paul speculates that a person might be given the superlative gift of speaking a language used by angels (1 Cor. 13:1). But, in context, it is not clear that Paul thinks it a real possibility. He posits it as the greatest imaginable kind of tongues, parallel to knowing all mysteries and knowledge (the greatest imaginable extent of prophecy, 13:2a), having faith that can move mountains (the greatest imaginable gift of faith, 13:2b), and giving away all one’s possessions and delivering one’s body to be burned (the greatest imaginable expression of selflessness, 13:3). Paul isn’t saying that speaking in angelic languages occurs (or even that angels have languages). He is using Middle Eastern hyperbole to say, “Even if I could speak in the tongues of angels, that would not profit me if I did not have love.”

He portrays speaking in languages of angels as something that would be extreme and rare, if it occurs at all. That means tongues normally will be ordinary human languages. They certainly would not be unique, divinely-invented languages for the believer and God alone — something that would be even more special than angelic languages.

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