What Is Speaking In Tongues?

Paul Derengowski, ThM


Speaking in tongues is a biblical expression found in Mark’s Gospel (although the textual evidence where tongues is mention is dubious at best), the Book of Acts, and the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians which alludes to an ability to communicate through alternate languages by the instrumentation of the Holy Spirit that was otherwise impossible prior to His involvement.

Although some involved in charismatic churches believe that they too can manifest the ability to speak in tongues like those at Pentecost, when the church was first being empowered to conduct ministry in accord with the mandate laid down by Jesus just prior to his ascension, there is no clear parallel between the two.

In fact, in the latter case the so-called “speaking” tends be nothing more than unintelligible gibberish that one might hear in a nursery than an intelligent conversation between mature adults.

The evidence that speaking in tongues is nothing more than the supernatural ability to intelligibly speak in a variety of languages is found in Acts 2 where the phenomenon itself is first initiated by the Spirit.  Jesus had just been crucified at least 40 days prior to the event and all of his disciples have gathered at Jerusalem to await the Spirit’s empowering presence.  Then, at the amazement of all of those present, a “violent” sound, like the rushing of wind, fills the room where they met.  If one can imagine the roar of a tornado or passing freight train, one gets the idea of the sound involved at the Spirit’s coming.

Then, tongues of fire appeared above each of the adherents, some of whom were from Parthia, Media, Elam, Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, Libya, Cyrene, Rome, Crete, and Arabia—each with their own language and dialect, which only could be understood while speaking to each other with an interpreter.  Yet, not only was there no interpreter, according to both verses 6 and 8, “they were each one hearing them speak in his own language” or dialectos.

Speaking in tongues, therefore, is not some ecstatic blubbering that some attribute to the Holy Spirit, that if one was not certain what the practitioner was trying to do would be thought to border on the insane.  It is a language created by God and used among humans on an everyday basis to communicate among those of one’s own dialect, but also with those humans of other dialects.  It is not some mystical or angelically precipitated twisting and contorting of the muscle located in the oral cavity between the nose and chin for the express purpose of trying to impress others with the drivel that might proceed out of the cavity.

Tongues are an orderly expression of speech, that when used early on in the Church spoke “of the mighty deeds of God” (Acts 2:11).  Those that disagree or try to use their personal experiences as the final authority on the matter are not only sorely deceived, but are deceivers themselves if they choose to persist in an otherwise unbiblical explanation of what they are doing, as they set themselves up as the final authority on the matter, rather than the clear written Word of God.

Whether or not the Holy Spirit still enables some to speak in tongues like that found on the Day of Pentecost will be answered elsewhere.  For now, though, the phenomenon itself is unlike anything seen today in charismatic circles which falsely resort to it as evidence for a whole host of things unrelated to what took place at Pentecost, whether it be validation of someone else’s salvation or the snookering of an audience to extort money.

Clearly speaking in tongues had its place in the early church, primarily to propagate the gospel message in the languages of those who otherwise knew little or next to nothing about what was accomplished by Jesus as the cross.  Anything other than that not only does not communicate what God intended when tongues is the subject, the message of the charismatic use of tongues for ulterior reasons is speaking nothing but unintelligible gibberish and needs to be quiet (see 1 Cor. 14:34).

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