Different Kinds of Tongues: A Biblical and Linguistic Defense

Thursday, January 25, 2007


It is maintained by many that the gift of tongues (if it still exists at all), is always another known language, as in the Upper Room at Pentecost, or that it can only mean that the hearers miraculously hear their own language. The following research backs up, I think, my contention that there is also a mysterious prayer language referred to in Holy Scripture, which cannot be identified as an existing human language.

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There is much biblical indication of the above thesis (NRSV):

1 Corinthians 12:10: . . . to another various kinds of tongues, to another interpretation of tongues.

1 Corinthians 12:28: . . . various kinds of tongues.

The whole point of 1 Corinthians 12 as a whole is to rebuke those who think one part of the Body of Christ is more important than another, and to excoriate those who deem certain gifts and roles as unnecessary or able to be discarded. How is it, then, that those who are outside of the charismatic movement so often condemn it in most vociferous - and ironically emotionalistic - terms? Have they not read this chapter and other utterances from St. Paul about the gift of "various tongues"?

1 Corinthians 12:30:
 Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?

Obviously not (Paul was being rhetorical). So, then, if someone doesn't have the gift of tongues (and I am in their number), fine; God has othergifts for them. But why must the gift of tongues be singled out for unbridled disdain by so many people? It is biblical; it has been possessed by saints, and by well-known and respected Catholics today. What is the problem here? Must people always condemn something simply becausethey don't understand it or possess it (as in this case)? On the other hand, this same verse goes against some charismatics who claim that allshould speak in tongues.

1 Corinthians 13:1:
 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels . . .

I highly doubt that angels speak any one human language, and it is likely that they speak a language entirely unhuman as well (insofar as they speak at all - that would usually be with humans, I would imagine).

1 Corinthians 14:2,4-5:
 For those who speak in a tongue do not speak to other people but to God; for nobody understands them, since they are speaking mysteries in the Spirit . . . Those who speak in a tongue build up themselves, but those who prophesy build up the church. Now I would like all of you to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. One who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up.

Obviously, St. Paul is a "charismatic." Note that the gift of tongues is specifically defined as not a known language. What happened in Acts 2 at Pentecost (other known languages) may also be included in Paul's "various kinds of tongues," I suppose, but the fact remains that when Paul explicitly defines the gift, in a teaching epistle, it is as a mysterious language that must be interpreted, in order to benefit others. Note also that Paul esteems prophesy more than tongues - so that makes him an even more wacko charismatic. :-) I'm glad to be on the Apostle Paul's side . . .

1 Corinthians 14:6,9,11:
 . . . if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I speak to you in some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching? . . . if in a tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is being said? For you will be speaking into the air . . . If then, I do not know the meaning of a sound, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me.

Again, Paul defines tongues as an unknown language, not simply a language unknown to the particular hearer. Unfortunately, this passage and similar ones have been wrested from context to "prove" that somehow Paul is against tongues (i.e., an unknown prayer language) altogether. That this is not the case is seen clearly from several verses above - especially 1 Cor 14:5, and also in 1 Cor 14:18 (see below).

He is not preaching against tongues here; rather, he is stressing and extolling the other gifts which edify the Church and not just the utterer (see, e.g., 1 Cor 14:2-3,12-19; many others). One might contend that Paul was rebuking excess and corruption with regard to the gifts (especially tongues) - just as the Catholic Church and people like myself (in my apologist role) have been doing. I was criticizing the "name-it-claim-it" charismatic heresy way back in 1982 (as a Protestant evangelical charismatic, attending the Assemblies of God myself). So we charismatics well understand that there are excesses in our movement, and police it ourselves.

1 Corinthians 14:13: Therefore one who speaks in a tongue should pray for the power to interpret.

Why, if tongues by definition is simply a known language, or mystically understood by all hearers in their own tongue?

1 Corinthians 14:14:
 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unproductive.

This is the whole point: tongues edifies the utterer on a very deep, "spiritual" level. Yet so many of those who don't possess this wonderful gift mock it as "gibberish," "jibber-jabber," etc. Why? Have they not read these chapters? They are being most "un-Pauline" and unbiblical!

1 Corinthians 14:15:
 What should I do then? I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray with the mind also; I will sing praise with the spirit, but I will sing praise with the mind also.

St. Paul is so off-base! How can he say such shocking things???!! Far from the intolerant, condescending attitude of many non-charismatics towards charismatic worship, Paul is content to approve both forms of prayer and singing: "spiritual" and "intellectual," if you will. Singing in the spirit???? Who does that but charismatics (if by that is meant a singing beyond verbal forms)? We are happy to recognize non-tongues prayer and singing, but it seems that such biblical tolerance is not accorded to us. Paul is saying that both sorts of prayer are preferable (in assembly), but not that tongues without interpretation are therefore to be avoided altogether (14:18-19).

1 Corinthians 14:18:
 I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you.

Oh? So Paul is wrong? He is a nutcase and an "emotionalistic," experience-obsessed person too? The Bible contains error, after all? Paul told us to imitate him; are we to make exceptions based on our own biases and prejudices? But again there is a balance. Paul doesn't command all to speak in tongues. He merely says that there are many different gifts, "allot[ted] to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses" (1 Cor 12:11).

So the Christian is to acknowledge these gifts in others, and not to despise them or be jealous (or whatever the reason is for such unChristian condescension). And then he sums up his point in the next verse (1 Cor 14:19), viz., that other gifts are better for the purpose of edifying the Church. But that is not the same as saying that tongues are therefore bad. Such a conclusion is not Paul's, and is a false dichotomy, illogically constructed by enemies of tongues for some odd reason. See also 1 Cor 14:20-25.

1 Corinthians 14:27: If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn; and let one interpret.

Again, why, if tongues consists of known languages?

1 Corinthians 14:39
: So, my friends, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues.

What????!!!!!! Did Paul have too much to drink when he wrote this? Didn't he know what so many Christians in our time would think of tongues? So our choice is to either follow St. Paul, the early Church, and the Bible, or the "traditions of men" which would forbid this gift, directly contrary to Paul's explicit teaching and instruction.

1 Corinthians 14:40:
 But all things should be done decently and in order.

Amen! Let charismatic worship be "in order." I've yet to meet any educated, thoughtful charismatic who would deny this. Contrary to the stereotype, most charismatic services - Catholic or Protestant - are perfectly organized and orderly as opposed to chaotic, wild, unpredictable, etc. Time is simply allowed for spontaneous prayer and tongues, within the context of the overall worship.

There are, of course, many excesss (I've observed them firsthand myself, on many occasions), but excess doesn't prove illegitimacy or the presence of a counterfeit. There may be 50 people in the congregation truly babbling out of their own made-up version of what they think is tongues. But how does that prove that there are not 50 or more other people who are praying in a real prayer tongue?

So there is excess . . . nothing is more abused than the Bible and Christianity themselves. There are tons of false interpretations and counterfeit groups. So do we therefore toss out the Bible and the Faith? Of course not! How about sex? What is more abused than that? So we are all to renounce sex and become celibates and eunuchs because of it? Sex becomes intrinsically a bad thing, simply because it is so abused?

Yet a different - far stricter - standard is applied by non-charismatics to the charismatic renewal. There, any observed excess is regarded as a knockout punch to the movement as a whole. This is ridiculous; and as it is quite unbiblical (doctrinally speaking), it is not only foolish and illogical, but wicked, as it contradicts the clear teaching of St. Paul and the Bible, and calls evil what is oftentimes very good indeed - moves of the Holy Spirit.

It is argued by some that Luke wrote Acts, where tongues is presented as a known language. Luke was a disciple of Paul; therefore, Paul's understanding of tongues would be the same. This is highly speculative and - in effect - eisegesis ("reading into Scripture one's own notions") of the passage, not exegesis. The actual Scriptures must be dealt with. Instead this argument begs the question under consideration, which (in my opinion) is whether or not there are more than one kind of tongues. Besides, it is poor exegesis do define a doctrine from historical events presented in Scripture, as opposed to actual didactic, doctrinal, theological teaching from St. Paul. Charismatics are prone to the same tendency. Some construct what I would consider a false doctrine of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, based on events recorded in Acts, which were historically-unique, rather than normative for each and every Christian.

Paul expressly speaks of "various kinds of tongues," so this should not even be a controversial point in the first place. There is no compelling biblical reason at all to believe that the tongues at Pentecost are the only kind of tongues. On the other hand, I think there is strong biblical evidence for the charismatic view that such a thing as a "prayer tongue" exists, and is, in fact, mandated by St. Paul. It has not been demonstrated to me thus far that Pentecost is the intractable model for all manifestations of tongues-speaking.

Again, Paul he is not saying that tongues is bad; rather, that prophesy is better (1 Cor 14:1-4). He wants both. Non-charismatics seem to want only one option, and to forbid the other. Indeed, faith and reason are both indispensable in theology and Christian life. That is not at issue here. My entire apologetic approach and website are based on that assumption. Such "either/or" reasoning reminds me of those who say that the Church believes marriage is bad simply because it regards celibacy as a higher calling. Again, good and better, not good and bad; same thing with tongues and known verbal language and prayer (1 Cor 14:15). I think it is true that the deepest prayer and meditation transcends language. The Orthodox and Eastern Catholics highly stress this point (as does Western Catholic mysticism); I think rightly so (yet it is ironic that the Orthodox seem to be so dead set against the charismatic movement).

The following is a collection of citations from several standard Protestant reference works, both commentaries and lexicons. None are overtly charismatic or pentecostal works, as far as I know (probably quite the contrary - several probably take the position that the gift ceased after the Apostolic Age), yet they nicely support my position, and offer much solid biblical argumentation in favor of it.

1) New Bible Dictionary, ed. J.D. Douglas, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans,
1962, "Tongues, Gift of," pp. 1286-7:

In the opinion of many modern scholars the glossolalia of Acts 2:1-13 was similar to that described in 1 Cor 12-14, and consisted of unintelligible ecstatic utterances . . . "Corinthian glossolalia differed in some respects from that described in Acts . . . Glossolalia in Acts appears to have been an irresistible and temporary initial experience, but at Corinth it was a continuing gift under the control of the speaker (1 Cor 14:27-28). At Pentecost the 'tongues' were readily understood by the hearers, but at Corinth the additional gift of interpretation was necessary to make them intelligible (verses 5,13,27). Only at Pentecost is speaking in foreign languages explicitly mentioned . . .

Tongues varied in character (1 Cor 12:10). At Corinth they were apparently not foreign languages, which Paul denotes by a different word ('phone,' 14:10-11), because a special gift, not linguistic proficiency, was necessary to understand them; nor were they meaningless ecstatic sounds, though the mind was inactive (verse 14) and the utterances, without interpretation, unintelligible even to the speaker (verse 13), because words (verse 19) and contents (verses 14-17) were recognized, and interpreted tongues were equivalent to prophecy (verse 5). A definite linguistic form is suggested by the Greek words for 'to interpret', which, elsewhere in the New Testament, except in Lk 24:27, always means 'to translate' . . . , and tongues are probably best regarded as special 'languages' not having ordinary human characteristics, inspired by the Holy Spirit for worship, for a sign to unbelievers (14:22), and, when interpreted, for the edification of believers.

2) Eerdmans Bible Dictionary, ed. Allen C. Myers, Grand Rapids, MI: 
Eerdmans, 1987, "Tongues, "p. 1011):

The terms 'speaking in tongues' and 'glossolalia' both arise from Gk. 'lalein heterais glossais' 'to speak in other tongues [i.e., languages]' (Acts 2:4) and similar forms used in the New Testament of miraculous ecstatic speech. Ecstatic speech and praise are common to many religions ancient and modern, and was present among the early prophets of Israel and surrounding nations (1 Sam. 10:5-6,9-13; 1 Kgs. 18:29).

When the early Church first experienced glossolalia (Acts 2:4-11), it was heard as actual human languages not known to the speakers, but this may have been a miracle of hearing rather than of speaking (cf. vv. 6-8). Otherwise, glossolalia is not normally regarded in the New Testament as actual human language, but as speech directed to God and not intended to be understood by humans (1 Cor 14:2). It may be, however, a sign given to human beings (here, specifically 'unbelievers') by the miraculous nature of the speech itself (vv. 21-22). Paul calls glossolalia 'tongues of men and of angels' (13:1), the latter designation relating glossolalia to apocalyptic references to 'angelic language,' 'the dialect of the archons,' and the like (e.g., T.Job 48:2-3; 49:2; 50:2; cf. 52:7). Paul may also refer to the phenomenon as 'sighs too deep for words' (Rom. 8:26) . . .

The church in Corinth placed a high value on glossolalia and regarded it as a spectacular evidence of the Spirit's presence. At their meetings large numbers, it appears, were involved in ecstatic speaking. Paul feared that the resulting scene would be needlessly offensive to outsiders (1 Cor. 14:23) . . . 'interpretation' was probably not translation but something closer to the explication of dreams or signs or an activity similar to prophecy.

3) Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, abridged one-volume edition and translation by Geoffrey W. Bromiley; edited by Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich - affectionately known as "little Kittel" -, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985, p. 124, "glossa," [tongue, language, speech]:

3. Glossolalia.

a. Speaking in tongues (1 Cor. 12-14; cf. Mk. 16:17; Acts 2:4) is a gift (1 Cor. 14:2). This speaking is primarily to God (14:2,28) in the form of prayer, praise, or thanksgiving (14:2,14-17). Its benefit is for the individual rather than the community (14:4 ff.). In it the 'nous' is absorbed so that the words are obscure (14:2,9,11,15-16). Since the sounds are not articulated, the impression of a foreign language is left (14:7-8,10-11), and uncontrolled use might suggest that the community is composed of mad people (14:23,27). Yet tongues are a sign of God's power (14:22). To make them useful either the speaker or someone else must interpret (14:5,13,27-28; 12:10,30) . . .

b. It should be noted that, while there are Hellenistic parallels for tongues, there is also an OT basis. Thus the seers of 1 Sam. 10:5 ff. seem to be robbed of their individuality, and their fervor finds expression in broken cries and unintelligible speech (cf. 2 Kgs. 9:11). Drunkards mock Isaiah's babbling speech (Is. 28:10-11). The later literature, e.g., Eth. En. 71:11, gives similar examples of ecstatic speech (not necessarily speaking in tongues).

c. The event recorded in Acts 2 belongs to this context. Like the speaking in tongues depicted by Paul, it is a gift of the Spirit (v. 4) which causes astonishment (v. 7) and raises the charge of drunkenness (v. 13). But in this case the hearers detect their own languages (vv. 8, 11). Since they are all Jews (v. 9) and an impression of confused babbling is given, it is not wholly clear what this implies . . . .

d. . . . The meaning 'unintelligible sound' might seem to fit the case, but Paul sharply criticizes this aspect and 'glossa' is for him more than an isolated oracle (1 Cor. 14:2,9,11,26). It seems, then, that 'language' is the basic meaning; here is a miraculous 'language of the Spirit' such as is used by angels (1 Cor. 13:1) and which we, too, may use as we are seized by the Spirit and caught up to heaven (2 Cor. 12:2 ff.; cf. 1 Cor. 14:2,13 ff. as well as the stress on the heavenly origin of the phenomenon in Acts 2:2 ff.).

4) Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Joseph Henry Thayer, Grand 
Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1977 (orig. 1901), Strong's word #1100 ('glossa'), p. 118:

. . . 'to speak with tongues'; this, as appears from 1 Co. 14:7 sqq, is the gift of men who, rapt in ecstasy and no longer quite masters of their own reason and consciousness, pour forth their glowing, spiritual emotions in strange utterances, rugged, dark, disconnected, quite unfitted to instruct or to influence the minds of others: Acts 10:46; 19:6; 1 Co. 12:30; 13:1; 14:2,4-6,13,18,23,27,39 . . . according to the more rigorous conception of inspiration nothing human in an inspired man was thought to be active except the tongue, put in motion by the Holy Spirit.

5) Word Studies in the New Testament, Marvin R. Vincent, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1946 (orig. 1887), Vol. III, The Epistles of Paul; commentary on 1 Cor 12:10, p. 257:

IV. Meaning of the Term 'Tongue' . . . It does not necessarily mean any of the known languages of men, but may mean the speaker's own tongue, shaped in a peculiar manner by the Spirit's influence; or an entirely new spiritual language.

V. Nature of the Gift in the Corinthian Church. . . . (3.) It was an ecstatic utterance, unintelligible to the hearers, and requiring interpretation, or a corresponding ecstatic condition on the part of the hearer in order to understand it. It was not for the edification of the hearer but of the speaker, and even the speaker did not always understand it, 1 Cor. 14:2,19. It therefore impressed unchristian bystanders as a barbarous utterance, the effect of madness or drunkenness, Acts 2:13,15; 1 Cor. 14:11,23. Hence it is distinguished from the utterance of the understanding, 1 Cor. 14:4,14-16,19,27.

6) International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, ed. James Orr, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1939, Vol. V, "Tongues, Gift of," p. 2996:

. . . [referring to 1 Cor 14] The words were spoken 'in the spirit' (ver 2); i.e. the ordinary faculties were suspended and the Divine, specifically Christian, element in the man took control, so that a condition of ecstasy was produced. This immediate (mystical) contact with the Divine enabled the utterance of "mysteries" (ver 2) - things hidden from the ordinary human understanding. In order to make the utterances comprehensible to the congregation, the services of an 'interpreter' were needed. Such a man was one who had received from God a special gift as extraordinary as the gifts of miracles, healings, or the tongues themselves (12:10,30); i.e. the ability to interpret did not rest at all on natural knowledge . . . as there was to be only one interpreter for the 'two or three' speakers (ver 28), any interpreter must have been competent to explain 
any tongue . . . These characteristics of an interpreter make it clear that 'speaking in a tongue' at Corinth was not normally felt to be speaking in a foreign language . . . Hence foreign languages are to be barred out . . . . Consequently, if 'tongues' means 'languages,' entirelynew languages must be thought of. Such might have been of many kinds (12:28), have been regarded as a fit creation for the conveyance of new truths, and may even at times have been thought to be celestial languages - the 'tongues of angels' (13:1) . . . The account in Acts 2 differs from that of 1 Cor 14 in making the tongues foreign languages.

7) Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. I: Apostolic Christianity: A.D. 1-100,Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1975 (orig. 1910), pp. 235-236:

. . . the term 'diversities' of tongues, as well as the distinction between tongues of 'angels' and tongues of 'men' (1 Cor. 13:1) point to different manifestations (speaking, praying, singing), according to the individuality, education, and mood of the speaker, but not to various 
foreign languages, which are excluded by Paul's description . . .

Most commentators [define 'tongues' as] language or dialect (comp. Acts 1:19; 2:6,8; 21:40; 26:14). This is the correct view . . . It does not necessarily mean one of the known languages of the earth, but may mean a peculiar handling of the vernacular dialect of the speaker, or a new spiritual language never known before, a language of immediate inspiration in a state of ecstasy. The 'tongues' were individual varieties of this language of inspiration.

(2) The glossolalia in the Corinthian church, with which that at Caesaria in Acts 10:46, and that at Ephesus, 19:6, are evidently identical, we know very well from the description of Paul . . . It was not a speaking in foreign languages, which would have been entirely useless in a devotional meeting of converts, but a speaking in a language differing from all known languages, and required an interpreter to be intelligible to foreigners . . . It was an act of self-devotion, an act of thanksgiving, praying, and singing, within the Christian congregation, by individuals who were wholly absorbed in communion with God, and gave utterance to their rapturous feelings in broken, abrupt, rhapsodic, unintelligible words . . . It was the language of the spirit ('pneuma') or of ecstasy, as distinct from the language of the understanding ('nous') . . . The speaker in tongues was in a state of spiritual intoxication . . . His tongue was a lyre on which the divine Spirit played celestial tunes . . .

We do not know how long the glossolalia, as thus described by Paul, continued . . . Irenæus (Adv. Haer. 1.v.c.6, § 1) speaks of 'many brethren' whom he heard in the church having the gift of prophecy and of speaking in 'diverse tongues', bringing the hidden things of men to light and expounding the mysteries of God. It is not clear whether by the term 'diverse,' which does not elsewhere occur, he means speaking in foreign languages, or in diversities of tongues altogether peculiar, like those meant by Paul. The latter is more probable.

Now, has the Catholic Church frowned upon the gift of tongues, or stated
that it has ceased (along with other spiritual gifts)? Hardly:

8) The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994)

#800 Charisms are to be accepted with gratitude by the person who receives them and by all members of the Church as well. They are a wonderfully rich grace for the apostolic vitality and for the holiness of the entire Body of Christ, provided they really are genuine gifts of the Holy Spirit and are used in full conformity with authentic promptings of this same Spirit, that is, in keeping with charity, the true measure of all charisms. (cf. 1 Cor 13)

#2003 Grace is first and foremost the gift of the Spirit who justifies and sanctifies us. But grace also includes the gifts that the Spirit grants us to associate us with his work, to enable us to collaborate in the salvation of others and in the growth of the Body of Christ, the Church. There are sacramental graces, gifts proper to the different sacraments. There are furthermore special graces, also called charisms after the Greek term used by St. Paul meaning "favor," "gratuitous gift," "benefit." (cf. Lumen Gentium 12) Whatever their character - sometimes it is extraordinary, such as the gift of miracles or of tongues - charisms are oriented toward sanctifying grace and are intended for the common good of the Church. They are at the service of charity which builds up the Church. (cf. 1 Cor 12).

{see also #688, 799, 801, 951, 1508}

Even a 1960 Catholic commentary (i.e., before Vatican II) reiterates the views I have been presenting above:

9) New Testament Reading Guide, 1, 2 Corinthians, Claude J. Peifer, O.S.B., Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1960, pp. 44-45, 48-50:

[1 Cor 12: 8,10]: These extraordinary favors, which all come from the same Spirit, are now enumerated . . . . to utter ecstatic, unintelligible sounds in a state of transport; to understand and interpret such sounds. All of these are free gifts of the Spirit, who distributes them as he sees fit .
. . .

[1 Cor 14:2,5]: Speaking in tongues was ecstatic and unintelligible to others, a rapturous declamation of divine mysteries, which could be understood only by God or by some other person who had a special gift for this purpose . . .

What good would it do the Corinthians if Paul should come to them speaking ecstatically so that no one could understand him? . . .

[1 Cor 14:14,19]: The ecstatic speaks from emotion; it is his 'spirit' which prays, but it is not subject to the control of reason . . . a brief instruction is worth more to the community than a long ecstatic discourse which no one understands.