The Nature of Biblical Tongues

PMT 2013-024b by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

In this article I will begin a brief series on the issue of tongues-speaking.

Knowledgeable Christians are aware that a long-standing charismatic revival is all about us. The charismatic movement is so vigorous that it has become one of the most phenomenal religious movements of our time.

This movement is also multi-faceted, boasting a wide variety of charismatic experiences among its adherents, including prophetic utterances, miraculous healings, being “slain in the Spirit,” “holy laughter,” and so forth. Nevertheless, speaking in tongues (or glossolalia, as it is technically known) is certainly one of the most distinctive features of the movement. In this brief study we will investigate the Scriptural data regarding three fundamental issues relating to tongues-speaking: (1) The nature of tongues, (2) the purpose (or function), of tongues, and (3) the transience of tongues. These are crucial issues for analyzing and evaluating the modern phenomenon in terms of the biblical record.

In studying biblical tongues we must consider their nature in terms of both form and content.

The Form of Tongues in Scripture

Basically two standard positions are used to explain the biblical form of tongues-speaking: One claims that tongues were ecstatic utterances. These utterances were rhapsodic, incoherent, spiritual ejaculations of prayer and praise with no formal structure or linguistic genealogy discernible. Frequently adherents of this view speak of tongues as a “heavenly language.” This view almost universally prevails in charismatic circles today.

The other view holds tongues were a miraculous endowment of the Holy Spirit whereby the charismatically-endowed Christian could speak an historical, foreign human language which he had never learned. Thus, tongues were a truly miraculous phenomenon of a remarkable nature.

That tongues were structured, coherent, foreign languages is evident from the Scriptural record. The following provides incontrovertible evidence in this direction.

First, the evidence from first occurrence. The definitive, first-occurrence of tongues was indisputably in the form of structured foreign languages. In Acts 2 the first historical manifestation of tongues-speaking confirms its biblical form:

And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were bewildered, because they were each one hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and marveled, saying `Why are not all these who speak Galileans? And how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born. . . . We hear them in our tongues speaking the mighty deeds of God.’” (Acts 2:6-8, 11)

This first occurrence is definitive of biblical tongues, for this is the very experience prophesied by God through the prophet Joel (Joel 2:28-32; Acts 2:16-19) and by the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 1:5).

Second, evidence from later episodes. Subsequent occurrences of tongues-speaking in Acts conform to the pattern established in Acts 2. The very next express reference to tongues is found in Acts 10:45-46. When the Lord opens the hearts of Cornelius and his household to the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ, they immediately exercise the identical gift: “And all the circumcised believers who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out upon the Gentiles also. For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God.” When this event is related to the Jerusalem Church, Peter reports that “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, just as He did upon us at the beginning. . . . If God therefore gave to them the same gift as He gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” (Acts 11:15, 17).

Note that Peter carefully defines this experience in terms of the Pentecost event. This is the “same gift”; it falls upon Cornelius’s household “just as” does upon Peter and the 120 “at the beginning.” Clearly the original Pentecost tongues serve as the paradigm for later manifestations.

Third, the evidence identical terminology. All references to tongues-speaking in Scripture employ the same basic terminology, thus indicating identity of form. The Greek word for “tongues” occurring in all instances of tongues-speaking is glossa. The Greek word for “speak” in every instance is laleo. Since tongues are not re-defined elsewhere, and since all instances employ the same terminology as in Acts, and since an obvious pattern is set early in Acts, we may safely conclude that the biblical form of tongues was constant. Tongues were foreign, human languages spoken under a miraculous movement of the Holy Spirit.

Fourth, the evidence from language analogy. The Corinthian tongues are defined in terms fully compatible with episodes in Acts. In 1 Corinthians 14:10-11, while in the course of speaking to the Corinthian abuse of tongues, Paul writes: “There are, perhaps, a great many kinds of languages in the world, and no kind is without meaning. If then I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be to the one who speaks a barbarian, and the one who speaks will be a barbarian to me.” Here we must note, first, that Paul expressly asserts that no language is without meaning. He is comparing tongues to world languages, and he recognizes that all languages have coherent meaning.

But, second, he also observes that at Corinth the gift of tongues is being employed in such a manner that no one present could understand the particular foreign language spoken. That tongues here are foreign languages is evident in that Paul compares the situation to a meeting between two foreigners. The Greek word “barbarian” indicates one who speaks a foreign language unknown by the Greek-speaking person. Foreigners do not babble incoherently; they speak structured languages  —  even though the one to whom they speak might not personally understand the language. This is precisely the failure of the Corinthian Christians: they are employing their gift of tongues (languages) indiscriminately and, thus, are not benefiting the congregation any more than would a preacher speaking a sermon to them in a foreign language.

Fifth, Paul enunciates a biblical principle which negates the possibility of tongues being rhapsodic frenzy. In 1 Corinthians 14:32 Paul writes that “the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets.” That is, it is not in keeping with the biblical concept of spiritual gifts for one to lose control of his psycho-somatic self in an emotional frenzy. In divine endowments the Lord gifts the whole man  —  the rational, as well as the emotional aspects of man’s being. It is only in paganism that those “gifted of the gods” lose control of themselves as their rationality is overridden by a surging of demonic power.

Consequently, the form of tongues in Scripture is that of miraculously granted ability to speak in foreign human languages previously unknown to the speaker. Before moving on to other matters, though, I will survey several leading texts employed in support of the ecstatic-utterance viewpoint.

In my next article, I will consider some objections to this understanding of biblical tongues. The charismatic movement has come up with several passage that they see as counter-balancing the analysis I present above. Stay tuned!

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