“Tongues of Men and of Angels”

“I became thirsty for a personal infilling. I decided I should no longer be put off by tales of ‘Pentecostal’ excesses. Three months of waiting upon God culminated in my attendance at a conference on ‘The Holy Spirit’. I was led to seek counsel from a godly older brother. This was followed by prayer and the laying on of hands. As faith was quickened I began thanking the Lord for the fulfilment of His promise (Luke 11. 13). Normal language became inadequate, my spirit began to overflow in a language I have never learned nor could have invented. At that moment the Lord seemed nearer and more precious than ever before.”1

The above testimony (written by one with “assembly” affiliations) is now more than 15 years old, but could have been written to express the experiences of many in recent days. Elders, missionaries and ministering brethren, as well as those young in the faith, have testified to speaking in “other tongues” which, they claim, are of the same origin as those mentioned in the New Testament. Without doubt, it is a significant phenomenon. What should our reaction be to such claims? There are those who would seek to sidestep the issue by some specious comment about love. “That sort of thing isn’t for me”, they say, “but who am I to doubt another man’s experience?”. However, such an attitude of “benevolent neutrality” cannot be taken. If those who hold the charismatic view are right, then there is indeed a new movement of the Spirit afoot and one which we should all be involved in. If however there is no basis to what is being claimed, then we must stand against what is a delusion and a possible cause of division amongst us. Love and truth must walk hand in hand.

As with any other problem, our sole basis for belief and practice must be the Word of God. We must search the Scriptures to see if these things are so. In our examination of the Bible we will seek to answer three questions about the gift of tongues. In this article we will look at the nature of the gift— what exactly happened when someone spoke in tongues? In the following article, we will consider why the gift was given and for how long.

Tongues are mentioned in the New Testament as having been practised in four localities. There may have been others, but we do not know of them. These were Jerusalem, Acts 2. 4-13, Caesarea, 10. 45-46, Ephesus, 19. 6, and Corinth, 1 Cor. 12-14. It is instructive to note that in all of these cases the same Greek word is used to describe this gift, glossa, a word used in other parts of the New Testament to describe human language, see Rev. 7. 9; 17. 15. In Acts 2 a synonymous term dialektos is also used, vv. 6, 8. This too is used in the New Testament to describe human languages; see Acts 1. 19; 21. 40. From this evidence as well as the direct context of Acts 2, we can define the gift of tongues as always being the gift of foreign languages bestowed by the Holy Spirit on those who had never learned them.

This definition would be readily accepted to describe the gift of tongues as found in the Acts of Apostles, but would be argued against in the case of 1 Corinthians 12-14, where many commentators (including a fair number of non-charismatics) argue that a different gift is in view. This idea is difficult to harmonize with Biblical evidence. It seems highly unlikely that one gift of tongues would be given at the beginning of the Christian age to be soon replaced by another without any indication as to when or why this change took place. Professor J. F. Walvoord says, “Any view which denies that speaking in tongues used actual foreign languages is difficult to harmonize with the Scriptural concept of a spiritual gift”2. It is stated that tongues in 1 Corinthians were devotional utterances as 14. 2 says, “he that speaketh in a tongue speaketh not unto men but unto God: for no man understandeth” (the word “unknown” not being in the original). Taken in isolation, the verse would seem to prove this. However, when we examine the context a different picture emerges. A number of the Corinthians had received the gift of tongues. Instead of using this gift to God’s glory, they began to abuse it, exalting it above the other gifts and practising it as often as possible. They spoke in languages which were not understood by their hearers. Only God understood them. Hence the reason why Paul plays down tongues and insists on the necessity of order and translation in their use, 1 Cor. 14. 1-19. It has also been argued that because Paul uses a different Greek word for languages in 14. 10, 11 (“voices”, a.v.), he must be referring to something different elsewhere. Once again, as in Acts 2, it would seem to be the case that two synonymous terms are used—probably to show the difference between the normal use of languages and divinely given languages. In 1 Corinthians 13. 1, where Paul talks of languages of men and angels, he is simply using a figure of speech to show that, no matter how polished his preaching was, without love, it was worth nothing.

It should be noted that the gift of tongues is not described as beng used in private - it was always used in public, and was a sign to unbelievers who were present, 1 Cor. 14. 22.

Accepting that the New Testament gift of tongues is the gift of foreign languages, what shall we say of the modern tongues movement? Through personal observation and the testimony of others, I would state my conviction that “tongues” as practised today are not languages of any species but are in fact repetitious syllables which come from an uncontrolled subconscious, and thus a purely psychological phenomenon which has appeared in all sorts of groups ranging from Buddhists to Mormons. This view would be backed up by linguistic research. Dr. Mansell Pattison of the University of Washington states “glossolalia is a stereotyped pattern of unconsciously controlled vocal behaviour which appears under specific emotional conditions”3. To this Professor William J. Samarin, Professor of Anthropology and Linguistics at the University of Toronto, adds his testimony that glossolalia is not a supernatural phenomenon, but a very natural one which anyone can produce. In a wide sampling of tongues’ speakers, in no case was it proved that any human language was spoken4.

We would in no way deride those who seek spiritual reality and a closer walk with God. Would that there were more! It seems, however, that those who wander off into modern charismatic experience are in fact in bypath meadow, where all may seem bright but where the path eventually leads far away from their goal. If “tongues” today were true foreign languages, this could be amply proved and would have to be accepted by all believers of spiritual discernment. The fact is, however, that this is not the case. “Forbid not to speak with tongues”, 1 Cor. 14. 39, is often quoted as being a word from the Lord to noncharismatics. We certainly would not forbid any to speak in tongues—if tongues were being spoken! Where a human imitation is in evidence, however, our attitude must be different, and with all love and every effort to win our brother or sister we must stand first against what is not of God. References



Quoted in Lillie, D. G., Tongues Under Fire. London: Fountain Trust, 1966, p.52.


Holmes, Frank Ed., Spiritual Renewal. South Molton: Quest (Western) Publications, 1977, p.56.


Hoekema, A. A., What about Tongues Speaking? Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1966, p.132.


Holmes, Frank, op. cit. pp. 62-64.


Your Basket

Your Basket Is Empty