What Is “Speaking In Tongues?”

“Undoubtedly there are many kinds of languages in the world, and none of them is without significance.” (1 Co 14:10)

Charismatic History

Prior to the events of Azusa Street (1906-1915) and the subsequent creation of Pentecostal Christianity, the gift of tongues was never really discussed. Thus, before we talk about the gift of tongues, we must talk about the spiritual history of the movement.

This modern emphasis on the Holy Spirit should not be understood as a new phenomenon, because it seems to be a progressive (yet fragmented) resurfacing of the 2nd century heresy of Montanism. Montanus thought of the indwelling of the Spirit the way one thinks of a man possessed by a demon. He believed to be divinely possessed by the Spirit, so much so that he perceived himself to be the Holy Spirit. He was not only legalistic in his dealings with people, but he (and his female partners Priscilla and Maximilla) spoke with ecstatic utterances, taught that women could be bishops and priests, payed money to people to preach his doctrines, and overemphasized eschatology through a literal understanding of the Book of Revelation (Chiliasm). Eusebius writes how Montanus became “beside himself, and being suddenly in a sort of frenzy and ecstasy, he raved, and began to babble and utter strange things, prophesying in a manner contrary to the constant custom of the Church handed down by tradition from the beginning” (Ecclesiastical History, Book V, 7.). Montanus was so persuasive that even Tertullian fell into his snare.

I actually have a history with the charismatic fringes of Protestantism, so I know a decent amount about how they think. People have even told me directly that their form of Christianity is a reaction against liturgy and doctrine. The Age of Enlightenment and its emphasis on scholastic knowledge created an “experience” vacuum within the Protestant methodological framework. Since Protestants hold to doctrines like “Sola Scriptura,” all that is needed is perceived scriptural support. As Montanus pointed to the daughters of Philip to justify his form of Christianity, so too does Azusa Street point to Pentecost.

I have heard people try to distinguish the Charismatic movement as a unique event separate from Protestantism. However, I would argue that the only reason why this movement feels different is because, like any trend, it is relevant to this present age. Far from being separate from Protestantism, the Charismatic movement is simply a progressive sub-group of Protestants with something new to protest. What was once a protest against Catholicism is now a protest against other Protestants: If the Catholic Church was compared to a business organization, and the Protestant Reformation were a group of people picketing outside the building, then the Charismatic movement would be a sub-group of people who begin protesting against the protesters. Not because they disagree with the message, but because they disagree with how they wave the signs.

Tower of Babel

“And as in the time of building the tower the one tongue was divided into many; so then the many tongues frequently met in one man, and the same person used to discourse both in the Persian, and the Roman, and the Indian, and many other tongues, the Spirit sounding within him: and the gift was called the gift of tongues because he could all at once speak various languages.” —St. John Chrysostom, Homily on 1 Corinthians 14
“But as the old Confusion of tongues was laudable, when men who were of one language in wickedness and impiety, even as some now venture to be, were building the Tower; for by the confusion of their language the unity of their intention was broken up and their undertaking destroyed (Gen 11:7); so much more worthy of praise is the present miraculous one.” —St. Gregory the Theologian, Oration 41, XVI

One of the first things we must understand about Pentecost and the gift of tongues is the fact that it is a true reversal of the Tower of Babel. Humanity only had one earthly language prior to the building of the tower. Then, when God saw that man’s pride grew taller with each brick, He stepped in and miraculously confounded their communication with one another as a mercy. Pentecost is the reversal and restoration of the events at Babel.

At Babel, man said, “How hear we every man speak in a foreign language, contrary to his birth?
At Pentecost, man said, “How hear we every man speak in our own language, consistent with our birth?”  (Acts 2:8)

Man is no longer building a kingdom of earth up to heaven. He is now building the kingdom of heaven down to earth, and such a project requires the people of all nations to communicate with one another.

Of old there was confusion of tongues because of the boldness of the tower-builders. But those tongues have not uttered wisdom for the glory of divine knowledge. There God condemned the infidels to punishment, and here with the Spirit Christ illuminated the fishermen. At that time, the confusion of tongues was designed for vengeance, and now the unison of tongues hath been renewed for the salvation of our souls.” (Pentecost Great Vespers of the Eastern Orthodox Church)

Gift of Languages

“In like manner we do also hear many brethren in the Church, who possess prophetic gifts, and who through the Spirit speak all kinds of languages, and bring to light for the general benefit the hidden things of men, and declare the mysteries of God…” —St. Irenaeus of Lyons (Against Heresies, Book V, 6:1)
“They spoke with foreign languages (and not those of their native land); and the wonder was great, a language spoken by those who had not learned it. And the sign is to them that believe not, and not to them that believe, that it may be an accusation of the unbelievers, as it is written, ‘With other tongues and other lips will I speak unto this people, and not even so will they listen to Me says the Lord”‘ (Isa 28:11, 1 Co 14:22). —St. Gregory the Theologian (Oration 41, XV)

Many Christians are simply confused by the word “tongues,” and such a word makes misinterpretation far more likely in our culture. The word “tongues” is synonymous with our word “languages.” The gift of tongues, as a concept, is not some abstract angelic other-worldly mystery, it is nothing other than a mastery of earthly languages. However, in Acts 2, there is an ambiguity as to the nature of the miracle:

“But they heard. Here stop a little and raise a question, how you are to divide the words. For the expression has an ambiguity, which is to be determined by the punctuation. Did they each hear in their own dialect so that if I may so say, one sound was uttered but many were heard; the air being thus beaten and sounds being produced more clear than the original sound; or are we to put the stop after they heard, and then to add them speaking in their own languages to what follows, so that it would be speaking in the native languages of the hearers, which would be foreign to the speakers? I prefer to put it this latter way; for with the other view the miracle would be rather the hearers than the speakers; whereas in this view it would be on the speakers’ side; and it was they who were reproached for drunkenness, evidently because they by the Spirit wrought a miracle in the matter of the tongues.” —St. Gregory the Theologian, Oration 41, XV

 In other words, St. Gregory is saying the miracle of tongues is either in the “hearing” of languages or the “speaking” of languages, for the scriptures say they heard them speaking in their own languages. Depending on where you put the emphasis, the text is either saying that every man is speaking every language at the same time, and God is supernaturally translating the spoken word for everyone listening (“how hear we…”), thus making it more of a subjective reality, or God is giving them the words to speak (“…every man speak…”), thus making it more of an objective reality. St. Gregory chooses to believe the latter, because he says it puts the miracle within the speaker rather than the hearer.

Pentecost vs Pentecostalism

There is no doubt that the patristic testimony declares the gift of tongues to be that of actual spoken languages, and not “angelic prayer languages” unknown to earth. Some might say, “What about 1 Co 13:1 and 1 Co 14:2? Do they not confirm the Pentecostal interpretation of tongues?

Firstly, Paul is clearly being hyperbolic in 1 Co 13:1-3. Otherwise, he lied about being omniscient and set on fire. He isn’t listing things that are descriptive truths about himself, he is using rhetoric to prove a point about love. There is no such thing as a man with “all knowledge.” There is no such thing as a man who knows “all mysteries.” Paul is using hypothetical constructs. There is no such thing as a man with an angelic language, because angels don’t literally talk. They are inhuman incorporeal beings without vocal chords. It doesn’t make sense to suggest they have a language capable of being spoken through the human mouth.

Others might wonder what Paul meant by saying, “If I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prays but my understanding is unfruitful.” (1 Cor 14:14) This doesn’t mean the speaker can’t comprehend what comes out of his own mouth, it means what the speaker says does not produce fruit (for others). Meaning, the content produces no fruit because the people do not understand what he is saying.

Secondly, when Paul refers to a man who speaks in an “unknown tongue,” he is not claiming that the language is unknown to earth, he is saying it is unknown to the audience. For example, “Japanese” would be an unknown tongue in a “Russian” church. Paul clarifies that this is the case when he states how there are many languages, not in heaven, but in “the world” (1 Co 14:10).

It seems to me, at least on the topic of speaking in tongues, Pentecostalism is at odds with Pentecost, especially on matters of emphasis. Scripture and history shows us that the gift of tongues was always least emphasized of the gifts. St. John Chrysostom even went as far as to say the gift of tongues is “neither altogether useless, nor very profitable” (Homily on 1 Corinthians 14). 

Though the gift of tongues is a deconstruction of the tower of Babel, the Pentecostal interpretation feels more like a renovation. Far from uniting language and understanding, Pentecostal tongues seems to further divide it. Charismatic Christians have often asked me if I believe the spiritual gifts have ceased: I usually say, “No, but I’ve been to many charismatic services in my life and I’ve heard many languages I did not understand, but these ears have not yet experienced the gift of tongues as defined by the New Testament.

  • Aleksandrs

    Baptism by the Holy Spirit in the New Testament
    by Nicholas Mavromagoulos
    And Fr. John Romanides in his works and some others claim that there are two different phenomena: talking in different tongue as language and praying in tongue which is tongue of Holy Spirit inside human hearth. Because when Paul writes to Corinth, he says that none hears tongue except God. Obviously there is o point to talk in your own parish in different language and some interpreter of that if in Pentecost it was with direct purpose to proclaim people around who were talking in different languages.

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