The Gift of Tongues: Foreign Languages or Something Unearthly?

There is a difference of opinion concerning the ancient Christian practice of speaking in tongues: what language is being spoken when a follower of Jesus speaks in tongues?

For those of us who both affirm that the gift of tongues is for modern times and also practice the gift, we know that the words that come out of out our mouths while we pray in tongues are unintelligible. Our words and phrases sound much like nonsense, and as far as we can tell, don’t fit into any known human language. We call the vocalizations our personal heavenly prayer language, and we believe that it is a language that only God can understand. We believe that when we use our gift of tongues, we are edifying ourselves spiritually as we speak/pray directly to God. While we agree that it is completely possible that God could endow a person with a gift to miraculously speak in another known foreign language, it seems that very few of us have experienced anything like that, let alone even hearing someone claim to have done so. While there are rumors of miraculous moments when foreign languages have manifested on the mission field in some remote part of our planet, most of those experiences are just that—rumors. To my knowledge there is no film or audio to back those claims up. We tongue-talkers do not deny that something like that could happen, that is if God wanted to endow someone with such a gift, but we almost unanimously agree that the gift of tongues is primarily a unknown heavenly language.

There are many Christians who have not so much as heard of the gift of tongues. And many others that, even though may have heard of it, have either not spent much study on it, do not care about it, hold no opinion of it, or just find the whole idea of it terribly goofy.

Then there are non-tongue talking churches that do indeed broach the subject of the gift of tongues—seeing that the presence of the phenomenon is quite unavoidable if one reads the book of Acts and other New Testament passages. These folks are then left with the task of making sense of this strange experience. Considering that they don’t possess or practice this spiritual gift themselves, the gift of tongues must seem an entirely strange thing to make sense of. How do you describe what something is when you have never practiced it yourself? Despite having no personal experience with practicing the gift of tongues these churches take a surprisingly strong stance in disputing that the gift manifests as an unknown language.

For many of these churches, the best possible explanation of the mysterious gift of tongues has been as such: a special spiritual gifting given to a privileged few in the very early development of the 1st century church that enabled missionaries and evangelists to be able to speak in other human languages, that otherwise were unknown to the speaker(s), to testify to the truth of the message being preached. 

In past blogs about the gift of tongues, I put forth that one, the main purpose of tongues is for intimacy with God that leads to incredibly wonderful benefits for both the person speaking and potentially for the whole community as well, and, two, that tongues are alive and available for today to any believer who would desire them.

For this post we will dispute the stance that the gift of tongues are squarely missional in purpose and practiced via speaking in known human foreign languages. Instead we will show that the gift is rather a supernatural heavenly unintelligible language endowed for purposes well beyond missionary or evangelistic goals.

IS ACTS 2 A PROOF TEXT FOR TONGUES AS FOREIGN LANGUAGES?

For those who believe that the gift of tongues consists of foreign humanly languages, their go-to proof text is Acts 2:1-13:

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.” NIV

Here in verse 6, it is said of the bystanders that, “…each one heard their own language being spoken.“. Notice that the NIV translation of this verse subtly shades this miraculous event in a way that would lead us reason that multiple foreign human languages were being spoken among the various members of the group of disciples, and that each bystander present heard at least one individual from the group of disciples speaking their own language fluently. Before we accept that interpretation straightaway, let us also remember the NIV is not a word-for-word translation.

Undoubtedly the NIV translation has some strong benefits. It very honestly seeks to stay true to the original meaning of the Biblical text while helping bring the text into a reading that we in the 21st century can understand. To do this the NIV adds in words and/or rewords particular sentences/passages from time to time in an attempt to aid the reader when the content may seem to be unclear when directly translated. This approach of course can work beautifully as seen when the NIV: adds in simple filler words like “and” or “of”, helps to determine which reflexive personal pronoun was intended, helps with a Hebrew or Greek word/concept that doesn’t translate directly to English, and so on.

But in other passages the NIV goes a bit further and takes a particular opinion on what the passage is trying to say, and then presents that opinion in the translation in a way that will lead the reader to accept an interpretation as settled fact. Acts 2:6 is one of those places.

Verse 6 can be treated differently than how the NIV presents it. Here is how the NRSV, a stricter word-for-word translation, treats it:

“…because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.

Amazing how such a little difference in translations can do so much. Here in the NRSV verse 6 says that each one, that is each individual bystander, heard them, them meaning the bystanders heard the group as a whole, speaking in the language of each. Notice that the difference in translation is subtle, but there is now an emphasis that each individual person heard the group in their own language.

So, now with both translations laid out before us, verse 6 is not so definitive as to what actually took place on that Pentecost day. From among the group of believers speaking in tongues, did each individual bystander find from among the multiple, foreign, human languages being spoken one or a few person(s) speaking the individual bystander’s unique, foreign language as the NIV suggests? Or, was it that from the many different individual heavenly languages being spoken, each bystander was hearing everyone/certain people in the group speaking their own language?

If we use the NIV as our guide we are already set up to believe that the disciples who were speaking in tongues were actually speaking individual foreign human languages among them—that those languages coming out of their mouths was coherent and intelligible. But when we look at more word-for-word translation, we see that it’s just as plausible that each bystander heard these unintelligible tongues in their own individual languages.

If we accept the latter interpretation, and then continue our reading the verses that immediately follow, staying in the NRSV, the interpretation appears reconfirmed:

Verses 7-8: “Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?” 

Again, the emphasis is on what was being heard, not specifically on what was being spoken.

So then, it becomes reasonable to consider that each of the bystanders were hearing the gift of tongues that the disciples received, yet each individual bystander who heard the noise of the crowd heard it in their own unique language. Yes, foreign human languages were being heard, but it doesn’t mean by default that various foreign languages are what was being spoken.

The debate over what happened in Acts 2 is nothing new. Folks from each side of the issue have argued their positions exhaustively. We will stop our analysis here. But I wanted to point the Acts 2 argument out in this blog for two reasons:

  1.  Acts 2 cannot be used as an unequivocal proof text that the gift of tongues is merely the supernatural ability to speak in foreign, human languages. The text leaves plenty of space for an alternate interpretation, as was seen in our comparison between the NIV and NRSV translations. Therefore, to use Acts 2 to declare that tongues are only intelligible foreign languages is at best opinion, something that the writers of the NIV and other looser translations have brought into the text.
  2. If we now allow ourselves to start with an alternative view on Acts 2, we can then look at the rest of the New Testament text concerning the gift of tongues without bias. As we let the latter passages give us our basis for understanding the gift of tongues, I will show that the gift manifests as an unintelligible, supernatural, heavenly language.

I CORINTHINANS 14: PROOF THAT TONGUES ARE UNINTELLIGIBLE, AND NOT MISSIONAL IN OPERATION

I Corinthians 12-14 is a huge passage of scripture focused solely on the supernatural gifts of the Spirit. A great deal of attention is given to speaking in tongues. It is also the only place in the Bible that explains what this gift is and what it does. Acts 2 describes the initial event, how the gift of tongues manifested on that particular day, and what it resulted in. But only I Corinthians 12-14 describes the actual mechanics behind the gift itself. Therefore, we need to let I Corinthians 12-14 play a substantial role in how we look at Acts 2 before we read anything into it.

Acts 2 does not tell us what the gift of tongues sounded like when it was spoken. Neither does I Corinthians 12-14. But in I Corinthians 14 we are given a huge clue:

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.” – 1 Corinthians 14:2

Paul says that when you speak in tongues you speak mysteries to God in a way in which others are unable to understand—”nobody understands then; since they are mysteries in the Sprit“.

From this one verse alone, this much is clear: when the gift of tongues is manifested, it is in a language that is UNINTELLIGIBLE. And why is that? Because just as Paul said, when one speaks in tongues, they are not even speaking to other people—they are speaking to God.

If tongues were meant to be understood by other people, they would be intelligible. But they are for God, and therefore do not need intelligible to us since God’s understanding is far above all languages of the earth.

Tongues, in their raw and uninterpreted form, are not intended to be understood by other folks. That is the whole reason why Paul spent so much time teaching on the subject in I Corinthians 14.

Too many people were babbling in tongues during the church meeting. Sure, those who spoke were connecting to God as they prayed in tongues—that’s exactly why Paul encouraged them to continue to pray in tongues quietly to themselves during the meeting: “But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God” (1 Cor. 14:28 ). But when they babbled in tongues during the meetings loudly, and drew attention away from others and onto themselves, no one else present was benefiting because it was an unintelligible language intended for God’s ears only.

When tongues are spoken, it not a human language meant to be understood by others—it’s unintelligible. I Corinthians 14:2 pretty much slams the door on any other conclusion.

Yet for folks who continue to hold onto the position that Acts 2 is recording an event where tongues were foreign, human languages, we are again told that the purpose of tongues is merely an aid sent to help evangelists and missionaries miraculously preach/confirm the gospel in places where foreigners are present. Does the apostle Paul bear witness to this purpose of tongues? Nope. If we continue our read on in I Corinthians 14, we see that Paul squarely sets prophesying, not speaking in tongues, as the means for proper evangelism. Verses 23-25:

therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your mind? But if all prophesy, an unbeliever or outsider who enters is reproved by all and called to account by all. After the secrets of the unbeliever’s heart are disclosed, that person will bow down before God and worship him, declaring, “God is really among you.”

Not only does Paul set prophesying as the means for successful evangelism, he further adds that if someone from the outside were to come in while tongues were being spoken, the folks would think that the tongue-talkers were nuts!

Think about that for a minute. Most of us have been in places where we have heard people speaking a foreign language. And for some of us we’ve even been in rooms where the entire room is speaking in a language foreign to us.

In those moments, did you ever think that those people were off their rocker? Or insane? Of course not. You just knew that you didn’t speak the language. But Paul is saying that when the gift of tongues is being used, that the tongues themselves are so “out there” that if you walked in on a room of tongue-talkers you would think they were crazy. Obviously, the gift of tongues is not a foreign, human language. People don’t think other people are crazy when they speak in a different human language. They might think you are drunk, but not out of your mind.

Additionally, what good would it be if I walked up to someone on the street in a foreign country and started to speak in tongues hoping that it comes out in their language? According to I Corinthians 14, I wouldn’t even know what I was saying, nor would I know how to speak back if the people spoke back to me in their language. It would be nonsense either way. But, if one day I were inspired to walk up to someone in my neighborhood and tell them something about their life that only God would know, one could see how that would be much stronger missionary tool. They might say, “Wow, God must be with you because only God could have told you that about me!”

The false notion that the gift of tongues is endowed solely for missionary/evangelistic purposes is also brought to light in Acts 19 when Paul meets some believers in Ephesus. Upon meeting some believers in Jesus, Paul baptizes them in water into the name of Jesus, and also baptizes them into the Holy Spirit. Upon receiving the baptism of the Spirit, the group of believers speaks tongues. If one reads this short story in Acts 19:1-4, one finds that there was no evangelizing going on. There were no missionary efforts taking place when these believers started to pray in tongues. They apparently just prayed in tongues all together in intimacy with God as they joyously received the gift of the Holy Spirit. If tongues were for evangelism, as thought of in Acts chapter 2, then what the heck was the Holy Spirit doing in Acts 19? Was It just randomly acting up? Were these people randomly speaking in foreign languages to each other? I think it’s more plausible to say that Acts 19 is simply another example in scripture where we see the gift of tongues serving an entirely different purpose than missionary work—to provide tangible evidence of receiving the Holy Spirit that results in an intimacy with God that surpasses our finite human comprehension.

Finally, if the gift of tongues is foreign, human language, then why then would Paul encourage people to continue to speak in tongues IN CHURCH TO THEMSELVES (1 Cor. 14:28) if in fact all they were doing was speaking a random foreign language to themselves that they didn’t understand? Remember, Paul said that if no one present in the meeting nor the speaker themselves could interpret the tongues, then the tongue-talker should stop addressing the group (I Cor. 14:27-28) yet continue to pray quietly to themselves and God. If tongues are foreign languages, then this would mean that Paul was encouraging people to speak in foreign languages, to themselves and God, even though they didn’t even know what they were saying. Are we saying that a person would just speak in French to himself in the corner? When they don’t even know what it means? How would they even know they were getting the grammar correct? How would they know they were even speaking French and not some other language? How would speaking or praising God in French even benefit a person and build them up spiritually as it was supposed to (I Cor. 14:4)? This is a nonsense conclusion.

However, if you knew you were speaking a private language to God that only He understands, and, in faith, spoke to yourself and God in this unknown language—believing that you were exchanging spiritual mysteries and intimacies with God so far beyond our own brains’ ability to comprehend that it took a heavenly/angelic language to accomplished it—then yes, that would make much more sense. You WOULD encourage someone to do that quietly to themselves.

To say that the gift of tongues is merely the supernatural gift to speak in a foreign human language as an aid to evangelism violates two principles in I Corinthians:

  1. No person understands tongues because they are not a language given for human-to-human interaction. They are given for prayer and intimacy between you and God. Therefore, tongues, as Paul describes them in I Corinthians 14, cannot be foreign human languages.
  2.  Tongues, as instructed in Corinthians 14, were strongly discouraged as an evangelistic technique. Therefore, to say that the sole purpose of speaking in tongues is to evangelize cannot be true.

One last note on Acts 2: Was Acts 2 even a missionary or evangelizing event? It doesn’t seem so. The disciples were simply meeting together in a house when the Holy Spirit came upon them. When the Holy Spirit came, they all spoke in tongues. The text does not say that they ran into the streets speaking to people in tongues with the end goal in mind to convert them. The text does not even say that they left the house. They were apparently minding their own business. All that the text tells us is that after the Spirit fell on them some bystanders in the area began to notice what was happening. It was so joyous and carefree that some of them were concluding that these disciples must be drunk. It is from an accusation of being drunk, a response to the gawker’s observations, that Peter begins to talk to the people. This is quite different than what we tend to think of as modern evangelism. The disciples weren’t trying to evangelize. They weren’t knocking door to door. They weren’t standing on a street corner telling people about an impending doom. They weren’t compelling people to come to know Jesus. Onlookers just started to take notice of what the Holy Spirit was doing in the disciples’ lives, and the disciples took that circumstance and used it as an opportunity to testify to the goodness of God and the message of Jesus. Therefore, to say that the gift of tongues is for missional endeavors, based on Acts 2, incorrectly assumes that the disciples were out in the crowds intentionally evangelizing. They were not.

EVIDENCE OF UNINTELLIGIBLE TONGUES IN THE OLD TESTAMENT

Another objection to the idea that tongues are an unintelligible heavenly language is that such a phenomenon lacks any type of pre-New Testament scriptural precedence. I find that objection baseless since we have a perfectly good example of an unintelligible heavenly language in the Old Testament.

In the book of Daniel, chapter 5, we find an account of a king who is holding a banquet. Suddenly in the middle of the banquet the fingers of a human hand began writing on the wall in an unknown language. The prophet Daniel is brought in to make sense of the writing—MENE, MENE, TEKEL, PARSIN. Daniel is supernaturally able to interpret the text, a gift that perhaps we might now call a gift of interpretation of tongues.

Why did God choose to communicate this way? We can only guess. But communication with God via a supernatural, heavenly language pre-dates the New Testament phenomenon of speaking in tongues.

Despite its objectors, unknown unintelligible tongues have scriptural precedent.

IT’S ALL 0’S AND 1’S

Another critique lobbed at tongue-talkers is that observers have noticed that the speaker’s “heavenly” language is quite simple and oftentimes repetitive. I’ve heard some refer to it as sounding like baby-talk. If you do a search on YouTube for someone praying in tongues it won’t take you long to find someone who sounds like they are just repeating the same short words over and over again: la-la-la-ho-ho-ba-da-da-da, or something like that.

The gift of tongues can be easily counterfeited, imitated, and faked. A form of tongues was practiced by pagan religions generations before the day if Pentecost in Acts 2. As a tongue-talker myself, who has been in a plethora of environments where various tongues were being sounded, I can say that I have been left scratching my head wondering if everything that I was hearing was genuine.

Could those types of tongues be counterfeit? Or are they true? I can’t say in the abstract, and I hesitate to judge another’s gift, but there are two things that I try to keep in mind:

1. When I first started out speaking in tongues I was on my own and without much instruction or guidance. I was afraid to really let myself go and release myself over to the gift. Through years of practice and encouragement from other believers, I have come to experience that my gifting of tongues has a wide variety of vocabulary and verbalization sounds. Much personal shame needed to be conquered in order to dive in, but I now can freely move around in the gift of tongues as I feel the Spirit direct me. It has gone well beyond a simple repetitive la-la-la-ho-ho-ba-da-da-da.

2. Let’s also not underestimate the simplicity of God. As I Corinthians 1:27 says, “But God has chosen the foolish things of the world, that he may put to shame the wise; and God has chosen the weak things of the world, that he may put to shame the strong things“. Perhaps for some folks the simple repetitive vocalization of la’s and ba’s and could very well be complex and fully sufficient for communication and intimacy with the Lord. Consider that the languages of computers is merely binary: 0’s and 1’s, off and on. Yet with this simple language our worlds entire computer/technological system is run.

Yes, there is no shortage of people whose gift of tongues sounds foolish and wacky. But there are a lot of wacky humans out there—Christian and non-Christian alike!

Press into the gift and its full vocabulary as the Spirit of God guides you, and let’s not pass judgement over those who are trying and doing the their best. If you feel you need to check someone for a suspicious tongue, consult the Holy Spirit first and make sure He is supportive and behind your rebuke.

ARE TONGUES EXCLUSIVELY NON-HUMAN LANGUAGES?

Throughout this post, I have presented that tongues are not intelligible, human languages. That said, do we need to say definitively that the gift of tongues can never be manifested in a foreign human language? Of course not.

The Bible speaks of another spiritual gift called “divers tongues” (I Cor. 12:28). Could there be a different manifestations of tongues, one that supernaturally speaks another person’s foreign language that functions and arises during an evangelistic setting? Sure, why not. But it’s going to take a little more proof than rumors of missionaries on the mission field, or stories from the pulpit of “that one church service where I spoke in Japanese” (that of course coincidentally was not caught on audio or video) before I am going to wave that banner.

CONCLUSION

The New Testament writings fully support the gift of tongues manifesting as an unintelligible language. The Apostle Paul told us that when someone speaks in tongues a person cannot understand them naturally (I Corinthians 14:2). The speaker isn’t talking to other people but talking directly to God. They are speaking an unknown language, sharing intimate mysteries, exchanging life with one’s regenerated, born-again spirit and the Holy Spirit in thanksgiving and worship to God. It’s a profound mystery, but it is not a mystery that is simply uncovered by attributing it to speaking in foreign, human languages. There are simply no proof texts in scripture to support that conclusion’.

*As always, I’d love to hear what’s on your mind so please drop your thoughts in the comment section below! 

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