The Charismatic Movement
35 Doctrinal Issues

Charismatic Movement - Doctrinal Issues 7-10


7. What is the gift of tongues: real languages or unintelligible utterances?

Let us first consider the speaking in tongues that is taking place today. What actually is being spoken? Is it a real language or is it nonsense gibberish?

Charismatics see their tongues as God-given prayer language, perhaps angelic. But to those who would only ever address God intelligibly, and who know from professional linguistic scholars (who are unanimous on this) that glossolalia has no language-character at all.  ["Charismatic Renewal" by J.I.Packer in Christianity Today, March 7, 1980, pages 16-17.]

William Samarin, professor of linguistics at the University of Toronto wrote: "Over a period of five years I have taken part in meetings in Italy, Holland, Jamaica, Canada and the United States. I have observed old-fashioned Pentecostals and neo-Pentecostals. I have been in small meetings in private homes as well as in mammoth public meetings. I have seen such different cultural settings as are found among Puerto Ricans of the Bronx, the snake handlers of the Appalachians and the Russian Molakans of Los Angeles...I have interviewed tongue speakers, and tape recorded and analyzed countless samples of Tongues. In every case, glossolalia turns out to be linguistic nonsense. In spite of superficial similarities, glossolalia is fundamentally not language." [Cited by John MacArthur, Jr. in The Charismatics, page 162.]

Linguistic scholars work with precise definitions of what constitutes a natural human language. Glossolalia (speaking in tongues) fails to meet the criteria of these definitions. Specifically, the work by Charles F. Hockett (in Joseph H. Greenberg, ed., Universals of Language, 1963) details sixteen criteria for language. The research of linguists clearly reveals that the spoken utterances of glossolalists do not meet these criteria.  For a careful account of why glossic utterances cannot be human languages, see Dr. Eugene A. Nida's Glossolalia: A Case of Pseudo-Linguistic Structure. The works by Dr. William J. Samarin, especially "The Linguisticality of Glossolalia," are helpful in explaining the differences between glossolalia and natural human languages.  [This quotation taken from The Psychology of Speaking in Tongues by John P. Kildahl (Harper & Row, 1972), p. 47.]

In other words, go to a Charismatic gathering where people speak in tongues, record the tongues speaking on a tape recorder, bring the tape recorder to the best linguistic scholars you can find, let them study the tongues utterances, and what will their conclusion be? They will conclude that the utterances are linguistic nonsense and not any language at all.

How different from the tongues speaking that we read about on the pages of the Bible. The key passage on this is Acts chapter 2 where we have the first historic occurrence of the gift of tongues. What was spoken on the day of Pentecost? There is no question but that it was real languages: "Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language....And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born? (Acts 2:6,8).

From this passage we can formulate a definition of the Biblical gifts of tongues: The gift of tongues was the miraculous ability to speak a language which the speaker had never learned. It was miraculous because "the Spirit gave them utterance" (verse 4) and apart from Him it could never happen. It was a real language "because every man heard them speak in his own language" (verse 6). The speakers had never learned the languages which they were speaking: "And they were all amazed and marvelled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galilaeans?" (verse 7).

Another key chapter is 1 Corinthians 14. From this chapter we find two strong arguments to support the fact that tongues consisted of real languages:

1) Argument #1--The fact that tongues could be interpreted (translated).

See 1 Corinthians 14:5,13,27,28. The way to interpret a foreign language is to translate it. Thus the interpreters at the United Nations are expert translators. In Matthew 1:23 we see that the word "interpreted" means "translated" (the Hebrew "Immanuel" translated into English is "God with us").

Our argument is simply this: You can only interpret or translate a real language. Ecstatic utterances or nonsense syllables or meaningless gibberish cannot be translated. Let us illustrate this by two songs that are sung at the Christmas season. "Gloria in excelsis Deo" can be translated because it is a real language (Latin). It means "Glory to God in the Highest." On the other hand, "FA LA LA LA LA, LA LA, LA LA" (from "Deck the Halls") cannot be translated. These are meaningless syllables, perhaps the emotional expression of a person who is jolly.

Conclusion: Only a real language can be interpreted or translated. Tongues in 1 Corinthians 14 could be interpreted. Thus tongues in 1 Corinthians 14 were real languages.

2) Argument #2--The fact that tongues consisted of words.

See 1 Corinthians 14:19--"Yet in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousand WORDS in an unknown tongue." This verse makes it very clear that the gift of tongues consisted of "words." What are words? Words are sounds which symbolize and communicate meaning. Tongues in the Bible were not ecstatic utterances, they were WORDS. They were not nonsense syllables, they were WORDS. They were not meaningless gibberish, they were WORDS. They were not ecstatic utterances, but rather they were rational utterances.

For further argumentation that the gift of tongues consisted of real languages that were spoken on earth, see God's Gift of Tongues, by George Zeller, pages 107-110, "Twelve Reasons Why Biblical Tongues Were Real Languages."

8. In New Testament times was every believer expected to speak in tongues?

Was the gift of tongues something that every believer was given? Was tongues speaking something that every believer was expected to do?

In 1 Corinthians 12:4-11 we learn that every believer has a spiritual gift (or perhaps more than one) but not every believer has the same gift. Some believers had the gift of tongues (verse 10) but not all. In 1 Corinthians 12:30 the question is asked, "Do all speak with tongues?" It is a rhetorical question that requires a negative answer: NO! All do not speak with tongues. It was a gift that some had but not all. Thus in New Testament times the gift of tongues was given to some but not to all.

Why is it then that in Charismatic circles everyone is encouraged and persuaded to speak with tongues? Why is it recommended to all if it was only given to some?

9. Where in the Bible does God tell the believer to speak in tongues?

Is there any such command? There is a command to "be filled with the Spirit" (Eph. 5:18). There is a command to "walk in the Spirit" (Gal. 5:16). But nowhere is there a command to speak in tongues. We would not expect to find such a command. How can God command all believers to do something that He has only gifted some believers to do?

Challenge to our Charismatic friends: "I will gladly speak in tongues if you can show me one command from the Word of God which tells me to do so."

What instruction is given by Charismatic leaders to try to help people learn to speak in tongues? Here is one example:

Determine not to speak a word of English at this time (for you cannot speak two languages at once). Lift up the sound of your voice and the Holy Spirit will give you utterance in a new language supernaturally. Do not be concerned about `what to say,' as the language is spoken supernaturally and does not come through the mind or intellect but through your spirit quickened by the Holy Spirit. In faith, put your speech faculties into operation (vocal chords, tongue, lips) as in speaking any language, and the Holy Spirit, now indwelling you, will give the utterance.  [From a tract published by Dr. Hobart Freeman, Faith Ministries and Publications, (Warsaw, Indiana).]

Here is another example from the pages of early Church history:

Marcus: "Open thy mouth, speak whatsoever occurs to thee." She then, vainly puffed up and elated by these words, and greatly excited in soul by the expectation that it is herself who is to prophesy, her heart beating violently (from emotion), reaches the requisite pitch of audacity, and idly as well as impudently utters some nonsense as it happens to occur to her, such as might be expected from one healed by an empty spirit." [Irenaeus Against Heresies]

Don't think about what you are saying and don't use your mind! Does that sound like sound advice?


10. In New Testament times how important was the gift of tongues?

"I thank my God, I speak with tongues more than ye all: Yet in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue" (1 Corinthians 14:18-19).

What a comparison! Five words that can be understood are better than ten thousand words in a tongue! Imagine telling a preacher to limit his Sunday morning sermon to five words! (1) Very (2) little (3) can (4) be (5) said! But those five words are better and more edifying than ten thousand words in a tongue.  This same principle can be applied to Bible study. It is better to read two or three verses that you understand and can apply to your life than to quickly read through 10 chapters and get nothing out of it.

It takes about one and a half hours to speak ten thousand words.  [Perhaps some women are even more verbose. Astronaut Michael Collins, speaking at a banquet, quoted the estimate that the average man speaks 25,000 words in a day and the average woman 30,000. Then he added: "Unfortunately, when I come home each day, I've spoken my 25,000--and my wife hasn't started hers."] It takes only two seconds to speak five words. Paul would rather take two seconds to say "Christ died for our sins" (1 Cor. 15:3), than to speak two hours in words not understood. Tongues is of no value at all if it cannot be understood. The is why the interpretation of tongues was essential.

In 1 Corinthians 14 Paul put more value on the gift of prophecy than he did on the gift of tongues (see verses 1-5). In 1 Corinthians 12:28 Paul lists certain gifts, apparently in order of importance: "And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues." Tongues is the last to be mentioned.

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