Part I


Kevin Simington

The modern resurgence of tongue-speaking is generally traced to the turn of the century. In 1900, Charles Parham and a small group in Kansas began to speak in tongues after studying about this gift in the Bible. In 1906, Parham went to Los Angeles and spoke at the Azusa Street Mission Revival and the movement quickly spread from there.

In the early years, most denominations rejected tongue-speaking as lunacy or demonic, and as one might expect, tongue-speakers left such hostile churches and formed churches in which they were allowed and encouraged to speak in tongues. Thus, Pentecostal denominations such as the Assemblies of God were formed.

In the 1960s, another wave of tongue-speaking occurred in more traditional churches. This time, many churches did not ridicule or drive these people away; they were accepted as charismatic sub-groups within the churches.

Of course, speaking in tongues is not limited to Christianity. The phenomenon has been noted among participants in pagan cults and non-Christian religions as a sign of the presence of spirits or supernatural powers. For example, when the priestess (or Oracle) of Delphi became ‘divinely inspired’ she would speak in tongues. This signaled to those present the presence of a supernatural spirit, which was giving her guidance. Similarly, Buddhist monks have been known to speak in tongues. Psychologists have also observed ecstatic tongue speaking as a psycho-motor function of the brain in response to certain stimuli.

This does not mean that all tongue speaking can be explained as psychological or pagan phenomena, but if we are to be balanced we must acknowledge that not all occurrences of tongue speaking originate from the Holy Spirit.

Over the next 4 weeks we will examine the following issues:

  1. How does the Bible define the speaking in tongues?
  2. What is the purpose of speaking in tongues?
  3. How prevalent was tongue speaking in the New Testament church?
  4. Is it available today?
  5. Is it available to every Christian?
  6. Is tongues the evidence of Spirit baptism?



The gift of tongues is a gift of the Holy Spirit that enables Christians to declare God’s praises in another language. For instance, observers of the first occurrence of tongue speaking on the day of Pentecost testified, “we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” (Acts 2:11).

The clearest definition of speaking in tongues appears in 1 Corinthians 14, where Paul writes, “For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. Indeed, no one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit” (1 Cor 14:2).  According to this verse, the gift of tongues is a heavenly rather than a human language, and speaker is addressing God rather than people.

Similarly, in 1 Corinthians 13:1, Paul writes, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.”  Here he appears to be saying that whether one is speaking normally (“tongues of men”) or speaking in tongues (“tongues … of angels”), without love it is meaningless.

This angelic or heavenly language is apparently an ecstatic utterance emanating directly from a person’s spirit, without the speaker understanding what he or she is saying; “if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful.”  (1Co 14:14)Many Christians (though not all) believe that Paul is also referring to the gift of tongues in Romans 8:26 when he writes, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.”

There is at least one example in the Acts narrative, however, when the gift of tongues seems to be a human, rather than a heavenly, language:

“All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit. They began to speak in languages they had not known before. The Spirit gave them the ability to do this. Godly Jews from every country in the world were staying in Jerusalem. A crowd came together when they heard the sound. They were bewildered because they each heard the believers speaking in their own language.” (Act 2:4-6)

What do we make of such a passage when Paul, elsewhere seems to give such a clear definition of tongues as a heavenly language that is not understandable to humans?

One possibility is that the observers on the day of Pentecost were given the gift of interpretation to understand the heavenly language(s) being spoken.

A second explanation is that this particular occurrence of tongues in Acts 2 may have been an exceptional, non-repeatable sign to mark the commencement of God’s regenerate church on earth.

A third explanation is that the gift of tongues may at times be a human language, and at other times be a heavenly language. Proponents of this view quote 1 Corinthians 12:10, which speaks of “different kinds of tongues”. Paul did not explain what he meant by this statement, but it could also mean that there are a variety of heavenly languages. This verse is, therefore, not a conclusive proof text for either view.

A similar view, popular among Pentecostals, is that there are two types of tongues – prophetic tongues (which may sometimes be a human language) and a personal prayer gift of tongues (which is a heavenly language). This view is highly speculative and is unsubstantiated by any clear scriptural statements. Nowhere does the Bible differentiate two such distinct types of tongues.

Any view of tongues as a human language needs to come to terms with a number of significant passages which indicate, either explicitly or implicitly, that the gift of tongues is unintelligible to human ears without the gift of interpretation:

“For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. Indeed, no one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit” (1 Cor 14:2).

 “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.” (1Co 14:18-19)

“So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind?” (1Co 14:23)

“Now, brothers, if I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction?”(1Co 14:6)

“He who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may be edified”. (1Co 14:5)

There is little doubt that the premise of all these verses is that tongues without miraculous interpretation is unintelligible to human ears. We must, therefore, on the basis of these clear didactic statements, conclude that tongues is a heavenly, rather than a human, language. We must also interpret the historical narrative passage of Acts 2 in the light of these didactic passages, and view the events of the day of Pentecost as either an exceptional divine suspension of this norm or, more likely, an example of the hearers being given the ability to interpret the words of those speaking in tongues.


That is the topic of next week’s post.

5 Replies to “SPEAKING IN TONGUES (Part I)”