Speaking in Tongues Topical Study

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Speaking in tongues is a supernatural manifestation of speech in a language previously unknown to the speaker. Also known as glossolalia, from the Greek glossa (tongue) and lalein (to talk or speak), it is Pentecost made audible. While at times a supernatural gift of intelligibility (Acts 2:8) and at other times a manifestation of unintelligibility (1 Cor. 14), all true expressions of speaking in tongues are to be received as a gift of the Holy Spirit's edifying grace governed by love. Speaking in tongues thus has a teleology: "Pursue love and strive for the spiritual gifts. . . . Let all things be done for building up" (1 Cor. 14:1, 26).

In Scripture

Signs "And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues" (Mark 16:17).

Pentecost "When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. [ ]Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. [ ]All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability" (Acts 2:1 - 4).

Gift of the Holy Spirit "The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God" (Acts 10:45 - 46).

Manifestation of the Spirit "To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit . . . various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses" (1 Corinthians 12:7 - 11).

Love "If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal" (1 Corinthians 13:1).

Tongues and prophesying "Those who speak in a tongue build up themselves, but those who prophesy build up the church. Now I would like all of you to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. One who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up" (1 Corinthians 14:4 - 5).

For building up "What should be done then, my friends? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn; and let one interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let them be silent in church and speak to themselves and to God" (1 Corinthians 14:23 - 28).

Decently and in order "So, my friends, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues; but all things should be done decently and in order" (1 Corinthians 14:39 - 40).

Points to Ponder

The purpose of speaking in tongues At times, tongues are understandable by everyone: "[E]ach one heard them speaking in the native language of each" (Acts 2:6). Other times tongues are understood by no one except God: "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 Cor. 14:2). Such diverse manifestations thus share the same essence as Spirit-inspired sounds with meaning beyond a speaker's mental comprehension. Yet they reflect a different use and purpose: communication to others (Acts 2:8), personal edification (1 Cor. 14:4), prayer to God (1 Cor. 14:14), corporate edification (if paired with interpretation - 1 Cor. 14:5), or evangelism (1 Cor. 14:22).

Speaking in tongues and neuroscience "Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania took brain images of five women while they spoke in tongues and found that their frontal lobes — the thinking, willful part of the brain through which people control what they do — were relatively quiet, as were the language centers. . . . [I]t was unclear which region was driving the behavior." Also: "For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unproductive. What should I do then? I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray with the mind also" (1 Corinthians 14:14 - 15).

Tongues as an ambiguous phenomenon Christianity is not the only religion that experiences ecstatic speech. Ecstatic utterances are testified to in early Egyptian writings, in the oracles of Delphi, Epirus, and Dodona, in various tribal religions, and in some expressions of modern New Age spirituality. Linguistic analysis of tongues speech has found that while speaking in tongues does appear at first to resemble human language, the actual pattern of speech was not organized and there was no existing relationship between units of speech and concepts. In another study carried out with a group of sixty spiritually agnostic undergraduates, 20 percent of subjects could accomplish speaking in tongues after listening to only a minute-long sample, and about 70 percent could succeed with some moderate training. So the phenomenon of speaking in tongues is thus not itself sufficient to discern the presence of the Holy Spirit. The fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22 - 23) is a less spectacular yet perhaps more reliable evidence of the Spirit's presence.

Tongues and church history Christian experiences of glossolalia and responses to it are varied, ranging from the belief that no modern Christians can speak in tongues to the belief that all Spirit-filled Christians should. Cessationists limit such dramatic manifestations of the Spirit to the time of the original twelve apostles. John Chrysostom wrote: "This whole place is very obscure: but the obscurity is produced by our ignorance of the facts referred to and by their cessation, being such as then used to occur but now no longer take place." And John Calvin wrote: "The gift of the tongues, and other such like things, are ceased long ago in the Church". In contrast, some in the modern Pentecostal movement view speaking in tongues as a necessary sign of baptism in the Holy Spirit: "The baptism of believers in the Holy Spirit is witnessed by the initial physical sign of speaking with other tongues as the Spirit of God gives them utterance." A mediating position views tongues as a legitimate but not necessary manifestation of the Holy Spirit that, along with other possible spiritual gifts, exists for the edification of the church as a whole (1 Cor. 12:4 - 11).

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Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.