Christian Glossolalia

Benjamin Rochester

Christians and Glossolalia

Glossolalia, speaking in tongues, has been a hot topic of debate over the past century since the Azusa Street revivals. This sparked debate over the nature of the “gifts” among theologians. This curious practice has led to inquiry by the observing secular world as well as the Christian one.[1] Academic scientific sources doubt the factuality of the claim that the “prayer languages” are all that they claim to be.[2] This paper seeks to evaluate the nature of “speaking in tongues” and its contemporary practice in the worship of the church.

Christians of many stripes accept some formulation that “tongues” could be practiced today. There are many Christians, on the other side, who claim that the gift of tongues did exist in the early church, but it no longer does today. In rough categories these groups are called cessationist, and glossolalists. Both of these views relate to the issue by both periodicity, and quality. The period when tongues was/is practiced is the principle of periodicity. The nature of the act itself is the quality of the tongues as xenoglossy (actual languages), glossolalia (prayer laguages), angelic languages, gibberish, etc. This paper will contend that the glossololic (prayer language) practiced in the contemporary church is both extra-biblical in its quality, and periodically proscribed by the nature of the xenoglossic sign in its original context.

Confusion of Terms: Tongue Twisters, and Straw Men

Beyond avoiding snarky subject headings, one of the difficulties of this topic is the confusion of key terms. This is as much a historical novelty as it is a theological debate. The concept of speaking in tongues has been around since the inception of the church (Acts 2). There are many new and excited groups who hold to some view of glossolalia. However, there are not many who clearly define their terms. For example, the claim defended by glossolalists is not just that men may speak in other previously unknown languages, but also that these are secret “prayer languages.” Not all glossolalists are as well elucidated as others, but some do make this kind of fine distinction.[3] Therefore, this paper will focus on only the mainstream of groups and theologians who represent glossolalia in the Christian church. This will serve the purposes here well because there is a great deal of homogeneity within these mainstream groups which came out of the Azusa Street revival movement.

Further, this paper will proceed from the Calvinistic and Reformed tradition of cessationism. This means that the arguments here are not dispensational, which would, respectively, go about answering this question in a different way. The question is usually framed dispensationally as “do tongues exist today?” This sets the opponent up for the argument that it was part of God’s program at one time, but is not any longer. It does not deal with the nature of the thing itself. Also, this is a straw-man argument, in which the answer to the question is determined by the kind of question. The problem with this kind of argumentation is that the nature or quality of the thing is truly in question, and much more interesting. The reality is that Christians do practice glossolalia today.[4] Vern Poythress accurately framed the issue,

“The work of these social scientists has a valuable contribution to make in the formation of our pastoral approach to the ecclesiastical problems of tongues. We may know the Bible very well, but we cannot address ourselves effectively to an ecclesiastical problem unless we are well acquainted with the actual dimensions of the problem.”[5]

 So the real task is to evaluate the legitimacy of such an act in Christian practice only after carefully identifying what the nature of the thing is.

This is to say not that the principle of periodicity is unimportant, but, simply, it is not the most important to the topic, or the most interesting. It is unimportant because the thing in question is not xenoglossy but glossolalia. The former is the supernatural ability to speak an existing foreign language (tongue). The latter is the so called “prayer language” which is the result of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. This essay will therefore proceed by way of evaluating the nature of glossolalia, and its practice by Christians. 

Gifts of the Spirit, and the gift with regards to the Holy Spirit, can be very confusing. Richard B. Gaffin has rightly observed that,

“Within the overall working of the Holy Spirit, it is important to see that the New Testament distinguishes between the gift and the gifts of the Spirit. All believers, without exception, share in the gift of the Spirit by virtue of their union with Christ the life-giving Spirit, and their incorporation into his Spirit-baptized body, the church (e.g., 1 Cor. 12:13). The gift (singular) of the Spirit is present in the church on the principle of ‘universal donation.’”

On the other hand, the gifts (plural) of the Spirit are variously distributed in the church; no one gift, in this sense, is intended for every believer. The gifts are given on the principle of ‘differential distribution.’ This seems reasonably clear, for example, from the point of the rhetorical questions posed at the close of 1 Corinthians 12 (vv. 29 and 30): all are not apostles, all are not prophets…all do not speak in tongues. And this is so, ultimately, by divine design: the one body with diverse parts–not because of lack of faith or failure to seek a particular gift.”[6]

Gaffin made the point that there is a distinction in concept, even though the words are very similar.  These concepts can be confused because of the similarity in then terms “gifts of the Spirit,” and, “Gift of the Spirit.” The former is the specific gifting of individuals, but the latter is the overall work of the Spirit in consecrating, regenerating, and continuing sanctification of the Christian.

The Argument

Glossolalia is not a practice found in the New Testament, though xenoglossy appears repeatedly in the New Testament as a sign that the Gospel is going to every tongue, tribe, and nation (Acts 2; 10:46; 19:6). This essay will set forward four lines of argumentation to show that the New Testament does not endorse glossolalia. By extension, neither should it be practiced in Christian worship or private prayer. Glossolalia is, first, not uniquely Christian. Second, it is not truly “language.” Third, it is not taught in the Bible as a component of Christian spirituality.  Fourth, the signs gift of xenoglossy also ended with the apostolic witness to the testimony of Christ, therefore the continuation of the practice doubts (at best), or subverts (at worst) the normal operation of the Spirit through the ordinary Means of Grace. The Means of Grace are the typical Covenantal way in which God condescends to his people.

Evaluation of Tongues

1. The Multi-Religious Means of Grace

Glossolalia is, first, not uniquely Christian. This is not meant to be an ad hominem, but simply to demonstrate that the thing is not foreign to the observing world. In fact, it is relatively common. The argument typically holds that tongues are a sign of the filling of the Holy Spirit. The ad hominem goes like this: If other religious, however, practice this same thing, can they, therefore, be said to be filled with the Holy Spirit?  This goes further than argumentation must. It is not necessary to demonize that which can simply be shown to be wrong.

 This current line of argument is simply meant to convey that glossolalia is common, and used as a means of religious experience by various religions.[7] The existence of glossolalia shows that it is not necessarily supernatural, but quite natural. It is a natural, though not necessarily desirable, human activity. This claim will be demonstrated by what follows.

2. The True Nature of the Thing

Second, it is not truly “language.” This is not what is spoken of in the New Testament. The New Testament refers to a practice of xenoglossy, not glossolalia. This point will proceed by first distinguishing what “tongues” are in the New Testament, and second by demonstrating that the New Testament does not promote glossolalia because it is a natural human activity.

First, the New Testament records the speaking of other languages previously unknown to the speaker, xenoglossy.[8] It does not teach, nor promote, a prayer language, glossolalia.  Donald G Bloesch, a charismatic systematic theologian, argued that “Interpretation [of glossolalia] is not a translation, but the reproduction of the thoughts and feelings of the tongues speaker.”[9] This is the criteria of testing the validity of the gift. It tests the subjective with the subjective. This is spurious at best. Upon closer examination, the New Testament does not teach that the glossolalia is in need of translation, but xenoglossy is.

Bloesch assumed that interpretation is not “translation” because he assumes that tongues are not human foreign languages. Bloesch makes the New Testament out to deal with a matter of glossolalia. The New Testament does not deal with that issue, but rather xenoglossy. The term found often in the Corinthian correspondence “to translate” helps give meaning to the term “tongue” in their close context. In the New Testament, to interpret means to translate languages. Paul uses these terms closely together (for example, 1 Corinthians 12:10 says, “…to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. …”) because these two terms are related in contexts of translation (1Cor 14:27-28; 12:10, 30, Acts 4:36; 9:36; 13:8, John 1:38, 41, Mat 1:23; 5:41, Mark 15:22, 15:34). The term “tongue” is often used as a synechdoche for people groups (Rev 5:9-10; 7:9; 10:11; 11:9, 13:7; 14:6; 17:15; ). The signs of tongues in Acts were always actual languages, not glossolalia (Mark 16:17, Acts 2:4ff; 10:46ff).

Second, the glossolalia practiced in the Christian church is dishonestly called a “gift of God” because it is far from being a supernatural act. Vern Poythress accurately concluded that “The easy, blunt, self-confident answer, “It is a delusion,” is unbiblical because it is unloving.”[10] Nevertheless, this “answer” has truth to it.  It is true because of two things. First, it is, frankly, not what the New Testament considers to be “tongues.”  Second, linguistic analysis of contemporary glossolalia demonstrates that it is a natural occurrence which is relatively easy to perform. The first point is so obviously concluded from the preceding that it does not need further elucidation here. The second point is the more interesting for our purposes here.

Tongues are far from being supernatural. Glossolalia is a learned behavior which mimics one’s own language. There are many contemporary approaches to the linguistics of glossolalia which demonstrate this. For example, Nicolas Spanos wrote a book on notion of tongues as an acquired ability which is typically performed in a sober and calm state. They taught sixty subjects to speak in tongues. He demonstrated, quite convincingly, that no ecstatic state is needed for speaking in tongues, but rather this is an example of learning by example.[11] The nature of the case is not that people are deceived into speaking tongues as much as it is simply a learned practice.

The issue is not deception but confusion of terms. Glossolalia is not speaking in legitimate language, but is a parody of one’s native language. Linguist W.J. Samarin analyzed the nature of glossolalia and concluded that glossolalia in various contexts (Russian in the USA, Jamaican, Holland, and across North America) all borrowed consonantal and vowel qualities of one’s native language.[12] Though this argument is limited by the interpretative criteria by which charismatics (such as Bloesch) evaluate the gifts of the Spirit, namely the gift of interpretation, the evidence here does have cumulative force with the main argument.

Theological Arguments

3. The Non-Christian Nature of the Thing

Glossolalia is not a component of Christian spirituality.  This is a corollary to the last point. “Tongues,” as far as they are experienced in the contemporary charismatic movement, are foreign to the Bible (demonstrated above). Bloesch argues that glossolalia is congruous with the Christian life. The practice of glossolalia is a stepping stone from the infancy of faith into maturity of more preferred Spiritual gifts such as prophecy and love. Bloesch pointed to David Du Plessis, who “likens glossolalia to chaff and prophecy, teaching and preaching to wheat.”[13] The charismatic view basically holds to the view that glossolalia effects private edification but does not edify the body. Therefore, it is subordinate.

The basic problem with this is that glossolalia is a communication of “thought and feeling” in a language parody to one’s own language. It communicates good thoughts, and often very edifying notions, but it is fundamentally flawed. The flaw is that the Christian faith is a matter of grasping the Apostolic doctrine as taught in the Scripture, codified in the creeds, and elucidated in the church through the ministry of the word. Christian spirituality is Biblical spirituality. Christian growth is based on learning and experientially applying doctrine, not feelings.

Glossolalia replaces catechism in the charismatic view of spirituality. Bloesch gave the example of a Roman Catholic Nun who said of those who spoke in tongues, “They were closer to being like Children learning by imitation and representation than to any mature adult formulation.”[14] This is a way for the new believer to learn to pray, to understand doctrine, etc, all before he can speak consciously or intelligently about the topic.  This is not being renewed in one’s mind by submission to the will of God (Rom 12:2), but is maturity by parrot of what is seen and experienced already. Poythress observed,

“Our T-speaker is being taught by God the biblical doctrine of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in believers. He is being taught the power of the resurrected Christ who comes to dwell in him and give him joy and victory in the Holy Spirit. No wonder he is filled with joy! Of course, there is also a danger here. Does the T-speaker base his convictions about the Holy Spirit first of all on his experience or first of all on what the Bible says (vividly brought to his attention by his experience)? If the former, he has developed a bad attitude concerning the grounds for his beliefs. If his experience seems later on to be no longer so fresh or so deep, he will not have stability. Moreover, the habit of leaning on experience may leave open the door for false teaching (Eph 4:14).”[15]

At best, glossolalia is a poor means of catechesis. At worst, it is a precondition for a shipwrecked faith which has no promise upon which it believes, but only subjective experiences. The very assurance sought by glossolalia is subverted by it. The old way of learning by catechism is the better way to be renewed in one’s mind than by parrot of feelings evoked by unformulated thoughts.

The “wheat and chaff scheme” of maturing as a Christian replaces the center of maturing in righteousness (based on the law and Gospel) with maturing in using “higher gifts.”[16] The problem is that this is too myopic a view of the work of the Spirit in the Christian. The lifestyle produced is better informed in the former scheme than the latter. Rather than a spirituality which rests on the experience of speaking in tongues, the Ordinary Means lead the Christian into a well informed righteous life. Spirituality can thus be extended to more parts of life than just the practice of Spiritual gifts.

4. The Superiority of the Ordinary Means

The sign gift of xenoglossy ended with the Apostolic witness to the testimony of Christ, therefore the continuation of the practice doubts (at best), or subverts (at worst) the normal operation of the Spirit through the ordinary Means of Grace. Potythress wrote, “[If he has faith in experience], he has developed a bad attitude concerning the grounds for his beliefs. If his experience seems later on to be no longer so fresh or so deep, he will not have stability. Moreover, the habit of leaning on experience may leave open the door for false teaching (Eph 4:14).”[17] The Means of Grace are the typical Covenantal way in which God condescends to his people.  The practice of glossolalia subverts these ordinary means by seeming superior by the clear and present “gifting of God,” yet they do not say anything, let alone articulate the law and gospel.

The issue is not that Reformed theology does not believe in the power of the Holy Spirit. Though the evidence presented above could lead to the superficial conclusion that this is the case, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit is one of the reformation’s distinctive strengths.[18] The view advocated here would, in fact, charge the charismatic with myopia and a less useful theology. They see the Spirit primarily working through the charismatic gifts and for the sake of reaching higher gifts. These are frankly, not very useful to the edification of the church, nor the transformation of the world. The Preaching of the Word, Lord’s Supper, Baptism, praise and prayer, corporate confession of sin, confession of faith, etc, are all greater, and higher means that tongues could ever achieve. The reason for this is that they are not based on a vague feeling, but on the very promised of God made plain and response to that promise and law in belief, repentance, praise, etc. The Supper dramatizes the promises of the Gospel and makes them real and tangible, which is a great help to those of weak faith. Baptism enters one into a real/ordinary corporate covenant community, with real discipline, and real reproof. 

Beyond these things, the faith produced by the ordinary means is sure and founded on Scriptural promises, not on feeling. Feelings are fleeting, tongues are conjured up, but promises remain the same because they come from an external source. Faith in promises proclaimed by the ordinary means is thus higher and better for the faith of the church. Beyond this, the Holy Spirit himself is then one making the promises. It is not unsure, unreal, or intangible, but rather is written, proclaimed, and illumined by the Holy Spirit himself. He “leads into all truth.”  However, the substantial and systematized “all truth” part of this equation is exactly on topic.

Conclusion

Tongues, glossolalia to be exact, is not a practice found in the New Testament. This essay set forward four lines of argumentation to show that the New Testament does not endorse glossolalia. By extension, neither should it be practiced in Christian worship or private praise. Glossolalia is, first, not uniquely Christian. Second, it is not truly “language.” Third, it is not taught in the Bible as a component of Christian spirituality.  Fourth, the signs gift of xenoglossy also ended with the Apostolic witness to the testimony of Christ, therefore the continuation of the practice doubts (at best), or subverts (at worst) the normal operation of the Spirit through the ordinary Means of Grace. The Means of Grace are the typical Covenantal way in which God condescends to his people.


[1] Jesus Camp n.p. [Cited June 16, 2010]: http://www.jesuscampthemovie.com/

[2] Samarin, William J.  Tongues of Men and Angels: The Religious Language of Pentecostalism. (New York, New York: Macmillan, 1972) 128. Spanos, Nicholas P.; Cross, Wendy P.; Lepage, Mark; Coristine, Marjorie (February 1986). “Glossolalia as learned behavior: An Experimental Demonstration”. Journal of Abnormal Psychology 95 (1): 21–23.

[3] The General Council of the Assembly of God, Fundamental Truths, n.p. [cited June 15, 2010]. Online:  http://ag.org/top/Beliefs/Statement_of_Fundamental_Truths/sft_full.cfm#7

[4]Carey, Benedict, A Neuroscientific Look at Speaking in Tongues, n.p. [cited on June 17, 2010]: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/07/health/07brain.html?_r=1

[5] Pothress, Vern, “Linguistics and Sociological Analysis of Modern Tongues Speaking: Their Contributions and Limitations” Westminster Theological Journal Vol. 42 No. 2, (1980): 367-388

[6] Gaffin, Richard B. “The Holy Spirit and Eschatology” Kerux, Vol 4. No. 3, (December 1989):

[7] L. Carlyle. May, “A Survey of Glossolalia and Related Phenomena in Non-Christian Religions,” American Anthropologist, 58 (1956): 75-96. Goodman, Felicitas D. Speaking in Tongues: A Cross Cultural Study of Glossolalia. (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1972)

[8] Etymology of this word is xenos (foreign), and glossa (language).

[9] Bloesch, Donald G. The Holy Spirit (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2000), 291

[10] Poythress, “Linguistic and Sociological” 383

[11] Spanos, Nicolas, “Glossolalia as Learned Behavior: An Experimental Demonstration Journal of Abnormal Psychology Vol. 95, No. 1, (1986): 21-23

[12] Samarin, W.J. Tongues of Men and Angels: The Religious Language of Pentecostolism (New York, NY: MacMillan, 1972) 120

[13] Bloesch Holy Spirit, 291

[14] Bloesch, Holy Spirit, 291

[15] Poythress, “Linguistic and Sociological”

[16] Du Plessis, David, The Spirit Bade Me (Plainfeild, NJ: Logos International, 1970) 81-91

[17] Poythress, “Linguistic and Sociological” 380

[18] Hesselink, I. John, “The Charismatic Movement” The Reformed Review, Vol. 28. No. 3. (1975): 147-156. In this article he demonstrated the thesis “that nowhere has there been greater interest in and study of the Work of the Holy Spirit than in the Reformed tradition.” He defended this thesis with ample evidence in dogmatics and popular works from the Continent, England, and the United States across the reformed tradition.

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One thought on “Christian Glossolalia

  1. Good job Ben.

    I am glad you divided tongues into it’s proper categories and refuted both. I think those who claim to speak in tongues are divided equally between those who are self edified and those who would argue they edify the church.

    Bro,
    evan

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