Introduction: Glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, (Greek
glossa = tongue;
laleo = to speak), was one of the spiritual gifts
bestowed upon believers on and after the day of Pentecost. In
the fourteenth chapter of I Corinthians, where Paul
discusses the value of the gift of tongues, the King James
translators unfortunately inserted the word unknown before the
word tongue; thus giving to the ignorant and unlearned the
notion that the gift of tongues was the ability to speak in some
extra-terrestrial language known only to God and the Holy
angels. The truth is apparent, however, when we compare the
second chapter of Acts with the fourteenth chapter of
I Corinthians. It is immediately apparent that there is no such
thing as the unknown tongue, in the sense of a spiritual language
unknown and unspoken on earth except by those who have the
gift. The apostles, on the day of Pentecost, spoke in all of the
tongues represented by the Jews who were gathered there out
of some fourteen or more nations. The languages which they
spoke were unknown only in the sense that the apostles who
spoke them were not previously acquainted with them. We may
now ask: What did the apostles speak in these unknown, or
other (Greek: heteros - another of a different kind) tongues?
While the substance of these utterances is not given, it appears from verse 11 (along with I Cor. 14:2, 14, & 16) that such miraculous utterances were limited to prayer and praise directed to God. There is no evidence that this miraculous ability was ever used for the purpose of preaching. Nor is there any indication that Peter, on the day of Pentecost, preached his sermon in a language previously unfamiliar to him. It was, in all probability, delivered either in Aramaic (the Hebrew of that day) or Greek. Either of these languages would have been intelligible to the Jews gathered there, for Aramaic appears to have been their characteristic language; while the Koine Greek was the lingua franca of all the nations mentioned.
Glossolalia has been mostly confined to churches of the Pentecostal group. These churches have, for years, claimed to possess the same gifts that were imparted to the believers on the day of Pentecost. However, in recent years, the movement has burst the confines of the Pentecostal churches, and has found its way into such improbable places as Episcopalian, Presbyterian and even Baptist churches.
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I. The Validity of Glossolalia
In considering the validity of glossolalia, let us examine the record of a purported case of speaking in an unknown tongue. The following quotation is taken from an article printed in the Saturday Evening Post which gives an eyewitness report of an instance of modern glossolalia:
"Into the silence a woman began to speak...When she finished, the Reverend Mr. Brown waited perhaps eight seconds. Then with eyes closed, he gave this interpretation: 'I shall have a people, saith the Lord, who shall do exploits in the land and shall be a praise unto my name. The sick shall be made whole, those bound in prison houses of sin shall be set free, for I will yet demonstrate in the land that I am Lord of hosts and King of Kings. So shall signs and wonders be wrought in the earth. I shall be thy courage when thou art afraid, and thou shalt bring glory to my name.'"
We have here at least the interpretation of a supposed
case of ecstatic utterance which we may subject to a critical
analysis in an attempt to ascertain its validity. Is this utterance
(or its interpretation) such as might reasonably be expected if
it were a genuine work of the Holy Spirit? Or, is it rather what
we would expect a man, such as the Reverend Mr. Brown, to
concoct, whether consciously or unconsciously, out of his own
imagination? Note, first of all, that the interpretation is
phrased in King James English, which was the form of the
language current around the end of the sixteenth, and beginning
of the seventeenth, centuries. The Bible was translated into
that style of English because it was the current style when the
translation was made. However, this is now the twentieth
century, and the King James English is nearly four hundred
years out of date. The question is: Why would the Holy Spirit
have given a minister an interpretation which was phrased in
English four hundred years old? On the other hand, it is easy
to understand why Reverend Mr. Brown would have employed
the King James English; for such English has a Biblical ring to
it, and many ignorant people believe that the King James
English with its "thees" and "thous", and its archaic verb endings,
is a sort of religious form of the language especially designed
for the Bible, prayer, and religious purposes in general. (It may
be noted, in passing, that Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism,
capitalized on this same popular ignorance by phrasing his
translation of The Book of Mormon in King James English. The
Book of Mormon was published in 1830, two centuries after
King James' time.)
Let us notice next the reference to "signs and wonders" being "wrought" in the earth. According to the Reverend Mr. Brown's interpretation of the utterance, these signs and wonders were, or are to be performed by the Lord's people. This revelation is somewhat at variance with the New Testament, which does, indeed, prophesy that signs and wonders will be done in this age, but assigns them to a very different source. Note first, Matt. 24:24:
"For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect."
Then note II Thess. 2:9:
"Even him whose coming is after the power of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders."
Then Rev. 13:13-14:
"And he doeth great wonders, so that he maketh fire come down from heaven on the earth in the sight of men. And deceiveth them that dwell on the earth that they should make an image to the beast, which had the wound by a sword and did live."
The only signs and wonders to be performed by representatives
of the Lord are those to be done by the two witnesses of Rev.
11. Except for these, it appears that God's people should be
extremely wary of "signs and wonders", inasmuch as the Bible
indicates that they are more than likely to be Satanic in origin,
and are calculated to deceive the people of the earth.
Next we note that, according to Mr. Brown's interpretation, the substance of the utterance seems to have been addressed not to God, but to the congregation; and actually purports to be a divine revelation, or at least a message from God to that congregation. This character of the utterance (as gathered from its interpretation) is at odds with Paul's description of such utterances and their nature:
"For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not
unto men, but unto God: For no man understandeth him;
howbeit, in the spirit he speaketh mysteries."
I Corinthians 14:2.
Verses 14-17 of this same chapter indicate that the giving of
thanks, or blessing, was a characteristic utterance in an
unknown tongue. Yet the utterance we are considering (on the
basis of its purported interpretation) does not consist of prayer,
praise or thanksgiving, but is rather directed to the congregation
as a message from God.
In essence, the utterance proves to be a message of reassurance to those who may have been wavering in their minds concerning the validity of such utterances! It also constitutes divine endorsement of a healing ministry, whether already in practice, or being contemplated for the future. All in all, the message appears to be such as a minister, desirous of promoting the practice of glossolalia, would have fabricated, perhaps unconsciously, from his own imagination; couching it in Biblical English so as to give it greater validity among the uninformed members of the congregation.
Historically, glossolalia had virtually ceased by the end of the first century A.D. Irenaeus, born about A.D. 130, speaks, through hearsay, of men who spake through the Spirit in all kinds of tongues; but Chrysostom frankly declares that the gifts described by Paul were unknown in his day. Chrysostom was born about A.D. 347. The churches of the Pentecostal variety are largely based on the proposition that the spiritual gifts bestowed on the apostolic church are still obtainable today. Accordingly, they have claimed the ability to heal the sick, to speak in tongues, and in some cases, to handle poisonous reptiles. However, the historical fact remains that the gift of tongues, as well as the other miraculous gifts of the Spirit ceased even before the end of the apostolic age. This is actually what we should have expected, for the power to work miracles has never been given to men for indefinite or extended periods of time.
An historical study of miracles will reveal that there have been three, and only three, periods during which men had the ability to work miracles (except for rare and isolated instances). Each of these periods has lasted for approximately forty years. The men who exercised this miraculous power were Moses and Aaron, Elijah and Elisha, and Jesus and the early Christians. It would not at all have benefitted Christians for glossolalia and the other gifts to have continued in the church, for it is our province to walk by faith, and not by sight. It is characteristic of Christianity that it demands to be taken on faith alone, and holds out no props for the flesh to lean on.
The miraculous gifts of the Spirit were granted in order to accredit the early Christians as having the power of God with them. Once the original spiritual inertia had been overcome, and Christianity was started on its way, there was no further need for such power, which would now become a hindrance. Thus the miraculous signs, having served their purpose, were withdrawn, and Christianity continued its course by faith alone as its moving cause.
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II. The Value of Glossolalia
It would be possible to go into the true nature of modern glossolalia, and show it to be, in all probability, a form of autohypnosis in which the subject actually experiences the phenomena which he expects to experience. However, according to the Apostle Paul, even the true gift of glossolalia was of such meager value to the church that he placed rather severe restrictions on its use in the church at Corinth. The fourteenth chapter of I Corinthians plainly reveals Paul's theological position on the subject:
This analysis of Paul's discussion of glossolalia shows
very plainly that it was, at best, anything but an unmixed
blessing! The Christians at Corinth were playing with tongues
like a child with a new toy. Paul, in this chapter, put glossolalia
in its true perspective and appraised it at its true value - ten
thousand words of glossolalia are not worth five words of
prophecy which can be understood! Therefore, it would
actually make little difference to a mature Christian whether
this modern glossolalia is the genuine article or not. He is not
looking for a spiritual plaything, but desires to edify, or build
up, the church of our Lord Jesus Christ.
III. The Vanity of Glossolalia
Another quotation from the Saturday Evening Post article is worthy of notice at this point:
"The most frequently heard complaint is that glossolalia engenders spiritual pride among those who exercise it. Though ministers report that church members who exercise charismatic gifts usually serve the church far more actively than the average member, they admit that a few develop a free-lance attitude, find it hard to submit to the judgements of others, and tend to regard themselves as qualified arbiters of a whole range of matters."
We may reasonably discount the statement that "church
members who exercise charismatic gifts usually serve the church
far more actively than the average member." In the first place,
the evaluation is made by ministers who approve of and
practice glossolalia. We would therefore expect them to see
practitioners of it in the rosiest light possible. In the second
place, it is a matter of fact that every church has some members
who "serve the church far more actively than the average
member," and do so without the doubtful benefit of "charismatic
Our attention is intrigued, rather, by the admissions made concerning the vanity of many who practice glossolalia. The "engendering of spiritual pride" and development of a "free- lance" attitude, along with delusions of grandeur, are by far the most likely results of such a practice. It was about displaying their gifts that Paul said:
"And ye are puffed up, and have not rather mourned."
I Corinthians 5:2a.
As for the difficulty which practitioners of glossolalia find in submitting to the judgements of others and the tendency to regard themselves as "qualified arbiters (or judges) of a whole range of matters," Paul seems to have found the same effects of the practice at Corinth. Notice verses 36-38, of I Cor. 14:
"What? Came the word of God out from you? Or came it unto you only? If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are commandments of the Lord. But if any man be ignorant, let him be ignorant."
Paul's conclusion concerning glossolalia was that its
practice should be allowed under strict control, but that it
should not be encouraged; nor should it by any means be
allowed to usurp the place of pre-eminence which belongs to
prophecy. In view of Paul's low evaluation of it and the
extreme doubt which attaches to its validity today, the best thing
Christians can do is to avoid it like the plague. Our purpose is
not to show off to the world, but to show Christ to the world.
The gospel of Christ, not glossolalia, is the power of God unto
salvation. For centuries, the gospel has been preached, people have been saved,
churches have been established and saints have grown in grace.
It is difficult to see what glossolalia can add to the situation,
except to increase the vanity of those who practice it.
John H Mattox