What is the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues?

Nathan Busenitz has graciously responded to an earlier post of mine where I rather boldly said:

[Nathan] asserts that the gift of tongues is really a gift of languages (by which he means “the ability to speak a previously unlearned foreign language for the purpose of evangelism”). Clearly that was happening in Acts 2. But that cannot be what was happening in 1 Corinthians 12-14. Can you seriously imagine the apostle Paul putting such a gift at the bottom of the pile of gifts to desire?

Nathan responded to my assertion by listing seven “amazing similarities” between tongue-speaking in Acts and in Corinth. I’ll list his reasons below, and respond to each in turn. (Nathan listed the evidence from Acts, then in a subsequent list the corresponding evidence from Corinth. I’ve merged them together, but put the Corinthian evidence in italics).

  1. The Miraculous Tongues in Acts were directly related to the working of the Holy Spirit (2:4, 18; 10:44–46; 19:6). In fact, tongue-speaking is evidence of having received the “gift” (dorea) of the Holy Spirit (10:45). As in Acts, the gift of tongues in 1 Corinthians was directly related to the working of the Holy Spirit (12:1, 7, 11, etc.). Similarly, the gift of tounges is an evidence (or “manifestation”) of having received the Holy Spirit (12:7).

    I of course agree with this. After all, I do believe that Corinthian tongue-speaking was a spiritual gift. If I was to be pedantic I would argue that in Acts tongues was the evidence for the reception of the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:46), whereas in Corinth it was one of many evidences.

  2. Along those lines, in Acts 11:15–17, Peter implies that the tongue-speaking of Acts 10 was the same as that of Acts 2, even noting that Cornelius and his household had received the same gift (dorea) as the apostles on the Day of Pentecost. This indicates that the tongues of the Apostles (in Acts 2) was not limited just to the Apostles, but was also experienced (at least) by both Cornelius’s household (Acts 10) and the disciples of Apollos (Acts 19). Paul, as an Apostle, possessed the gift of tongues (14:18). Yet he recognized that there were those in the Corinthian church who also possessed the gift.

    I again agree that tongue-speaking in Acts 10 & Acts 19 was the same as that in Acts 2, and this shows that tongue-speaking was wider than the apostles. I’m not sure what this proves. All three Acts events are initiatory (unlike Corinth), and all three manifestations are linked to the presence of the apostles (also unlike Corinth). There’s a reason why many refer to Acts 10 and Acts 19 as ‘mini-Pentecosts’. They are not events that we expect to be repeated, and as far as we know from Acts, most converts did not speak in tongues.

  3. The miraculous ability, as it is described in Acts 2, is the supernatural ability to speak in other tongues (meaning foreign languages) (2:4, 9–11). As in Acts, the gift of tongues is described as a speaking gift (12:30; 14:2, 5). The fact that it can be interpreted (12:10; 14:5, 13) indicates that it consisted of an authentic foreign language, similar to the tongues of Acts 2. (Paul’s direct association of tongue-speaking with foreign languages in 14:10–11 strengthens this claim.)

    I agree about Acts 2. Of course the gift of tongues in Corinth is a speaking gift. (How could it be anything else?) I agree also that Corinthian tongue-speaking is an authentic foreign language. Yet nothing in Corinthians leads us to believe that it is a supernatural ability. That is an assumption the text doesn’t support.

  4. The primary word for tongues in Acts is “glossa” (2:4, 11; 10:46; 19:6), although it is also described with the word “dialekto” on two occasions (2:6, 8 ). As in Acts, the primary word for tongues in 1 Corinthians 12–14 is “glossa” (12:10, 28; 13:1, 8; 14:2, 4, 5, 9, 13, 18, 19, 22, 23, 26, 27, 39), though Paul also uses the term “phoneo” twice (in 14:10–11).

    This proves nothing. The greek word ‘tongues’ (glossa) means literally ‘tongues’, (ie the thing in your mouth!) or languages. It was not a technical term then as it is today. We should expect similar language whenever the New Testament speaks of different languages – whatever those languages may be. The word is used fifty times in the New Testament. Even if all the uses in 1 Corinthians 12-14 and Acts 2 are the same miraculous gift (which I dispute), that still means that the majority of NT occurrence speaks of normal, everyday, humdrum tongues and languages. We need to be careful not to give glossa a technical meaning it doesn’t necessarily have.

  5. It was a sign for unbelieving Jews (2:5, 12, 14, 19). As in Acts, the gift of tongues was a sign for unbelieving Jews (14:21–22; cf. Is. 28:11). Note that the gift is even called a “sign” in 14:22 (the word “sign” is from the same Greek word as “sign” in Acts 2:22). Thus, the Corinthian use of tongues was a sign just as the Apostles use of tongues was a sign.

    Actually, Acts doesn’t say that tongues was a sign for unbelieving Jews. That’s been read into the text from Corinthians. If anything this comparison demonstrates the difference between Acts and Corinth. In Acts, tongue speaking convicted sinners and brought them to repentance. In Corinth Paul explicity says tongue-speaking will not do this (14:24-26). (Again, ‘sign’ isn’t necessarily a technical term – context will determine this.)

  6. It is closely connected with prophecy (2:16–18; 19:6) and with other signs that the Apostles were performing (2:43). As in Acts, the gift of tongues is closely connected with prophecy (all throughout 12–14).

    I fully agree! Unreservedly. 1 Corinthians makes it clear that interpreted tongues is equivalent to prophecy. I think that both Acts and 1 Corinthians agree that tongue-speaking is prophecy in another language.

  7. Some of the unbelieving Jews at Pentecost accused the apostles of being drunk when they heard them speaking in other tongues (languages which those Jews did not understand). Similar to Acts, Paul says that unbelievers will accuse the Corinthians of being mad [not unlike “drunk”] if their tongues go uninterpreted (14:23), and are therefore not understood by the hearer.

    I agree that these are interesting parallels. If it is true that the ones who sneered are the ones who did not understand the languages (as you suggest), then Acts & Corinthians agree on the principle – tongues that are not understood will cause ridicule. But that does not prove that the tongue-speaking in Corinth is miraculous as it was in Acts. It just proves that the effect of non-understood tongue speaking is the same.

What I’m trying to demonstrate is that although I see some similarities between Acts and Corinthians (who would deny them?), I don’t see full correlation. I don’t believe that Nathan has demonstrated that tongue-speaking in Corinth was miraculous. Nor do I believe that the similarities he mentions are “Amazing Similarities”.

Moreover, there are some obvious dis-similarities as well. Let me list them:

  1. In Acts, we are explicity told that the ability to speak in tongues was miraculous. In Corinth we are not.
  2. In Acts, tongues could be understood. In Corinth, tongues were unintelligble without interpretation. This is quite a crucial difference, isn’t it? Does this not suggest that something different was going on?
  3. In Acts tongues brought unbelievers to their knees, calling on God for salvation. In Corinth Paul explicity says that tongues will not achieve this, only prophecy will (14:25).
  4. In Acts, tongue-speaking demonstrated that God was drawing people together. In Corinth it indicated that men were driving people apart.
  5. In Acts, tongue-speaking is always seen as initiatory (Acts 2, 10, 19). In Corinth it is an ongoing part of everyday church life.

In conclusion then, tongue-speaking in Corinth is similar, but not the same as in Acts.

So what is the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues? To use Carson’s words, interpreted tongue-speaking is ‘functionally equivalent’ to prophecy. Or to put it another way.

Gift of tongues + Gift of interpretation = Gift of prophecy

So the gift of tongue-speaking is just prophecy in another language. The ability to speak in another language is a gift from God, even if it has to be learned. (Just ask a cross-cultural missionary if you don’t believe me.)

Interestingly, my argument answers all of Nathan’s unanswered questions (in a later post). They are:

  • “Tongues of angels” (13:1) is straightforward hyperbole. To paraphrase: You think speaking French is spiritual? Even if I speak the language of angels but have not love I am nothing… You think understanding some mystery is spiritual? Even if I can fathom all mysteries but have not love I am nothing.. You think great faith is spiritual? Even if I have a faith that can move mountains but have not love I am nothing.
  • The “perfect” (13:8-11) I have dealt with here.
  • Private prayer languages is easy. Because tongue speaking is a naturally learned language, then Paul is obviously quite happy for someone to pray that way in private. God understands all our languages!
  • Why did Paul not forbid tongue-speaking? You should not forbid someone from speaking in their native language. But you can discourage it.

I recognise, of course that my reply does leave me with some unanswered questions. Particularly, I haven’t dealt with 14:14-15, which needs a bit more thought. I’m happy to reply to any questions that are raised (I’m just trying to keep this post to a readable length!). Thanks Nathan for continuing to stimulate my mind.

Articles in this series:

  1. What is the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues? <-- This article
  2. What is the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues? #2


  1. Hello everyone,
    I want to preface my response to this question with the fact that I am not a Biblical Scholar, nor do I claim to be.

    The church that I have been a member of for the past 3 years believes and teaches that there are several gifts of tongues.

    1) Prayer language which we essentially have control of, but is also essentially a direct language contact with God.

    2) Universal language in which the speaker is understood by everyone that hears him in his or her own language, even though the speaker is speaking his or her own language.

    3) Phophetic language where there is supposed to be an interpreter.

    4) Interpreter of language, who is required to interpret prophetic utterances.

    I just wish I had the scripture references to support the above.

  2. Hi Joe,

    I wish you had the references as well! Number 2 is a new one on me, the others seem to be a different perspective on the basic mainstream ideas. What sort of a church is it (denomination)? I would be interested to look at where these ideas come from.

    By the way, you don’t need to be a Biblical scholar to have an opinion or an experience, so, welcome!

  3. These four views are generally accepted as four different ways of understanding the gift of tongues, but it’s hard to see how they can be four different gifts! Acts 2 is the usual reference point, “because each one was hearing them speak in his own language”, and “we hear them telling in our own tongues”.

    This is the position the Anchor Bible Dictionary takes:

    a careful reading indicates that the miracle consisted precisely in the hearing, not the mode of speaking (pace TDNT 1:725). The bystanders do not ask, “how can they all be speaking our own languages,” but rather, “since all who are speaking are Galileans, how is it we hear them in our own native languages?” (6:597)

    However, as these two testimonies are from the perspective of the hearers, what else could they say. If I was listening to someone speak my language miraculously, how would I now whether it was a miracle of speaking or of hearing? I would be very hard to know (though I guess I could watch their lips!).

    However, 2:4 is clear and unambiguous: “And they were all jfilled with the Holy Spirit and began kto speak in other tongues”. Speaking in tongues (in Acts 2 at least) was a miracle of speaking human lanugages.

  4. Frederick A.Mahama says

    Discussions on the speaking in tongues are always interesting.I INITIALLY agreed with the differentiation of the various types of speaking in tongues.However after reading the comments of others i am begining to think differently.Now i am understanding that tongues is tongues but can play different roles at different times as God wishes.

    It can be used for prophesy in which case there should be an interpreter it can also be a direct speech from God to man in which case God interpretes the tongues to people of diverse languages.

    It could also be used for the edification of individuals as against prophesy which edifies all.

    I like the mathematics you used to explain tongues. thanks

  5. Pablo Delgado says

    I’ll leave you with this. The first mention of the tongues we experience is the same tongue spoken in the book of Genesis chapter 11. Notice the people were of one accord, same as the day of Pentecost. It wasn’t until division that tongues were diversified. The original language, I believe, was the one in which Adam spoke to God. If you continue the search of the Scriptures, as I have, you will see that tongues are used to speak to God only, and when it is spoken to all (as a word or prophecy from God)it needs interpretaion.

  6. Jonathan Kraft says

    Dear friends of the KING!! everyone!! yes everyone!! can speak in tongues…no matter age race background hair color height the BIBLE says that everyone should speak in tongues to God. If the bible says it…its truth. you wanna speak in tongues do it!! that’s the beauty of it. that you can do it whenever whereever you want to!
    With love.

  7. Barry Stevens says

    I understand that when someone speaks a tongue in private it is in praise of and directed towards God. From what I have been taught a tongue together with its interpretation is equal to a prophecy. From this am I to believe that the interpretation of a public tongue is from God towards or man towards God?

  8. Allie Morales says

    I agree with Jonathan. I speak in tongues everyday because that is the language of my Heavenly Father. I am His child. A child speaks the language of the father. I also happen to be bilaterally bilingual because I also had a natural father and learned my natural father’s language and later learned the language of the culture in which I lived. The natural languages I learned by exposure to the natural world. The spiritual language I acquired as everyone else has acquired it: when the Holy Spirit was poured out onto all the world following Christ’s death and reserrection. After Christ paid the price we no longer need the “holy of holies”, we have direct communication through the comforter which is the Holy Spirit. Jesus said, “I go to prepare a place for you–that where I am there you may be also.” In the meantime until His return to take us up to the place He is preparing for us, the comforter (Holy Spirit) abides in us allowing direct communciation with God our Father. I have been helped by the comments of all of you. Thanks.

  9. Speaking in tongues is nomore than your own language. Just say if a Mexican came up to the front of the church to testify, To you that would be in an unknown language if you didn’t understand it. If there wasn’t another Mexican or someone who could intrepret that language it couldn’t benefit anyone, but there a people who never learned another foreign language that can intrepret it.