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. I was baptised in Jesus name a few years ago. After years of being unsure about what all is happening to me and my spiritual life, I am starting to believe that this is all for real. I’ve always struggled with the whole idea of speaking in tongues. I’ve tried to rationalize it and even at times flat out deny it. After reading the Bible through and through and taking it in context, as it is, the Bible does teach that speaking in tongues is a real gift that ever believer has, or will recieve. I still have a hard time with tongues, but the Bible does teach it and denying it is denying the Bible.

  2. Bogdan Unteanu says

    First off I would like to say that S. M. Lockrigdes spirit filled sermon is the best praise and worship I have ever heard. I had heard it about 15 years ago and only recently remembered it, so i searched the net and found your site. I would like to thank you for the time you took to put it together. Also the word and knowlegde of Christ should never be sold, it is to be freely given, even if it cost us to get.
    So I apreciate that you have offered it free.

    Second It makes me sad that such a simple thing as the gifts and fruits of the spirit are taken so out of context. Paul made some things very clear in
    1 Cor. 12-14. those two chapters are very detailed and indepth about the gifts/fruits. They are also very simple. They are to be read in order, without skipping from verse to verse in order to get the correct understanding, instead of seeing what we want. Skipping from verse to verse is very dangerous to the truth of the Word. People can take verses from the Word of God, and get it to say whatever they want.

    First of all the Church in Corinth had a big issue with having distorted the gift of tounges in particular, that’s why Paul addressed this subject in a very serious manner. The Church of Corinth, like I believe most charasmatic and pentecostal churches do today, had gone off the deep end with this “gift”. They had church sevices and all they did is sit around together and babble nonsense. Paul is very clear on this, look for yourself. He scolds them telling them to stop. I personally do not speak in tounges, but I KNOW THE HOLY SPIRIT IS ALIVE AND POWERFUL IN ME. I know what my gift is and its not tounges. I believe in every gift, and that they are active in the church today.

    Paul makes it clear that:

    1. The Holy Spirit decides who gets what gift, we don’t choose. 1 Cor. 12:11

    2. Each person has his/her own gift. Not all have the same gifts or every gift. Not all have tounges. 1 Cor. 12:12-30

    3. That what we should yearn for are the Fruits of the Spirit. Which we all can have and work on. Paul even says “yet I show you a better way”, speaking of the fruits in contrast to the gifts. And that all the gifts in the world are nothing without the fruits. Also all the gifts will pass away, not the fruits. This is makes it clear that the “evidence” of the Holy Spirt is Love. God is Love. 1 Cor.13

    4. Tongues is very low in importance, it is for self edification unless interperted. Paul says to use it in your personal life, and very limited in public or church. There are multiple gifts, including non supernatural gifts like teaching and serving(yes those are gifts also, again check for yourself in
    1 Cor.12) that are placed of higher importance than tounges. 1 Cor.14.

    How then can anyone claim the evidence of the Holy Spirit is tongues. The whole Bible is filled with proof that it is Love which evidences the Spirit not tounges or any other gift, but the fruits. “You will know them by their fruits” also Gal. 5:22-26 and many others just look up fruit or fruits.

    The most important thing I’ve learned in my studies is to read the Word of God without skipping around.
    The best thing to do is read ALL of 1 Cor. 12-14 in order it makes alot more sense and is very self explanitory. I pray that God gives all his children the wisdom to study one thier own without others opinions. Remember “the Holy Spirit will teach you all things.”

  3. How can a gift from god be small? If speaking in tongues is said to be such a minor gift, why does not everyone have the ability to speak in them? GOD grants ME the ability to speak in tounges daily and I thank him for allowing me to the gift of tounges to not leave me. Can you even imagine speaking to God in his language being not so great? Not me I think it is the greatest gift!!!!! 🙂

  4. Bogdan, I am so greatful that the Lord of all has revealed to you His truths. You are right on!
    By the way if this is the “Bob” I got baptized with, please contact me.

  5. happa belina kerekish metajarvosa! (writing in strange languages, clearly not my gifting but its easier than French !)


  6. Bogdan, you make a good point as far as ensuring that the Word of God is not taken out of context, as it is so often nowadays. I speak not only of the context of the layout of the Word, but also the cultural context, the addressee of the letter, etc. I do believe you are very much on track.

    I would like to bring up the issue ‘Andre’ points out. I do not believe you were trying to belittle the gift of speaking in tongues; however when you state, “Tongues is very low in importance…” it almost sounds that way. I do agree that ‘speaking in tongues’ has received the greatest emphasis in many churches (not to the benefit of the Body, but to self) and much of the controversy surrounding this gift resides in the fact that it is the easiest gift to fake.

    I believe that tongues are ‘for a sign’, but let’s remember, it’s the Jews who require a sign. The apostle Paul clearly puts the gift in its proper perspective in 1 Cor. 15:18-19, “I thank my God, I speak with tongues more than ye all: Yet in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousand in an unknown tongue.

    One other point I’d like to make is in regards to the ‘fruit’ of the Holy Spirit, as opposed to the ‘fruits’, Gal. 5:22, 23. The fruit of the Spirit are manifested by our ‘crucified’ life in Christ (Gal. 2:20) and our walking in the Spirit (Gal. 5:24-25). When you say ‘fruits’ it sounds like the Holy Spirit gives you the fruit separately instead of together, and we know that is not the case.

    Bro. J

  7. Brian Hayford says

    THis is all good food for thought. One thing that has not been mentioned,1 how have some of of you recieved the Gift of tounges?, 2, One must remember, to deny the holy ghost this will not be forgiven.3 to recive this gift you must yeild to the holy ghost, you must yeild your tounge and let the holy spirit take over, this gift is not something to be taught. Our father Jesus said to have faith above all things. our flesh is emnity to god. We must pray in the spirit we must Sing in the spirit. By doing this we excersize our faith wich makes us stronger. james also said “Faith without works is dead. We also have a God of order so to do the things hap hazardly, Paul wrote these things with warnings and not to boast about any gift.”Any man have great faith let him keep it to himself”. One must remember “All gifts are measured by your faith”. I can sing in tounges and speak in tounges and I have prophised, all came by faith by the washing af gods word! this gift is a promise to you and you children, Thank you for your time. I welcome email and comments. Peace and grace upon all.

  8. Bogdan Unteanu says

    To say that not having tounges is denying the Holy Spirit is not Biblical at all!

  9. Sometime during the 14C St. Thomas Aquinas considered (amongst numerous other metaphysical questions) two particularly interesting ones. The substance of these is set down below.1) Can an angel pass from A to B without passing through any points between?2) How many Angels can stand on the point of a needle? Aquinas states the problem less graphically by asking if it is possible for many angels to occupy the same space at the same time.It is easy to dismiss such problems as medieval nonesense but to do so would be hasty and unjust. Aquinas is one of the great theologian-philosophers.So, what exactly is Aquinas’ agenda here? Do the questions ring any bells?It is quite clear from the context in the ‘Summa Theologica’ that what he is doing is exploring the nature of God, the nature of the world and the nature of ideas and mind, and how each might relate to the others. Essentially he is attacking ‘Materialism’ a theory which says that matter alone exists and that mind is non-material. It has its origins in the Greek atomists (eg Epicurus) It reached its height in the Enlightenment and dominated Western intellectual thought until the beginning of the 20C. when artistic, philosophical and scientific theories challenged the status quo. Science was particularly revolutionary, as Einstein, Bohr and others questioned Newtonian physics and threw what had seemed immutable laws into doubt and confusion. Materialism from this point on quickly lost favour.Aquinas some 700 years ago is anticipating both Kant and Hume ( how do we move from the purely physical world to the world of ideas?) He anticipates some modern mathematics, (lines and points do not occupy space) and sub-atomic particle physics, (electrons can pass from A to B without passing through points between. They are not anywhere but can be everywhere at the same time.) Time and space become one: material and non-material (matter and energy) are at some point interchangable and indistinguishable.Of course one could say ‘so what?’ I suspect that if this is new to you, you will remember it because it goes so much against common sense. (‘the philosophy of the savage’ Bertrand Russell) It is so anti-intuitive; how can things both be, and not be? It seems electrons can! Science moving towards theology?I think it is worth contrasting this short account with the ‘tongues’ debate which seems to me, for the following reasons, to be utterly pointless.(Ironically, judging from the number of comments, it is incredibly popular.  1) The phenomenon pre-dates Christianity and is not restricted to it. It was one of the features of Gnosticism. In fact there are other pagan as well as Jewish examples. The Oracle at Delphi spoke in ‘tongues’. They feature in West African tribal religions and are common to some Hindu ceremonies. How does the Christian experience differ? Simply saying it does just won’t do.2) On the occasions I have heard ‘tongues’ in Assemblies of God churches in West Lancashire, I never heard a translation which amounted to anything at all. I do not doubt the sincerity of the people involved. They were certainly welcoming and kind. However the translations frequently went on for a long time! They were unfailingly repetitive, unremittingly predictable, hackneyed and well, just plain boring: quite banal really, strings of cliches, and ‘translated’ from a language which at best couldn’t have contained more than 30 words. On voicing these sorts of thoughts I was advised to try the Elim Pentecostal Church in Wigan. I did. It was just the same. Why the quality should vary is a question worth asking. Why such a clumsy and circuitous route? I am sure the mawkish platitudes can be heard equally well in Spiritualist churches or at chucking-out time on Christmas Eve. If it really is the Spirit speaking surely something worthwhile could have been said.4) If neither Nathan nor Mark’s view is correct, what difference would it make? What could possibly hang on it? This debate is so reminiscent of the supposed Phaisaic debates on ritual purity; so akin to the endless nit-picking and special pleading as attempts are made to reconcile difficult texts. (eg 1 Chronicles 21:1 with 2 Samuel24:1)Does it really matter any more than the efforts of Bishop Usher to work out the date and time of Creation, or any more value than the theoretical attemts to reconstruct the Ark to show that it could accommodate all the animals?Who is nearer to the caricature of the medieval scholastic?  

  10. If the gospel is not spoken in a language that the children can understand then someone needs to speak it, that understands the $50 words so the children can understand. If a child does not understand your sermon full of $50 words then they need an interpreter to help them understand. Or did I use to many $50 words? The proper use of tongues.