Why charismatic speaking in tongues should only be practiced by Catholics

Three weeks ago I posted a slightly provocative post entitled Why Charismatics are not New Testament Christians. That post focussed largely on prophecy, today I want to look at the gift of tongues.

The Gift of Tongues

Of all the so-called charismatic gifts, tongues-speaking is the one that non-charismatics have the most trouble in understanding and accepting. Most Charismatics believe that “speaking in tongues is prayer or praise spoken in syllables not understood by the speaker”.1 Tongues, in other words, are understandable only with interpretation. Frankly, this turns the clock back on the reformation. Charismatics who practice tongues-speaking in public worship have given up the hard-won victory that the word of God should be in the language of the hearer.

But there’s a more important principle at stake here. There is absolutely no evidence, anywhere in the Old Testament, that speaking in unknown languages should be part of the New Covenant blessings. Indeed, the phenomenon is utterly unknown in pre-Christian Judaism. So either God is doing something in the New Testament that he has never even hinted at, or the Charismatics have got it wrong.

The evidence for the latter is very strong. It’s strong because the evidence from the Old Testament is that not being able to understand one another is a curse (see Genesis 11). This is precisely Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 14:20-22.

Not only so, but when tongue-speaking was first practiced (at Pentecost) it was precisely so that all would understand not so all would be confused! Clearly what happened at Pentecost is not what happens in charismatic churches, and not what happens in private prayer language either.

So, if charismatics are right, and “speaking in tongues is prayer or praise spoken in syllables not understood by the speaker”, where did this doctrine come from? It was never spoken of (or even hinted at) in the Old Testament. It wasn’t mentioned by Jesus. What other New Testament doctrine can you think of that suddenly springs up in the New Testament, that isn’t rooted in the Old Testament or the sayings of Jesus?

There’s no answer to that question. Unless, of course, the charismatics are wrong. Because the Old Testament does talk about a day when the Gospel will be spoken in every language. It is that age in which we now live. An age where God is praise in any and every language. This, truly, is tongues-speaking.

So, let’s not turn the clock back. Let’s not mis-interpret Luke and Paul and thus invent a doctrine that has no basis in the Old Testament nor in the words of Jesus. And let’s not become like that Catholics so that the majority cannot understand what God is saying. Let’s hold true to reformation principles, and re-affirm that speaking in tongues means speaking in real, human languages.

  1. See, for example, the charismatic scholar, Max Turner’s, “Early Christian Experience and Theology of ‘Tongues’: A New Testament Perspective,” in Speaking in Tongues: Multi-Disciplinary Perspectives, ed. Mark J. Cartledge, Studies in Pentecostal and Charismatic Issues (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2006), pg 29.


  1. Mark,

    Your view of charismaticism continues to be unusual (that is neither an positive or a negative).

    Your claim that there is absolutely no evidence in the OT of speaking in unknown languages being part of the New Covenant belssing is very unusual. In the very passage that most specifically addresses the gift of tongues, Paul quotes Is 28:11.

    Your other point concerning, “turning the clock back on the reformation,” I take issue with on two accounts. First, the reformation ought not be the final arbiter on what is true or Biblical. Second, the reformation goal of translating the Bible into the vernacular is neither here nor there concerning the charismatic understanding of the gift of tongues.

    First, for charismatics (both third wave and pentecostal in every point I am making) tongues is a present gift of the Spirit, Scripture is a completed work of the Spirit. Certainly the latter should be translated, but that is not the same as the former. Second, tongues is meant to be spoken to God, 1 Cor 14:2 (in the private prayer manifestation), Scripture is meant to be God’s word to man. Obviously the latter must be translated while there is no necessity with the former (because God certainly understands). Third, tongues should be interpreted whenever it is spoken to a group, 1 Cor 14:28, no charismatic would encourage the corporate use of tongues without interpretation (although they certainly encourage the private use of it without interpretation). Fourth, even at Pentecost, the speech of the apostles was incomprehensible to themselves – God’s Word was being delivered in a language not understandable to all (since the apostles could not understand it). Yet you claim that Pentecost was somehow an exception to the more common error that you perceive in the charismatic use of tongues?

    This is just my initial reaction to your post. I look forward to some good dialogue.

  2. Hey Mark,

    Interesting post. I hve actually been doing a multi-post examination of tongues throughout the history of the church and have come to some of the same conclusions. I agree that there is absolutely no biblical basis for tongues being an “unknown” or “angelic” language. I also agree that there is no biblical support for tongues being used as a private prayer language. I would however leave room from modern speaking in tongues if that means an individual speaking in an existing language unknown to him/her for the purpose of enriching the church community (NOT just the individual).

    Quick response to one of Robert’s comments. You pointed out the Isaiah verse, which is certainly and OT reference to tongues but that does not necessarily negate what Mark is saying for two reasons:

    1) THe tongues referred to were foreign tongues. It was not God making people speak gibberish, he was punishing Israel (his chosen people) by allowing his Word to be proclaimed by outsiders in their pre-existing language.

    2) In this passage God is using tongues as a curse not as a blessing. This is an important point to remember when reading 1 Cor. 14 which is an admonishment for the misuse of tongues in the Corinthian church. Many charismatics go hog wild with 1 Corinthians 12-14 because tongues is mentioned so often and they end up with some pretty horrid theology because they neglect to see these chapters as Paul’s attempts to curb speaking tongues (or at least its improper use) not praise it above all other gifts.

    There’s a lot more to say on this subject but I’ve written a lot of it on my blog already which I invite both of you to check out.



  3. @Robert: Thanks again for your comments. Dan is right about Isaiah 28:11. If offers no defence. The languages spoken in Isaiah 28 were learned ‘foreign’ languages, not unlearned ‘heavenly’ languages (which means, of course, that the charismatic has to explain why Paul would quote such a verse in this context).

    My challenge to you and any other Pentecostal/charismatic is this: find one verse or piece of narrative in all of the Bible that explains the source of Paul’s understanding of the gift of tongues.

    The British charismatic Max Turner wrote, “New Testament beliefs about the Spirit did not fall ready-made from heaven amidst the tongues and fire of Pentecost”. He’s right. So did New Testament beliefs about tongues fall ready-made from heaven?

    The gift of tongues (and the reasons behind Paul’s citation of Isaiah 28) can be simply explained – but only if we accept that tongues are not unlearned heavenly languages.

    I also find it fascinating that the Pentecostal scholar Gordon Fee is not even sure that what happens in charismatic churches is the same as what Paul describes in Corinthians. He even says it’s an irrelevant question! If a scholar of such weight within Pentecost circles is not sure about the gift, then surely that’s an indicator that we may have misunderstood the gifts.

    I do agree with you about the reformation, by the way. It is not the final arbiter. But I do find it interesting that the reformation put so much emphasis on the people understanding what God was saying, whether than be authoritative (the Scriptures) or of lesser authority (preaching). That emphasis with tongues-speaking (if your understanding of tongues-speaking is correct).

    Finally, in your last paragraph. I agree with point 1. I partially agree with points 2 and 3. If tongues are only to be spoken to God, then there would be no point in interpreting them for the benefit of others. So actually tongues are to be spoken to men and God, but reserved for God alone when no interpreter is present. So I think it is an overstatement to say “tongues is meant to be spoken to God”. Instead it is better to say “uninterpreted tongues are not meant to be spoken to men”. This makes it difficult (in my view) to classify tongues as a private prayer language. Rather, it is a gift that can have several uses, but must be reserved for private use in certain circumstances. Finally, I disagree strongly with point 4. I would challenge you to provide evidence that “the speech of the apostles was incomprehensible to themselves” and “the apostles could not understand it”. There is simply no mention anywhere in Acts 2 as to what the apostles heard. Luke only tells us what the apostles said and what the crowd heard.

    Pentecost was exceptional. But most commentators agree what was happening at Pentecost was happening in known, human languages. It was a gift of speaking, not of hearing. There is no evidence to suggest it was similar to modern charismatic tongues-speaking, is there?

    Thanks for your interaction, Robert. I look forward to your response.

  4. @Dan: Thanks for your support and the link to your blog. I shall enjoy reading through your posts there. I agree with much (not quite all!) of what you have said, though would probably have chosen to say it in a slightly less confrontational way (I cringe every time I see tongues described as gibberish!) As you point out, Paul was unhappy with the Corinthian tongues-speaking, but he still had the grace to describe it has “uttering mysteries in the Spirit” (14:2).

    But I think your theory (“an individual speaking in an existing language unknown to him/her for the purpose of enriching the church community”) has its problems, too. The first is because this proposal would equate Corinthian tongue-speaking with that of Acts 2. That in itself is not a problem, but in Acts 2 the tongues-speaking was for the benefit of unbelievers, at least some of who praised God as a result. Yet Paul specifically says that tongues are not for unbelievers, who would only praise God if tongues were not being used. The second difficulty is that it is hard to imagine (1) Why Paul would place so little value on such a remarkable gift, and (2) How such a gift would be given by God to people in the assembly if it was inappropriate to use it?

    Thanks again. Let me know what you think.

  5. Mark,

    Those are some excellent questions. I would like to point out that Paul does say that tongues are for unbelievers in 1 Cor. 14:22. This is probably one of the more confusing passages in the Bible since his statements here seem to contradict what he is saying in the rest of the chapter. There is a perfectly good explanation for this, but it kind of strays us from the topic at hand so i will leave that for now.
    I will agree that the overall sentiment of 1 Cor. 14 is that tongues does not uplift the unbeliever, but this idea is qualified. Paul here is referring to tongues that are not interpreted. In Acts, the tongues were interpreted by those who knew the languages being spoken and they became believers. But notice that it had the opposite effect on those who did not understand by causing them to accuse the apostles of being drunk. This is exactly what Paul talks about in 14:23.
    I see the events of Pentecost as being in perfect agreement with Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. It seems to me that Paul’s entire criticism of the way tongues are being used in the church at Corinth is that they are not being used to build up the church but rather to build up the individual. He does so very carefully because he does not want to discourage them from seeking the gifts of the Spirit (which they seem to do quite fervently). This can be seen in verse 12 when he says,
    “Since you are eager to have spiritual gifts, try to excel in gifts that build up the church.”

    In answer to you other difficulties:

    (1) Why Paul would place so little value on such a remarkable gift?

    I wouldn’t say that Paul places little value on speaking in tongues (he saw fit to writes practically 3 chapters on the subject). I make a point in one of my post to say that I don’t think it is an accurate understanding of Paul’s letters to create a hierarchy of gifts. I do say that if one feels compelled to do so (as many in the Pentecostal tradition do) that there is little Biblical support for places tongues at the top. I would say however, that Paul does place tongues in context. Certainly tongues in a remarkable gift, but it is a parlor trick compared to the greater gift of God’s grace and restoration of mankind.

    (2) How such a gift would be given by God to people in the assembly if it was inappropriate to use it?

    Tongues is only inappropriate to use if used inappropriately (why does that come out sounding like a bad Groucho Marx impression? ;). I would say that the majority of God’s gifts are given with the condition that they be used in the right way. Sex for example is a glorious gift from God, but it must be limited to taking place between two married individuals. In the same way God blesses his church with tongues but they must be used to uplift the church and they must be understood/interpreted.

    I hope this clarifies things a bit and I apologize if my posts came off as confrontational. I realize that gibberish has some bad connotations, but I was simply trying to spare my wrists from typing “unintelligible utterances” or similar neutral phrases.

  6. Dan. Thanks for your continued dialogue. You’re right, we really do need a shorthand way of saying “unintelligible utterances” – preferably one that’s easier to spell, too!

    To respond to your latest comments. You defined tongues as “speaking in an existing language unknown to him/her for the purpose of enriching the church community”. Presumably you feel that this is a gift given by the Spirit at a particular point in time. What I mean is, I presume you don’t think that one of the Corinthians would have a permanent gift of being able to speak in Egyptian, but he could perhaps be given that gift at a particular point in a particular gathering.

    Earlier I asked the question “How such a gift would be given by God to people in the assembly if it was inappropriate to use it?” What I meant by that is why would God give an individual the gift of speaking in Egyptian at 11:35 on a Sunday morning if he could not use that gift because there were no interpreters present? That makes no sense to me.

    I don’t think the analogy with sex is relevant. Sex is a gift that God gives much more generally, and I can use that gift as I choose. Tongues (according to your definition) is a very specific gift that lasts only for a very short time. Why would God give a gift that couldn’t be used?

  7. I see what you are saying now. I’m not sure if I would necessarily follow your presumption that speaking in tongues is a gift given at a particular time. I would be willing to say that this would be the most Biblically and historically defensible position, but ultimately I would say that it’s God’s gift and he can do with it what he pleases. If God wishes someone to permanently speak in Egyptian, then He can do so.
    in answer to you question, “why would God give an individual the gift of [tongues]…if he could not use them because there were no interpreters present?” I would say that he wouldn’t. in the case of the church in Corinth, I would propose that one of the following was taking place. People were speaking in tongues and (a) the proper use of interpretation had fallen to the wayside and those given the gift of interpretation did not discern or use their gift (b) the individual speaking was intended to interpret (as Paul tells them to do in 1 Cor. 14:13) and fell into the same problem as situation “a,” or (c) the tongues being spoken in Corinth were not genuine tongues. Ultimately we cannot be certain what happened in Corinth since we don’t have any actual accounts of how speaking in tongues took place. But based upon Paul’s writings on the subject as well as the nature of God in general, I would say that all gifts are given for a specific purpose and if someone were in a situation where they were given a gift but could not use it (i.e. no interpretation) then they should seriously question its validity.

  8. Might I suggest you read this article by Dr. Sam Storms? It will not answer every question you asked, but I think it answers several of your questions.

  9. And, this one, too (also by Storms):

  10. @Dan: You said, “I’m not sure if I would necessarily follow your presumption that speaking in tongues is a gift given at a particular time”. Actually, I don’t think that the gift Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians is a gift given at a particular time. What I actually said in my previous comment was, “Presumably you feel that this is a gift given by the Spirit at a particular point in time” (emphasis added for clarity). I made the assumption that’s what you thought on the basis of your earlier definition: “an individual speaking in an existing language unknown to him/her”. If the gift is given permanently, then when the speaker speaks, it won’t be in a language unknown to him/her, because the permanent gift (given months/years ago) will mean they already know the language.

    As far as the gift of interpretation goes, I really don’t see how option (a) is a possibility, because then Paul would have criticised the interpreters, not the tongue-speakers. Option (b) is certainly a possibility though. I think option (c) is much less likely because if their tongues weren’t genuine I can’t imagine Paul tolerating ‘fake’ spiritual gifts at all.

    The problem you have with option (b) is that the speaker wouldn’t be able to interpret his own tongues-speech because it would be “in an existing language unknown to him/her”.

    You seem to be saying that God wouldn’t give a gift that couldn’t be used, so God wouldn’t miraculously give a previously unknown language if it couldn’t be used. But in Corinth the gift couldn’t be used because there were no interpreters, and the speaker couldn’t interpret himself because he didn’t know the language he was speaking.

    So perhaps you’d agree with me that the gift of tongues in 1 Corinthians is the ability to speak a previously known language?