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,

    I would definitely be open to the possibility that the gift of tongues in 1 Corinthians was a known language (St. Aquinas seemed to feel this way as well, at least regarding tongues in his time), but I think that this idea would fall on the same ground as the gift of tongues in 1 Corinthians being an “angelic” language. I say this because both theories deviate from the model seen in Acts chapter 2. i feel that, unless the scripture explicitly says it is otherwise, we should assume that the gift of tongues in uniform throughout the Scriptures and throughout church history.
    Looking at a few points that you made in the above comment:

    You said, “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.”

    I don’t think this necessarily follows. Certainly it could be assumed that if someone is miraculously given the ability to speak in Greek with no training and no understanding of the language it is possible for them over months of using the language to begin to understand it. But this does not have to be the case and even if it were the case with some individuals it wouldn’t negate the original miracle of God giving someone the gift of a tongue unknown to them at that time. Also, in regards to an individual interpreting their own speaking in tongues, I don’t see how we can say that if they interpret what is said that it automatically makes it a known language. I say this because if it is a the Holy Spirit which gives them the interpretation then they are not speaking it like their native language. Think of it this way, someone gives you a sheet of paper to read out loud and it had some language unknown to you spelled out phonetically. You read it and then they give you another sheet of with the translation written in English. You could say that you understand what the first sheet said since you have the interpretation, but thats a far cry from knowing the language. You may be able to give an accurate translation, but you would have no idea which words meant what, how to conjugate verbs, or even where one sentence ends and the next begins. So it may very well be possibly for an individual to speak in tongues and interpret them without “knowing” how to speak this language.

    You said, “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.”

    I don’t think Paul would tolerate fake spiritual gifts either, but there are a couple possibilities for why this still may be the case.

    1) Paul was not present to hear these tongues, his knowledge of the events in Corinth were second hand. Some might not like this explanation since Paul was divinely inspired when writing this letter so God certainly could have told him that the tongues were false. This is possible, but there are many places in Scripture where God chose not to give every detail about something taking place.

    2) Paul may have chosen to not deal with the issue of false tongues so that he did not undermine a powerful gift in the early church community. This may seem unlikely, but I think we would both agree that there are many people faking tongues in the church today and throughout church history (I know many people who have admitted it), and since the Pentecostal church is one of the fastest growing denominations and since the Bible is a book not just written for believers 2000 years ago, but for all believers throughout the ages, it seems like if there would be something in the Bible dealing with false tongues, unless Paul thought it was better to deal with it indirectly (as he may have been doing in 1 Corinthians).

    On a side note, I would like to say that I have enjoyed our conversation so far. This is actually the first in depth discussion of this matter that I have had where the condition of my soul has not been called into question, so congratulations 😉

  2. Dan: I’ve enjoyed the conversation too. Thank you!

    I actually see the situation in Acts 2 as unique, and somewhat different from all other occurrences of tongues-speaking in Scripture. You may have noticed I’ve started a new series of posts about tongue-speaking in Acts 2.

    I agree that the starting position should be to assume that tongue-speaking will follow the Acts 2 model (which is partly why I think that tongues-speaking must be in known lanugages, not angelic ones). But obviously Acts 2 is a pretty unique situation, and there’s other miraculous events on the day that weren’t to be repeated. I think the miraculous nature of the tongues-speaking is one of them. So tongues-speaking is to be repeated, miraculous tongues-speaking is not.

    Hopefully more will become clear as my series on Acts 2 progresses. I may move on to Acts 10, or perhaps Corinthians later.

    One point I will make now is this. For me, this is a crucial factor in concluding that tongues in Acts 2 is not exactly the same as in 1 Corinthians 14. That is, 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. Equally, the other examples of tongues-speaking in Acts 10 and Acts 19 were also for believers, not unbelievers. That points to some discontinuity between Acts 2 and the others accounts, and I think that (linked with the fact that at least some of what happened at Pentecost was unique) points us towards the differences between Pentecost and the other occurrences of tongues-speaking. Miraculous tongue-speaking was necessary at Pentecost. It was not necessary elsewhere.

  3. Mark,

    I don’t think the points you have made here quite line up (at least not for me).

    Firstly I agree that there are elements of Pentecost that are not repeated (at least not in the Scriptures or attested church history) such as the strong wind or the tongues of fire. But speaking in tongues (or at least the phrase) is repeated, so the fact that certain elements are not repeated does not give us reason enough to doubt that tongues are the same throughout the New Testament.

    Secondly, the idea that tongues is not for unbelievers is not an entirely accurate interpretation. This is a complex issue that has to be taken in the full context (and even then is confusing). Though in 1 Corinthians, it seems that Paul is saying that tongues is for believers and and prophecy is for unbelievers, he does state in verse 22 (as i mentioned before) that tongues are a sign for unbelievers. The problem with many interpretations of this passage is that the reader has been soaking in the “good news” aspect of the Scriptures so much that they assume the “sign” from God referred to here is a good one. They forget that a curse from God is just as much of a sign as a blessing is. Paul is warning the church in Corinth that “tongues” can possibly harden people and send them further away from God (just as it did at Pentecost with the men accusing the apostles of being drunk). I know that you are aware of this as you have pointed it out before and at this point it seems like I am making your point for you, but here is why this understand of chapter 14 casts some doubt on your interpretation of tongues: If tongues can be a curse to unbelievers, what difference does it make whether the speaker knows the language or not? It seems that your argument would be more suited for defending tongues as a personal prayer language rather than disputing miraculous tongues.

    Here is how I see this chapter being in harmony with Acts 2. Notice that in 1 Corinthians 14 that Paul is stressing prophecy above tongues. The reason he is doing this is because he is following the Pentecostal (as in Acts 2 NOT the denomination;) model. The primary gift bestowed on the apostles in Acts 2 is not speaking in tongues, it is prophecy! Peter even confirms this when he speaks to the crowd who are wondering what is going on and how all this is possible. Peter tells them that this is the fulfillment of what was written in Joel, “God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.” Notice that he makes no reference to speaking in tongues. The only thing he mentions (several times at that) is prophecy. This is what Paul is trying to deal with in Corinth. They have placed tongues on a pedestal and have let prophecy fall to the wayside, forgetting that tongues without understanding (prophecy) is a curse on unbelievers and hardens them.

    Finally, why is it that you feel that miraculous tongues were “necessary” at Pentecost but not elsewhere?

    I apologize this post has typos or is unclear. I’m a bit sleepy at the moment which means that I don’t write very well and proofreading was abandoned somewhere around the second sentence. Good night!

  4. Dan,

    Thanks again for your comment. I’ll try and respond to each of your points in order.

    (1) A careful reader will have two conflicting reactions when looking at tongues speaking in the rest of the Bible. One will be the assumption that few concepts change from one page to another in the Bible. But the other is that some of what happened at Pentecost is clearly not repeatable. So, in a sense, either approach to tongues is valid – but of course only one can be right. Other data from the rest of the Scriptures must guide us. I would suggest two things: (1) Asking whether the evidence that points to tongues-speaking as miraculous languages in Acts 2 is also there everywhere else in Scripture. And (2) Asking whether what the purpose of such tongues-speaking could be elsewhere, when it’s purpose is so clear in Acts 2.

    (2) I do agree that signs can be both negative and positive. The context of the Isaiah quotation in Corinthians is clear. Paul is not saying that the contents of tongues-speech will curse unbelievers. The “sign” was that Israel could hear a language they couldn’t understand. It’s very unintelligibility was the “sign” that foreigners had invaded and they were to go into exile. So the intelligibility or otherwise does matter. In fact, that’s the whole point! Unintelligibility was a sign to disbelieving Israel, so why, Corinthians, do you value unintelligibility so much!?

    (3) Finally, miraculous tongues weren’t strictly necessary at Pentecost. The 120 could have spoken Greek and everyone could have understood them. But tongues were a sign, there too. The point is that at Pentecost, tongues were intelligible. That’s why they were so beneficial. But the 120 spoke in a myriad of other languages to demonstrate that the Gospel was about to go out to all people everywhere, regardless of their ethic identity. I’ve just posted about this. That’s not what’s happening in Corinth.

  5. it’s really sad how things get taken out of perspective so easily.

    Why is it that you quote 1Cor 14 :20 – 22 and then make assumptions about Acts 2 but you haven’t even read the full context of 1cor 14 if you had and you would of uses any level of gray mater you would of come to the conclusion that Paul was not making out that believers who speak in tongues are like children but that speaking in tongues has different diversity’s suited for different circumstances

    1.(self edification) :context alone with God
    1 cor 14:2 For he who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. For no one hears, but in spirit he speaks mysteries.

    2.the tongues for interpretation : context in a gathering or meeting
    1 cor 14: 5 I wish all of you to speak in languages, but rather that you may prophesy; for greater is he prophesying than he speaking in tongues, unless he interpret so that the church may receive building up.

    3. a Sign to the unbeliever : Context in a gathering or meeting
    1 cor 14 : 22 So that tongues are not a sign to those who believe, but to those who do not believe. But prophesying is not to those who do not believe, but to those who believe

    no 3 lines up completely with what happened at Pentecost read Acts chapter 2 to 6

    and then at the end of chapter 14
    39 So then, brothers, seek to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak in languages.
    40 Let all things be done decently and in order.

    Paul clearly sums up what he had to say, give each other a chance to share oh and by the way don’t do away with tongues

  6. Mark,
    Far be it from me to defend Catholicism. Catholics do that well enough. However, wasn’t Latin used in the Mass precisely because it WAS the universal language? Until 17C scholars wrote in Latin. No doubt you’ll put me right when you send the answers to papers 1 and 2. Sapere aude!

  7. Joshua Abbate says

    The reason why speaking in tongues is so different is because of the fact that people who speak it are trying to say what god wants them to say not what they want to say and both are conflicting within that person.those who cannot speak in tongues are however more faithful than those who can simply because they do not try to hear those not meant to be heard by mortal ears. I myself beleive that each person who speaks in tongues is picking up some of what the angel they most relate to is saying.tongues are false in the fact that they are trying to mimic the holy and sacred, I also do not beleive Jesus dud not truly die when he was crucified, as they were horribly stupid back then he could have still had a pulse and they wouldn’t have noticed.

  8. Joshua Abbate says

    The new testament is untrue I just want to get my veiw out there before you all say something that definitally won’t change my veiw, all of them say things in double meaning meaning their veiws cannot be challanged and by the way Jesus was a man like anybody else saying that he knew no sin was false in the fact that he had to have sinned at one time in his life and him saying that he is closer to god than any body else is the biggest lie ever told.

  9. Joshua Abbate says

    Sorry about that. My uncle got drunk and started goofing off on my iPod.

  10. David rossin says

    tounges = known language, acts 2 =known languages to the hearers, but not known by the apostles who spoke , a gift of the holy spirit… paul later spoke about disruptive services, by people converted, who spoke different languages, trying to speak God word either from the from or in the room, things will have to be interpreted by someone or no one under stands ,. tounges + real known language, if the spirit is helping you in spirit as they say im sure he would speak clearly, also jesus never spoke in tounges, clearly a sign that this is something else…. also fruits of the spirit are most important as this represents a change in the heart, also in revelation many will be deceived by the false prophet signs and wonders, this is a clear warning of what is happing at the moment, this is not a pick on pentecostals as most churches have errors, and have to change, there is one gospel on spirit to testifie this , most leaders done understand the bible and are cannot teach their flock properly so many will be lead astray as is the case today, the road is narrow , the wide gate leasds to destruction, which is the narrow road, do the works of God , is to beleive on the one whom was sent, repent baptise to be born again in spirit, so we can receive the holy spirit our helper and guide……. read the parable of the 10 virgins , in revelation is state some will be turned away by jesus he will say i do not know you, you did the works of men not of me , the problem here is what to believe read the bible its in there