Speaking of Tongues

I am arguing that the correct understanding of the miracle of tongues, broadly speaking, is the transmission of the gospel into one’s native language. That transmission can come in a variety of ways, through both extraordinary (Acts 2) and ordinary means (1 Cor 14, in the sense of translating the gospel into other languages). The Acts 2 tongues event was a genuine occurrence of a miracle through extraordinary means. However, in 1 Cor 14 Paul was not dealing with an Acts 2 miracle of tongues, but was dealing with two other issues related to tongues (neither of which were the of Acts 2 variety). In 1 Cor 14 Paul was dealing with: 1) how to handle the plethora of foreign languages (tongues) in the Corinthian church, and 2) the imitative Delphic expression of tongues that had irrupted in the midst of the Corinthian confusion.

First, the situation of Acts 2, the larger theme of the gospel story at that point, is about the communication of the gospel to the Gentiles. Because the gospel of Jesus Christ is the only legitimate focus for human unity and common understanding is the only means of unity, God repaired the curse of the division of languages (understanding) instituted at the Tower of Babel through the manifestation of the gift of tongues in Acts 2. In addition, it should be noted that the purpose of miracles generally and the point of this particular story is the wider communication of the gospel to the Gentiles. God’s purpose since the Fall (Genesis 3) has been the salvation of humanity through the communication of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Second, we need to determine whether the phenomenon of tongues in Acts 2 is the same as that in 1 Corinthians 14. I believe that it is not, that Paul does not understand the two occurrences of tongues to be the same thing, and that much of the interpretive difficulties regarding the issue of tongues in 1 Cor 14 can be traced to this fact. Note that Paul makes no reference to the Acts 2 event in 1 Cor 14. These two occurrences of tongues (Acts 2 and 1 Cor 14) were expressed in different places, at different times and among different people. There is also, I believe, a different spirit animating them.

It could be argued that the same Spirit manifested Himself in the same ways among these different people, in the same sense that Paul argued for different gifts issuing from the same Spirit as a source of Christian unity. But that’s not what I’m arguing. Such an argument neglects the tenor of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. Paul was chastising and correcting the Corinthians for getting off track in a variety of ways, and one of those ways was their unnecessary imitation of the Acts 2 tongues experience at Pentecost. This is the source of the fact that Paul spoke of two different phenomenon of tongues at Corinth, one was a concern about the confusion that came because people were speaking different languages during worship, and one was a concern about the resurgence of Delphic tongues among the Corinthians. One was a practical concern regarding the use of foreign languages (1 Cor 14:10), the other was a concern related to his charge that the Corinthians were confusing worldly wisdom (Greek wisdom) with godly wisdom (biblical wisdom); and that confusion brought about the expression of Delphic tongues in worship as part of that confusion.


At Corinth people imitated the Acts 2 gift of the Spirit. Paul noted that they were “eager for manifestations of the Spirit.” But rather than suggesting that they engage in some completely unknown language (angelic language), he told them to “strive to excel in building up the church” (1 Cor 14:12), rather than to build themselves up with private use of tongues (1 Cor 14:4). Paul discourages the Corinthians from speaking in any way that others cannot understand (1 Cor 14:2, 4, 5, 6, 9, 11, 13, 14, 15).

Verse 13 is an interesting case because Paul wants those who speak in a tongue (foreign language) to be the one to interpret. This means that the one speaking needs to understand what he is saying. Verses 14-15 do not oppose mind and spirit, as if one or the other can or should work independently. Rather, they should work together. When one’s spirit prays, his mind is unfruitful; therefore, the spirit should not pray without engaging the mind. Paul mentioned this because those who spoke in Dephic tongues spoke without understanding what they themselves were saying, with what only amounted to unintelligible speech patterns that were common among pagan prophets of the first century, of which the Oracle at Delphi is a well-known example.

Paul told them to grow up in verse 20. He accused them of being immature in their thinking—remember the mind/spirit concerns and how they should always work together. They thought themselves to be super spiritual because the could speak in tongues (Delphic tongues), but Paul told them to grow up because they were being immature in their thinking (their minds).

Without Understanding

While in Acts 2, the Galileans spoke in languages they didn’t know, there was no indication that they did not understand what they were saying. I believe that they did understand what they were saying; they were communicating the gospel in a foreign Gentile language, thus fulfilling the ultimate purpose for all of God’s mighty acts (miracles). The miracle wasn’t that they spoke without understanding what they said. Rather, the miracle was that they were suddenly able to converse intelligently in a language they previously did not know. In order to speak it intelligibly they knew what they were saying. The first requirement for all communication is that the speaker understand what s/he is trying to say.

Part of the difference between these two manifestations of tongues (Acts 2 and 1 Cor 14) was that the Acts 2 speakers knew what they were saying, whereas the 1 Cor 14 speakers of Delphic tongues required interpreters because the speakers themselves did not know what they were saying, and that is a mark of the Delphic-like tongues. Anyone who speaks without knowing what he is saying (or trying to say) is confused, and God is not a God of confusion.

This situation in 1 Cor 14 is further confused because sometimes the Corinthians were simply speaking in a Gentile language for the sake of the International audiences involved. It was an inter-national church in an large seaport city. So, sometimes speaking in tongues involved actual foreign languages that were spoken and which needed to be translated for the sake of those who did not speak that particular language, and sometime tongues involved the imitation Delphic-like tongues by spiritual wannabes. Though Scripture is not as explicit as I am here, this perspective provides a simple way to make common sense out of what Paul has said. And there is nothing in the text that contradicts this understanding. In addition, this approach or line of thinking conforms to the understanding of tongues provided by the most common confessions of faith, i.e., The Augsburg Confession (1530), the Thirty-Nine Articles (1571), the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646), the Savoy Declaration of Faith and Order (1658), the Baptist Confession of Faith (1689).


Just as many of the early church fathers understood the gospel in terms of Greek philosophy (by imposing Greek categories upon the text), which allowed the gospel to be framed in terms of Greek worldview rather than the Hebrew worldview of the apostles, so some of the leaders of the Corinthian church thought that the Acts 2 tongues experience justified the Delphic imitation tongues experience (by imposing Greek/Delphic categories upon the experience of tongues), though it did not.

The Delphic expression of tongues was never a genuine manifestation of the Holy Spirit. That’s just not how the Spirit works. “God is not a God of confusion” (1 Corinthians 14:33), said Paul in the midst of Corinthian confusion. A common theme throughout Scripture is the dispelling of falsehood, myths, magic and fantastic mysteries (not to be confused with the actual mysteries of the Godhead). The 1 Cor 14 tongues situation involved both the encouragement of the legitimate foreign language and translation needs, and the discouragement of the Delphic wannabes. Again, in the shadow of Acts 2, some misguided people in the church(es) gave the Delphic practice of tongues credence. There was much confusion in the early churches. Immoral pagan practices were prevalent in most of them, and that fact is what drove Paul to preach and write and visit various churches to provide clarity and instruction in the midst of various popular misunderstandings.

Again, the Acts 2 tongues experience at Pentecost was the real thing, manifested by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit for the purpose of communicating the gospel of Jesus Christ in the various languages of the Gentiles. The miracle of Acts 2 was at least two-fold. First, upon reflection those who spoke were indeed Galileans (Acts 2:7), who did break out in languages previously unknown to them (unknown to those who spoke them). Here the Holy Spirit planted the seed of understanding the gospel into various individuals who would take the gospel to their native language groups (nations). By miraculously sharing the gospel in their native languages through these linguistically ignorant, but gospel drenched Galileans, God was “seeding” the nations. This seeding was the foundation, birth or root of Christ’s church.

Once Born

Furthermore, that was, for the most part, a one time event. The church was only “born” once. The Spirit did not need to duplicate that event because the Spirit is efficacious in all that He does. He would go with the Gentiles (John 14:6) who had heard the gospel miraculously spoken in their own languages through the tongues of those Galileans (Acts 2:4) to insure that the gospel “took” in the various languages. While it is true that those Galileans miraculously spoke in languages unknown to them, there is no indication that the Galileans did not understand what they were saying. In addition, the greater miracle (greater than speaking in a language formerly unknown) was the fact that the gathered Gentiles “heard” the gospel. Such hearing of the gospel is always the greater miracle, and is the purpose of all miracles. The miracle of speaking would have been futile without the greater miracle of hearing.

And isn’t one of Satan’s best ploys to get people so focused on some minor point of truth (not a falsehood, but a piece of the truth) that they miss the major point. It happens all the time to all of us! Nonetheless, the power of the Holy Spirit can cause the miracle of hearing the gospel even when it is poorly preached (though it is better received when it is well preached), even when it is expressed by an unbeliever, in the same way that the power and/or effectiveness of baptism does not depend upon the faithfulness or understanding of the individual who administers it.

You might want to apply this argument to tongues and say that it is not necessary for the tongues speaker to understand what he is saying for it to be effective. And I will not ultimately disagree with such an argument. However, I will argue that such a situation is an extraordinary event and not the norm. Consequently, we should not expect extraordinary means of grace (miracles) because the norm or ordinary means of gospel communication is always to be preferred since the closing of the Canon.

(I have argued for the preference of ordinary means over extraordinary means on page 226 of Arsy Varsy: “While all of life is miraculous, and God’s grace is certainly miraculous, and God can contravene the laws of nature whenever He wants, God usually works through His ordinary means, through the preaching of God’s Word and the administration of the Sacraments. God’s ordinary means are the ordinary functions of His church. And because Jesus Christ came to establish and build His church on earth, God’s emphasis since Christ’s resurrection and the establishment of the Canon (New Testament Scripture) is upon His ordinary means, upon the purpose and function of His church. That is where God’s people are to focus their energies, on the purpose and function of Christ’s church. But not simply on the church as a particular social institution, but on the church in its wholeness as an expression of Christian culture. However, God reserves the right to exercise His extraordinary means as He pleases, whenever He pleases. But that is His business, not ours.”

Still Speaking

It could be argued that the Holy Spirit must necessarily grant a similar miraculous speaking in tongues whenever a new language group is encountered by Christians. But such an argument would be at best extra-biblical. We don’t need to go there. But if someone wanted to go there, I would not completely object because wherever the gospel is “heard” it is heard by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, which is always a miracle for the person who hears it, even when accomplished by ordinary means. Such a speaking in tongues (of the Acts 2 variety) is not ever beyond the ability of the Holy Spirit, but would likely be the case only where needed, where a new language group was encountered, and where ordinary means just wouldn’t do the job. Because ordinary means are to be preferred, the Holy Spirit would more likely use ordinary means when available. So, in answer to the question whether the Holy Spirit issues the gift of tongues in the same way as He did in Acts 2, I would say “possibly,” but would note that it would be extremely rare, and the more important gift would always be the “hearing” of the gospel in whatever language.

There is every indication that the tongue-speakers were speaking actual foreign languages that were heard by people who spoke those languages as their native tongue. This is essential to the perspective that I am expressing.

Peter then took what the Lord had done by pouring out His Holy Spirit upon the Galileans through extraordinary means and demonstrated how to understand and interpret that event (the extraordinary tongues event of Acts 2) through the ordinary means of preaching. The Acts 2 event was so extraordinary that it was unbelievable to many of the people gathered (Acts 2:12-13). Many of them were ready to dismiss the miracle precisely because of its miraculous nature. Peter then demonstrated how preachers were to make sense of the extraordinary acts of God by using the ordinary means of grace (preaching). Peter preached that they were not drunk, but that the Acts 2 tongues was the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy, which means that Jesus is the Messiah, whom the Jews crucified. Peter’s sermon set the gold standard of preaching by demonstrating how preaching should proclaim Christ, crucified and risen, in such a way as to prick the hearts of the listeners so effectively that they cry out for help.

Paige Patterson (SWBS) has made a helpful distinction that supports what I’m trying to get at.

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