Responding Biblically to the Practice of Tongues

Using the doctrinal statements provided by the church of the Assemblies of God, this article evaluates the modern practice of glossolalia in light of Scripture.

Introduction

The Azuza Street Revival which began in 1906 is widely held as the initial resurgence of the Scriptural practice of speaking in tongues, or glossolalia, in the modern day. Glossolalia became one of the central components of the movement that came to be known as Pentecostalism. A Pew Forum study in 2011 found an estimated total of 279,080,000 Pentecostals, and calculated that the group comprised 12.8% of the world’s Christian population.1 Of that group, the largest denomination is the Assemblies of God, with over 56 million followers worldwide.

The Assemblies of God believes and practices glossolalia, claiming clear Scriptural support for its presentation of the doctrine. Its doctrine of glossolalia along with every other dogmatically defined doctrine is presented in its sixteen fundamental truths and a series of position papers.2 This paper will compare the Assemblies of God definition of glossolalia and various alternative views on the subject, and then present from Scriptural evidence a necessary refutation of the doctrine.

Various Views Compared

Before evaluating the modern practice of glossolalia in the church of the Assemblies of God, it is necessary to defined precisely the official position taken by the church on the subject. In the following paragraphs, the paper will cite the fundamental truths and position papers published by The Assemblies of God to summarize the doctrine as it is officially recognized. This position will be compared with the modern cessationist argument often posited against the doctrine, and with the writings of various church fathers.

Glossolalia Defined by the Assemblies of God

The Assemblies of God teaches that glossolalia is a fundamental step in the life of every believer. “All believers are entitled to and should ardently expect and earnestly seek… the baptism of the Holy Spirit…. [This] is witnessed by the initial physical sign of speaking with other tongues as the Spirit of God gives them utterance.”3 Thus every believer is expected to experience glossolalia at least one time.4

According to the Assemblies of God, glossolalia is the “initial physical evidence” of a Christians’ baptism in the Holy Spirit.5 This description is presented as an inductive conclusion based on a pattern repeated in the narrative occurrences of Spirit baptism in the book of Acts.6 The Assemblies of God position paper posits five occasions in Acts where the Holy Spirit came upon a group of believers or an individual.7 Of these five occasions, three (the day of Pentecost, the household of Cornelius, and the disciples at Ephesus) explicitly involve glossolalia. In one instance (the Samaritans with Simon) glossolalia seems to be implied,8 and in the other (Ananias with Saul) glossolalia is never referred to.9

Concerning the absence of an explicit reference to glossolalia in two of the passages cited, Reuben Hartwick argues that “reasonably, if a pattern has been established, the occasional absence of reciting every element of the pattern is really strengthening the pattern since it is assumed that the readers will make appropriate inferences from the established pattern.”10 However, it seems unlikely that three instances out of five could be considered consistent enough to form an established pattern. Moreover, the five instances given as examples are not the only references found in Acts to a supernatural filling by the Holy Spirit. Three other passages11 describe specific instances where individuals and groups were filled by the Holy Spirit, and none of these contain any reference to glossolalia. Thus the argument for a normative pattern in Scripture seems untenable. While there is significant Scriptural precedent for the doctrine of glossolalia as defined by the Assemblies of God which cannot be simply ignored, the precedent is certainly not as strong as it is presented.

Glossolalia Condemned by Cessationists

The prevalent alternative position concerning glossolalia is cessationism. This term is a broad one that includes a variety of emphases and conclusions, but cessationists by definition argue that certain spiritual gifts have ceased. For the purposes of this paper, the term will refer to the belief that the gift of tongues is not in effect currently, and that any practice of glossolalia today is therefore illegitimate.

Explicit Scriptural defense for the cessationist position is difficult to find. Some cessationists argue that Paul’s declaration in 1 Corinthians 13:8 that “whether there be tongues, they shall cease” indicated an immanent end to the gift. While this is certainly a possibility, Paul never gives a clear indication of when in the future the gift would cease. Presumably, based on verse 10, the gift would cease “when that which is perfect is come.” The same cessationists usually argue that this refers to the completion of the canon of Scripture. However, as Paul speaks simultaneously of the end of prophecies and knowledge, most commentators, including many cessationists,12 maintain that Paul referred to another event, possibly the return and revelation of Christ. If this interpretation is correct, 1 Corinthians 13:8 would only be a proof text for cessationism taken out of context.

The primary Scriptural argument for cessationism is not exegetical as much as logical. Most cessationists argue that the ceasing of tongues is a necessary corollary of the doctrine of sola scriptura. Glossolalia in the Scripture came only through direct revelation from the Holy Spirit. If it is practiced legitimately today, this implies continuing revelation. Mark Snoeberger argues that “allowance for tongues and continuing revelations from God (whether verbal or non-verbal) betrays a dim view of the sufficiency of Scripture alone to speak in all its grammatical/historical/theological simplicity to all of life.”13 This is a significant consideration. If Scripture is not the unique authoritative means of revelation, the door is open for an alternative method for discerning truth. This potentially “opens up the faith to an unbounded host of non-orthodox additions and emendations.”14

Glossolalia Described by Church Fathers

Given the critical importance ascribed to glossolalia in Christian growth by the Assemblies of God, it is perhaps significant that the early church fathers spoke comparatively little about the gift.15 However, in the cases where they did describe glossolalia, the description is significantly different from modern practice found in the Assemblies of God.

Human and Angelic Languages

The position paper of the Assemblies of God notes that although Acts 2 clearly implies that the disciples spoke in intelligible foreign languages, “in the other occurrences in Acts where speaking in tongues is mentioned (10:46; 19:6), there is no indication the languages were understood or identified.”16 This is a critical justification as the modern practice of glossolalia does not correspond to known human language. In 1972, noted linguist William J. Samarin published his assessment of glossolalia based on a study of its practice in cultures and languages around the world. He concluded that glossolalia was “only a facade of language,”17 despite similarities in form and pattern to human languages. His conclusion is corroborated by W. A. Criswell.18 According to the Assemblies of God, glossolalia can represent either a human language or an angelic one: a real language based on Paul’s reference to “tongues of men and of angels” in 1 Corinthians 13:1. Presumably then, the instances of glossolalia studied by Samarin and Criswell were necessarily instances of angelic languages.

The recorded instances of glossolalia described by the church fathers, however, “overwhelmingly suggest that they associate tongues-speaking with a supernatural ability to speak rational, authentic foreign languages.”19 This nearly unanimous affirmation that glossolalia referred exclusively to actual languages spoken by natives around the world exactly matches the events described at Pentecost. The other two narrative accounts of glossolalia never imply that the tongues being spoken were at all unlike the human languages spoken in Acts 2.

The practice of glossolalia encouraged by the Assemblies of God is entirely unsupported anywhere in the Acts narrative, contradicts Acts 2, and is radically different from the gift as described by early church leaders. The single Scriptural allusion to “tongues of angels” is found in 1 Corinthians 13:1, and as verses 1-3 are made up entirely of statements that even in superlative form are described as profiting nothing without love, the dramatic reinterpretation of all previous teaching on glossolalia based on that single reference is illegitimate.

Understanding and Interpretation

Furthermore, when speaking of the use of tongues, the church fathers consistently stressed the necessity of interpretation if the tongue was unknown to the hearers.20 Hilary writes of “the interpretation of tongues, that the faith of those that hear may not be imperiled through ignorance, since the interpreter of a tongue explains the tongue to those who are ignorant of it” (On the Trinity 8.29-32). The patristic example reflects the parameters Paul established for glossolalia in the church in 1 Corinthians 12-14. Paul stressed that in no event whatsoever was glossolalia to be practiced in the church if it could not be understood by the listeners, as without understanding, it could not edify (1 Corinthians 14:5). If there was no interpreter for the assembly, the speaker was commanded to “keep silent” (1 Corinthians 14:28).

However, the Assemblies of God places little emphasis on the need to interpret tongues.21 When interpretation is given, it is not understood as translation from one tongue into the native tongue, but rather as a broad “declaration of meaning.”22 Moreover, the interpretation of one instance can vary significantly from one interpreter to another.23 The lack of significance ascribed to interpretation within the church is markedly unlike the patristic example, and seems at odds with Paul’s statement that five words with understanding taught more than “ten thousand words in an unknown tongue” (1 Corinthians 14:19).

Evaluation of the Differing Views

Although the Assemblies of God does cite verses showing that certain instances of the filling of the Spirit in the book of Acts resulted in an outbreak of the display of glossolalia, the instances are far too sporadic to result in a normative pattern suggesting that every believer should expect to engage in glossolalia. The pattern has too many discrepancies. The attempt made by the Assemblies of God to force a pattern in Scripture and then argue that the pattern is prescriptive is eisegetical.

However, the common cessationist position condemning all glossolalic activity seems overly dogmatic given the absence of Scriptural support. It seems best understood as a somewhat tenable theory that is very difficult to entirely prove or disprove from Scripture. Certainly, 1 Corinthians 13:8 could lend credence to the theory, but the verse seems too vague to serve as the Scriptural foundation required to make the doctrine reliable. In the absence of evidence to the contrary it seems dangerous to categorically condemn a practice that was relatively common in the early church.

However, when building the doctrine of glossolalia entirely from the teaching of Scripture, the experience encouraged by the Assemblies of God must be rejected soundly. The consistent testimony of the church fathers prevents any loose interpretation of the Scriptural evidence, which unwaveringly describes glossolalia as Spirit-inspired speech, meant to be understood, and recognizable as existing human language. Moreover, in any potential event where it could not be understood, Paul commanded silence. This is diametrically opposed to the unintelligible sound produced by the supposed glossolalia in the Assemblies of God. Thus while Scripture does not necessarily lead to the cessationist position, it does clearly condemn the activity experienced in the Assemblies of God.

Conclusion

Based on Scripture, a believer can confidently and dogmatically condemn the practice found in the Assemblies of God. However, the believer should be very cautious in condemning outright a practice highlighted by Scripture and celebrated in the early church. Without clear indication to the contrary, the doctrine of glossolalia should be understood simply the way it is presented in Acts: as a gift given at the discretion of the Holy Spirit for comprehension in evangelization and the edification of the church.

  1. Pew Research Center, “Global Christianity: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population,” December 2011 [on-line], accessed 11 May 2013, available from http://www.pewforum.org/uploadedFiles/Topics/Religious_Affiliation/Christian/Christianity-fullreport-web.pdf []
  2. The truths are the doctrinal basis for their belief and practice. The position papers are a supplement to these truths, approved by the General Council addressing specific issues. “As the need arises to make a statement on a controversial issue, a study is done and a report given to the General Presbytery for approval as an official statement of The General Council of the Assemblies of God” (http://ag.org/top/Beliefs/Position_Papers/index.cfm, par. 1). The fundamental truths and position papers are provided online at www.ag.org []
  3. Assemblies of God, “Statement of Fundamental Truths,” nos. 7-8 [on-line], accessed 11 May 2013, available from http://agchurches.org/Sitefiles/Default/RSS/AG.org%20TOP/Beliefs/SFT_2011.pdf []
  4. “Because the gift of tongues equates with religious sincerity and personal faithfulness, it is exalted by the movement as a premier spiritual prize.” Nathan Busenitz, “The Gift of Tongues: Comparing the Church Fathers with Contemporary Pentecostalism,” TMSJ 17 (Spring 2006): 69 []
  5. Assemblies of God, “Baptism in the Holy Spirit,” p. 7 [on-line] accessed 11 May 2013, available from http://ag.org/top/Beliefs/Position_Papers/pp_downloads/PP_Baptism_In_the_Holy_Spirit.pdf []
  6. “Narrative accounts recorded in Acts in which believers experience an initial filling of the Spirit have a direct bearing on the questions of whether Spirit baptism is separate from regeneration and whether speaking in tongues is a necessary component of the experience. The inductive method will be employed in looking at these incidents; it is a valid form of logic that attempts to form a conclusion based on the study of individual incidents or statements.” Ibid., 4 []
  7. Acts 2:1-21 (the Day of Pentecost), 8:14-20 (the Samaritans with Simon), 9:17 (Ananias with Saul), 10:44-48 (household of Cornelius), and 19:1-7 (the disciples at Ephesus). Ibid., 7-9 []
  8. “Luke simply says that Simon ‘saw’ or witnessed that the Spirit was given; something observable took place. The consensus among biblical scholars, many of whom are not Pentecostal or charismatic, is that the Samaritans had a glossolalic experience. This account falls between the two major narratives in chapters 2 and 10 that unambiguously associate glossolalia with Spirit baptism.” Ibid., 8 []
  9. In the position paper it is argued that since Paul elsewhere claimed to speak in tongues (I Cor. 14:18), “it seems legitimate and logical to infer that he first spoke in tongues at the time Ananias laid hands on him.” Ibid., 9 []
  10. A. Reuben Hartwick, “Speaking in Tongues: The Initial Physical Evidence of the Baptism in the Holy Spirit,” Enrichment Journal, “Biblical Ocurrences” par 6 [journal on-line], accessed 11 May 2013, available from http://enrichmentjournal.ag.org/top/Holy_Spirit/200706.cfm []
  11. Acts 4:8 (Peter addressing the Sanhedrin), 4:31 (the assembled body of believers), and 13:52 (the disciples in general); in the first two cases, the aorist tense of ????? is used, indicating a singular event []
  12. “This final view is the majority view among modern commentators and the virtually unanimous understanding of continuationists; further, it is the preference of not a few cessationists.” Mark A. Snoeberger, “Tongues—Are They for Today?” DBSJ 14 (NA 2009): 9 []
  13. Ibid., 5 []
  14. Ibid., 13 []
  15. Busenitz, “Gift of Tongues,” 61 []
  16. Assemblies, “Baptism in the Holy Spirit,” p. 8 []
  17. William J. Samarin, Tongues of Men and Angels: The Religious Language of Pentecostalism, (New York: Macmillan, 1972), 128, quoted in Theodore Mueller, “A Linguistic Analysis of Glossolalia: A Review Article,” CTQ 45 (July 1981): 186 []
  18. Criswell writes: “As far as I have been able to learn, no real language is ever spoken by the glossolaliast. He truly speaks in an unknown and unknowable tongue. Tape recordings of those speaking in unknown tongues were played before the Toronto Institute of Linguistics. After these learned men in the science of phonetics had studied the recordings, they said, ‘This is no human language.’” W. A. Criswell, The Holy Spirit in Today’s World. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), 92, quoted in Busenitz, “Gift of Tongues,” 70 []
  19. Busenitz cites Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5.6.1; Hippolytus, Apostolic Constitutions 8.1; Hegemonius, The Acts of Archelaus 37; Gregory of Nazianzen, The Oration on Pentecost 15–17; Ambrosiaster, Commentary on Paul’s Epistles, also his comments on 1 Cor 13:1; John Chrysostom, Homilies on First Corinthians 35.1; Augustine, The Letters of Petilian, the Donatist 2.32.74; Leo the Great, Sermons 75.2; Tertullian, Against Marcion 5.8; Origen, “Preface,” and Origen de Principiis 3.1. “Gift of Tongues,” 62 []
  20. Busenitz cites Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 4.21; Tertullian, Against Marcion 5.8; Origen, Commentary on 1 Corinthians 4.61-62; Ambrosiaster, Commentary on Paul’s Epistles, also his comments on 1 Cor 12:10; John Chrysostom, Homilies on 1 Corinthians 36.5; Augustine, On the Trinity 5.13; John Cassian, The First Conference of Abbot Nesteros 5; Origen, Commentary on 1 Corinthians 4.61-62; John Chrysostom, Homilies on 1 Corinthians 36.5; Severian of Gabala, Pauline Commentary from the Greek Church in reference to 1 Cor 14:28. “Gift of Tongues,” 67-68 []
  21. In the sixteen fundamental truths and twenty-three position papers of the Assemblies of God, the interpretation of tongues is referenced twice, both times only as part of a list, and never in discussion of the practice of tongues []
  22. “In response to criticism, one Pentecostal writer contends, ‘An interpretation is not always a translation or a rendering from one language to another in equivalent words or grammatical terms. An interpretation is a declaration of the meaning and may be very differently stated from the precise form of the original.’” John P. Kildahl, The Psychology of Speaking in Tongues (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), 63, quoted in Busenitz, “Gift of Tongues,” 77 []
  23. “Kildahl, for example, had several Pentecostal interpreters listen to a single audio recording of glossolalia. After his experiment, he noted, ‘in no instances was there any similarity in the several interpretations. The following typifies our results: one interpreter said the tongue-speaker was praying for the health of his children; another that the same tongues-speech was an expression of gratitude to God for a recently successful church fund-raising effort.’” Ibid []

3 Responses to “Responding Biblically to the Practice of Tongues”

  1. Seth Meyers says:

    “Thus while Scripture does not necessarily lead to the cessationist position…”

    David, thanks for the post.
    1. Is the gift of tongues a revelatory gift?
    2. Are revelations given from God inspired?
    3. Should inspired words be given the same authority as Scripture?

    If you say Yes, to all three, then how can the canon be closed? Isn’t the closing of the canon something that can be “necessarily” deduced from Scripture?

    • David says:

      I would hesitate at #1. I don’t necessarily believe that, even in the time of the apostles, what was spoken in a tongue was necessarily revealed directly by God. I am sure it was at times, in scenarios similar to Peter’s message prompted by the Spirit in Acts 4. But it seems that in most cases tongue speaking could have been used at will by believers with the gift (why else would Paul give guidelines for its use?).

      So if tongues aren’t inspired, I don’t think it would negate a closed canon?

      I’m certainly not against cessationism as a theory, but at this point I still can’t be dogmatic about it.

    • David says:

      By the way, hi, and thanks for the input!

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