The question Jesus asked the Jews about John the Baptist’s authority can well be asked about another matter, speaking in tongues: Is it from heaven or from men? Is it a manifestation of divine power through the Holy Spirit, or is it merely the result of human emotion and religious ecstasy?

According to those who defend speaking in tongues as a legitimate charismatic gift bestowed by the Holy Spirit, it is also a distinctive sign given to God’s Church as a fulfillment of divine promises (Joel 2:28, 29). To them it is a renewal of the Pentecostal experience, described in Acts 2, and is in agreement with the practice of the church in Corinth as recorded by Paul in First Corinthians 14. The attempt to arrive at an answer to this delicate and increasingly controversial question requires, first, a comparison of these two texts on which believers base their claims.

The Key Passages

Glossolalia is a Greek compound noun: glossa, tongue, and lalia, talk or speech, hence speaking in or with tongues. We read that on the day of Pentecost, the disciples “began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4). That these heterais glossais (other tongues) were foreign but known languages is evident; they did not have to be translated in order to be understood by the multitude. Three times the record says that the people heard the preaching by the disciples “in their own languages,” for which the words dialectos and glossais are interchangeably used. Clearly the “tongues” at Pentecost were intelligible speech in a variety of languages, and there was no need of either translation or interpretation.

As we turn to First Corinthians 14, the predominant word is glossa, talk. However, this usage is clearly distinct from the usage in Acts 2, referring to an entirely different type of speech. The King James Version consistently inserts before “tongues” the word “unknown,” but this is not found in the Greek text (1 Cor 14:4, 13, 14, 19, 27). That the most fitting translation of glossa here is that of the New English Bible—“language of ecstasy” (v. 2) or ecstatic “utterance”—will be shown later.

The reason for this distinction is rather simple. Paul goes to great lengths to hold before the church of Corinth the fact that their “tongues” are not intelligible speech, only ecstatic babbling. Consequently, the difference between the two kinds of speaking in tongues is twofold: the foreign tongues of Acts 2 were intelligible speech and could be understood directly by the congregation. The ecstatic utterance could not be understood by the people, and thus required an interpreter. “Interpretation of tongues” was a separate spiritual gift. The speaking in foreign tongues in Acts 2 represents one gift only, but the “tongues” in First Corinthians 14 required two distinct gifts: speaking in tongues or ecstatic utterance, and the “interpretation of tongues” (1 Cor 12:10). It is also noteworthy that Peter quotes Joel 2:28 ff. as being fulfilled at Pentecost (Acts 2:17), but Paul does not use that text in support of tongues-speaking at Corinth.

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Understanding The Terms

One reason for the present confusion about tongues is an inaccuracy in expression found in most of the older versions of Scripture, and even in some modern ones. The word “interpreter” is often used instead of the correct word, “translator.” A translator is one who translates from one language into another, while an interpreter is one who explains or expounds either law or religion, not necessarily in connection with a foreign language. Although both the Hebrew and Aramaic as well as the Greek language in the Bible make a clear distinction between these terms, many Bible translators have failed to preserve that distinction.

A good example in the Old Testament is the meeting in Egypt of Joseph and his brethren. As they reasoned among themselves in their mother tongue, Hebrew, “they did not know that Joseph understood them, for there was an interpreter between them” (Gen 42:23, KJV, RSV). This ambiguous rendering is incorrect, for that official was obviously not an interpreter but a translator whose job it was to translate from Hebrew into Egyptian and vice versa. Thus the text correctly translated should read: “for there was a translator between them.” This agrees with the Hebrew liṣ, which means to translate, not to interpret.

How specific the Hebrew—and for that matter the Aramaic—terminology of the Old Testament is can be shown from a number of other passages. While in prison Joseph was asked to make known the meaning of his fellow prisoners’ dreams. Here the text uses, not liṣ, to translate, but pāthar, to interpret, to expound, to explain the meaning of (Gen. 40:8, 16, 22; 41:8, 12, 13). The Septuagint uses the corresponding Greek term, sunkrisis, to interpret. The same distinction is made in the Aramaic section of the Book of Daniel, where the Aramaic pešar is used thirty-one times, for the prophet did not translate from one language into another but interpreted dreams and the handwriting on the wall (Dan 2:4–7:28).

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In the New Testament the distinction between translate and interpret is continued through the use of different Greek verbs. However, in the older English versions these distinctions are not always so obvious as they should be. In Matthew 1:23; Mark 1:41; 15:22, 34; John 1:41, and Acts 4:36, there appear several Hebrew and/or Aramaic names and their equivalents in English. However, the King James Version consistently mistranslates: “which is interpreted.” A personal name could eventually have its meaning “interpreted,” but since these are actual translations from one language into another the texts should read: “which is translated.”

The principal verbs for translate and interpret to be distinguished in New Testament usage are methremēneuō and hermēneuō. The Greek noun hermēneuō appears in our English hermeneutics, the science of interpretation. And the verb meaning to interpret is what is used in First Corinthians 12:10; 14:13, 26, and 28, a clear sign that the speaking in tongues at Corinth was not the natural talent or the charismatic gift of speaking foreign languages, for which no translation was required. The tongues-speaking in Corinth was ecstatic utterance or babbling. To be understood by others it had to be interpreted, but not translated.

This fundamental distinction between translation and interpretation as observed in both Testaments should be a strong enough argument to dismiss “tongues” in the sense of First Corinthians 14 as intelligible speech or as “foreign languages.”

Paul’S Appraisal Of Tongues

The Apostle Paul found himself in a delicate position. He could not discriminate against one of the charismatic gifts in which he himself shared abundantly (1 Cor. 14:18); neither could he approve of the way it was used in the church at Corinth nor the importance placed upon it. Therefore he proceeded carefully, tactfully, and diplomatically in a balanced appraisal of the gift. He did this in a masterful way by comparing “tongues” with “prophecy,” which resulted in a downgrading of speaking in tongues.

To say that Paul limited himself to arguments about the kind, of speech in the church at Corinth is a serious mistake. That question became almost secondary. For Paul the issues are much larger: What benefits, if any, does the Church derive from this gift? Do tongues advance spiritual fellowship? Do they result in a deeper understanding of Christ, truth, and doctrine? What about active moral and intellectual participation in worship by the person who is exercising the gift? What communication between the Church and the world is created through tongues? Are tongues as they were used at Corinth a sign of Christian maturity, or do they indicate spiritual immaturity? Only as we study the problem of tongues in this larger spiritual context will we be able to understand Paul’s position and conclusions.

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Unfortunately, instead of engaging in a step-by-step discussion we have to be satisfied with a skeleton list of points of comparison and contrast, primarily with the other and greater gift, prophecy.

1. Whom do the two gifts benefit, and how?

The man who speaks with tongues speaks the language of ecstasy (1 Cor. 14:2, 4, NEB); he does not speak to men; nobody understands him; he speaks in the Spirit, consoles himself.

The man who prophesies preaches the word of God; he speaks to men; he builds up others; he encourages and consoles others (1 Cor. 14:35, NEB).

Paul’s conclusion is: Speaking with tongues benefits only the individual, and is of no use to the congregation.

2. What spiritual benefits do the gifts offer?

While prophesying brings some revelation of truth, some knowledge in spiritual things, some message from God, or some teaching about the Christian life (14:6, Phillips), tongues do not supply any of these spiritual needs of the congregation, nor of the world.

3. Are the manifestations comprehensible?

If spoken sound has no precise meaning, it is spoken “into the air” (14:6–9). Since tongues cannot be understood without interpretation, the Apostle indicates that this gift is inferior to that of prophecy.

4. Do “tongues” advance spiritual fellowship?

Paul states: “But if the sounds of the speaker’s voice mean nothing to me, I am a foreigner to him, and he is a foreigner to me” (14:11, Phillips). The simple conclusion that tongues do not produce communication with others even in the church is of serious consequence for the believers.

5. Do tongues promote conscious religious life?

With this point begin Paul’s most damaging arguments against the Corinthian use of tongues. Even praying in tongues becomes a subconscious act, to the exclusion of conscious moral participation of man’s mental faculties. “If I use such language in my prayer, the spirit in me prays, but my intellect lies fallow” (14:14, NEB). It means that man makes his emotions the basis of his belief and religious experience. This relationship is inferior to the conscious relationship of the Spirit-filled mind with God, truth, and man.

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6. Are tongues of benefit to the world?

Having shown that praying in tongues was not even understandable to the believers, Paul now shows that likewise it does no good to those outside the Church. The “outsider” can’t even add his amen to it. At this juncture Paul draws a conclusion that, though figurative, indicates the value he placed on praying in tongues in public: rather five intelligible words than 10,000 in the language of ecstasy. It proves the Apostle’s conviction that purely emotional worship has little value when compared with conscious, well-balanced, fruitful worship.

7. Do tongues signify Christian maturity?

Are ecstatic utterance really a sign of a deep religious experience, of mature spiritual life and a morally responsible church? Paul’s answer is no. “Do not be childish, my friends! Be as innocent of evil as babes, but at least be grown-up in your thinking” (14:20, NEB). A truly stern rebuke for a church that considered itself privileged on account of this gift: “We are counted as being childish and immature!”

We arrive, then, at these conclusions:

1. The phenomenon in Acts 2 is different from that in First Corinthians 14; the first was intelligible speech in actual foreign languages, the second ecstatic utterance or babbling.

2. The distinction is obvious through Hebrew and Greek terminology. The languages at Pentecost could be understood without translation; ecstatic utterance made no sense unless interpreted, which required a second gift.

3. Paul’s presentation in First Corinthians 14 hardly leaves anything in favor of tongues. Speaking in tongues in public is lowered to the level of almost complete uselessness, for it does not promote spiritual fellowship, is a sign of spiritual immaturity rather than of completeness in Christ, and substitutes subconscious emotional religion for conscious moral experience.

Laudable as any sincere effort may be to promote true Christian belief in a decadent world, speaking with tongues seems to be highly overrated as a means of making known salvation as a transforming experience, involving the whole man, including his mind. Paul’s concern for the apostolic Church has also a definite message for the Christian Church as a whole in our days. Any doctrine, any teaching of the Church, though right in itself, can be wrongly elevated to a position it does not deserve. Points of secondary importance can become so prominent in the opinion of certain groups that they are presented as if they were the most essential parts of the Gospel, and the divine credentials of those particular groups. There must be a balanced message, and its center is man’s salvation through Jesus Christ. Over-accentuation of any doctrine is a distortion of the Gospel. This is what Paul tried to counteract when he discussed speaking in tongues.

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Slow Advent and Christmas: TIME

In silver candy seeds

worked into shortbread

a manger and

pentangle star,


for grit-sweet dread

in my known danger now, in war.

The all-enabling Infant “lulled”

in romance stanzas

is set amidst stagehands’

hay and incense;

yet (my heart sings)

there is a breath of

animal realness and


Stitched in wool

on kindergarten paper and

in electrical dangles, glow

the emblems (to the doomed

young, the strange,

visitors, and shoppers).

All try and fail.

And my whole

being swells to cry out; I too

must desecrate

the holy hush to trumpet

joy. A newborn

new Being-in

my keeping? so

far, His

coming. so

tiny to all

my anticipating sense of

majesty. yet

through the long patience, slowly the

marvel, the

indomitable coming:

a steel-bright-faced

ready-for-gallows One

on. on. into glory. and His

place of my being to be

His as will every



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