Are Tongues Real Languages?

We begin today’s post with a question: In New Testament times, did the gift of tongues produce authentic foreign languages only, or did it also result in non-cognitive speech (like the private prayer languages of modern charismatics)? The answer is of critical importance to the contemporary continuationist/cessationist debate regarding the gift of tongues.


From the outset, it is important to note that the gift of tongues was, in reality, the gift of languages. I agree with continuationist author Wayne Grudem when he writes:

It should be said at the outset that the Greek word glossa, translated “tongue,” is not used only to mean the physical tongue in a person’s mouth, but also to mean “language.” In the New Testament passages where speaking in tongues is discussed, the meaning “languages” is certainly in view. It is unfortunate, therefore, that English translations have continued to use the phrase “speaking in tongues,” which is an expression not otherwise used in ordinary English and which gives the impression of a strange experience, something completely foreign to ordinary human life. But if English translations were to use the expression “speaking in languages,” it would not seem nearly as strange, and would give the reader a sense much closer to what first century Greek speaking readers would have heard in the phrase when they read it in Acts or 1 Corinthians. (Systematic Theology, 1069).

But what are we to think about the gift of languages?

If we consider the history of the church, we find that the gift of languages was universally considered to be the supernatural ability to speak authentic foreign languages that the speaker had not learned.

In the early church, the writings of Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Hegemonius, Gregory of Nazianzen, Ambrosiaster, Chrysostom, Augustine, Leo the Great, and others all support this claim. Here are just a few examples:

Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 329–390): “They spoke with foreign tongues, and not those of their native land; and the wonder was great, a language spoken by those who had not learned it. And the sign is to them that believe not, and not to them that believe, that it may be an accusation of the unbelievers, as it is written, ‘“With other tongues and other lips will I speak unto this people, and not even so will they listen to Me” says the Lord’” (The Oration on Pentecost, 15–17).

John Chrysostom (c. 344–407), commenting on 1 Cor. 14:1–2: “And as in the time of building the tower [of Babel] the one tongue was divided into many; so then the many tongues frequently met in one man, and the same person used to discourse both in the Persian, and the Roman, and the Indian, and many other tongues, the Spirit sounding within him: and the gift was called the gift of tongues because he could all at once speak divers languages” (Homilies on First Corinthians, 35.1).

Augustine (354–430): “In the earliest times, ‘the Holy Ghost fell upon them that believed: and they spoke with tongues,” which they had not learned, “as the Spirit gave them utterance.’ These were signs adapted to the time. For it was necessary for there to be that sign of the Holy Spirit in all tongues, to show that the Gospel of God was to run through all tongues over the whole earth” (Homilies on the First Epistle of John, 6.10).

In reaching this conclusion, the church fathers equated the tongues of Acts 2 with the tongues of 1 Corinthians 12–14, insisting that in both places the gift consisted of the ability to speak genuine languages.

The Reformers, similarly, regarded the gift of tongues as the supernatural ability to speak real foreign languages. By way of example, here is John Calvin’s treatment of 1 Corinthians 12:10:

John Calvin: “There was a difference between the knowledge of tongues, and the interpretation of them, for those who were endowed with the former [i.e. the gift of tongues] were, in many cases, not acquainted with the language of the nation with which they had to deal. The interpreters rendered foreign tongues into the native language. These endowments they did not at that time acquire by labor or study, but were put in possession of them by a wonderful revelation of the Spirit.” (Commentary on 1 Cor. 12:10)

To the names of the Reformers, we could add the names of the Puritans, and the names of theologians like Jonathan Edwards, Charles Hodge, Charles Spurgeon, and B.B. Warfield among many others.

Even Charles Fox Parham, the founder of modern Pentecostalism, was absolutely convinced that the biblical gift of tongues consisted of the supernatural ability to speak in human foreign languages that the speaker had never learned. When he and his students initially experienced the modern gift of tongues, they thought it consisted of real human languages. Parham stated his position clearly in a number of newspapers at the time. (These quotes come from chapter 2 of John MacArthur’s Strange Fire.)

Charles Parham cited in the Topeka State Journal, January 7, 1901:  “The Lord will give us the power of speech to talk to the people of the various nations without having to study them in schools.”

Charles Parham cited in the Kansas City Times, January 27, 1901: “A part of our labor will be to teach the church the uselessness of spending years of time preparing missionaries for work in foreign lands when all they have to do is ask God for power.”

Charles Parham cited in the Hawaiian Gazette, May 31, 1901: “There is no doubt that at this time they will have conferred on them the ‘gift of tongues,’ if they are worthy and seek it in faith, believing they will thus be made able to talk to the people whom they choose to work among in their own language, which will, of course, be an inestimable advantage. The students of Bethel College do not need to study in the old way to learn the languages. They have them conferred on them miraculously    . . . [being] able to converse with Spaniards, Italians, Bohemians, Hungarians, Germans, and French in their own language. I have no doubt various dialects of the people of India and even the language of the savages of Africa will be received during our meeting in the same way. I expect this gathering to be the greatest since the days of Pentecost.”

Parham, and his students, were convinced by their study of the New Testament that the gift of tongues consisted of the miraculous ability to speak in human foreign languages that the speaker had not learned. But there was one major problem. The tongues-speech of Parham and his students quickly proved to be something other than human foreign languages. In the words of charismatic authors Jack Hayford and David Moore:

Sadly, the idea of xenoglossalalic tongues [i.e. foreign languages] would later prove an embarrassing failure as Pentecostal workers went off to mission fields with their gift of tongues and found their hearers did not understand them. (The Charismatic Century, 42).

Other historians report the disappointment faced by early Pentecostals when it became clear that their tongues did not consist of authentic foreign languages:

S. C. Todd of the Bible Missionary Society investigated eighteen Pentecostals who went to Japan, China, and India “expecting to preach to the natives in those countries in their own tongue,” and found that by their own admission “in no single instance have [they] been able to do so.” As these and other missionaries returned in disappointment and failure, Pentecostals were compelled to rethink their original view of speaking in tongues. (Robert M. Anderson, Vision of the Disinherited, 90–91)

It might be worth noting that these early Pentecostals not only spoke in tongues, they also wrote in tongues. And some of these early tongues writings were published by local newspapers. Agnes Ozman, one of Parham’s students, was the first to speak in tongues on January 1, 1901. She reportedly spoke in the Chinese language, thereby launching the Pentecostal Movement. Ozman also claimed to write in Chinese. The picture at the top of this article showcases her work.

When it became apparent that the Pentecostal understanding of tongues did not consist of human languages, the entire movement was faced with an interesting dilemma. They could uphold their exegetical understanding of tongues and deny their experience. Or, they could hold on to their experiential understanding of tongues and radically change their exegesis. They chose the latter. And thus, a new understanding of the nature of the gift of tongues emerged out of twentieth-century Pentecostal experience.

To be fair, modern charismatics acknowledge the possibility that tongues can sometimes be foreign languages. They point to anecdotal evidence in an effort to claim that on rare occasions foreign languages might be spoken by a modern tongues-speaker. But those anecdotes do not hold up under scrutiny. As D. A. Carson rightly observes:

“Modern tongues are lexically uncommunicative and the few instances of reported modern xenoglossia [speaking foreign languages] are so poorly attested that no weight can be laid on them” (Showing the Spirit, 84).

When professional linguists study modern glossolalia (tongues-speech), they come away convinced that contemporary tongues bear no resemblance to true human language. After years of extensive research, University of Toronto linguistics professor William Samarin concluded:

Glossolalia consists of strings of meaningless syllables made up of sounds taken from those familiar to the speaker and put together more or less haphazardly. The speaker controls the rhythm, volume, speed and inflection of his speech so that the sounds emerge as pseudolanguage—in the form of words and sentences. Glossolalia is language-like because the speaker unconsciously wants it to be language-like. Yet in spite of superficial similarities, glossolalia fundamentally is not language. (cited from Joe Nickell, Looking for a Miracle, 108)

This brings us back to the question we asked at the beginning. Has the church, historically, been right to conclude that the gift of tongues in the New Testament consists of the supernatural ability to speak in foreign languages previously unknown to the speaker? Or is the modern charismatic movement right to conclude that the gift of tongues encompasses something other than cognitive foreign languages?

Over the next few weeks, I hope to address this issue by specifically considering the arguments made by continuationist author Sam Storms, in his 2012 book, The Beginner’s Guide to Spiritual Gifts. There Storms argues for the validity of modern charismatic glossolalia. In so doing, he provides nine reasons why he believes tongues need not be human languages.

Are Tongues Real Languages?



Author: After Darkness, Light

Follower of Christ. Husband to one. Father of Three. Reformed. Aspiring Church Planter. Kids Ministry Director

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