The gift of tongues is difficult to understand, not because it is shrouded in mystery, but because there is so much historical confusion about it. The first difficulty is to understand what it is, to define it correctly — biblically. We will use the interpretive principle that the plainest, most ordinary and simple definition is the most likely to be true. However, this will require that we disabuse ourselves of the contemporary definition and use of tongues through the widely popular Pentecostal movement of the last hundred years.
Much of the popular success regarding the understanding and use of the gift of tongues by the Pentecostal movement must be credited to the historical Protestant Reformed misunderstanding of the terminology involved. The Reformed doctrinal error is found in a misreading of the Westminster Confession of Faith. This misreading involves section one of chapter one, “Of the Holy Scripture.” The phrase under consideration reads, “…those former ways of God’s revealing His will unto His people being now ceased.”
The common (and I believe incorrect) understanding of this phrase was that the practice of glossolalia (understood as inspired speaking and writing) ceased with the closing of the Canon. However, anyone familiar with the history of the Christian church and the Pentecostal Movement will know that glossolalia has not ceased, not in the First Century or the Fourth or the Seventeenth — much less in the Twentieth or Twenty-First. Glossolalia has been with us from time immemorial, in Old Testament times, in New Testament times, and into Modern and Postmodern times. Indeed, glossolalia is alive and well today, as is evidenced by the phenomenal success of the Pentecostal Movement over the past hundred years. So, to say that it has ceased is nonsense, and to suggest that it should have ceased opens the door to a host of interpretative problems that have not been resolved and are probably unresolvable.
A better approach is needed. To get at the issue and the problem regarding the gift of tongues we first need to better understand and define exactly what glossolalia is. It is not a biblical word. The dictionary defines it as repetitive non-meaningful speech, especially that associated with a trance state or religious fervor. Pentecostals will take exception with the idea that it is non-meaningful. Some will argue that it is an ancient language that has been lost. Others will argue that it is a special prayer language that provides for special communication between God and the believer who uses it. Others will argue that it is a language (or languages) that only the Holy Spirit can interpret.
The first shortcoming to note is that most Christian examinations of glossolalia limit their considerations to biblical data, and more specifically to glossolalia within the Christian tradition. Most of the time these efforts assume and attempt to justify glossolalia as a legitimate expression of biblical practice. Most Christians, including various Christian scholars in various denominations, understand tongues to be a manifestation of glossolalia because it is part of the history of biblical experience and testimony. The practice of glossolalia understood in this way stretches back into biblical antiquity.
However, if we are going to define tongues biblically, we must distinguish between Paul’s use of the word tongues and the contemporary definition of glossolalia. They are not the same thing. The reality is that glossolalia defined in this way (as being legitimately Christian) has a long and significant tradition that is both unfaithful to God and non-biblical. The roots of this kind of glossolalia belong to Paganism and the ancient traditions of false gods mentioned in Scripture. For instance, glossolalia was exhibited by the renowned ancient Oracle of Delphi, whose origins are associated with the worship of Gaia in the Eighth Century B.C. At Delphi a priestess of the god Apollo (called a sibyl) spoke in unintelligible utterances, supposedly through the spirit of Apollo in the priestess as a kind of prophecy that would then be translated by other priests.
Later in history are found certain Gnostic magical texts from the Roman period that have unintelligible syllables written on them. It is believed that these may be transliterations of the sorts of sounds made during glossolalia and were thought to be prophetic. The Coptic Gospel of the Egyptians also features a hymn of mostly unintelligible syllables which is thought to be an early example of Christian glossolalia.
In the Nineteenth Century, Spiritism, which investigates the survival of souls after death and communications received from them, i.e., séances, etc., was developed through the work of Allan Kardec (1804-1869). The phenomenon was seen as one of the self-evident manifestations of spirits. While not specifically associated with glossolalia, Kardec’s work highlighted and valued ecstatic communication from a scientific perspective. Glossolalia has also been observed in shamanism and the Voodoo religion of Haiti. The point is that these manifestations of glossolalia are clearly not Christian and not faithful to the God of the Bible. I am, then, extrapolating that the roots of glossolalia are intertwined with Paganism and Spiritism (ecstatic communication, which includes communication with the dead, or with spirits).
In biblical history, King Saul was involved with glossolalia early in his story. Immediately following Samuel’s anointing of Saul as King of Israel (1 Samuel 10:1), Saul himself fell into a swoon of prophecy. We don’t know if Saul used glossolalia per se, but nothing of the content of his prophecy is recorded, which suggests that it was meaningless or not significant to God. Scripture provides this story, not to justify Saul’s actions, but as a window into the character of Saul. Saul began to prophesy after God gave him “another heart” (1 Samuel 10:1). Note that it was not a new heart, and that from that time forward Saul fell increasingly out of favor with God. At the height of Saul’s disobedience to God he consulted the witch of Endor and communicated with the dead spirit of Samuel (1 Samuel 28:7). Such communication was (and is still) forbidden by God. While that communication was not technically glossolalia, it was communication with a dead spirit, which Saul himself had correctly forbidden under the direction of Samuel. God does not want His people communicating with dead or incorporeal spirits.
Again, Saul’s experience may not have been glossolalia per se, but it was most certainly not a function of obedience or the understanding of God’s truth on his part. Saul’s prophesying must be classified as a kind of ecstatic speech, where ecstasy is defined as a state of being beyond reason. The point is that this kind of ecstatic speech — speech that is either nonsensical or unreasonable — is not the kind of communication that the God of Scripture provides for His people. So, while it is not technically or strictly glossolalia, narrowly defined, it was similar enough to be categorized as a kind of glossolalia, broadly defined.
Here’s another example: Early in Jesus’ ministry He encountered unclean spirit(s) that had inhabited and inflicted people with various maladies. Mark recorded that when Jesus healed a man with an unclean spirit the man convulsed (Mark 1:26). The Greek word is the root of the English word spasmodic. People reacted spasmodically when the unclean spirits left them, twisting and turning uncontrollably, falling down (Matthew 17:15), probably even barking and growling. The point is that the spirits that manifest these kinds of things in people were expelled from them when they were healed by Jesus, which suggests that they were some sort of evil spirits. These manifestations of spiritual illness and/or possession were not to be celebrated, but were to be overcome and eliminated from human experience according to the biblical traditions of Jesus’ healing work.
The point is that these kinds of ecstatic, trance-induced experiences have always been associated with non-biblical religions — and they still are today. In contrast, the God of the Bible is the God of truth and reason, not of spirit possession and confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33). And God most certainly does not communicate meaninglessness to His people.
My difficulty with understanding tongues and the issues involved with it, however, comes about because people erroneously believe that God had communicated and/or dictated the original writing of Scripture through some kind of ecstatic, glossolalia-like experience. However, I emphatically believe that He did not! Scripture was written through men, and used the ordinary writing practices of men. The writing of Scripture was not magical or mystical, it was ordinary.
However, Scripture does in fact record that God uses things/experiences like this sort of mystical glossolalia. God does give people over to nonsense and confusion (Exodus 23:27, Deuteronomy 7:23, Isaiah 19:14). God’s Word, however, is not a manifestation of nonsense and confusion, but is a manifestation of truth and order.
For over 25 years Phillip A. Ross founded http://www.Pilgrim-Platform.org in 1998 to document the church’s fall from historic Christianity. His exposition of First Corinthians in 2008 demonstrates the Apostle Paul’s fierce opposition to worldly Christianity. Arsy Varsy — Reclaiming the Gospel in First Corinthians, Ross’s book, shows how Paul turned the world upside down.
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