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 ...

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