Many who speak to the question of biblical tongues assume they are of two kinds: (1) the tongues at Pentecost, which were known languages, and (2) the Corinthian tongues, variously described as “ecstatic utterances,” “babbling,” or “gibberish.” But seldom is exegetical support offered for the second part of this assumption; there is only a superficial psychologizing of the phenomenon.

The description “ecstatic utterance” has the support of some Bible translators. Biblical lexicons describe the phenomenon as “the broken speech of persons in religious ecstasy,” or “strange utterances, rugged, dark, disconnected.” Commentaries variously score tongues as “some outlandish jargon, if not positively gibberish.” And in an article in the December 6, 1968, issue of CHRISTIANITY TODAY, Carl G. Tuland characterized the Corinthian tongues as “ecstatic utterance or babbling.”

Such assumptions are not even informed opinions until we ask and seek to answer the question, How did the apostolic community understand the phenomenon?

To those most intimately concerned, tongues represented a dynamic self-manifestation of the Holy Spirit. On the day of Pentecost the disciples spoke in other tongues “as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4). The tongues at Corinth were a “manifestation of the Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:7).

The biblical writers understood these utterances to be bona fide languages. At Pentecost believers spoke the “dialects” of the assembled multitude (Acts 2:6). The Corinthians spoke “families of languages” (1 Cor. 12:10), expressly defined as “the languages of men and of angels” (1 Cor. 13:1). The “other tongues” at Pentecost were unknown to the speakers but intelligible to those who spoke those particular dialects (Acts 2:11). In the assembly at Corinth, the tongues, whether of men or angels, were unintelligible until interpreted by their Divine Author (1 Cor. 14:13, 27).

Tongues produced the same reaction in the skeptics in both Jerusalem and Corinth. At Pentecost all the disciples present spoke in other tongues, and many of the bystanders mocked them for drunkenness (Acts 2:13, 15). Paul reminded the Corinthians that if they all spoke in tongues, the unbelievers would think they were mad (1 Cor. 14:23), which raises the question of ecstasy in relation to tongues.

Ecstasy is not a corollary of tongues either in Scripture or in experience. In fact, the word ecstatic is not used in the Scriptures to qualify tongues. It is used to describe the trance visions of Peter (Acts 10:10; 11:15) and Paul (Acts 22:17). Although the word itself is not used, First Corinthians 12:1 ff. may be an autobiographical description of that experience of Paul’s. What is significant in this for our discussion is that none of these is a tongues passage.

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The interpretation that the tongues at Corinth were “ecstatic utterances” assumes that they are the expression of an ecstatic experience. If this assumption were true, then the tongues at Pentecost were also “ecstatic utterances,” inasmuch as the conduct of the disciples was “ecstatic conduct”—indeed, so much so that it was mistaken for drunkenness. However, the fact that they spoke intelligible languages at Pentecost indicates that ecstatic experience does not necessarily result in “ecstatic babbling.” Even if the Corinthian experience were then ecstatic, one cannot on these grounds argue that the tongues were ecstatic utterance or babbling, rather than authentic languages.

Coming back to the evaluation of tongues by the first Pentecostal community, we note that the Pentecost utterances were devotional, extolling “the magnificence of God” (Acts 2:11, Phillips). In the house of Cornelius at Caesarea some ten years later, the Roman centurion and his household “glorified” God in tongues utterances (Acts 10:46). It should be observed in passing that the words rendered here “magnificence” and “glorified” are cognates, suggesting the similarity in nature and content of the tongues on the two occasions. At Corinth prayer in tongues was used devotionally for self-edification (1 Cor. 14:3, 28), while public utterances when interpreted were for the edification of the church (1 Cor. 14:5).


At the very roots of the meadow there is a poem.

It is part of the fabric of truth

That binds the fields to the cylinder of years.

It is not seasonal.

It is not tied to the good and bad of annual rings,

Although its evidence may notice such things.

Let me pluck the poem and show it to you

Its top circled in ivory and crowned in gold.

I do not need to vandalize the petals

One by one, plus by minus by plus,

To know the answer.

There is no possibility of negative with God.

You may take the poem as proof

Although it is not mine to give;

Or you may wait,

For He is prone to walk the meadow through

As in the past,

Writing His poems on each seeking heart,

Where they will last.


Paul does more than hint at the enriching of his own private devotional life in tongues-worship; for example, “I will pray with the spirit [i.e., in tongues], and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit [i.e., in tongues], and I will sing with the understanding also” (1 Cor. 14:15). To which he added, “I thank my God, I speak with tongues more than you all” (v. 18). It does violence to Paul’s personal integrity to seize upon verse 19 for its polemic value in order to polarize his evaluation of tongues (“Yet in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that I might instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue”). It is more consistent with the context, and a more charitable appraisal of apostolic integrity, to recognize that he was defining thereby his contribution to corporate worship as an apostle and a teacher. At the same time he approved the apostolic pattern of worship in which each individual ministered the Holy Spirit’s gifts and manifestations for the corporate good, including tongues with interpretation (1 Cor. 14:26). Even as he regulated the administration of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:23–34), so Paul established a pattern of divine order for the ministering of all the Spirit’s gifts in corporate worship. He discriminated against no manifestation of the Holy Spirit.

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As a matter of fact, one might, on the basis of First Corinthians 14:32 and 33—“The spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets; for God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints”—make a case against the confusion caused by undisciplined prophetic extemporizing. Paul’s instructions to the Thessalonians suggests some such state of affairs there: “Stop despising prophesyings” (1 Thess. 5:20). Prophesying despised! Why? Because of confusion in corporate worship?

In the Corinthian assembly, riven by party spirit, it was teachers, not tongues, that divided the church. The manifestations of this party spirit Paul rebuked as carnal and immature (1 Cor. 1:11 ff.; 3:1 ff.). And it may well have been the activity of an anti-charismatic party that Paul further enjoined, saying, “Desire earnestly to prophesy, and stop forbidding tongues utterances.”

The publication of Carl G. Tuland’s article “The Confusion About Tongues” in CHRISTIANITY TODAY raises the question of Corinthian tongues versus Pentecost tongues with fresh urgency. The article is variously interpreted by Pentecostals and non-Pentecostals alike as a polemic against the Pentecostal experience at the point of one of its more obvious distinctives, namely, tongues.

Dr. Tuland’s interpretation of the Corinthian tongues as “ecstatic utterance or babbling” seems to be the crux of his presentation. Every subsequent value judgment relating to tongues rests upon this fundamental presupposition. We applaud his acumen in focusing on this crucial point, for “babbling” is indefensible in any context, whether private devotions or corporate worship. If tongues are merely “ecstatic babbling,” they are totally irrelevant to Christian worship. There can then be no legitimate concern for their regulation and use in the congregation.

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Inasmuch as Tuland draws the proof for his view from certain exegetical considerations, the challenge of this exegesis must be faced or the Pentecostal experience surrendered by default. This is not an overstatement. If Tuland’s exegesis is correct, the subsequent strictures against tongues are merely an exercise in overkill. He has disposed of the entire problem by definition.

By contrasting univocally the Hebrew word liṣ, which he says means “to translate” (but it really means “to scorn or deride”), with the Hebrew pātar (Aramaic pešar), “to interpret,” and by contrasting the Greek methermēneuō, “to translate,” with hermēneuō, “to interpret,” he drew the following sweeping conclusion: “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’ ” (p. 8).

The method of argumentation here is wrong both philosophically and linguistically. We do not use words univocally, that is, in one sense only. For example, “ball” may refer to a spherical toy, a formal dance or, colloquially, a good time.

The author’s choice of Genesis 42:23 (“They did not know that Joseph understood them, for there was an interpreter [according to Tuland, “translator”] between them”) to illustrate his thesis is at best the exception that proves the rule; at worst it is a case of special pleading. The same word for interpreter in Job 33:23 stands in apposition with “angel” and means an “angel-mediator.” The Targum translates it with the word “Paraclete.” The Septuagint (Greek) rendering for it in Isaiah 43:27 is “princes.” The context suggests a meaning like “teachers,” or even “intercessors.” In Second Chronicles 32:31 the Septuagint renders it “ambassadors.” The context shows them to be the representatives of the princes of Babylon, hence “envoys” or “ambassadors.” In its broadest connotations, the Hebrew word signifies an intermediary between men, and between God and men.

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In none of these examples does the meaning “translator” fit the context; consequently, the selective use of Genesis 42:23 to establish the meaning “translate” is simply special pleading. The Hebrew terminology cited does not sustain a distinction between translation and interpretation.

As for Dr. Tuland’s New Testament exegesis, a comparison of methermēneuō with hermēneuō shows that they are used interchangeably in the same pattern phrases. One example will suffice: Matthew 1:23, “Emmanuel; which is being interpreted [methermēneuō, translated], God with us,” compared with John 1:38, “Rabbi, which is to say, being interpreted [hermēneuō, translated], Teacher.” The author’s gratuitous distinction in meaning between them is non-existent.

Furthermore, in John 1:38, 42; 9:7, and in Hebrews 7:2, the latter verb means “to translate.” Only in a variant reading on Luke 24:27 does it mean “to interpret.” Depending on the context, then, this verb can mean either “to translate” or “to interpret.”

The confusion in Dr. Tuland’s exegesis is further compounded by his statement that “the verb meaning to interpret is what is used in First Corinthians 12:10; 14:13, 26, and 28.” Actually this verb is not used in any of these places. In First Corinthians 14:5, 13, 27 a third verb, diermēneuō, is used, while its cognate noun occurs in 14:28. In Luke 24:27 this verb means “to interpret,” while in Acts 9:36 it means “to translate.” Therefore, in the passages in First Corinthians it can mean either, depending on the bias of the interpreter. In a word, there is no exegetical support for his view that tongues in First Corinthians 14 are “ecstatic utterance or babbling.”

But then there is an absurdity in the idea of interpreting “ecstatic utterance or babbling” that should be readily apparent. How can “babbling,” which is by definition meaningless, be “interpreted”?

This brings us to the crux of the charismatic dialogue, namely, the rationale of tongues. Why speak in tongues? A clue is given in Paul’s words in First Corinthians 12:7: “To each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit to profit withal.” How then do tongues qualify as a manifestation of the Holy Spirit?

Speech is the distinctively characteristic manifestation of human personality. In the whole created order, it is a uniquely human faculty. Eduard Thurneysen perceptively underscores this by saying, “The mystery of speech is identical with the mystery of personality, with the image of God in man.”

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God, the Holy Spirit, has all the attributes we ascribe to personality. In the Divine Personality, speech is not extrinsic but intrinsic. By the spoken word God created the worlds. That Divine Word Incarnate is Jesus Christ, who “upholds all things by the word of his power.” The apostolic Church recognized the Holy Spirit’s personality, manifested when he said, “Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them” (Acts 13:2).

But why tongues? Why not our own languages? To ask the question is to answer it. When we speak our native tongue, we speak the words that are in our minds, words that in choice, inflection, nuance, and color manifest our personalities. When we speak in “tongues, as the Holy Spirit gives utterance,” we speak those words that are in the mind of the Spirit, words that manifest his personality unfettered by the censorship of the human ego. These words are, therefore, an exquisitely personal self-manifestation of the Holy Spirit.

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