“Speaking in tongues”? It may sound like gobbledygook, but some people think they are speaking in the language of angels, whatever that is. Are they right?
The last century (give or take a couple of decades) saw the birth of a new movement within Evangelicalism. The Pentecostal phenomenon is now ubiquitous in world Christianity, including within the mainstream churches (where it is more often called a “charismatic renewal,” with the term “Pentecostal” used to describe denominations marked by charismatic practice and theology). I have commented on some aspects of the movement before, in particular its belief in the “baptism in the Holy Spirit.” I’m going to write a couple of articles on the distinctive Pentecostal / charismatic phenomenon of “speaking in tongues,” regarded with suspicion by some within the wider church, with amusement by those outside, but widely viewed as evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit by insiders. It seems all the more appropriate that I should publish the first instalment in this series today, on Pentecost Sunday!
There’s a huge amount that I could say, but I want to keep some focus rather than follow-up every issue. I’m going to proceed like this. First, in this article I’ll offer some very scant historical comments and take the first (small) step into the biblical material, beginning with Paul’s reference to speaking with the tongues of “men and angels” in his first letter to the Corinthians, chapter thirteen. Then in part two I’ll move on to what Paul has to say in chapter fourteen about the gifts of the Holy Spirit as used in public worship, and lastly I’ll move to the book of Acts (which written later than Paul’s letters, so we are working in the order of writing) and offer some theological comments, hopefully bringing an overall biblical perspective to the significance of “tongues” as a phenomenon in the New Testament.
In the early twentieth century a new phrase entered the Christian vocabulary: “speaking in tongues.” Outside of Christian circles, modern English usage would have prevailed and people would more likely have used the word “languages.” However, “speaking in languages” doesn’t sound particularly interesting – and certainly not mysterious. People know what that is, so anybody who came along and said that there was a new phenomenon of “speaking in languages,” or that speaking in languages was some sort of deep spiritual experience, would not have gained much attention. However, Christians in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were in a somewhat different position. In normal life they used the latest form of English, but in church life – and especially in their reading of the Bible – an older English prevailed, namely the English used in the King James Bible (or versions closely based on it), and indeed the expressions used by the writers of the Bible in the ancient world. And so, while in everyday life they used the word “language,” when reading from the Bible they used the word “tongue,” more common in a time before ours, to refer to a language. While “speaking in languages” does not sound particularly interesting, “speaking in tongues” sounds a little more removed from normal life – a bit more mysterious, perhaps. I take the view (doubtless a very unpopular view with some Christians) that if Bibles had always ruthlessly been kept up to date in their usage of English, the modern Pentecostal / charismatic phenomenon of “speaking in tongues” would never have arisen. Who would have looked at biblical references to people speaking in “languages” and thought “Interesting, I wonder what that is. Am I missing out”? On the contrary, the phenomenon sounds fairly ordinary. But as everyday English references to people speaking in the Chinese tongue or the Swahili tongue disappeared, the phrase “speaking in tongues” was able to take on a new meaning. Now, when a person heard that there was a sort of spiritual phenomenon called “speaking in tongues,” the reaction was along the lines of “that sounds different, what is it?” In short then, part of what enabled the Pentecostal understanding of “speaking in tongues” to get off the ground in the modern world was the fact that language changes, and what was once a mundane turn of phrase now sounds more arcane.
If you ask a number of Christians what they mean by “speaking in tongues,” you’ll get a number of answers (by which I mean a number greater than 1). However, given my own experience – first as a young teen observing the Catholic charismatic renewal, later within Pentecostal churches as a member and my experiences since then with many Christians who subscribe to Pentecostal theology (as well as giving the issue some coverage in academic study), I’m going to take a risk and offer a broad definition of speaking in tongues as that phenomenon occurs today in Pentecostal churches and charismatic movements: “Speaking in tongues” is taken here to mean miraculously speaking in a language that you have never learned and do not understand. That language is taken to be a gift given by the Holy Spirit, a language whose main purpose (in practice in Pentecostal churches) is to express yourself to God in a way more perfect than your own naturally learned language. The language is, as a rule, incomprehensible to all listeners and sounds like gibberish.1 Here is a relatively neutral short news story about people speaking in tongues, and based on my own experience I would describe these examples as fairly typical of what takes place in many charismatic settings:
Some things are obvious even at first glance: These people have no idea what they are saying, they have no idea what the other speakers are saying and you have no idea what they are saying. Indeed, you cannot tell by listening to them that they are saying anything at all.
Doesn’t the fact that nobody can tell that anything is being said suggest that nothing is being said? These aren’t really languages at all, are they? Can’t we all plainly hear that? I think the answer is “yes,” but this series is about biblical exegesis. Here is where an important answer is given on behalf of those who speak in tongues, an answer that goes to the very heart of what speaking in tongues amounts to. “True,” our tongues-speaking brother or sister may say, “when we speak in tongues it may sound like gibberish. That’s because it’s not a human language. It’s a heavenly language that we couldn’t possibly understand. See, look: St Paul refers to speaking in tongues as speaking of the tongues of angels in 1 Corinthians 13.” So that comeback is what sends us to our first piece of biblical interpretation.
The thought that “tongues” is a heavenly or angelic language finds expression in many Pentecostal authors. Gordon Fee described the Corinthians’ worship as a place where “all spoke in tongues, the language of angels.”2 You can see right away the transition from biblical terms to Pentecostal terms. In Scripture, glossai (tongues) is a plural term to refer to multiple languages, but as soon as Fee talks about the phenomenon, “tongues” is spoken of as though there were a language called “tongues.” Many writers go even further, using the recently coined but glossolalia, a Greek word meaning speech in tongues. The New Testament contains no such special word for speaking in tongues, and using the word can misleadingly suggest otherwise.
But now to the text. In context, Paul has a major problem with the behaviour of the Corinthians. The way that they are conducting their worship is inconsistent with love. In particular, one of the ways that they have gotten things wrong is in their beliefs and practices surrounding the speaking in other languages (or “tongues” as we might have said in a bygone era). He has several things to say in correcting them (and because he is correcting them and disagrees with them, we can never assume that when Paul describes what people are doing in worship here, he is telling the reader what the gifts of the spirit are really like!). In 1 Corinthians 13, he is correcting them by trying to explain that love is the real measure of spirituality. Love is greater than all of the gifts that the Corinthians think they have. it is in 1 Corinthians 13 that we find that famous litany of love, repeated at so many weddings: Love is patient. Love is kind, etc. But right before that, Paul compares the value of love to the value of a few of the gifts (probably the gifts that the Corinthians were misunderstanding or misusing). Here’s what he wrote in verses 1-3:
I may speak in different languages of people or even angels. But if I do not have love, I am only a noisy bell or a crashing cymbal. I may have the gift of prophecy. I may understand all the secret things of God and have all knowledge, and I may have faith so great I can move mountains. But even with all these things, if I do not have love, then I am nothing. I may give away everything I have, and I may even give my body as an offering to be burned. But I gain nothing if I do not have love.3
This is the only passage in the New Testament where there is any innuendo that glossai or languages/tongues spoken by humans might be those of angels. The first thing to observe about it is that this particular passage is not a teaching about what glossai or any of the gifts of the Spirit are actually like. The purpose of this passage is to subordinate those gifts to the practice of acting in love. Tongues are only mentioned in passing as an example.
But in this brief reference, is Pauline giving us a window into his view on tongues, a view that he never sets out, where the gift of languages might really amount to speaking in the language of angels? Gordon Fee thinks so. He draws attention to a little-known passage in the Testament of Job, as follows:
There is some evidence from Jewish sources that the angels were believed to have their own heavenly language (or dialects) and that by means of the “Spirit” one could speak these dialects. Thus in the Testament of Job 48-50 Job’s three daughters are given “charismatic sashes”; when these were put on they allowed Hemera, for example, to speak “ecstatically in the angelic dialect, sending up a hymn to God with the hymnic style of the angels. And as she spoke ecstatically, she allowed ‘The Spirit’ to be inscribed on her garment.”4
This is one reason why Fee maintains that “That the Corinthians at least, and probably Paul, thought of tongues as the language(s) of angels seems highly likely.” Setting aside what the Corinthians may have thought (because remember, they had gotten their view of the gifts of the Spirit pretty messed up, which is why Paul had to write these things in the first place), Fee’s argument from the Testament of Job seems fairly weak for two reasons.
In the first place, it may well be that the passage to which Fee alludes was written later than Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. Although we can’t be certain when The Testament of Job (http://www.earlyjewishwritings.com/testjob.html) was written, dates range from within the first century BC to the first century AD (the majority of scholars appear to favour the latter), quite possibly by a Jewish sect in Egypt. In all likelihood, Paul had never read this document.
Secondly, it is ridiculous to imagine that anyone actually took this passage to be a true historical account. Angels are rarely encountered in Scripture, but when they are, they are understood in the language of the hearer (an angel, after all, is a messenger). Moreover, in the account of the daughters, they are said to leave their bodies and ascend into heaven, something nobody could observe.5 Of course Fee’s point is not that the event really occurred but only that this is what some people at the time believed. But this is not enough to make his case in a way that is likely to satisfy an Evangelical. Some people somewhere at the time may have believed this. But people at the time believed all sorts of crazy things.
Thirdly – and this is the main point I want to make about 1 Corinthians 13, even if some people believed that the angels had their own language and even if Paul knew about them and even if he agreed with them – something that we know nothing about (phew, just getting past the hurdle of all the ifs is hard work!), St Paul simply does not say here that he speaks in the languages of angels. On the contrary, he uses three hypothetical scenarios: Even if I speak in the languages of men and angels, even “if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge” (this is the literal wording, with no “if” in between prophetic powers and the understanding of mysteries), “if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains,” “if I give away all I have,” and “if I give up my body to be burned.”
Now here is the point: Paul did none of these things. In fact the rhetorical nature of Paul’s tactic here is to set up ridiculous scenarios describing actions that he either couldn’t possibly perform or never had performed, and then saying – but even if I could or did, it wouldn’t mean anything if I didn’t have love. Paul did not have prophetic powers to understand every mystery. Paul did not have faith so as to move mountains. Paul did not give away everything he had (he even had the audacity to ask Timothy to bring him his cloak, books and parchments). Paul did not give up his body to be burned (!), and neither did he speak in the languages of men and angels.
As we will see when I discuss the use of languages in 1 Corinthians 14, what has happened in the handling of the “tongues of men and angels” in 1 Corinthians 13 has been a mistake where people pick up the language that Paul is using to rebuke and correct the Corinthians, and interpret it as though this is Paul’s description of the way things really are – when that was never the purpose of this language at all. Whatever the Corinthians might have believed about speaking in other languages, Paul, in his response to their antics, certainly does not tell them that speaking in languages as a divine gift amounts to speaking in the languages of angels.
- There are alleged exceptions to this, namely rare anecdotal tales about a person who spoke in tongues and was understood by a person present at the meeting who recognised some or all of what was said as words in a language they know.
- Gordon Fee, God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 145.
- I have intentionally used the New Century Version of the Bible here because it uses the modern term “languages,” possibly disabling our tendency to see “tongues” through a Pentecostal lens because of the familiarity of how that word is used.
- The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 630-631
- As per M. R. James’ translation http://wesley.nnu.edu/sermons-essays-books/noncanonical-literature/noncanonical-literature-ot-pseudepigrapha/testament-of-job/, “Then rose the one whose name was Day (Yemima) and girt herself; and immediately she departed her body, as her father had said, and she put on another heart, as if she never cared for earthly things. And she sang angelic hymns in the voice of angels, and she chanted forth the angelic praise of God while dancing.”