“And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance… the multitude… were confounded… ‘How hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born? Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judaea, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia…”
“He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself”
1 Cor. 14: 5
“Yet in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue.”
1 Cor. 14:19
Order of Contents
Travis Fentiman, MDiv
who used to be a Charismatic and
can speak in modern ‘tongues’
Tongues were Real Languages &
Understood by the Speakers
Speaking in ‘tongues’ in the Bible simply means speaking in various languages or dialects. The Biblical Greek word for this, which is a common term in ancient literature, is glossolalia.
In order to justify the modern practice of unintelligible tongues, 1 Cor. 14:14 is commonly claimed to teach that those who spoke in tongues in the Bible did not know what they were saying. The verse reads:
“For if I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful.”
However the verses immediately after this verse say that ‘the understanding’ is necessary for edification (1 Cor. 14:15-17)¹ and earlier in the chapter it says that the person speaking in the ‘unknown tongue edifieth himself” (v. 4). If rational understanding is necessary for edification, and the person edified himself, then the Biblical tongue-speaker understood what he was saying in tongues.
¹ See also the section immediately below with many Bible verses, ‘Rational Understanding is Necessary for Edification.’
1 Cor. 14:14 in fact says this in speaking of “my understanding”: the tongue speaker understood what he prayed, though his own understanding of the tongue-revelation was “unfruitful” for others in that it did not bear fruit in them, not being understood by them. Paul’s explicitly stated purpose in giving directives in this passage was for the edification of the assembly of Christians (1 Cor. 14:5-6; 12-13) and not for the private person only.
That the tongue-speakers understood what they were saying is natural in that what they spoke were real, existing, languages of men which persons of foreign nationalities understood (Acts 2:6-11). There is no sufficient reason to believe that the real-language tongues of Acts 2 were different than the tongues later in the book of Acts or in 1 Corinthians. Rather, the later passages assume continuity and knowledge of the foundational precedent at Pentecost.
Thus, Paul explicitly identifies the charismatic tongues that he addresses at Corinth with the various known languages of the world, each of which, he says, without exception, were intelligible:
‘There are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world, and none of them is without signification.’ (1 Cor. 14:10)
Hence, when persons spoke in tongues unknown to the hearers, they became as a babbling ‘barbarian’ to them (1 Cor. 14:11), but there is no indication in the text that the tongue-speakers were unintelligible babblers to themselves.
Paul makes a comparison between tongues and musical instruments in 1 Cor. 14:7-8. His assumption is not that musical instruments are unintelligible (and hence tongues are completely unintelligible as well), but rather the reverse: that an intelligible message is conveyed by the trumpet sounding as an alarm to battle (1 Cor. 14:8) if it is executed clearly (as opposed to giving an ‘uncertain sound’). Paul’s distinction is between communicated revelation by tongues that are clearly interpreted for the understanding of others as opposed to an unclear and garbled revelation which is not interpreted (such being likened to ‘sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal’, 1 Cor. 13:1). Paul’s analogy in no way supports that tongues are inherently unintelligible babble.
Another verse that persons use to teach that the tongue-speaker did not understand what he said is 1 Cor. 14:2:
“For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God: for no man understandeth him; howbeit in the spirit he speaketh mysteries.”
However, given Paul’s teaching in the rest of the chapter, described above, when verse two speaks of “an unknown tongue,” it is referring to a language unknown to others, not unknown to the speaker himself. When the verse says “no man understandeth him,” it is referring to other men and is not inclusive of himself.
Regarding ‘he speaketh mysteries,’ the word ‘mystery’ in the Bible, does not mean something unintelligible, but rather is something great and glorious that has been kept concealed until it is revealed through intelligible revelation (Eph. 3:2-6; 1 Cor. 15:51-52; etc.). Thus, when 1 Cor. 14:2 says that the tongue-speaker ‘speaks not unto men but unto God’ (as those did at Pentecost who spoke in real languages, Acts 2:2-6, it was only incidental that others heard and understood them) ‘in the Spirit’, speaking ‘mysteries’, it simply means that he prophetically spoke of great things revealed by God to him, not that the tongue-speaker did not understand what he said to God.
The tongues of angels mentioned in 1 Cor. 13:1, also often cited as a proof-text for unintelligible babble, most likely refers to languages or modes of communications used between angels which would normally be unintelligible to men except by a special gift from God. All of the communications of angels to men and of men to angels in the Bible (Dan. 10:10-21; Mt. 28:5-8; Rev. 22:8-10; etc.), whether in physical reality or in visions, however they may have appeared to third hand observers (instance, Acts 22:9), were intelligible to the human speaker communicating with the angel, possibly, in some instances, in an angelic language. The prohibition to Paul not to speak of the ‘unspeakable words’ that he ‘heard’ in the ‘third heaven’ (spiritual heaven), is only meaningful assuming that he understood what he heard in heaven (2 Cor. 12:1-4).
It should be noted that all the other miraculous gifts of the Spirit, besides those relating most directly to bodily things, such as healing and miracles (1 Cor. 12:9-10), were rational in nature, namely the word of wisdom, the word of knowledge, special faith, prophecy, the discerning of spirits and the interpretation of tongues (1 Cor. 12:8-10). Healings and miracles, be it noted, were conjoined with and supported the persons, authority and rational message of the gospel of the Christian miracle-workers. If the tongues of those early Christians were not recognizable as real languages, they could not have evidenced the miraculous and confirmed the gospel-message, as unintelligible babbling would not have been convincingly miraculous to unbelievers. Likewise, all the powers or offices God is listed as having set in the Church in that time in 1 Cor. 12:28 had rational characteristics or supported the rational gospel-message, namely: apostles, prophets, teachers, miracles, gifts of healings, helps (deacons), governments (ruling elders), diversities of tongues.
The great objection to all of this is that if the tongue-speaker understood the things he spoke of, then why were prophetically gifted interpreters necessary? (1 Cor. 14:27-28; etc.) There are two simple answers to this:
1. The early Church was gathered from many nationalities (Acts 2:8-11) with a massive number of conversions (Acts 2:41; 4:4; etc.), in proportion to the miraculous signs and wonders that were testifying to the heavenly origin of the gospel. Corinth was a metropolis of diverse ethnicities and languages. Hence the Christian assemblies at Corinth more than likely had persons of many nationalities that may or may not all have understood each other’s spoken languages, and yet had interest in, and needed to be built up in, the Christian faith from God.
Thus, if God revealed an inspired message through a tongue-speaker in Coptic especially for the Coptic Christians there, and the tongue-speaker knew Greek and translated the Coptic-tongue-revelation into Greek for most of the others in the assembly, yet all those who may not know Coptic or Greek, but only spoke their home language (e.g. Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin, Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Syriac, Berber, Iranian, Kurdish, Urdu, Georgian, Pashto, etc.) would be left in the dark, and not edified.
This reason for interpreters is instanced in 1 Cor. 14 itself: if an unbeliever who is ‘unlearned’, not knowing foreign tongues, comes into the assembly when all are speaking with tongues, ‘will they not say that ye are mad?’ (1 Cor. 14:23-24) Hence the need for miraculously gifted translators beyond the native language of the tongue-speaker.
2. As everyone knows who speaks multiple languages, while one may be fluent in both languages, it can be very difficult to translate between the two languages, especially if the translation is to be held up to the bar of perfect, authoritative infallibility. Hence there was needed a special, Holy-Spirit-wrought gift of interpretation in order to translate the revelation into an inspired, authoritative, God-spoken revelation in the numerous languages of persons present.
Hence, the person speaking was not left to himself to attempt to translate the revelation, but was to ‘pray’ to the Lord ‘that he may interpret,’ or ‘translate’² his own message by a divine gift (1 Cor. 14:13).
² The Greek word for ‘interpret’, diermeneuo, may mean to ‘translate’; see Logeion, διερμηνεύω and ἑρμηνεύω. The meaning ‘translate’ and ‘translation’ is consistent with all of Paul’s uses of ‘interpret’ and ‘interpretation’ in 1 Cor. 12-14. It seems the tongue-revelations were complete communications in themselves, insofar as the speaker spoke unto God in them (1 Cor. 14:2); yet if the “interpretation” of them (1 Cor. 12:10; 14:26) was a further expounding and applying of the tongues-message, this does not conclude that the tongues-message was not in a real language, no more so than the hand-writing on the wall in Daniel’s time, with the interpretation (Dan. 5:5-7, 24-28), was in a real language. Even the dreams which Daniel and Joseph interpreted and applied were intelligible of themselves (Gen. 37:5-10; 40:5-11, etc.; Dan. 2:31-35; 4:10-17, etc.), unlike the babbling of the modern-tongue speaker, even to himself.
This was the common (though not exclusive, 1 Cor. 12:10, 30; 14:28) occurrence (contra the modern practice where the ‘interpreter’ is almost always someone else), that the same person praying or singing ‘with the spirit’ in an unknown tongue, would afterwards then pray or sing ‘the understanding’, or the translation, by the supernatural influence of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 14:15):
“I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also… else, when thou shalt bless with the spirit, how shall he that occupieth the room of the unlearned say ‘Amen’… seeing he understandeth not what thou sayest?”
In light of these things, modern-tongues, being unintelligible to the speakers and not actual, human languages, must be considered a counterfeit of the Biblical practice, which truly was miraculous and not conjured up by men and women’s capacity for babbling.
Rational Understanding is Necessary for Spiritual Edification in Faith & Grace
To be “edified” means to be “built up.” Naturally the term and concept is used in many ways in Scripture. For example, saints may edify one another by serving and doing good to each other (Rom. 15:2).
However, to be edified in one’s spirit in faith and grace requires rational understanding and does not bypass it, as in mysticism. All of the means of grace which God has promised to bless to our spiritual salvation and edification make use of our rational understanding (as that is a fundamental part of who we are as made in the image of God), such as hearing the Word read and preached, singing the psalms, taking the sacraments and praying. This is because faith, which requires understanding and placing our faith and trust in the promises of God, is primary to sanctification, or growing in grace (Rom. 5:1-2; Gal. 2:20-21; Heb. 4:2; 6:12; 10:23, 38; 11:6).
It is true the Holy Spirit renews our souls in righteousness and holiness, but as our souls are rational, so this manifests itself in “the renewing of your mind,” which has the rational result “that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” (Rom. 12:1-2) It is also true that we benefit from the Spirit’s intercession for us when we know not what to pray:
“Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. And He that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because He maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God.” Rom. 8:26-27
While the result of the Spirit’s activity in these verses is that intercession is made for us according to the will of God, which may manifest itself in his providence towards us, yet there is no indication in this passage that this activity of the Spirit necessarily results in an abiding change in our own spirit, our spirit being directly built up in righteousness and faith, or edification because of it. Nor is there any indication that this ongoing activity of the Spirit described in Rom. 8:26-27 for all saints through Church history was limited to, or even connected to speaking in tongues.
While persons speaking in modern tongues may feel like they are being edified, this is only due to their belief, through their rational faculty, that the Holy Spirit is speaking through them, they are talking to God and that their souls are being mystically sanctified, though they know not what they are saying. Yet in Biblical tongues the understood content of the message itself is what edified (Acts 2:6-11; 1 Cor. 14:9-13; 15-16), producing comfort (1 Cor. 14:3, 31, not mysticism).
As the activity of modern tongues is not of itself edifying, apart from the belief that it should be, so it becomes a mindless ritual, which truly does not build one up in righteousness, grace and the Faith. Yet, with the erroneous belief that one should be speaking in tongues more, one will feel perpetually obliged to continue babbling in this self-induced ritual mindlessly.
None of this should be construed as if what is being taught here is rationalism. It is only to say that rationality is an essential component of our souls, as is inline with and evidenced throughout Scripture. This does not go beyond Scripture or constrain it, but only goes so far as Scripture does. There are mystical aspects of Christianity: things which are beyond what words can describe or that our reason can account for; but to act unintelligibly is irrational and not a means of growing in faith, righteousness or grace. Col. 3:10 says, “put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of Him that created him.”
Bible Verses in 1 Cor. 14
vv. 3-5 “But he that prophesieth speaketh unto men to edification, and exhortation, and comfort… but he that prophesieth edifieth the church. I would that ye all spake with tongues but rather that ye prophesied: for greater is he that prophesieth than he that speaketh with tongues, except he interpret, that the church may receive edifying.”
vv. 7-12 “And even things without life giving sound, whether pipe or harp, except they give a distinction in the sounds, how shall it be known what is piped or harped? For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle? So likewise ye, except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? for ye shall speak into the air. There are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world, and none of them is without signification. Therefore if I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me. Even so ye, forasmuch as ye are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek that ye may excel to the edifying of the church.”
vv. 15-17 “What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also. Else when thou shalt bless with the spirit, how shall he that occupieth the room of the unlearned say Amen at thy giving of thanks, seeing he understandeth not what thou sayest? For thou verily givest thanks well, but the other is not edified.”
vv. 19-20 “Yet in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue. Brethren, be not children in understanding: howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men.”
v. 28 “But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God.”
v. 33 “For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints.”
More Bible Verses
Prov. 2:5-6 “Then shalt thou understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God. For the Lord giveth wisdom: out of his mouth cometh knowledge and understanding.”
Prov. 9:10 “…the knowledge of the holy is understanding.”
Prov. 22:12 “The eyes of the Lord preserve knowledge…”
Isa. 11:2 “And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge…”
Isa. 28:9-10 “Whom shall He teach knowledge? and whom shall He make to understand doctrine? them that are weaned from the milk, and drawn from the breasts. For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little:”
Isa. 33:5-6 “He hath filled Zion with judgment and righteousness. And wisdom and knowledge shall be the stability of thy times, and strength of salvation…”
Hos. 6:6 “For I desired… the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.”
Mal. 2:7 “For the priest’s lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth…”
Lk. 11:52 “Woe unto you, lawyers! for ye have taken away the key of knowledge: ye entered not in yourselves, and them that were entering in ye hindered.”
Jn. 17:17 “Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth.”
Rom. 10:14 “How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?”
1 Cor. 1:4-6 “I thank my God… for the grace of God which is given you by Jesus Christ, that in every thing ye are enriched by Him, in all utterance, and in all knowledge, even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you:”
1 Cor. 15:34 “Awake to righteousness, and sin not; for some have not the knowledge of God…”
2 Cor. 2:14 “Now thanks be unto God, which always causeth us to triumph in Christ, and maketh manifest the savour of his knowledge by us in every place.”
2 Cor. 4:6 “For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
2 Cor. 8:7 “Therefore, as ye abound in every thing, in faith, and utterance, and knowledge…”
2 Cor. 10:5 “Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ;”
2 Cor. 11:6 “But though I be rude in speech, yet not in knowledge;”
Rom. 12:1-2 “…present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”
Eph. 1:17-18 “That the God of our Lord Jesus Christ… may give unto you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him: The eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that ye may know what is the hope of his calling, and what the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints…”
Eph. 3:4 “Whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ)”
Eph. 4:13 “Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man…”
Phil. 1:9-10 “And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment, that ye may approve things that are excellent, that ye may be sincere and without offence till the day of Christ.”
Col. 1:9-10 “For this cause we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to desire that ye might be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding, that ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God;”
Col. 3:10 “And have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of Him that created him…”
1 Tim. 2:4 “Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.”
2 Pet. 1:2 “Grace and peace be multiplied unto you through the knowledge of God, and of Jesus our Lord…”
2 Pet. 1:5 “And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge;”
2 Pet. 3:18 “But grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.”
Sproul, R.C. – ‘Zeal Without Knowledge’ (2002) 14 paragraphs
Zeller, George W. – Appendix 1, ‘Twelve Reasons Why Biblical Tongues were Real Languages’ in God’s Gift of Tongues: the Nature, Purpose & Duration of Tongues as Taught in the Bible (Wipf & Stock, 1978)
Hodge, Charles – ‘The Nature of Tongues’ from his Commentary on 1 Corinthians, 12:10, five paragraphs
Henderson, Ebenezer – pp. 215-32 of Lecture 4, ‘The Gifts of Inspiration’ in Divine Inspiration: or the Supernatural Influence Exerted in the Communication of Divine Truth… (London: Jackson & Walford, 1836)
Henderson (1784-1858), born Scottish, was a missionary, translator, doctor in philosophy and a congregationalist minister and professor. This work was originally lectures which were published as part of the Congregational Library.
Bellshaw, William G. – ‘The Confusion of Tongues’ Bibliotheca Sacra 120, no. 478 (April 1963), pp. 146-53
Bellshaw was a dean of The San Francisco Conservative Baptist
Beare, Frank – ‘Speaking with Tongues: A Critical Survey of the New Testament Evidence’ Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 83, no. 3 (Sep., 1964), pp. 229-46
McDonald, William G. – ‘Glossolallia in the New Testament’ 10 pp.
MacDonald was of the Central Bible Institute, Springfield, MO.
Robertson, O. Palmer – ‘Tongues Today?’ in The Final Word: a Biblical Response to the case of Tongues & Prophecy Today (Banner of Truth, 1993) at The-Highway.com
Robertson (b. 1937)
Gentry, Jr., Kenneth – Articles on Tongues at Postmillennialworldview.com
Gentry, Jr. (b. 1950)
Coppes, Leonard – The Cessation of Tongues 64 paragraphs at The-Highway.com
Durand, Greg Loren – The Cessation of Tongues & Prophecy 13 paragraphs at The-Highway.com
Cooke, Ronald – Tongues – Nonsense & Martyn Lloyd-Jones 40 paragraphs at The-Highway.com
Abstract: “In his zeal for revival, Martin Lloyd-Jones failed to give a proper contextual exegesis in his explanation of “sign gifts”—and thereby gave credibility to the Charismatic movement.”
Arnaud, Robin – The Truth About the Gift of Tongues at The-Highway.com
Brown, Daniel M. – Trichotomists, Charismatics & 1 Corinthians 14 at The-Highway.com
Zaspel, Fred – ‘The Gift of Tongues’ (1987) 13 pp.
Battle, John – ‘Speaking in Tongues in the New Testament’ (2007) 8 pp. in Western Reformed Seminary Journal (Aug. 2007), pp. 20-27 Helpful.
Schwertley, Brian – pt. 5, ‘Speaking in Tongues’ 24 paragraphs in Pentecost & the Coming of the Holy Spirit (2004)
Encyclopedia & Dictionary
King, David – ‘Tongues, the Gift of’ in The Imperial Bible Dictionary, ed. Patrick Fairbairn (London: Blackie & Son, 1866), vo. 2, pp. 1050-52
This argues the traditional position.
eds. McClintock & Strong – ‘Tongues’ in Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature (1867-1887)
This takes the ecstatic, unintelligible position.
Stegall, Carroll – The Modern Tongues & Healing Movement Ref (1940) 43 pp.
“A penetrating analysis and critique.” – Cyril J. Barber
Lightner, Robert Paul – Speaking in Tongues & Divine Healing Ref (Regular Baptist Press, 1965 / 2017) 64 pp.
Hoekema, Anthony A.
What About Tongue Speaking? Buy (1966) 155 pp.
Tongues & Spirit Baptism: A Biblical & Theological Evaluation (Baker, 1981) 101 pp. ToC
Hoekema (1913–1988) was a professor of systematic theology at Calvin Theological Seminary.
Gromacki, Robert G. – The Modern Tongues Movement Ref (Presbyterian & Reformed, 1967) 180 pp.
“This book presents a careful study of the modern tongues movement with its historical antecedents. It offers a thorough scriptural study of the biblical phenomenon and evaluates the current movement in the light of that study.” – back cover
Burdick, Donald – Tongues – To Speak or Not to Speak: a Contemporary Analysis of Glossolalia (Moody, 1969) 94 pp. ToC Biblio
Gentry, Kenneth – Tongues-Speaking Abstract (2014) 52 pp.
Commentaries Explaining the Traditional Interpretation of Tongues
The Whole of
Dollar, George W. – Church History & the Tongues Movement 10 paragraphs at The-Highway.com
McDonald, Richard – ‘Glossolalia: a Selected Bibliography’ (1975) 21 pp.
Abstract: “This bibliography was designed to aid a study of Holiness snake-handling churches in Appalachia. The bibliography includes items published between 1964 and 1974…”
Mills, Watson – Speaking in Tongues: a Guide to Research on Glossolalia Ref (Eerdmans, 1986) 536 pp.
“Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not.”
1 Cor. 14:22
“But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God.”
1 Cor. 14:28
“I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes…”