Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Speaking in Tongues - Understanding the Meaning

The concept and practice of "speaking in tongues" is very interesting to read about and to experience. I will argue that Christians from both sides of this issue do not study Paul's writings carefully enough on this subject to understand what Paul is actually trying to communicate. There is one main passage in the Bible on this subject and five supporting passages. Lets take a look at what the Bible actually says and think through what Paul is mostly likely trying to communicate.

The Five Supporting Passages - Four involving known languages/foreigners and one involving "groaning"
I will highlight in red the parts that refer either to a known language or foreigners who would likely speak a different known language.

Acts 2:1-13
1 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance. 5 Now there were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven. 6 And when this sound occurred, the crowd came together, and were bewildered because each one of them was hearing them speak in his own language. 7 They were amazed and astonished, saying, "Why, are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 "And how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born? 9 "Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya around Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs--we hear them in our own tongues speaking of the mighty deeds of God." 12 And they all continued in amazement and great perplexity, saying to one another, "What does this mean?" 13 But others were mocking and saying, "They are full of sweet wine."

So, clearly in this passage "tongues" refers to speaking a different language in order to communicate with foreigners. Interestingly, in a sense this ability temporarily makes up for God creating/separating the different languages at the Tower of Babel. At the tower of Babel God was trying to keep people from banding together to rebel from what He said to do (to disperse throughout the world). After the death of Jesus, God was apparently working to communicate the message about Jesus to all those nations/languages to give them the opportunity to believe and follow Jesus.

Acts 10
28And he said to them, "You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean. 34 Opening his mouth, Peter said: "I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, 35 but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him. 44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message. 45 All the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. 46 For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God. Then Peter answered, 47 Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?" 48 And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to stay on for a few days.

This passage is less clear on whether tongues is always used to communicate in a known language, but in this case as in the previous case there are foreigners present who would need to communicate and who are being added to the group of early Christians. Also, the phrase "just as we did" seems to imply that this experience was of the same kind as in the previous passage and there is no indication that the tongues were not understandable by those who were present.

Acts 19
1 It happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the upper country and came to Ephesus, and found some disciples. 2 He said to them, Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?" And they said to him, "No, we have not even heard whether there is a Holy Spirit." 3 And he said, "Into what then were you baptized?" And they said, Into John's baptism." 4Paul said, John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in Him who was coming after him, that is, in Jesus." 5 When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking with tongues and prophesying. 7 There were in all about twelve men.

Again this passage is unclear whether the tongues were necessarily understandable or not. But since they were "speaking in tongues and prophesying", that seems to indicate that the tongues were understandable since prophesying implies a transfer of information. At very least there is no indication to the contrary.

Mark 16:14-20 (Note: Some reliable early manuscripts do not contain Mark 16:9-20, so this section may have been added later by a scribe as a summary of what was said in the other books, or it might have been removed by scribes thinking it was an erroneous addition...)
Afterward He appeared to the eleven themselves as they were reclining at the table; and He reproached them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who had seen Him after He had risen. 15 And He said to them, "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. 16"He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned. 17 "These signs will accompany those who have believed: in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues; 18 they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover." 19 So then, when the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. 20 And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them, and confirmed the word by the signs that followed. And they promptly reported all these instructions to Peter and his companions. And after that, Jesus Himself sent out through them from east to west the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.]

This section mentions speaking in tongues but does not comment further and it may or may not have been in the original writings. So this section does not seem to give us any more useful information on the subject.

Romans 8: 18-27 (phrases mentioning "groaning" and prayer highlighted in red)

18For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. 23 And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. 24 For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it. 26 In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; 27 and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

So, apparently here is a case of the Holy Spirit "groaning" and God understanding the pain that is trying to be communicated because He "knows what the mind of the Spirit is". So, this leaves open the possibility that some unintelligible "groanings" between a man and God are substitutes for actual speech. But note that in this case no actual communication to God is necessary since, as Paul says, He already knows what is needed.

But also note that since Jesus clearly has said that prayer should be in private (a passage that is widely disregarded in most all modern churches and home groups...) this is not a practice that Paul is advocating should occur in church.

The main passage on Speaking in Tongues
As seen above, at least one of the supporting passages clearly says that the tongues were speaking in foreign languages that were understandable by foreigners and at least one of the passages talk about "groaning" as part of private prayer. But none of the five supporting passages have any indication that tongues were used in public when no one present at the time understood what was being said. So, a valid question is whether tongues is always used to communicate to others or whether there is any situation where tongues is used in a groups setting for some other reason than communication. Now lets take a look at the main passage to answer that question.

One key to understanding the Corinthians passage on speaking in tongues is to understand that Paul is responding to a list of questions he received in a previous letter. To see this, take a look at the introductory statements to the surrounding passages:

1 Cor 7:1 "Now for the matters you wrote about:" (concerning married life)
1 Cor 7:25 "Now concerning virgins"
1 Cor 8:1 "Now concerning things sacrificed to idols"
1 Cor 12:1 "Now concerning spiritual gifts"
1 Cor 16:1 "Now concerning the collection for the saints"

So, it appears that from 1 Corinthians chapter seven on Paul is mostly answering questions that he had received in a previous letter from the church leaders at Corinth.

The passage in Corinthians is by far the longest on this subject. It seems at first reading to be discussing two types of "speaking in tongues", one type where others understand what is being said and another type where no one else seems to understand what is being said. But lets take a look to try to understand what Paul is trying to communicate.

Since Paul is responding to a previous question, to fully understand his response it would be helpful to try to infer the question he was responding to.

Dear Paul: What about Tongues that no one understands?
Here is my best guess at the question that the Corinthian church leaders had written to ask Paul which he was trying to answer in this passage in Corinthians. While somewhat of a guess, the question listed below does correlates to the answer that Paul gives and also, given normal human nature, we should have expected this situation to arise as some point.

I would suggest that the question might have been something like this:

Dear Paul,
Some of the most dedicated people in the Corinthian church became aware of how at Pentecost the apostles were miraculously given the ability to tell foreigners about Jesus in their own language. So, they asked God to give them the same ability. And some of the people also believe that this ability to speak in another tongue is a gift from God that all committed Christians should be able to do.

The problem is that when they began speaking in what they thought was a foreign language no one is able to understand them. So, some in the church now say that perhaps the foreign language is a genuine one but no one is there who speaks that particular language. So in that case the gift would be valid but no one is able to interpret in order to verify the authenticity of the gift. Others say that maybe the language is actually the language of angels and not of any foreign country at all, so we shouldn't expect anyone to be able to interpret. So, again the gift would be valid, but unverifiable. But still others say that God has not given them the gift of speaking a foreign language all and that they are presumptuously assuming God has given them this ability when He hasn't. So they insist those who are not speaking in a true foreign language have been led astray and should be kicked out of the church, similar to how false prophets were dealt with in the old testament.

So, what should we do about these people who say God has given them the gift to speak in another language but no one understands them and no one can interpret what they are saying? The people involved seem to be some of the most sincere and motivated people in the church and they affirm that Jesus is their lord. But unfortunately this issue seems to be splitting the church.

Leaders of the Corinthian Church

Paul, recognizing that these were just sincere Christians wanting the miracle of speaking in different languages but not receiving the desired miracle, identified himself with them. He affirmed the desire to speak in tongues and he did not try to argue whether a specific instance of tongues was or was not valid. Instead, he said that if no one understands what they are saying (i.e., the miracle of speaking a foreign language isn't present) they should only try speaking a foreign language at home, not in public, or at least quietly to themselves. And he also implied that speaking a foreign language was the least of the abilities that God gives and so people should desire the other abilities more than just speaking a foreign language.

What I think many people miss is how thoughtfully Paul handled this issue. It would be natural for some of the more motivated people to desire the gift of speaking in a foreign language and any other ability that God might give them. But the only way they would be able to use the gift would be to start trying to talk in a different language. So, it seems natural that this question would arise just from our knowledge of human nature. And far from being the fringe of the church attempting to speak in other tongues, the core of the church, the most motivated, would most likely be the people who would want that gift.

Even those who believe that most instances of speaking in tongues today are actually other real languages have to admit, since Paul says that "not all speak in tongues", that at least some instances of speaking in tongues is a result of this natural desire to try receive good gifts from God even when God isn't giving out that particular gift at that time. And they would have to admit that there is no good way to be able to discern between an experience coming from God and the person just trying unsuccessfully to speak another language.

So, there was no way that Paul or the Corinthian church could prove a negative. If some people believed they were speaking another language, how could Paul have proved them wrong? They could always say that it was just a different language that no on in the room understood. So, instead of Paul trying a futile attempt to say they were wrong, instead Paul emphasizes that they should not do that in the church and that they should seek the more important gifts, ones that would help others.

Note how Paul handled this situation very, very tactfully and avoided a possible split in the church. Now let's see what Paul actually said. I will highlight in purple the few sections that seem to say that speaking in tongues doesn't need to be understood by someone else. I will highlight in red the areas that say that tongues should be understood by someone else, or areas that discourage speaking in tongues and I will add my commentary in parentheses in blue.

1 Cor 12-14
12:1Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware. 2 You know that when you were pagans, you were led astray to the mute idols, however you were led. (there is no information transfer with mute idols) 3 Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, "Jesus is accursed"; and no one can say, "Jesus is Lord," except by the Holy Spirit. (so both Christians who speak with tongues and those who do not both have the Holy Spirit) 4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. 5 And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. 6 There are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons. 7 But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8 For to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, and to another the word of knowledge according to the same Spirit; 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 and to another the effecting of miracles, and to another prophecy, and to another the distinguishing of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues. (so the ability to speak in another known language was apparently considered a separate ability from being able to understand another language)

11 But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills (so apparently God doesn't give the ability to speak or understand other languages to everyone, but only to who he wills). 12 For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. 13 For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. 14 For the body is not one member, but many. 15 If the foot says, "Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body," it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear says, "Because I am not an eye, I am not a part of the body," it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired. 19 If they were all one member, where would the body be? 20 But now there are many members, but one body. 21 And the eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you"; or again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you." 22 On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; 23 and those members of the body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our less presentable members become much more presentable, 24 whereas our more presentable members have no need of it. But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, 25 so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26 And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. 27 Now you are Christ's body, and individually members of it. 28 And God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, various kinds of tongues (note that tongues is last on the numbered list and is therefore likely implied to be the least important). 29 All are not apostles, are they? All are not prophets, are they? All are not teachers, are they? All are not workers of miracles, are they? 30 All do not have gifts of healings, do they? All do not speak with tongues, do they? (This reply implies that some were saying that all Christians should have the ability to speak in tongues and Paul is refuting that idea) All do not interpret, do they? 31 But earnestly desire the greater gifts. And I show you a still more excellent way. (While not prohibiting tongues, Paul is minimizing their importance and asking the Corinthian church to focus their efforts elsewhere)

13:1If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing. 4 Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, 5 does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, 6 does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; 7 bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away. (having Love for others is more important than receiving special abilities from God) 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part; 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away. 11 When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. (implies focusing on "spiritual gifts" for their own sake is something a mature Christian should move away from, toward focusing on Love for others and desiring the abilities to help others) 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. 13 But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.

14:1Pursue love, yet desire earnestly spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy. 2For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God; for no one understands, but in his spirit he speaks mysteries. (this is the only place in this passage where Paul says that tongues are not understandable, but read on to see whether he is recommending that as a public practice in the church or not) 3 But one who prophesies speaks to men for edification and exhortation and consolation. 4 One who speaks in a tongue edifies himself; but one who prophesies edifies the church. 5 Now I wish that you all spoke in tongues, but even more that you would prophesy; and greater is one who prophesies than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may receive edifying. 6 But now, brethren, if I come to you speaking in tongues, what will I profit you unless I speak to you either by way of revelation or of knowledge or of prophecy or of teaching? 7 Yet even lifeless things, either flute or harp, in producing a sound, if they do not produce a distinction in the tones, how will it be known what is played on the flute or on the harp? 8 For if the bugle produces an indistinct sound, who will prepare himself for battle? 9 So also you, unless you utter by the tongue speech that is clear, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air. 10 There are, perhaps, a great many kinds of languages in the world, and no kind is without meaning. 11 If then I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be to the one who speaks a barbarian, and the one who speaks will be a barbarian to me. 12 So also you, since you are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek to abound for the edification of the church. 13 Therefore let one who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret. 14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. 15 What is the outcome then? I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also; I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also. 16 Otherwise if you bless in the spirit only, how will the one who fills the place of the ungifted say the "Amen" at your giving of thanks, since he does not know what you are saying? 17 For you are giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not edified. 18 I thank God, I speak in tongues more than you all; 19 however, in the church I desire to speak five words with my mind so that I may instruct others also, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue. (so the key for Paul is being able to give information to others, whether someone is really speaking another language is not important. The key is being able to get the information across, which requires a real language)

20 Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; yet in evil be infants, but in your thinking be mature. 21 In the Law it is written, "BY MEN OF STRANGE TONGUES AND BY THE LIPS OF STRANGERS I WILL SPEAK TO THIS PEOPLE, AND EVEN SO THEY WILL NOT LISTEN TO ME," says the Lord. 22 So then tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers; (to tell foreigners who aren't Christians about Jesus) but prophecy is for a sign, not to unbelievers but to those who believe. (to tell believers and nonbelievers how God wants them to change their lives) 23 Therefore if the whole church assembles together and all speak in tongues, and ungifted men or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad? (i.e., why wouldn't they just use their normal language??) 24 But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an ungifted man enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all; 25 the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you. 26 What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation Let all things be done for edification. 27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, it should be by two or at the most three, and each in turn, and one must interpret; (there is no indication that both the tongues and the interpreter are both abilities given by God, but rather the tongue is likely a special gift but the interpreter is someone who normally knows the language, or vice versa) 28 but if there is no interpreter, he must keep silent in the church; and let him speak to himself and to God. 29 Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment. 30 But if a revelation is made to another who is seated, the first one must keep silent. 31 For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted; 32 and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets; 33 for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints. 34 The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. 35 If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church. 36 Was it from you that the word of God first went forth? Or has it come to you only? 37 If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize that the things which I write to you are the Lord's commandment. 38 But if anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. (both sides of the debate are likely to reject the Biblical instruction here. People against tongues are likely to split the church to maintain the purity of doctrine while those supporting tongues are likely to split the church saying they are more spiritually connected to God than those who do not speak in tongues. But Paul upholds the primacy of rationality while not splitting over an unprovable debate about whether someone trying to speak another language is actually from God or not) 39 Therefore, my brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak in tongues. 40 But all things must be done properly and in an orderly manner.

Summary of the main passage talking about speaking in tongues
So, here is a summary of what Paul seems to actually be saying:
  • Don't split the church over debating whether someone is actually speaking a real language or not
  • Different people are given different gifts, not everyone speaks in other languages
  • Speaking in tongues is probably the least important of the gifts that God can give you
  • Having love is more important than being able to speak in tongues
  • If no one understands, have them do their speaking to themselves at home or to themselves
  • Speaking "groanings" to God in private when you are in pain is O.K. because God already knows what you need (communicating information is not necessary in that case)
  • Any gifts God gives you should be used to help others rather than just yourself
  • Paul's view is the authoritative view on the subject
So, here is a summary of what Paul was most likely trying to communicate. It appears that speaking in tongues/interpreting were meant to be special gifts to be able to tell foreigners about Jesus and to understand their responses. When the most motivated of the Corinthians tried to have the same gift, without the same need to communicate with foreigners, various views about what was happening sprung up in the Church. Paul, in characteristic fashion, broke through the surface arguments and went straight to first principles in order to solve the dilemma. He affirmed that those trying to speak in tongues were in fact highly motivated Christians while at the same time he affirmed the primacy of communicating information. The alternative was to take sides in a debate that was unprovable and therefore ultimately un-winnable.

Interestingly, if today's church leaders understood Paul's argument here that would bring back together the charismatic/pentecostal and the more rational/theological based groups in the church. And this passage is a case study for any negotiator in how to go to first principles to resolve a dispute without giving up truth and at the same time maintaining the honor and dignity of both sides of the dispute.

Secular research about speaking in tongues
The technical term for tongues that no one else understands is "glossolalia". William J. Samarin studied modern day speaking in tongues and determined that it could not be a real language, either known or unknown for the following reasons:

"...the syllable string did not form words, the stream of speech was not internally organised, and – most importantly of all – there was no systematic relationship between units of speech and concepts. Humans use language to communicate, but glossolalia does not. Therefore he concluded that glossolalia is not "a specimen of human language because it is neither internally organized nor systematically related to the world man perceives".

On the basis of his linguistic analysis, Samarin defined Pentecostal glossolalia as "meaningless but phonologically structured human utterance, believed by the speaker to be a real language but bearing no systematic resemblance to any natural language, living or dead".

Felicitas Goodman, a psychological anthropologist and linguist, studied a number of Pentecostal communities in the United States, Caribbean and Mexico; these included English, Spanish and Mayan speaking groups. She compared what she found with recordings of non-Christian rituals from Africa, Borneo, Indonesia and Japan. She took into account both the segmental structure (such as sounds, syllables, phrases) and the supra-segmental elements (rhythm, accent, intonation), and concluded that there was no distinction between what was practiced by the Pentecostal Protestants and the followers of other religions.