Speaking in Tongues: Ecstatic Babel or Foreign Language?

In his 2001 book Gift and Giver: The Holy Spirit for Today, biblical scholar Craig Keener tells the story of a man he had met in a charismatic church, who came up to him during congregational prayer and began interceding for him.[1] Instead of praying in English, the man made a series of buzzing sounds like a bee, which Keener supposed he thought was speaking in tongues.

Several months ago, I met a man who claimed to have the gift of tongues. As he was detailing his testimony, he began relaying stories of how, when the Spirit exercised this gift in him, nearby acquaintances were able to discern what he was saying, though in languages other than his native English—including, if I remember correctly, Hebrew and French.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I was sharing with a former professor of mine about my experience in seminary. After mentioning the various biblical and Semitic language courses I’ve taken there, he asked, “So do you have the gift of tongues?” Befuddled, I paused . . . and then responded, “Not the spiritual gift, but I do have a gift for learning languages.” The question may have been metaphorical, but it got me wondering . . . .

As these vignettes begin to illustrate, little else in Christian practice is as mystifying as the nature of speaking in tongues—or as theologians like to call it, glossolalia. Quite apart from questions about its ongoing validity or cessation, or even about its use today, we must ask: How is this gift defined in Scripture? Does it consist of ecstatic gibberish, unintelligible utterances like the buzzing in Keener’s story? Or is it, as in my first story, what scholars call xenolalia—i.e., the miraculous speaking in actual, previously unlearned languages? If the latter, only human languages or also, purportedly, angelic languages? Lastly, does this gift include a propensity for learning languages, as my professor may have suggested?

It’s fascinating to note that the first instance of tongues-speaking in the Bible isn’t in 1 Corinthians 12, but in Acts 2, which provides the essential background for Pauline instruction on the topic. Here, as the fulfillment of Jesus’s promise in Acts 1:5, the earliest church is said to have been “filled with the Holy Spirit” and to have begun “to speak in other tongues [heterais glōssais] as the Spirit enabled them” (v. 4). The ensuing passage (vv. 5–11) fairly clearly identifies this phenomenon as xenolalia.[2] Not only does the text overtly affirm on three occasions that the nearby Jews—representing at least fifteen different regions and languages (see vv. 9–11)—recognized the inspired speech as their own native languages (vv. 6, 8, 11); it also uses the Greek terms glōssais (vv. 4, 11) and dialektō (vv. 6, 8)—the latter of which unmistakably denotes the language of a given nation or region—interchangeably!

If Acts 2 refers to xenolalia, then where might one go to find support for an understanding of glossolalia as anything other than actual human languages? Oddly enough, Paul’s famous “love chapter” in 1 Corinthians 13. There in vv. 1–3, the Apostle writes:

1If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

This appears to be the only place in the Bible that distinguishes between “the tongues/languages of men” (tais glōssais tōn anthrōpōn) and “the tongues/languages of angels” ([tais glōssaistōn angelōn). However, scholars are not exactly sure how to interpret the latter. According to some, “tongues of angels” refers to the Corinthians’ estimation of this gift, not necessarily to a normative, apostolically endorsed avenue of tongues-speaking.[3] Others, however, highlight the repeated three-step heightening in each verse of this passage (human tongues, angelic tongues, and love in v. 1; prophecy, mountain-moving faith, and love in v. 2; giving to the poor, subjection to hardship, and love in v. 3) and interpret angelic tongues as a rare, “deluxe version” of xenolalia. As Roy Ciampa and Brian Rosner write, “the rhetorical pattern [in vv. 1–3] would suggest that speaking in tongues would most frequently entail speaking of (unknown) human languages, with the ability to speak angelic languages seen as an even more wonderful version or extension of the same gift.”[4] Still, given the hypothetical language of these verses (e.g., “If I speak . . .”), it is best to avoid dogmatism on the issue.

In either case, however, the gift mentioned in 1 Corinthians 13:1, as in Acts 2, entails speaking in actual, previously unlearned languages, not unintelligible utterances or fabricated lingo—even if the language in question sounds like gibberish to those who don’t know it, and even if we have no means of discerning, in practice, whether it’s human or angelic in nature. As the Assemblies of God itself has asserted, “There is no justification for interpreting the word [glōssa] as strange or ecstatic sounds.”[5] Neither, may we add, is there justification for interpreting this gift as a natural affinity for learning and using languages. It is precisely the miraculous speaking of previously unlearned languages that is in view!


[1] Craig S. Keener, Gift and Giver: The Holy Spirit for Today (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 125.

[2] Eckhard J. Schnabel, Acts, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 115.

[3] Cf. Craig L. Blomberg, 1 Corinthians, New International Version Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 259.

[4] Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 626 (emphasis mine).

[5] Assemblies of God, Where We Stand (Springfield, MO: Gospel, 1990), 147. Cited in William W. Menzies and Stanley M. Horton, Bible Doctrines: A Pentecostal Perspective (Springfield, MO: Logion, 1993), 138n5.

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