Tongues of Angels?

Author: Alan Marshall – 1992 (revised 2000, 2013)


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The Pentecostal movement, identified by its distinctive emphases on the baptism of the Holy Spirit and the gift of tongues, has been with us for a long time. It originated in England with Edward Irving, whose followers founded the Catholic Apostolic Church in 1832. The church grew in England and the Netherlands and continues to this day in the "Apostolic" denomination. On the other side of the Atlantic, it was the better known Charles Parham in 1901, and the Azusa St revival in 1906, that gave momentum to the movement in America. Its growth in that land was gave rise to the Assemblies of God, and later to the Foursquare Church. The complete history, tracing its roots all the way back to John Wesley, can be found in "The Holiness-Pentecostal Tradition" by Vinson Synan.

Throughout this long history, in fact for 140 years up until the 1970s, the gift of tongues was understood to be utterances given by the Holy Spirit in languages of mankind unknown to the speaker. These languages were understood to be like those spoken at Pentecost, which set the model for all subsequent experiences:

Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. Utterly amazed, they asked: "Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs--we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!" Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, "What does this mean?" Some, however, made fun of them and said, "They have had too much wine."

(Acts 2:5-13 NIV)

In this passage, believers were heard praising God in 14 foreign languages! Divide that into 120 and it is an average of 9 believers each speaking in a language unknown to them. That is quite a miracle!

In order to appreciate the nature of this miracle, let us imagine the context to be modern day America. Just as the feast at Jerusalem attracted Jews from throughout the then known world, so America has attracted immigrants from every nation on Earth. The American Community Survey 2009, endorsed by the United States Census Bureau, provides us with data on the number of speakers of languages other than English. The 14 most common languages are Spanish, Chinese (mostly Cantonese), Tagalog, French, Vietnamese, German, Korean, Russian, Arabic, Italian, Portuguese, Polish and French Creole. If an event like Pentecost were to occur in America today, what would it be like? I suggest that the list of languages in Acts 2 would be replaced with a list similar to the above.

Now is that what we see in the Pentecostal movement of the 20th century? I suggest that it is not. While it would not be fair (or Biblical) to generalize and so dismiss the modern tongues phenomenon entirely, I think it is reasonable to suggest that, if even a sizeable minority of modern tongues were Pentecost style languages of mankind, the world would certainly notice.

There are three other passages in Acts that describe a new group of believers receiving a Pentecost style experience. In Acts 11:15, Peter recalls:

As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning.

Peter is persuaded to baptise these Gentiles because their experience was just what he himself had experienced - they were baptized in the Spirit and praised God in tongues. There is no reason to think these tongues were any different from the tongues of Pentecost - they were languages of mankind unknown to the speakers.

All the Biblical evidence points to tongues being human languages. This includes Paul's understanding when talking to the Corinthians:

So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air. Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and he is a foreigner to me.

(1 Corinthians 14:9-11 NIV)

Here Paul identifies tongues as "languages in the world". This phrase seems to be a clear statement of nature of tongues, identifying them as earthly languages, and I am surprised it receives so little attention.

It must be asked then, why in the last 40 years or so, has this understanding largely been dropped in favour of the notion that the gift most commonly manifests in angelic tongues? It is argued that there is scriptural support in Paul's reference to the "tongues of men and angels" (1 Cor 13:1), but as we shall see, that seems to be clutching at straws. I suspect the reason is not scriptural, but rather an explanation of convenience. With the rapid growth of Pentecostal churches since the 1970s, I think it provides cover for the fact, for the most part, these manifestations lack credibility as languages of mankind.

Some Pentecostals will think of their tongue as belonging to some far-off tribe, and they well may be right. This is plausible for an individual tongue, but the explanation becomes unconvincing when you consider churches with thousands of members who claim to speak in tongues. Most of the world's population speaks languages that should be recognisable (as opposed to understandable) to someone in a typical congregation. My home city in Australia is a cosmopolitan place, with a mix of nationalities from like those I have listed above for America. Although the only language I understand is English, I can usually guess if a person is speaking French, German, or from a region such as Southern Europe (Italian, Spanish or Portuguese), Scandinavia (Swedish or Norwegian), or north-east Asia (Japanese Korean, Cantonese). In your experience, do tongues manifestations today sound like Pentecost style foreign languages? If not, we may need to ask whether churches too readily accept fleshly imitations as the real thing. We need to be careful not to deceive ourselves. The Bible says:

Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.

(1 Thessalonians 5:21)

If all the Biblical material above relates to earthly tongues, what then are we to make of that one reference to the tongues of men and angels? Let's look at the context:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If 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 have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

(1 Corinthians 13:1-3 NIV)

Paul is talking in superlatives in order to make a point. He is not talking about ordinary tongues any more than he is talking about ordinary prophecy or ordinary faith. He is saying if he has the ultimate in these gifts, the fullness of these gifts, so that he has "all faith" (literal Greek), fathoms "all mysteries", has "all knowledge", and all languages (the tongues of men and the angels) but not love, he is nothing. The text allows for angelic tongues but imply that these are exceptional.

Having established the nature of tongues, the next question for us to consider is their significance. Certainly the gift of tongues was, and is, a miraculous demonstration of the power of the Holy Spirit confirming the preached word (Acts 2). Along with the healings, deliverances and other wonders that show the Kingdom of God has come in power, tongues is listed as a sign (Mark 16:17-20). What then is the theological significance of the sign?

At Pentecost, I think Peter understood this when he prophesied that "In the last days, God says, I will poor out my spirit on all people" (Acts 2:17). In other words, the gospel was not just for the Jews but for the gentiles as well, for "every tribe and language and people and nation" (Rev 5:9). The tongues of Pentecost were a sign to the Jews that the Old Covenant of the Law was finished, and that the New Covenant of the Spirit had arrived. It was a sign that this New Covenant was not just for the biological children of Abraham, but for the people of all nations who would be now blessed in fulfillment of that ancient promise.

This revelation was so important that Paul described it as the "mystery of Christ", that "through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members of one body, and sharers together in the promise of Christ Jesus." (Eph 3:4-6), such that "there is neither Jew nor Greek for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3:28).

Among the early church fathers, Augustine agrees with this understanding of the significance of tongues. He spoke of "that betokening of the Holy Spirit in all tongues, to show that the Gospel of God was to run through all tongues over the whole earth" (Homily VI on 1 John).

The Pentecost event reminds me of another much earlier event in the Bible:

But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. The LORD said, "If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other." So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel --because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

(Genesis 11:5-9 NIV)

Although the Bible never explicitly contrasts the two, a comparison of the Tower of Babel and Pentecost is thought provoking. In the former, God was scattering mankind through language. In the latter he was symbolically uniting mankind through a sharing in other nations’ languages, overcoming the division that resulted from the former. At Babel, mankind was "scattered". At Pentecost, all the national groups heard the gospel in their own language, confirming that "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved" (Acts 2:23).

The Tower of Babel should also remind us that, in God's original perfect creation, mankind spoke a single language. The multiplicity of languages that followed Babel had serious consequences. Language barriers result in misunderstanding between people groups. Language difference fans the flames of ethnic conflict. The language diversity that God imposed on rebellious mankind was a curse! Why then, in the spiritual realm, in that part of God's original creation that has always remained perfect, would you expect a multiplicity of languages? Pentecostal churches in recent decades, in contrast to those of the early 20th century, have encouraged their members to think of tongues as angelic languages. I would ask them why they think angels, in order to do their jobs, need a multiplicity of languages when men find this a barrier and a curse. I concede that this is speculative, but I don't see why we should imagine that more than one angelic tongue exists.

If the biblical gift was one of earthly tongues, what then do we make of modern tongues? Unlike the tongues of Pentecost, the modern phenomena is only rarely recognized as a language of man. That could be explained to some extent by the thousands of languages that exist and have existed, and God's provision for this in the gift of interpretation of unknown languages. The problem with the modern phenomena runs deeper, and involves the failure of the majority of samples of tongues to demonstrate true properties of language. Characteristics that trouble me include repetition and alliteration, and the use of a limited range of syllables. Most modern tongues speakers form words that a just new combinations of syllables they speak in their native language. The tongues of English tongues speakers use English syllables. I have never heard an English tongues speaker use Chinese syllables! If modern tongues are generally not the biblical gift, then what is their explanation?

A detailed discussion of that question is beyond the scope of this essay, but I find the explanation that it is a learned phenomenon very plausible. It is easy to see how people could be encouraged to utter a few syllables as they come to mind, and persuaded that this is a gift from God, go to build on this "vocabulary" with repeated use. It is disturbing to see how often, in the absence of an authentic manifestation of the Spirit, preachers resort to giving lessons on how to speak in tongues. Even the acclaimed Alpha Course, which I praise for its effectiveness, is on dangerous ground in this area. The talk by Nicky Gumbel titled "How can I be filled with the Holy Spirit?" concludes with these instructions:

If you would like to receive the gift of tongues, ask. Then open your mouth and start to praise God in any language but English or any other language known to you.

Believe what you receive is from God. Don't let anyone tell you that you made it up. (It is most unlikely that you have.)

Persevere. Languages take time to develop. Most of us start with a very limited vocabulary. Gradually it develops. Tongues is like that. It takes time to develop the gift. But don't give up.

While all of the above is questionable, it is the last paragraph in particular is contrary not just to common sense, but blatantly contrary to scripture. At Pentecost, those gathered in the upper room burst forth in praise to God in foreign languages, the languages of every nation amongst which the Jews were scattered. These scarcely controlled utterances were a manifestation of power. The gift of tongues given to each was perfect and complete. Their praise was fluent and easily recognised by onlookers.

Where, Nicky, is there any suggestion that tongues in the New Testament were ever tentative? Where is there any suggestion that believers had to give the Spirit help by opening their mouths and consciously making an effort to utter some sounds? In all the passages in Acts where believers spoke in tongues, the text reads as if they and their vocal chords were completely taken over by the Spirit of God. Any suggestion, as Nicky Gumbel does above, that tongues needs to be practiced, gives the game away. That is always a sure sign of phony, fleshly tongues.

At this point I should emphasise that I am not aligning myself with the opponents of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements. In fact, for nearly ten years I worshipped at a good Pentecostal church. At there best, these churches have much to offer with their emphases on listening to God, ministering to the whole person, head and heart, and joy and power in the Holy Spirit, areas often neglected by traditional churches. (At their worst, some of these churches degenerate into what seem to be stage-managed, manipulative meetings that feed the egos of the leaders. But that is because the flesh so easily gets in the way of the Spirit, and I'll leave that for another essay.)

I have also been blessed in "third wave" (Vineyard) churches I have attended. I have seen people healed and delivered of evil spirits. So by no means am I saying that all claimed gifts of tongues are fleshly. We just have to be careful, or as I like to say, we need to separate the wheat from the chaff. Among my friends is at least one whose reception of the gift of tongues, without any previous teaching about it, cannot be adequately explained in the above terms. I know his gift is not a learned or practiced ability.

On this website I have set up a "Tongues of Men" page where I share feedback from readers who believe their gift is a language of man. I accept that where this is a language unknown to the speaker, but known to a hearer, we have authentication of the gift. Of course, I am not suggesting that such verification is needed before a gift of tongues can be publicly used. I am simply pleading that we stop encouraging people to manufacture an experience. It is absolutely plain that not all believers should expect to speak in tongues (1 Cor 12:30). I think that to teach otherwise is to twist scripture.

Of course, for some there is also a danger of being cynical about modern tongues. At one point, God corrected an unjustified skepticism in me a most remarkable way.

As a young man I attended various Pentecostal meetings in search of an experience of the Holy Spirit. At one meeting I remember hearing the word "shalama". Three months later, and 300 miles away, I attended another meeting where I heard this word used again. Now at the time I did not make too much of this. Without wanting to offend my readers, I confess that I thought "shalama" sounded like the kind of made-up word that one might naturally utter. Of course it may have been just that, but God opened my mind to another possibility.

Thirty-three years later, while working on this web page, It occurred to me that in the 21st century, Google might shed some light. So I typed in "shalama" and was astonished by what I found. In Aramaic, the language which Jesus spoke, "shalama" means "peace". (It is related to the Hebrew "shalom"). It has certainly given me food for thought, and made me ready to give individuals with credible experiences the benefit of (my) doubt.

Some traditional or "mainstream" churches still teach cessationism. This is the belief that all miracles, or at least a particular class of miracles (2 Cor 12:12), belonged just to the apostolic age. Other traditional churches acknowledge that miracles are possible in theory today, but they still teach cessationism in practice. For example, the Anglican church in which I grew up would be horrified if someone in the congregation stood up and started speaking in tongues. And yet Paul says "do not forbid speaking in tongues" (1 Cor 14:39).

There has been a latter day movement of the Holy Spirit, perhaps going back to the time of John Wesley, that we need to acknowledge as real. It has manifested itself in revivals like that which occurred in Wales, and which continue to occur throughout the world. There have been extraordinary healings, by no means confined to the ministries of Pentecostals or Charismatics, some of which I have personally witnessed. I document many examples of this modern outpouring of the Spirit on my website www.jesusisreal.org.

The signs that "follow them that believe" are in our midst. The gift of tongues has a place among those signs, and we fulfill it as we complete the great commission by taking the gospel of Jesus Christ to "all nations". I think that if church leaders would only tone down the hype, and conduct themselves in ways that allowed the genuine Biblical gifts to be validated and shine forth, the gospel would be confirmed as God intended. In today's Pentecostal churches, I do find questionable much of what passes for gifts of the Spirit. However, amidst this distraction, amidst so much insubstantial tongues, I am ready to believe the genuine gift of "tongues of men" still operates and needs to be encouraged.

It is over a century since Charles Parham and his followers first prayed for the baptism in the Spirit with the evidence of the gift of tongues, giving birth of the modern Pentecostal movement in America. It is time for both Pentecostals and the traditional churches to put their arguments and prejudices to one side, and to honestly and objectively seek to understand the modern phenomena.

Acknowledgements:

All quotations of the scriptures, unless otherwise stated, are from the New International Version (Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI, USA), 1984.

Recommended Reading:

Charismatic Chaos; John F MacArthur Jr.; Zondervan Publishing House - I don't agree with everything in this book, and some criticism in my opinion is unfair, but I believe his position on the nature of tongues is essentially correct and agrees well with this essay.

Empowered Evangelicals; Rich Nathan & Ken Wilson; Servant Publications - A very good balance that seems to capture the best of Charismatic and traditional Evangelical teaching and practice.

The Beauty of Spiritual Language; Jack Hayford; Thomas Nelson Publishers - Probably the best explanation of traditional pentecostal teaching on tongues.

Questions of Life; Nicky Gumbel; Alpha International 2010. - An edited transcript of the Alpha Course, which as a whole, I endorse. Chapter 10, which deals with tongues, should be read to judge the fairness of my remarks.

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Tongues Sample on MP3:

The following recording of tongues was sent to me by a brother in South Africa. I am not prepared to say whether or not it is the genuine gift, but it is free of the marks that tend to characterise false or fleshly tongues. The sample is about 4 minutes long and just over 4Mb in size. To play the sample, click here. If you wish to download to your hard disk instead, right-click on the same link and choose "Save Target As."

Feedback:

I would be interested in hearing from anyone who has received a manifestation of tongues that was identified as a language of mankind. I would also like to hear from anyone who can identify the language(s) in the above sample or provide an interpretation. My email address is on the home page.

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