Tongues | The Biblical Manifestation of Tongues-Speaking

The following belongs to a series on the continuation or cessation of the miraculous phenomena of tongues-speaking. Read the previous post here.


Before directly handling the issue of cessationism versus continuationism, one does well to first establish what the miraculous phenomena of tongues-speaking is in the Bible, and therefore, what it should look like if in fact the gift is for today.

Intelligible Human Languages and/or Babbling?

The first manifestation of tongues in scripture occurs in Acts 2.1 Verses 4-11 are undeniably clear that the nature of the tongues in this passage is unlearned, intelligible human languages.2 This is a miraculous phenomenon produced by the poured out Spirit (v.4) and is a miracle of speaking, not hearing.3 And in the following occurrences of tongues in Acts (ch. 10, 19, and possibly 8), Luke uses the same word that he used in chapter 2 to refer to this miraculous activity—glossa.4 Nothing in Luke’s writing implies that the manifestation of tongues in these proceeding texts differs at all from that of Acts 2.5

However, many propose that another form of tongues exists—for lack of better words, babbling speech of some kind.6  In light of the description of tongues in Acts 2, those who claim this certainly bear the burden of proof. Appeals are typically made from 1 Corinthians 12-14 and Mark 16:17. Many argue that 1 Corinthians 14:2, 9, 14, and 23 refer to babbling since Paul calls the tongues unintelligible. Such statements by Paul, however, are not a comment on the nature of tongues but the indecipherable characteristic of uninterpreted tongues (14:5, 13-19; and v.23 parallels Acts 2:13). Further, some see Paul’s words, “tongues . . . of angels” (1 Cor 13:1), as implying babbling. However, in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 Paul lists several hypothetical and hyperbolic conditional statements, some of which are obviously false, that serve his purpose of showing love’s cruciality  in the use of spiritual gifts.7 A final appeal is sometimes made from the description “new tongues” in Mark 16:17. But first, the genuineness of Mark 16:9-20 is extremely suspect.8 And secondly, those who are predicted to speak in tongues spoke unlearned human language(s) that were new to them.

Rather than revealing some sort of babbling speech, the tongues of 1 Corinthians harmonizes entirely with the form of tongues in Acts (human languages). First, the word used for tongues in Acts (glossa) is the same word used for tongues in 1 Corinthians 12-14. Secondly, the fact that these tongues can be interpreted/translated (12:10, 30; 14:5, 13, 27) implies actual language.9 Thirdly, during his instruction of tongues, Paul makes mention of human languages (14:10-11, 21), which is certainly not just coincidence. The obvious conclusion is that the tongues in both Acts and 1 Corinthians are unlearned human languages.

Pauline Guidelines

In 1 Corinthians 12-14 Paul begins addressing the topic of spiritual gifts (12:1). As Paul corrects many of the Corinthians’ errors, he often makes mention to certain guidelines regarding the proper manifestation of tongues in the context of a local church. For instance, first, not all are given the gift of tongues or the interpretation of tongues (12:10-11, 30). Therefore, not all have the ability to practice tongues. Secondly, tongues is to be exercised in love for the edification of others (12:7; 13:1-3; 14:12, 17, 26).10 Therefore, thirdly, in order to serve to that end, tongues must be interpreted (14:27-28; cf. 14:5, 13-19). Fourthly, it is to be practiced in decency and orderliness (14:40). Namely, when coming together a maximum of two or three may speak in tongues and only one is to speak at a time (14:27).11 And lastly, presupposing its existence in the Corinthian church, Paul states tongues is not to be forbidden (14:39).


Such findings, although not theologically conclusive, argue at least from experience for the cessationist position. This is because contemporary tongues simply does not match up with the Biblical description and therefore should not be considered genuine.12 First, many churches do not follow all of Paul’s regulations. And secondly, although claims may be made on rare occasions, MacArthur notes that no incident of Biblical tongues (the utterance of unlearned human language) has ever been genuinely validated.13


1. Although Mark 16:17 predicts the speaking of tongues.

2. Luke makes purposeful mention that men from “every nation under heaven” (v.5, cf. 9-11) are present and hear in their own languages (vv.6, 8, 11). (All scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version unless specified otherwise.)

3. “And they . . . began to speak in other tongues” (v.4, emphasis added). This is further proven by the fact that many in the crowds accuse the tongues-speakers of being drunk (v.13). Apparently, these individuals do understand the languages being spoken. Therefore, it is best to conclude that various tongue-speakers are being bestowed different unlearned languages, making the whole event sound as madness to those who do not understand. A miracle of speaking, rather than hearing, also explains why the Corinthians need the gift of interpretation of tongues (1 Cor 12:10, 30). The tongues being spoken in the church are apparently foreign to the congregation.

4. Without considering its use in reference to tongues, in the New Testament (NT) the word glossa is used to refer to the bodily organ (i.e., Mk 7:33), the act of speaking (i.e., 1 John 3:18), human languages (i.e., Acts 2:11), as a symbol of ethnic groups (i.e., Phil 2:11), and once figuratively (Acts 2:3). No lexical reason exists to understand glossa as ever referring to babbling.

5. In fact, in 10:45-47 when Gentiles begin speaking in tongues, Peter sees such similarity between their tongues and the tongues of Acts 2 that he concludes these Gentiles “have received the Holy Spirit just as we have” (v.47).

6. The terms “ecstatic speech” and “glossolalia” are more commonly used but tend to be slightly misleading and/or confusing. Consequently, without any condescending intentions, this paper refers to such speech as “babbling.”

7. D.A. Carson, Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1987), 58-59; Mark A. Snoeberger, “Tongues—Are They for Today?” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal DBSJ 14 (2009): 19; Robert L. Thomas, Understanding Spiritual Gifts: A Verse by Verse Study of 1 Corinthians 12-14 (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1999), 68; Robert R. Gromacki, The Modern Tongues Movement (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1967), 65.

MacArthur also adds that no scriptural evidence indicates angels spoke unintelligible language. They spoke normal, intelligible language (Lk 1:11-20, 26-37; 2:8:14) (John MacArthur, Charismatic Chaos [Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992], 226). “Tongues of angels” more likely just indicates the overly high view of tongues Paul knows the Corinthians have.

8. Consequently, no doctrine should be based solely on this text. For an extensive discussion on the questionable nature of this text, see Bruce M. Metzger and United Bible Societies, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition a Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament, 4th rev. ed. (London; New York: United Bible Societies, 1994), 102-106.

9. And interestingly enough, various linguistic studies on the contemporary practice of glossolalia (babbling) reveal it is not actually language at all. For example, William J. Samarin, “Variation and Variables in Religious Glossolalia: Language in Society” Cambridge University Press Vol. 1, No. 1 (April 1972): 121-130.

10. Consequently, the possibility of a private use of tongues (i.e., for self-edification or as a “private prayer language”) is extremely unlikely. Any appeal for a private use from 1 Corinthians (such as the popular prooftext 14:2, 4) misses the point that Paul is addressing the use of tongues in the corporate gathering. The only text in all of scripture that could potentially refer to tongues being used outside of the public realm is 1 Corinthians 14:18-19. But even so, these verses do not necessarily mean that Paul is saying he speaks in tongues outside of the context of the local church as some conclude (i.e., Carson, Showing the Spirit, 105). Due to the context being Paul’s argument that prophecy is superior to uninterpreted tongues (14:5), when Paul says he does not speak in tongues in the church (v.19), he is most likely referring to uninterpreted tongues (Andrew Hudson, interview by author, personal interview, Maranatha Baptist Bible College, Watertown, WI, February 9, 2012). Even in reference to prayer and praise, which are doxological, Paul demands interpretation for the sake of others (1 Cor 14:13-17).

11. These regulations, as well as 1 Corinthians 14:15-19, imply that those speaking in tongues have the ability to choose when and when not to exercise the gift.

12. Claimed experiences are not a comment of the validity of those experiences. The fact that non-Christian and heretical groups practice and have practiced such babbling speech makes this fact obvious. Gromacki, Modern Tongues, 5-10.

13. MacArthur, Charismatic Chaos, 238-39.

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