The language of men and angels: speaking in tongues, Part I

You’re in a modern church, and the service has moved on to the longest slot allocated for sung worship. A band and perhaps two or three singers are leading the congregation, or maybe it’s just one person with a guitar, a piano, and/or an incredible voice.

This is a charismatic congregation, and all around you members are beginning to lift their hands and faces. They aren’t looking at the ceiling; many have closed their eyes and the others seem to be gazing into an unfathomable distance.

The music is amplified, and the congregation is singing. Perhaps the band quiet their instruments for a verse, and you can hear the sheer energy of the song in tens or hundred of voices that rise around you in an untrained unity. This isn’t choir song; it has the ragged edges and raw emotion that perhaps is more frequently found in football chants these days.

Some of the people in front of you are trembling, or even shaking back and forth as though unsteady on their feet. You might see others moving gently through the crowd to support them, standing with a hand held behind ready to catch, just in case. They’re praying supportively and waiting, perhaps hoping, for the trembling worshippers to be slain in the spirit.

If the music quiets down between songs the lead singer might begin to pray – and, in some churches, that prayer might sound (to the uninitiated) like gibberish. Or the congregation might be invited to sing out ‘whatever words the Lord gives you’, or something along those lines.

The guitar is still strumming, upbeat but subdued enough that you can hear the chorus of sounds. One or two bolder worshippers begin singing out syllables that they, and those around them, are unfamiliar with. Then more, and more, until a great mountain of sound lifts up.

And it still is meaningless, but particularly when many voices are ringing together it has something that might be described as the shadow of meaning. It sounds almost like language, or a collection of languages, hovering on the edge of comprehension.

In fact, it might sound rather like this video, in which non-English speakers recreate the sound and feel of an English language pop song in intentionally meaningless syllables:

I’ve been meaning to write about speaking in tongues – or glossolalia, to give it a fancier-sounding name – for some time. I’ve been putting it off because I wanted to be able to flesh out my description of the experience with a better background in scriptural interpretation, the history of the phenomenon, and the scientific take on it.

Fortunately, the excellent Paul Davidson at Is that in the Bible? has just published a long, well-researched post that covers all of that ground far better than I could. I’ll summarise and quote here, but I strongly recommend you take a look at what he has to say if you’re interested.

The most in-depth discussion of ‘speaking in tongues’ in the canonical Biblical texts comes from 1 Corinthians, in which St Paul expresses deep personal discomfort with the practice. It’s clear from the text that he doesn’t quite want to rule it out, but he would be happier if the Corinthians held back because he’s worried that it will make it difficult for them to make converts. Outsiders will be put off when they think Christians are spouting gibberish.

To quote Davidson:

One can pick out statements of approval as well in chapter 14, such as the irony-tinged boast that he himself speaks more in tongues than the Corinthians (a statement that is difficult to interpret in context), but these are always followed by a counter-example that exalts other gifts and limits the usefulness of tongues.

In summary, we may say the following about Paul’s “speaking in tongues”:

  1. Within the Pauline church, glossolalia may have been limited to Corinth.
  2. For Paul, glossolalia is unintelligible speech, not a human language that listeners might understand.
  3. Paul sees glossolalia useless for attracting outsiders to the faith, in contrast to prophecy, knowledge, and teaching.
  4. Paul uses Isaiah 28 as evidence that glossolalia is futile for instruction within the church.  

The other main reference point for modern charismatics is Pentecost, an occasion described in the Acts of the Apostles as the kindling of the missionary fervour in Jesus’ disciples after his death. The Holy Spirit arrives and, inspired by this new power from on high, the very earliest followers of Jesus spill out into the streets to share the good news. A miracle takes place: the multicultural early morning market crowd can hear the message, each person hearing it in their own language.

Modern scholars distinguish between speaking in a language that nobody (on Earth, at least) can understand without interpretation, and speaking one language which is heard by your listeners as another. The first, glossolalia, is a common phenomenon. The second, xenoglossy, stands out as a miracle precisely because it isn’t common.

In Acts, the text describes a miracle of xenoglossy. Then it immediately follows up with St Peter defending the behaviour of the first Christians as the power of God rather than drunkenness. That sits strangely, given that the first impression most people would have of a preacher who spoke unexpectedly in their native tongue would be “wow, he’s great at languages” rather than “somebody’s been on the bottle”.

Davidson discusses this oddity in some detail, but I’m going to skate past it here with just a note that there is an oddity which creates some uncertainty about what exactly was going on and how it should be interpreted.

In the church context I grew up with, the favoured interpretation of what happened at Pentecost is that it was a miracle of xenoglossy, and that the apparent drunkenness was due to the excitement and fervour of Jesus’ disciples.

I’m also going to skip the discussion in Davidson’s article on the various other relevant passages in the New Testament, the Old Testament, and various apocryphal works, but I will quote his conclusion:

To summarize everything examined so far, only Acts and 1 Corinthians have much to say about tongues, and they present very different views on the function and role of this spiritual gift. Theological differences aside, however, the phenomenon in its normal form would have been unintelligible, ecstatic speech.

There is an ambiguity in the way the Biblical texts talk about speaking in tongues, which has allowed for a range of different interpretations throughout the history of the church.

Tune in to Parts II and III of this series to read about that history, the way that it shaped the church tradition that I grew up in, and my own feelings these days about glossolalia.



  1. […] Last week I began with a description of the practice of speaking in tongues, otherwise known as glos… I’m very familiar with the modern practice as it’s filtered through to the Anglican church in the UK, but had been meaning to do some background reading before writing about it. Luckily for me, Paul Davidson has helpfully blogged an exhaustive overview of the subject over at his blog Is That in the Bible? […]


  2. […] Part I described what speaking in tongues can look and feel like in a modern-day worship service, and referred to Davidson’s thorough survey of relevant Biblical texts. In Part II I talked about Davidson’s high level survey of the history of glossolalia. I fleshed it out with some personal history in reference to the modern charismatic movement in the UK, which looks different from the US context that appears to be Davidson’s primary reference point. […]


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