Is the spiritual gift of tongues ‘gibberish’?

By Spencer D Gear

Stir up the Gift

(image courtesy ChristArt)

It is not unusual on public Christian forums on the Internet to be exposed to all kinds of strange or different teaching. I came across this one:

Speaking gibberish has no relation to the Holy Spirit. It is uttered by a person’s spirit. The Holy Spirit will not indulge in such cheap gimmicks and degrading behavior to make known the will of God when He can directly speak to people as evidenced in the entire book of Acts without a middle man designated as an interpreter![1]

Yet one of God’s special ministry gifts to the body of Christ, A W Tozer, wrote, after citing Rom. 12:5-6 and 1 Cor. 12:4-7, that

The Bible teaches us that the genuine gifts of the Holy Spirit are a necessity in the spiritual life and ministries of every Christian congregation serious about glorifying Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord…. It seems to me that Paul was trying to make it as plain as he could in his epistles that any segment of the Body of Christ, anywhere in the world, should recapitulate – gather up and sum up within itself – all of the offices and gifts and workings of the entire church of Christ (Tozer 1978:21, 22; emphasis added).

How is it that a person in the pews is so opposed to the gift of tongues to call it ‘gibberish’, yet one of God’s special gifts to the body of Christ, A W Tozer, should claim that the Bible’s teaching that genuine gifts of the Holy Spirit are needed in every congregation? And these gifts include ALL of the offices, gifts and workings of the entire church. Tozer was adamant: ‘A careful study of the Apostle’s teachings concerning Jesus Christ and His church should persuade us that any local assembly ought to demonstrate all of the functions of the whole body’ (1978:22). Tozer is inferring that if God gives the gift of tongues to any local assembly of Christian believers, that gift should be allowed to function. Of course, the gift of tongues requires the gift of interpretation to make tongues intelligible for the congregation.

Sneering language against God’s gifts

How does one reply to such pejorative language of the Holy Spirit’s gift of speaking in tongues being described as ‘gibberish’, ‘cheap gimmicks and degrading behavior’? My response was:[2]

So what are we told not to forbid in this verse: ‘Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues (1 Cor 14:39 NIV)? Does this verse apply to the 21st century church as much as it did to the Corinthians?

What I often find in these discussions is that a person avoids some of the specific content of what is said. When this happens, it is called a red herring logical fallacy. The Nizkor Project explains that ‘a Red Herring is a fallacy in which an irrelevant topic is presented in order to divert attention from the original issue. The basic idea is to “win” an argument by leading attention away from the argument and to another topic’.

That is what happened to me in this circumstance. The response I received was:

Paul was referring to people who had already practicing this emotional part of personal prayer. I have nothing to say about personal prayers done in private in whatever language they want. But as one grows in the knowledge of the Lord, one would prefer greater gifts as Paul advised. That happened actually. Speaking gibberish diappeared (sic) after sometime (sic).
Now deluded Christians backsliding to bring back the worst conditions of Corinthian church![3]

This person continues with derogatory language for the gift of tongues, ‘emotional part of personal prayer’, ‘gibberish’, and ‘deluded Christians backsliding’ in the Corinthian church. Also the gift of tongues is not included in the ‘greater gifts’.

Rejection of mocking language for the gift of tongues

How should one reply to such negative views and mocking language against the gift of tongues? I wrote that[4] this person referred to tongues as ‘this emotional part of personal prayer’ and ‘speaking gibberish’ and that it is associated with ‘the worst conditions of Corinthian church’. To refer to God’s gift as ‘gibberish’ is something that I find pejorative towards God the Holy Spirit and the gifts that he gives. I note that he provided no biblical exposition for his position.

God’s language for the gift of tongues

What do the Scriptures state about the nature of the gift of tongues (glossolalia)?
The gift of tongues is a gift that God continues to give by his Spirit as a spiritual gift. We know this from 1 Corinthians 14:1-5,

Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. 2 For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit. 3 On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. 4 The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church. 5 Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up (ESV, emphasis added).

We are to earnestly desire all spiritual gifts, especially prophecy, but the genuine gift of tongues and interpretation continues. There is no place in the church gathering for any who speaks in tongues without interpretation. The exhortation from 1 Cor 14:13 is, ‘One who speaks in a tongue should pray for the power to interpret’. Why? It is in order that the gift is intelligible to the remainder of the congregation that does not understand the tongue.

However, these verses teach that there is a genuine gift of tongues where one ‘speaks not to men but to God … for he utters mysteries in the Spirit’ (14:2). Please note that the biblical language does not speak of glossolalia as ‘gibberish’ but as speaking ‘to God’ and people uttering ‘mysteries in the Spirit’. I find it offensive that this person calls a ministry of the Spirit ‘gibberish’.

While the apostle Paul gives a preference for prophecy as a gift in the church as it ‘builds up the church’, he still gives this important teaching about tongues:

clip_image002_thumb‘I want you all to speak in tongues’ (1 Cor 14:5).

So the gift of tongues was available to all NT believers. Notice the contrast:

clip_image0021_thumb‘The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up’ (1 Cor 14:5).

So the gift of prophecy approximately equals tongues with interpretation for the building up of the church.

Contemporary evangelical scholars and the gift of tongues

While a person who posts on an evangelical Christian forum regards the gift of tongues as ‘gibberish’ and a ‘cheap gimmick’, how do some evangelical scholars describe this gift?

These three evangelical, New Testament scholars from very different traditions provide their definitions of the gift of tongues.

cubed-redmatte Jack W MacGorman, distinguished professor emeritus of New Testament, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, does not consider the gift of tongues to be a demonstration of ‘gibberish’. He wrote of the glossolalia in 1 Corinthians as, ‘Holy Spirit inspired utterance that is unintelligible apart from interpretation, itself an attendant gift. It is a form of ecstatic utterance, a valid charismatic endowment’ (MacGorman 1994:390-391). MacGorman considers that this definition is supported by these verses from 1 Corinthians 14:

  1. 1 Corinthians 14:2, “For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit” (ESV). McGorman’s argument was that nobody understands the ‘tongues’; he speaks to God and he speaks mystery.
  2. 1 Corinthians 14:13-14, “Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray for the power to interpret. 14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful” (ESV). The one speaking with the gift of tongues is not understood but his spirit is praying and therefore the person needs to be interpret.
  3. 1 Corinthians 14:18, “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you” (ESV).
  4. 1 Corinthians 14:26, “What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up” (NIV).

MacGorman’s view is that if these verses refer to tongues as real languages, then these verses become sheer nonsense.

cubed-redmatte D A Carson, research professor of New Testament at Trinity International University, is not of the view that it is nonsense, but Carson considers that the tongue is a real language that is not known to the tongues-speaker. Carson’s perspective is that

the evidence favors the view that Paul thought the gift of tongues was a gift of real languages, that is, languages that were cognitive, whether of men or of angels…. What bearing does the discipline of linguistics have on the assessment of modern tongues? To my knowledge there is universal agreement among linguists who have taped and analysed thousands of examples of modern tongues-speaking that the contemporary phenomenon is not any human language. The patterns and structures that all known human language requires are simply not there. Occasionally a recognizable word slips out; but that is statistically likely, given the sheer quantity of verbalization (Carson 1995:83).

cubed-redmatte Gordon D Fee, professor emeritus, Regent College, Vancouver BC, Canada, a card-carrying Assemblies of God minister, in his commentary on 1 Corinthians states of the nature of the gift of tongues in 1 Corinthians 12:10:

The following seem certain (a) It is Spirit-inspired utterance; that is made explicit in vv. 7 and 11 and in 14:2; (b) The regulations for its use in 14:27-28 make it clear that the speaker is not in “ecstasy” or “out of control.” Quite the opposite; the speakers must speak in turn, and they must remain silent if there is no one to interpret. (c) It is speech essentially unintelligible both to the speaker (14:14) and to other hearers (14:16). (d) It is speech directed basically toward God (14:2, 14-15, 28); one may assume, therefore, that what is “interpreted” is not speech directed toward others, but the “mysteries” spoken to God.

What is less certain is whether Paul also understood the phenomenon to be an actual language. In favour of such a view are (a) the term itself, (b) the need for “interpretation,” and (c) the evidence from Acts 2:5-11. In the final analysis, however, this question seems irrelevant. Paul’s whole argument is predicated on its unintelligibility to both speaker and hearer; he certainly does not envisage someone’s being present who would be able to understand it because it was also an earthly language. Moreover, his use of earthly languages as an analogy in 14:10-12 implies that it is not a known earthly language, since a thing is not usually identical with that to which it is analogous. Most likely, therefore, the key to Paul’s – and their – understanding lies in the term “the language of angels” in 13:1 (q.v.) [Fee 1987:598].

Yet, a lay person on a Christian forum wants to call the gift of tongues, ‘gibberish’ and the Holy Spirit does not engage in ‘cheap gimmicks’. Such is not consistent with an exegesis of the passage as MacGorman, Carson and Fee have demonstrated.

There have been excesses

My experience is that there is such poor teaching on the correct approach to the manifestation of the gifts of the Spirit – especially tongues and interpretation. I have seen too much existential chaos allowed by church leaders at the local church level that is too much like Toronto ‘blessing’ and Brownsville Pensacola ‘revival’ excesses that I’ve seen online and on DVDs. I can understand, but not endorse, this Christian forum person’s use of the language of ‘gibberish’ to describe tongues. I also have witnessed much disorder with the gift of tongues in a church gathering when there is no gift of interpretation taking place.

However, I have been in church gatherings when the gifts of the Spirit of tongues and interpretation have been manifested and I have been built up in my faith.

Paul was correcting excesses at Corinth with language such as the following in 1 Corinthians:

  • ‘If with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said?’ (14:9);
  • ‘Since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church’ (14:12);
  • ‘One who speaks in a tongue should pray for the power to interpret’ (14:13);
  • ‘I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue’ (14:18-19);
  • ‘Tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers’ (14:22);
  • ‘If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God’ (14:27-28).

God’s gifts functioning when the church gathers

However when the church gathers, this should be how the gifts of the Spirit are manifested by brothers and sisters in Christ: ‘When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up’ (1 Cor 14:26). Imagine if that were allowed in many churches today! The dominance of a few people in worship could be replaced by ‘each one’ being allowed to function in ministry. There is this biblical proviso, ‘All things should be done decently and in order’ (1 Cor 14:40).

So, the gift of tongues with the gift of interpretation should continue in the church gathering. These are gifts from the Holy Spirit of God and are meant for the ‘building up’ of the church. We have as much need for this building up in the 21st century as the 1st century.

The excesses should not cause us to reject the correct biblical teaching of the supernatural gifts of the Spirit that include tongues and interpretation. Faulty use of the gifts should not negate the gifts. It should mean correction of improper use of the gifts of the Spirit and promotion of the need for the Holy Spirit to be allowed to function with supernatural gifts when the church gathers.

It is important for us to remember that ‘God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose’ (1 Cor 12:18). Since he arranges the gifts of tongues and interpretation in the body, who are we to label one of them as ‘gibberish’? God did not arrange for ‘gibberish’ in the body of Christ. He arranged for His gifts by His Spirit and I dare not diminish them to a humanistic standard. However, there is always the need when the church gathers for believers to ‘weigh what is said’ (14:29) – weigh prophecy in this context.

What is the biblical exhortation about the gift of tongues? ‘Earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But all things should be done decently and in order’ (14:38-39).

The person who wrote negatively about the gift of tongues on this forum, also wrote:

I am going by the dictionary definition for speaking unknown tongues as gibberish just as Paul claimed himself as an apostle based on a similar understanding. There are only twelve apostles according to spiritual understanding, and in that Judas was replaced by Matthias.[5]

Which kind of dictionary was he using? Is it an English dictionary or a Greek dictionary (lexicon)? [6]

So what was he meaning when he said that ‘there are only twelve apostles according to spiritual understanding’? He did not explain how that relates to the gift of glossolalia (speaking in tongues).

I wrote: ‘The gift of tongues is a gift that God continues to give by his Spirit as a spiritual gift. I know that from 1 Corinthians 14:1-5, we are to earnestly desire all spiritual gifts, especially prophecy’. His response was:

Sorry, you are wrong here! Paul did not say to desire all spiritual gifts
1 Corinthians 14:1 Follow after charity, and desire spiritual gifts, but rather that ye may prophesy.

I replied that he was correct. It was an error of mine to write, ‘to desire all spiritual gifts’. This we do know that Paul taught the Corinthians, ‘Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy’ (1 Cor 14:5). So Paul was urging all of the Corinthian believers to be open to speaking in tongues, but even more to prophesy. He wrote:

No way God wants an agent’s agent to speak on behalf of the Holy Spirit!
1 & 2 Corinthians were early letters of Paul. He was still growing in the knowledge of the Lord that he had missed out since he was not a part of the ministry of Jesus on earth.

So he was inferring that the theopneustos (God-breathed)[7] Scripture of 1 & 2 Corinthians is a lower level of knowledge since he said that Paul ‘was still growing in the knowledge of the Lord’. Was Paul writing the truth about spiritual gifts or not? Was Paul writing the truth in the Corinthian correspondence or was he writing a lower knowledge since he was still growing in the Lord’s knowledge (his words)? He wrote:

One need (sic) to read 2 Corinthians to understand the 1 Corinthians. 2 Corinithians (sic) is nothing but a boastful and confessing letter of him that puts him in the right perspective.

I haven’t read anything in 1 or 2 Corinthians to say that I have to read 2 Corinthians to help me to understand 1 Corinthians. The second letter is addressing mostly different matters to the first letter. This person wrote:

This piece-wise interpretation is misleading. Let us see the entire verse:
5 I would that ye all spake with tongues, but rather that ye prophesied: for greater is he that prophesieth than he that speaketh with tongues, except he interpret, that the church may receive edifying.
So do you accept that Paul is calling one gift is superior to another! That cannot happen when it comes to gifts of God! (emphasis in original)

The greater gifts are the intelligible ones. We know that from 1 Corinthians 14:9-12:

So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. 10 There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, 11 but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me. 12 So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church (ESV, emphasis added).

The emphasis here is on gifts that are intelligible, understandable. The gift of tongues, as long as there is the gift of interpretation, is intelligible.

He asked an excellent question: ‘What do you mean by ‘approximately’? Do you have a yardstick to compare?’

This is what I wrote to which he was responding: ‘So the gift of prophecy approximately equals tongues with interpretation for the building up of the church’. I was referring to 1 Cor 14:5, ‘The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up’. Here, the use of the word, ‘unless’, shows that the gift of prophecy is like the gift of tongues PLUS interpretation. That’s what I mean by ‘approximately’.

He wrote: ‘One need (sic) to imitate Jesus Christ, not Paul, Apollos et al with their claims based on their personal traits!’

The biblical perspective is that ‘All Scripture is theopneustos [breathed out by God] and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work’ (2 Tim 3:16-17 ESV, emphasis added).

Instruction for my Christian living to become competent and equipped for my Christian life and ministry, is from ALL Scripture and not just from Jesus Christ. That’s what the Bible teaches.

This person wrote:

No theory or behavior should be based on one verse, one author, one book, etc. Show me where else in the Bible you find the mention of this business of speaking unknown language supported by interpretation?

Since all Scripture is God-breathed, the book of 1 Corinthians comes with the authority of God. I dare not reject the gifts as articulated in 1 Corinthians when God has given them authoritatively for the edification of the church. Acts 2:1-11 does speak of ‘tongues’ but in a different context and understanding to the exposition in 1 Cor 12-14.

This person wrote that ‘from this it is obvious that what was happening and what is happening now in many churches is uncontrolled emotions elevated to spurioius (sic) spiritual status!’

I agree that there is excess happening in some churches regarding the gifts of the Spirit. The truth is that excesses and spurious teachings should be corrected, but excesses do not negate the truth of the spiritual gifts that are available for the 21st century.

This was the response from that person to what I wrote above:[8]

‘Since we are communicating in the known English language, any emotional blurting out by a person of an unknown language – when God has given one of the greatest gifts of speaking an intelligible language – can be branded as gibberish!’

My response was as follows:[9]

I find it offensive that he would call the Holy Spirit’s gift of tongues to be ’emotional blurting out’ and ‘gibberish’.

Why didn’t he answer what I wrote about going to the Greek language to obtain the meaning of the Greek lalein (to speak) in glwssia (tongues)? Even though we speak the English language, we need to go to the original NT language of koine Greek to obtain the meaning of glossolalia. Why did he ignore this input that I provided? Is it because he does not read and understand NT Greek?

Then this man wrote:

As I indicated earlier, the answer to this is found in 2 Corinthians when Paul admits the use of his craftiness to bring order there. Let us consider a situation wherein one person speaks an unknown tongue, and there is no interpreter. His sayings go as a waste. That can never happen if the Holy Spirit is prompting that.[10]

Paul’s craftiness has nothing whatsoever to do in context with an understanding of the gifts of tongues and interpretation in 1 Cor 12-14.As for there being nobody with the gift of interpretation in the church gathering, the person who spoke in tongues should be told by the elders that he/she is out of order and should not have spoken that gift.

First Corinthians 14:13 provides the answer to the question he raised: ‘Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray for the power to interpret’ (ESV). I have seen this happen on many occasions where the person God gifts with the manifestation of tongues is also given the gift of interpretation. It is very rare that I have ever heard someone manifest the gift of tongues without the gift of interpretation. Does he have any experience in attending a Pentecostal/charismatic church or group where the gifts of tongues and interpretation have been happening? It seems that he is speaking from a lack of knowledge of the Bible (1 Cor 14:3) in this area, and non-exposure to these supernatural gifts of the Spirit in the local church.

How does one respond to his statement, ‘At the same time this unknown tongue is an act of person’s spirit. The Holy Spirit has nothing to do with that’?[11]

I do wish that he would read carefully what I Cor 12-14 states. Yes, the gift of tongues comes through the human spirit as 1 Cor 14:14 states, ‘For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful’. However, who or what is the origin of his gift? ‘For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God, for no one understand him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit‘ (1 Cor 14:3, emphasis added).

In context, 1 Cor 12:1 reads, ‘concerning spiritual gifts’, that person is ‘speaking in the Spirit of God … in the Holy Spirit’ (12:3). Then we are assured in 12:4, ‘There are varieties of gifts but the same Spirit‘ (12:4). As for the ‘varieties of gifts’ (12:4), ‘it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good’ (12:12:6-7).

Conclusion

Therefore, all of these spiritual gifts that are manifest in the ekklesia, are through the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit, the same God. But he wanted to label one of these gifts as ’emotional blurting out’ and ‘gibberish’. I urged him not to impose his pejorative meaning on these supernatural gifts from God’s Spirit. Of course, there can be abuse and misuse, but I am exposed to such in preaching/teaching as well. Abuse and misuse are not the sole responsibility of the spiritual gifts. They can happen elsewhere in the church as well.

And have a guess what? Two of those manifestations of the Holy Spirit of God are ‘various kinds of tongues’ and ‘interpretation of tongues’ (1 Cor 12:10). That is why I find his labelling of the Holy Spirit’s gift of tongues as ’emotional blurting out’ and ‘gibberish’ to be contrary to what the Scriptures state and to be offensive to Christian exegesis of the text. Why is he using such derogatory language to label God’s gifts of tongues and interpretation?

This person is anti the gifts of the Spirit and has resorted to using language that is contrary to what the Scriptures state in 1 Corinthians 12-14. Therefore, this person erected a straw man logical fallacy. When one does that, one is building a non-existent case for a view that comes from somewhere else – perhaps from a person’s anti-charismatic presuppositions. It looks very much like imposing a worldview on the text. Thus, this becomes eisegesis – the meaning is not determined by what the text says but by what the interpreter believes and imposes on the text.

I urged this person not to use such offensive language for two of God’s Spirit’s gifts to the congregation that are designed ‘so that the church may be built up’ (1 Cor 14:5).

Works consulted

Carson, D A 1995.[12] Showing the Spirit: A theological exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14. Carlisle, Cumbria: Paternoster Press.

Fee, G D 1087. The new international commentary on the New Testament: The first epistle to the Corinthians, F F Bruce (gen ed). Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

MacGorman, JW 1974. The gifts of the Spirit: An exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14. Nashville: Broadman Press.

Tozer, A W 1978. Tragedy in the church: The missing gifts. Harrisburg, PA: Christian Publications.

Notes:

 [1] Justtruly #26, Christian Forums, Baptists, ‘Gift of Tongues – Book Research’, available at: http://www.christianforums.com/t7755995-3/ (Accessed 24 July 2013).

[2] Ibid., OzSpen #31.

[3] Ibid., justtruly #32.

[4] Ibid., OzSpen #33.

[5] Ibid., justtruly #34.

[6] My response is at ibid., OzSpen #35.

[7] Based on 2 Timothy 3:16 which states: ‘All Scripture is breathed out by God [theopneustos] and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness’ (ESV).

[8] Ibid., justtruly #49.

[9] Ibid., OzSpen #50.

[10] Ibid., justtruly #49.

[11] Ibid.

[12] This book was first published by Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA in 1987.

 

Copyright © 2013 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 20 May 2016.