Linguistic and Sociological Analyses of Modern Tongues-Speaking: Their Contributions and Limitations

by Vern S. Poythress

[Published in the Westminster Theological Journal 42/2 (1980) 367-388. Reprinted in Speaking in Tongues: A Guide to Research on Glossolalia. Watson E. Mills. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986. Pp. 469-489. Used with permission.]


A significant body of professional linguistic, psychological, and sociological analysis of modern tongues-speaking (glossolalia) has now accumulated.1 Some of it attributes a generally positive value to speaking in tongues; some of it is quite negative. All of it agrees in treating glossolalia as at root a nonmiraculous phenomenon. The work of these social scientists has a valuable contribution to make in the formation of our pastoral approach to the ecclesiastical problems of tongues. We may know the Bible very well, but we cannot address ourselves effectively to an ecclesiastical problem unless we are well acquainted with the actual dimensions of the problem. The Reformed churches have typically been quite strong in theology but less strong in understanding full-bloodedly what is going on.

On the other hand, I believe that the linguistic and sociological approaches have distinct limitations, not always recognized by the practitioners. Scientists have sometimes drawn conclusions beyond the bounds of their presuppositions and their methods. My exploration of tongues-speaking will point out some of these limitations.

First, we might ask whether appeal to scientific research on

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tongues is legitimate. Some might feel that, if tongues-speaking is a “supernatural” phenomenon of some kind, research into it is illicit. However, God invites inspection of and meditation on his miraculous works (John 10:32, 37–38; 20:20, 27 ; Matt 28:6; Luke 24:39). Such inspection is wrong only when it occurs with a disrespectful or unbelieving attitude. Modern tongues, of course, might be “supernatural” in some broader sense, without being on the same exalted level as the miraculous works of Jesus’ earthly life. But, by analogy, we could still argue that similar principles would apply to inspection of tongues as would apply to the “more exalted miracles.” It is then easy to conclude that scientific research on tongues is legitimate. We should also note that much of the research on tongues-speaking has been made possible by the cooperation of charismatics who consent to be observed, to have their speech recorded, and otherwise to participate in behavioral science experiments.2

To say that scientific research is legitimate is one thing. To say that it will be able to penetrate into the heart of the matter is another. Many are convinced on other grounds that tongues is at heart a spiritual phenomenon, requiring spiritual discernment. From their point of view, tongues speaking is properly validated and weighed by spiritual means. It is to be appreciated in the context of the accompanying gifts of interpretation, prophecy, and discernment of spirits. These gifts in turn are exercised in the framework of the total life of the Christian community ordered by the word of God in Scripture. The scientific approach, insofar as it demands results and evidence acceptable to and reproducible by non-Christians, can rise no higher than the position of the “natural man,” who is unable to penetrate the things of the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 2:10–16). Hence, the scientific approach is condemned to inconclusive results at the outset. Below, I will point out some specific areas of limitation in the scientific results.

Next, we must have some grasp of what is to count as a case of modern “speaking in tongues.” What is the boundary line between “speaking in tongues” and other phenomena?

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Answering this question is not as easy as one might think. Non-Christian religions,3 psychotics,4 and small children5 sometimes produce phenomena that might or might not be similar to “speaking in tongues.” As working definitions, I propose the following:

Free vocalization (glossolalia) occurs when (1) a human being produces a connected sequence of speech sounds, (2) he cannot identify the sound-sequence as belonging to any natural language that he already knows how to speak, (3) he cannot identify and give the meaning of words or morphemes (minimal lexical units),6 (4) in the case of utterances of more than a few syllables, he typically cannot repeat the same sound-sequence on demand, (5) a naive listener might suppose that it was an unknown language.

In this definition, features (1), (2), and (5) are the really essential features that we tend to associate with speaking in tongues (glossolalia). (3) and (4) are expected implications of (1) and (2).

Free vocalization still includes some infant speech and some phenomena outside the Christian religion. Hence it is a broader concept than what we usually call “speaking in tongues.” To exclude infants, I propose the following:

Competent free vocalization is free vocalization by a person who already knows at least one natural language reasonably well. I intend thereby to include normal children older than four or five, but not infants.

Christian free vocalization is free vocalization by a Christian. This is intended to exclude cases of “tongues” appearing among non-Christians.

Religious free vocalization is free vocalization for the purposes of public or private worship or in the context of worship, in cases

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when the speaker wishes to speak to a spirit, or wishes that the spirit would speak to others through him, or both. (In the case of Christian religious free vocalization, it is understood that the “spirit” in question is God.)

Finally, T-speech (tongues) is Christian religious competent free vocalization.

This proposed definition counts as T-speech only those instances which meet several intersecting criteria. T-speech must be “free,” and it must be by a Christian who is not an infant. Moreover, it must be used in the context of worship.

The advantage of this rather elaborate definition is that it does not demand from us an immediate decision as to whether T-speech in the modern church is from God, from the human psyche, from demons, or from some combination of these. Neither does it make any decision about the similarities or dissimilarities between T-speech and the “speaking in tongues” referred to in Acts and 1 Corinthians. Finally, it does not specify whether the speaker is in an altered state of consciousness (for example, trance). In fact, there are cases of T-speech both in trance and in otherwise completely normal state.7

The main results of modern social-scientific research can be summarized in terms of answers to a few selected questions.

1. Can the average person be taught to produce free vocalization?

Yes. Learning to free vocalize is easier than learning to ride a bicycle. As with the bicycle, the practitioner may feel foolish and awkward at first. But practice makes perfect. Moreover, though at first a person may feel self-conscious, after he has learned he may sometimes forget that he is doing it. It is something that he can start or stop at will without difficulty. 8

One easy way for a person to learn is to pretend that he is speaking a foreign language. He starts speaking, slowly and deliberately producing syllables. Then be speeds up, consciously trying to make it sound like a language would sound. Once he is doing well, he just relaxes and does not worry any longer about what comes out.

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2. Is free vocalization likely to lead to a state of trance?

No, no more than reading a book. A person can become so engrossed in reading a book that he is oblivious to his surroundings.9 Technically speaking, this being-engrossed is an altered state of consciousness, as are day-dreaming, dozing, sleep-walking, and being drunk. Free vocalization is sometimes associated with such altered states of consciousness, but by itself it does not cause them.

3. Is there any psychological danger in free vocalization?

As far as we know, no more than in reading a book. Many people have been free-vocalizing for years with no ill effects. A person’s beliefs may lead to associating free vocalization with other practices that are questionable.

In short, it seems that the capacity for free vocalization is a normal, God-given human capacity. The person who was unable to do it would be unusual. We regard free vocalization as abnormal only because, in our modern Western cultural milieu, people usually cease to do it after childhood. Hence, in our society free vocalization among adults, as a socially “deviant” activity, may sometimes be a symptom (though certainly not the cause) of psychological or social abnormality.10 This accounts, I believe, for some of the early negative conclusions about “tongues” by psychologists. Their evaluations measured, not what free vocalization is in itself, but their own perception of social deviance involved in the phenomenon.11 But free vocalization is deviant only from the standpoint of the social norms of the majority, not from some absolute biological standpoint.

Now it is time to pay some attention to the question of how modern-T-speech (glossolalia with its specifically Christian associations) differs from other instances of free vocalization.

4. How does nonreligious free vocalization differ linguistically from T-speech?

Most of the time, we cannot distinguish the two linguistically. At least two experiments have shown this.12 In one, Al Carlson

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of the University of California recorded speech samples from T-speakers and from volunteers told to speak unknown language. The samples were then rated by T-speakers. The nonreligious free vocalization actually received better ratings. In a second experiment, Werner Cohn at the University of British Columbia took students to Pentecostal meeting, asked them to imitate T-speakers in the laboratory, and received approving evaluations of the recorded samples from T-speakers.

5. Does religious free vocalization occur in other religions?

Yes, religious free vocalization and related phenomena occur among some non-Western religions.13 This is natural, since free vocalization is so easy to produce.

6. How does competent free vocalization differ from known human languages?

The degree of differences varies with the speaker, and to some extent even from utterance to utterance by the same speaker. The sound system (phonology) of the utterances tends to be closely associated with the speaker’s language background. For English speakers, frequently the proportion of vowels is higher than in English (open syllables predominate). The vowel /a/ is frequent. The number of distinct vowels and consonants is usually smaller than in English, and their distribution is more restricted. In a longer utterance, certain groups of two or three syllables (“pseudomorphemes”) tend to recur (sometimes with slight alterations).14

In almost all instances, linguists are confident that the samples of T-speech represent no known natural language and in fact no language that was ever spoken or ever will be spoken by human beings as their native tongue. The phonological structure is untypical of natural languages. Some samples of T-speech, however, are more complex and cannot be clearly distinguished from a natural language on these grounds.15

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These facts—especially the fact that free vocalization is so easy to produce and that most T-speech is not a natural language—have become one of the main grounds for a certain amount of debunking on the part of social scientists. To them, it appears that T-speech has nothing to do with the Holy Spirit. But, as I hope to show, this conclusion will follow only if one makes certain nontrivial theological assumptions about the work of the Holy Spirit. What the research does show is that free vocalization is not an intrinsically miraculous and therefore infallible sign of the working of the Holy Spirit.

7. Are there any instances when modern T-speech has been identified as a known human language?

Yes. However, modern linguists do not usually think that these instances are “miraculous.” In a number of cases, it appears that T-speech consisted of fragments or sentences from a language that the speaker had heard some time in his past, and had since forgotten. This phenomenon of recall of foreign language occurs occasionally in non-Christian contexts as well as in T-speech. Hence, even though it represents an unusual psychological process, it is deemed nonmiraculous.

But many of the reported instances of T-speech in foreign languages are not even this exciting. They are found, upon closer investigation, to be cases where a naive listener heard something that “sounded like German” or “sounded like Arabic,” but where the listener had insufficient competence in German or Arabic to know the truth.16 Hence linguists search for more thorough documentation.

Are there any modern documented cases of T-speech in a nonrecalled identifiable human language? Linguists who have investigated first-hand say, “No.” But we must realize what kind of documentation they require. Ideally, (1) there should be a tape-recorded sample of the alleged foreign speech, of reasonable quality and length. (2) There should be living authorities (for example, native speakers) who recognize the language. (3) There should be documentation as to the identity of the speaker.

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(4) There should be a reasonably complete life history of the speaker, excluding the possibility that he was earlier in contact with the language.

The number of cases in which linguists have endeavored to obtain documentation is considerable. But of course it is far less than the total number of instances of T-speech. The truth is, then, that the possibility of T-speech in a nonrecalled foreign language can never be conclusively excluded by these methods. Moreover, it could be argued that the Holy Spirit is unlikely to work a miracle in controlled conditions for the convenience of the linguists, just as Jesus did not work a miracle in “controlled conditions” for the convenience of the Pharisaical seekers after signs (Mark 8:11–12).17

The literature from the charismatic movement does report a number of cases of T-speech in nonrecalled foreign languages.18 But these cases do not display the completeness of documentation that linguists would like. In many cases the reports are vague and other explanations are possible. But in a few cases the evidence is difficult to evade. These cases will be rejected only by those whose theological or philosophical presuppositions require them to exclude such a possibility.19

Nevertheless, even if cases of T-speech in foreign languages occur, they are quite rare. We must still reckon with the great majority of T-speech which is not a foreign language.

8. Is it possible that T-speech might be language of some other kind, perhaps angelic language ( 1 Cor 13:1)?

Modern linguistics cannot tell us. Those linguists who believe

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in angels might suspect that “angelic” language would either be more like human language than is most T-speech, or else much less like it. For instance, angelic language could contain sounds that the human vocal apparatus is incapable of producing. Or it might be a “pure thought-language” with no sound at all. But we cannot be certain because we just have no idea what an “angelic” language might be.

What about other kinds of “language”? The biggest difficulty is that something that looks like nonsense can make perfect “sense” once one knows the “code” for interpreting it. Consider the following sample speech:

Bara ashayata. Bara-a. Alahayama. Ata hashamayama. Va ata ha-aratsa. This looks like nonsense. But it is actually the consonantal Hebrew text of Gen 1:1, with the vowel a inserted between consonants.

Thus the problem of finding “sense” is the problem of breaking the “code” which a given communication may use. Moreover, it is easy to construct codes that are in a certain sense unbreakable. Suppose that one wants to communicate the phrase ‘in the beginning.’ Assign to each letter of the alphabet a number from 1 to 26, and assign to the space between words the number I. One obtains the sequence:

9, 14, 0, 20, 8, 5, 0, 2, 5, 7, 9, 14, 14, 9, 14, 7.

Now take a random series of numbers from 0–26:

20, 22, 19, 23, 23, 21, 0, 23, 8, 8, 21, 16, 6, 26, 15, 0.

Add the two together, subtracting 27 when necessary:

2, 9, 19, 16, 4, 26, 0, 25, 13, 15, 3, 3, 20, 8, 2, 7.

Now reconvert to letter values:

bispdz ymoccthbg.

This is the coded message. The original message can be recovered only by someone who has the “key,” namely the random series 20, 22, 19, 23, 23, 21, 0, 23, 8, 8, 21, 16, 6, 26, 15, 0. For someone without the key, there is no way of knowing whether or not the coded message is nonsense.

Thus it is always possible for the charismatic person to claim that T-speech is coded language, and that only the interpreter of

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tongues is given the supernatural “key” for deciphering it. It is impossible not only in practice, but even in theory, for a linguist to devise a means of testing this claim.20

It is more important, then, to determine whether T-speech can “function like” a language than to determine whether it is an identifiable foreign language. Since one important function of natural languages is to carry information, the following question is important:

9. Is there any indication that T-speech carries information?

The answer is yes. The information in T-speech is of at least two kinds: suprasegmental and associational-lexical. Suprasegmental or prosodic features of an utterance include voice quality, pitch, rate of articulation, and the structure of larger and longer patterns of speech (e.g., the position and length of pauses). These features, at least in English, may convey the feelings of the speaker about his audience or about himself or about a problem he is thinking about. In some cases, the message may be quite specific. E. M. Pattison reports,

One subject, whose glossolalic speech became pleading and quite serious, made it clear that she was simultaneously wishing to herself that the interviewer might accept glossolalia for himself.21

The second kind of information in T-speech is associational-lexical. That is, it is information bound up with the associations that a speaker makes between ideas on the one hand and small relatively isolatable chunks of speech on the other. Now, of course, the small chunks of free vocalization have no lexical (dictionary) meaning in the native tongue of the speaker. But the speaker may build associations in his mind between his “nonsense” words and languages that he knows. A German psychiatrist, Oskar Pfister, attempted to explore this possibility by recording phonetically some utterances of a T-speaker named Simon.22 He then pronounced small segments to Simon, asking

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what came into his mind. In every case Simon responded with an incident from his past (usually childhood) structurally related to his present emotional difficulties. Unfortunately, it is not always clear how much the interpretations were already “in” the T-speech in the first place, and how much they were “read in” by Simon’s subsequent free associations. If we believe Pfister’s analysis, T-speech may at least sometimes carry information like the information in those dreams which symbolize or act out some emotional conflict in a person’s life.23 The dreams have meaning, even though that meaning is “coded” into apparently nonsensical symbolic form. In view of the fact that word-association phenomena are common both to Christians and non-Christians, there is reason to assume that forms of competent free vocalization other than T-speech have the same capabilities of carrying information.

The psychological value of these observations should not be overlooked. A speaker might use free vocalization to articulate and release emotions that he cannot express clearly, or that are too personal or intimate to share directly with others. This is presumably one reason (but not the only one or the most significant one) why T-speech is valued by the charismatic movement.

10. Does the linguistic and psychological evidence lead to the conclusion that almost all, if not all, instances of modern T-speech are not miraculous or divine?

Here is the crucial question. Some linguists and social scientists have indeed pronounced T-speech nonmiraculous. But I think that they can give such a clear-cut answer only by exceeding their competence. Social science does provide a plausible naturalistic explanation for T-speech. But I suspect it could also

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provide a plausible naturalistic “explanation” for some biblical miracles. Israel enjoyed quails in the wilderness because a wind brought them from the sea (Num 11:31). Peter’s hunger, it might be claimed, excited in his mind the vision of unclean animals (Acts 10:9ff). Other biblical “miracles” are coincidences (1 Kings 22:34, 2 Kings 3:22–23; 7:17–20 ). Thus, the existence of natural “means” in a given incident does not exclude the working of God’s power.

Consider also a case of healing. Suppose that Christians pray for a fellow Christian who is sick, and God answers by healing him. This healing is, in a broad sense, a sign of God’s presence and his promises. It is so whether or not doctors are instrumental in the healing, whether or not doctors can “explain” the healing afterwards in naturalistic terms. But, our awe and wonder are most likely to be aroused when the case is an “impossible” one, and when there is no “explanation.”

Now compare this with T-speech. Because of its unusual character and because of the theological explanations attached to it, it tends to arouse awe and wonder—or fear and perplexity—quite often. People are likely to say that it is “miraculous.” But linguistic and psychological investigation gives us a better understanding of some of the regularities involved, providing us with a rather satisfying naturalistic “explanation.” That may take away much of the fascination and excitement of T-speech. By itself, however, this does not provide an answer to the question, “Is this (or some cases of it) from God? Is it a sign of God’s presence and promises?”24 Social scientific research does not bring us any farther than the doctor’s putative explanation of a case of healing. To answer such theological questions we have to be able to assess God’s intention in and behind T-speech. Such an assessment must be grounded in biblical teaching.

Hence, it is more important to know what the Bible says about these things than what the modern analysts say. Only so can we reach firm conclusions. But the modern scientific analysis is not profitless. It can help us not to blind our eyes to some of the ways that T-speech functions in charismatic communities. It can, moreover, push us away from the extremes of totally negative

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or totally positive evaluation of modern T-speech. The remainder of this article is devoted to arguing against the extremes.

People in one extreme evaluate modern T-speech in totally negative terms. According to this view, T-speech is a psychological delusion having nothing to do with the Spirit of God. Hence it ought to be forbidden. I will assume for the sake of argument that these people are basically correct in their reading of the biblical data. Assume, then, that the “speaking in tongues” mentioned in the Bible ceased with the death of the apostles.25 Assume further that modern T-speech is not of itself a special sign of God’s presence and blessing.26

Even making these assumptions, we must still reckon with the fact that free vocalization can have psychological value in some circumstances. We must reckon with the fact that T-speakers are attached to free vocalization partly because of benefits that they sense they receive. I can illustrate most clearly by describing the experiences of someone who enters the charismatic movement. My particular example is, of course, hypothetical, but the various elements can be found documented in both social-scientific literature and in literature by charismatics themselves.

Our exemplary charismatic, then, receives benefits of three main kinds from T-speech. First, his T-speech reinforces belief in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. The T-speaker believes that in T-speech God the Holy Spirit is speaking through him. When uttering a T-speech, or when reflecting on the fact that he has done this in the past, he may marvel at the

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fact that the Holy Spirit could thus speak through him. He is convinced more thoroughly than ever, and more deeply than ever, how wonderful and powerful God the Holy Spirit is. He also has a peace and assurance that the Holy Spirit is dwelling in him and can help him to do God’s will. God’s will no longer seems burdensome, but something that God himself will cause him to fulfill with joy. What a marvelous blessing!

Now, what is happening? Our T-speaker is being taught by God the biblical doctrine of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in believers. He is being taught the power of the resurrected Christ who comes to dwell in him and give him joy and victory in the Holy Spirit. No wonder he is filled with joy!

Of course, there is also a danger here. Does the T-speaker base his convictions about the Holy Spirit first of all on his experience or first of all on what the Bible says (vividly brought to his attention by his experience)? If the former, he has developed a bad attitude concerning the grounds for his beliefs. If his experience seems later on to be no longer so fresh or so deep, he will not have stability. Moreover, the habit of leaning on experience may leave open the door for false teaching (Eph 4:14). But let us suppose the best. Let us suppose that the T-speaker does not regard his experience as an ultimate basis for belief, but a reminder of the basis provided in the Bible.

Secondly, suppose a T-speaker is troubled by a deep problem or concern, and does not know how to pray (Rom 8:26–27). He pours out his heart to God in a T-speech, believing that God understands perfectly what his concern is, and that God is helping him to pray rightly. As we have observed, the T-speech can carry information—exactly how much, the linguist can not say—about the speaker’s emotional state and about buried thoughts or associations. Even if it carried no information, we could still be assured that God does indeed understand the desires of his child, and answers those desires in accord with his will (1 John 5:14–15). Hence many times the T-speaker may find that those hidden desires and concerns of his are answered by God. Even when he does not receive an obvious or immediate answer, he is comforted by the assurance that God has understood. As a result, he may grow to express himself more deeply when he prays in his mother tongue.

What is happening here is again basically biblical (though the

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T-speaker may misunderstand the role of T-speech in it). The T-speaker is being taught confidence in a prayer-answering God who knows our inmost thoughts and desires (Phil 4:6–7; Rom 8:26; Ps 139).

A third kind of effect may occur to a Christian who in the past had never really believed that, in our day, God heals people (Deut 32:39, Ps 103:3) and orders the details of Christians’ lives for their benefit (Rom 8:28). Then, he has the experience of uttering a T-speech. He says to himself, “Why, God is still doing remarkable things as he did in the days of the apostles. And he is doing something remarkable with me. Little me. I never thought I was important to God. It must be that God can still heal and can still direct my life in both ordinary and remarkable ways for his glory. I will start praying for God to do those things, and expect that sometimes he will.” Moreover, our T-speaker turns to the Bible, and says, “Why, the Bible is a book that speaks to me and my time too. God is still speaking when I read it. All his promises are true today!”

Once again, this Christian is learning something biblical. He is learning that God is still alive, God is still the same God, and the building of his church still goes on. It would become dangerous only if he started looking for modern apostles and additional commands to add to the Bible. Then he would not be seeing that God has completed the Bible and provided it for up, so that, by reading it, we still hear the voice of the “old” apostles, Paul and Peter and John.

Finally, let us see how his “charismatic experience” as a whole may look to the T-speaker. He may have become interested in T-speech because he felt dissatisfaction with his own Christian life. He felt an emptiness, a lack of power, a lack of vital and fresh communion with God. He wanted to be filled with the Holy Spirit. So he began to pray, to seek God, to repent, and to seek instruction from the Bible about the Holy Spirit. He found that he was holding back certain things in his life. He found areas that he was keeping to himself rather than surrendering to God. So he began saying to God, “Yes, I will follow you in this and that area too.” Earlier he had thought to himself, “If I surrender everything, God may ask me to do something foolish or humiliating.” He was afraid. Perhaps for him the area of the use of language was one such area. So

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tongues symbolized for him the question of whether everything was given to God. Finally, he said, “All right, I am willing to speak in tongues if that is what God wants for me.” We will suppose that he in some way misunderstood the meaning of modern T-speech. Still, many of his prayers and desires were genuine, and God answered them.

Since his first experience with T-speech, his life has been transformed. He has awakened to the reality of the work of the Spirit in his life. He has started to believe that God still does remarkable things today. He has come to trust that God knows and understands his deepest concerns. He has started to look to the Bible for answers to his daily problems. He finds now that the Bible is a living book where God speaks. The intensive fellowship that he has experienced with other charismatics has further strengthened his Christian life.27

Then our friend looks at others. Others too have had the same experience with T-speech. Many of their lives have been transformed. He turns to Acts 2. “It happened in the Bible, too,” he says. “The church was set on fire after they experienced tongues. It is the sign of baptism with the Holy Spirit. It must be the key to revival.”

What has happened? Good things, biblical things, things that God himself is doing in loose connection with T-speech, have now been linked tightly, inexorably, and exclusively to T-speech.

Now suppose an opponent tells our T-speaker that modern tongues are a delusion, and that the charismatic movement is unbiblical. What will the reaction be? The reaction is likely to be simply anger, incomprehension, and pity. The T-speaker has seen, has experienced these things. He has seen the Bible come alive to him. He says to himself, “my opponent wants to take it all away from me.” The opponent says, “Doctrine cannot be based on experience, but only on the Bible.” He will say, “If that is where the emphasis on cold doctrine leads, I’ll have no more to do with doctrine.”

There are lessons for us here. First, doctrine is indeed based on the Bible, not on experience. An experience valid in many ways can all too easily be misinterpreted and lead to bad

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doctrine. But the sword cuts two ways. We cannot base our doctrine of modern tongues on an experience of not having tongues.

Second, no one can dismiss or condemn the charismatic movement as a whole without becoming unbiblical. The easy, blunt, self-confident answer, “It is a delusion,” is unbiblical because it is unloving, undiscriminating, unwise, and unhelpful. There is no substitute for patient, sympathetic listening as well as to speaking (James 1:19), trying to find the real rather than simply the apparent sources of disagreement.

Third, let no one remove the speck from his brother’s eye before he has removed the log from his own (Luke 6:41–42). This applies to one’s manner of argument. Charismatics are frequently more gracious in argument than their opponents. They will seldom be convinced unless they see the love that is so important to them manifested in those with different convictions.

The principle also applies to the areas which T-speech has sometimes affected: appreciation for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, belief in God’s presence and reality today, experiencing of the Bible as a living book, and so on. Let the opponent examine himself, repent, and ask God for his own renewal in these areas before he ventures to criticize. If necessary, let him say to his charismatic brother, “I have failed in these areas, and I need your help and encouragement—even though I disagree with you.”

So far, we have looked at the practical conclusions for those who do not believe that modern T-speech is a special divine sign. Now, what about the people who do believe that, at least sometimes, modern T-speech is a special sign of God’s presence and blessing? Are there some implications for them? For the sake of argument, I will assume that they are right in thinking that the gift of tongues continues beyond the apostolic age.28

First, we must reckon with the fact that competent free vocalization, by itself, is not a sign of anything but itself. It occurs even among non-Christians in both religious and secular contexts.

Second, it seems reasonably clear that T-speech, by itself, is

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not always a reliable demonstration of God’s inward work in a person. True, Christians are united with Christ, and that means that they are radically different from unbelievers. But it does not mean that they cannot sin. They can free vocalize as easily as a non-Christian. And it seems inevitable that in some cases they will try to use free vocalization in worship, and yet still be sinning. In other words, they may practice T-speech “in the flesh.” More thoughtful leaders in the charismatic movement recognize this.29 They are even ready occasionally to say, “Be quiet, you’re speaking in the flesh,” to someone who uses free vocalization just to “sound off” or make an exhibition in church. 1 Corinthians 14 demonstrates well enough that similar problems arose even in apostolic times.

Third, T-speech may occur “in the flesh” not only here and there in the lives of T-speakers, but even the first time they use T-speech. If it is possible at other times, why not the first time?

As the diametrical opposite of my earlier example, of an ideal charismatic person, I will contruct a bad example, a “worst case,” to show how T-speech could be perverted. Fortunately, many charismatic groups in the United States have grown in maturity over the years. Even from the beginning they were aware of certain dangers. But in the last few years they have eliminated some remaining problems. Hence my “worst case” never did occur in most places, and could not occur now. But it will illustrate in the abstract what abuses might occur.

Let us imagine a Christian who, like Simon the sorcerer in Acts, desires to be looked upon as someone “great” (Acts 8:9–10). He wants to be able to perform miracles and to have power (cf. Acts 8:19). He is told that these things are to be sought through the baptism of the Holy Spirit marked by tongues. He is told at the same time that not all Christians have received this baptism. Hence the baptism of the Holy Spirit seems to him to be something that will make him “greater” than those Christians who do not have it. He is eager to receive this baptism.

Hence others pray for him. He is told to open his mouth and let the “tongue” come out. Or perhaps he is told to begin by imitating a few lines spoken by a T-speaker. When he utters a

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few sounds, he is encouraged to do more.30 So in a little while he learns to free vocalize fluidly. (The social scientist tells us that that is to be expected.) He is told, “Yes, that’s it. You have received the baptism of the Holy Spirit.” If he says, “I seem to be doing it myself,” the “coach” replies, “That’s the devil trying to make you doubt the gift that God has given you.” And so he swells with pride in himself and thinks to himself, “I have become somebody great. I am no longer in the same category as ordinary Christians.”

Would we say the Holy Spirit is at work blessing this man in a special way? When we are confronted with so blatant a case, most of us, I would hope, are willing to say, “No.” But then the question arises, “How do we know that something like this never happens in subtler cases?”

Now consider what might happen to this Christian’s prayers. He says, “Now the Holy Spirit prays in me when I pray in tongues. I pray so much better than people who don’t pray in tongues. I don’t have to worry about studying the Bible to find out what it teaches about prayer, because I can already pray perfectly and effortlessly. Think of the poor Christians who don’t have tongues. According to Rom 8:26, they are weak in prayer and they don’t have the Spirit to help them. I guess I don’t need to pay attention to what they pray.”

In this case, the Christian’s presumption about tongues has led him to despise two things that he should not despise. First, he is despising the biblical teaching on prayer. But why was Paul so careful to say how he prayed (Eph 1:15–23; 3:14–21 ; Phil 1:3–11; Col 1:3–14; 2 Thess 1:3–12, etc.)? Why did God have so many prayers recorded in Scripture if not to instruct us (Matt 6:5–15)?

Second, our hypothetical Christian has despised his brothers who do not use T-speech. That is because he has applied Rom 8:26–27 to T-speakers only. Paul, by contrast, applies it to the whole congregation at Rome. He had never visited Rome, so he could not know whether all spoke in tongues. Paul believed that the Spirit helps all true Christians to pray.

Consider now a third abuse, this time in connection with the

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issue of continuing revelations. Our Christian is told that it is important to respond to the impulse of the Spirit. He thinks, “If I get a noticeable urge to say or do something, it must be because the Holy Spirit wants me to.” So he begins to criticize some of the brothers for things that he does not like about them. He says, “The Lord told me to do it.” Then he begins to get some hunches about doctrine, and thinks, “These must be prophecies.” He begins to say things like, “God has put the Holy Spirit within us so that eventually we can become gods.”

Is this story of a hypothetical Christian a farfetched example? In some ways, it is. There are several constraints that keep this type of thing from happening. First, God has mercy on Christians and keeps them from wandering too far. Second, charismatic groups do hear and respect the Bible, and the Bible’s teaching keeps them from going astray (this is one of the ways in which God shows his mercy to us). Third, many charismatic groups do have conscious and unconscious safeguards to protect their members from these errors.

Nevertheless, we ought to be wise enough not to say, “It can’t happen here.” For one thing, something very like it has happened in the past. The Mormons claim to have their tongues,31 their apostles, their prophets, and their modern revelations saying that we shall all become gods.32 In other cases, “prophetic” teaching has not led this far, but has produced sectarian movements like the Latter Rain Assemblies of South Africa, which consider the rest of Pentecostalism impure.33

Admittedly, the bad examples that I have mentioned are extreme cases. But I mention the extremes only to raise another question: can there also be cases of mixtures of good and bad? In our hypothetical case, the Christian wanted T-speech for the completely bad motive of desiring greatness. Is it possible that

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in some cases where a Christian’s motives are basically good, this desire for “greatness” is mixed in?

For instance, in our hypothetical case, the Christian used his ability in T-speech to become puffed up about his own relationship to God (the bad side). In other cases a Christian is helped by T-speech to become much more thoroughly convinced of the Holy Spirit’s power and presence (the good side). Are there cases where these two uses of T-speech are combined? Similarly, can we sometimes find mixtures of good and bad in Christians’ attitude toward praying in tongues? 1 Corinthians 14 would seem to indicate the answer is “yes.”

What protection, then, does the charismatic movement have against deviations, excesses and impure motives? Two kinds of protection come to mind. First, the gift of discernment of spirits (1 Cor. 12:10). Paul does not tell exactly what kind of gift this is. But evidently it is a gift enabling one to sift the good from the bad in extraordinary manifestations of spirits. This gift is valuable, but it cannot be relied upon exclusively. Why not? First, this gift, like other gifts, could be corrupted. The sectarian movements like the Mormons and the Latter Rain Assemblies could claim to have their gift of discernment confirming the validity of their own prophecies. Second, the gift of discernment obviously did not rescue the Corinthian church from its manifold problems. It took the patience, the maturity, the well-constructed argument, and the divine authority of the Apostle Paul to deal with them—and even so his resources were strained to the limit. Third, Paul exhorts the whole church to exercise discernment, not just those with a special gift (1 Cor. 14:29; 1 Thess. 5:20–22). If we ignore this command, we cannot expect to be protected from bad motives and errors.

Another source of protection is the Lord’s general supervision of the church. We have the feeling, “If we remain faithful to the Lord, he will not let us go astray.” That is true, and I think that it is the ultimate basis of security for all of us. But then we must ask, “What does it mean to remain faithful to the Lord? How do we know what kind of faithfulness he wants?” For instance, does faithfulness mean simply obeying the voice of our modern prophets? But then the Mormon prophets will tell us that being a Mormon is being faithful to the Lord. The Latter Rain prophets will tell us that the Latter Rain Assemblies are alone fully

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faithful to the Lord. The only sound answer is Paul’s answer to Timothy. Faithfulness to the Lord means faithfulness to the Old Testament and the Apostles. Timothy must continually nourish and reform his life on the basis of the Bible (2 Tim. 3:15–17). Listening to the Bible accurately requires that we exercise discernment.

And so we come full circle. The critics of the charismatic movement are tempted to be indiscriminating. But so are its advocates. The easy, blunt, self-confident answer, “The movement is all of God” is unbiblical, just as is its reverse, “It is all a delusion.” Both charismatic and noncharismatic have something to learn from one another. On both sides this listening and learning process will, I hope, drive us back to a renewed and more discerning reading of the Bible. My hypothetical examples will have served their purpose if they help both sides to understand how to steer the opposite side away from I extremes. This is possible, I believe, even when the opposite side cannot be completely won over.

Westminster Theological Seminary



1 The most comprehensive and balanced scientific summary that I know of is William J. Samarin, Tongues of Men and Angels: The Religious Language of Pentecostalism (New York: Macmillan, 1972). Bibliography can be found in E. Mansell Pattison, “Behavioral Science Research on the Nature of Glossolalia,” Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, 20 (1968), pp. 73-86; George J. Jennings, “An Ethnological Study of Glossalalia [sic],” JASA 20 (1968), pp. 5-16; Watson E. Mills, “Literature on Glossolalia,” JASA 26 (1974), pp. 169-173; Ira J. Martin, Glossolalia, The Gift of Tongues—A Bibliography (Cleveland, Tenn.: Pathway, 1970); Kilian McDonnell, Charismatic Renewal and the Churches (New York: Seabury Press, 1976), pp. 187-195.

2 Samarin, Tongues, p. xiv. In this article I use “charismatic” to include both traditional Pentecostal and neo-Pentecostal proponents of tongues.

3 Cf. L. C. May, “A Survey of Glossolalia and Related Phenomena in Non-Christian Religions,” American Anthropologist, 58 (1956), pp. 75-96.

4 Pattison, JASA, 20:75–76.

5 G. Devereaux, “The Voices of Children,” American Journal of Psycho-Therapy, 19 (1965), pp. 4-19. Cf. William J. Samarin, “The Forms and Functions of Nonsense Language,” Linguistics, 50 (1969), p. 73.

6 But Samarin reports cases where glossolalists have attempted to assign meaning to a few of their “words” and utterances (Tongues, pp. 91-92,167).

7 Pointed out by Samarin, Tongues, pp. 26-34.

8 Cfibid.. pp. 44-149; Pattison, JASA 20:78.

9 Ibid., p. 27.

10 Pattison, JASA 20:75–77.

11 Cf. McDonnell, Charismatic Renewal, pp. 13-16.

12 Pattison, JASA 20:78.

13 May, American Anthropologist, 58:75–96; Jennings, JASA 20:5–16; Samarin, Tongues, pp. 130-138. But Samarin expresses caution about whether much of this sounds like natural language (p. 222).

14 Pattison, JASA 20:79; Samarin, Tongues, pp. 73-102.

15 M. T. Motley reports one such case in “Glossolalia: Analyses of Selected Aspects of Phonology and Morphology,” M.A. thesis, University of Texas, 1967, p. 95.

16 Samarin, Tongues, pp. 109-115.

17 Pointed out by Charles E. Hummel, Fire in the Fireplace: Contemporary Charismatic Renewal (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1978), p. 202; Dennis J. Bennett, “The Gifts of the Holy Spirit,” The Charismatic Movement, ed. Michael Hamilton (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), p. 29. This need not be construed as any criticism of the linguists’ attitudes within their proper sphere. Rather it would be an attempt to point out the limitations of that sphere.

18 Ibid., pp. 22-30; Ralph W. Harris, Spoken By the Spirit (Springfield, Mo.: Gospel Publishing House, 1973); and Don Basham, The Miracle of Tongues (Old Tappan, N.J.: Revell, 1973); Harold Bredesen and Pat King,Yes, Lord (Watchung, N.J.: Logos International, 1973), pp. 76-77.

19 Cf. the caution in Kilian McDonnell, Charismatic Renewal, p. 10.

20 Samarin, Tongues, p. 122n7.

21 Pattison, JASA 20:81.

22 Oskar Pfister, “Die psychologische Enträtselung der religiösen Glossolalie und der automatischen Kryptographie,” Jahrbuch Für Psycho-Analytische und Psychopathologische Forschungen, 3 (1912), pp. 427-466.

23 Pattison, JASA 20:78–85. Cf. also Kilian McDonnell’s analysis: “…in the vast majority of cases the one who is speaking in tongues is not speaking a real language, but a prayer language or an art language. Speaking or praying in tongues is to prayer what abstract painting is to art. Just as good abstract art is not color and form without order or discipline, but is a non-objective expression of deep feelings and convictions, so also tongues. Those who are praying in tongues are expressing in a non-objective manner deep religious convictions and sentiments which they might have a difficult time expressing in their own native language” (McDonnell,Charismatic Renewal, p. 9).

24 Cf. Samarin, Tongues, p. 235.

25 In fact, the church fathers continue to report prophesyings, tongues, and other “miraculous” phenomena down to the fourth century and beyond (cf. Hummel, Fire, pp. 164-166, 192–193, 210–212; George H. Williams and Edith Waldvogel, “A History of Speaking in Tongues and Related Gifts,” The Charismatic Movement, ed. Michael Hamilton, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), pp. 64-70; Benjamin B. Warfield, Counterfeit Miracles(London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1972), pp. 3-69). Hence it is difficult to formulate satisfactorily a statement about the chronological point of cessation of “extraordinary” gifts. Warfield argues that such gifts extended only to the Apostles and those on whom the Apostles laid hands (ibid., pp. 22-25). This provides a firm cutoff point. Of course Warfield must then explain the post-Apostolic reports on other bases.

26 One of the ablest defenses of this view is found in Anthony A. Hoekema, What About Tonguespeaking? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966).

27 Ibid., pp. 132-136.

28 0ne of the ablest defenses of this viewpoint is in Wayne Grudem, “The Gift of Prophecy in 1 Cor 12–14, ” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Cambridge, 1976. Grudem discusses only prophecy. But his arguments could be extended to embrace tongues and healing.

29 Cf., e.g., Carl Brumback, What Meaneth This? (Springfield, Mo.: Gospel Publishing House, 1947), p. 259; McDonnell, Charismatic Renewal, pp. 145-146.

30 “Coaching” people to speak in tongues in this way was a fairly common practice at an earlier date (Samarin, Tongues, p. 52). But I am told it no longer occurs in many contemporary groups.

31 George B. Cutten, Speaking With Tongues Historically and Psychologically Considered (New Haven: Yale, 1927), pp. 70-76; James H. Kennedy, Early Days of Mormonism (London: Reeves and Turner, 1888), pp. 113-118; Samuel Hawthornthwaite, Adventures Among the Mormons, (Manchester: by the author, 1857), pp. 88-95; Williams, in The Charismatic Movement, pp. 87-88.

32 Cf. Hoekema, The Four Major Cults (Exeter: Paternoster, 1969), pp. 34-46.

33 Walter J. Hollenweger, The Pentecostals (London: SCM, 1972), pp. 140-146.

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