Chapter OneWhat Does This Mean?
The Significance for the Church of the
Widespread Occurrence of SPEAKING IN
TONGUES in Historic Denominations
A Typical Testimony
As a young teenager I accepted Christ's forgiveness,
received salvation, and was baptized. This experience did not
give me the ability to completely rely on God. I sought security
elsewhere, but there remained an empty incompleteness,
finally a despair. I turned to God in helplessness. He met me
by increasing my faith and hope slowly.
I attended a prayer group obediently for a year and a half,
longing for a closer walk that would enable me to experience
the things the Bible says a Christian should experience. Again
God answered my prayers: Through the testimonies of others
and searching God's Word, His Spirit convicted me to humble
myself to ask for prayer to be baptized with His Spirit and
take that step of faith necessary to receive Him. I did, with
the Lord's help, and He granted me a tongue with which I
could praise Him continually.
I have experienced a superabundance of joy and peace
and comfort that no one can take away from me He also
makes me painfully aware of "myself" that offends and hinders
His growth in me. How blessed to confess these things,
be cleansed, and granted more strength to stand. The enemy
is more real, too, but through God's Word, which has come
alive, Christ sets me free from Satan's power
He is my Comforter, as His language of prayer and praise
flow through my mind silently at any time, anywhere, in any
situation; or aloud, through my lips and voice, when
alone God speaks to me everywhere: in the liturgy,
hymns, sermons, Scripture. His Spirit witnesses to the truth I
feel in my heart. I long that all may share this blessed oneness
in Christ Jesus, who sustains us in His power.
Return of the Charismata
The details will differ. One testifies to a new joy in his
Christian faith; another witnesses to a deeper and more constant
awareness of the Spirit's indwelling presence; some have
found a new freedom to witness to others of what Jesus means
to them; another says that he has a far keener sense of the
Spirit's guidance than he did before; many testify to an awakened
interest, indeed a deep hunger, to study the Bible; a
keener awareness of one's own sins and shortcomings is frequently
mentioned. The common denominator in all of
these testimonies seems to be this: The experience of "speaking
in tongues" has intensified the sense of the presence of
God; the Word of God has become more contemporary,
believable; Christ the Lord has become more real-in a
word, faith has been strengthened.
A teacher of a high school Bible class came into this experience,
and several months later one of his students remarked,
"He's changed: he believes it more now than he used to."
This is not the kind of change one learns out of a book. It
springs from deep personal experience. This teacher does not
make any extravagant claims in regard to his own experience.
"I realize," he says, "that many people have come into blessings
similar to mine without speaking in tongues. But this is
the way God chose to lead me into a deeper walk with Him,
and I thank Him for it."
What is "speaking in tongues"? Why has it appeared in
many historic Christian denominations? Why haven't we
heard about it before? What kind of an experience is it? Is it
something any Christian can experience? Should one seek
after it? Is it some kind of gimmick that could detour the
Church from her main task of proclaiming the Gospel?
What, exactly, is its value to the individual and to the
These are thoughtful and earnest questions that people in
many Christian congregations are asking. Until about 1960
the average church member associated present-day speaking
in tongues with Pentecostal groups, often dismissing it as a
purely emotional phenomenon. But in more recent years an
increasing number of people in historic Christian denominations-clergy
and laity alike-have come into this New
However we may analyze or explain it, we cannot escape
the fact that traditional church people now numbering in the
millions-Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics,
Lutherans, Baptists, Methodists, to name a few-witness to
having experienced this New Testament phenomenon.
National magazines, both secular and religious, have carried
articles on it.
McCandlish Phillips, in a feature article for The New
York Times, wrote, "A movement emphasizing a restoration
of 'charismatic' or spiritual gifts to the Christian ministry has
lately been spreading through the nation's Protestant denominations.
It is marked, among other things, by glossolalia, or
praying in unknown tongues. Glossolalia is the practice of
praying, singing, or speaking in fluent accents whose meaning
is not known to the speaker.
"Across the United States, hundreds of ministers and
thousands of laymen in about 40 denominations have
adopted this strange prayer form. Most of them have also
begun to practice a variety of other spiritual 'gifts,' especially
healing by prayer with the laying on of hands.
"These and other phenomena are part of a random but
pervasive movement called the Charismatic Renewal Its
recent appearances in such august settings as the Protestant
Episcopal Church and Yale University have caused Protestants
to take a rather startled new look at the phenomenon.
"The movement had already gained a foothold in a score
of seminaries and colleges when word was published that 19
Yale students, including graduate students with Phi Beta
Kappa keys, were praying in tongues and finding it meaningful.
"At Princeton Theological Seminary, 20 students claimed
to have had direct experiences with the charismata, and
another 35 attended student meetings at which they are exercised."
Rev. Arnold Bittlinger, Director of Evangelism and Stewardship
for the Lutheran Church of the Pfalz, Germany,
encountered the phenomenon during a study-tour of American
churches in 1962 under the auspices of the Lutheran
World Federation. His official report carried the following
"During my stay in America, in different Lutheran
churches, I came across a new kind of Spiritual Awakening
in which the New Testament charismatic signs have come
into evidence and are practiced with great discipline and
order. I had opportunities to take part in different worship
services in which these gifts of the Spirit were in evidence. I
was impressed with the solemn liturgical beauty of these services.
Everywhere they hold themselves strictly to the instructions
of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 14:26ff.
"The life of the congregation is made fruitful in unexpected
ways. That which otherwise functions through
excellent organization, occurs among those involved in the
Awakening very spontaneously and independently. The members
of the congregation visit one another, they manifest a
personal concern for those outside the Church, they pray for
the sick, and they contribute their money and their time to
the ministry of the Church. A pastor pointed out to me that
one of these congregations that has experienced the Awakening
had shown a new recognition of social problems and set
about solving them.
"One of the chief impressions is the ecumenical disposition
of the Movement. For instance, one Lutheran congregation
had refused to join the newly formed American
Lutheran Church. They were determined to remain as an
independent congregation. After this congregation had experienced
some of the effect of the Awakening, the same members
of the congregation who had been most strongly opposed
to joining the ALC, voted to join it. The congregation today
belongs to the ALG. It was also gratifying that I nowhere
found evidence of legalism or undisciplined enthusiasm(Schwaermerei); on the contrary, the teaching of the Confessions,
especially the doctrine of 'grace alone,' infant baptism,
and the Lord's Supper have found among these 'awakened
Lutherans' a new and deeper meaning."
In a day when serious historians are beginning to characterize
our times as the "post-Christian era," we see this strange
counter-phenomenon: the return of the charismata. People in
significant numbers are turning to the Bible and personally
experiencing some of the phenomena that marked the origins
We would serve the Church ill to whisk these manifestations
aside without a hearing, slapping on it the label of "fad"
or "emotionalism." And especially is this true here, for it does
not involve merely a new church "program," "approach," or
"technique": It involves a supernatural manifestation of the
Holy Spirit, which is clearly spoken din the Bible. This is
holy ground, where a snap judgment or an ill-informed opinion
could truly grieve the Spirit. One even writes about it
with some qualms. But where silence runs the danger of conceding
the day to fear and uninformed prejudice, one should
speak. So in the spirit of a Christian brother and a fellow
searcher of God's Word, I would share with you my understanding
of speaking in tongues-and its significance for the
Church-as it has come to me in prayer, study of the Bible,
and experience over the past years.
What Is "Speaking in Tongues"?
The Bible tells us that speaking in tongues is a manifestation
of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:4; 10:46; 19:6; 1 Cor. 12:10).
St. Paul warns that the tongue can have a false note-like a
noisy gong or a clanging cymbal-if the speaker does not
manifest the gift in love (1 Cor. 13:1); it may be used out of
turn (1 Cor. 14:27), or at the wrong time (1 Cor. 14:28). But
not even in Corinth, where tongues were greatly abused, does
St. Paul suggest that it has degenerated into a purely human
phenomenon, the product of excess emotionalism. His plea,
rather, is that precisely because this is a manifestation of the
Holy Spirit, it should be manifested "decently and in order"
(1 Cor. 14:40), for "God is not a God of confusion but of
peace" (1 Cor. 14:33). He does not tell them to stop manifesting
this gift. On the contrary, he tells them to continue
manifesting the gift (1 Cot. 14:5a), but in a proper way
(1 Cor. 14:13, 28), and with a proper regard for the other
manifestations of the Spirit as well (1 Cor. 14:5b).
This must be the framework for any biblical discussion of
speaking in tongues. We want to seek a clearer understanding
and appreciation of the purpose the Spirit has in manifesting
this gift in the Church. We dare never lose sight of the fact
that speaking in tongues is a manifestation of the Holy Spirit.
We miss St. Paul's point altogether if we begin to search out
reasons why we should not speak in tongues, why we don't
need this gift in the churches today, how much better we can
do without it, and so on. It is well to be alert to the dangers
of abuse that St. Paul points out, but we cannot depreciate
the gift as such, for it is of the Holy Spirit. Scripture simply
does not support an argument against speaking in tongues-only
against its abuse. When once we grasp this basic truth,
our whole discussion of tongues is cast in the positive framework
that St. Paul himself reflects when he says, "I thank God
that I speak in tongues more than you all" (1 Cor. 14:18).
The cure for abuse is not disuse, but proper use.
Now what, specifically, is the nature of this manifestation
of the Spirit called "speaking in tongues"?
On the Day of Pentecost, the dwellers in Jerusalem heard
the Galilean believers speaking a variety of Mediterranean
and Near Eastern dialects. They were amazed, just as you
would be amazed if you were an American-born Jew who had
returned to Israel and heard an uneducated Jew from Yemen
begin to speak English with a Brooklyn accent!
Some commentators suggest that this was God's way of
breaking the language barrier so that the Gospel could be
proclaimed to all nations. But this is unlikely, since there was
no language barrier in Jerusalem oil the Day of Pentecost.
The men who heard the believers speaking in tongues had
become permanent residents of Jerusalem, and were Jews
besides, so they all had at least one language in common, and
The situation would be similar to a group of Norwegian
immigrants living in South Dakota who suddenly hear some
migrant field hands speaking the various dialects of Norway.
There would be no language barrier, since all could speak
English (the Jews in Jerusalem could all speak Aramaic, and
doubtless Greek as well), but the sight of migrant field hands
speaking perfect Norwegian would certainly fill those immigrants
The tongues were given not primarily as a means of communicating
the Gospel, but as a supernatural sign that God
was in the midst of these believers. This is doubly witnessed
to in what follows: Peter immediately stands up and begins
preaching to this same crowd (Acts 2:14ff.), and not in
tongues, but obviously in a language that they all had in common.
In Corinth Paul says that those who spoke in tongues
were not understood (1 Cor. 14:2). But the implication is not
that they were speaking gibberish or ecstatic speech, but in
languages not known to any of the fellow worshipers (1 Cor.
Some commentaries have tried to establish an essential
difference between the various occurrences of speaking in
tongues in the New Testament, e.g., between the occurrence
on the Day of Pentecost and the experience in the Corinthian
church. It would seem, however, that the manifestation
of tongues in Acts and in First Corinthians is essentially the
same. In his History of the Christian Church (Vo]. 1, 230-31),
Philip Schaff says, "The glossolalia (speaking in tongues)
on the Day of Pentecost was, as in all cases where it is mentioned, an act of worship and adoration, not an act of teaching
and instruction, which followed afterwards in the sermon
of Peter. The Pentecostal glossolalia was the same as that in
the household of Cornelius in Caesarea after his conversion,
which may be called a Gentile Pentecost, as that of the twelve
disciples of John the Baptist at Ephesus, where it appears in
connection with prophecy, and as that in the Christian congregation
The difference on the Day of Pentecost was not in the
essential nature of the manifestation itself. It was rather that
God, for a special purpose, on this occasion gave the believers
languages that would be understood by the bystanders. In
Christian congregations, such as the one at Corinth, God
gave languages that were not generally understood.
This is borne out by present-day experience as well. A
speaker in tongues is seldom understood. (In a group meeting
his utterance will be "interpreted," but "interpretation" is also
a manifestation of the Spirit, and is not the same as translating
a foreign language with the mind.) Occasionally people
report an experience similar to that which occurred on the
Day of Pentecost: Someone speaks in tongues, and the utterance
is understood by another as a known language-though
the speaker himself did not know the language nor understand
what he was saying.
Doesn't the speaker himself know what he is saying? No,
to his own ear and understanding it is simply a stream of
sounds. St. Paul says specifically, "If I pray in a tongue, my
spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful" (1 Cor. 14:14, emphasis
added). When you speak your native tongue, or any language
that you have consciously learned, your mind controls
what is said. But speaking in tongues is a speaking forth
prompted not by the mind but by the Spirit. The speaker does
not "decide" what sound will come out next: He simply lifts
up his voice and the Spirit gives utterance (Acts 2:4).
Thus speaking in tongues is a supernatural manifestation
of the Holy Spirit, whereby the believer speaks forth in a language
he has never learned and that he does not understand.
Is It Really a Language?
A woman in our congregation had never heard anyone
speak in tongues. When she went to a meeting where someone
spoke out in tongues, she leaned to the person next to
her and whispered, "That man is drunk!"
This is a rather natural reaction. Not understanding an
utterance, one jumps to the conclusion that the speaker is
mumbling a drunken gibberish. That is exactly what happened
on the Day of Pentecost.