What Is the Gift of Tongues in the Bible?

The gift of tongues in the Bible is surprisingly different from what most Christians believe. The Church Fathers shed some light on the matter.

Jun 20, 2024By Eben De Jager, PhD New Testament, MTh Christian Spirituality

gift of tongues bible

 

The outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2 is one of the most iconic descriptions of a New Testament event. Tongues of fire descended on the heads of the gathered disciples and they spoke in tongues. But what exactly was this gift of tongues? Is there a difference between the languages spoken in Acts and that of 1 Corinthians?

 

Different Views on the Gift of Tongues

Pentecost icon, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

In the Pentecostal and Charismatic tradition, the gift of tongues is a prayer or devotional language used to communicate with God. The academic term used to reference this view of tongues is glossolalia. The term glossolalia comes from the Greek word glossa, which means “tongue” and implies language. Lalia, means “to speak.” It refers to an unintelligible language that some people call “the language of angels,” alluding to 1 Corinthians 13:1.

 

The alternative view of tongues is called xenolalia and comes from two Greek words: xenos, which means “other” or “foreign,” and lalia, which means “to speak.” Xenolalia is the ability to speak a foreign language without having learned it. It describes a human language that is intelligible and native to a group of people somewhere in the world.

 

Pentecostals and Charismatics often view tongues in Acts as different from that of 1 Corinthians and may concede that Acts refers to xenolalia but insist that 1 Corinthians 12-14 speaks of glossolalia.

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

 

A third, minority view, promotes the idea that the languages that people from different parts of the world heard on Pentecost were miracles of hearing, not of speaking. This phenomenon is called akoulalia, which is a portmanteau of akouo, from which we derive “acoustic,” and which means “to hear,” and lalia. It refers to the ability to understand a language that the hearer does not speak. If this was the case, it does not make sense that the gift is called the gift of tongues and not the gift of hearing.

 

The Church Fathers on the Gift of Tongues

Pentecost, by Duccio di Buoninsegna, 1255–1319, Source: Art Hive

 

The Church Fathers handed down a tradition that describes the gift of tongues as something different from what churches today (particularly Pentecostals and Charismatics), believe the gift of tongues is (or was). Rufinus of Aquileia had the following to say about the gift of tongues in Commentary on the Apostles Creed:

 

“Our forefathers have handed down to us the tradition that, after the Lord’s ascension, when, through the coming of the Holy Ghost, tongues of flame had settled upon each of the Apostles, that they might speak diverse languages, so that no race however foreign, no tongue however barbarous, might be inaccessible to them and beyond their reach, they were commanded by the Lord to go severally to the several nations to preach the word of God.”

 

Evidently, Rufinus believed the gift of tongues was the ability to speak all languages known to man without having learned those languages by studying their grammar or vocabulary. He was not alone in this view. Augustine of Hippo described it as “speaking in the tongues of every nation,” speaking with “the tongues of all nations” and “they began to speak with the different languages of all nations which they didn’t know, and hadn’t learned.” Gregory the Great agreed, claiming the gift was “the knowledge of all languages.”

 

Tyrannius Rufinus or Rufinus of Aquileia, by Frederick Bloemaert, 1614—1669, Source: Europeana

 

Theodoret of Cyrus explained the purpose of this miraculous ability. He claims that the gift was “knowing all languages to be teachers to all nations, preaching to each in their familiar language.” The purpose was to spread the gospel message to other nations.

 

Faced with these claims, some people argue that the references to “all languages” means that among all the gifted individuals, the various languages of the word are represented. Both the works of Jerome and Augustine of Hippo refute such claims. Jerome writes that “each [of those who received the gift of tongues] spoke every language,” while Augustine declares that “Each individual was speaking in all tongues.”

 

So, how does the view of the church fathers differ from xenolalia? Xenolalia refers to the ability to speak another language or languages but does not claim the universal ability to speak all languages without having learned them. The supernatural ability to speak all languages is called pan-xenolalia.

 

Pentecost, a Missal made from parchment originating from East Anglia, between circa 1310 and circa 1320, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

The early Church Fathers, such as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, supposedly lived in a time when miraculous gifts of the spirit were contemporary manifestations. Later fathers, like Origen, speak of these gifts as diminishing soon after. Chrysostom stated that the gift of tongues “used to occur but now no longer take place.” Augustine and Theodoret of Cyrus also refer to the gifts as something of the past. Cyril of Alexandria claimed that only the first generation of apostles received the gift of tongues. Pooling their comments and considering the dates they lived and wrote, they believed that the gift of tongues they described ceased sometime between 200 to 250 CE.

 

The tradition of what the gift of tongues was, was handed down in the writings and oral traditions among Church Fathers who lived much closer to that time. About two dozen refer to the gift of tongues and all seem to agree as to what the gift constituted. Only one quote by Tertullian seems to support a glossolalic view on tongues, but on closer inspection, it is used out of context.

 

Acts and 1 Corinthians

Saint Augustine, by Philippe de Champaigne, 1602–1674, Source: Los Angeles County Museum of Art

 

In general, Pentecostals agree that tongues in Acts 2 were an example of xenolalia. Many consider the other two accounts (Acts 10:43-46 and 19:6) and a possible third in Acts 8 as glossolalia and categorize them with 1 Corinthians 12-14. They claim that these tongues were not understood by the speaker.

 

The Church Fathers’ reflections on 1 Corinthians show that they believed the gifts in all the accounts in Acts and the teaching in 1 Corinthians were the same manifestation. They quote from 1 Corinthians when they are commenting on Acts and vice versa. They believed that the speaker in 1 Corinthians 14 knew what he was saying. Ambrosiaster (CSEL 81/2: 150) and Origen (JTS 10:37) stated as much, with the latter writing “If the one who speaks in tongues does not have the power to interpret them, others will not understand, but he will know what he was moved by the Spirit to say.”

 

Paul, who authored 1 Corinthians, and Luke, who supposedly authored Acts, were co-workers. If there were two distinct manifestations of tongues in these two books, one would expect it to be more clearly defined. Luke makes no distinction between tongues in Acts 2 and the other three accounts in his work or that of Paul, and Paul makes no distinction between the tongues he writes about and what Luke described in Acts. The Church Fathers, who had access to the works of both these men, made no distinction either. If indeed it was a distinction, one would expect at least one church father would point it out and clarify the differences.

 

Times of Change

Painting of Saint Jerome, by Jacques Blanchard, 1632, Source: Library of Congress

 

When the definition of a word changes, the meaning of a text that uses that word may be understood in the light of the new definition and could lead to a distorted view of what the text originally said. Consider for a second the change of the meaning of the word “gay.” From the 12th century when it was first used in English, “gay” meant happy, bright, or carefree.  In the 1960s the definition changed due to the usage of the word that now refers to sexual orientation. Would it be fair to ascribe a sexual orientation to someone who was described as happy or carefree prior to the 60s?

 

Similarly, the term glossa, which means tongue and serves as a metaphor for a foreign language, was so defined in all Greek dictionaries, lexicons, and study aids prior to 1876. Due to manifestations of unintelligible speech in various religious groups during the 1800s, some scholars came to understand the word glossa differently.

 

Robinson (1876, 149), a scholar from that time, argued that some theologians of his day believed tongues referred to “a person in a state of high spiritual excitement or ecstasy from inspiration, unconscious of external things and wholly absorbed in adoring communion with God and breaking forth into abrupt expressions of praise and devotion, which are not coherent and therefore not always intelligible to the multitude,” and later says “[m]ost interpreters have correctly adopted the first meaning [xenolalia, or what Robinson refers to as “to speak in other living languages”]; while some again suppose a reference to two distinct gifts.” Within three decades Godet stated that by the late nineteenth century scholars of his day have “generally abandoned” the view that the gift of tongues constituted the supernatural ability to speak in foreign languages.

 

Pentecostes, by Luis Tristan, 17th century, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

The change of definition invariably led to a new way of interpreting the text. It was an interpretation no reader prior to that time would have used, as is evident from the plethora of works that discuss especially 1 Corinthians 14 prior to the late 1800s. That said, the new definition became the norm and to this day influences how people interpret the gift of tongues.

 

Conclusion

Origen, portrait by Guillaume Chaudière, 1584, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

There was an undeniable change in what scholars and believers understood the gift of tongues to be after the mid-1870s. Before then the general view was that tongues constituted the gift of xenolalia. It is, however, important to recognize that the Church Fathers believed the gift of tongues to be a pan-xenolalic manifestation: the ability to speak all languages without having learned them by natural processes. It was given in order to allow for the quick and unhindered spreading of the gospel throughout the known world at that time.

 

Bibliography:

 

Godet, F. 1898. St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians. Volume 2. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.

Robinson, E. 1876. Lexicon of the New Testament. New York, NY: Harper & Brothers.

 

Abbreviations:

 

CSEL Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum. Vienna, 1866-.

 

JTS Journal of Theological Studies. (Citations in this volume are from Origen, “Fragments on the Pauline Epistles”. JTS 3 (1902); JTS 9-10 (1908-1909]; JTS 13-14 (1912-1913).

Author Image

By Eben De JagerPhD New Testament, MTh Christian SpiritualityEben is a theologian, presenter, author, and public speaker with more than a decade of experience in Christian apologetics. His fields of interest are the gift of tongues and eschatology, especially the books of Daniel and Revelation. He holds a PhD from North-West University, a MTh (Christian Spirituality) from the University of South Africa, a BA(Hons) in Theology from the University of Johannesburg, and a BA in Theology from the Rand Afrikaans University.