This may sound shocking, coming from a cessationist. But at the outset, I should probably confess that I have spoken in tongues. In fact, I do it every day.
I not only speak in tongues. I read and write in tongues. I sing in tongues. I even pray in tongues, and I wish I did so more.
(Pause for dramatic effect.)
So … what tongues do I employ?
Well, my tongue of choice is English. That’s because English is the tongue I grew up speaking. It’s the one in which I am (by far) most comfortable. I even teach English grammar here at The Master’s Seminary.
But occasionally, I make use other tongues as well. In high school, I studied Spanish—and I still use it from time to time. It can be especially handy here in Southern California, since it is widely spoken by many of the people who live here. (It is also helpful at really good Mexican restaurants. And I love Mexican food.)
I also took a year of Italian, though I am hardly proficient at it. And I’ve learned how to say “Jesus loves you” in Chinese (in spite of the fact that my tonal variations are rarely correct).
In my seminary training, I’ve studied Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and German. For me, these foreign tongues have more to do with reading than speaking. And, admittedly, I often need a lexicon to fully understand everything I encounter in the text.
But if there’s one thing my language studies have made clear to me: I do not have the gift of tongues. I do not have the miraculous and instantaneous ability to speak foreign languages fluently. Nothing in my language-learning experience has ever mirrored anything close to what happened in Acts 2. Google Translate is the closest I have ever come.
Instead, I have to work hard to learn a foreign tongue. And so does everybody else. Ever since the Tower of Babel, the art of foreign language acquisition has been a strenuous endeavor.
That is what makes the biblical gift of tongues so marvelous. It was truly a miracle! Former Galilean fisherman were preaching fluently in tongues they had never learned. (See Acts 2:8-11 for a list of the languages spoken at Pentecost.) The scene was incredible and God-glorifying! It was the undoing of Babel.
As the fourth-century church father John Chrysostom (in his homily on 1 Corinthians 14:1-2) explained:
And as in the time of building the tower [of Babel] the one tongue was divided into many; so then [in the time of the apostles] the many tongues frequently met in one man, and the same person used to discourse both in the Persian, and the Roman, and the Indian, and many other tongues, the Spirit sounding within him: and the gift was called the gift of tongues because he could all at once speak diverse languages.
* (For more on how the early church defined the gift of tongues, click here.)
Just to be clear, the word “tongue” means “language.” The corresponding Greek word, “glossa” also means “language.” Consequently, as Chrystostom points out, the “gift of tongues” was the “gift of languages.” It was the supernatural ability to fluently speak in authentic human languages without having ever learned those languages before.
I say “was” because that kind of miraculous phenomenon is simply not happening today. Though charismatics sometimes claim otherwise, the modern “gift of tongues” (or glossalalia) does not consist of authentic human foreign languages.
William Samarin, a former linguistics professor at the University of Toronto, attended numerous pentecostal and neo-pentecostal meetings over a five-year period. His travels took him to several countries, including Italy, Holland, Jamaica, Canada, and the United States. At the end of his time, he said this about the modern tongues phenomenon:
When the full apparatus of linguistic science comes to bear on glossolalia, this turns out to be only a façade language—although at times a very good one indeed. For when we comprehend what language is, we must conclude that no [modern] glossa, no matter how well constructed, is a specimen of human language, because it is neither internally organized nor systematically related to the world man perceives. . . . Glossolalia is indeed a language in some ways, but this is only because the speaker (unconsciously) wants it to be like language. Yet in spite of superficial similarities, glossolalia is fundamentally not language.
* (Source: William J. Samarin, Tongues of Men and Angels, Macmillan, 127–28.)
Maybe that is why I reacted to this article from the Christian Post, where a pentecostal evangelist supposedly typed “in tongues” on Facebook. If you look at the content of the supposed “tongues” it is nothing but gibberish — just a bunch of letters jumbled together without spaces.
On the one hand, the story is amusing. On the other, it is incredibly offensive, because it is yet another disgraceful demeaning of the real New Testament phenomenon.
To reiterate a point I made in a previous post:
Cessationists are convinced that, by redefining healing, the charismatic position presents a bad testimony to the watching world when the sick are not healed. By redefining tongues, the charismatic position promotes a type of nonsensical gibberish that runs contrary to anything we know about the biblical gift. By redefining prophecy, the charismatic position lends credence to those who would claim to speak the very words of God and yet speak error.
This, then, is the primary concern of cessationists: that the honor of the Triune God and His Word be exalted—and that it not be cheapened by watered-down substitutes.