September 1, 2011

Facebook Gibberish and the Real Gift of Tongues

by Nathan Busenitz

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.

No matter what it is called, that kind of nonsensical gibberish has no correlation to the truly miraculous gift of languages found in the New Testament.

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.

Nathan Busenitz

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Nathan serves on the pastoral staff of Grace Church and teaches theology at The Master's Seminary in Los Angeles.
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  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    Whoa. Thanks for the background lesson.

    I have heard several people pray in “tongues” before, and they had told me they were praying in “tongues”. I did not know what to make of it so I said nothing. I just filed it away. They love Christ and praying/speaking in “tongues” is what they do on occasion.

    Q’s: Pastor Nate, have you shared the serious concerns you have about Charismatic practice face-to-face with Charismatics? If so, how did it go? What’s a good way to introduce your concerns? What’s a bad way to introduce your concerns? Did any of them eventually abandon Charismatic practice and thank you for leading them out of Charismatic practice? Did any Charismatic get upset with you for expressing your concerns about their practices?

    I know some Charismatics and it seems like a very touchy subject with them. Have you found that to be the case too?

    • Anonymous


      Thanks for your feedback. I have interacted with charismatics on occasion about topics like prophecy and tongues. Some of these interchanges have been online, and some in person. Our interaction often depends on the specific person and the flavor of charismatic background from which they come. (There are over 20,000 distinct charismatic and pentecostal groups.)

      As in all discussions, I try to employ the spirit of 2 Timothy 2:24-25. The charismatic issue tends to be a particularly touchy subject because deep emotions and personal experiences are involved. But, if we are both walking in the Spirit and seeking to honor Christ through the exaltation of his Word, we can have very meaningful fellowship and mutual encouragement.

      With my conservative evangelical continuationist brothers, I would hope to emphasize our solidarity in the gospel–even if we have strong disagreements over certain aspects of practical pneumatology. And I would affirm my appreciation for evangelical continuationist leaders (like Mahaney, Grudem, and Piper) in spite of our differences.

      Hope that helps!

      • Truth Unites… and Divides

        Thanks Pastor Nathan,

        Your response is helpful.

        “(There are over 20,000 distinct charismatic and pentecostal groups.)”


        I had no idea there were so many. Can you provide reference to this?

        • Anonymous

          It was in The New International Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements (ed. by Stanley Burgess). I’ll have to go back and find the page number.

  • Jerryw

    Great synopsis, Nate! Very helpful…

  • Michael

    Thanks a lot Pastor Nate! May the Lord continue to bless you with discernment!

  • Tim

    I love Google Translate! It’s about the closest I’ve ever come to mastering foreign languages.

    A lot of glossialists seem to rely on Romans 8. What is your understanding of the groaning in Romans 8:22-26, and is it in any way related to Psalm 77:3?


    • Anonymous

      Hi Tim,

      Thanks for your feedback. A couple comments on Romans 8:22-26.

      1. There is no mention of the spiritual gifts in this passage. So to read “gift of tongues” from Romans 8 is to import it into the text. This particular passage focuses on the believer’s hope in the midst of suffering, and not on the use of any spiritual gift.

      2. The groaning of believers (in v. 23) is compared to the groaning of creation (in v. 22). The groaning of creation is not an audible groaning, but rather refers (metaphorically) to a sense of longing and expectation.

      3. The groaning of the Spirit (in v. 26) is “too deep for words” or “inexpressible.” If there are no words involved such that the groaning cannot be verbally expressed, it cannot refer to the gift of tongues (even by its modern charismatic definition).

      4. The implication of v. 27 is that the Spirit’s groaning is not an audible groaning, but rather one which the Father knows because He “knows what the mind of the Spirit is.”

      All of this together makes it very difficult to justify the modern practice of tongues from this passage.

      Thanks again for your comment.

      • Tim

        Super. That’s about how I understood it, but you’ve expressed it a lot more clearly than I could have hoped to.

  • Brad

    Hi Nathan,

    I used to go to a church that spoke in tongues. Each member of the church would pray to God in tongues. I couldn’t make out what anyone was saying, but I kind of thought it was beautiful because the people really seemed to be worshiping God with their hearts. They said that 1 Corinthians 14 proves that there is a type of “tongues” that is a “heavenly” language since 1 Corinthians 14 says that this type of tongue is 1) for God, not man, 2) not understandable by men, and 3) mysterious.

    I was wondering if you think that 1 Corinthians 14 is speaking about a kind of language that is different from a worldly language? Or is it talking about the same thing as Acts 2?


    • Anonymous

      Hi Brad,

      Thank you for your comment. I hope to have time to respond to your questions in more detail later today. For now, I’ll have to point you to an audio link where I answer the questions — “Is the gift of tongues in Acts 2 the same as tongues in 1 Corinthians 12-14?” and then secondly, “Is the gift of tongues in 1 Corinthians 12 the same as the gift in 1 Corinthians 14?”

      I am strongly convinced that there is only one type of tongues in the NT.


      • Dan B.

        Listening to the lecture you linked. In it you mentioned another lecture you gave the previous year about how continuationists argue for their position. I’m looking for it on the Shepherd’s conf site, but it’s not apparent which one you’re referring to. Would you mind sharing that link? Thanks.

      • Brad

        Thanks, Nathan!!

  • Andy

    This is a very helpful breakdown. Thank you.

    My questions are then about the development of the modern charismatic use of tongues. How was there such a break from the biblical and historical meaning of tongues? Where do modern charismatics go biblically to defend the use of gibberish?


    • Anonymous

      Hi Andy,

      Thanks for your question.

      When Pentecostals first began speaking in tongues (starting with Agnes Ozman in 1901), they initially claimed that the tongues were real languages. It was only after it became clear that Pentecostal tongues were not real languages, that they began looking for ways to justify their ecstatic practice.

      • Truth Unites… and Divides

        I was unaware of the origins of speaking in tongues. I google/wikipedia’d Agnes Ozman and looked up other articles about her and her speaking in Chinese and writing in Chinese. To be frank, it was pretty ridiculous.

        With regards to Pentecostals… I’ve read in several places that Pentecostal-Charismatic denominations are among the fastest growing churches in the world, particularly in Latin America and Africa. Is this a good thing? I’m not crazy about Charismatic Pentecostalism but it’s better than the alternatives, yes?

      • Tim

        Ditto on TUaD’s questions, plus whatever insights you have as to why those denominations are growing so fast. I mean, I understand completely the tickling listening ears part of it but have their been any empirical studies on the subject?


  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    Hi Pastor Nate,

    Would it not surprise you if someone forwarded your post to a tongue-speaking Charismatic friend or relative who’s a member of a Charismatic church with the simple preface of:

    “Here’s a post about speaking in tongues that makes for thoughtful reading:”

    And then the tongue-speaking Charismatic becomes offended at the one who sent him/her your post?

    • Anonymous


      I do not intend to offend unnecessarily. But I do want my charismatic friends to understand that it is a serious thing to attribute to the Holy Spirit something that does not come from Him.

      I would be curious as to which part gave offense: 1) The premise that “tongues” (biblically defined) refer to authentic foreign languages. OR 2) The claim that modern Pentecostal tongues do not consist of authentic foreign languages.

      Thanks again for your comments.

      • Truth Unites… and Divides

        “I would be curious as to which part gave offense”

        I think it would be the part here: “a serious thing to attribute to the Holy Spirit something that does not come from Him.”

        I.e., that foundationally, that they’re speaking in “tongues” does not even come from the Holy Spirit.

  • Philip_comer

    TUAD, If anything Nate was too nice. Sitting down at a computer and hacking at the keyboard like some zoo monkey, and then claiming God told you to do that is not only breaking the third commandment, but it’s severely insulting to God. Either God is holy, and good, and clear, and communicative, or He’s not, and the ‘He’s not’ has a lot of very big and very awful consequences.

    • Truth Unites… and Divides

      “Sitting down at a computer and hacking at the keyboard like some zoo monkey”

      Aw man, I wasn’t going to tell you this, but I will. You really made me laugh out loud with that statement. I think it was because you used the adjective “zoo”. If it was just “monkey” I probably wouldn’t have laughed, but you had to go and say that it was a “zoo monkey”! That just created a ridiculous image, plus you used the amusing verb phrase of “hacking at the keyboard” and I just lost it.

      “Hacking at the keyboard like some zoo monkey” is just a LOL belly-buster.

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  • Richard

    I followed the link to the post on the subject.

    I think I was actually more SHOCKED by the phase “YOU ARE THE MANY BREASTED ONE” more so than the typing in tongues. It’s almost like the “typing in tongues” was a distraction from what my wife simply called “blasphemy” the moment she read it.

    Curious what you will write about that, and more scared of what image you might use to represent it! Ha.

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