Glossolalia, the most misunderstood

Recently the Domestic Expression of the Brothers and Sisters of Charity has been focusing on three topics stemming from the Leadership Gathering in April: clustering (getting closer together), vocations (gathering more who are called), and renewal in the Holy Spirit. My previous post of cell group teaching gave an overview of the gifting of the Holy Spirit. This post starts focusing on some of the gifts and graces of the Spirit. Remember that the previous post noted that any of the gifts of the Spirit that are exercised without the holiness that the Spirit leads us into will be perverted and become destructive. Also note that the perspective taken here is basically a biblical studies and historical approach, although with some pastoral observations.


While the lists in the Pauline and Petrine letters are not complete, but are examples shaped to the context of the argument in which they are included, we see clearly that: The Word Gifts are on a continuum: least comprehendible (by both speaker and hearer) to most comprehendible. The diagram below pictures this, and the fact will become clear as we continue.

Glossolalia/Interpretation —–  Prophecy ——  Teaching/Exhortation 


The first word gift, the least comprehendible, is glossolalia, which we encounter, first in an extended discussion in 1 Cor 12-14 and then in Acts 2. It raises a number of questions, which we shall take up one at a time.


First, is it non-language, ecstatic sounds? From a biblical historical point of view, one does find ecstatic non-language group speaking in scripture, but only in the early exilic/ pre-exilic former prophets, who attribute it to an earlier time and context. For example, one finds it in 1 Samuel and 1 Kings in the prophetic bands (the groups are still present in 1 Kings 18:13), which are probably the same as the “sons of the prophets.” While we do not hear of any content to the prophecy in Num 11, it is clear in 1 Sam 10 that the prophetic band stimulated what is normally identified in modern scholarship as glossolalia by energetic singing or chanting, accompanied by musical instruments (1 Sam 10:5). This was the means used to induce the ecstatic experience. The experience could be catching (at least when the Spirit was involved), for in 1 Sam 10:10-11 Saul “catches” it as the Spirit comes upon him and he starts to do the same thing. The experience of singing and processing seems to have included dancing (as in David’s “dancing before the Lord”) and/or laying on the earth in ecstasy (as Saul does in 1 Sam 19:20-24 – notice that Samuel is presiding over something when Saul comes up angrily and then involuntarily joins in), with both associated with “nakedness” or indecent dress (which might simply mean the removal of one’s outer garment, which one wore when out of the house and not doing physical labor, but then falling to the ground and dancing in which one kicked up one’s skirts, might both produce at least flashes of indecent exposure). While this is called “prophecy”, that is because it was the original meaning of a term that later shifted its meaning, for 1 Sam 9:9 indicates that the original meaning of “prophet” [Heb nabi’] was associated with such behavior and “seer” [Heb ro’ē] was associated with what we normally associate with biblical prophecy. Later, perhaps by the exile, the ecstatic behavior drops out of favor, and the term “prophet” comes to mean what we associate with the writing prophets (Elijah – Elisha seeming to form a transition). The term “seer” stopped being used. This type of ecstatic speaking was not unknown outside of the Hebrews, for in 1 Kings 18:26, 28-29 we find Ba’al prophets dancing around their altar (derisively called “limping” by the prophetic author of 1 Kings) and cutting themselves (when dancing alone did not do it) and prophesying (derisively called “raving,” for it was ecstatic speech, not understandable speech). While these references are all biblical, one would see something of the same in Ancient Near Eastern texts describing pagan practices. That, of course, should be a warning, for apparently-glossolalic-type utterances are not necessarily Christian (or ancient Israelite), but the altered states of consciousness can be induced by the same means in many contexts. But this is not what the New Testament means by glossolalia or “speaking in tongues.”


Second, what does the New Testament mean by glossolalia? It means speaking in a language not known to the speaker. This is clear in all New Testament references. In Acts 2 the 120 started spontaneously speaking in languages that they did not understand (since they were probably all Greek and/or Aramaic speakers), but which the those who visited Jerusalem recognized as their native languages (although a traveler would normally speak Greek). In his long discussion of glossolalia (which was being abused in Corinth) Paul in 1 Cor 13:1 groups glossolalia under the rubric of language, human or angelic. And in 1 Cor 14 Paul’s argument assumes that the language can be interpreted (i.e. that it is a language), even if the ability to do that is a divine gift. Finally, as Andrew Wilson points out in Christianity Today, in the Fathers it is also assumed that glossolalia is a language, even if unknown to the speaker or the group to whom he or she is speaking (without the spiritual gift of understanding it). Thus, what the New Testament is talking about and what the Church experienced over the centuries is a linguistic phenomenon, speaking in a language unknown to the speaker, even if the language involved was angelic.


Third, how common is glossolalia? In Acts it is a common, but not unique, mark of the filling with the Holy Spirit and thus part of Christian initiation for many people, with it either preceding or following immediately upon baptism. But in Acts it is notthe only or necessarymark of the filling with the Holy Spirit, nor is it a mark of re-filling with the Spirit even in Acts. Prophecy, joy, and other such expressions are equally marks of the filling with the Holy Spirit. Glossolalia seems to be common, as if the joy and inner experience of the Spirit can only find expression in Spirit-given words, but it is by no means unique. In Acts 19 Paul asks whether the people in a group had been filled with the Holy Spirit upon conversion, so he expected some experience, but he does not ask if they had spoken in tongues. In fact, 1 Cor 12:30 Paul argues that not all speak in tongues (the form of the question with Greek indicates a negative answer, “All do not speak in tongues, do they?”). In fact, Paul’s argument as a whole in 1 Cor 12 is against the idea that ever believer can or should speak in tongues/ use glossolalic speech, for there are varieties of gifts and no one has all of them. Finally, pastoral experience shows that some people who deeply desire to speak in tongues never do, despite prayer, coaching, and other means of “getting them started.” There is the further danger that if one by using “means” induces glossolalic-like speech in a person whom the Spirit is not gifting, since it is not coming from the Spirit, it must be coming from some other source, at best fleshly and at worst demonic.


Fourth, since we are talking about the genuine gift, how is it received? There are situations when someone, during an overwhelming spiritual experience, starts to spontaneously speak in tongues (“like a turkey gobbler” was how John Wimber put it). Yet, while one can pray for such overwhelming spiritual experience, i.e. pray for revival, trying to induce it or making it normative would be unwise at best and dangerous at worst. More often someone, upon reading or hearing about the gift and praying with relation to it, develops a desire to speak in tongues and/or receives an inner impulse to do so. In that case, opening their mouth, giving breath, and starting to speak what “comes to mind” will quietly start the gift. That is, normally the person’s will must be joined to the divine impulse, for otherwise they remain with the longing and never fulfill the longing. Let us make it clear: the person is in no way “out of control.” Thus, according to Paul (1 Cor 14), they can stop and wait for translation (or request that gift) or stop speaking in tongues altogether, for the gift is under the control of the speaker. The key element in this is the inner divine impulse – one feels an impulse within oneself that one recognizes as indicating that it is time to speak in tongues, yet even if the impulse is there, when it becomes evident that there is no translation, there is no sin in refraining. Furthermore, all gifts of the Spirit remain “giftsof the Spirit” and are under control of the Spirit, who can gift or not give whenever he wishes – they are never “my gift” that I own whatever the Spirit may want. I may, due to my personality or how God made me, frequently, even normally, be used by the Spirit in one or another area of gifting, but that do mean that I “own” it. In order to keep the gift genuine, I must be listening to the quiet voice of the Spirit within and resist jealousy if I see someone else being used in that area of gifting when the Spirit is not choosing to use me.


Fifth, Paul says that in a public assembly/ public gathering glossolalic speech should always be interpreted (or the person should be silent). Interpretation/ translation (when it is a spiritual gift) is likewise an impulse to speak, but in the known language. This impulse comes to a person who has understood what the glossolalic message means, not because they understand the language in general, but because they understand this instance by means of the Spirit. Furthermore, it is easy for a person to confuse the impulse to translate with the impulse to speak a word of prophecy on their own. In that case, the spoken message is not connected to the glossolalic message, which is not healthy. It is not healthy because prophecy should be weighed or evaluated by the leaders of the community rather than simply accepted (again, see 1 Cor 14), and if it is masked as the interpretation of a glossolalic message, it may seem authenticated by that fact and therefore not interpreted. This danger is greatest when excitement and emotions are running at a high pitch in a gathering.


Finally, we come to the “so what?” question. What is the significance of or reason for glossolalia? First, it is a sign that God is gathering all the nations (thus Pentecost in Acts 2 has people from nations around the Roman world hearing the good news). The sign is a dual sign, for it is both that God is sending the good news to all nations and that God is speaking to us through people of other languages (i.e. a reversal of Babel). Second, it is therefore a sign of the universality and catholicity of the Church, especially since we have to work together to understand it – some must interpret what someone else says. God breaks down the linguistic/ national barriers to form a universal community. Third, it is also a tool that God sometimes uses to proclaim his good news to people we otherwise could not communicate with. I had a woman in a church I pastored who was a nurse and who had the impulse to “speak in tongues” to a patient who did not speak English. The patient brightened up and started speaking enthusiastically back in their own language. At a pause, the nurse started again to speak in tongues, and so a back and forth conversation ensured, evening when the nurse had finished her duties and needed to go on to see other patients. It was clearly understandable and meaningful to the patient; the nurse had no idea what it was about, other than that she had obeyed God and thought she heard something like “Jesus” and “Christ” in what she was saying. And she never received the impulse to speak that way again to a patient, even to the same patient, whom she next saw on her way out of the hospital after discharge. These things do happen, even if, at least in our culture, they are rare. (Early Pentecostal missionaries sometimes rushed to the mission field without bother with language training, assuming that since they spoke in tongues this would be their normative experience. The results were disastrous.) Finally, it may be used in prayer to express what we cannot express in our own words, although the only scripture (Rom 8:23-24) speaks of our “groanings,” not glossolalia, while the Spirit sights in a way beyond words. But it is true that Christians have lifted up their hearts to God using repeated phrases that keep them focused, such as the Jesus Prayer or the prayers of the Marian rosary, and in the recent Pentecostal and charismatic movements group glossolalia has replaced such prayer. But, of course, such groups assumed that every “Spirit-filled” Christian could “speak in tongues,” which Paul denies. And sometimes, like with the Corinthians, there seems to be the assumption that the non-rational is better than the rational. So, while there are times when a group or someone within a group can only say, “Abba, Father,” (from Rom 8), or “Hallelujah,” or “Jesus,” or some other phrase, and for some this will be an appropriate time to glossolalia, the New Testament says nothing about the use of glossolalia in such instances. In my experience, it is also often manipulative when someone tells a group to lift up their voices in tongues, for it both raises the gift to an importance that Paul denies it has and makes those who do not have the gift feel second-class. And it may make those who do exercise that gift feel manipulated, for the impulse is not coming from the Spirit within but from someone without.

Much more could be said about this topic, but enough has been said to think about. We need to move on to the more understandable gifts of the Spirit, which will be the topic of my next post.





About Peter H. Davids

I am Director of Clergy Formation for the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter, a professor at Houston Graduate School of Theology, and a Catholic priest (and former Episcopal priest for 34 years). I am also a husband, father, and grandfather.
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