Bible Subjects

Speaking in Tongues

Gerhard F. Hasel

This is a summary of the book “Speaking in Tongues: Biblical Speaking in Tongues and Contemporary Glossolalia” by Gerhard F. Hasel. It is published by Adventist Theological Society Publications, Berrien Springs, MI 49103. The book can be bought at www.amazon.com. Hasel has been a professor and taught in the Old Testament and Bible Theology at Andrews University, USA. Hasel´s books “Old Testament Theology: Basic Issues in the Current Debate” and “New Testament Theology: Basic Issues in the Current Debate” are used in many universities worldwide. Therefore, he is more than competent to write on the subject of speaking in tongues from a Biblical point of view.

The contemporary phenomenon of “speaking in tongues,” which is practiced by millions of Christians around the world at present, is of recent origin in Christianity. Even though there have been attempts by score to demonstrate that the phenomenon of glossolalia in modern times has roots going back for centuries in Christian practice, it remains certain that it is of recent origin, as will be shown below. The practice of “speaking in tongues,” or glossolalia, is part of the Pentecostalism of the twentieth century and the charismatic movement that has spread beyond traditional Pentecostal churches since the 1960´s. It is growing at a most rapid pace and seems to have become a part of nearly every Christian denomination in the world.

There are five texts in the New Testament, which refer to speaking in tongues. They are found in Mark 16:17. Acts 2:11. Acts 19:6., and                     1 Corinthians 12: to 1 Corinthians 14: In addition, Paul talks about the tongues of angels in 1 Corinthians 13:1.

Before Hasel analyzes these texts, he investigates how the speaking in tongues which is used by the charismatic movement, can be found in other religions of the world.

What do the language experts say about the speaking of tongues?

Linguists and anthropologists have attempted to find out whether or not glossolalia is related to modern or ancient languages around the world.

Felicitas D. Goodman has engaged in extensive research in glossolalia. She reports that glossolalia is found among “the Inuit (Eskimos), the Saami (Lapps), the Chukchi, the Khanty (Ostiaks), the Yakuts, the Evenki, (who) use in their religious rituals secret languages that consist of a mixture of nonsense syllables and the vernacular.”

There are many examples of unintelligible sounds or glossolalia from all contents and the native religions practiced on them. For instance, “in Japan glossolalia is known to occur in small cultic groups, during sorcerous séances in Hokkaido and northern Honshû, and the postwar sect known as the Dancing Religion.”

In Ethiopia, in the zâr cult, “the shamans talk to the zârs (spirits) in a ´secret language`.

Goodman has found that glossolalia exists among the spirits of the dead with the Trobiand Islanders, ancestral spirits in Africa, and various spirits in Haitan Voodoo. L. Carlyle May shows that glossolalia in non-religions is present in “Malaysia, Indonesia, Siberia, Artic regions, China, Japan, Korea, Arabia, and Burma, among other places.” It is also present extensively in African tribal religions.

In addition, the speaking of tongues (glossolalia) is present in non-Christian religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism, and in cults such as Mormonism.

There is not much difference between the Christian speaking in tongues and the tongues spoken in non-Christian religions. If this is the case, then how can the Holy Spirit use the same speaking in tongues that one finds in heathen religions?

Would the Holy Spirit use such a learned but unintelligible form of speaking as one of His gifts? Would He use something that is identical with that used by witch doctors, shamans, and priests of non-Christian (pagan) religions? Would he use something that is used in séances and in sorcerous meetings by spiritualists?

The speaking of tongues in the gospel of Mark 16:15-17

Mark 16:15-17   And he said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will follow those who believe: In my name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues.”

To speak in new tongues in this text, means to speak in new languages. Jesus says go into all the world. To preach the gospel to the whole world means to learn languages and not speak in a gibberish way, which no one understands. Because there were many Jews attending the feasts in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost, God helped the disciples to speak in many new languages, so as to communicate the gospel to all Jews coming from different countries in the diaspora. When the Holy Spirit was given to the disciples, they could speak in different languages as in Acts 2: New tongues in this text means new languages only.

In the book of Acts 2:1-11, we have a description of what kind of tongues which were spoken in Jerusalem.

Acts 2:4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. The word tongues in the Greek is “glossolali.”

Acts 2:6 And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were confused, because everyone heard them speak in his own language. The word language in the Greek is “dialect” and this is where we get the word dialect from, which can be found in different languages all over the world.

Acts 2:8 And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born. The Jews coming to Jerusalem from different countries in Asia could only understand their own language from that country. The Holy Spirit gave the disciples a gift to speak in many new languages, so as to preach the gospel to these hearers, and when they returned to their country they could also preach the gospel to their countrymen.

Acts 2:9-11 These verses name the different languages which the disciples spoke, to preach the gospel to the Jews coming from different countries surrounding Palestine. Acts2:11 Cretans and Arabs – we hear them speaking in our own tongues (verse 8. languages which they were born with) the wonderful works of God.

It is without a doubt that these verses in Acts 2:1-11 refer to languages from different countries and not an unknown gibberish utterance, which we can hear from the charismatic movement around the world today.

Acts 10:44-47 In Acts chapter 10 we have an account of the centurion Cornelius who became a Christian. The disciple Peter was sent by the Holy Spirit to Cornelius to preach the gospel to him. Cornelius and his household accepted the message and was baptized by the Holy Spirit and water. When the Holy Spirit came over Cornelius´ household, they began to speak in tongues.

Which kind of tongues did they speak?

In Acts 10:46.47. For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God. Then Peter answered, “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”

In verse 47 Peter is referring to the same occurrence of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that they and the disciples received on the Day of Pentecost. The speaking of tongues on the day of Pentecost were languages, so as to communicate the gospel to other peoples coming from the surrounding nations.

Acts 19:1-6 In this passage Luke is writing about the 12 disciples who were baptized by John the Baptist. Paul who was with Luke asked these disciples in verse 2, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” So they said to him, “We have not so much as heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.” So Paul baptized them again in the name of the Lord Jesus.

After the baptism, Paul in verse 6, laid hands on them, and the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke with tongues and prophesied.

The word “spoke” in verse 6, is written in the imperfect. This means that the word is used as earlier in Acts, in connection with speaking in tongues. The imperfect form of the Greek verb laleîn is used. This form indicates that Luke intended to emphasize a continuous or protracted action in the exercise of this gift. It was a permanent gift, as identical to that found to be true in Acts 2 and Acts 10.

Tongues of angels

Believers in the Charismatic movement around the world, use this text in    1 Corinthians 13:1 to support their belief in the speaking in tongues as the tongues of angels.

1 Cor 13:1 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal.

Stuart Currie´s study of angelic language reveals that there is no evidence for the use of angelic language by humans and there is no guidance as to how it might be recognized.

We must recognize that Paul spoke hypothetically in 1 Cor 13:1, as the Greek conditional clause indicates. Paul uses the conditional participle “ean,” if followed by the subjunctive “lalô.” This type of conditional clause in the Greek language is one that does not speak about reality. Paul seems to say with a hyperbole that if all linguistic possibilities, including angelic speech, were at his disposal and yet he lacked love, it would mean nothing. The supposition is that Paul does not speak in the tongue of angels.

Thus, modern glossolalists (speaking in tongues in the charismatic movement) will find it difficult from a syntactical, linguistic, and comparative point of view to appeal to this sentence as a proof for the identity of the glossolalia they practice.  

1 Corinthians 12 – 14. Speaking in tongues is used for the common good and upbuilding of the church.

The gifts from the Holy Spirit were given not for private use between God and a person, but for the common good of building the church up.

1 Cor 12:7 But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all.

1 Cor 14:5 he who speaks with tongues, unless indeed he interprets, that the church may receive edification.

Paul writes that no gift is for private use; all gifts are intended for the common good, for the building up of the church. 1 Cor 14:12. In addition, Paul says in 1 Cor 14:26 Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.

The speaking in tongues is used for speaking in mysteries

1 Cor 14:2 For he who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God, for no one understands him; however, in the spirit he speaks mysteries.

What does the word “mysteries” mean in the writings of Paul? It does not mean a mysterious secret language that no one understands like they use in the Charismatic movement around the world.

The word “mysteries” is used only four times in the plural in the letter to     1 Corinthians, e.g.

1 Cor 4:1 Let a man so consider us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.

1 Cor 13:2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.

1 Cor 15:51.52 Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed – in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.

Furthermore, Paul uses the word many times in the singular in his writings e.g.

1 Cor 2:7 But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory.

What is this “mystery?”

According to Paul, this mystery is the plan of salvation or the gospel of Jesus Christ and nothing more.

Ephesians 3: by revelation he made known to me the mystery, (as I have already briefly written by which, when you read, you may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ).

To me, who am less than the least of all the saints, this grace was given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the ages has been hidden in God who created all things through Jesus Christ.

Why did a man speak in mysteries in 1 Corinthians 14:2?

The church in Corinth was placed in a city were merchants travelled from many countries to do business and sell their merchandise. Some of these merchants were Christians and did not understand the language in Corinth. Therefore, Paul recommends that these men pray to God in silence in their own language whilst in church, because no one understands him. He can speak to God in mysteries, which is the mystery of the gospel through Jesus Christ our savior.

How to understand the speaking of tongues or languages?

Paul lays the emphasis on the importance of understanding what is being said, from a person who speaks in languages. The word “understand” is written nine times I 1 Corinthians 14. Why does Paul write that it is important we understand what is being said? Because the church in Corinth would like to know what the man is saying and it could be for the building up of the church. If the church does not understand what is being said, then how can the church benefit from what is being said? Paul in this text is referring to languages and languages only. For example, a merchant visits the church from another country and he cannot communicate with the members. If there is not an interpreter in the church, then it is best for the man to be silent and talk to God alone in his own language.

However, if there is someone to interpret the language, then Paul has a set of rules for interpreting languages in the church. For example in                    1 Corinthians 14:13 “Therefore let him who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret.” If he cannot interpret then verse 27 and 28. “If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be two or at the most three, each in turn, and let one interpret. But if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in church, and let him speak to himself and to God.

These rules have not been practiced in the Charismatic movement when the church members come together. My experience when visiting these churches is, the whole of the church begin to speak in tongues (unintelligible sounds) and there is no one to interpret, and no one understands what is being said. Therefore, the church does not benefit from this kind of tongue speaking.


When Hassel analyses these texts on the speaking of tongues in the New Testament, he means that only languages from different countries are implied, and not unintelligible words which no one understands, just like the charismatic movement uses today.


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