02 July 2024

“Speaking in tongues must be in an actual tongue. Bible says so.”

I heard this saying again recently. It’d been a few months. I hear it from time to time, but I haven’t given the subject its own article, so here y’go.

It’s a claim some cessationists make as part of their overall argument that speaking in tongues stopped in bible times, doesn’t happen anymore, and every continuationist church which still does tongues is either wrong, delusional, deceived, or devilish.

(And yes, because the Holy Spirit empowers tongues, claiming it's devilish means they're actually blaspheming the Holy Spirit. I know; some folks claim attributing the Spirit’s works to the devil somehow isn’t blasphemous. Okay then; how would they like it if every time they did a good deed, we said, “No they didn’t do it out of goodness; it’s all part of a satanic scheme to lead people astray; don’t trust them!” You know, kinda like they do with politicians from the other political party. Betcha it’d outrage them, or at the very least annoy them a bunch. Betcha they’d call it slanderous. And since blasphemy means slander, they’re blaspheming the Spirit. Whoops. Better repent! Okay, digression over.)

So in their churches, they forbid tongues. Yeah, I know there’s a bible verse telling us not to do that, 1Co 14.39 but they do it anyway. And how they justify it is with the saying in the title: “Speaking in tongues must be in an actual tongue. Bible says so. You are not speaking an actual tongue. You’re speaking gibberish. That’s not biblical. That’s devilish. And we oughta forbid devilry.”

That’s right: In every place in the bible where we read about tongues, and speaking in tongues, these folks insist the ancient Christians were speaking other human languages. Because weren’t they doing just that on the first Christian Pentecost?

Acts 2.4-11 ESV
4And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.
5Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. 6And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. 7And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? 9Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, 11both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.”

If the first instance of speaking in tongues consisted of foreign languages, they figure every instance of speaking in tongues must be that. Forget “various kinds of tongues;” 1Co 12.10 ESV they insist there’s only one kind: Foreign languages. Nothing else.

To a cessationist the Spirit doesn’t do tongues anymore anyway; the whole argument is moot. But let’s say he did: Then all tongues would be in foreign languages. And if our tongues aren’t, they’re not really from the Holy Spirit. Whether we’re faking it or the devil’s empowering it, they won’t always say. Sometimes because they’re not absolutely sure they’re right, and don’t wanna unintentionally blaspheme the Spirit. But some of the bolder cessationists have no trouble with saying it’s the devil, and blaspheme away.

Here’s the funny thing: In the United States, a large number of these cessationists who say tongues must be foreign languages, don’t know any foreign languages. Most Americans only speak English! (And not well.) So if they ever overheard me praying in tongues, and the Spirit decided for whatever reason that my prayers would be in Urdu, they wouldn’t know a lick of Urdu, and continue to presume I’m doing it wrong, and am probably demonized. They haven’t the discernment necessary to judge me properly. And I’m not even talking about supernatural discernment… which they wouldn’t practice anyway, ’cause cessationism.

Nope; all they know is they hear “argle-bargle-dirka-dirka” and it makes ’em angry. Same as one of my former bosses, who was a huge racist and didn’t want us employees talking about him behind his back: “This is America! Speak English!” Largely this is just the cessationist variant.

There are more than only human languages, y’know.

Now yes, when Christians speak in tongues, a lot of it sounds like baby talk. And… so what? What if it is baby talk? Spiritual baby talk. Some of us are spiritual infants, after all. (Shouldn’t be spiritual infants for as long as so many of us are, but still.) Does we understand baby talk? Not well, although some moms do a remarkably good job. Does God understand baby talk? Please; he knows all.

I’ve heard some mocking cessationists say it sounds like jabbering monkeys. And… so what? What if it is monkey talk? You realize humans aren’t the only creature which communicates, right? Paul and Sosthenes mentioned angelic languages when they were writing about love:

1 Corinthians 13.1 ESV
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

This insistence that tongues be a human language, ignores the fact the apostles also wrote about nonhuman language. Biologists can tell you about whale songs, dolphin squeaks, bee dances, and other ways that other creatures communicate to one another; all of which went right over humanity’s heads for most of our existence, ’cause our philosophers arrogantly presumed we’re the only creature that speaks. Animal communications were dismissed as unintelligible noises. Squeaks, whistles, moans, chittering—all of which meant nothing to them. Turns out they do mean something.

The unintelligible noises which come out of us when we speak in tongues? They do mean something. They mean something to God. And they’re not meant to be understood by anyone else unless the Holy Spirit enables a translation. Which sometimes he doesn’t enable… because sometimes it’s none of our business what the tongues-speaker is saying.

The tongues we’re not to know.

I mentioned various kinds of tongues. One of the various kinds is prayer tongues. I’ve discovered very few cessationists know there’s any such thing. Even if they’ve heard Pentecostals and charismatics talk about “praying in your prayer language,” the concept somehow went right over their heads. Comes from being so fixated on there only being one kind of tongues—which the Spirit doesn’t do anymore anyway.

When we struggle to pray—when we’re so miserable we can’t be articulate, or when we’re asked to pray for stuff and haven’t a clue what to say—you do realize the Holy Spirit can help us at those times?

Romans 8.26 ESV
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.

Tongues-speakers recognize Paul was writing about praying in tongues. In part it’s about the Spirit helping us pray; in part it’s also about privacy. It’s nobody’s business what we tell God!

1 Corinthians 14.2 ESV
For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit.

“No one understands” is English for οὐδεὶς ἀκούει/udéis akúei, “not even one [person] hears,” or “listens,” or “heeds”—nobody’s paying attention to this tongue, nor should be, because it’s not for them. It’s for God alone. It’s none of our business.

Therefore it’s unintelligible. Nobody around can understand it. And if some busybody decided, “Well I wanna understand it,” and called up Google Translate on their phone, they’d get nowhere. Or if they stuck it on Reddit looking for translators, still they’d get nowhere. In fact most of the Redditors would think the speaker was nuts. 1Co 14.23 But it’s not for them anyway!

If you read on in 1 Corinthians 14, Paul and Sosthenes discuss unintelligible tongues, why prophecy is far more appropriate for corporate worship, and why we oughta interpret those tongues so they’ll be useful to others. But in so doing the apostles never indicate these are intelligible tongues. Just the opposite: They’re not.

1 Corinthians 14.9 ESV
So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air.

Those cessationists who insist every tongue oughta be a human language, or oughta have an interpretation every single time: They don’t respect that these people are uttering mysteries in the Spirit, mysteries that aren’t for them. They insist the mysteries should be for them; that they should be privy to every tongues-speaker’s prayers, like some hungry gossip. Speak English!

The hypocritical objection.

Thing is, if this actually were a human language which could be translated, or if someone actually did stand up and given an interpretation of the tongue… these complaining cessationists would immediately reject the interpretation. Because the interpretation would be prophecy, and they don’t believe prophecy happens anymore either.

Yeah, there’s no pleasing them. They object to the entire situation, top to bottom. It’s not about doing it right; it’s about doing it at all, and they want us to stop. They’re not interested in how tongues oughta be done; they don’t know how tongues work, as demonstrated by their lack of biblical knowledge, and their rotten job of basic biblical interpretation. They’re not interested in learning from the Holy Spirit; they’ve largely replaced him with the holy bible, and it’s a pity they don’t understand it.

They don’t pray in tongues. Either they’ve never been taught to, or they have but it’s not clicked. Either they’ve been taught church should be solemn, or solemnity appeals to them (’cause it’s way easier to be solemn than holy!), and tongues-speaking looks anything but solemn. Or, which was my experience, they grew up in a church full of such people, who discouraged anyone from speaking in tongues, taught ’em they were wrong to pursue it, and taught ’em to ignore the scriptures which encourage it.

Anyway. If you don’t speak in tongues, but you’re confronted by people who do speak in tongues, there are two ways for cessationists to respond:

  • Oh gee; I guess sometimes miracles do happen.
  • No they don’t! It’s a trick! They need to stop!

Seems to me libertarianism is the more biblical of the two ideas, Ro 14 but if you’re a cessationist you’re simply not gonna do that. Because most Christians are continuationist. Their cessationism is gonna get debunked contantly. You won’t stay cessationist for long! So, to defend their worldview, cessationists get mighty legalistic about it, and shun interaction with continuationists lest their shoddy theology crumble to dust the instant they see God act.

Shoddy theology is also gonna crumble to dust when you actually read your bible—and read it in context instead of only reading the cherry-picked out-of-context verses your favorite cessationists pluck and twist to defend themselves. Most of ’em spend their whole lives avoiding all the scriptures about how to do the supernatural, ’cause it’ll undo their cherished beliefs.

Because these are cherished beliefs. They don’t pray in tongues, don’t wanna pray in tongues, and are bugged by (and in serious denial of) the fact more Christians are continuationist than not. They wanna justify themselves. They wanna be able to say, “I'm right; they're wrong,” and have bible back them up. But they’re never gonna fact-check it, lest it prove them wrong… as it will.