What is the Gift of Tongues?


Fifty days after Jesus rose from the dead, his followers were grouped together in Jerusalem when something truly unprecedented occurred. A loud rushing noise filled the hall where they were gathered, sounding like a hurricane. Then, “tongues” of something like fire appeared in their midst, split apart, and landed atop each person’s head. At that moment those gathered were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different “tongues.” They then left the room and began to preach as the Spirit enabled them.


The great rushing noise was also heard by people all over Jerusalem, including a great host of Jewish pilgrims from nations throughout and even beyond the borders of the Roman Empire. They quickly congregated together at the site of this unusual event, puzzled at the sound, but first to their confusion and then to their amazement, each one of them heard Jesus’ followers speaking his own language: “Are not all of these people who are speaking Galileans? Then how does each of us hear them in his own native language?”


At that point St. Peter stood up with the eleven Apostles and preached to them of the promised sign of the coming of the Holy Spirit offered to Israel through the prophet Joel, and how Jesus in his words, deeds, and mighty proofs—including his resurrection—substantiated himself as their Messiah. Three thousand people were baptized and converted to the Faith on that very day. From that event onward, as the Gospel advanced from Jews to half-Jews to non-Jews, the Holy Spirit fell on the first converts of each group with the same sign gift of tongues enabling them to speak many different languages and ratifying the full universality of the Church.


While the gift of tongues began as a divine endorsement of the Church to the Jews, it continued to function within the Church as a means of prophesy, leading to its misuse in Corinth.

While the gift of tongues began as a divine endorsement of the Church to the Jews, it continued to function within the Church as a means of prophesy, leading to its misuse in Corinth, where those who possessed the gift were apparently able to use it at will and did so, even if there were no persons present who understood the language being spoken. St. Paul charged that they were behaving this way because of their own vanity, essentially showing off to those who did not possess such an overtly obvious gift. St. Paul proceeded to explain that when speaking a tongue by oneself, only God understands what is being said, because he understands all languages. But then the gift is being used neither as a sign to unbelievers nor to prophesy for the Church. Similarly, if during a church gathering, people speak in tongues with no one present who knows the language and can interpret what is being said, this, too, is pointless and vain behavior. And finally, even if there are those present who can understand what is being said, if several people start speaking in tongues over the top of one another, then no one will be able to sort out what is being said due to all the confusion and disorder. So, St. Paul concludes, since the point of the gift is edification of others, first to non-believers as a sign and then to believers as prophesy, unless people are present who understand the language being used, the gift is being misused. He then adds that he himself had spoken in tongues more than any of them, but he would rather speak five words in a language his audience understands than ten thousand in a foreign language so that they would be built up in the Faith.


What is also pretty clear from Church history is that as the original Apostolic age faded and finally concluded with the death of St. John, the explosion of sign gifts of the Holy Spirit likewise faded.

The gift of tongues carries eschatological significance, for God also indicated through the prophet Joel that when his Spirit was poured out onto the world, it would indicate that the “last days” had begun. Since the sign of tongues was given at the founding of the Church, it follows that the entire age of the Church is the period God calls the “last days.” But what is also pretty clear from Church history is that as the original Apostolic age faded and finally concluded with the death of St. John, the explosion of sign gifts of the Holy Spirit likewise faded. This should not surprise us, because St. Paul himself in the thirteenth chapter of that first letter to Corinth predicts that tongues would cease of themselves.


What is curious, then, is the occasional re-emergence of what some people claimed was the gift of tongues in the 1500’s-1700’s amongst obscure protestant religious sects, and then in the 1800’s amongst the Mormons, and then finally in the 20th century at the core of the Pentecostal movement. Especially puzzling is the fact that the speech encountered in these movements is not recognizable language but sound mimicking language, using the same patterns, syllables and cadence of the native language of the apparent tongues-speaker. Linguists accordingly conclude that this linguistic gibberish is not in fact foreign language.


Let’s just set aside the ironic consequence that apparently the modern “last days” tongues outpouring consists solely in “angelic language” rather than any of the real languages heard by the people surrounding Pentecost!

To salvage their “last days” claim to a resurgent “gift of tongues” and account for its non-linguistic character, its practitioners point out another line from St. Paul in the thirteenth chapter of the first Corinthian letter: “If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal.” Given that St. Paul had the ability to use the gift of tongues to speak not just human languages but angelic ones, they argue, linguistic analysis proving that the modern-day movement is hysteria rather than the authentic gift of tongues is misguided, since no linguists have ever studied angelic languages. As such, a trained linguist cannot determine whether the sounds encountered in these movements aren’t in fact angelic languages. Let’s just set aside the ironic consequence that apparently the modern “last days” tongues outpouring consists solely in “angelic language” rather than any of the real languages heard by the people surrounding Pentecost!


Neither the immaterial nature of angels nor their appearance in human contexts provides any evidence for thinking that there are verbalizable “angelic languages.”

It is at this point in the argument that the metaphysics (the study of the reality) of angels is instructive, for we need to understood what could be meant by “angelic languages.” Since angels don’t have bodies, they lack the physical organ we call the tongue. Thus, according to their natures, angels do not use verbal speech. However, when we experience the presence of an angel, we do see a body. Angels are capable of manifesting their presence visually to us either as a vision or by temporarily manufacturing a facsimile body. In these cases of angelic visitation, an angel could use his facsimile mouth to speak to human listeners. We have many instances of this within our religious history, the most famous of which was the Annunciation by the angel Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin Mary. When Gabriel approached Mary, he spoke to her using the language with which she was familiar. So, while it is true that angels occasionally use human verbal language in order to speak to us, those languages are not foreign to the hearers, since the purpose of the messenger angel is to communicate a message that his human audience will be able to understand. And so, neither the immaterial nature of angels nor their appearance in human contexts provides any evidence for thinking that there are verbalizable “angelic languages.”


So, what could St. Paul have meant when he referenced the “language of angels”? Let’s look further into how angels communicate with one another to see. Because angels are pure spirits, i.e., immaterial minds, their operations are entirely mental. If an angel wished to move a physical object, he would do so by expending direct mental energy. We human beings would classify this as telekinesis, but for angels, it is their usual and natural way of functioning. Similarly, if an angel wished to communicate to another angel, he would not make use of a facsimile body, since both angels are pure minds and were created with the capacity to communicate with one other directly with their thoughts. We human beings would classify this form of communication as telepathy, though for an angel, it is his usual and natural way of functioning. Because telepathy is a direct mental connection—thought to thought, experience to experience—it does not require the intervention of language to visually or verbally symbolize those thoughts and experiences. As such, there are no angelic languages. But since angels do communicate via telepathy, someone might classify their “tongue” as telepathy. As such, in no meaningful sense is it true to say that a human being could verbalize the “languages of angels” since angelic “language” is none other than non-verbal, mental telepathy.


In no meaningful sense is it true to say that a human being could verbalize the “languages of angels” since angelic “language” is none other than non-verbal, mental telepathy.

If a human being were to possess the angelic capacity for communication, then, it would mean only that he could communicate telepathically, mind to mind—not verbal expression in linguistic symbols and sounds. So, when St. Paul suggests that if he could speak in the tongues of men and of angels but lacked charity it would amount to nothing, he is not suggesting that angelic expression is possible for mortal human beings. Because it is isn’t. But if it were—if St. Paul were somehow to acquire a non-human, angelic capability—it would be entirely telepathic, i.e., non-verbal. Thus, St. Paul’s single remark about hypothetically possessing angelic telepathy in I Corinthians 13 in no way suggests that frenzied verbal gibberish is a legitimate form of the Holy Spirit’s gift of languages. The gift of languages at Pentecost was a gift of real human languages. Anything else is a sham intended to show off and dominate others.

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