“Speaking in Tongues” and the Pentecost
Almost everyone is familiar with the Pentecostal frenzy expressed with their idea of glossolalia - the “speaking in tongues” - which they have elevated as a most significant element of the Christian faith. However, in spite of their argumentation and the way they relate it to the Day of the Pentecost, their “version” of glossolalia has nothing whatsoever in common with that of the Apostles.
We must firstly point out that the phenomenon of glossolalia is not something new. It was known in ancient Greece (with the oracle Pythia), as well as in other, exo-Christian religions – for example among the Dervishes. The historian Eusebius mentions Montanos, who, inspired by a spirit of delusion, would begin to “enthuse” and “speak strangely”, prophesying “differently to the old tradition and succession customs of the Church” (Eusebius, Ecclesiastic History E’ 16:7, EPE 2, p.170). Phenomena such as those had appeared during the 18th century with the Huguenots and during the 19th century with the Jansenists of France. In England the phenomenon appeared among the Quakers, the Methodists, the Mormons and other American heresies.
However in those cases it was a sporadic phenomenon and a form of piety. In the modern movement, these are no longer exceptions, but instead they have become a dogma – they are the prevalent rule. They are supposedly proof that the faithful have received the fullness of the Holy Spirit and as such, the certainty of salvation. It was, therefore, only natural to intentionally cultivate the inner desire and the powerful urge to experience such phenomena. And so, quite unscrupulously, a special psychological method was created for the purpose of guiding people to experiences such as those.
Pentecostals invoke the event of the Pentecost; however, they underline that it was NOT unique, but is also repeated, to each one of them. Apparently, just as the Apostles had “spoken in other tongues”, so can they too (supposedly) “speak in tongues”, thanks to the “baptism of the Holy Spirit”.
We cannot know if the Apostles had literally spoken in the various languages mentioned in the Bible (Acts, 2:9-11); the fact is, that when the Apostles spoke, each and every spectator heard the Apostles’ words being spoken in their own particular dialects (Acts 2:6-8). It was because the Apostles were speaking “in the Holy Spirit”!
8 And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born? 9 Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—we hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God.” (Acts 2:6-8).
This was the “inauguration” of sermons with the power of the Holy Spirit - a necessity in that day and age, because the “earth” was a wasteland and it was God’s way of indicating that a multitude of various nations were to enter the Church, and also that His Name was to be glorified by all languages. It was furthermore a symbol of unity: God’s counteraction to the event of the Tower of Babel, where He had caused the confusion of tongues!
Another instance of “glossolalia” is the “speaking in a tongue” (1 Cor. 14:2-5). This is because the aim of the Apostles’ glossolalia was to preach to people; however, “whosoever speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God, for no-one can hear him, as he speaks mysteries in the Spirit” (1 Cor. 14:2).
The Pentecostals’ glossolalia is NOT a sign of unity, given that it constantly gives rise to new schisms in the Church. Pentecostals may claim that they are the repetition of the Pentecost, but the “tongues” that they utter are unintelligible to others, as compared to the events of the Pentecost, where EVERYONE - even those who were mocking the Apostles - understood what the Apostles were saying. (Acts 2:5-13) :
5 And there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven. 6 And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together and they were confused, because everyone heard them speak in his own language. 7 Then they were all amazed and marveled, saying to one another, “Look, are not all these who speak Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born? 9 Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—we hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God.” 12 So they were all amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “Whatever could this mean?” 13 Others mocking said, “They are full of new wine.”
The glossolalia mentioned in 1 Cor.14:2-27 is not considered by the Apostle Paul to be an important charisma, nor was it something that all the faithful received. It played an entirely secondary role in the Church, and over time it became obsolete.
This charisma had already fallen into disuse during the time of Saint John the Chrysostom, who had himself mentioned that: «Και γαρ ήσαν το παλαιόν και χάρισμα της ευχης έxoντες πολλοί μετά γλώττης», in other words, “in olden times, there used to be many who had the gift of the Prayer together with the charisma of speaking in tongues” (Chrysostom, Homily 35 on 1 Corinthians, EPE p.464)
The “signs” mentioned in Mark 16:17: “And these signs will follow those who believe: In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues” were later verified in Acts 10:44-46: “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word. And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God.”
However, this glossolalia was not obligatory for all the faithful:
28 And God has appointed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, varieties of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Are all workers of miracles? 30 Do all have gifts of healings? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? (1 Cor.12:28-30)
The Apostle Paul asks all the above, and then underlines that we should strive for the “best gifts” –as is love– because: “Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away.” (1 Cor. 12:31 and 13:8).
The phenomenon described in Acts 10:44-46 (Cornelius), in Acts 8:14-17 (in Samaria) and Acts 19:1-6 (in Ephesus) were exceptional cases that God had wanted – as in the case of the robber (Luke 23:43). Nonetheless, the phenomenon of glossolalia never became the central point in the life of the Christian Church, nor was it ever related to the central content of the Gospel.
The Apostle Paul had a critical stance towards the phenomenon (1 Cor. 12:14), with extremely serious reservations as to the use of glossolalia during assemblies. His exhortation was that it be confined to private use (praying privately). With this intervention, the Apostle sought to correct an unacceptable situation: The Corinthians had made the exact same mistake as contemporary Pentecostals, as they have likewise over-evaluated the “sign” of “glossolalia”:
“1Pursue love, and desire spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy. 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. 3 But he who prophesies speaks edification and exhortation and comfort to men. 4 He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church. 5 I wish you all spoke with tongues, but even more that you prophesied; for he who prophesies is greater than he who speaks with tongues, unless indeed he interprets, that the church may receive edification. 6 But now, brethren, if I come to you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you unless I speak to you either by revelation, by knowledge, by prophesying, or by teaching? 7 Even things without life, whether flute or harp, when they make a sound, unless they make a distinction in the sounds, how will it be known what is piped or played? 8 For if the trumpet makes an uncertain sound, who will prepare for battle? 9 So likewise you, unless you utter by the tongue words easy to understand, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air. 10 There are, it may be, so many kinds of languages in the world, and none of them is without significance. 11 Therefore, if I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be a foreigner to him who speaks, and he who speaks will be a foreigner to me. 12 Even so you, since you are zealous for spiritual gifts, let it be for the edification of the church that you seek to excel. 13 Therefore let him who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret. 14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful. 15 What is the conclusion then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with understanding (intelligibly). I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with understanding (intelligibly). 16 Otherwise, if you bless with the spirit, how will he who occupies the place of the uninformed say “Amen” at your giving of thanks, if he does not understand what you say? 17 For you indeed give thanks well, but the other is not edified. 18 I thank my God I speak with tongues more than you all; 19 yet in the church I would rather speak five words with my understanding, that I may teach others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue.“ (1 Cor.14:1-18).
Contrary to the Corinthians’ stance, Paul had stressed that: “19 in the church I would rather speak five words with understanding (intelligibly), so that I may teach others also, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue.” (1 Cor.14:19).
2 Therefore tongues are for a sign - not to those who believe but to unbelievers; but prophesying is not for unbelievers but for those who believe. 23 Therefore if the whole church comes together in one place and all speak with tongues, and there come in those who are uninformed or unbelievers, will they not say that you are out of your mind? 24 But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an uninformed person comes in, he is convinced by all, he is convicted by all. (1 Cor. 14:22-24).
The Apostle Paul therefore did NOT exhort anyone towards glossolalia (1 Cor.14:19).
Furthermore, “glossolalia” in congregations was not a self-inclusive charisma: it required interpretation. (1 Cor.12:10, 30; 14:13; 26-28). In fact, Paul ranks glossolalia as the lowest of the charismas (1 Cor.12:28) and in certain verses he does not even mention this charisma at all. (Rom.12:6-8): “6 Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, let us prophesy in proportion to our faith; 7 or ministry, let us use it in our ministering; he who teaches, in teaching; 8 he who exhorts, in exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.”
Excerpt from the exceptional book by Fr. Anthony Alevizopoulos, “Handbook of Heresies and Para-Christian Groups” (3rd ed., Athens 1994)