Speaking in tongues

Are tongues the initial evidence of baptism in the Holy Spirit?
Evidences pointing to tongues being the initial evidence

Tongues were obviously significantly associated with the Holy Spirit’s initializing of the believer into the new covenant of Christ, as illustrated at Pentecost (Acts 2) and in Cornelius’ home (Acts 10), and also probably in Samaria (Acts 8) and Ephesus (Acts 19).

(Acts 2:4 NIV)  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

(Acts 10:45-46 NIV)  The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. {46} For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter said,

(Acts 19:6 NIV)  When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.

(Acts 8:17-18 NIV)  Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. {18} When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money

The passage above does not mention tongues. However, it is probable that tongues or at least some kind of visible evidence is involved. This is because the passage says that Simon “saw” that the Spirit was given.

Non-charismatic response

It is possible that tongues accompanied the receiving of the Holy Spirit because tongues acted as a sign to unbelievers. In each instance there were unbelievers who were convinced that the people who spoke in tongues became genuine believers.

Paul also received the Holy Spirit but this was most likely not accompanied by tongues as it was not recorded. Also we note that Paul received the Holy Spirit in private, not in front of unbelievers.

Evidences pointing to tongues not being the initial evidence
OT instances of filling by the Holy Spirit not accompanied by tongues

The experience of receiving the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was not a new experience. It is the start of a new era in which the Spirit will be poured out more abundantly on all flesh. Peter explains that it is fulfillment of the prophesy in Joel which says that the Spirit will be poured on all people, young and old, men and women, even servants. In the Old Testament, this was not the case. The Spirit fell on key persons, empowering them to carry out the special office of God e.g. kings, prophets.

(Acts 2:17-18 NIV)  “‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. {18} Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.

In the past, only a few selected ones are filled with the Spirit and empowered for certain tasks. While these people of the OT times were filled and empowered by the Spirit, there was no evidence of tongues.

Charismatics response

Tongues are the evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit only in the New Testament period.

No evidence of Paul speaking in tongues when he first received the Holy Spirit

(Acts 9:17-19 NIV)  Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord–Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here–has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” {18} Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, {19} and after taking some food, he regained his strength. Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus.

Paul later spoke in tongues (1 Cor 14:18) but that was not the initial evidence; it was the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Why did Paul not speak in tongues when he first received the Holy Spirit? It could be because there was no need for it. Tongues serve as a sign. In the instances when the people spoke in tongues, it either served as a sign to non-believers (Acts 2) or to other believers that the ones who spoke in tongues really received the Holy Spirit and were part of them.

Charismatic response

This is an argument from silence. It does not mean that Paul did not speak in tongues when he received the Holy Spirit just because the Bible did not record it.

Tongues are described as a gift

We know that in the Corinthian church not everyone speaks in tongues.

(1 Cor 12:29-30 NIV)  Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? {30} Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues ? Do all interpret?

The reason why some do not speak in tongues was not because some were not baptized in the Holy Spirit but rather some were not given that gift by the Spirit.

(1 Cor 12:4-11 NIV)  There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. {5} There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. {6} There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men. {7} Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. {8} To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, {9} to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, {10} to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. {11} All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines.

Furthermore, it is the Spirit’s choice to give whomsoever He wants the ability to speak in tongues. There is no mention whatsoever of speaking in tongues being an inevitable outcome of having been baptized by the Holy Spirit.

The understanding of early Christians

It is helpful to look at how Christians have historically viewed the matter of the Spirit baptism and the evidential value of speaking with tongues.  Let’s look at a series of quotes from an important work edited by Gary B. McGee entitled Initial Evidence:  Historical and Biblical Perspectives on the Pentecostal Doctrine of Spirit Baptism.  This collection of papers includes two very significant studies by Pentecostal historian Stanley Burgess.  His two chapters consider the history of the idea of the Spirit baptism and in concluding his study he writes:

This survey of the Christian idea of a baptism in/with the Holy Spirit and the evidence(s) for that infilling indicates that, while the concept of Spirit baptism was very common throughout the Christian centuries, the modern Pentecostal identification of glossolalia as the “initial evidence” of such baptism is completely novel until the nineteenth-century Irvingites (emphasis added).  Amazingly, in almost two millennia of Christian life and practice, no one…associated tongues with the advent of life in the Spirit…what is unique about modern Pentecostals is that they consider glossolalia to be the litmus test of Pentecostal orthodoxy and the valid sign for Spirit baptism… (p. 37-38).

Though we are bound first and foremost to the authority of God’s word, it is also true that we should not be as those who assume they are the first to study God’s word.  The history of gifted teachers and thinkers in the life of the Church should humble us to at least consider why it was that they understood God’s word as they did.  If we choose to accept a doctrine that no one else has expounded or even recognized before our own time period, we should at least understand fully how and why the same passages of Scripture were understood differently.  Burgess has done us a great service by frankly admitting that the Initial Evidence doctrine simply does not have a history before the 1800’s.  Let me say again, this should at least caution us to carefully consider the Scriptures used to support the doctrine itself.

The evidence of tongues strictly from historical accounts and not direct teaching

The Initial Evidence doctrine is based exclusively on historical narrative portions of Scripture.  That is, the didactic (teaching) portions of Scripture have no bearing on the matter.  The teaching is supplied by the Pentecostalist.  In other words, the book of Acts simply states that various groups spoke with tongues when receiving the Holy Spirit.  The Pentecostalist then concludes that the same is true for believers centuries later.  This is a leap in interpretation that is not revealed in Scripture itself.  Furthermore, we must maintain that this kind of reasoning is dangerous.  It simply does not follow that because God did something in the past that He will do so in the future in the exact same fashion.  For example, God parted the Red Sea when the children of Israel were leaving Egypt and drowned Pharaoh’s armies.  Are we to draw from this that every time God’s children face a sea of water that God will part it?  Are we also to conclude that in so parting the “sea” God will also destroy our enemies?  We may be able to draw principles from these narrative portions of Scripture such as God will finally deliver His people, God’s faithfulness to His covenants, etc.  This is a long way from saying that a particularity of a historical circumstance is to be judged normative for future generations.  We could also do the same thing with the book of Acts.  Ananias and Saphira were struck dead when the they lied to the Holy Spirit.  Does this mean that all will fall dead if they repeat the same sin?  The answer must be “no” since most likely people lie in one way or another in virtually every worship service not to mention in their personal lives. 

Different purposes of tongues

The argument between Charismatics and non-Charismatics on what is the purpose of tongues can be simply solved if one realizes that there is more than one purpose of tongues.

Act as a sign to unbelievers

(1 Cor 14:21-22 NIV)  In the Law it is written: “Through men of strange tongues and through the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people, but even then they will not listen to me,” says the Lord. {22} Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers…

Tongues are a sign to unbelievers because when they hear the message proclaimed in their own tongues by someone who does not speak that language, it is a miraculous sign that it is God speaking through them.

(Acts 2:6-11 NIV)  When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. {7} Utterly amazed, they asked: “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? {8} Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? {9} Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, {10} Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome {11} (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs–we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!”

(Acts 10:45-46 NIV)  The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. {46} For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.

God also used tongues to convince unbelieving Christian Jews that the Gentiles could receive the Holy Spirit, and that they ought to be welcomed as equals into the Church. Without tongues, the apostles would not have been convinced that the Gentiles could be saved.

When tongues are used for this purpose, it is very specific. That means that there may be long periods of time when this type of tongues cease to exist.

Acts 11:15. “As I began to speak, the Holy Ghost fell on them, as on us at the beginning.”

The outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Cornelius’ house occurred eight years after Pentecost, yet Peter could not point to any continuous flow of tongues for this purpose among the churches, when he explained to the Jerusalem church leaders what had happened to the Gentiles. After eight years, Peter still had to say “As on us at the beginning”, not “as on all the churches regularly”. If speaking in tongues in a known language was a normal experience in churches, Peter would not have had to reach back to Pentecost to cite a similar example.

Edifying of oneself

Besides serving as “signs”, there are other purposes of tongues that do not involve “signs to unbelievers”.

Paul refers to the Christians speaking in tongues without interpretation in a church. Because the tongues are unknown, they do not communicate anything to people and do not serve as signs.

(1 Cor 14:2 NIV)  For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. Indeed, no one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit.

The purpose of this type of tongues is not to serve as signs but rather to edify the speaker.

(1 Cor 14:4 NIV)  He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church.

Edifying of the church

Tongues that are accompanies by interpretation edifies the church.

(1 Cor 14:5 NIV)  I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. He who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may be edified.

Evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit

There is no clear teaching in the Bible that tongues serve this purpose. In the above three purposes, we have clear Biblical verses to that effect.

You draw the conclusion that tongues act as the evidence of Spirit baptism only by looking at the narratives, which indicate that in MOST cases, when a person receives the baptism in the Holy Spirit, he also started to speak in tongues.

Of course it can also be argued that even when that person who was baptized by the Sprit spoke in tongues, it could be to serve the other purposes stated above and not to serve as evidence for the baptism.



Are tongues always human languages?

There are many instances when tongues are real languages that man can understand.

(Acts 2:4-6 NIV)  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. {5} Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. {6} When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language.

(Acts 10:45-46 NIV)  The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. {46} For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.

The fact that the Apostles understood the Gentiles tongues to be magnifying God indicated that the tongues were a know language to the Apostles.

However, there are also tongues that are not human languages.

(1 Cor 13:1 NIV)  If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.

There are tongues of angels that man will not be able to understand.

(1 Cor 14:2 NIV)  For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. Indeed, no one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit.

Tongues, when used as a sign, were human languages. They had to be languages that the people for whom the signs were intended could understand.

When tongues were not meant to be a sign but as an edification tool, they can then be in non-human languages.