Speaking in Tongues:
Can All Christians Experience It?

by Jason Young


Of all theological issues that have arisen in the past century, few have been more widely or popularly discussed than speaking in tongues. From the professional theologian to the layman in the pew, it seems most Christians today have taken an interest in the issue to one degree or another. Speaking in tongues as an issue in the modern church can be traced back to Charles F. Parham and his small Bible college in Topeka, Kansas. Parham had assigned his students the task of finding the biblical evidence of baptism in the Holy Spirit. After a few weeks of research, the students made their reports, unanimously concluding that speaking in tongues was the initial, physical evidence of Spirit baptism.1 The implication of this teaching was that all Christians could experience speaking in other tongues as the Spirit gave utterance.

While many modern-day Pentecostals do not hold to the classical initial physical evidence doctrine of their Topekan ancestors, all are in agreement that the experience of speaking in tongues can be had by all Christians; but is this teaching a biblical one?2 The purpose of this paper is (1) to present the Pentecostal position and contrast it with the traditional evangelical position; (2) to survey the arguments Pentecostals make to support their view and; (3) to evaluate the Pentecostal position scripturally. While there are a number of important issues regarding tongues such as their nature, their purpose, and their availability to Christians today, I will focus exclusively on whether the Bible teaches that speaking in tongues can be experienced by all Christians.

The traditional evangelical view of speaking in tongues differs markedly from the Pentecostal view. The debate between the two camps centers on 1 Cor 12:30, where Paul asks, "Do all speak with tongues?" (ESV). Traditional evangelicals argue that the answer to Paul's question is clear—not all do. Pentecostals acknowledge this fact. However, they make a distinction between the tongues Paul refers to here and the tongues that Luke describes in Acts. 'Classical' Pentecostals believe that the speaking in tongues in Acts is the initial physical evidence of baptism with the Holy Ghost, which can be universally experienced, and that the tongues in 1 Corinthians is for special use, and only for some.3

Many Pentecostals today do not believe that tongues serve as initial physical evidence of Spirit baptism but believe tongues can be universally experienced as a private prayer language.4 These Pentecostals also typically hold that the tongues of Acts are available to all, and the tongues of Corinthians are a special type that not all can experience. While there is diversity within Pentecostalism as to the nature and degree of difference between the tongues of Acts and the tongues of Corinthians, all Pentecostals agree that the speaking in tongues that Paul refers to in 1 Cor 12:30 are to be distinguished in some way from the tongues that Luke describes in Acts.

To the traditional evangelical, however, there is no biblical reason to distinguish the speaking in tongues in Acts from the speaking in tongues of 1 Corinthians. Charles Ryrie, arguing against the classical Pentecostal view writes, "Whether one believes the biblical gift of tongues is given today or not, the Pentecostal teaching that tongues are the necessary sign of having been baptized by the Spirit is wrong. Paul said that all the believers in Corinth were [Spirit] baptized [1 Cor (12:13)] but not all spoke in tongues (v. 30)." Ryrie believes that the speaking in tongues that Luke describes in the Book of Acts is no different than the tongues Paul writes about in 1 Corinthians. He remarks, "Unquestionably the first occurrence of tongues in Acts 2 was languages ... the presumption is that the tongues in Corinthians were no different."5

Similarly, Charles Hodge writes, "It is impossible to deny that the miracle recorded in Acts consisted in enabling the apostles to speak in languages that they had never learned. Unless, therefore, it is assumed that the gift Paul is speaking about here was entirely different [from the tongues in Acts], its nature is beyond dispute. The equivalency of the two, however, is proved from the sameness of the terms by which they are described."6 Hodge is essentially arguing that the terminology of Acts and 1 Corinthians is identical; therefore, there is no compelling reason to draw a distinction between the speaking in tongues described by Paul and the speaking in tongues that Luke describes in Acts.

Mal Couch follows a similar line of thinking: "If the tongues of 1 Corinthians were different than the tongues of Acts 2, it seems Paul would have clarified this or been more explicit in his terms. There is no basis for assuming that he was thinking something else unless he specifically says so." Like Ryrie, Couch alludes to Paul's beginning his discussion on spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12 with a reference to Spirit baptism (v. 13), but then says that not all speak in tongues (v. 30). Couch adds, "Furthermore, when Luke wrote Acts (after 1 Corinthians was written) he did not redefine or distinguish between the tongues in Acts and those referred to by Paul."7

If traditional evangelicals are correct in asserting that there is no difference between the tongues in Acts and the tongues in 1 Corinthians, then the entire Pentecostal argument collapses. One cannot maintain that speaking in tongues can be experienced by all Christians, when Paul clearly teaches that not all speak with tongues. Recognizing this problem, Pentecostals have developed a number of arguments intended to demonstrate that the tongues of Acts and the tongues of 1 Corinthians are indeed different.

Robert Menzies, a classical Pentecostal, sees the tongues in Acts and the tongues in 1 Corinthians as the same in their essence or nature, but different in their application. Menzies, arguing against Don Carson, writes, "1 Cor. 12:30 ['Do all speak in tongues?'] ... must be reconciled with 14:5 ('I would like everyone of you to speak in tongues'). [Carson] does not consider whether the reference in 12:30 is limited to the public manifestation of tongues. If ... this is the case, then the way is open for every believer to be edified personally through the private manifestation of tongues."8

To Menzies, all Christians experience evidential tongues at Spirit baptism (which later is manifested as a private prayer language), but not all Christians are gifted to use tongues in a public setting. It is the public use of tongues that Menzies believes Paul has in mind when he asks, "Do all speak in tongues?" He contrasts 1 Cor 12:29, which states that not all are prophets, with 1 Cor 14:31, which he believes states that all may prophesy, and draws a parallel between this and speaking in tongues. Though not all have the gift of prophecy, all may prophesy. Likewise, though not all may speaking in tongues to a public gathering, all may speak in tongues privately.9

David Bernard holds a similar position. He writes, "First Corinthians 12:30 implies that not everyone continues to speak in tongues on a regular basis, although it probably refers primarily to public messages."10 Like Menzies, he sees a difference between the special forms of tongues and prophecy designed for public manifestation that only some are given and the private, "ordinary" uses of tongues and prophecy, which all believers can experience. In reference to 1 Cor 12:28-30, he notes, "Not everyone ... exercises these public gifts."11

Essentially, both Menzies and Bernard believe that there are two forms of speaking in tongues. One form serves as the initial physical evidence of Spirit baptism, and, on an ongoing basis, as a private prayer language for personal edification. This form can be experienced by all believers. The other form of speaking in tongues is meant to be publicly manifested for the edification of gathered believers and is used only by some. It is the latter form that Menzies and Bernard believe Paul is referring to in 1 Cor 12:30 when he suggests that not all speak with tongues.

There are numerous problems with both Menzies' and Bernard's arguments. First, Menzies bases his argument that there are two forms of tongues on the idea that there are also two forms of prophesy described in 1 Corinthians 12-14. He says that while 1 Cor 12:29 says that not all are prophets, 14:31 says that all may prophesy. Seeing an apparent contradiction, he concludes that there must be two forms of prophecy—one that all may participate in and one that only some may participate in. From this, he concludes that there may be two forms of tongues, as well. However, an examination of 1 Cor 14:31 reveals that Paul never says that all believers may speak prophetical utterances. He writes, "For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged." It seems clear that the word all here does not refer to all Christians, but to all who have the gift of prophecy (which not all have, 1 Cor 12:29).

Bernard similarly argues that 1 Cor 12:28 refers to "public" gifts. The tongues mentioned in verse 30 are the public form as opposed to the private form. Yet Paul never suggests that there are public and private forms of spiritual gifts. It appears Bernard has drawn this conclusion without any biblical evidence. Furthermore, 1 Cor 12:28 also lists the gifts of apostleship, prophecy, teaching, miracles, healing, helps and administration as well as tongues. Are we to conclude that each of these gifts have a private counterpart, or just speaking in tongues, and if so, on what basis?

Menzies also sees an apparent contradiction between 1 Cor 12:29 ("Do all speak in tongues?") and 14:5 ("I would like every one of you to speak in tongues.") There is no contradiction here. If Paul had said, "I would like everyone in the world to be sinless," he would not be saying that it is possible for everyone in the world to be sinless, but only that he wished everyone were. When Paul writes, "I would like every one of you to speak in tongues," he is not saying that everyone can speak in tongues, but that he wished everyone did.

In the end, neither Menzies nor Bernard are completely convinced of their own argument. Bernard writes that 1 Cor 12:30 "probably" refers to public messages.12 Menzies seems no surer than Bernard. He refers to his interpretation of 1 Cor 12:30 only as an "option."13

Rick Walston, though not holding to the doctrine of initial physical evidence, does maintain that there is a kind of tongues available only to some (a gift of tongues) and another kind of tongues available to all (a prayer language). Walston writes, "For the most part, it is the general view of Pentecostals that there is a basic essence of similarity between the gift of tongues (as a message to the body, 1 Corinthians12:30) and speaking in tongues as a prayer language (Acts 2:4, 10:24-44). They are both speaking in unknown tongues by the power of the Holy Spirit; however, the purpose (or function) of each is different. They are the same form, but they serve different functions. Thus there is a distinction to be made between the gift of tongues and tongues as a prayer language."14

Walston provides a chart contrasting what he sees as differences between the universally available prayer language and the gift of tongues. He observes that the characteristics of the gift of tongues, described in 1 Corinthians, is that not all have it (1 Cor 12:30); it must be interpreted (1 Cor. 14:27-28); and only two or three are permitted to use it in a service (1 Cor 12:10). On the other hand, tongues as a prayer language, which is available to all, has different characteristics. In Acts 2:4, 10:24-44 and 19:6-7, those that spoke in tongues were not interpreted. Furthermore, the number of speakers was not limited to only two or three, as they were in Corinthians, but all who were present spoke in tongues.15

There are several things here that Walston overlooks, however. To begin with, he compares the passages in Acts where "all" spoke in tongues to Paul's assertion that not all will speak in tongues. Seeing an apparent contradiction, Walston concludes that the only resolution is that Luke and Paul are describing different kinds of speaking in tongues. However, what is clear from these passages is that all in these cases means two different things. Luke is referring only to all those that were present at that time, whereas Paul is referring to all believers in general. Simply because a certain small group of Christians all had the same experience is not a good reason to assume that all Christians everywhere at all times will have the same experience.

Secondly, Walston points to Paul's instruction that tongues must be interpreted, but argues that interpretation never happened in Acts 2:4, 10:24-44 and 19:6-7. Walston, though, fails to mention why Paul says interpretation must occur and why it seems not to have occurred in Acts. Paul explains, "If with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? ... But if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me... Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray for the power to interpret" (1 Cor 14:9-13). Paul requires interpretation because there apparently was no one in Corinth who knew the languages being spoken (v. 11). Because no one knew what was being said, they were not benefiting from the gift. In the Book of Acts, on the other hand, the languages being spoken in Acts 2 were understood by those gathered (Acts 2:6), so there was no need for interpretation.

In Acts 10 we find the conversion of Cornelius, Walston's second example of speaking in tongues without interpretation. Yet Walston does not address Peter's later description of the event, where Peter says, "As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them [the Gentiles] just as on us at the beginning" (v. 15, emphasis added). Peter also says that the Gentiles received, "the same gift." (v. 17). The earlier outpouring of the Holy Sprit that Peter is referring to is, of course, the day of Pentecost. As previously mentioned, the tongues spoken on that day were foreign languages that were understood by those that were gathered, which required no interpretation. Mal Couch points that, "Acts 10:44-48 refers to foreign languages because (1) Luke uses the same words to describe the phenomenon as in Acts 2:4, 11; (2) the listeners could not have understood that Cornelius and his household were magnifying God unless they understood them."16 So there was no need for interpretation in Cornelius' case either, as the languages spoken were understood by those around him.

The same thing can be said in regard to the conversion of the Ephesian disciples of John the Baptist in Acts 19. Luke gives the reader no reason to believe that the tongues spoken by the Ephesian disciples were anything other than actual human languages. In this case, as with all previous cases mentioned, the Greek word for tongues here is glossa, which refers to human language or speech.17 Because of the disciples' unique situation of being followers of John who did not understand that Jesus was the one that John had told them to look for (Acts 19:4-4), it was critical for Paul to understand their new faith in Christ was genuine. Tongues here served as evidence of that. Had Paul not recognized that the Ephesian disciples were speaking in real, human languages unknown to them, there would be no way for Paul to know that their conversion was genuine. In other words, had they only been speaking unintelligibly, Paul would have been unable to confirm that their conversion was real. One must conclude that the Ephesian disciples also spoke in foreign, but intelligible human languages as well, in which case interpretation would also be unnecessary.

It also is important to understand why Paul provides guidelines for the use of tongues in Corinth in the first place. The guidelines that Paul provides are for the times that "the whole church comes together" (1 Cor 14:21). During formal worship services, tongues should be interpreted so as to edify the entire body (1 Cor 14:5, 14:24-27). Furthermore, speaking in tongues without interpretation is not forbidden. It is permissible, as long as it does not disrupt the church service (1 Cor 14:27). At any rate, the cases of tongues without interpretation that Walston cites were not formal church services, so the context is entirely different. Paul's guidelines were given for when "the whole church comes together" where there is a need to maintain a higher degree of order. In all of the cases cited by Walston, interpretation did not occur either because it was unnecessary or because the conditions requiring interpretation did not apply, or both.

Finally, Walston sees a difference between the tongues in Acts and the tongues in 1 Corinthians based on Paul's restricting the number of people speaking in tongues to two or three, but in Acts we find far more than that speaking in tongues. However, the reason Paul restricts it to two or three is so that the entire church service does not consist of one person after another speaking in tongues to the congregation (1 Cor 14:27-33). Paul provides the same restriction on prophecy (1 Cor 14:29-31). One can imagine the chaos if dozens of believers came together and all of them had a message in tongues to the congregation or a prophecy to share. This is why Paul placed a limit to only two or three, given one at a time (v. 31). Again, these restrictions are specifically for when "the whole church comes together," and given for an entirely different context than what is found in Acts.

Weighing all the arguments, the Pentecostal view that speaking in tongues is universally available is just not tenable. There is simply no valid reason to think that the tongues Paul describes in 1 Cor 12:30 are different in form or type from the tongues that Luke describes in Acts. The same Greek words and terms Luke uses in Acts to describe tongues are the same Greek words and phrases Paul uses to describe them in 1 Corinthians.

Furthermore, Paul opens his discourse on spiritual gifts, writing "Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be uninformed" (1 Cor 12:1). If indeed there were different forms or types of speaking in tongues, surely Paul would have clearly articulated that here. He did not, and that in itself speaks volumes.

The answer to Paul's question, "Do all speak with tongues?" is clear. Not all do, and this is the Pentecostal dilemma. The burden of proving differently lies with the Pentecostal who teaches that all can speak in tongues. While their arguments offer possible solutions to their dilemma, they each have significant flaws and ultimately are not convincing. It seems that Pentecostals have developed a doctrine, and then turned to the Bible to find validation. Of course, this is never the correct approach. One must always turn to the Bible first, and from that, develop doctrine. We are not to insert our beliefs into the Scriptures, but to take our beliefs from the Scriptures.

Footnotes:

1. Thomas A. Fudge, Christianity without the Cross: A History of Salvation in Oneness Pentecostalism (Parkland, FL: Universal Publishers, 2003), 9-10.

2. The term Pentecostal will be used in the broadest sense throughout this paper to denote all Christians who practice speaking in tongues, and thus will encompass ‘classical’ Pentecostals, Oneness Pentecostals, Neopentecostals, Charismatics, etc.

3. David Bernard et al., Meet the United Pentecostal Church International (Hazelwood, MO: Word Aflame Press, 1989), 100-101.

4. Rick Walston, The Speaking in Tongues Controversy: The Initial, Physical Evidence of the Baptism in the Holy Spirit Debate (Longwood, FL: Xulon Press, 2003), 23-24.

5. Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1986), 373.

6. Charles Hodge, 1 Corinthians, The Crossway Christian Commentaries, vol. 8 (Wheaton, IL: Good News Publishers, 1995), 222.

7. Mal Couch, A Bible Handbook to the Acts of the Apostles, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2003), 171.

8. Robert P. Menzies, Empowered for Witness: the Spirit in Luke - Acts, Journal of Theology Supplement Series 6 (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001), 248, referencing Don Carson, "Showing in the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14" (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1987), 49-50.

9. Menzies, Empowered for Witness, 248-249.

10. David K. Bernard, The New Birth (Hazelwood, MO: World Aflame Press, 1984), 242.

11. Ibid., 243.

12. Ibid., 242.

13. Menzies, Empowered for Witness, 248.

14. Walston, The Speaking in Tongues Controversy, 22-23.

15. Ibid., 22.

16. Couch, Bible Handbook to Acts, 172.

17. Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, s.v. "glossa."


This writing is the copyright of Jason Young and is posted with his permission. View all of his available articles here.


Page added August 17, 2015

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