Spiritual Gifts Tongues and Interpretation

By Bruce Edwards, Jr.

The best way to determine what the spiritual gift of tongues involved is to listen to the testimony of an eye and ear witness. To rely on current “testimony” is to be at the mercy of emotionalism and subjectivism, a precarious position for one who is seeking the truth. We can put implicit trust only in the evidence supplied by an unimpeachable source, Luke, the doctor-historian, for example. In his inspired account, recorded in Acts 2, Luke provides for us an irrefutable description of the nature of “tongue-speaking.” It is unfortunate that translators, past and present, have chosen to perpetuate the confusion surrounding this gift by tendering the Greek form glossa as the ambiguous “tongue.” Clearly, by definition(1) and by context, glossa is a language, a known language spoken by given nationalities. In the Acts 2 account, the apostles “were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (vs. 4). In the next verse we are told that devout men “from every nation under heaven” were assembled in Jerusalem for the Pentecost observance. We cannot underestimate the colossal cultural and lingual barriers that existed in those circumstances! Imagine today attempting to address an assemblage of nationalities which included Russian, Chinese, Mexican, Norwegian, African and French, without the help of a translator!

We readily can understand, then, the amazement of the crowd which assembled at the sound of the “rushing of a mighty wind” as “each man heard them speaking in his own language” (vs. 6). The apostles “spoke in tongues;” the multitudes heard “in their own languages.” The implication is clear: “tongues” are foreign languages. The assemblage was confounded. They marveled. And why not? These were not learned linguistic professors sounding forth the gospel,-these were Galileans, common men like tax collectors and fishermen. “How hear we,” they exclaimed, “every man in our own language, wherein we were born?” (vs. 8). And lest we miss the impact and implication of this feat, Luke records in some detail the varied nations from whence they came: “Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, in Judaea and Cappadocia, in Pontus and Asia, in Phrygia and Pamphylia, in Egypt and the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and sojourners from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians, we hear them speaking in our tongues the mighty works of God” (vs. 9-11). Can there be any doubt that the “tongues” of Acts 2 were foreign languages, unknown by the relatively ignorant men who spoke them, yet understood by them whose native languages they were?


The next time “tongues” appear we find Cornelius the Gentile centurion, and his household involved. In response to a vision, the apostle Peter had travelled to Caesarea to preach the gospel to this godly man. In the course of his remarks, Peter was abruptly interrupted: “While Peter yet spake these words, the Holy Spirit fell on all them that heard the word” (Acts 10:44). The Jewish Christians that had accompanied Peter in this evangelistic endeavor were as amazed at these sudden events as were the devout Jews who had heard the apostles at Pentecost, “For they heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God” (vs. 46). Cornelius and his household had received the same gift as that the apostles had exercised on the Day of Pentecost, as Peter explains: “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon hem, even as on us at the beginning” (Acts 11:15). In order to explain the extra-ordinary circumstances which led Peter, a Jew, to have “fellowship” as it were, with a Gentile, he pointed to the gift; and this gift he identified with the one he and his fellow-apostles had demontrated “at the beginning.” How indeed could they refuse Cornelius, if the Lord granted him the very same gift as the Jews?

This gift of speaking in foreign languages previously nstudied and unknown by the possessor was a sign to he unbeliever that the message proclaimed was omething which found its source in heaven, not men (1 Cor. 14:22). A similar case could be made regarding the “tongues” of Acts 19 and Mark 16; they undoubtedly reflect the same definition of “tongues” as has been observed in the two previous cases, viz., that they are languages, subject to grammars and syntax.

What About 1 Corinthians 14?

The only instruction regarding the specific use and design of spiritual gifts, and tongues in particular, is found in 1 Corinthians 14. Edward Fudge has described the Corinthian church as one which possessed “infantile carnality, multiple-preacheritis, creeping immorality and a terrible reputation for confusion in worship assemblies.”(2) It is unlikely that the gifts of tongues would have been specifically mentioned and thoroughly discussed had there not been some problem associated with it in Corinth. It is therefore somewhat ironic that the same gift is today being misunderstood by contemporary religious people. Again the problem of understanding is compounded by the fact that translators have by and large abused the text by inserting unwarranted interpolations. Notice the following renderings from some popular translations and paraphrases that have no warrant from the text itself:

1. “unknown tongue” – King James Version (1 Cor. 14:2)

2. “language of ecstasy” – New English Bible (14:2)

3. “strange language” – Beckwith Translation (14:2)

4. “speak in ecstasy” – Williams Translation (14:5)

5. “ecstatic speaking” – Goodspeed Translation (14:22)

6. “strange languages” – Today’s English Version (14:2)

Such epithets as “strange”, “ecstatic”, and “unknown” are simply not in the original Greek textl Indeed, the idea that “tongues” in 1 Corinthians 14 were something radically different than those in Acts 2 never would have occurred to anyone had the erroneous practice of Pentecostals of today not been established.

The meaning of the term “interpretation” used in connection with “tongues” affords us additional insight. “Interpretation,” as used in 1 Corinthians 12-14, is the common word for the translation of a foreign language.(3) In 1 Cor. 14:21, Paul quotes Isa. 28:11, “By men of strange tongues and by the lips of strangers will I speak unto this people and not even thus will they hear me, saith the Lord”; the expression “strange tongues” (heterai glossai) occurs twice in the Greek Old Testament, both times with the clear meaning of a foreign language (cf. Deut. 28:49; Jer: 5:15; Isa. 33:19). Thus what Paul has in mind is nothing less than the interpretation of a foreign language, a gift of “translation” which enabled the possessor to explain the message of one who was speaking in a language unknown to the audience. It is here clearly seen that the gift of tongues was not as profitable or as practical for an assembly as that of prophesying which all could understand at any time without the help of an interpreter (1 Cor. 14:4-7; 11-25). The concept that in 1 Corinthians 14 Paul refers to some kind of mystical, heavenly “prayer language,” some unintelligible mouthings from one in “ecstasy” has no basis whatsoever in this text or any other. The notion is based solely upon presumption and assumption, a typical source of 20th century denominational error.


The “tongues” we have considered from the Scriptures bear no resemblance to those of current practice. To call the contemporary “exercise” of this gift “Pentecostal” is a colossal misnomer bordering on the absurd. What transpired on the day of Pentecost in actuality serves to refute the modern Pentecostal position on the nature of “tongue-speaking.” Pentecostals seriously err in their approach to authority, being content to test Scripture by their “experience” rather than their experience by Scripture. They seek to adapt 1 Cor. 12-14 to fit their current practice, perverting it and rendering it out of harmony with other Scriptural contexts. What they attempt in this case is a classic example of rationalization, of coming to the Bible to prove rather than establish practice. Their attempt to impose a biased 20th century interpretation upon first century revelation is reminiscent of attempts to defend institutionalism and instrumental music.

The Pentecostal claim that “speaking in tongues” is the “normative experience for all believers” falls flat in view of Paul’s clear statement in 1 Cor. 12:30, “All do not speak in tongues, do they?” The very gift that the apostle diligently sought to downplay in showing the greater profit to be derived from the “more excellent gifts” has once again surfaced as a source of confusion and division, though in an unBiblical, unsupernatural form. The pre-occupation of so many with the “gift of tongues” cannot but reveal the great inroads the philosophies of existentialism and materialism have made into major religious institutions of our society. The emphasis upon the mystical and subjective, coupled with the denial of the absolute and objective, is a familiar historical path which ultimately leads to a News ,Briefs complete departure from the God of the Bible and the Son who died on the cross for our sins.


1. “The supernatural gift of speaking in another language without its having been learned;” W. E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, p. 142.

2. Edward Fudge, Speaking in Tongues (Athens, AL: The C.E.I. Pub. Co., 1971), p. 20. For a good summary of the teaching of 1 Cor. 14. see John Clark’s The Charismatic Movement, pp. 36-40.

3. See Fudge, pp. 20, 21.

Truth Magazine XIX: 8, pp. 121-123
January 2, 1975