The Pagan Problem of Pentecostal – Charismatic Tongues

Chrysostom writing as early as the 380s, just 300 years after Paul’s correspondence to the Corinthians says this in his comments on 1 Cor. 14:2:

“At this point he makes a comparison between the gifts, and lowers that of the tongues, showing it to be neither altogether useless, nor very profitable by itself. For in fact they were greatly puffed up on account of this, because the gift was considered to be a great one. And it was thought great because the Apostles received it first, and with so great display; it was not however therefore to be esteemed above all the others. Wherefore then did the Apostles receive it before the rest? Because they were to go abroad every where. And as in the time of building the tower the one tongue was divided into many; so then the many tongues frequently met in one man, and the same person used to discourse both in the Persian, and the Roman, and the Indian, and many other tongues, the Spirit sounding within him: and the gift was called the gift of tongues because he could all at once speak divers languages. See accordingly how he both depresses and elevates it. Thus, by saying, “He that speaketh with tongues, speaketh not unto men, but unto God, for no man understandeth,” he depressed it, implying that the profit of it was not great; but by adding, “but in the Spirit he speaketh mysteries,” he again elevated it, that it might not seem to be superfluous and useless and given in vain.”[1]

It is clear that Chrysostom considered the Corinthian Glossolalia genuine human languages as opposed to the claim that it was some sort of mystical prayer language. This view is in direct contradiction to widespread view in Pentecostal/Charismatic circles. For the remainder of this article, I will focus on some of the more significant problems with the claim that modern tongue speaking is identical to the Corinthian Glossolalia.

In like manner we do also hear many brethren in the Church, who possess prophetic gifts, and who through the Spirit speak all kinds of languages, and bring to light for the general benefit the hidden things of men, and declare the mysteries of God, whom also the apostle terms “spiritual,” they being spiritual because they partake of the Spirit, and not because their flesh has been stripped off and taken away, and because they have become purely spiritual.[2]

Now I should mention that the phrase “do also hear” literally means, “have heard.” We cannot be sure that Irenaeus of Lyons is speaking about a firsthand contemporary account or something he heard about from history or from other communities. What we can be sure of is that he calls them languages just as Chrysostom did.

Now, I want to point to the historical fact that mystical tongue-speaking like that spoken among modern Charismatics did not originate in and is not unique to the Charismatic community. The practice of mystical-glossolalia, so called, exists in other religions, such as Paganism, Shamanism, and other mediumistic type religions. In fact, channeling has been one of the egregious next steps that can easily be traced to the roots of Charismatic theology. It is the natural progression of mystical emphases. Suffice it to say that modern Charismatic tongues are not unique to the Charismatic version of Christianity. They are shared by several other religions. That this could be true and that Paul teaches that tongues are a sign for unbelievers remains an irreconcilable mystery. What is so amazing about a phenomenon that is commonly practiced among other religions? How could such a thing be a sign in any sense of the word sign? If other religions were experiencing the same miraculous phenomena as Christianity, then Christianity would be illogical to point to such phenomena as a distinguishing feature of its religion.

The heretic Montanus is documented by Eusebius as having some kind of ecstatic experience. Here is how he records it: “He became possessed of a spirit, and suddenly began to rave in a kind of ecstatic trance, and to babble in a jargon, prophesying in a manner contrary to the custom of the Church which had been handed down by tradition from the earliest times.” Hildegard of Bingen, a Catholic mystic, is said to have spoken in tongues. The LDS Church has numerous historical events of speaking in tongues. Brigham Young spoke in tongues at the dedication of the Kirkland Temple. The Moravians are also said to have spoken in tongues. Oneness Pentecostals, who deny the triune God, speak in tongues. Appalachian snake-handlers speak in tongues. In fact, it was not until the late 19th and early 20th century that glossolalia become associated with Pentecostalism.

Most Pentecostals recognize Charles Parham as the leader through whom God brought the renewal of the gifts. Parham was so excited about this new move of God that he declared the movement would send out missionaries around the world to declare the gospel in their respective languages. So, as it goes, the founder of modern Pentecostalism also thought they were speaking in known languages. The idea of the speech was entirely unintelligible never crossed his mind. However, when associate A.G. Garr traveled to India to preach the gospel, he was extremely confused when he found out the Indian people could not understand his gibberish.

Now, in addition to Parham’s misguided optimism, there was a host of other, far more serious problems with Parham’s theology. Parham believed in the annihilation of the damned in hell. He believed in two separate creations. He held that Adam and Eve were a different race from us. Parham claimed that men living before the flood did not have souls. What is amazing is that even Charles Parham condemned, in no uncertain terms, the Asuzu St. Revival to which most Pentecostal denominations trace their origin.

In addition to these facts, there is the issue of William Samarin, a linguist from the University of Toronto. In 1972, Samarin published a study containing the results of his intensive research into the phenomena of modern tongues. He study uncovered several stunning facts that many continuationists and Charismatics ignore to this day. His study covered groups like the Appalachian Pentecostals that practice snake-handing, groups in Italy, Canada, Jamaica, and even the Netherlands. What did he discover?

  • While glossolalia resembles a language in certain ways, it is not a real language. It only resembles a language because the speaker wants it to.
  • The sounds are taken from sets of sounds already known to the speaker.
  • The sounds of speech of Glossolalia reflected the speech of the individual’s native language. In other words, English speaks speak in English syllables, Russian speakers in Russian and so forth.
  • In her book, Speaking in Tongues: A Cross-Cultural Study in Glossolalia, Felicitas Goodman studied a number of Pentecostal communities in the US, the Caribbean, and Mexico. These groups spoke English, Spanish, and Mayan. She compared what she found in these recordings with non-Christian groups she studied from Africa, Borneo, Indonesia, and Japan. Her conclusion was there was no distinction between what was practiced in the Pentecostal communities and what was practiced in the non-Christian communities.

Paul’s concerns in 1 Corinthians 14 had to do with how the gift was inappropriately being used in the Church service. It seems that the Corinthians were operating in this gift arrogantly. Apparently, they held the gift in high esteem likely because it was the first one received by the Apostles at Pentecost. At any rate, Paul’s concerns are for the edification of the body of Christ. It should not slip one’s notice that nowhere does Paul say that tongues are for the purpose of edifying the speaker. He never says that tongues are for the purpose of speaking to God, not men. However, he does say that tongues are given for a sign to the unbeliever. Now, that sentence is a purpose sentence as opposed to some of the other sentences that are simply statements.

Pentecostals interpret 1 Cor. 14:2 as if it means that tongues are for the purpose of speaking to God not men. They insist that men must be taken in a universal sense. But when we read that text in the context of Paul’s concerns around edification and then in the broader context of the meaning of glossolalia, we realize a different interpretation works much better. We realize Paul is not actually saying this is how it should be or even that it is a good thing. We realize that men must be understood as men in the local Church service. We also realize that the reason the person is speaking only to God is because no one in the Church service understands the language, therefore, only God could be the hearer.

In addition, I think we need to examine what Paul means when he uses the word οἰκοδομέω, oikodomeo, which is translated edify. This word carries the sense of enablement. It means to build up or enable, to increase one’s potential. Paul then links one’s understanding of the language to its ability to edify. In other words, Paul says the reason he does not want the Corinthians to use tongues in the Church service is because they do not edify those who do not understand them. He also says if a person prays in tongues and does not understand the language they are speaking, their own understanding is fruitless. This must mean that when Paul says that praying in tongues edifies the individual, that the individual understands the language he prays in. So there is praying in tongues that is edifying because one understands it, and praying in tongues that is not fruitful, and therefore not edifying, because the speaker does not understand it. It is as this point that we must remember that this phenomenon was remarkably different from anything we have ever experienced and therefore, our understanding of exactly what was going on remains somewhat limited.

Paul tells the Corinthians emphatically and with great clarity that tongues are a sign for unbelievers. This word sign has bound up in it the idea of miracle. If an unbeliever is aware of the pagan practice of ecstatic and unintelligible noises in the practice of their religions, how could the very same practice with the very same sound distinguish the Christian practice as something supernatural? Clearly, gibberish in religious worship, be it pagan, or in the Christian service does not meet the definition of a miraculous sign.

In conclusion then, l want to make the following observations:

  • Tongues in Acts 2, 8, 10, 19, and 1 Cor. 12-14 were actual languages given supernaturally to those who spoke them.
  • Pagan religions were practicing ecstatic gibberish prior to the Christian experience at Pentecost.
  • Paul states that the purpose for tongues was to provide a miraculous sign to unbelievers. Unintelligible gibberish fails to meet the standard of miracle.
  • Simon, even though he witnessed Phillip’s miracles, only offered money to have the ability to impart this particular gift of tongues. That he would have offered money for gibberish and not other miracles is simply untenable.
  • Modern tongues have their root in leaders that held to damnable heresies.
  • Modern tongues are the same gibberish spoken by various other non-Christian and pagan religions.
  • Modern tongues are bits and pieces of the respective language of the speaker. Russian Charismatics speak in Russian tongues, English in English, Spanish in Spanish and so forth.
  • If modern tongues were heavenly languages, there would be no association with one’s native language and linguistic studies would be able to capture the very same sounds across language families. There is no reason to think that heaven has more than one language. The reason humans have multiple languages is due to the curse of sin at Babel.

The fact is that Pentecostals and Charismatics have no objective way of knowing if the tongues they speak are the same one’s spoken in Scripture. The practice disappeared for centuries. There is no unbroken succession of tongues-speaking from Pentecost to today. Since PC tongues are not actual languages, the PC movement has no criteria by which they can distinguish fake or demonic tongues from biblical tongues assuming they’re theology is correct. In fact, they can’t even validate if the other person, any other person has the same gift they do or if that person is faking it because they are limited to experience in their validation of the practice. If Benny Hinn is a charlatan, then his tongue must be fake! But there are millions of Charismatics that claim Hinn is a great man of God. Therefore, his tongues are genuine! How could we ever know? It is an array of confusion and chaos and the truth is, given their own theology, the possibility of discernment is virtually impossible. And that, ladies and gentlemen makes it abundantly clear that it cannot be of divine origin. Any practice that cannot be tested, that creates confusion and chaos, and that eliminates the possibility of discernment cannot be biblical.

[1] John Chrysostom, “Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the First Epistle of St. Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians,” ed. Philip Schaff, trans. Hubert Kestell Cornish, John Medley, and Talbot B. Chambers, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series: Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1889), 208–209.

[2] Irenaeus of Lyons, “Irenæus Against Heresies,” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers: The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1 (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 531.