Pentecost Sunday - May 15, 2016
And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost: and they began to speak with divers tongues, according as the Holy Ghost gave them to speak. (Acts 2:4)
On the feast of Pentecost, a most wondrous miracle occurred whereby the Apostles were moved by the Holy Spirit to speak in languages previously unknown to them. This gift is called “Glossolalia” or “Speaking in tongues”, and contributed to the conversion of 3,000 in a single day.
“Speaking in tongues” or “the gift of tongues” is one of the most misunderstood charisms of the Spirit. In the modern day (sadly, even within the Catholic Church), the term has been hijacked by some to be used in a manner wholly unknown to the Apostles, the Scriptures, and the Church. A careful study of this gift in the Bible and in the Early Church reveals that the “gift of tongues” is not the mumbling common in Charismatic Prayer groups, but is rather the miracle whereby one speaks new human languages for the praise of God and the conversion of pagans.
Speaking in Languages
There is a close etymological link between “tongue” and “language”, as the Latin lingua means both “tongue” and “language, speech”. Thus to say “speaking in tongues” means “speaking in languages” – and this is precisely the miracle witnessed at Pentecost. The Apostles, filled with the Spirit, began to speak in diverse languages which were then recognized by those present from around the known world. It is true, some thought that the Apostles were drunk and only mumbling random sounds (cf Acts 2:13), but this was only because these persons did not recognize all the many languages – even as one who does not know French, or Vietnamese, or Swahili could easily think that a person who suddenly spoke these three languages in rapid succession and at great speed (and in a loud enough voice to be heard by a crowd) might be intoxicated. However, as the people listened, each recognized his own native language and the people wondered at this miracle: “We have heard them speak in our own tongues of the wonderful works of God.” (Acts 2:11)
St Paul is referring to new languages in 1 Corinthians
It is rather surprising that those who promote “speaking in tongues” as understood by the modern Charismatic Movement, base most of the biblical defense of their mumblings on 1 Corinthians 13-14. This is astonishing, since the practices of Corinth were clear abuses which St Paul was correcting in this portion of his letter. We are not meant to look at the way the Corinthians spoke in tongues as a model to follow, but rather as an excess to be avoided.
The Catholic Encyclopedia summarizes this well (article, “Gift of Tongues”):
There is enough in St. Paul to show us that the Corinthian peculiarities were ignoble accretions and abuses. They made of "tongues" a source of schism in the Church and of scandal without (14:23). The charism had deteriorated into a mixture of meaningless inarticulate gabble (9, 10) with an element of uncertain sounds (7, 8), which sometimes might be construed as little short of blasphemous (12:3). The Divine praises were recognized now and then, but the general effect was one of confusion and disedification for the very unbelievers for whom the normal gift was intended (14:22, 23, 26). The Corinthians, misled not by insincerity but by simplicity and ignorance (20), were actuated by an undisciplined religious spirit (pneuma), or rather by frenzied emotions and not by the understanding (nous) of the Spirit of God (15).
Those who have been present for “charismatic prayer groups” cannot help but recognize the similarities between the abuses of Corinth and these prayer sessions. The Catholic Encyclopedia continues:
What today purports to be the "gift of tongues" at certain Protestant revivals is a fair reproduction of Corinthian glossolaly, and shows the need there was in the primitive Church of the Apostle's counsel to do all things "decently, and according to order" (40).
And yet, even here, we must insist that St. Paul still envisions “speaking in tongues” to be speaking new languages. The Apostle insist that those who speak in a tongue should pray for the gift to interpret (1 Cor 14:13) and that only a few tongues should be spoken while one interprets (1 Cor 14:27). If there is to be an interpreter, then the words coming forth in the new “tongue” must be words of a real language which have a true meaning – a meaning which is unknown to those who do not know that language.
It is clear that these “tongues” are real languages, for St Paul even specifies that he already speaks each of these “tongues” – “I thank my God I speak with all your tongues.” (1 Cor 14:18) This could not be said, if these “tongues” were not real languages, rather than random collections of sounds.
“If I speak with the tongues of men, and of angels” (I Corinthians 13:1). Some will cite this verse as though the “tongues of angels” were the ramblings of the charismatic prayer groups. On two accounts this is quite silly: First, the speech of angels is entirely mental and inaudible, since they have no bodies but are pure spirits. Second, if the angles were speaking audibly, it certainly would not be a random collection of syllables, but a reasoned discourse. St. Thomas Aquinas, following the tradition (which can be found in works like the glossa ordinaria), believes that the reference to angels can either be understood to refer to those who govern the Church and are particularly entrusted with her missionary activity or to the instructions which men have received through the ministry of angels. (cf. St Thomas’ Commentary on 1 Corinthians)
Praying in tongues?
Some will say that there is a great difference between “speaking in tongues” and “praying in tongues”. Scripture makes no radical distinction. Rather, while it is true that one may “pray in a tongue” to God alone without speaking to other men, even here we must admit that this prayer is praising God in a real language and not a mere rambling.
Indeed, this is another aspect to the miracle of Pentecost: Not only is the Gospel preached in every language, but God is praised in every language. The many languages of the earth, created when God confused the tongues of men at the tower of Babel, are now united in the confession of the single Faith of the Church. Praying in many languages (even, perhaps, in languages unknown to the one who speaks [cf. 1 Cor 14:14]) is a particular way of praising God, who deserves to receive adoration and glory from every tongue, from every language. But this prayer, if it to be the biblical "praying in tongues", must be made in a real human language, and not a spewing forth of random sounds and grunts.
Babel vs Speaking in Tongues
Perhaps the comparison with the Tower of Babel is the easiest explanation of the fact that speaking in tongues means speaking real human languages. The underlying point of Pentecost, as emphasized by many Church Fathers and saints, is the healing of the wounds of Babel. At Babel, under a single human language, men rose up against God. Therefore, the Lord dispersed the people and confused their languages.
Since the revolt of Babel, men have spoken many and diverse human languages – this is seen (in the biblical vision) as a wound to the unity of humanity under God. However, since Pentecost, all these human languages have been united in the Church, to the praise and glory of God. It is most necessary that speaking in tongues should be speaking in real human languages, for only in this way would the wound of Babel be healed. Uttering incoherent noises only contributes to the confusion of Babel, it does nothing to heal it.
The Church Herself Speaks in Every Tongue
It is astonishing to me how charismatics will readily admit that the “baptism of the Spirit” and “speaking in tongues” had been almost entirely lost to the saints of the Church through the thousand years and more prior to the Charismatic Renewal of the 1960s. And yet, even as they dismiss 1500 years of Church History, they expect the past few decades to be a new norm in the life of the Church.
However, we maintain that the “gift of tongues” is still very active in the Church today. It is not present so much in any individual, but rather in the Church as a whole – The whole body of Christ, made up of people from every race and nation and tongue, speaks every language and every tongue! Because I am a member of the Church, I do speak in tongues (as many as St Paul even), for the Church herself of which I am a member, speaks in every language known to men.
(for another article much to the same effect but with different emphases, see our post from 2011 [here])
An homily on this subject is below. Delivered by Father Ryan Erlenbush at Corpus Christi Parish, Great Falls, MT – 15 May 2016, Pentecost Sunday.
Listen online [here]!