Tongues of Fire

On the day of Pentecost, the Church was filled with the Holy Spirit - which Pius XII referred to as the Church's "soul" - and which is the source of the manifold gifts, graces and charisms that have characterized Catholicism since the beginning. On that auspicious birthday of the Church, the giving of the Spirit was manifest by the miraculous gift of tongues, a gift which continued on in the Early Church as Christianity spread throughout the Empire. In this article we will look at some very basic questions about the gift of tongues. It is not within the scope of this article to resolve disputed questions about the modern phenomenon of 'tongues' in charismatic Catholic and Pentecostal Protestant churches, nor is it meant to delve into the patristic literature on the subject, though we will invoke Augustine and Chrysostom to help clarify a few points. Rather, the purpose of this article is to simply lay out the Scriptural data on tongues and hopefully arrive at a few preliminary conclusions about the nature of the gift and its purpose. Those looking for a polemic here will be disappointed - although we will make a few comparisons to modern charismatic practice when it comes to Paul's guidelines in 1 Corinthians 14.

What were tongues?

The two primary sources for our knowledge about tongues in the Early Church come from the Book of Acts and from 1 Corinthians. Those who have studied these sources to learn about the specifics about tongues have come across a difficulty due to the fact that the nature of tongues seems different in Acts and 1 Corinthians. Does tongues consist in miraculously speaking in or being heard in other rational, existing languages, or does it consist in speaking a "heavenly" language to God that does not correspond to any existing human tongue?

The experience of the Apostles in Acts 2 clearly and unambiguously depicts the tongues of Pentecost as being the miraculous communication in real human languages; Acts 11:15 was a similar experience to Pentecost, according to St. Peter. However, when we get to Paul's description of tongues in the context of Church worship in 1 Corinthians, it appears that we are dealing not with the speaking of known human languages but with some kind of other utterance. Other episodes where there are no linguistic barriers also suggest some other kind of phenomenon. This has led some scholars, Protestant and Catholic, to posit two types of tongues, one consisting in speaking human languages miraculously, the other in speaking a private "prayer language" to God. Evidence of these two types of tongues is suggested by 1 Cor. 13:1, when St. Paul says, "If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal." This suggests there are two types of tongues, one "of men", the other "of angels."

Of course, this may just be a rhetorical device on Paul's part, and 1 Corinthians 13 is a highly rhetorical chapter. Looking at the Greek does not help either. The Greek word for "tongues" in the New Testament is  γλῶσσα ("glossa"), which simply means "a language", although in the context of the gift of tongues it has the connotation of a language naturally unacquired. This could apply to either a tongue "of men" or a heavenly speech. The contexts in which tongues is recorded in Acts at times seem to suggest an unknown "heavenly" speech, as in situations when there was no linguistic barrier to be overcome, such as the story of Cornelius in Acts 8. There is no satisfactory solution for parsing which accounts would be which; it is sufficient to note that both sorts of tongues seem to be present in the New Testament. 

Scriptural References to Tongues

Before moving on to our discussion, let us take a brief survey of every instance of tongues in the New Testament, either when the miracle is attested or when it is written about. Translations of certain Greek words will be provided when they help to better understand the context.

Mark 16:17: "they shall speak with new tongues."
Acts 2:3-4: "and there appeared to them tongues of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance."
Acts 2:11: "...we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God."
Acts 10:46: "For they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God."
Acts 19:6: "And when Paul laid hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke with tongues and prophesied."
1 Cor. 12:10: " another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues."
1 Cor. 12:28: "And God has appointed to the Church first apostles, second prophets,...speakers in various tongues."
1 Cor. 12:30: "Do all work miracles?...Do all speak with tongues?"
1 Cor. 13:1: "If I speak in the tongue of men and angels but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal."
1 Cor. 13:8: "Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease (παύω, "pausóntai", to restrain, quit, desist, come to an end); as for knowledge, it will pass away (καταργηθήσεται, "katargēthēsetai", to be made idle; to be made void; to be made of no effect).
1 Cor. 14:2: " who speaks in tongues speaks not to men, but to God, for no one understands him, for he speaks mysteries in the Spirit."
1 Cor. 14:5
: "Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy...he who prophesies is greater than him who speaks in tongues."
1 Cor. 14:6: "...if I come to you speaking tongues, how shall I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching?"
1 Cor. 14:9: "So with yourselves. If you in a tongue utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is being said? For you will be speaking into the air."
1 Cor. 14:13: "Therefore he who speaks in a tongue should pray for the power to interpret."
1 Cor. 14:14-17: "For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, I will pray also with the understanding; I will sing with the spirit, I will sing also with the understanding. Else if thou shalt bless with the spirit, how shall he that holdeth the place of the unlearned say, Amen, to thy blessing? Because he knows not what you are saying. For you indeed give thanks well, but the other is not edified."
1 Cor. 14:18-19: "I thank God that I speak in tongues more than you all; nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue."
1 Cor. 14:22: "...tongues is a sign not believers but for unbelievers."
1 Cor. 14:23: "If therefore, the whole church assembles together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad?" 
1 Cor. 14:40: " not forbid speaking in tongues; but all things should be done decently and in order" (decently = εὐσχημόνως "euschēmonōs", decently, honestly; in order = τάξις "taxis", in regular arrangement, in fixed succession, in time, in official dignity).

Many of the biblical references to tongues come from the fourteenth chapter of St. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians and regard how tongues are to be utilized in the church. To pull together the teachings found in 1 Cor. 14, we can gather the following points about the right use of tongues.

First, tongues are a sign for unbelievers, not believers. This is stated clearly in 14:22.  But in what sense is it a "sign", and in what sense is it "for" unbelievers? This is important since later on in v. 26 Paul seems to suggest that tongues have no practical value for the unbeliever. More on this in a moment.

Second, when it comes to the use of tongues in the church, St. Paul reminds the Corinthians firmly that tongues, like other spiritual gifts, is for the edification of the community, not the personal titillation of individuals (14:26).

Third, no more than three people were to speak in tongues at any one service, and even then each in his own turn (14:27), not all at once in a noisy cacophony.

But even then, there was to be no speaking in tongues at all unless an interpreter was present; if no interpreter is present, they are bidden to keep silent and speak "only to God" (v. 28). Also, given Paul's dictate that women not be permitted to speak in Church (14:34), those who did speak in tongues would have been restricted to men alone. Paul never sanctions women speaking in Church, let alone in tongues.

Finally, lest we be tempted to think these were particular disciplines for a certain era that are no longer relevant in today's atmosphere, St. Paul reminds us that the guidelines and limitations for the use of tongues are no mere opinions but are "the commands of the Lord" (14:37).

These dictates suggest that even at an early time there was a tendency for the use of tongues to get out of hand. Paul's concern in issuing these guidelines is to maintain taxis, or "order." Confusion or disorder in the assembly was taken as a sign that something was not in accord with the Holy Spirit, "for God is not a God of confusion but of peace" (14:33). This is why, although St. Paul does not forbid speaking in tongues, he is very concerned that it be done "decently" (euschēmonōs) and in "order" (taxis), "order" signifying a "regular arrangement" or an "official dignity." Paul seems intent that tongues have a specified, regular place in the liturgical worship of the Church.

We cannot help but note the striking dissimilarity between what St. Paul describes and what occurs in modern charismatic churches, either of the Catholic charismatic renewal or the various Protestant pentecostal sects. Paul says tongues is for the edification of the community, but in modern charismatic parishes, the practice is a profoundly self-oriented one aimed at the spiritual titillation of the individual; Paul says no more than three should speak at a time, but in modern charismatic parishes dozens or even hundreds of people will speak in tongues; St. Paul says each one should speak in turn, one at a time, but the practice currently is for everyone to speak simultaneously; St. Paul restricts who can speak in Church to men, but in modern charismatic practice it is very common to see dozens of women babbling away as well. St. Paul calls for tongues to be given in a regulated, almost liturgical structure with great reverence and order, but the contemporary practice is that such order "quenches the Spirit" and that manifestations of tongues occur with great spontaneity. Finally, Paul is willing to tolerate tongues so long as order is maintained; contemporary charismatic worship is willing to sacrifice order in order to maintain tongues. The modern practice seems to be opposed to Paul's commands on almost every point, which should not be lightly written off since Paul says that these disciplines are "commands of the Lord" (14:37).

Normative for Every Christian?

A bone of contention between charismatics and non-charismatics is the degree to which the gift of tongues is supposed to be normative in the life of a believer. Those who do speak in tongues suggest that this is a normal part of Christian spirituality; Protestant pentecostals will go further and state that one is not saved unless one has borne witness to the presence of the Holy Spirit within them by speaking in tongues. Appeal is often made to situations in the Book of Acts where tongues follows upon baptism as evidence of the filling of the Spirit. Protestant charismatics have dubbed this experience the "baptism of the Holy Spirit", a phrase unfortunately adopted uncritically by Catholic charismatics.

Upon closer examination, we see the Book of Acts presents no uniform pattern from which we can draw any inference about how and when the gift of tongues ought to manifest itself with relation to baptism, laying on of hands or anything else, especially if we are identifying the gift of tongues with possession of the Holy Spirit, which we never should since this usurps the rightful place of the sacrament of Confirmation. Consider the following from the Book of Acts:

At Pentecost the Apostles and the Church received the fullness of the Spirit and all spoke in tongues (Acts 2:4), although there is no record that the three thousand who believed and were baptized spoke in tongues.

In Acts 8:12-13, Philip baptizes men and women, but they do not speak in tongues.

The Samaritans, by contrast, had already been baptized but did not receive the Holy Spirit (i.e., were not yet confirmed). St. Peter and St. John lay hands on them and they receive the Spirit, but do not speak in tongues (Acts 8:14-17).

In the same chapter of Acts, the Ethiopian eunuch is baptized by Philip and does not speak in tongues (Acts 8:36-39).

St. Paul is baptized in Acts 9 and neither speaks in tongues nor prophesies nor experiences any other manifestations of the Spirit (Acts 9:18).

On the other hand, Cornelius' household receives the Holy Spirit and speaks in tongues (Acts 10:46) before they are baptized by St. Peter (v. 47).

Lydia is baptized and does not speak in tongues (Acts 16:15).

The jailer of St. Paul is baptized and does not speak in tongues (Acts 16:33).

Crispus and his family are baptized and do not speak in tongues (Acts 18:8).

A group of disciples is found outside Ephesus and is baptized. They do not speak in tongues at first, but after Paul lays hands on them they speak in tongues and prophesy (Acts 19:1-6).

What can we glean from this? Of the ten baptisms mentioned in the Book of Acts, only one, that in Acts 19, is accompanied by tongues following the baptism. Eight of the ten baptisms have no record of tongues being spoken, and in one case, that of Cornelius, people speak in tongues prior to being baptized, the same episode in which Cornelius' household receives a strong outpouring of the Holy Spirit before baptism or confirmation. In one case, that of the Samaritans, they had been baptized but had not received the Holy Spirit.

As we can see, there is no uniformity to the appearance of tongues in relation to baptism or the conversion of individuals. However, that is not to say that there is no pattern. There is a common thread here, but many people miss it because they focus on looking at tongues in relation to the experience of the individual believer. The Fathers are also unanimous that not every Christian was expected to speak in tongues, just as every Christian was not expected to perform healings or exorcisms. However, if we shift our attention to the community and the Church as a whole, we can get a different perspective.

With the exception of Pentecost, the appearances of tongues in the Book of Acts are all manifested for the sake of outsiders. Remember, the immediate post-Resurrection Church was exclusively Palestinian-Jewish. At first, it was uncertain whether the Church's universality was extended to all Jews or to all men. Whenever we see a manifestation of tongues, it is in the context of a new group of people being brought into the Church and serves as a means of confirmation that the said group can be or has been incorporated into God's family. 10:46-47, tongues are used as a sign that the Gentiles are the proper subjects of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and can be incorporated into the Church; in Acts 19:4-6, though the group is unnamed, they appear to be some sort of neo-Jewish/Messianic group, followers of John the Baptist who had not heard of Jesus. In each case, the manifestation of tongues serves to signify that the group has been accepted by God for membership into the Church. This is what Paul was alluding to in 1 Cor. 14:22 that tongues is a sign for unbelievers whilst simultaneously serving to edify the Church. When a group speaks in tongues, it is a sign that God is doing something with that group - that they are being received into the Church, and this is a cause of edification to believers. This is why tongues never appears at a personal, individual baptism in Acts, only in group situations, including Pentecost. This is also why the Catholic Encyclopedia states that the purpose of tongues was "designed to aid in the outer development of the primitive Church". [1]

This is also why St. Augustine attributes a prophetic element to tongues as well. He says that the speaking of many languages by the early Church signifies the universality which the Church was to attain:

In the earliest time the Holy Ghost fell upon them that believed: and they spoke with tongues which they had not learned ‘as the Spirit gave them utterance.’ These were signs adapted to the time. For it was proper for the Holy Spirit to evidence Himself in all tongues, and to show that the Gospel of God had come to all tongues [languages] over the whole earth. The thing was done for an authentication and it passed away.” [2]

Chrysostom echoes this interpretation of the gift:

The Corinthians thought that speaking in tongues was a great gift because it was the one which the apostles received first, and with a great display. But this was no reason to think it was the greatest gift of all. The reason the apostles got it first was because it was a sign that they were to go everywhere, preaching the gospel.” [3]

Note that Augustine states that tongues "passed away" after the period of their usefulness had come to an end. This seems to be based on St. Paul's comments in 1 Cor. 13:8 that tongues "will cease." When the gift of tongues ceased in the Early Church is a matter of speculation; St. Augustine, writing around 400 in North Africa, speaks of it as something that belonged to the past. But St. Ambrose, writing in Italy only a generation earlier, speaks of tongues as a current manifestation, as do several other writers of the middle 4th century. By the mid-5th century, it seems to have been universally regarded as something of the past. 

Is the modern phenomenon known as tongues equivalent to the ancient gift of tongues? Did this gift really die out? Is it really to be understood as a heavenly language? Does the miracle consist in the speaking or in the hearing? What did the Church Fathers say about this gift? Obviously this discussion could be further enriched, though these are all questions that will have to be resolved another time. However, in conclusion, I would like to offer an anecdotal story from a well-known Midwest abortion mill concerning a modern occurrence of the gift of tongues. I know the author personally and I asked her to write this story for this website so that people could be edified. The story you are about to read took place on Thursday, May 29th, 2014. All names have been changed:

The red Ford rumbled past into the clinic parking lot, exciting the cottonwood seeds in its wake. I called to its driver as she walked toward the stark, white cinder-block building, “Do you have a minute to talk?” She nodded. 

We both knew her purpose – there are only a few reasons women venture there – but I asked anyway.

“Are you here for an abortion?” She nodded again, seeming almost to wince at the word.

We introduced ourselves (we’ll call her “Carmen”), and I proceeded to tell her of the available financial and medical aid at our women’s centers. We talked back and forth for a few minutes, and she revealed to me her qualms about her decision. A thought then occurred to me: since Carmen was apparently Mexican, and more fluent in Spanish than English, I wanted to direct her toward a Spanish-speaking friend of mine, so both could speak at ease in their native languages and ideas being lost in translation.

I brought up the option, and Carmen looked at me bewildered. “What are you talking about?” she asked. “You’re doing just fine!”

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

She giggled and informed me that I was speaking excellent Spanish.

I was not speaking Spanish; I was speaking English. I am convinced what occurred between us was a miracle of tongues. The Lord changed her perception of my language so I could reach her in her time of desperate need. Deo gratias.

We spoke to my Spanish-speaking friend (Anna) anyway, and we discussed further the life of her baby, how we could help her save him/her, and how she would come to regret the decision to abort. We assured our assistance in any way we could.

Carmen already has three born children, whom she is raising on her own, and the father of the unborn baby is pressuring her to have an abortion, which was scheduled for 2:15 the following day.

Carmen told Anna she would think about everything that had occurred during the intervention, and would call in the evening. Evening passed, and both of us tried to reach Carmen to no avail.

We tried again on Friday morning, but our calls and voicemails went unheeded. Carmen’s abortion appointment was coming up soon, and Anna was distraught with the feeling Carmen intended to have the abortion.

I arrived at the Planned Parenthood clinic at 1:30, and Anna arrived shortly after, driving into the forbidden parking lot, and walking straight into the clinic. I waited in the cul-de-sac for Carmen to pull in, and sure enough, she did. Praying for her all this time, I decided not to call to her as she walked in, but texted Anna, “She’s coming in now.”

Carmen took her seat in the clinic waiting room, and Anna sat next to her. “Hola, Carmen, me llamo Anna,” she said. “Hello, Carmen, I’m Anna.”

Anna was met with a stunned stare. She could not believe that the woman who had tried to talk her out of killing her baby the day before was now sitting with her in the Planned Parenthood waiting room. Carmen burst into tears, and told Anna to get her out of there before she changed her mind again.

Friends and readers, this is truly a saved baby. And a saved mother. And a miracle.

After Anna left with Carmen, I posted a list of immediate needs to my personal Facebook page, and within the hour, all those needs were met through the generosity of my friends.


[1] Reilly, T. (1912). Gift of Tongues. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved June 5, 2014 from New Advent:
[2] St Augustine, Ten Homilies on the first Epistle of John VI, 10.
[3] St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on 1 Corinthians 35.1