In its modern form, Pentecostalism has it roots in Topeka, Kansas, where in the early 1900s Charles Parham traveled through Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas teaching the theology. In 1906 William J. Seymour led the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles, and from that time it spread rapidly across the United States and the world. Pentecostals regard speaking in tongues to be the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Often referred to as the Charismatic Renewal, there are now half a billion Pentecostal and charismatic believers around the globe. In the United States, while in the minority, they comprise about 25 percent of Protestant believers (NewsMax, May 2007, p. 58).

Often referred to as glossolalia, the practice is based on Acts 2 which describes the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the gathered disciples who then began to speak to the assembled crowd in other languages. Pentecostals believe this manifestation of the Holy Spirit is the fulfillment of the statement made by John the Baptist. John stated, ” . . . I indeed baptize you with water; but one mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose: he shall baptize you with the Holy [Spirit] and with fire” (Luke 3:16). As noted above, since the Holy Spirit appeared to the disciples on the day of Pentecost, modern Pentecostals believe they are recipients of the “baptism of the Holy Spirit.” They often refer to themselves as “Renewalists,” and the movement is regarded by some as the “new reformation.” (ibid.)

What Research Demonstrated

The first scientific study into glossolalia, that is, speaking in tongues, took place in 1927 when psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin, while studying schizophrenic patients, linked glossolalia to schizophrenia and hysteria. He observed that glossolalists tended to have more of a need for authority figures and appeared to have more crises in their lives. However, an internet article by Benedict Carey, published on November 7, 2006, and entitled, “A Neuroscientific Look at Speaking in Tongues,” examines the phenomenon from a neurological viewpoint. The article tells us that many religious people who “speak in tongues” say the rhythmic, language-like chatter that streams forth from them reflects a state of mental possession. University of Pennsylvania researchers took brain images of five women while they spoke in tongues and found that their frontal lobes, which contain the thinking and willful portion of the brain by which people control what they do, were relatively quiet, along with the language centers. Imaging techniques were also used which established the pinpoint blood-flow peaks and valleys unique to speaking in tongues. The research illustrated how the lobe images supported the people’s interpretation of what was happening. Dr. Newberg, leader of the study team, said that the speakers believe that God is talking through them. Ms. Morgan, a co-author of the program and participant in the study, stated, “You are aware of your surroundings. You are not really out of control over what is happening. You’re just flowing. You’re in the realm of peace and comfort, and it’s a fantastic feeling.” Researchers identified at least two forms of the practice, one ecstatic and frenzied, the other subdued and nearly silent. Dr. Newburg concluded “that practitioners, while mindful of their circumstances, nonetheless cede some control over their bodies and emotions.” Linguists noticed that glossolalists from Russia, the United Kingdom, and Brazil all sound different from each other, but what they speak vaguely resembles the Russian, English, and Portuguese languages respectively. Many linguists generally regard most glossolalia as lacking any identifying semantics (the study of meanings), syntax (a connected or orderly system), or morphology (the study of word formation).

Speaking in Tongues in the Bible

As noted above, modern speaking in tongues is believed to be based upon Acts 2. The account reads as follows:

And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2:1-4)

Notice the background: “And there were dwelling at JerusalemJews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5). These Jews from the Diaspora had come to Jerusalem to observe Pentecost. These were the descendants of the many thousands of Jews who had been captured and transported out of Judea into foreign lands by the Assyrians and Babylonians from 721-604 BC. As a result they could not speak the Aramaic which was the current language in Palestine at that time. What was the miracle here? “Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language. And they were all amazed and marvelled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galilaeans? . . . We do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God” (Acts 2:6-7, 11). The word “tongues” simply means languages. So the miracle on this occasion was that the disciples were given the gift of proclaiming the Truth of God in foreign languages.

Other New Testament examples of speaking in tongues reveal the same thing. This gift was given when peoples of differing languages gathered together but were unable to understand what was being said in a language not their own.

The centurion Cornelius-a Gentile-was instructed in a vision to send for Peter.

Send therefore to Joppa, and call hither Simon, whose surname is Peter; he is lodged in the house of one Simon a tanner by the sea side: who, when he cometh, shall speak unto thee . . . . While Peter yet spake these words, the Holy [Spirit] fell on all them which heard the word. And they of the circumcision which believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy [Spirit]. For they heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God. Then answered Peter, Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy [Spirit] as well as we? (Acts 10:32, 44-47)

Also the following example:

And it came to pass, that, while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul having passed through the upper coasts came to Ephesus: and finding certain disciples, He said unto them, Have ye received the Holy [Spirit] since ye believed? And they said unto him, We have not so much as heard whether there be any Holy [Spirit]. And he said unto them, Unto what then were ye baptized? And they said, Unto John’s baptism. Then said Paul, John verily baptized with the baptism of repentance, saying unto the people, that they should believe on him which should come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus. When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy [Spirit] came on them; and they spake with tongues, and prophesied. (Acts 19:1-6)

The New Testament examples of speaking in tongues are recorded on those occasions where differing languages were present. Cornelius was a Latin-speaking Gentile. The people of Ephesus were Greek-speaking, and since Aramaic-speaking Jews also resided in this cosmopolitan city, the gift of languages was given to reveal God’s acceptance of the Gentiles, just as He had done with the house of Cornelius. God is not the author of confusion (1 Cor. 14:33). It is not likely this gift would be necessary or even manifested when all present understood the same language.

1 Corinthians 14

First Corinthians 14 is the last example we should investigate. Consider this: Corinth was a mart for merchants from Asia, Africa, and Europe. This large influx of languages would certainly have given rise to speaking in tongues. The purpose of tongues was to give understanding to the listeners. But it appears the Corinthians were either abusing the gift or did not understand how it should be employed.

An examination of this chapter reveals the following:

The word “unknown” used in conjunction with the word “tongue” in I Corinthians 14 is not found in the original Greek text. What took place in Corinth duplicated the events on the day of Pentecost, except at Corinth, Paul required the use of an interpreter (vv. 26-28). The supernatural speaking in tongues at Corinth involved languages that the speakers did not know. So the obvious reason for an interpreter was that the languages being spoken were not known to the Corinthians. Some in Corinth were exercising the gift of tongues improperly for selfish reasons (v. 4) and without an interpreter (v. 13). Paul pointed out that the gift of tongues was a sign to unbelievers, which should serve as an impressive witness (v. 22). When exercising the gift, the speaker did not understand what had been spoken until an interpretation was given. In effect, the speaker’s intellect was by-passed, and the mind, because it remained inactive during the speaking, was unfruitful (14). Since the spirit of the prophet is subject to the prophet (v. 32), the speaker was not seized with uncontrolled paroxysms but was able to wait in turn or to remain silent (vv. 27-28).

Most important of all, Paul emphasized the importance of prophesying- which in the New Testament meant inspired preaching (vv. 5, 12, 22). Paul regarded inspired preaching far more valuable than speaking in tongues. He said that while he spoke in tongues more than all of them, he regarded speaking under the influence of the Holy Spirit far more important. Inspired preaching serves to edify the entire church, but speaking in tongues edifies the speaker only (vv. 4, 18-19).

What Modern Pentecostalism Is Not

In its modern context, speaking in tongues is not what was practiced in the early New Testament Church. While speaking in tongues was a gift of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:10), it is the least of the gifts. Furthermore, Paul said it would be done away (1 Cor. 13:8). In every case in the New Testament when the gift of languages was manifested, peoples of differing languages were present. The purpose of this gift was to give understanding to what was being spoken. The emphasis on prophesy would certainly inspire the members to qualify for the office of inspired speaking. Research shows that what is spoken today represents no known language, and that the speaker gives over control of his body and emotions. Often in Pentecostal and charismatic meetings no sermon is given to edify the congregation.

The gift of languages had a definite purpose and was never employed when not necessary. Two things that should be mentioned in closing: (1) There is never an example of the gift of tongues being manifested among the Jews in Palestine who all spoke the same language, and (2) it would make little sense for the gift of languages to be manifested today where all the members of a congregation speak the same language. God does not circle the barn to get in the door.