One of the arguments made by those who believe that the gift of speaking in tongues has ceased (cessationists) is that the "tongues" spoken of in both Acts and 1 Corinthians 12–14 are "real" human languages. For example, C. Norman Sellers, in Biblical Tongues, writes:

The New Testament references to tongues require that we understand them as referring to real languages [...] There is sufficient scriptural evidence to prove that the tongues in 1 Corinthians are the same as those in Acts chapter 2 and refer to real languages.

Charismatics will generally reject this analysis; J. Rodman Williams, for example, argues that "it would have been pointless to speak foreign languages" at Caesarea (Acts 10:45–46) and Ephesus (Acts 19:6) in Renewal Theology (II, p214).

In light of this disagreement, I wonder – did any church fathers clearly and specifically indicate that the "speaking in tongues" of either Acts or 1 Corinthians was not a "real" human language? Here are some clarifying parameters:

  • I'm interested in church fathers as typically defined – those who followed the apostles up to John of Damascus. I'm fine with including Tertullian and Origen in this group.
    • From my reading I don't think any pre-Augustine authors clearly make this connection, so I'm asking about church fathers more broadly. But writings of the early fathers would be particularly interesting.
  • By "clearly and specifically," I mean that the writer goes beyond the biblical text and indicates that the "tongues" were not human languages.
    • Charismatics might argue that the biblical text itself is clear on this point, and that therefore if a church father merely quotes the biblical text, it indicates that he believes that "tongues" were not exclusively human language. I want more than that.

4 Answers 4


To my knowledge, no Church Father ever connected "Speaking in Tongues" - Glossolalia - with anything other than existing human languages.

Dr. Nathan Busenitz wrote a very detailed paper titled The Gift of Tongues: Comparing the Church Fathers with Contemporary Pentecostalism comparing what the Church Fathers believed and wrote regarding glossolalia with contemporary Pentecostal beliefs. His conclusion was that there was no evidence that any Church Fathers ever held that glossolalia involved anything other than real human language.

One of the key "proof texts" that has been cited for use of unintelligible languages while speaking in tongues is 1 Corinthians 14:14-15:

For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful.What am I to do? I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also; I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also.

Church Father John Chrysostom (4th cent.) clearly understood that even here, Paul was speaking of real language:

Ask accordingly not to have the gift of tongues only, but also of interpretation, that thou mayest become useful unto all, and not shut up thy gift in thyself alone. “For if I pray in a tongue,” saith he, “my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful.” Seest thou how by degrees bringing his argument to a point, he signifies that not to others only is such an one useless, but also to himself; if at least “his understanding is unfruitful?” For if a man should speak only in the Persian, or any other foreign tongue, and not understand what he saith, then of course to himself also will he be thenceforth a barbarian, not to another only, from not knowing the meaning of the sound. For there were of old many who had also a gift of prayer, together with a tongue; and they prayed, and the tongue spake, praying either in the Persian or Latin language, but their understanding knew not what was spoken. Wherefore also he said, “I’ll pray in a tongue, my spirit prayeth,” i.e., the gift which is given me and which moves my tongue, “but my understanding is unfruitful.”

What then may that be which is best in itself, and doth good? And how ought one to act, or what request of God? To pray, “both with the spirit,” i.e., the gift, and “with the understanding.” Wherefore also he said, “I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.” He signifieth the same thing here also, that both the tongue may speak, and the understanding may not be ignorant of the things spoken (Homilies on First Corinthians, XXXV)

Within the contemporary Orthodox Church, two prevailing beliefs regarding glossolalia are:

  1. Glossolalia appeared at the beginning of the Church, because it was intended as a gift to help the Apostles build the Church quickly from disparate nationalities. As Christianity spread throughout the word, the need for the gift declined, and so became less prevalent and seems to have disappeared today.

  2. Those who utter incomprehensible sounds and believe themselves to be "speaking in tongues", inspired by the Holy Spirit, are victims of demonic delusion.

"Far from being given freely and spontaneously, without man's interference - as are the true gifts of the Holy Spirit - speaking in tongues can be caused to occur quite predictably," wrote the American monk Seraphim Rose,

... by a regular technique of concentrated group "prayer" accompanied by psychologically suggestive Protestant hymns ("He comes! He comes!"), culminating in a "laying on of hands," and sometimes involving such purely physical efforts as repeating a given phrase over and over again, or just making sounds with the mouth. One person admits that, like many others, after speaking in tongues, "I often did mouth nonsense syllables in an effort to start the flow of prayer-in-tongues"; and such efforts, far from being discouraged, are actually advocated by Pentecostals. "Making sounds with the mouth is not 'speaking-in-tongues,' but it may signify an honest act of faith, which the Holy Spirit will honor by giving that person the power to speak in another language". Another Protestant pastor says: "The initial hurdle to speaking in tongues, it seems, is simply the realization that you must 'speak forth'...The first syllables and words may sound strange to your ear... They may be halting and inarticulate. You may have the thought that you are just making it up. But as you continue to speak in faith... the Spirit will shape for you a language of prayer and praise". A Jesuit "theologian" tells how he put such advice into practice: "After breakfast I felt almost physically drawn to the chapel where I sat down to pray. Following Jim's description of his own reception of the gift of tongues, I began to say quietly to myself "la, la, la, la." To my immense consternation there ensued a rapid movement of tongue and lips accompanied by a tremendous feeling of inner devotion".

Hieromonk Seraphim Rose of Platina, "Charismatic Revival As a Sign of the Times"

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    +1 The Busenitz paper is a great reference. Ive been looking for a paper like that for some time.
    – Andrew
    Jun 29, 2016 at 4:08
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    @user22553 The link to the paper is now broken, unfortunately. Jun 20, 2019 at 20:26
  • @SolaGratia, I think it is "The Gift of Tongues: Comparing the Church Fathers with Contemporary Pentecostalism.", which I found at mariancatechist.com/files/documents/… Jun 21, 2019 at 1:30
  • @SolaGratia, If that is the right paper, it would be good if its title were edited into this article (for the next time it moves). That was the most annoying thing I noticed when I first started using SE sites. People here very frequently say "an interesting paper", or "here", or "this", or whatever, without actually naming what the link is supposed to point to. I'm much more used to links being given as: "Dr. Nathan Busenitz wrote a very detailed paper, 'The Gift of Tongues: Comparing the Church Fathers with Contemporary Pentecostalism', comparing ...", with the title being the link. Jun 21, 2019 at 1:38
  • The original link to the paper is available via the Wayback Machine.
    – emeth
    Jun 22, 2019 at 14:21

Francis Gumerlock provides a survey of the views of church fathers in "Tongues in the Church Fathers." He concludes that "the early church had no such concept of the gift of tongues as unintelligible speech," but rather that they referred to the real human languages of the nations around the Apostles.

Citations [of church fathers], along with two accounts of alleged tongues miracles from the early church, will show that ancient Christians understood that the biblical gift of tongues was a miracle involving intelligible human languages.

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    This makes so much sense to me reading the scripture and seeing the similarity between the tongues of babbling and the Khundalini tongues. The gift undid the curse of Babel as a sign to the Jews. May 17, 2019 at 19:22
  • “..given freely and spontaneously, without man's interference - as are the true gifts of the Holy Spirit”. Is that pretty clear in the Bible?
    – Al Brown
    Aug 17, 2021 at 5:36

This is a good question. 👍 Direct evidence for "speaking in tongues" being viewed as anything other than existing human languages is lacking at this time.

Having said the above, it should be pointed out that many historians & scholars of the 19th century made a distinction between various kinds of tongues. For example, Philip Schaff writes the following:

"Irenaeus (Adv. Haer. 1. v. c. 6, § 1) speaks of "many brethren" whom he heard in the church having the gift of prophecy and of speaking in "diverse tongues" (Παντοδαπαῖς γλώσσαις), bringing the hidden things of men (Τὰ κπύφια τῶν ἀνθπώπων) to light and expounding the mysteries of God (τά μυστήρια τοῦ θεοῦ). It is not clear whether by the term "diverse," which does not elsewhere occur, he means a speaking in foreign languages, or in diversities of tongues altogether peculiar, like those meant by Paul. The latter is more probable. Irenaeus himself had to learn the language of Gaul. Tertullian (Adv. Marc. V. 8; comp. De Anima, c. 9) obscurely speaks of the spiritual gifts, including the gift of tongues, as being still manifest among the Montanists to whom he belonged. At the time of Chrysostom it had entirely disappeared; at least he accounts for the obscurity of the gift from our ignorance of the fact. From that time on the glossolalia was usually misunderstood as a miraculous and permanent gift of foreign languages for missionary purposes. But the whole history of missions furnishes no clear example of such a gift for such a purpose."

I would argue that free vocalization forms of speech such as "jubilation" can be considered indirectly as a type of species of glossolalia. A good place to do some scholarly research on the linguistic nature of "jubilation" is John C. Poirier's "Tongues of Angels: Concept of Angelic Languages in Classical Jewish and Christian Texts." Excerpts from the book can be found here.

Also, check out the Roman Catholic scholar, Eddie Ensely's "Sounds of Wonder, 20 Centuries of Praying in Tongues and Lively Worship." He points out that jubilus, was connected in the fourth through ninth century in the early church with the repetition of certain psalms. It consisted of a melismatic and prolonged final syllable singing of the alleluias. Historians note that this improvised form of prayer, which flourish on the final syllable of alleluia, might continue for up to five minutes long. It was understood in the early church as a type of reflection of the angelic chorus.

This practice of jubilation continued in both the west and east for many centuries. For example, as late as the 14th century, meaningless syllables called teretismata can be seen to be introduced into the Greek manuscripts of Byzantine chant. For further research in the area, see Robert Webber’s The Complete Library of Christian Worship (StarSong, 1994): “A Brief History of Jubilation” (280-308).

Although spiritually induced, jubilation appears to be a natural phenomena similar to secular non vernacular forms of speech such as yodeling, jazz scat singing and euphonious yo-ho type work songs. A close religious parallel to the ancient practice of jubilation is that of African-American forms of spiritual moaning melodically dressed with melismas, having a unison and heterophonic tone.

When one examines the nature of the gift of jubilation in church history it appears to be identical to how certain 19th century European exegetical scholars viewed the gift of tongues.

For example, the 19th century Lutheran commentator George Stoeckhardt writes in his "Exegetical Lectures on the First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians" a note on 1 Corinthians 14:2-5. In that section, he describes the gift of tongues. He uses almost identical terms to describe the gift of jubilation in the early patristic period:

"There were various kinds of speaking in tongues. One who had this gift would, moved by the Spirit, with his tongue bring forth pleasant sounds or songs, unintelligible,...the Spirit moves the inner spirit of man to utter euphonious sounds..." (Commentary on 1 Corinthians, pages 73 & 83)

Poirier points out that, in the ancient Jewish pseudepigraphal books, there are numerous historical references to a liturgical jubilus. This jubilus mimicked the esoteric tongues of angels. Poirer points out that St. Jerome was known to have interacted with Jewish believers in Antioch and lived near Bethlehem. So, a strong case can be made that the jubilus Jerome describes, coincides with the description of metaphorical angelic tongues described in Jewish pseudepigraphical writings. This type of speech is also mentioned by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13.

St. Augustine writes:

What is jubilation? Joy that cannot be expressed in words. Yet the voice expresses what is conceived in the heart and cannot be explained in words. This is jubilation...Where speech does not suffice… To manifest his joy, the man does not use words that can be pronounced or understood, but bursts forth into sounds of exaltation without words...they break out into singing on vowel sounds, that through this means the feeling of the soul may be expressed, words failing to explain the heart’s conceptions. (Commentary on Psalms)

We also know that this practice of jubilation was widespread in the early church and continued for centuries. For example, the Benedictine theologian Rupert of Deutz (1075-1130 A.D.), writes of the devotional prayer practice of jubilation that continued in his day:

We jubilate rather than sing, and extend a short syllable over several neums or groups of neums, in order that the spirit may be moved by the beautiful sounds...

The most plausible explanation, for why the ancient practice of jubilation was not commonly identified as being the same as praying with the New Testament gift of tongues, is that it was often done in a manner that was different than a prophetic speaking in tongues.

The Apostle Paul did not want the practice of speaking in tongues to be done in a public communal manner. For example, the Apostle writes:

If therefore the whole church be assembled together, and all speak with tongues and there come in men unlearned or unbelieving, will they not say that you are mad? (1 Corinthians 14:23)

It is a reasonable inference that, during the first couple hundred years after the church was established, a new name was given to describe the communal practice of chanting or singing in tongues. There were a couple of benefits that resulted from this name change in the patristic period.

First of all, potential controversy in the church that this practice was in violation of 1 Corinthians 14:23 was eliminated.

Secondly, by downplaying the phrase "gift of tongues (glossolalia)" the use of the phrase "jubilation" avoided controversy from cynics. After all, if Christians really had the same gift as was given on the day of Pentecost then why did they need to study other languages - so as to translate Scripture for other people groups? As a case in point, Eusebius notes (8:14) that Apollonius claimed to know the languages of all humans and all animals - which led him to ask why he then needed the services of a translator on his travels. It is reasonable to argue that cynics might say the same thing about Christians who made claims to speaking in tongues.

Finally, a new name like jubilation helped to demystify the experience so as to better relate it to the Greek and Roman converts who were used to such free vocalization in other contexts.

The above reasons account for why St. Augustine, St. Chrysostom and others did not claim the gift of jubilation was the same as the gift of tongues described in the New Testament on the day of Pentecost.

In our modern era there are cases where phenomena of name swapping and branding have taken place. For example, the word "apple" was originally understood as a description of fruit in general. Another example, in the field of fishing, is that the renaming of certain species is sometimes done to encourage customers and increase popularity - e.g. slime head is now orange roughy, and Patagonian toothfish sells better as Chilean sea bass.

The same sort of name swapping has happened in the field of viticulture. For example, the grape varietal Zinfandel was long considered unique to America. However, it was only recently that DNA profiling was used to confirm that it is not so unique after all. Rather a Croatian grape varietal, by the name of Crljenak kaštelanski, has been found to be genetically identical to the Zinfandel grape.

There are many other cases in life in which name changes have been made so as to increase brand appeal. What happened historically with the fishing industry, the wine industry, and other areas of life, is arguably analogous to what likely happened with the gift of tongues in Corinth and the gift of jubilation found in post-New Testament times.

For a defense of the position that there were different kinds of tongues in a linguistic sense in the New Testament era, see this article by the Roman Catholic lay apologist Dave Armstrong.

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    “I would argue that free vocalization forms of speech such as "jubilation" can be considered as a type of species of glossolalia.” However,, David speaks of shout of joy. They simply remain that shouts of joy. I would postulate that these be more equivocal to yelling ”yahoo” or ”yah”. There is no clear supported evidence that the Church Fathers did not directly connect “speaking in tongues” with anything other than existing human languages? Dave Armstrong is not a Catholic theologian, but a Catholic apologist!
    – Ken Graham
    Aug 12, 2021 at 19:44
  • I'm not claiming a clear connection, only that jubilation is a species of language: ".they break out into singing on vowel sounds, that through this means the feeling of the soul may be expressed, words failing to explain the heart’s conceptions." St. Augustine (Commentary on Psalms) Poirier points out that, in the ancient Jewish pseudepigraphal books, there are numerous references to a liturgical jubilus. This jubilus mimicked the esoteric tongues of angels. In time, I believe someday we will find documents that better establishes the link between the gift of jubilation & N.T. tongues.
    – Jess
    Aug 13, 2021 at 5:19
  • Great companion answer to the accepted answer, for scholarly references to studies on early church's view on tongues. Jess's view of "jubilation" seems consistent (though not identical) with Anthony C. Thiselton's view quoted in my answer to another question. Aug 19, 2021 at 7:42

This thread feels a bit like a straw man to me. Historically, Pentecostals have considered tongues to be...at least primarily... human languages. That was the belief of early Pentecostals. There are many accounts from early in the Pentecostal movement, from the Azusa Street revival and other meetings, of foreigners going into meetings and hearing their native languages 'in tongues' at Azusa. There are accounts of Japanese or Russian being spoken “in tongues”.

Some of the early participants in the Pentecostal movement believed they would be able to do missions work without any language training. This was based on assumptions of how things worked, not taught in scripture. There is no indication that the disciples in Acts 2 could make the language they spoke be the language of an onlooker, and in I Corinthians, others present did not understand the tongues as their native language. We know the disciples were speaking of the wonderful works of God, not if they were preaching Christ or explaining salvation in tongues. The listeners were saved after hearing Peter preach the gospel, presumably in a common language rather than 'in tongues.'

Early in the Pentecostal movement, A. G. Garr went to India hoping that speaking in tongues would work out as an evangelistic language after someone had identified the tongue he spoke in as Bengali, but this did not happen again for him in India.

But still there have been many accounts of individuals understanding speaking in tongues in their own native language sense. I know there are many accounts of such things, and have been, among Assemblies of God missionaries. Charles Greenoway was a denominational official in the A/G in the 1980's and he had a testimony of someone preaching in tongues and the audience understanding. I know a missionary who spoke in tongues at an outreach to the Cherokee, and the people asked him how he knew their language. Dennis Balcombe has told of hearing speaking in tongues “in English” among Chinese villagers. I spoke with his daughter after a church meeting at a Chinese bilingual church and mentioned that, and she had heard a little grandma in a Chinese village speak what sounded like a psalm in English.

I am not sure where the idea of tongues a spiritual code language came in. I wonder if some of the academics, maybe mainline Protestant Charismatics and WOFers teach that, because I have encountered people who believe that way online and to a lesser degree in real life. But from what I have read, early Charismatics in the US-- I mean in the 1960's believed in tongues as real languages.

I say Pentecostals primarily believe in tongues as real languages because Paul writes, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels.” Considering the context, it would not be reasonable to reject the idea that such a thing was possible. There was a contemporary Jewish belief that tongues spoke languages, which shows up in some of the apocrophyl or psuedapigraphil writings, references to Job's daughters being given a golden box with a cord that enabled them to speak in such languages. This argues against the idea that Paul was using the term to refer exclusively to Hebrew.

There are those who will insist that “tongues of angels” are hyperbole and Paul did not really mean that, but if we look at the other parralel arguments he made, it is possible to give all to the poor, to give ones body to be burned. And whatever it means to move mountains whether a metaphor or literal, it is possible for a believer to do that by faith. Paul is listing “extreme things”, so there is no strong basis for saying tongues of angels could not possibly be spoken.

I cannot speak for all Pentecostals and Charismatics, but I suspect just about any Pentecostal who thought of tongues as real languages and came across this passage makes room for the idea of tongues of angels, especially since he doesn't have a motivation for explaining away the verse.

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    Hi Link, thank you for submitting a well researched and thoughtful answer. The problem is, most of it doesn't answer the question as asked. Because of the 6th and 7th paragraphs, I think you make your case - but a citation is needed for that "contemporary belief". Otherwise, I think this is a good first answer and I invite you to stick around and answer lots of questions.
    – Peter Turner
    Sep 21, 2018 at 12:45
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    Ironically, though I’ve attended and visited many different Pentecostal congregations, I’ve never met a Pentecostal that thought that speaking in tongues refers to anything but a “heavenly language.”
    – Andrew
    Nov 11, 2018 at 19:53
  • It is a diverse movement. I have heard the idea that it is a real language preached from the pulpit. In the A/G in the 1980's, Brother Greenoway, who was a denominational official in charge of missions, would tell a story of a brother who preached in tongues before the interpreter arrived. Some of the examples from Harris' book on tongues that relates accounts of people understanding speaking in tongues in their own languages are from A/G missionaries. Dennis Balcombe is Pentecostal, and he has written about heairng people speak in tongues in English in China.
    – Link
    Nov 16, 2018 at 2:49
  • Paragraph 6-- Testament of Job. My memory was a bit fuzzy on the Bengali issue, at least if the following letter is the source. An Indian understood his language, and he was saying something that sounded like Bengali while speaking in tongues. charlesasullivan.com/8601/missionary-crisis-speaking-tongues There are a number of references I have come across regarding people understanding speaking in tongues in their own language at Azusa Street: The book The Comforter has come, Fire on Azusa by Val Dez. This interview is a bit general: youtube.com/watch?v=Q8Kjc6Qdtko
    – Link
    Nov 16, 2018 at 3:04

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