The gift of interpretation of tongues is mentioned in chapters 12 and 14 of the apostle Paul's first Epistle to the Corinthians:

10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. [1 Cor 12:10, ESV]

29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? 31 But earnestly desire the higher gifts. [1 Cor 12:29-31, ESV]

5 Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up. [1 Cor 14:5, ESV]

13 Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret. 14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. 15 What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also. [1 Cor 14:13-15, ESV]

26 What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. 27 If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. 28 But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God. [1 Cor 14:26-28, ESV]

Besides these two biblical chapters, are there any other extra-biblical documented occurrences of the gift of interpretation of tongues in the history of the Church?

  • 1
    'Outside of the sphere of' needs defining. It has been noticeable in my own lifetime (particularly 1960s onwards) that persons with 'Pentecostal' views have made deliberate efforts to spread their influence within, say C of E, Methodism, etc. So the 'sphere' has expanded into many congregations whose main affiliation is not Pentecostal but traditional. I think you need some clarity and detail in order to cover this aspect, myself.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Aug 17, 2021 at 8:34
  • 1
    @NigelJ - Good point. I added a note clarifying what I meant by that.
    – user50422
    Commented Aug 17, 2021 at 8:42
  • 1
    The charismatic movement doesn't fit into the strict family tree model of denominations, it's more something that has developed and spread throughout Christianity. So almost by definition, wherever you see these sorts of gifts being used/claimed, you're looking at a charismatic church.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Aug 17, 2021 at 13:19
  • @curiousdannii - I see. Should I remove the word Charismatic from the question and only keep the word Pentecostal?
    – user50422
    Commented Aug 17, 2021 at 13:37
  • IMO it would make the question tighter. But if you're interested in these experiences outside those who self-identify as charismatic, the question is still valid. However, honestly it seems like you're asking a lot of questions that are just asking for anecdotes. Churches are always made up of individuals with widely diverging beliefs, practices, and experiences. You've been asking a lot of questions to which the answers will inevitably be yes. I'd encourage you to focus in on questions that aren't just look for anecdotes.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Aug 17, 2021 at 13:42

1 Answer 1


The question reminds of how I once heard a skeptical cessationist leaning theology professor described how he tested some so-called self styled interpreters of tongues. The story goes that the professor took charge by requesting that three of the interpreters present listen to a person who was engaged in the speaking of tongues. Then he requested that those three go into separate rooms. He then made the rounds and asked the individuals sequentially, each not in the hearing of the other two, to interpret what the tongue-speaker had said. In telling the story afterward, he mentioned that he received three pious but entirely different "interpretations." His conclusion was that it was not possible today to identify a possessor of the genuine charisma of interpretation.

Unfortunately, as a followup to the above story, the professor was asked to describe what those “interpretations” exactly consisted of. However, he was not able to recall even the gist of what was said.

Still, the story brought up some important questions that should be looked at in relationship to understanding a more nuanced view of the gift of interpretation mentioned in the Bible.

First of all, the question should be asked, "Does the Biblical gift of interpretation necessarily imply a translation of a known foreign language?" If so, would not the extraordinary gift of interpretation of tongues be looked to as a kind of authenticator of the presence and use of the genuine gift of tongue-speaking?

In response to this question, it is important to note that Jesus refused to work under controlled conditions. A case in point can be found in Matthew 16:4 when the Pharisee's demanded a miracle. Given the fact that Jesus himself refused to be tested by the people when they demanded a sign be performed, one could argue that it is highly presumptuous to think that the Holy Spirit would want to work in a different manner in these days.

God might purposefully shroud the manifestation of gifts of interpretation in an ambiguous manner. The old theologians taught that God hides himself, often in cruciform ways. For example, Proverbs 25:2 states, “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, but the glory of kings is to search things out.” And Isaiah 45:15 reads, “Truly, you are a God who hides himself.” So, for those holding to a Biblical Christian worldview it is not necessary to believe that God always desires to manifest his gifts in a way that removes all possible doubt of their origin.

In considering this question, it is also important to also understand that not all Biblical scholars would agree that the "gift of interpretation" is the same as a "gift of translation" as is sometimes understood today. For example, the noted Catholic scholar, Fr. George Montague points out that the complexities involved in understanding the Biblical gift of interpretation. He writes:

Plato and Philo’s definition of “interpretation" does not always mean a word-for-word translation. It can also mean giving rational shape to something enigmatic like an oracular utterance or vision or a dream. (George Montague, Paulist Press: The Spirit and his Gifts, p. 34)

In considering possible multiple perspectives of how something could be interpreted, it is also helpful to think of an illustration that the Anglican theologian Graham Tomlin once gave in relationship to the problem of evil. He pointed out that there are various levels of interpretation that one might have in encountering the problem of evil.

Graham Tomlin gave an illustration that helped put this in perspective. It runs like this: "Suppose you notice me eating Ice Cream. So you ask, 'Why are you eating Ice Cream?' I respond: 'I like ice cream,' or, 'I’m hungry,' or, 'I’m going to be a star in a new reality based movie, Super Size Me.' All of these interpretive answers may actually be true at the same time. They are not necessarily mutually incompatible."

So, taking off on Graham Tomlin’s argument on the problem of evil, it could be argued that there is a depth and complexity involved in understanding any given spiritual interpretation of the gift of tongues.

So, the gift of interpretation might easily consist of several different levels of application and understanding for any given utterance. This is especially the case if the glossolalia utterance is more symbolic in nature and not some extant human language.

Think about what it means for the gift of tongues to involve a sense of mystery, as is described in 1 Corinthians 14:2. Fr. Morton Kelsey wrote a book back in 1963 called, "Tongue Speaking." In the book Fr. Morton Kelsey draws upon his background as a Jungian psychologist and, from a phenomenological sense, describes the gift of tongues as an expression of a symbolic language of the personal and collective unconscious and spiritual realm what lies behind the unconscious psyche.

If what Morton says is true. Than what is spoken in a tongue (i.e. glossolalia) might be more enigmatic or oracular. If so, than a gift of interpretation could very easily be like what an art critic does when he reports on the message of a piece of music.

And for the person who prays in tongues (in the spirit) and than prays for an interpretation (with his mind) a similar result can take place. It is interesting how, in the early 20th century, the American Lutheran theologian, R.C.H. Lenski describes how non-conceptual sighs and groanings can sometimes be involved in intercessory prayer. In his commentary on Romans, Lenski rejects the interpretation that Romans 8:26 is a reference to literal sighs and groaning. However, in a type of admission against interest, he writes about that verse:

Later writers state that the charisma of tongues was a speaking in non-human language and either identify these ‘groanings’ with this non-human language or conceive of them as a parallel to it. (Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, p. 547)

This is significant, in that a person who is concentrating on the Lord in their glossolalia prayer may shift into the vernacular in their prayers. When this is done, glossolalia prayer can act as a species of spiritual groaning. So, when that happens, the very first words that are uttered are likely candidates (as a gift of interpretation) for what the Spirit is interceding for in the heart and soul of a believer. That is how this would be an example of glossolalia being parallel to what Romans 8:26 indicates.

The word for gift of "interpretation" hermeneuein can be understood as a type of intuitive rendering. See the New International Greek Testament Commentary The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), on pages 1098 and 1099.

Anthony C. Thiselton also presents other documented examples of the frequent occurrences in ancient Greek literature of ἑρμηνεύω and διερμηνεύω.

Thiselton points out that these verbs mean not to interpret, but to put into words - i.e., “to render in articulate intelligible speech, what is difficult to express.” He notes that lexicographical evidence supports an understanding that ordinarily means not to translate but to simply "put into words" - e.g. like that of interpreting a dream or song that a bird makes. For other cases, see also A.C. Thiselton’s The ‘Interpretation’ of Tongues: a New Suggestion in the Light of Greek Usage in Philo and Josephus, Journal of Theological Studies, vol. 30, 1979, pp. 15-36.

Finally, another argument to consider is that the early Latin version of the Bible contains the phrase interpretation of tongues (1 Cor. 12:10). It is not interpretatio of linguarum (i.e. an interpretation of dialects) but interpretatio sermonum (i.e. an interpretation of a discourse - similar to our understanding of a sermon). This appears to indicate that the early patristic understanding of the gift of interpretation, in at least its exegetical context, allowed for a much broader understanding of what the gift of tongues might be composed of.

So, in conclusion, good arguments can be made that the gift of interpretation does not require a translation of an identifiable human foreign dialect. Indeed, the above understanding coincides with what Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, the former head of the Patristic Department of the Catholic University of Milan and currently preacher to the papal household, points out:

The interpreter does not ‘translate’ the message in tongues, but rather is moved to say something (a word of encouragement or a word from scripture) that he or she and the assembly as a whole feel is linked to the message and that conveys its general meaning. (Raniero Cantalamessa, Come, Creator Spirit, p. 222)

You must log in to answer this question.