In the book of Acts,
it is written that "tongues of fire" descended upon the heads of the
Apostles as they were assembled in Jerusalem in a space referred to as "the
upper room." It was during the celebration of the feast of weeks, when many
foreigners would have been in the city for the holiday. Also the apostles were
gifted with a miraculous power to speak in languages unknown to them, but understood
as their own language by people of many nations.
Glossolalia combines the Greek word for "tongue"
(glossa) with the word for "speech" (lalo).
Acts 2 describes
the phenomenon as a miracle of universal translation, enabling people from many
parts of the world speaking many different languages to understand the Christian
In this instance the speaker is using an actual language
unknown to him or her but well know to others. Some interpreters see this narrative
as reversing the curse of Babel, where for the first time, humanity was divided
into different language groups that could not communicate with or understand each
other. Now, by a miracle of the Holy Spirit, it was possible for all people to
communicate the saving and liberating truth of God's love in Jesus Christ.
Elsewhere in the New Testament Paul describes the experience as speaking in an
"unknown tongue" (1 Cor 14:14-19) and discourages its public practice
fearing that outsiders would think of Christians as being "mad" (1 Cor
14:23, 27). Paul also cautions that Christians should not engage in glossolalia
without the presence of someone who can clearly interpret the words being spoken.
Today those who engage in "speaking in tongues" generally
appear to be speaking in a "language" unknown to either speakers or
listeners. Some scholars who have studied the phenomenon suggest that modern examples
of glossolalia involve the use of sounds from the speaker's language rearranged
to resemble a foreign tongue, but without the rules of grammar or order that would
make the sounds meaningful.
On the other hand, the phenomenon is
so important to some groups that entire denominations have been formed emphasizing
the importance of such miraculous powers.
If you want to talk with someone in person, please feel free to call 212-864-5436
The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and
Executive Director of CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here. God and Science (Hypertext Edition,
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion: Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).
Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.