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What is glossolalia? ( or Speaking in tongues?)

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.

Derivation of the term:

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 message.

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.

For more information see:

What is Pentecostalism?

What is the Holy Spirit?

What is Pentacost?

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.