Can Men Speak in a Heavenly Language?

Hi there,

I think you fail to distinguish between xenolalia (speaking a known human language other than ones own native language like in Acts 2) and glossolalia (speaking an unknown heavenly and angelic language according to 1. Cor. 13, v.1 and chap. 14 - a language not understood by the hearers is explicitly stated in several verses in 1. Cor. 14) in your paper on tongues-speaking. The whole point in 1. Cor. 14 is lost, if tongues-speaking is only a manifestation of xenolalia.

To ignore this biblical distinction which is evident in the New Testament and many periods of Church History (not only in modern times Pentecostalism!) leads you to a false conclusion: tongues-speaking that is not a human understandable language is just gibberish.

Apart from this one fallible conclusion - with damaging effects though in practical spirituality - I found your teaching on tongues-speaking sound and biblical.

Anders Michael Hansen
Lutheran Pastor, Denmark

Hi Pastor,

Thanks so much for your letter. You're right that my letter doesn't make a distinction between speaking a known or an unknown language.

In studying the gift, commentators seem to be divided on this point. Wayne Grudem's excellent Systematic Theology notes what you also have pointed out, that the Bible doesn't explicitly deny people manifesting a language unrecognized by human ears. He also points out 1 Corinthians 13:1 - "If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels..." seeing in that verse two separate types of tongues - tongues of men and tongues of angels.

Grudem writes that Paul "sees the possibility that speaking in tongues may include more than merely human speech. Whether he thinks this is only a hypothetical possibility or a real one is difficult to say, but we certainly cannot rule out the idea that angelic languages would be involved with this speech as well."1

However, Warren Wiersbe disagrees. In his commentary he writes "It is unfortunate that our translators inserted _unknown_ in 1 Corinthians 14:2, because the New Testament knows nothing of an 'unknown tongue'. From the very beginning of the church, tongues were known languages, recognized by the listeners (Acts 2:4, 6, 8, 11). The tongue would be unknown _to the speaker_ and to the listeners, but it was not unknown in the world (1 Cor. 14:10-11, 21)."2 Others, such as Ironside and John MacArthur see the expression "tongues of angels" as speaking of a divine eloquence. MacArthur writes "Paul is simply saying that, were he to have the ability to speak with the skill and eloquence of the greatest men, even with angelic eloquence, he would only become a noisy gong..."3

I lean more toward understating the language of angels as being hyperbolic, although I am not yet completely set on this point and approach it with an open mind. Paul may simply be using the most grandiose example to drive home his point that speaking even a supernatural language without love is nothing more than noise. He uses hyperbole repeatedly in verses one and two when he writes, "If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing."(vs. 2)

These examples are the extreme of each gift; and not looked upon as an understanding of how the gift should be interpreted. We don't believe that you don't have the gift of faith until you can actually move a mountain or that you need to have all knowledge to exercise the gift of knowledge. I think 1 Corinthians 14:6-11 supports this view as Paul makes a big deal about "indistinct sounds," "speaking into the air," and someone who "speaks [as] a barbarian."

Although that's the argument on angelic tongues, the third point in my letter wasn't specifically directed against speaking the language of angels. I was more trying to state that there are many who claim to be speaking in tongues, when in reality they are merely repeating similar sounding syllables; saying nothing but gibberish in order to impress their audience. Jamison, Faucet and Brown's commentary exposits verse 13:1 in this way, "'Now I wish you all to speak with tongues (so far am I from thus speaking through having any objection to tongues), but rather IN ORDER THAT (as my ulterior and higher wish for you) ye should prophesy.' Tongues must therefore mean languages, not ecstatic, unintelligible rhapsodie (as NEANDER fancied): for Paul could never 'wish' for the latter in their behalf."4

Both Grudem and Wiersbe agree that for much of the time the language will be unknown to the speaker - so whether it is an "angelic" tongue or not becomes moot. If the speaker cannot identify it, he cannot claim it as being heavenly, an extinct ancient language, or a modern one. However, all languages, known and unknown do have specific patterns and grammar they must follow in order to be able to communicate thought.5 This is why linguists are able to identify whether someone is speaking a real language or just "faking it."

Unfortunately, because tongues have become so prominent in some Pentecostal congregations, some television evangelists have used this to speak repetitions of vowel sounds, claiming tongues when they are saying nothing at all. That was the specific problem I wanted to target, given the questioner's situation.

I hope this has clarified my answer a little better. I really appreciate your feedback and this was a great discussion that helps us both gain a clearer understanding on some of the nuances that can be involved in trying to rightly divide the word of truth.


(1) Grudem, Wayne Systematic Theology
(c) 1994 Zondervon, Grand Rapids, MI p. 1072 footnote 44

(2)Wiersbe, Warren Be Wise
(c)1983 Chariot Victor Publishing, Colorado Springs, CO. pp.135-136

(3)See Ironside, H.A. 1 Corinthians
(c) 2001 Loizeaux Brothers, Inc. p.247 and
MacArthur, John F. First Corinthians (c) 1984 Moody Bible Institute, Chicago, Il. p.331

(4) Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset and David Brown
Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (1871)

(5) For more on this, see Noam Chomsky "The Basis of Language: The Human Mind/Brain"

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