Speaking in tongues

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Under tongues or speaking in tongues , glossolalia ( ancient Greek γλῶσσα GLOSSA "tongue", "Language" and λαλέω laléō "speak"), or speaking in tongues refers to unintelligible speech, especially in prayer. According to the New Testament it is indeed a gift of grace from the Holy Spirit ( charisma ), but it is subordinate to love as the greatest gift of grace (13.1-13 EU ) as well as other gifts of grace (14.2-19 EU ). Today's Pentecostal movement sees speaking in tongues as a form of prayer that emphasizes the particular immediacy of praying to God.

The ability to speak in foreign languages ​​without knowledge of the same, as described in the Acts of the Apostles at Pentecost ( Acts 2,4  EU ), is called xenoglossia . In charismatic literature, however, there is often no distinction between the two.


Speaking in tongues is mentioned in various places in the New Testament . The expression in tongues is, however, a theological re-creation of the word following the Luther translation of 1545 in the sense of speeches in a foreign or incomprehensible language. For example in the Gospel of Mark 16:17: "But the signs that will follow those who believe are these: In my name they will cast out evil spirits, speak in new tongues (= languages) [...]." originally not only incomprehensible speaking, but speaking and understanding foreign languages ​​as meant on the day of Pentecost.

Due to the openness of the translation and a certain lack of clarity as to what exactly Paul is referring to in 1 Corinthians 14 : 1-40, however, an independent teaching and practice of speaking in tongues has developed that also refers to other scriptures: the conversion of Cornelius (Acts 10 , 44-48) as well as the Ephesus disciples (Acts 19.1-6).

Through the inspiration movement , a branch of radical Pietism , speaking in tongues found its way into religious practice as a modern phenomenon towards the end of the 17th century . In today's Christianity it is practiced especially in the Pentecostal movement and the charismatic renewal , but valued differently (e.g. speaking in tongues as proof of a person's fulfillment with the Holy Spirit).

Biblical occurrence

Speaking in tongues is the main theme in two writings of the New Testament, in the Acts of the Apostles by Luke and in the First Letter to the Corinthians of the Apostle Paul. Moreover, Isaiah 28.7 to 13 ELB sometimes regarded as Old Testament evidence of speaking in tongues.

Acts of the Apostles

Speaking in tongues occurs three times in the Acts of the Apostles:

“3 And tongues of fire appeared to them, which were parted; one perched on each of them. 4 All were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in foreign tongues, as the Spirit told them to do. 5 But Jews lived in Jerusalem, good men from all the peoples under heaven. 6 When the clamor rose, the crowd gathered together and was sore; because everyone heard them speak in their own language. ” (2, 3-11 EU , note note!).

“As Peter was saying this, the Holy Spirit came down on all who heard the word. The believers who came with Peter could not believe that the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out on the Gentiles too. For they heard them speak in tongues and praise God ” (10.44-46 EU ).

“Paul laid his hands on them and the Holy Spirit came down on them; they spoke in tongues and prophesied ” (19.6 EU ).

1st letter to the Corinthians

In chapter 12, Paul mentions speaking in tongues as one of many possible gifts of the Holy Spirit:

“There are various gifts of grace, but only one spirit. ... But everyone is given the revelation of the Spirit so that it can benefit others. One is given by the spirit the gift of communicating wisdom, the other through the same spirit the gift of imparting knowledge, the third in the same spirit power of faith, another - always in the one spirit - the gift of healing diseases, another Miraculous powers, for another prophetic speech, for another the ability to distinguish the spirits, for another different kinds of tongues, for another finally the gift to interpret them. " (12,4-11 EU )

In chapter 13, however, all of these gifts are subordinated to love as the greatest gift. (13.1-13 EU )

Chapter 14 relativizes speaking in tongues and subordinates it to the other gifts, especially understandable language:

“But also strive for the gifts of the Spirit, especially for prophetic speech! For whoever speaks in tongues does not speak to men but to God; nobody understands him. ... He who speaks in tongues edifies himself; but whoever speaks prophetically builds up the church. I wish you all spoke in tongues, but much more, you spoke prophetically. The prophet is superior to the one who speaks in tongues, unless the latter interprets what he has said; then he too builds up the church. What use is it to you, brothers, if I come and speak to you in tongues, but bring you no revelation, no knowledge, no prophecy, no teaching? ... Since you are striving for gifts from the Spirit, make an effort that you contribute above all to building up the church. Therefore, one who speaks in tongues should pray that he can interpret it. Because if I only pray in tongues, my spirit does pray, but my mind remains sterile. ... I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. But in front of the congregation I would rather speak five words intelligently in order to instruct others as well, than stammer ten thousand words in tongues. ” (14.1-19 EU ).

If a message is passed on in a community in (incomprehensible) languages, it should then be explained in understandable language. The passage has been understood to mean that the practice of speaking in tongues is accepted, but at the same time a warning is given against abuses; The lower rank compared to prophetic speech and love was also emphasized .

Occurrence in the Pentecostal movement

In the early days of Pentecostalism, many took it for granted that people with the gift of speaking in tongues could only pray on the basis of inspiration in tongues. However, it soon became popular that there are different forms of speaking in tongues:

  • First, speaking in tongues as a personal language of prayer without interpretation, which only serves personal prayer or the worship of God and edifies the person who is praying. It is also often used in intercession. It should enable the prayer to pray for (largely) unknown concerns or people and also prevent the subjectivity of the prayer from influencing the prayer. This personal prayer language is always available to anyone who has already prayed in tongues. This point also includes the singing in the Spirit, which is often practiced in Pentecostal charismatic services, in which all participants sing together in tongues in praise of God.
  • There is also the gift of the spirit of speaking in tongues with interpretation. This serves to pass on a message from God and must be interpreted for it. Such a message in tongues with interpretation is equivalent to prophecy.

Thus speaking in tongues has nothing to do with ecstasy or trance . The prayer is fully conscious and can control the process, for example start or end the prayer, pray loudly or softly. In the Pentecostal movement it is taken as a sign that the person concerned has received the baptism in the Spirit , the Holy Spirit . In other parts of the Charismatic Renewal, however, speaking in tongues has no such meaning. They view them as one of several gifts of the Spirit that one may or may not have. However, speaking in tongues during a service or a prayer fellowship is also seen as a manifestation of the presence of the Holy Spirit.

In any case, this type of prayer excludes the conscious mind, because the prayer usually does not know what he is praying. Speaking in tongues can be practiced in the context of a church service or a prayer community, but mostly in private prayer. However, speaking in tongues should be done in an orderly and not confused manner. The apostle Paul especially refers to this in 1 Corinthians 14:27 LUT .

Social science research

In 2006, psychiatrist Andrew Newberg at the University of Pennsylvania conducted a study of what goes on in the brain when speaking in tongues. He tested five women and measured their brain activity while speaking in tongues and while singing gospels. In all five women, activity in the frontal lobe practically ceased during speaking in tongues, indicating a reduction in self-control, while activity in the parietal lobe increased (the reverse of meditation ). This reduction in self-control corresponds to the statements made by people who practice speaking in tongues.

Some psychiatrists in the psychiatric department of the Virovitica Hospital in Croatia investigated the phenomenon and came to the conclusion that glossolalia temporarily goes into regression, which is a possible explanation for the positive, almost psychotherapeutic effect of glossolalia.

In a study written in 1937, the psychoanalyst Karl Motesiczky compared the phenomenon with an orgasm and interpreted it as a form of sexual sublimation .


Some Christian tendencies (especially those that are shaped by dispensationalism ) are critical of speaking in tongues. The processes described in the New Testament are explained differently, but are generally rated positively. However, the Bible is interpreted in such a way that speaking in tongues only had a meaning in early Christian times (1. Cor. 13, 1.8-10). Today's practice of speaking in tongues is rejected and not seen as a gift of the Holy Spirit, with interpretations ranging from group dynamics or psychological processes to demonic manifestations.

Roger Liebi differentiates conceptually between the New Testament phenomenon of speaking in tongues, in which the speaker speaks in a foreign language that is unknown to him without a prior learning process, and speaking in tongues as it is today. Only the former should be understood as a conscious communication with the listener and as a sign of salvation history that God speaks to all people in all languages. But today's speaking in tongues lacks this as a vocal expression, which is fundamentally incomprehensible to both the speaker and the listener.

In the large churches speaking in tongues is not practiced - apart from marginal phenomena. In the New Testament sense it is recognized as one of the special gifts of the Spirit, but no special significance is attached to it. Particularly criticized is the partial overvaluation of speaking in tongues by Pentecostal communities, which is based on a few biblical chapters, namely Acts 2 and 1 Cor 12 + 14, as well as the interpretation of these two passages. Neither from Acts. 2, where it is not about incomprehensible speech, but one that is understandable for all, still with 1 Cor. 12 + 14, where Paul appreciates speaking in tongues as a gift of the Holy Spirit, but at the same time does not overestimate it, the prevalence of speaking in tongues that is widespread in some communities can be justified.

The overvaluation of speaking in tongues also led to clear distancing, e.g. B. in the founding phase of the Church of the Nazarene . This church was first called Pentecostal Church of the Nazarene , but then deleted pentecostal from the name.

With reference to Paul, “social fertility”, “church self-relativization” and “openness to sober reflection” are given as authenticity criteria.

Depiction in documentaries

  • The US documentary Jesus Camp shows how the preacher Becky Fischer speaks “in tongues” in front of children.
  • In the American documentary film Marjoe , the former preacher Marjoe Gortner describes how he deceived naive believers in the American southern states by speaking in tongues. In this film, he admits that speaking in tongues was a deception.


Overview presentations and bibliographies
New Testament
  • Mark J. Cartledge: The Nature and Function of New Testament Glossolalia (PDF; 767 kB) . In: The Evangelical Quarterly 72/2 (2000), pp. 135-150.
  • Hans J. Klauck: With angel tongues? On the charism of intelligible speech in 1 Cor 14 . In: Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche 97/3 (2000), pp. 276–299.
  • Watson E. Mills: Early ecstatic utterances and glossolalia . In: Perspectives in religious studies 24/1 (1997), pp. 29-40.
  • Stephan Witetschek:  Speech in Tongues / Glossolalia. In: Michaela Bauks, Klaus Koenen, Stefan Alkier (Eds.): The Scientific Biblical Lexicon on the Internet (WiBiLex), Stuttgart 2006 ff.
  • Christian Wolff: Lalein glossais in the Acts of the Apostles . In: Alf Christophersen, Carsten Claussen (eds.): Paul, Luke and the Graeco-Roman World. Essays in Honor of Alexander JM Wedderburn (JSNTS 217), London 2002, 2nd edition. Continuum International Publishing, London - New York 2003, pp. 189-199.
Early Christianity and Church Fathers
  • Philip F. Esler: Glossolalia and the admission of gentiles into the early Christian community . In: Biblical theology bulletin 22/3 (1992), pp. 136-142.
  • Christopher Forbes: Prophecy and Inspired Speech in Early Christianity and Its Hellenistic Environment. WUNT 2/75. Mohr, Tübingen 1995, ISBN 3-16-146223-8 .
  • Martien F. Parmentier: Speaking in tongues among the church fathers . In: Bijdragen 55/4 (1994), pp. 376-398.
Glossolalia in the Pentecostal Movement
  • Mark J. Cartledge: The symbolism of Charismatic glossolalia . In: Journal of empirical theology 12/1 (1999), pp. 37-51.
  • William K. Kay: Speaking with tongues: contexts, findings and questions . In: Journal of empirical theology 12/1 (1999), pp. 52-58.
  • Wolfgang B. Lindemann: Speaking in languages ​​or speaking in tongues. Investigation of a widespread charismatic phenomenon. Bernardus-Verlag, Mariawald 2010.
  • Frank D. Macchia: Speaking in Tongues and Prophecy: a Pentecostal Church Perspective . In: Concilium 32/3 (1996), pp. 251-255.
  • Cyril C. Williams: Tongues of the Spirit: A Study of Pentecostal Glossolalia and Related Phenomena. Cardiff 1981.
Empirical studies
  • LC May: A Survey of Glossolalia and Related Phenomena in Non-Christian Religions . In: American Anthropologist 58: 75-96 (1956).
  • H. Newton Malony, A. Adams Lovekin: Glossolalia: Behavioral Science Perspectives on Speaking in Tongues. New York & Oxford 1985.
  • E. Mansell Pattison: Behavioral science research on the nature of glossolalia . In: Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation 20 (1968), pp. 73-86. ( e-text )
  • William J. Samarin: Variation and Variables in Religious Glossolalia . In: Language in Society 1/1 (1972), pp. 121-130. ( jstor )

Individual evidence

  1. Here the expression in tongues does not appear in the Catholic standard translation, since it was translated here more literally as "speaking in [foreign] languages", but in Greek this is the same expression and is used in older translations, e.g. B. in the Luther Bible from 1912 or the Elberfeld Bible from 1905 also translated in tongues or the like
  2. ^ Science Magazine: Tongues on the Mind , November 2, 2006 .
  3. Koić Elvira. Pavo Filaković. Sanea Nađ. Ivan Čelić: Glossolalia , Collegium Antropologicum. 29 (2005) 1: 307-313 ( Memento of the original dated August 8, 2007 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. (PDF; 87 kB)  @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot / www.psihijatrija.com
  4. Karl Teschitz (pseudonym): Religious ecstasy as a substitute for sexual triggering. Observations in a religious sect , Copenhagen 1937
  5. Simon Peng-Keller: Introduction to the theology of spirituality. WBG (Scientific Book Society), Darmstadt 2010, ISBN 978-3-534-23048-8 , p. 103

Web links

Wiktionary: Glossolalia  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Wiktionary: Speaking in tongues  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations