Theology & Spirituality

Foothold for the Gospel: An Anglo-Catholic View of Speaking in Tongues

On April 9, 1906, the Azusa Street Revivals galvanized nineteenth-century charismatic theology and began injecting new doctrines concerning the Holy Spirit and related pneumatological practices into the Church. These ideas did not stay insulated in charismatic communities: they infiltrated the liturgical traditions via the upheaval of Vatican II and subsequent liturgical renewal movements in the Protestant mainline. Today, many elements of Evangelical worship are influenced by charismaticism’s insistence on experience and emotion.

One of the major innovations of charismatic theology is its belief in the continuation of speaking in tongues. In Charisma News, for example, “prophetic healing evangelist” Becky Dvorak explains that:

Speaking in tongues is the beginning step to being baptized in the Holy Spirit, and is for every born-again believer…Now, when being baptized in the Holy Spirit, you must activate your faith, as with any other promise of God. The Holy Spirit will not force you to open your mouth and speak. You must cooperate with Him, open up your mouth, move your tongue and give voice to the words springing up from within your spirit. And that’s how you activate your faith to be baptized in the Holy Spirit with the evidence of speaking in tongues.

For those of us who find ourselves planted in catholic traditions far preceding the inauguration of charismatic theology, what are we to make of an issue like this? From an Anglo-Catholic perspective, one must analyze the scriptural data through the lens of Church Tradition.

The Scriptural Witness

Within charismatic circles, two texts are frequently invoked to support the practice of speaking in tongues: Acts 2:1-13 and 1 Corinthians 12-14. In Acts 2:1-13, the Holy Spirit descends on the apostles with a loud rush and tongues of fire as they speak in tongues. Those in the surrounding area come to see what is happening and they each hear the “mighty works of God” (RSV) being proclaimed in their own language. Surrounding them is a disparate crowd of Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamians, Judeans, Cappadoicans, Asians, Egyptians, and Libyans.

There are a few layers to the story. First, this scene is describing a new creation: the Church. Just as the Holy Spirit “moved over the face of the waters” in Genesis 1:2, his presence is manifested as tongues of fire over the heads of the Apostles. There is a sense in which the Church existed prior to Pentecost in the form of Israel, yet this is a formal inauguration of the permanent indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

Another layer to the story is found in its connection to the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11). There, human beings build a tower “to make a name for ourselves,” falling into the same trap of Adam and Eve in the Garden by choosing to define their own version of good and evil rather than submitting to God’s. In Acts 2, however, those from many nations who spoke different languages are brought together by the Gospel through the proclamation of the Word in a way that they could understand. The Church is a place where the divisions erected at Babel are deconstructed, a theme further explored by the Pauline corpus.

The final important component of Acts 2 is its place within the book’s unfolding narrative. In a sense, the pericope functions as a topic sentence to the entirety of Acts—that is, it highlights the expansion of the Church to incorporate members on the basis of Christ regardless of race, gender, or class. In the quest to realize Jesus’ words in the Great Commission, the Church was reliant on the apostolic kerygma but had to overcome language barriers. It is within this context that the use of tongues in Acts 2 find their place (Rom 10:14): “how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher?” So in the context of Acts, tongues have a specific purpose: to help the Church and its kerygma to get a foothold in a pluralistic world where language differences served as a severe impediment to the spread of the Gospel.

Another text used to defend the practice of tongues in the modern Church is 1 Corinthians 12-14. Thematically, Paul’s letter to the Corinthians centers around the topic of unity, addressing factionalism, aberrant behaviors that were dividing the Church, the eating of meat sacrificed to idols, abuses of the Eucharist, and spiritual gifts. Chapters 12-14, which deal with spiritual gifts, come directly after his discussion of abuses at the Lord’s Table where people were gorging themselves and getting drunk at the expense of others in the congregation (11:17-22).

Beginning in chapter 12, Paul turns his attention to spiritual gifts. In 12:1-11, he explains that the distribution of spiritual gifts is the work of the Holy Spirit. To start, however, he lays a foundation for the revelation of the Holy Spirit: the Spirit cannot be the source of blasphemy and only the Spirit can enable one to proclaim “Jesus is Lord” (vv. 1-3). This standard for revelatory consistency finds a correlation in the Old Testament test for determining whether a prophet was accurately conveying God’s word in Deuteronomy 13:1-5. Once Paul refurbishes this Old Testament framework through a Trinitarian lens, he elaborates on the pneumatological origins of the gifts (vv. 4-11): (1) there are different gifts but they all have the same origin, the Holy Spirit; (2) the purpose of the gifts is the common good, presumably of the Body; (3) the gifts are dispensed by the Spirit as he wills. In 12:12-20, Paul utilizes the metaphor of a body, fitting given his earlier discussion of our shared koinonia on the basis of our Lord’s precious Body and Blood in the Eucharist (1 Cor 10:16-17), to describe how the various giftings are parts of a greater whole. On the basis of baptism (v. 13), all members of the Body are given dignity and functionality. Further, such somatic unity means there is common suffering and common rejoicing (v. 26). On this basis, Paul rehashes what he has already said: God appoints the various gifts. Not everyone has each gift (vv. 27-30). Instead of seeking after the gifts we do not have, Paul exhorts Christians to “earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way” (v. 31).

What are the higher gifts? At the beginning of chapter 13, the initial readers of the letter may have been mentally justifying why their gift was the highest and most excellent. Yet, Paul does something unexpected by introducing love. Without love, all the gifts are pointless. Even if one were to speak in the tongues of angels, or wield prophetic powers to solve all mysteries, or move mountains by great faith, they are ultimately ineffectual without love. In 13:4-7, the famous “love passage” read at weddings, he expounds on the various qualities of love. Because of these qualities, love is superior to the exercise of lesser gifts because it “never ends” while prophecies “will pass away” and tongues “will cease” (vv. 8-9). Over time, the imperfect will pass away for the perfect (vv. 9-10). For Paul, the cycle is revelation then cessation followed by maturation (vv. 11-12). So faith, hope, and love, the chief of the trio, endure beyond the gifts.

After the crescendo of chapter 13, Paul draws out a principle for the Corinthians as they practice their gifts: “Make love your aim, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts” (14:1). In particular, Paul states, those in Corinth should be eager to prophesy instead of speak in tongues. If one speaks German in a congregation full of French-speakers without an interpreter, no one understands and so the speaker is stuck opining on the “mysteries” of God with no one to hear them. Mystery (Gk. mysteria) is used elsewhere in Paul to discuss topics which transcend natural understanding (Rom 11:25; 1 Cor 13:2; 15:51; Eph 5:32). Yet, Paul’s use of the word has an explicit christotelicity, referring to the “mystery of Christ” (Eph 3:4) and the “mystery of the gospel” (Eph 6:20; see also 1 Cor 4:1). In a local congregation, the gospel should be preached in a way that all present can understand it. For this reason, prophecy is more beneficial than tongues: people can understand a prophecy in their own language.

In 14:6-12, Paul places the phenomenon of speaking in tongues within the ethic of love: to speak in a foreign language unknown to the congregation is a violation of the spirit of love discussed in the preceding chapter. Using a music metaphor, he poses the question (14:7), “If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played?” To speak unintelligibly to one’s audience is frivolity that can only be aimed at the building up of the individual at the expense of the congregation. It is here Paul explicitly states that he is discussing actual, human languages, “There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning; but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me. So with yourselves” (14:10-12a). John Chrysostom goes so far as to quote Acts 2:9-10 in his commentary on this section. If the Corinthians really want the Spirit to be made manifest, they will seek to build up the whole church.

The only way to speak in tongues that can mutually edify the congregation with no foreigners present is to possess the ability to interpret what has been said. If a speaker prays without understanding what is said, the “spirit prays but [the] mind is unfruitful” (14:14). Being able to interpret languages so they are understandable both to the speaker and the congregation allows for engagement of both mind and spirit (14:15) in a way that benefits all present (14:16-17).

Transitioning to 14:20-25, it is helpful to revisit the important question: what is the discernible telos of tongues? The contemporary charismatic consensus tends to offer the answer that speech in tongues pertains to personal edification. That is not the answer Paul provides here. Instead, he describes such a mode of thinking as childish (14:20) and quotes Isaiah 28:11-12, “By men of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then, they will not listen to me, says the Lord.” The hypotext hardly has mystical languages in mind because he is referring to foreigners who God uses to remind the Israelites to keep the covenant. Paul sees tongues as for the benefit of the unbeliever, per their function in Acts 2 to convey the message of the Gospel to those who would not understand otherwise. This is why prophecy is superior: if a non-Christian walked into an assembly and everyone was speaking a different language, it would be chaos and they would think the Christians were crazy (14:23). Paul ends his discourse on gifts by prescribing an organized, intentional liturgy for the congregation where order prevails for the mutual edification of the Church with a final emphasis that “all things should be done decently and in order” (14:40).

There are a few major takeaways from this passage bearing on the issue of tongues. First, there is no compelling textual reason to assert a bifurcation between the tongues of Acts 2 and those spoken of in 1 Corinthians 12-14. Second, there is a positive reason to assume Paul has other, earthly languages in mind as opposed to heavenly or private prayer languages (see 14:10-12a). Third, faith, hope, and love transcend particular expressions of spiritual gifts which may pass away. Fourth, while Paul says not to look down on different parts of the Body, he does create a hierarchy which places tongues below at least the gift of prophecy but perhaps below others given that he compares tongues to “speaking to the air” (14:9). While 1 Corinthians 12-14 is often held up as a linchpin passage for post-Azusa Street charismaticism, it actually indicts a number of assumptions typically adhered to in those circles.

There is no semblance of ‘contrasting Scripture and the Fathers, as coordinate authority’. Scripture is reverenced as paramount…the Old and New Testaments are the fountain; the Catholic Fathers, the channel through which it has flowed down to us. The contrast then in point of authority is not between Holy Scripture and the Fathers, but between the Fathers and us; not between the Book interpreted and the interpreters, but between one class of interpreters and another; between ancient Catholic truth and modern private opinions.-E.B. Pusey

What is the witness of the Church on the issue of tongues? The answer is that there is a detailed description of tongues “passing away” in Church History so that, by the mid-third century, they were not a prevalent phenomenon. In the second generation of Church Fathers, the gifts appear to be present. In Dialogue with Trypho (ch. 82), Justin Martyr (100-165) states, “the prophetical gifts remain with us, even to the present time. And hence you ought to understand that [the gifts] formerly among your nation [Israel] have been transferred to us.” Yet, even in this passage, he nowhere explicitly mentions the practice of tongues. Based on hearsay, Irenaeus (130-202) indicates the existence of tongues in some places (Against Heresies II, xxii, 4), “we do also hear many brethren in the Church, who possess prophetic gifts, and who through the Spirit speak all kinds of languages, and bring to light for the general benefit the hidden things of men, and declare the mysteries of God.”

By the time of Origen (184-253), evidence suggests the gifts were not being utilized. While he does not negate the supernatural, testifying to miracles, healings, exorcisms, etc., he indicates that the “sign” gifts have ceased (Contra Celsum I, ii; III, xxiv; VII, iv, lxvii). John Chrysostom, in his Homily on 1 Corinthians 12, affirms this: “This whole place is very obscure: but the obscurity is produced by our ignorance of the facts referred to and by their cessation, being such as then used to occur but now no longer take place.” He goes on to explain that one of the functions of the gifts was to provide converts a tangible proof of the Spirit’s energy in their lives as a confirmation of their baptism, a New Testament canon or knowledge of the Christian faith. Augustine (354-430) affirms the telos of the gifts discussed above: they were human languages to aid the spread of the Gospel across disparate cultures. “That thing was done for a betokening, and it passed away” for the tangibility of the Sacraments (Homily VI on First John). In City of God (22:8-9), he affirms that the miracles of the Apostolic Age are not a repeating phenomenon because “miracles were necessary before the world believed, in order that it might believe.”

This line of thought is the major position in the history of the Church. Another example is provided by St. John of the Cross in The Ascent of Mt. Carmel:

God [is] unwilling that souls desire the supernatural communication of distinct knowledge from visions and locutions, and so on. On the other hand, in the proofs from Scripture, we saw that this kind of communication with God was lawful and made use of in the old law…why, then, in the new law of grace is it different than it was previously? In answer to this, the chief reason why in the old law the inquiries made of God were licit, and the prophets and priests appropriately desired visions and revelations from Him, was that at that time faith was not yet perfectly established, nor was the gospel law inaugurated. It was necessary for them to question God, and that He respond sometimes by words, sometimes through visions and revelations, now in figures and types, now through many other kinds of signs…But now that the faith is established through Christ, and the gospel law made manifest in this era of grace, there is no reason for inquiring of Him in this way, or expecting him to answer as before. In giving us His Son, His only Word (for He possesses no other), He spoke everything to us at once in this sole Word—and He has no more to say…Those who desire to question God or receive some vision or revelation are guilty not only of foolish behavior but also of offending Him, by not fixing their eyes entirely on Christ and by living with the desire for some other novelty. God could reason as follows: If I have already told you all things in My Word, My Son, and if I have no other word, what answer or revelation can I now make that would surpass this? Fasten your eyes on Him alone because in Him I have spoken and revealed all and in Him you will discover even more than you ask for and desire. You are making an appeal for locutions and revelations that are incomplete, but if you turn your eyes to Him you will find them complete. For he is My entire locution and response, vision and revelation, which I have already spoken, answered, manifested, and revealed to you by giving Him to you as a brother, companion, master, ransom, and reward…Anyone wanting to get something in a supernatural way, as we stated, would as it were be accusing God of not having given us in His Son all that is required. Although in such endeavors one presupposes the faith and believes in it, still, one’s curiosity displays a lack of faith. Hence there is no reason to hope for doctrine or anything else through supernatural means. When Christ dying on the cross exclaimed: Consummatum est (It is consummated) [Jn 19:30], He consummated not these ways alone, but all the other ceremonies and rites of the old law. We must be guided humanly and visibly in all by the law of Christ who was human and that of His Church and of His ministers. This is the method of remedying our spiritual ignorances and weaknesses. Here we shall find abundant medicine for them all. Any departure from this road is not only curiosity but extraordinary boldness. One should not believe anything coming in a supernatural way, but believe only the teaching of Christ, who became human, as I say, and of His ministers who are human.

Furthermore, this is the Anglo-Catholic position. According to Tract V of Tracts for the Times:

The miraculous gifts and graces, which God in the first instance showered upon his Church, answered their purpose in giving it its first footing in the world; and, when no longer necessary for that purpose, were consequently withdrawn; but it should never be forgotten, that these, wonderful and striking as they must have been, were but secondary and subsidiary to those invisible spiritual gifts, which are the real fulfilment of God’s promise of constant aid to his Church. With regard to these latter, it was indeed necessary that they should be her portion through all ages; but the others derived in truth their chief value from the evidence which they bore to the evidence of these more precious boons; an evidence which, though immediately addressed to converts in the first ages, was intended to convince, not them alone, but all those to whom their report of these miraculous gifts should come, of the reality of God’s promises with regard to those gifts which were not palpable to earthly senses; of the truth of Christ’s saying, already quoted, that He would be with His Church even unto the end of the world; and of His declaration that the Comforter, whom He would send; would abide with that Church for ever.

The Church catholic is the place where the Holy Spirit dwells. That tongues are conspicuously absent for the majority of the history of the Church is evidence for a cessationist perspective.


Cessationism is the view most compatible with Anglo-Catholicism. While not dismissing the miraculous out of hand, the Anglo-Catholic view encourages us to look to the Sacraments as the primary mode by which the Spirit dwells in the Church. This view best explains the biblical data: tongues captured actual human languages that were then used to spread the Gospel across ethnic boundaries. The subsequent tradition of the Church bears out this fact in their eventual cessation. With the Gospel’s far reach and the establishment of the Scriptural canon, tongues fell out of use because they were no longer required. Many charismatics complain that the Holy Spirit has been shut out from the Church. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Spirit is alive and well in his Church: his presence is evident at the preaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments.

Wesley Walker

Wesley Walker

Wesley is from Raleigh, North Carolina. He went to Liberty University for his undergraduate and graduate degrees in Biblical Studies where he was also on the debate team and is working on his STM at Nashotah House Theological Seminary. He currently resides in Annapolis, Maryland and is a priest at St. Paul's Anglican Church (APA). He lives with his wife Caroline, their son Jude, and their dog. He co-hosts The Sacramentalists Podcast.

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