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A Response to John McArthur’s Teaching on Tongues

In his exposition on 1 Corinthians 13, Paul’s chapter on love, John McArthur begins with a critical analysis of tongues.  It is very evident from his introduction that he speaks from a bias against the modern phenomena of glossalalia, or speaking in tongues.  As he progresses through his lesson, he clearly states his rejection of the tongues movement of today.  At the same time, he seems to approve of the New Testament version of tongues.  Ancient tongues-speaking was legitimate, according to McArthur, but modern tongues-speaking is counterfeit.  He does not offer any reason for this shift from approved tongues to non-approved tongues nor does he say when it happened.  (He may do this in later studies.) 

1 Corinthians 13:1-3 (KJV)
1 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.   2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.   3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.

McArthur makes a great deal of the definition of tongues as “languages.”  He emphasizes that the Greek word used for tongues is glossa, which is normatively translated as languages.  This is correct.  No Greek scholar would dispute this.  He does, however, extrapolate the idea that the languages were human languages from the way the word is used throughout the Bible, especially the New Testament.  Although he does not say this directly, he strongly implies that because the languages were human languages, the spiritual aspect of speaking in tongues is diminished.  In fact, he excoriates, brutally I think, the Corinthian church for operating the spiritual gifts in the flesh, rather than in the Spirit.  In one instance, he even implies that the Corinthians were paganistic in their practices, if not beliefs.  

But the core of McArthur’s case against the modern tongues movement turns out to be little more than a straw man.  He cites the main reason for rejecting tongues is that it is babbling or gibberish, and not a real language.  Now, we see why he spent so much time showing that glossa is a human language.  Legitimate tongues, or languages, are uttered in accordance with all the rules of language.  A language has structure, meaning and content.  Regardless of the family of languages, substantive ideas must be conveyed through the use of language.  Babbling and gibberish have no such structure.  Babbling is merely a hodgepodge of nonsensical syllables strung together and called a “prayer language” or a “devotional language.”  Although he claims he could cite more sources, he refers to one linguistic scholar who researched the glossalalia movement for several years and never one time came across anyone who was “speaking in tongues” using a proper language.  On this basis, McArthur dismisses the entire tongues movement today as illegitimate. 

This dismissal is far too sweeping.  It is estimated that over 600 million people have experienced the baptism of the Holy Spirit as they did on the day of Pentecost.  The roots of the practice and teaching go back to the era of the church fathers.  Eusebius, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Chrysostom of Constantinople and Augustine of Hippo all provide evidence of the spiritual gifts, including speaking in tongues.  Traces of the gift, although suppressed and discouraged, appear throughout the middle Ages.  Prior to the reformation, groups such as the Albagenses and the Waldenses were reported to speak in tongues.  Later, tongues speaking was reported among the Quakers, Pietists, Moravians and even the early Methodists.  In the nineteenth century, a renewed interest in spiritual gifts began building, especially in England and the United States.  Then, the Azusa Street Revival broke out at the turn of the twentieth century, starting a tidal wave of belief and experiences in the gifts.  

McArthur seems to brand all of the above as unscriptural and illegitimate.  He does not cite one reference to theologians or scholars, of which there are many, who take the opposite view.  He does not cite one instance of speaking in tongues that satisfies his definition of a language.  He evidently believes that all tongues speaking after the Apostolic age is in error. 

My view is that tongues as the Spirit give the utterance is indeed a language.  It is not babble or gibberish.  There are hundreds of languages and thousands of dialects, however, and some of them are so strange that classifying them as a language is difficult.  Certain African tribes, for example, have clicking sounds for words.  Many Oriental languages rely more on tones than phonemes.  Many languages are now extinct.  The Holy Spirit does speak through us today in tongues.  Some tongues are unknown, as defined by the Apostle Paul.  Yes, the word unknown was italicized by the King James translators.  McArthur simply dismisses this as well, but does not provide a good reason for doing so, except that it doesn’t fit his paradigm.  This is not an acceptable position for a Bible teacher to take.  Check out the following websites:

I must pause in my response because of time, but there are more problems with McArthur’s teaching on 1 Corinthians 13 that I see.   For example, how can he demonstrate that there is a definitive difference between the tongues of the disciples in Acts, or even the Corinthian church, and the tongues of this modern age?  Why does he not differentiate between the baptism of the Holy Spirit accompanied by tongues and the gift of tongues as practiced in the church in Corinth?  How does his position square with the Apostle Paul’s admonition that the church was not to forbid speaking in tongues?  These and many more questions deserve answers.  I hope to get back to this in the coming week.

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Reader Comments (5)

I grew up as a child in the UPCI, and attended church basically every Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Thursday night (we didn't have Wednesday night services) service since I was a child until I was 18 years old, and I never once heard a discernible human language when people were speaking "in tongues", and that was a very, very common phenomenon.

It's thus not hard to understand the difficulty people have in believing that "speaking in tongues" is anything beyond a euphoric utterance that has no discernible meaning, i.e., how does one distinguish between joyful babbling (and I am not making light of that, it can be quite wonderful!) and actual language? The truth is, you can't, unless you recognize the language to some degree, at least.

Neither my father, my mother, my pastor, nor any particular person I can even think of currently in my history with Oneness Pentecostalism, ever received the Holy Ghost with speaking in tongues that were confirmed by another person present to have been truly a bona fide language.

I heard occasional third-hand stories of speaking in tongues that were verified by others present to have been actual human languages they recognized, but apparently it's so rare that it's not required, even though "speaking in tongues" is supposedly the required evidence for receiving the Holy Ghost, according to traditional Apostolic doctrine.

This makes the "speaking in tongues" requirement a rather shaky foundation for salvation, indeed!

In that case, I know no one personally who is saved, because I have never known personally (though I believe there are some!), anyone who has spoken in another language miraculously.

October 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTim Garcia

You claim this: "It is estimated that over 600 million people have experienced the baptism of the Holy Spirit as they did on the day of Pentecost."

However, on the day of Pentecost, these were *confirmed known tongues* that were *real languages*, because they were confirmed by unbelievers to be their own languages. I truly doubt 600 million people have had similar experiences of speaking in tongues that people around them (particularly unbelievers who would not have any stake in the game either way) said, "hey, they're speaking MY language!"

That is the true experience of the day of Pentecost (known tongues confirmed by people who recognized their language), and I know no one in the UPCI church I grew up in that ever experienced the true Day of Pentecost experience, pastor included, and he was and is still a presbyter in the South Texas district.

October 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTim Garcia

Tim Garcia , please verify your facts about 600 Million people who have experienced the baptism in tongues and state your sources. Talking in tongues is correctly and accurately stated by John MacArthur , go to for more accuracy on this topic

September 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBible Based


"Spirit-Empowered Christianity in the 21st Century", Vinson Synan, Editor. Chrarisma House, 2011. From the foreword, page vii.

For an even more correct and accurate statement, go to The HOLY BIBLE, available in most bookstores.


September 4, 2012 | Registered CommenterJ. Mark Jordan

I'm 75, and have known of and believed in tongues, babbling and actual language, for 50 yrs. I believe in the Oneness of God, His name is Jesus. Our pastor speaks in a language when he speaks in tongues; I speak 'babblespeak'. I hear several 'languages and much babble, in our church alone. I have absolute faith in God and I KNOW He has baptized more than 600 million people in the Holy Ghost evidenced by speaking tongues in the last 2,000 yrs. God created the tiniest thing on this earth you have to have the most modern microscope to see. And, He created Arcturus. MY-GOD-IS ..................

April 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSydney Heimericks

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