Science in Christian Perspective


The Function of Tongue-Speaking for the Individual:
A Psycho-Theological Model

John Wesley College
Owosso, Michigan

From: JASA 26 (March 1974): 29-32


Paul states the fundamental proposition concerning the function of tongues for the individual in these words: "He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself..." (I Cor. 14:4). In this article we will he concerned with a psycho-theological model for interpreting the function of tongues for the individual who practices tongue-speaking in his private life. Note that we are not concerned with the exegetical and historical questions concerning the problem of identity between the present day phenomena and that mentioned in the New Testament. We simply assume that they are the same for the present purpose of developing a model. We will proceed therefore to the propositions concerning the function of tongues for the individual in terms of biblical, psychological, and theological categories.

The Function Biblically Described

Biblically the function of tongues for the individual may he described as the spiritual upbuilding of the person by means of prayer to God concerning the mysteries of his own spirit.

This proposition sums up the Biblical evidence found in the Pauline discussion. In addition to the text already given above, which establishes the upbuilding function as fundamental, we may add the following texts: "For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the spirit." (I Cor. 14:2). "For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful." (I Cor. 14:14). "But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silence in church and speak to himself and to God." (I Cor. 14:28).

This proposition involves three things. The first is that of spiritual upbuilding. In general terms this is to be understood as the establishing more fully of the individual in the depth and reality of the Christian life as it centers in Jesus Christ. Perhaps Col. 2:6, 7 states it as well as we could want: "As therefore you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so live in him, rooted and built up in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding with thanksgiving."

The Christian Gospel involves the total man; therefore all levels of his functioning must he renewed if the Gospel is to be totally effective. There is a process in the Christian life as well as an initial contact with Jesus Christ. There is sanctification as well as regeneration. The process of being more fully and functionally related to Jesus Christ in a living way is the spiritual upbuilding meant here.

The second matter involved in this proposition is that of prayer. Prayer, in its deepest sense, is the communication in relation of the individual with God. The nature of tongues is relational. It is an addressing, on a deep personal level, guided by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:26), of God. Thus tongues have an inherent meaning. It is not mere gibberish or ecstatic ravings. It is a communication with God on a level more profound than that of the rational and cognitive.
The third aspect of this proposition is that the contents of this upbuilding prayer are described as "mysteries of the spirit." Here we take the "mysteries" as deep concerns of the man's own spirit, but which concerns are so uttered is guided totally by the Holy Spirit. The precise contents will vary from person to person according to his situation, need and concerns even as we find it to be so in prayer with the mind. The word "mystery" is not in its usual Pauline sense here of previously hidden divine revelation now made known. Rather it signifies the fact that no one save God knows the meaning of the communication.

The Function Psychologically Described

Psychologically the function of tongues for the individual may be described as increased integration of the total personality.

If we take our cue from the biblical category of "upbuilding" we can see that being more "rooted and built tip" in Jesus Christ suggests a more total integrating of the whole person in the life of Jesus Christ. From the perspective of modern psychology and psychiatric theory and practice it is clear both that man as psyche has many levels of functioning and that change in the functioning of the psyche involves cognitive and affective components.

Man is a complex being. The conscious and rational elements, so critical to human experience, are not the totality of man. Rather they are the perceptible pinnacle of function of a vastly greater and more profound psycho-biological structure. Personality is deeply rooted in unconscious processes. Further, these processes are very powerful by virtue of their closeness to the inmost principle of life as it functions in man. The theological axiom that a man acts according to what he is, is well substantiated in a psychological sense.

These deep levels of personality involve many diverse elements related to the basic needs of human life and their satisfaction, but they are also related to the higher needs of the human psyche, such as coherence, value and meaning. Already in Karen Homey's writings there is a recognition of a positive impulse of the inner self to develop in a definite, individual and authentic manner. This point has been picked up and developed very fruitfully in the last decade or so in the psychagogic psychology of Maslow, Jourard and Mowrer among others.

The focus of these theorists is not on what can he learned by an analysis of mast's illness but on what can 1e learned from an analysis of those who are identified as functioning fully and in a "healthy" way. Maslow describes his "self -actualizers" very well in his book Motivation and Personality, Chapter 12. The picture given there is of an efficiently functioning person, highly integrated within, positively and creatively related to others and to the environment, whose subjective experience is characterized by such words as freedom, satisfaction, joy, meaning, value and the like. A truly healthy person is one whose basic experience and action are organically rooted in the deepest impulses of the life. There is nothing superficial or artificial about such persons. They are truly persons in the deepest sense.

But not only are there deep levels of functioning of the human psyche. We also know that changes in the functioning of this deeply rooted structure of personality require conditions which involve the total person both cognitively and affectively. It is especially noteworthy that, because the roots of personality are so deep, the personal structure cannot be directly altered by "taking thought". Psychiatry and psychotherapy have amply demonstrated that mere cognitive perception of one's problem or neurotic structure is therapeutically worthless if not a positive hinderance. What is required for effective therapy is a balanced combination of cognitive and affective components which constitutes a therapeutic insight. In this situation "kinks" in the psychic structure are eliminated and the deepest inner impulses of the life are able to operate more fully. Inner conflict is reduced and positive integration of the conscious and unconscious levels is furthered.

The function of spiritual upbuilding which our proposition attributes to the exercise of tongues can be easily related to the psychological paradigm of health and also to the psychological conditions required for personality change and integration. This is so especially in the light of the kind of effects most often mentioned in modern accounts by those who have entered into this experience.

The Christian Gospel involves the total man; therefore all levels of his functioning must be renewed if the Gospel is to be totally effective.

After surveying the various psychological theories concerning the cause and nature of tongues, Virginia lime concludes that a functional interpretation of tongues seems most probable. She states her conclusions on this matter in the following words1

Through a functional approach to the phenomenon we have come to assess glossotalia as a non-pathological linguistic behavior which functions . . . . as one component in the generation of commitment . . . . it operates in personal change, providing powerful motivation for attitudinal and behaviorial changes in the direction of group ideals.

Hine itemizes her findings concerning the subjective correlation of tongues thus2:

Forty percent mentioned increased capacity for love toward, sensitivity to, or concern for others. Thirty seven percent mentioned the "fruits of the spirit," such as love, patience, kindness, gentleness, etc. The remaining nineteen percent described an increase in sellenofidenre and the "power to witness", an active attempt to influence others.

In sum she states3: "Attitudinal changes were generally described in terms of greater capacity for love toward others, a sense of tranquility and joy, and more confidence in their beliefs."

In his recent comprehensive, objective and sympathetic examination of tongue speaking, Morton T. Kelsey quotes with approval4:

Speaking with tongues is one evidence of the Spirit of God working in the unconscious and bringing one to a new wholeness, a new integration of the total psyche, a process which the Church has tradionally called sanctification.

We might point out here that it is possible to view tongues not only as an evidence but as a means to the ends described.

The human psyche is complex and needs to be integrated on all levels of function properly. One of the key conditions for such an integration is an experiential mode of being in which the psychic structure is loosened and opened so that the "kinks" can he removed and the genuine life impulses can replace them throughout the whole spectrum of psychic levels. From the psychological evidence it seems clear that tongues are suited to serve just such a purpose. The tongues experience would then be understood to involve a state in which the unconscious level of personality is allowed operation along with the conscious, concerned with the mysteries of one's own spirit, but guided by the Holy Spirit, in a state of psychic openness best described as "faith-receptivity". Our theological proposition on this point will make this clearer.

The Function Theologically Described

Theologically the function of tongues for the individual may he described as the "Opening" of the higher levels of the total person (unconscious, conscious) to the life of the incarnate and ascended Lord. This influx of life from Jesus Christ from within is formed in the character according to its own nature which is fixed by the light of God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ as recorded in the written, normative Word of God.

This proposition is simply the transposition of realistic Eucharistic theology into the context of the charismatic life of the Body of Christ, the Church. To understand this proposition it is necessary first to indicate in outline form the theological structure underlying the Church doctrine of union with Christ in its ontological aspect. This we summarize thus:

1. Man is to be understood as an organic unity of life encompassing the total person, even to the inclusion of the body. This organic unity is brought about by the activity of the life-principle at the deepest level of personal existence.
2. By the Incarnation of the Eternal Son, along with His subsequent death, resurrection and ascension, we find that the organic principle of human life has been perfectly and fully expressed. The one true Man, the highest possible form of human life in union with God, is now a reality effected by divine action.

Because the roots of personality are so deep, the personal structure cannot be directly altered by "taking thought."

3. In redemption applied to the individual, regeneration, which is the beginning point of that application, means and is the replacement of the original life principle received from Adam by the principle of the New Humanity, the glorified life-principle of Jesus Christ.

4. Objectively the communication of this life principle to the individual is only by the action of the Holy Spirit.

5. Subjectively the rule for the effectual operation of this life-principle at the level of character (attitude and behavior) is that of faith understood as a combination of notitia, assensus and fiducia, with the stress falling on fiducia as the total response of the person in an experiential mode, of openness and receptivity. Both "He who on the basis of faith is just shall live" and "The just shall live by faith" are proper biblical and theological keys to Christian existence. Our new relationship to God is established by faith and our new life in God functions by faith.

With this conception of the Christian life in mind we are now able to make the connection between the well established theological understanding of union with Christ and the historically underdeveloped understanding of the function of tongues for the individual.

Theologically tongues function for the individual as an occasion and means by which the Holy Spirit carries out His work of sanctification, of conforming the total person as a functional reality to the image of Jesus Christ. The specifically unique and significant role of tongues here is to he understood in terms of achieving, maintaining and increasing the person's inner openness of faith-receptivity to the life of Jesus Christ within as it is "brought" there by the uniting and incorporating work of the Holy Spirit.

In terms of the Gospel images it might be understood as an unblocking and widening of the connection between the Vine and the branch. Or in terms of feeding upon the body and blood of Jesus, which is absolutely essential to eternal life, tongues function as a means by which, in a somewhat osmotic manner, the life-principle of Jesus Christ enters into the unconscious and conscious aspects of the person so that the person's character is progressively being altered according to the impulse of the new life-principle which corresponds to the objective norm of Scripture.

In this way the Holy Spirit is able to treat various spiritual "kinks" in the person's inner structure and at the same time to reform, at a deep and lasting level, that same inner structure according to the life principle of Jesus Christ.


If the function of tongues for the individual is as indicated in our propositions it is not difficult to see that tongues can be highly regarded by those who experience it, especially if faith, prior to the initial experience, has been weak or non-existent in the one receiving. To avoid an unbalanced over-reaction at this point it is well to end our discussion by putting this whole matter in perspective.

Positively tongues have something for our tendency to reduce man to a rational and an creature. "All we need is more knowledge, modern ethical clearer principles and all will he well"-so runs this error. And we certainly do need these. But they are not enough. We need to incorporate them into the real roots of our personality. And it is just the conditions necessary to such incorporation which we systematically suppress and eschew. We need, both in the Christian life and in corporate worship, to foster an atmosphere of openness, of receptivity, an atmosphere in which the experiential mode is promoted. Tongues, acting as a channel and means of increasing the experiential mode, certainly make the person exercising them more open to the knowledge and insight which we stress in our reduction of man to auditor and stimulus-response mechanism.

Negatively, tongues need to he seen in the context of other means by which openness and integration can be fostered-preaching, singing, praying, community,

Theologically tongues function for the individual as an occasion and means by which the Holy Spirit carries out His work of sanctification.

action. Tongues are not the only means to the end of sanctification. The whole history of the Church shows this. This gift is not an end in itself because the gifts of the Spirit aim at the fruit of the Spirit. And with tongues as with other means there is no automatic road to attaining the end of the Christian life, likeness to Jesus Christ. To make too much of tongues as a means is an understandable error-to ignore tongues is an unfortunate one.


1Virginia H. Hine, "Pentecostal Glossolalia: Toward a Functional Interpretation", Journal For the Scientific Study of Religion, VIII, (No. 2), p. 225.
2Ibid, p. 216.
3Ibid., p. 222.
4Morton T. Kelsey, Tongue Speaking, Doubleday & Company, Inc., New York, 1968, p. 222.