The Confusion of Tongues:

William G. Bellshaw the Dean of the San Francisco Conservative Baptist Theological Seminary authored a work entitled, "The Confusion of Tongues" in the Bibliotheca Sacra, Vol. 120 (April-June, 1963; North American revival of Pentecost began in 1901; UPCI formed in 1945). This paper will be the source of discussion. Bellshaw’s view is antagonistic to the Pentecostal explanation of tongues. His view asserts that tongues speaking was a sign for the Jews and that tongues have ceased since the canonization of scripture. The early arguments Bellshaw offers have become fodder for contemporary cessationist; therefore, this paper will briefly consider many points that are posited therein.

As a preface, please note that speaking in tongues is not the Holy Spirit. Speaking in tongues is the sign that the Holy Spirit has made His abode in a believer. There are many evidences of the Holy Spirit being present in a believers life (See Gal. 5:22-23); however, the phenomenon of speaking in tongues is treated as a sign authenticating Christian believers.[1] The Gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38) is not glossolalia, rather it is the sign that the Gift has been received by the believer. This paper is not written to clearly distinguish between the types of tongues, but there is a fundamental difference between the sign of tongues, the gift of tongues, and tongues for interpretation. Biblical research by cessationist and Pentecostals alike should be given to the glossolalia in the New Testament, specifically focusing on the apparent distinction of tongues as a sign in Luke’s writings (Acts) and those of Paul’s where tongues are private and for self-edification and another public and for collective edification (cf. Acts 2, 10, 19 and 1 Corinthians 12-14).

After Peter preached at the house of Cornelius, the Gentiles there began to speak in tongues (Acts 10:46). Consequently, the Jews were surprised that the Holy Spirit had even been poured out upon the Gentiles. This was taken as a sign that the Holy Spirit had indeed granted salvation to not only the Jew but also the Gentiles. In Acts 19, Paul met some disciples of Apollos at Ephesus. These disciples, had known only “John’s baptism” until this time (Acts 19:3), they had never heard of the Holy Spirit. Paul showed them that there was indeed more for them, baptized them in the name of Jesus, and laid his hands on them. As this happened the Holy Spirit came on them and they spoke with tongues (Acts19:6). Luke, the author of Acts no doubt considered these two incidents as identical to the one described in Acts 2:38, there Peter tells us that the Promise (cf. Acts 2:33) had been poured out.

Both in 1 Corinthians and in Acts, the glossolalia is associated with the activity of the Holy Spirit. Paul’s treatment of tongues as a language which is not understood (1 Cor. 14:2) by the Corinthian people probably reflects actual practices in his churches. The author believes that the tongues of scripture are languages that may be human or angelic (1 Cor. 13:1). Some, however, mistakenly proclaim that God supernaturally grants people the ability to speak in foreign languages for the purpose of missionizing the lost; this theory has been called the Augustinian explanation[2]. Conversely, when Paul said tongues were not understood then how could they strictly be for missionary purposes, as some claim? Was this a practice session? Also, linguists are not simply granted with an ability to speak in foreign languages apart from laborious hours of study. This doesn’t seem miraculous.

Those who spread aspersions about tongue talkers should consider that “[Martin] Luther and [John] Calvin both spoke positively of the gift and some believe Luther actually had such experiences.”[3] (Emphasis in brackets mine). In addition, John Wesley felt necessary to defend certain early religious, namely the Montanists, that spoke with tongues and even called them “real scriptural Christians”. Wesley noted that the disappearance of the charismatic gifts from the church was due to “dry formal orthodox men,” who had begun to ridicule what they themselves did not possess.[4]

Bellshaw’s paper cannot be considered in any way exhaustive or a final word for several reasons. First, Bellshaw begins with an aphorism of limited inerrantists, i.e. “the Bible is our only rule of faith and practice.” This aphorism has long been the slogan for those who have a limited view of biblical inerrancy. His point, however, is taken—the Bible should be the rule by which we measure doctrines. Using this method, I find Bellshaw’s view lacking.

Second, Bellshaw makes the common mistake of asserting that tongues are rarely mentioned in the text, therefore, he concludes, they are non-important. Has Bellshaw considered that it may have not been the intent of those books to discuss such an issue, as the Holy Spirit inspired them? This approach cannot be a rule of thumb for measuring doctrine, in fact it is dangerous. For example the Virgin Birth is rarely mentioned yet it is vital to Christianity, also homosexuality is dealt with rarely in the texts, do we conclude that the bible is not concerned with either of these issues? Ironically, the New Testament contains four passages that indisputably describe speaking in tongues: Acts 2; 10:44-47; 19:6, and in I Corinthians chapters 12-14 are full of references to tongues. In each case, those who spoke in tongues did so by the power of God’s Spirit, “as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4).[5] Also, Mark 16:17 is a direct reference to speaking in tongues as a sign of them that are believers. Pre-New Testament occurrences are also prophetically interjected, tongues was even foretold by the prophet Isaiah in Isaiah 28:12-12. Decidedly, then, the issue of tongues receives more attention than such foundational truths as the Virgin Birth and homosexuality

Third, Bellshaw naively mentions the fact that whenever tongues were demonstrated that Jews were present. This is a simple logical fallacy, because Bellshaw fails to remember that the early church was primarily Jewish. It was to the Jew first and then the Gentiles. In fact, excluding Luke, the bible was authored by Jews. Early on Christianity was almost entirely Jewish, it was not until Acts 15—the Jerusalem Council—that the Apostles came to solidarity concerning Gentile soteriology.

Fourth, tongues are a sign, and a language, that attest to the Holy Spirits indwelling. Bellshaw feels they have ceased, I do not. Speaking in tongues is not gibberish or merely an unintelligible utterance without meaning. Those who speak in tongues speak in genuine languages, even though the speakers themselves do not understand what they say, observers can recognize these languages (Acts 2). The languages can be either human or angelic in nature (cf. 1 Cor. 13:1). The term “glossolalia” derives from glōssais lalō, a Greek phrase used in the New Testament meaning “speak in, with, or by tongues [i.e., other languages].” The related term “xenolalia” is used to describe glossolalia when the language being spoken is an identifiable language never learned by the speaker.[6]

In Bibliotheca Sacra Bellshaw fights half the battle by proving that tongues were:

1. A reality. Pg. 152
2. A sign and a gift of the Holy Spirit. Pg. 151

Fifth, his argument depends upon the cessation of these tongues and that tongues are cultural—to the Jews only. Therefore, if these assumptions can be proven wrong then the “reality” of tongues as well as it being both a “sign” and a “gift” are still maintained for contemporary Christianity.

The culture argument can be dismissed by Acts 2:39, this verse declares that the “gift of the Holy Spirit” is for all that are “afar off” and anyone that God may call. This verse clearly indicates that God’s calling can and would include those that are afar off, not just Jews. God’s plan for New Testament salvation did not ever include Jews alone. In fact, New Testament salvation came as a result of Israel’s unbelief (See Romans 11).

The outpouring of the Holy Ghost and its sign of speaking in tongues involves the seeing and hearing of the Promise as told us in Acts 2:33. Luke wrote:

Therefore being exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He poured out this which you now see and hear. (Acts 2:33 NKJV)

Bellshaw admits that the “see and hear” is “an evident reference to the tongues” mentioned in Acts 2:4. The Promise of the Holy Spirit is an obvious reference to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit promised by Jesus before His death. John records:

On the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. (38) He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water. (39) But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive; for the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 7:37-39 NKJV)

Therefore, the Promise of the Holy Spirit outpouring is irrefutably connected to something seen and heard. Speaking in tongues fulfills this verse, as Bellshaw indicates, and is also tied to the transcultural Promise of God’s Spirit upon mankind.

Sixth, Bellshaw cites the view that the gift of tongues ceased with the canonization of the New Testament. Immediately, this argument is completely absent from scripture and is abandoned today by popular trinitarian apologists, e.g. Dr. James White, Hank Hannegraff (The Bible Answer Man). In addition, as later noted, even the late Dr. F.F. Bruce refuted this notion. By engaging the argument in this way Bellshaw commits circular logic. He begins his argument by disparaging tongues based upon a low mention frequency in Scripture, yet as we have seen this is not so and now his current argument of the closed canon theory is conspicuously vacuous in the biblical texts. In short, Bellshaw attempts to qualify his argument in the same way that he previouslydisparaged another, this is circular logic.

This argument fails also because of 1 Cor. 13:10-12. Paul says:

But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away. (11) When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. (12) For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known. 1 Corinthians 13:10-12 NKJV

Paul and the “perfect” is referring to the coming end, he was referring to when we must see Christ face to face. The perfect here is referring to the Second Coming of Christ, because when we are glorified such things as tongues will no longer be needed. “Paul’s point in this analogy, then, is not that our current understanding and relationship with God is distorted (as if the mirror reflected poorly), but rather that it is “indirect,” (i.e., the nature of looking in a mirror) compared to the relationship we will enjoy with him in the future when we see him “face to face””[7]

Also the word “perfect is the Greek teleios which is neuter singular. The neuter gender, albeit not always, is used to refer to persons and groups (cf. John 3:6; 1 John 5:4; John 17:2; 6:37; Gal 3:22)[8] The singular obviously narrows the scope of the neuter because it is referring to one person, i.e. Jesus Christ. If this was a reference to the complete canon the reference would’ve seemingly been plural a reference to the multiple books of the bible. Actually, “Greek Christians called their sacred Scriptures ta Biblia, "the Books." When this title was subsequently transferred to the Lat., it was rendered in the singular and through Old French came into English as "Bible.”"[9]

As mentioned earlier, various well-known scholars, like F.F. Bruce conclude that "according to 1 Cor 13:8-10, prophecies, tongues, and knowledge are to be done away, but only 'when that which is perfect is come.' That which is perfect is not come yet . . . the literature of the period following the apostolic age makes it plain that the gifts did not come to a full stop with the closing of the New Testament canon."[10]

An example of literature that made plain references to speaking in tongues and other miracles was the historian Edward Gibbons. He produced the work The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; this work has long been the standard by which many other writings are judged. Gibbons looks at the history of the Roman Empire from the time of the Antonines through the rise of Christianity. This work is considered to be one of the most well written histories around. It is claimed that Winston Churchill had at one point credited Gibbons with influencing his own style.

Gibbons records that the early church “claimed an uninterrupted succession of miraculous powers, the gift of tongues, of vision, and of prophecy, the power of expelling (sic) daemons, of healing the sick, and of raising the dead.”[11] He also stated, “…about the end of the second century, the resurrection of the dead was very far from being esteemed an uncommon event; that the miracle was frequently performed on necessary occasions, by great fasting and the joint supplication of the church of the place, and that the persons thus restored to their prayers had lived afterwards among them many years.”[12]

In conclusion, first we have seen the glossolalia or speaking in tongues is a predominant theme in the book of Acts, 1 Corinthians, and has mention in Mark and certain other Old Testament prophecies. Second, the early church and the scriptures are primarily Jewish due to chronological sequence and exposure. Third, the sign of speaking in tongues is not mere gibberish but is the tongues of men and angels and can be understood by others (Acts 2). Fourth, tongues is as transcultural as the Promise of the Holy Spirit’s outpouring. Lastly, literature and syntax prove that speaking in tongues can and has extended beyond the Apostolic age and the canonization of the scriptures. Decidedly, there is no text that calls for the cessation of tongues/glossolalia.

I encourage each reader as Paul did:

Therefore, brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak with tongues. (40) Let all things be done decently and in order. (1 Corinthians 14:39-40 NKJV)


[1] Achtemeier, P. J., Harper & Row, P., & Society of Biblical Literature. (1985). Harper's Bible dictionary. Includes index. (1st ed.) (1082). San Francisco: Harper & Row.

[2] This form of explanation was conceived by Augustine of Hippo, later Pope Leo 1 parroted and expanded this view in his sermon “The Sprit and Truth”, and this explanation is widely held today. See: Fahlbusch, E., & Bromiley, G. W. (1999-<2003).>The encyclopedia of Christianity (1:iii). Grand Rapids, Mich.; Leiden, Netherlands: Wm. B. Eerdmans; Brill

[3] “Tongue, Speaking” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (C) Copyright 1984, by Baker Book House Company. (C) Copyright 1988.

[4] Fahlbusch, E., & Bromiley, G. W. (1999-<2003).>The encyclopedia of Christianity (1:iii). Grand Rapids, Mich.; Leiden, Netherlands: Wm. B. Eerdmans; Brill

[5] “Speaking in Tongues” THE NEW BIRTH, pg. 221 Copyright © 1984 by David K. Bernard

[6] Fahlbusch, E., & Bromiley, G. W. (1999-<2003).>The encyclopedia of Christianity (1:iii). Grand Rapids, Mich.; Leiden, Netherlands: Wm. B. Eerdmans; Brill

[7] Biblical Studies Press. (2006; 2006). The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press.

[8] Wheeler's Greek Syntax Notes, Copyright © 1985-2002 by Rev. Dale M. Wheeler, Ph.D. All rights reserved. Used by Permission

[9] The New Unger's Bible Dictionary. Originally published by Moody Press of Chicago, Illinois. Copyright © 1988

[10] F.F. Bruce, "Answers to Questions," The Harvester, August 1964.

[11] “Miraculous Powers of the Primitive Church” The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, PC Study Bible formatted electronic database Copyright © 2003 Biblesoft, Inc. All rights reserved.

[12] Ibid.

Adversus Trinitas

"...unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins." (John 8:24 ESV)