When it comes to the subject of speaking in tongues as described in the New Testament church, a question that arises is simply this. Is speaking in tongues an unknown heavenly language that has no earthly format and cannot be naturally interpreted using natural means of interpretation? Or is speaking in tongues an earthly language that is known to man and grammatically understood by a linguist?
To answer this question, we must understand the various types of tongues in the New Testament and also understand that they are not all in the same category and purpose. To answer the above question without further definition and clarification of speaking in tongues would be like asking, “Are dogs animals?” and then by answering, “Yes,” assuming all animals are dogs. So let’s take a moment and untangle the question.
Is speaking in tongues an unknown heavenly language or a known earthly language? The general answer is: it is both. How can it be both? It’s because speaking in tongues is not singular in purpose, but multifaceted. So to answer this question in detail, we must look at each aspect of speaking in tongues.
First, one type of speaking in tongues is praying in the Spirit. When a person prays in the Spirit, it is an unknown language to man and man does not have the ability to interpret it using normal linguistic rules. This is because praying in the Spirit is a person praying to God as directed by the Holy Spirit without having an understanding of what they are praying for (Romans 8:26,27). God then receives this prayer with full understanding of what is being said, and of course, God needs no interpretation. The Scripture says he who prays in a tongue does not speak to man, but to God (1 Corinthians 14:2).
Secondly, another type of speaking in tongues is prompted through a gift of the Holy Spirit called the gift of different kinds of tongues. Within this gift, as the name implies, are many different manifestations of speaking in tongues. Here man is not speaking to God but God is speaking to man in a heavenly language, sometimes referred to as the language of angels (1 Corinthians 13:1).
One manifestation took place in Acts chapter 2 where believers spoke in tongues, but as the sound waves reached the ear of the hearer, each person heard in their own native language. While in the church of Corinth, Paul instructed the believers that during the public manifestation of the gift of speaking in tongues, the person who spoke in tongues should immediately pray that they would have the interpretation. That is so that what had been spoken in tongues would be spoken to the people in a language they could understand (1 Corinthians 14:13). But if that person did not receive the interpretation by the Holy Spirit, then other believers who were there should not quench the Spirit but receive the gift of interpretation of the tongues that had been spoken (1 Corinthians 14:27). Either way, this interpretation would be by the Holy Spirit and understood clearly by everyone hearing in their own language.
As we stated earlier, praying in the Spirit is man speaking to God and the gift of tongues is God speaking to man. When man speaks to God through praying in tongues, no interpretation is needed because God clearly understands. But when God speaks to man through the gift of tongues, interpretation is required. Otherwise, there would be no benefit.