How Does Speech Act Theory Help Us Understand Speaking in Tongues?

I’m finding it very interesting to discover the ways in which speech act theory is being incorporated by philosophers, theologians and Biblical scholars to clarify various issues. The last one I noted was the manner in which John Walton used speech act theory to better understand inerrancy. (See here for that post.)

I’ve now found it in James K.A. Smith’s book Thinking in Tongues with the issue of speaking in tongues. Smith begins with an illustration of a typical altar call in a Pentecostal church. Several people have come down to the altar to pray for healing. A number of people have gathered around them to pray for them. Some of them begin to pray in tongues. Smith then asks,

“Does speech act theory help us to understand what is happening here? I think so. The question we should ask is not, ‘What does this prayer mean?’ but rather, ‘What does this prayer do?’ What is the illocutionary stance of the one praying, and what is the perlocutionary effect on the hearers, especially the person seeking healing? The intention of the prayer is less about saying something and more about doing something. Let us first consider the illocutionary stance of the person praying. What does the pray-er mean to do? I think we could suggest at least two linguistic acts that accompany such an utterance in this context. First, an illocutionary act of praying or beseeching: the person praying in tongues is, first and foremost, doing just that—praying, and praying to God, and thus seeking to express a desire to God ‘in groans too deep for words ‘ (Rom. 8:26). Such a prayer is not intended to communicate propositional content, but rather to express the depth of a desire when ‘we do not know how to pray as we should’ (Rom. 8:26). Such a glossolalic prayer expresses a depth of dependency upon God, and thus a humility before the divine. It also indicates a dependence upon the Holy Spirit in particular since the Spirit is thought to be the one who ‘intercedes’ through such groans (Rom. 8:26) that do not conform to the conventions of a given language. One might say that such a prayer in such a context is kind of sacramental practice of emptying, recognizing the failure of even language to measure up to such an exchange. Glossolalic prayer is a means of making oneself both receptive to and a conduit of the Spirit’s work.

Second, the glossolalic prayer has a perlocutionary dimension on the hearers, and in a twofold sense: (1) as a prayer, one of the hearers is God, and the desired perlocutionary effect is for God to act in healing; but also (2) the other hearers of the utterance include the person seeking healing and others who are interceding for her. It seems to me that the glossolalic utterance also has the perlocutionary effect of encouraging faith in the (human) hearers and encouraging them to open themselves up to the miraculous. In other words, precisely by uttering a speech act that does not conform to ‘normal’ or natural speech, the person who utters the speech act effects on a lingual level what is being sought on a physical or bodily level: a certain ‘interruption’ of the ‘normal’ in order to effect healing. The prayer, then, often has the perlocutionary effect of encouraging openness to such interruptions.” (144-45)

I find this discussion wonderfully challenging and thoughtful.

It’s something to think about.

Thinking in Tongues


About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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One Response to How Does Speech Act Theory Help Us Understand Speaking in Tongues?

  1. J.W. Wartick says:

    Fascinating post! I think I’ll add this book to my wish list, as I’ve enjoyed both your posts on it. It seems like it has some very interesting insights. Though, I have to admit, I’m not really sold on speech act theory (I say this largely from a stance of having studied very little in that area–from just a couple books mentioning it related to interpretation of the Bible).


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