The Venerable Bede on the Doctrine of Tongues: Conclusion

Thoughts on the works of the Venerable Bede regarding the doctrine of tongues.

The two works written by the Venerable Bede, The Initial Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles and the text written later on his life, A Book of Reflection on the Acts of the Apostles demonstrate a number of conclusions regarding the doctrine of tongues.

Bede’s writings are a primary source material on the christian doctrine of tongues but for whatever reason has been left of the popular narrative. This absence once again identifies the problem of modern day scholars, ministers, and Bible students not knowing their ecclesiastical writings. If modern readers were acquainted with the amount of works covering the doctrine of tongues by the many Church Fathers, including the Venerable Bede, it would dramatically change the contemporary interpretation.

Bede’s initial commentary on the Book of Acts is dependent on his understanding of Gregory Nazianzus’ teaching on the subject. Although Gregory was clear in his Greek text that it was a miracle of speech, the earliest Latin text does not give such clarity. This forced Bede to originally think it was a miracle of hearing.

“…that while the hearers were of the diverse nations, each one according to their language coming from this one speech itself, which had been uttered by the Apostle, that it entered upon the hearer and seized the intellect. Except perhaps according to this, it seemed those who are hearing to be a greater miracle than those who speaking.”(1)My translation. from MPL. Vol. 92 Bedæ Venerabilis: Super Acta Apostolorum Expositio. Col. 945-948. See http://charlesasullivan.com/3409/bedes-initial-commentary-on-acts-21-19/ for more info

The miracle of hearing was established from Rufinus’ Latin translation of the Nazianzus’ text. Nazianzus posited two theories on the miracle of Pentecost. One was the miracle of spontaneously speaking in foreign languages unknown by the speaker beforehand, and the other was one sound emitted and the audience hearing the sound in their own language. Rufinus’ text took some liberties and failed to communicate that Gregory preferred the miracle of speaking as the acceptable interpretation. He misunderstood the Greek and made two critical errors. Rufinus instead gave equal value to both positions and let the reader decide which one was right, which over time leaned towards the miracle of hearing. Bede, upon reading of the Latin text, originally decided it was a miracle of hearing.

Bede did not have strong skills in Greek and he, along with the majority of the Latin Church ecclesiasts, depended on Rufinus’ translation as a key text.

See the article: Nazianzus’ Tongues of Pentecost Paradox: Gregory’s two interpretations of Pentecost and the traditions that followed after this.

He changed his interpretation of Nazianzus in his later work, A Book of Reflection on the Acts of the Apostles and switched it to a miracle of speaking.

“I know to hold myself back from this matter because I have said this thought can be understood in two ways; or rather that I was obligated to find-out how it ought to be understood. I am going to respond briefly to this matter that everything whatsoever of the same sentiment I have written in my previous book. I did not mention this by reason of personal experience, but from the words of the holy and faultless teacher in every respect, that is, I take up Gregory Nazianzus. It is certainly agreed that the apostles filled with the holy Spirit were speaking in all languages, neither is it permitted to be questioned by anyone about this. But in the manner how they were speaking it is to be asked without reservation. It could be the speech of the Apostles had so much power, that they became familiar with the diverse languages by all those, the hearer then is equally able to understand. Or can it be whichever one was being spoken, one was necessary in regards to being appropriate of so great a multitude, with the others left silent, at the moment producing a word of instruction, the person who was speaking at first to the Hebrews, that it produced the speech in Hebrew, while the others do not know what was being said. Then to the Greeks, while those who are ignorant in the Greek language and with the others left waiting. Next to the Parthians, after this the Medes, and so Elamite, and whichever ones are being listed through an order by the nations, its own particular language was to have been spoken, each one at a time awaiting, and being silent, until its order arrives, something was being spoken, they were understood, and so they were to render the approval of the faithful by the words of these teaching, Moreover Luke reports Peter speaking to the crowds and he did not report that he [Peter] spoke repeating the same things the second or third [time], but that these [crowds] in whom have received the plan of salvation are hardly consecrated in the mysteries of the Christian faith.

On the other hand I do not think this to be an error. If either of the two can be trusted to have taken place, and that the apostles in the holy Spirit clearly understood the languages of the nations and had the ability to speak, and the words too were in whatever language expressed by a great miracle, to all who were hearing, that they equally had the ability to learn.”(2)Translated by me. MPL. Vol. 92. Bedæ Venerabilis: Liber Retractationis In Actus Apostolorum. Col. 998-1000

See the article: Bede’s Book of Reflection on the Acts of the Apostles for the actual complete translation.

Bede now corrected his understanding of Nazianzus. The miracle of Pentecost consisted in the miracle of speaking in foreign languages. He then goes on to explaining the mechanics as to how it occurred. Bede draws the conclusion that the miracle can be understood as a miracle of hearing or speaking. The style which Bede approached the subject demonstrated that he had no personal attachment to either side. It was an intellectual journey whose results didn’t matter.

There is no reference by Bede of any historic or contemporary group practicing an alternative experience in his works. He did not see the influences of Montanism, or Donatism as important sources of theological controversy within his time. ■

charlesasullivan

charlesasullivan

Charles Sullivan is a researcher and writer on topics of textual criticism, linguistics, theology, Christian mysticism and philosophy. He also frequently likes to delve into contemporary social and ethical issues from a faith perspective.
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