Augustine on the Tongues of Pentecost: Intro


An analysis of Augustine’s writings on speaking in tongues.

Augustine wrote a considerable amount on the subject which first appears to be an open and shut case, but a closer look reveals a diversity of thought propelled by political influences.

The conflict with the rival Donatist movement gives one of the earliest and extensive articles of tongues speech in the church. His coverage dispels the notion that the institutional church after Pentecost had quashed or ignored the christian rite of tongues.

The theories on speaking in tongues during Augustine’s time.

Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, 354-430 AD, was likely aware of the different theories on the subject. His contemporaries Gregory Nazianzus (329 to 390 AD) had posited that there are two options for the Pentecost outburst of tongues: it was either a miracle of hearing or of speaking, and more likely the latter. John Chrysostom (349 to 407 AD) held similar views to Augustine on the diminished role of divine tongues in the individual expression. An earlier North African leader named Pachomius (292 to 346 AD) was mythologized as having been divinely enabled to temporarily speak Latin. The first century BC Jewish Hellenistic philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, although he didn’t write about the gift of tongues, he did cover the mechanics behind God speaking. He held that when God spoke it was in a sound that would implant in the hearers mind, bypassing the ears, being beyond human language.

Was it a miracle of speaking or hearing?

These different opinions, with the exception of Philo, are represented in his word usage. The following examples from his writings demonstrate this:

  • “they began to speak in the languages of all the nations,”(1)Sermo. CLXXV:3
  • “they began to speak in all the languages, that in respect to those who were present, everybody was recognizing their own language,”(2)Sermo CCLII:2
  • “Each man speaking in every language”,(3)Sermo CCLXV:10
  • “Each man was speaking in every language, it was being announced beforehand because the Church was about to be in every language. One man was a sign of unity. Every language by one man, every nation in unity.”(4)CCLXVI:2

His coverage is found in a number of other Sermons(5) Sermo CCLXVII and CCLXVIII and in his work on the Psalms. In Enarratio in Psalmum he wrote this particular puzzling entry, “See that sounds went out in every language.”(6)Enarratio in Psalmum CXLVII:19 (147:19)

He does not attempt to explain the mechanics behind the event. Were the people miraculously speaking sequentially; that is uttering one language and then switching to another? Or was the event about one person speaking a couple of languages while another spoke in a couple of different ones? Did the endowed group collectively speak in all the languages of the world or did they speak a divine sound that spread out and the hearers understood it in their own language. Sometimes he favored the miracle of speaking while others times of hearing.

He picks and chooses given the situation. It appears that the mechanics behind how those divinely spoke in tongues was of no interest to him or was a priority. He had an apologetic motive against the large Dontatist movement, who asserted that they were the true Church. One of their confirming signs was that they spoke in tongues.(7)Augustine on Tongues and the Donatists

There is no question that the semantic range of this experience fell inside the use of foreign languages, nothing more. He used the term linguis omnium gentium “in the languages of all the nations” on at least 23 occasions, and linguis omnium, speaking “in all languages”. Neither does Augustine quote or refer to the Montanist movement in his works.

Augustine on the question, Should everybody speak in tongues?

The Bishop repeatedly answers the question “If I have received the holy Spirit, why am I not speaking in tongues?” Each time he has a slightly different read. What did he say? “this was a sign that has been satisfied.”(8)Sermo CCLXVII (267), MPL Vol. 38. Augustine. Sermo CCLXVII (267) Col. 1230ff. My translation In the writing called In Epistolas Joannis et Parthos, he jests with those who take this position, “when we laid hands on those infants, does anyone of you pay attention to whether they were speaking in languages. . .?”(9)MPL Vol. 35. Augustine. In Epistolas Joannis et Parthos VI:10 (6:10) Col. 2025ff and then offers a more theological slant in his Enarratio In Psalmum, “Why then does the holy Spirit not appear now in all languages? On the contrary He does appear in all the languages. For at that time the Church was not yet spread out through the circle of lands, that the organs of Christ were speaking in all the nations. Then it was filled-up into one, with respect to which it was being proclaimed in every one of them. Now the entire body of Christ is speaking in all the languages.”(10)Augustine. Enarratio in Psalmum. CXLVII:19 (147:19)

The gift of tongues changed from an individual to a corporate expression.

The last one brings on an important theological perspective by Augustine on the doctrine of tongues. The gift being expressed through individuals has died, and now has been transferred to and operated by the corporate Church. More of this doctrine can be found in the next article, Augustine on Tongues and the Donatists.

Augustine on the tongues of Corinth.

There was not found in any of his writings a theological analysis about the problem in Corinth. He does refer to I Corinthians 13:1 “If I speak in the tongues of men and angels…” over eight times. This appears to be a popular verse used by him in his argumentation against his Donatist rivals. He used this passage to emphasize brotherly love over ambition.

The neglect of Augustine on this subject.

It is surprising that his works have not entered into the primary source books as a central author explaining and defining the Christian tongues doctrine. This problem is not unique just to Augustine. This is covered in more detail at the following article: Examining the Source Books on Glossolalia and Christian tongues.

It is also vexing how many of his works, which includes the tongues-passages, do not have popular English translations. He is one of the foremost writers who has withstood the test of time. One of only a handful of authors of any genre has managed to do that. If his works were more widely available in English, it would have changed the dynamics of the discussion over the last century.

His works are well written and thought-out with an easy-to-read style which most readers will come to appreciate.

For more info;

  • see the next article, Augustine on Tongues and the Donatists

  • Or the actual English translations of the important texts by Augustine relating to the Christian dogma of tongues, Augustine on the Tongues of Pentecost in English. ■

  • 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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