Notes on the Doctrine of Tongues in De Trinitate

An analysis of the Church doctrine of tongues found in the fourth century Alexandrian work De Trinitate — traditionally attributed to Didymus of Alexandria.

The authorship of this work is not settled. Tradition ascribes the author to be Didymus of Alexandria. This writer, grammarian and teacher, stands at the forefront as one of Alexandria’s most prominent leaders. Although his name has lost prominence within the annals of history, his influence and contribution to the Christian world during his time was immeasurable.

However, there is a dispute on the authorship. Alisdair Heron argues in the book, The Making of Orthodoxy that it is not certain that Didymus is the author of this work.

For some two hundred years following its mid-eighteenth-century discovery by Mingarelli in a manuscript lacking title page and the opening chapters, the De Trinitate was regarded as the chief surviving work of Didymus the Blind (313–98), the last really distinguished leader of the catechetical school in Alexandria. Mingarelli based his ascription in part on the numerous and striking verbal parallels between this work and Didymus’ De Spiritu Sancto, which survives only in Jerome’s Latin translation. The last generation, however, has seen a remarkable shift in scholarly opinion on the matter: the discovery of the Toura papyri in 1941 and the ascription to Didymus of a series of extensive biblical commentaries contained in them has led in turn to comparisons of these works with the De Trinitate which seemed to support the conclusion that Didymus could not also have been the author of the latter. If correct, this conclusion not only requires a radical revision of the entire picture of Didymus and his theological teaching developed before the discovery of the Toura papyri; it also leaves the De Trinitate – a major work by any standards – floating in the void of anonymity. In recent years, study of Didymus has concentrated on the Toura commentaries; the De Trinitate has received relatively scant attention, though it is arguably more theologically substantial and significant than the commentaries, whether or not Didymus is the author.

Bryce Walker also addresses manuscript problems with another work attributed to Didymus’ De Spiritu Sancto, which may have an impact on understanding De Trinitate. He described on his blog that the oldest text of De Spiritu Sancto is in Latin.(1) There was no mention of De Trinitate having the same problem. I wasn’t aware of this background information while translating De Trinitate until completion, but found on a few occasions that the Greek was following Latin structure and wondered if this was a later Greek reproduction based on the Latin. However, some of the Greek word usage is old and reminiscent of this Alexandrian era. There is not enough convincing evidence to prove that this is a later Greek translation from the Latin. However it is tenable that there were emendations or editorial inserts done by Latin based copyists.

Or it could be a collective effort of the fourth century Christian community based in Alexandria? It was one of the most influential theological centers within Christendom. Its influence can be found in almost any subject during this period.

Perhaps it was a person or movement trying to copy the diction and prose of an earlier generation in their writing style.

In the case of the Gift of Tongues Project, dating a text is more important than authorship for discovering and analyzing the transmission of this doctrine over the centuries. It appears most of the work is fourth century, and has an Alexandrian style. It may or may not be Didymus as the original author, though tradition has ascribed it as such.

Regardless, De Trinitate is a well written theological work.

Consequently, when one comes across an Alexandrian based work such as De Trinitate, it requires careful attention.

This work is an important one to study for the Gift of Tongues Project to proceed in it’s goal of tracing the development and evolution of the doctrine of tongues in the Church from inception until now.

It is also hoped that this document will clarify the theology outlined by Gregory Nazianzus. If one reads the coverage of Gregory Nazianzus and later writers on this subject, the doctrine of tongues has three potential interpretations. One is that the speakers emitted sounds and the hearers miraculously understood it in their own language, or that the speakers miraculously spoke in every language, or it was a miracle of both hearing and speaking. The presently available Gregory texts leaves too much ambiguity as to which one was the most historically accepted.

The base copy worked from was the Greek text found in Migne Patrologia Graeca. The Latin parallel was closely watched for any differences.

If Didymus did write this, then this document is the only place where he made reference to the doctrine of tongues. His works in Migne Patrologia Graeca have been visually scanned for relevant coverage on this topic, and only three references have been located, and they are all found in De Trinitate. It is a large work that not only has the Trinity as the central theme but seeks to integrate all forms of Christian thought into this ideology. Thus the doctrine of tongues has slight references to this.

The relevant passages have been digitized, and translated. The English translation can be found at An English Translation of the Tongues Passages found in De Trinitate, and the original Greek text along with the Latin parallel translation, The Greek and Latin texts on the Doctrine of Tongues found in De Trinitate.

The first reference in De Trinitate concerning the doctrine of tongues can be found in the coverage about the division of languages in the Book of Genesis.(2) Didymi Alexandrini. De Trinitate Liber Primus. XVIII:31. MPG. Vol. 39 Col. 348 This one hardly provides any substantial detail. It follows the customary path of early Christian interpretation of linking the doctrine of tongues with the confusion of languages rather than connecting it to the voice or voices God spoke to Moses with at Mount Sinai.

The second reference in De Trinitate has more information.(3) Didymi Alexandrini. De Trinitate Liber Primus. XVIII:31. MPG. Vol. 39 Col. 348:

And they were speaking as well in different languages, “even as”, it says, “the Spirit was giving them to utter.” And the Galileans were understanding the instruction of Parthians, Medes, Persians; and the different sorts of foreign speech of mankind, including also Greek, and the Ausonian language. Many voices were indeed produced, and were showing of such things, we are destined to discover about the age to come, when having been liberated from the bonds of this present world, which corresponds to the voice of Paul, “Where there is not among them Greek, Barbarian, Scythian, but Christ is the all and in all.” And clearly he meant the same identical essence as according to the Trinity, “Christ is all and in all.” Where seeing that we seek. . .

There are a number of clues that can be picked-up from here. The text offered support for the miracle being those speaking in foreign languages, but the wording suggests that these people miraculously spokes sounds too, which parallels the second theory of the miracle being in the hearing.

The text defined those who were miraculously endowed Galileans. By leaving this so general, the author(s) recognize that more people just than the Apostles were gifted on that day, but who and how many, is left for the reader to decide.

It is clear here from the text that those who were endowed not only miraculously spoke but also understood foreign languages. It does not clarify if this was a temporary event, or a gift which these people possessed for the rest of their lives.

The text also added the Greek and the Ausonian to the list of languages being spoken at Pentecost. Ausonian was the language of Southern Italy. It is argued to be close to, if not Latin, while others state it is independent and older than that of Roman Latin. The written intent was to transform the Pentecost phenomenon from a semitic event, to a universal one.

There are new keywords to the tongues doctrine never used before:

  • συνίεσαν to understand as found in:

    And the Galileans were understanding the instruction of Parthians, Medes, Persians. . .

    This verb is found in Homeric and other classical Greek works. This would not be unusual to find with Alexandrian authors whose vocabulary is often similar. It also could mean that the Apostles were competently hearing or perceiving other languages.

  • ὁμιλίαν instruction. This is found in the same sentence shown above, but will show it once more to avoid confusion:

    And the Galileans were understanding the instruction of Parthians, Medes, Persians. . .

    This word can be found also in Acts 20:11 but is seldom used in the New Testament, nor in reference to the doctrine of tongues. It is the source by which we use the word Homily in many Church services today. It meant here that those who were endowed understood the instruction, that is, the philosophy and religion of the foreign nations, and could speak the Gospel within that context.

  • ἀλλοθρόων which root is speaking a strange tongue, strange, alien:(4) The lexicon definition found at Perseus.

    . . .and the different sorts of foreign speech of mankind

    This sentence portion is from the Greek καὶ ἀλλοθρόων ἄλλων ἀνθρώπων. The writer(s) is once again strengthening the argument through these word selections that the miraculous endowment is a universal one, not just a localized event that only the semitic nations could comprehend.

  • πολύφωνοί having many tones, having many voices, loquacious, talkative, manifold in expression:(5) The lexicon definition found at Perseus.

    Many voices were indeed produced

    The text noted that the speech was in manifold voices. This causes some confusion. Up until now, it is clear that the people miraculously spoke in foreign languages. It is assumed that one person spoke in Persian, while another Mede, and the list goes on. Here it is not clear. Was it each person speaking in manifold voices at one moment? Or was the person sequentially going through the languages of the nations while speaking? This is a mystery many of the Church fathers have so far left ambiguous and the text also does not clarify.

The third reference in De Trinitate to tongues speaking is weak.(6) Didymi Alexandri. De Trinitate Liber Secundus. MPG. Vol. 39. Col. 501 It strings together a number of references relating to the Holy Spirit and fire, including the tongues sequence in the Book of Acts. It simply is quoting Acts 2:4 among other Bible quotes without expressing any explanation to the meaning of the passage itself. It was translated, analyzed and posted in keeping with one of the goals of the Gift of Tongues Project — to be as comprehensive as possible. In the past, many researchers have selectively chosen passages to support their cause while omitting other pertinent information.

The writing style of De Trinitate contains rapid sequential thoughts. It is depending on the audience to know their Bible and topics at hand, and to fill in the obvious blanks. It skips very quickly from one thought to another. It also created difficulty translating because it was hard to understand one specific sharp transition — the text containing the negative example of Ananias to the positive example of those possessing the Holy Spirit. The transition was too fast and unclear.

De Trinitate on the doctrine of tongues does not reveal any new concepts additional to that of Gregory Nazianzus. It is clear that the text supported a miraculous form of comprehending and speaking many human languages. There are no references to the Montanists or Donatists. They were not a central or controversial part of the tongues doctrine during his time.



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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