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An analysis of Gregory of Nyssa on speaking in tongues

Gregory of Nyssa on divine speech, human languages, and Pentecost.

gregory_of_nyssa

Gregory of Nyssa, along with Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, and Gregory Nazianzus, set the framework for the christian doctrine of tongues from the fourth-century and onwards. Although there are other narratives during this period such as John Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, Cyril of Jerusalem, and Pachomius, these did not have the future impact on this doctrine as the above three accomplished.

The focus of this article is on Gregory of Nyssa. His name is hardly known, if at all, in chapels, streets, or coffee shops today, but in his time, he was a powerful writer, speaker, and teacher. His influence was widespread throughout all christendom.

Gregory of Nyssa was a fourth-century Bishop of Nyssa – a small town in the historic region of Cappadocia. In today’s geographical terms, central Turkey. The closest major city of influence to Nyssa was Constantinople – which at the time was one of the most influential centers of the world.

Gregory of Nyssa, along with Gregory Nazianzus and Basil the Great were named together as the Cappadocians. Their influence set the groundwork for christian thought in the Eastern Roman Empire. Gregory of Nyssa was an articulate and a deep thinker. He not only drew from christian sources, but built his writings around a Greek philosophical framework.

His theory of divine speech and human languages demonstrate an important perspective in the history of the christian doctrine of tongues.

Nyssa’s idea of divine and human language

Gregory wrote a detailed treaty against a man named Eunomius who had a large following in the christian community, but in matters of theology slightly changed some constants that better suited his philosophy of god and life. There were many subtle shifts that go beyond this study. However, the controversy brings to light Gregory’s views of speaking in tongues.

Eunomius brought up the question whether God spoke in human language, specifically the Hebrew language. Gregory answered by building his thesis around the confusion of languages written in the Book of Genesis. His observations gave a number of valuable thoughts. The first one being that language is a human invention allowed to grow and develop, and that God Himself does not speak in human language as His normal mode of communication.

As he wrote in Contra Eunomium:

So that our position remains unshaken, that human language is the invention of the human mind or understanding. For from the beginning, as long as all men had the same language, we see from Holy Scripture that men received no teaching of God’s words, nor, when men were separated into various differences of language, did a Divine enactment prescribe how each man should talk. But God, willing that men should speak different languages, gave human nature full liberty to formulate arbitrary sounds, so as to render their meaning more intelligible.(1)NPNF2-05. Gregory of Nyssa Pg. 276

Whenever Gregory referred to God speaking, he left the word ambiguous in Greek as voice (phônos — φῶνος).

The avid reader may find that the English translation of the treatise Contra Eunomium found in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. second series doesn’t prove this theory. This is a problem of the English translation which in other areas is a good one, but fails when it comes to differentiating between the Greek nouns, glossa which is the noun for language and phonos which means sound or voice (γλῶσσα and φῶνος).

Secondly, Gregory believed that there was only one language before the confusion of languages at Babel. What exactly this language was, he doesn’t know. He left this one ambiguous too, using voice again, rather than language in the majority of occasions, especially highlighted in this key passage “μιᾷ συνέζων φωνῇ πάντων ἀνθρώπων τὸ πλήρωμα,” “the aggregate of men dwelt together with one voice among them.” The word here for voice is φωνῇ not language as the original English translation of this text provided.(2)See a href=”http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf205/Page_276.html”>NPNF2-05. Gregory of Nyssa Pg. 276 for the full text

He didn’t believe man’s original language was the language of God because God did not use human language as the basis of His natural way of communicating. Aware that Hebrew was proposed as the first original language, he reckoned that Hebrew is neither the oldest language of the world and impossible for this to be the case.

But some who have carefully studied the Scriptures tell us that the Hebrew tongue is not even ancient like the others. . .(3)NPNF2-05. Gregory of Nyssa Pg. 276

Nyssa’s idea of Pentecost

Gregory does not make the Pentecostal event related in the Book of Acts as a reversal of Babel. Instead, he sees parallels between the two stories on the nature of language with different outcomes. In the Pentecost story, he explained it as one sound dividing into languages during transmission that the recipients understood.

The emphasis on God speaking in an ambiguous voice (φῶνος) remains consistent between the two stories:

For at the river Jordan, after the descent of the Holy Ghost, and again in the hearing of the Jews, and at the Transfiguration, there came a voice from heaven, teaching men not only to regard the phenomenon as something more than a figure, but also to believe the beloved Son of God to be truly God. Now that voice was fashioned by God, suitably to the understanding of the hearers, in airy substance, and adapted to the language of the day, God, “who willeth that all men should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.(4)NPNF2-05. Gregory of Nyssa Pg. 275

Gregory believed the sound of God speaking at in the events of Jesus’ baptism, and the transfiguration was not a language, rather, it was a sound that had the ability to adapt during transmission into a targeted human language.

Now when one reads his accounts of Pentecost, this same formula is found with those imbued with the fiery tongues.

In his treatise Contra Eunomium he wrote:

We read in the Acts that the Divine power divided itself into many languages for this purpose, that no one of alien tongue might lose his share of the benefit.(5)NPNF2-05. Gregory of Nyssa Pg. 276

And then again in his homily De Spiritu Sancto sive in Pentecosten:

Consequently, the narrative of the Book of Acts says that while these people are gathered in the upper room, is the dividing up in each one the pure and supernatural fire in the form of languages according to the number of disciples.

So then these people are thus discoursing in Parthian, Mede, and Elamite in the other remaining nations, adapting their voices with respect to authority to every state language. Even as the Apostle says, “I wish five words to speak with my mind in the Church in order that I may benefit others than a thousand words in a tongue.” Truly at that time the benefit was the same language begotten into foreign languages so that the preaching to those ignorant of the truth would not be in vain when those preaching thwart them by a single voice. Now indeed while existing according to the same sounding language, it is necessary to seek after the fiery tongue of the Spirit for the illumination of those who dwell in darkness through error.(6) My translation from Migne Patrologia Graeca. Vol. 46. Col. 695Ff

Gregory of Nyssa’s homily on Pentecost is a happy tome which began with his reference to Psalm 94:1, Come, let us exalt the Lord and continues throughout with this joyful spirit. In reference to speaking in tongues, he wrote of the divine indwelling in the singular and the output of a single sound suggesting a miraculous multiplication into languages during transmission. This emphasis on the singularity may be traced to the influence of Plotinus — one of the most revered and influential philosophers of the third-century. Plotinus was not a christian, but a Greek/Roman/Egyptian philosopher who greatly expanded upon the works of Aristotle and Plato. He emphasized that the one supreme being had no “no division, multiplicity or distinction.”(7)As found in the Philosophy Basics website Nyssa strictly adhered to a singularity of expression by God when relating to language. The multiplying of languages happened after the sound was emitted and therefore conforms to this philosophical model. However, Nyssa never mentions Plotinus by name or credits his movement in Contra Eunomium so it is hard to make a direct connection. I believe that there is some influence here.

What then was the sound that the people imbued with the Holy Spirit were speaking before it multiplied during transmission? Nyssa is not clear. It is not a heavenly or divine language because he believed man would be too limited in any capacity to produce such a mode of divine communication. Neither would he believe it to be Hebrew. Maybe it was the first language mankind spoke before Babel, but this is doubtful. Perhaps the people were speaking their own language and the miracle occurred in transmission. I think speaking in their own language with a miraculous transmission is the likeliest possibility. Regardless, Gregory of Nyssa was not clear in this part of his doctrine.

The differing views between Nyssa and Nazianzus on Pentecost

Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus were acquaintances in real life, perhaps more so because of Gregory of Nyssa’s older brother, Basil the Great. Gregory Nazianzus and Basil the Great had a personal and professional relationship that greatly impacted the church in their dealings with Arianism and the development of the Trinity doctrine. Unfortunately, a fallout happened between Gregory Nazianzus and Basil the Great that never was repaired.(8)Frienship in Late Antiquity: The Case of Gregory Nazianzen and Basil the Great

Gregory Nazianzus recognized the theory of a one sound emanating and multiplying during transmission into real languages. He seriously looked at this solution and posited this against the miracle of speaking in foreign languages. He found the one sound theory lacking and believed the miracle of speech was the proper interpretation. Perhaps this is a personal objection to Nyssa or a professional one based on research. There are no writings between Nyssa or Nazianzus that allude to a contested difference between them on the subject. Nyssa’s contribution to the christian doctrine of tongues has long been forgotten in the annals of history, but Nazianzus has survived. On the other hand, the theory itself posited by Nyssa never did vanish. These two positions by Nyssa and Nazianzus set the stage for an ongoing debate for almost two millennia.

The story doesn’t end here. It is just the beginning. The debate continues to grow and the results are found in a series of articles on Gregory Nazianzus on the doctrine of tongues

References   [ + ]

Introduction to the History of Glossolalia

An examination on why the traditional doctrine of tongues as a supernatural endowment of a foreign language all but died and was replaced by the doctrine of glossolalia.

This series of articles will demonstrate how the new definition originated in the early 1800s and has progressed to the strong doctrine that presently exists.

The reader will discover a rich story behind the development of this concept with exact names, disputes, and places. The series will clearly show the change from a miracle of speech or hearing to glossolalia. This change was a process that took over a century to develop and became universally and unquestionably entrenched.

What is glossolalia and were the ancient Christian writers aware of this practice?

Though there are a number of words to describe modern tongues speaking such as ecstasy, ecstatic utterance, frenzy, etc., glossolalia will be used throughout this series as a blanket term.

Glossolalia, ecstasy, and ecstatic utterances are the same words to explain something that is unintelligible and meaningless. “Glossolalia is language-like because the speaker unconsciously wants it to be language-like.”(1)a quote from William Samarin as found in: Robert Carroll. The Skeptic’s Dictionary. A collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions. New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons. 2003. Pg. 135

This new definition has its own history separate from that of the ecclesiasts who guarded the old doctrine of tongues as a miracle of either a person spontaneously speaking a foreign language or the recipient hearing sounds in one’s own tongue. Rarely has the new definition of glossolalia been critically examined or traced from its initial beginnings to the present. This is what the series, A History of Glossolalia, is all about.

This series is part of the Gift of Tongues Project that has a fourfold purpose of collecting, digitizing, translating and analyzing important texts relating to the christian doctrine of tongues. The overwhelming evidence collected so far maintains the church had always understood the miraculous use of tongues at Pentecost as either spoken or heard as foreign languages. Historical leaders such as Augustine, Gregory Nazianzus, Epiphanius, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Jerusalem, Cyril of Alexandria, the Ambrosiaster text, Pachomius, the Venerable Bede, Pope Benedict XIV and more have covered the subject. The details may be different but all agree that it was a foreign human language. Their critical debates were whether it was a miracle of hearing or speaking, or whether the language constructed itself in the mind or converted at the last moment on the lips.(2)For more information on whether it was a miracle of speaking or hearing, see Gregory of Nazianzus on Pentecost and Michael Psellos Michael Psellos on the Tongues of Pentecost.

These church writers were not aware of an alternate interpretation of tongues as ecstasy or glossolalia.

Michael Psellos in the eleventh century was well aware of the Greek prophetesses going into an ecstatic state and speaking in foreign languages. He knew that there could have been a relationship between this and the Christian practice but dispelled the correlation outright. Neither did he believe that the ancient Greek prophetesses spoke gibberish or a highly exalted language. He believed they were speaking a foreign human language. When the connection between the Greek prophetesses and Christian tongues was made in the early 1800s, Psellos important contribution to the debate was neglected out of ignorance or wilfully ignored.(3)Michael Psellos on the Tongues of Pentecost.

The initial problem connecting glossolalia with the christian doctrine of tongues.

An implicit bias in the doctrine of glossolalia is its absence or little use of the church fathers. Many scholars who were proponents of tongues as glossolalia failed to recognize or integrate base christian texts, selectively choosing weaker ones instead. They neither wrestled with the church texts in any detail to assert or repudiate their claims.

The church fathers focused mainly on the Day of Pentecost in Acts where they believed the experience to be people supernaturally endowed with the ability to speak in foreign languages. Paul’s coverage of the tongues problem in Corinth has been more difficult for the ancient church writers to cover. Most have avoided literally explaining it, choosing to go into allegory or emphasizing the moral force of the text: the need for charity instead of pride. Noted exceptions to this were: Epiphanius, who saw the Corinthian problem as an ethno-linguistic conflict, the Ambrosiaster text, which summed it up as conflict between Aramaic and Greek speaking Jews; and the Cyril of Alexandria text which explained problems arising from hypothetically speaking in Eastern languages such as Mede in a Greek speaking community. These church writings can be found documented at the Gift of Tongues Project.

Problems connecting Montanism and their glossolalia with the christian doctrine of tongues.

Scholars from the realm of higher criticism have introduced Eusebius’ coverage of the Montanist movement and their ecstasies as the historical definition of speaking in tongues in the church. However, the Greek keyword for tongues doesn’t even occur in the text. This omission is very problematic and weakens this solution. The ecclesiastical writers made no connection with the Montanists regarding speaking in tongues. Neither can any person find documents with the church specifically arguing for or against Montanist tongues. The Montanist experience for explaining Christian tongues didn’t arrive until 1500 years after the Montanist experience by Conyers Middleton in his publication, Free Inquiry.(4)see Conyers Middleton and the doctrine of tongues This is a later interpretation that cannot be substantiated through early historical literature.

An overview on the history of glossolalia series.

How the doctrine of glossolalia first appeared and took over this subject matter is a complex journey that requires a series of articles to answer. To get started, here are a number of brief thoughts to set things up for the articles to follow:

The nineteenth-century Irvingite Movement can be blamed for renewed interest into the subject. They brought the tongues theology out of a deep sleep and into the critical attention of the international community; from the layperson to magazines, newspapers and scholars. It summoned a deep theological debate that was in the cross-hairs between the traditional supernaturalists and the quickly rising rationalist movement. The Irvingite event was the litmus test for both parties credibility.

The rise of the glossolalia definition and the abandonment of the traditional one was also largely due to the casualty of ecclesiastical writings being dropped as historical literature and switched to the category of legends and myths. There is a purposeful de-emphasis of ecclesiastical writings in the primary, secondary and tertiary sourcebooks from the 19th century onwards.

This has had a profound impact on the controversies surrounding this doctrine. In fact, if this de-emphasis on ecclesiastical writings did not exist, it would change the modern debate altogether.(5) A more detailed account on why and how the Ecclesiastical writings were dropped and not considered a legitimate source for scholarly study can be found at this link, The Historical Rejection of Patristics and its Legacy

The series of articles.

These are all generalizations here, which the Gift of Tongues Project normally tries to avoid. In this case, some introduction was necessary. This is a large work and is broken into a number of articles. Here is the complete listing:

References   [ + ]