Aquinas on Tongues: I Corinthians 13

Select translations of Thomas Aquinas on I Corinthians 13 from the Latin into contemporary English.

Two different editions are found in Busa’s text on I Corinthians 13. The first one is the Leonine edition, 1 and second is the Common Copy (vulgata copiis) edition2 These are two distinct works and there is no attempt to do a comparative literary analysis. It is simply translated as is. Only those pieces significant to the tongues doctrine have been translated.

A Selected Portion from I Corinthians 13. Leonine Edition: I Corinthians 13:11

The following two portions are about knowing in part, the coming perfect state and reasoning as a child. These are passages taken from I Corinthians 13:11. This section demonstrates where and how the gift of tongues fit in with Aquinas’ Aristotalian built structure.

Reportationes. Vol. 6. 087 RIL. n.4 cpp. Pg. 374 Ineditae Leoninae

Vs. . 9 Consequently when he says, “we know from part etc.,” it is demonstrating that he related with such great reasoning. The imperfect is ceasing by the coming perfect…

Vs. 11 “When I was a child” etc., This apostle asserts his own case. Moreover he had put (the two) in the previously mentioned proof. The first is that the imperfect is being purged with the coming perfect. The second is that we know in part. And these two confirm this: It places the first as the first, and thereupon follows by the second.“We see now through a glass etc.,” He then demonstrates the first through analogy with the events of life which is bound to compare the place of future glory to the present, as it were the status of a perfect age to the the status of a boy. And this with respect to the three gifts about which he himself made mention, which two kinds pertain to cognition, namely the gift of tongues and the gift of knowledge,3 which are referring to the passing away like a child. With respect to the first he says, “When I was a child, I spoke as a child” which is about the behaviour of a child who is certainly destined to babble, as a child speaks who speaks nothingness. (Ps. 11:3) “They had spoken with emptiness each one to (his) neighbour”4. With respect to the second he says, I experienced as a child, the understanding consists of two things, namely in the ability to assess and in the ability to decide, that is having the ability to pick out and discover. Many well find out but do not give good judgement and the other way around. But at some time whichever of the one or another, one certainly is to well judge and find out and in these two things here, we are likening5 as an imperfection of a child and first refer to either the choice or the verdict. And this is what he says, “I understood as a child,” they say about this to understand as a child that it is to poorly discern. (Phil. 3:19) “Glory in their shame” etc., Following with respect to the discovery where he says, “I was thinking as a child” that is I was inferring about children who were thinking that they think maliciously.6 (Psalm 93:11) “The Lord knows7 the thoughts of men etc., And this with respect to which “I was understanding” it was being brought back to the gift of discernment which extends to the emotion. “I was thinking,” to the gift of knowledge.8 “When a man has become etc.,”9 just as he was to say, “in the same way having become a man, the childhood things are being put away”. Therefore when we come to the future life that is perfect, they will be put away those which they are in the present circumstance imperfect. (Prov. 1:22) “how long will you love childishness.” (Is. penult. 65:20) “Accursed is the child of 100 years…”10

A Selected Portion from I Corinthians 13. Ic1 from the Vulgata Copiis

The following provides a relationship between charity and tongues and also the tongues of men and angels. Aquinas believed Paul to be writing in hyperbole.

Reportationes. Vol. 6. 088 R1C cp13. pg 384ff

The apostle assigned a distinction about the gifts which have been freely given and of the ministries in which kind they are being divided [for the] members of the Church. This leads to that which concerns charity which always accompanies the gift of gifts which is being practiced and because he had promised them himself and was about to demonstrate a more excellent way, he showed the preeminence of charity among the remaining freely bestowed gifts, and first with respect to which about the necessity, because in fact without the existence of charity the other free gifts are not sufficient. Secondly, with reference to the usefulness, because in fact, all bad things are avoided through charity, and all the good things are brought forward.

“Thereupon, charity is long-suffering etc.,” Third with reference to the permanency, “charity never falls away etc.,” Therefore the apostle seems to reduce all the free gifts to three. While firstly he shows with respect to the gift of tongues, which relates to the act of speaking, it is not powerful without charity. Secondly then because they do not empower those things which relate to acquiring knowledge. which brings up, “if I should have prophecy etc.,” Thirdly, he shows the same thing about these which he relates to works. “And if I should distribute in goods of the poor etc.,”11 meanwhile the greatest desire was the gift of tongues with the Corinthians. As Corinthians 14, t,12 will further open up. And therefore from this beginning he says, “I myself promised a more excellent way that will be demonstrated.”13 And first he expresses this in accordance with the gift of tongues, because, “if in the tongues of men”, namely “I speak” all, that is if I am about to have the gift of kindness through which I should be able to speak in the languages of all mankind, and to the greatest abundance. He supplies, “and of angels, If I do not have charity then, I become a sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.” He makes direct use with the comparison. In fact the soul through charity lives which lives for God, that life is in the soul. (Following this Deut. 30:20. It itself is your life. From which I John 3:14 is being called out) “We have been translated from death to life”, seeing that we aspire brothers, that it does not seek that it should remain in death. Rightly then he compares speech being absent from charity, by the sound of the state of death, one may think of it as of brass or a cymbal which should deliver a clear sound, yet nevertheless is not alive, but dead.

So [it is] then the speech of men with the lack of charity, however much it should be skillfully expressed. Yet, having become as dead, because it does not accomplish the purposed goal of eternal life, moreover it is the difference between a sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal, because brass, when it is straight, it emits a simple sound from the strike. On the other hand the cymbal when it is concave, it multiplies the sound from one beat which relates to the ringing (sound). So then [the sounds] they are being matched to the brass which simply utters truth. However, with the cymbal that one [the sounds] they utter and multiply the truth, to which has the ability to assign many methods and similarities and draw out the greatest amount. Yet everything being held without charity is as having been dead, moreover it must be examined more closely what the language of angels should speak. For when a tongue is to be a member of the body and for the same utilization [as brass or a cymbal] that it has reference to the gift of tongues, respecting the fact that sometimes it is being spoken in a language. It will be evident further along xvi, Neither will it seem to be in accordance with angels who do not have limbs.14 One is able to say then that men, having the office of angels, they are being understood through the agency of an angel, that certainly it makes known the divine to other persons. (According to that in in Malachi 2:7) “For the lips of the priests keep knowledge and they require the law from his mouth because he is the angel of the Lord of hosts”.15 Behind these it is being said with this sense, “if I speak with the tongues of men and angels” That is the difference which they point out, not only of the smaller but also of the greater, one is able then to understand from the angels who do not have a body. Just as in Psalm 103:4 says: “who makes your angels spirits.” Although they do not have the ability to have a bodily language nevertheless the language of power can be spoken by a likeness with these ones that they reveal to others what they occupy in the mind. It must be understood then because within the inquiry is to some degree the mind of an angel. From this the highest of angels to the lowest they do not speak, neither by conversation, certainly divine themselves in essence, that they see absolutely everything from God Himself who is showing everything.■

Summary: Aquinas goes to great lengths to discuss the role of charity for a long time after this.

He also believed that Angels do not themselves have the ability to speak, though they have the ability to reveal to others in the mind what to speak. He then concludes that mankind to some degree has the mind of an angel. Those who represent divine authority are as if they are speaking under the influence of an angel. He does not follow rabbinic tradition which taught that angels were restricted to knowing only regional languages that they were assigned to, or Hebrew, the language of prayer, or both.

A Selected Portion from I Corinthians 13. Ic3 from the Vulgata Copiis

The following was included because it touches on the subject of when the perfect comes, tongues, prophecy and worldly things will be done away with. Thomas Aquinas described exactly what he thought Paul meant about when the perfect comes along with clarifying a definition of the miracle of tongues.

And through this way the word of John which had been introduced was being understood, followed by the sentiment which had been mentioned before, is not according to the intention of the Apostle because he is not speaking in this place about the cessation of the spiritual gifts by way of human sin but rather about the cessation of the spiritual gifts which pertain to this life through the glory that is coming.

From which place the sense of the Apostle is “Charity never falls away”[v8] because in fact just as it is in the central position of life, and therefore will continue in the position of the Fathers standing firm and with increase. According to this “The Lord has said it to whom a fire is in Zion” (Isaiah 31:9), namely with the Church which is waging war, “and in his furnace in Jerusalem”, which is with the peace of the heavenly Father. Thereon when he says “Whether prophecy, etc.,” he proposes the cessation of different spiritual gifts and to specify which particular ones of them be seen. Firstmost is the reference to prophecy. He says, “Whether prophecies will be made void” that is they will cease, because one may know in future glory, prophecy will not have a place according to two things. Certainly first because prophecy gazes into the future. Moreover, that status will not hope for anything in the future but will be the end completion of all things which have been prophesied. From which place in Psalm 47:9, “As we have heard” certainly through the agency of prophecy. And so we saw presently16 “in the true city of the Lord”. Secondly because prophecy is with figurative17 and obscure knowledge which will cease in the home land.18 From which it is being said, Numbers 12:6, “if there be among you a prophet of the Lord, through a dream or in a vision I will appear to him, or through a dream I should speak to that person”. And Hosea 12:10 “I have been imitated by the hands of the prophets.” Secondly with respect to the gift of tongues, it says, “Or tongues will cease,” which indeed is not bound to be understood with respect to those members in the body who are being spoken to in languages.

As it is being said further along (in I Corinthians) 15:52, “The dead will rise again incorruptible,” that is without a loss of the members, neither on the other hand must it be understood in relation to the use of a physical language. For speechfull praise is in the future home.

Following this thought, Psalms 149:6: “The highest praises to God in their mouths” as the glossa in that very place sets out. It therefore ought to be understood in reference to the gift of tongues which to a degree in fact were speaking in various languages inside the early Church. As it was said (Acts 2:4) Therefore in the future glory, anyone without distinction will so much understand a language, [a time] for which it will also not be necessary to speak in the various languages.19 For it is yet again from the beginning of the origin of mankind. As it was spoken in Genesis 11:1, “One was in speech and one tongue with everyone” because it will be a great deal more in the highest state when unity has brought to perfection.20

The Latin continues on the subjects of knowledge, Aristotle and the concept of being a child and imperfect but it is not important as it relates to the gift of tongues so it is not necessary to continue on.

For more information:


  1. Index Thomisticus alternately calls it Reportatio Reginaldi de Piperno. The site’s bibliography has it fully as: S. THOMAE AQUINATIS Opera omnia ut sunt in Indice thomistico additis 61 scriptis ex aliis Medii Aevi auctoribus, t. 6, codex 087, n. 3: Super Epistolam 1 ad Cor. Ed. R. BUSA (Frommann-Hoolzbog, Stuttgart-Bad Cannstadt, 1980) p. 365-374.
  2. I am assuming that this is from Marietti publication as listed by Index Thomisticus as: S. THOMAE AQUINATIS Super Epistolas S. Pauli lectura, t. 1: Super primam Epistolam ad Corinthios lectura. Ed. R. CAI (8ª ed.: Marietti, Taurini-Romae, 1953)
  3. scientiae is a branch of cognitio according to Aquinas. But the specialness of scientiae is something lost in the English. It refers to professionalism and expert skill, something today we interpret as a learned gift through education and practice. Here it is viewed as a spiritual endowment.
  4. The present Vulgate reads, “frustra loquuntur unusquisque proximo suo” as opposed to Aquinas version which has, “vana locuti sunt unusquisque ad proximum etc.,”
  5. assimilamur PRES PASSIVE IND 1 P: I think it is a deponent.
  6. A different view of children than we have today. Quite negative.
  7. scit here instead of novit used in the Vulgate
  8. scientiae. I always thought the gift of knowledge was the social ability to understand the human psyche but it appears that Aquinas leaned towards it meaning intellectual in the sciences and reasoning realm.
  9. “quando autem factus vir” in the Vulgate it is “quando factus sum vir”
  10. Aquinas mixes up the verse a bit here compared to the Vulgate. Apart from this he is referring to a new Jerusalem where even a child should live over a 100 before death.
  11. The Vulgate English reads, “And if I distribute all my goods to feed the poor”
  12. ut infra c. xiv t. whatever the t means here I do not know
  13. I Cor. 12:31. “promisi me demonstraturum excellentiorem viam” as opposed to the Vulgate, “adhuc excellentiorem viam vobis demonstro”
  14. Aquinas is doing a play on words here, member relating to the body of Christ and member as it relates to the Angels physical body
  15. custodiunt and requirunt are both in the present tense while the Vulgate has them custodient and requirent in the future act.
  16. praesentialiter. This is a difficult word to understand here in the context. Aquinas’ use of this word elsewhere has presented difficulty with other translators. see
  17. figurali: I don’t have a dictionary entry for this but I think it is an ablative sg. adj. I am guessing from inference it means figurative.
  18. Patria: I think it is referring to one’s eternal home but am not sure
  19. This is not the same as the Acts 2:4 as we have it at all
  20. unitas consummata

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