Aquinas on Tongues: I Corinthians 14:1-4

Aquinas’ Lecture on I Corinthians 14:1 – 4 translated into English.

Translated from the Latin text: Reportationes 088 R1C cp 14 Pg. 387 lc1

I Corinthians 14: 1 – 4

IC1. The excellency of charity of which has been posited against another gift. This Apostle consequently compares a different gift to another one, showing the excellency of prophecy to the gift of tongues. In regards to this, he does two things. First, he relates the excellence of prophecy to the gift of tongues. Secondly, as to how one should go about to use the gift of tongues and of prophecy.

As it says, “what is it then, brothers” etc. With respect to the first he does two things, first he shows that the gift of prophecy is more distinguished than the gift of tongues, with the reasoning supposed in the direction of the unbeliever, the second in the direction of the believer. Thereupon, “My brothers etc.” The first portion is being divided into two, he first demonstrates that the gift of prophecy is more distinguished from the gift of tongues, in reference to their use in the exhortation and proclamation, with the second in reference to the use of tongues which ought to be utilized in prayer, for there are two uses of the tongue.

As it says, “Therefore he prays etc.” With respect to the first, he does two things, namely he sets out the first, through which he connects it to the following, and this is what he says, it was written that charity excels over all the gifts, if it is so, “follow after” as one may call it with strength, “charity”, that the bond is pleasant and sweet.1 “Before all things charity etc.” (I Peter 4:8) (“Above all these things have charity,” Colossians 3:14).2

Secondly he outlines the above idea through which he continues to follow, and this is what he says “be passionate, etc.”,3 although charity is to be the greatest among all the gifts still the others are not supposed to be held in contempt but “be passionate” that is you should fervently love the spiritual gifts of the Holy Spirit.“Who is it that would hurt you etc.” (I Peter 3:13), clearly then passionateness could be taken up sometimes to fervent goodwill, sometimes to hatred, nevertheless, it is not equivocation. Indeed it proceeds one from the other. For he describes the fervent love of something that is to be zealous and passionate. As well it happens that this love thing is so to be fervently singled out by someone that he does not share [it], but he wants it alone and singularly for himself. And this zeal, which, according to some, is intense love, is not an allowing fellowship in love. Yet this happens in the spiritual4 [zeal and passion] most perfectly can be shared by many people, however only in those which cannot be shared by the many. Hence this kind of zeal that does not allow participation in love is not with charity, but only in the physical things. It generates in some people that if someone else possesses that which he has a zeal for, he would be sad. Hurtful desire is aroused from this, which is envy, just as if I love worth or riches, I am sad that another possesses these things, whence again I envy him. And so it is well-known that envy grows from zeal. Therefore, when it is being said, “be passionate for the spiritual [gifts]” is not to be understood as envy, because the spiritual [gifts] are able to be had by the many, but it says,“be passionate,” that it should lead in towards God who ought to be fervently loved.

And because among the spiritual [gifts] is a kind of rank, for this reason, prophecy exceeds the gift of tongues. For that reason, he says, “but rather you should prophecy.” As if he was to say, “among the spiritual [gifts] be passionate for the gift of prophecy.” “Do not quench the spirit, refuse to scorn prophecy,” (I Thess. 5:19). Three things must be noted of the entire chapter for explanation. Namely, what is the nature of prophecy. In how many ways is prophecy being mentioned in the holy Scripture, and what is it to speak in tongues.

Regarding the first, it ought to be understood what prophecy is said to be, as if seeing from a distance. According to some, it is said to be a for faris5 but it is better to be defined from pharos6 which is to see. Hence it is being read in I Samuel 9:9 that “what is now being called a prophet was formerly called a seer.” Hence, the sight of those things which are far off whether they would be future events or beyond our reason, it is called prophecy.

Prophecy is, therefore, a vision or manifestation of future events or of exceeding the human intellect. Moreover, for this kind of vision, four [things] are to be required. While our knowledge is through the physical body and perceptions of things outside the physical from what is learned from the senses.

First, to be examined is that to be forming the physical representations of things that are being shown by a mental picture. For Dionysius7 says that it is impossible in any other way for the divine ray to shine in us unless having been enveloped by the variety of sacred coverings.8

The second thing to be examined is an intellectual light. They are being shown and are about to become aware of those things that [are] above our natural knowledge. The person, to whom these such kinds of likenesses are being shown, is not being called a prophet but rather a dreamer, such as Pharaoh, who although he saw ears of grain9 and cows, which were indicative about certain things of the future which nevertheless he did not understand, in fact [it was] Joseph who interpreted. It is also similar with Nebuchadnezzar who saw an image, and he did not understand, subsequently he is not called a prophet, but Daniel, for this reason, it is said, “for there is need in understanding a vision” (Daniel 10:1).

The third thing that is being examined is the courage for making known that which is being revealed. God reveals to him so that it be announced to others. “Behold I have put my words in the mouth” (Jer 1:9).

The fourth is the work of miracles, which is for the verification of the prophet. For unless they do something that exceeds the work of nature, then he would not be credible in those very things which transcend natural knowledge. Following these ways of prophecy, some are being named in the different nuances of a prophet. Sometimes, in fact, some are being called a prophet who has all four referred to, namely when he sees a pictorial vision and has understanding concerning these things and boldly proclaims to others and miracles are being displayed, and concerning this it is being said, “if there be among you a prophet, etc.,” (Numbers 12:6). For sometimes a prophet is being defined [as] he who only has pictorial visions, is still sometimes called a prophet, but nevertheless improper and very remote, he who has the discerning light for the purpose of explaining even pictorial visions whether to himself or what has happened to another or for explaining the sayings of prophets or the writings of the apostles.

And thus a prophet is called anyone who discerns the writings of the doctors. This designation is because they had been interpreted in the same spirit which they had been edited. And so they can say David and Solomon to be called prophets, inasmuch they possess the understanding light for clarity and exactly have the ability to figure it all out. David’s vision was only understanding. Someone is even called a prophet only from that which he proclaims the words of the prophets. Whether explaining, or singing in the Church, and this [was] the way (I Sam 19:24) that Saul was among the prophets, that is, among the ones singing the words of the prophets. Some people likewise are to be called a prophet because of the working of miracles. The following text (Ecclesiasticus 48:14) that “after having died, Elijah’s body prophesied,” that is, did a miracle. What this Apostle then says throughout the whole chapter, it must be understood from the second way. Namely, that one is being said to prophesy, who, through the light of divine understanding explains his own visions and others who made them. According to this, it will be made plain, what is being said here about prophecy. In regard to the second it has been known that because there were few in the primitive Church to whom was intent to preach the faith of Christ throughout the world. For that reason the Lord, in order that they were to be able to most suitably and better than ever announce the word of God, He gave them the gift of tongues. By whom they were to proclaim to everyone. Not these persons speaking in one language while they were being understood by everyone, as some are saying. But according to the Epistle that, on the contrary, they were speaking all in the diverse languages of the nations. From which place the Apostle says, “I give thanks to God that I speak more than you all.” And it is being said, “they were speaking in various languages, etc.” (Acts 2:4) and many more had obtained this gift from God in the early Church, but in Corinth because they were curious. They more cheerfully wanted this gift than the gift of prophecy. Because it is now being said here to speak in a tongue, the Apostle means10 in an unknown language, and not having these things explained,11 as if he was to speak in the German tongue to some Gallic [person] and the result that it is not explained, this is speaking in a tongue. From whence all speech having not been understood nor explained, no matter what it is, is specifically speaking in a tongue.

Concerning this which has been viewed, let us draw near then to the exposition of the Epistle, which is clear. He then does two things about this. First, he demonstrates that the gift of prophecy is more excellent than the gift of tongues. Secondly he excludes a certain objection, where it says, “and I wish you [all to speak in tongues] etc.” moreover he proves with two reckonings that the gift of prophecy exceeds the gift of tongues, the first of which let us begin by the relationship of God to the Church, and secondly by the relationship by man to the Church. The first reason is of such: that through which man does things, which they are not only to honor God but also for the betterment to the neighbors’ welfare than that which is only done to honor God. But prophecy is not only to honor God but yet also for the betterment of the neighbors. However, that which is done by the gift of tongues is only to the honor of God. But he sets the middle of this reckoning. About the first, he says that whoever speaks in a tongue, subsequently only honors God. This is what he says about this, “whoever speaks in a tongue,” meaning unknown, “is not speaking to man,” that is to human understanding, “but to God,” that is only to the honour of God or “to God,” because God Himself alone understands. “the ear of a jealous God hears all things, etc.”12 (Wisdom 1:10) and that He does not speak to man, he adds, “for no one hears,” that is, he understands. As it is often being heard, that to not hear [is] the same as not understanding. “he that has ears with the ability to hear, let him hear” (Matthew 13:9). Why would he be speaking then to God only? He adds that God Himself is speaking. From which place he says, “for the spirit of God speaks mysteries,”13 that is things which have been hidden. “For it is not you who speaks, etc., (Matthew 10:20) “No one knows that they are of the Spirit of God, etc.”14

Secondly, he proves what he says that prophecy is for the honor of God and the benefit of neighbors. Whereby he says, “he who prophecies, etc.” that is he explains visions or Scriptures. “he is speaking to men,” that is, for the understanding of men, also this [reason] “for the building up of beginners,” and “the encouragement of those who are more mature;” “comfort the timid;”15 (I Thessalonians 5:14) “to speak and to exhort,” (Titus 2:15) and also for the consolation of the forsaken. Actually the building up relates to a spiritual inclination because one originally begins the spiritual building there. “in whom you are also being built, etc.” (Ephesians 2:22), Moreover the act of encouragement [is] to lead to good acts because if the inclination is good, then the act is good. “speak and exhort these things,” (Titus 2:15).

Certainly consolation leads to tolerance of evil. (Romans 15:4) Whatsoever things have been written, have been written for our learning. For the ones who are preaching introduce the Scripture to these three things. Secondly, the reason is such: that what is useful only to the doer is less than that which is indeed beneficial to another. To take this further, the one who is speaking in tongues is useful only to him who is speaking. However, the one who prophesies benefits another, [igitur, etc.]16 He sets the commonality of this reason and firstly in reference to the first part of the middle, and this is what he says, “he who speaks in a tongue, himself [edifies], etc.” “My heart grew hot within me, etc.” (Psalms 38:4). Secondly, about the second part, and this is what he says, “for he who prophesies, the Church. . .” that is the faithful, “. . .are edified.” that is to be built up. “having been built upon the foundation of the Apostles and the prophets” (Ephesians 2:20).■

Note: unless noted otherwise, Bible citations are from the Douay-Rheims Bible. An English translation based on the Latin Vulgate.

For more information:

  1. taken from Augustine Sermo 350; PL 39, 1534
  2. Aquinas “super omnia autem charitatem” and Vulgate “super omnia autem haec caritatem” no habete in the Vulgage. A printing error in the Vulgate?
  3. I Corinthians 14:1
  4. Larcher has it in the negative, “yet this occurs not in spiritual things.” He is probably right here, but the negative “non” does not exist in my Latin copy. He may be working from a better one, but I can’t follow his lead here because I can find no substantiation.
  5. I can’t find a proper translation for this. Aquinas is referring to an ancient understanding, or artifact of speech about prophecy that was from a much earlier period whose definition no longer existed in his time. Larcher translated it as, “according to some it is named after speaking afar,” but I don’t think this is correct.
  6. I thought this was from the Greek, but have found no such root so far. The Latin dictionaries do not correlate with Aquinas’ definition either.
  7. Pseudo-Dionysius
  8. It appears a colloquialism here that I don’t understand.
  9. Larcher translated, “ears of corn” but corn did not exist in Egypt at the time nor does it follow the actual Latin.
  10. vult apostolus intelligi lingua ignota. I agree with Larcher here that vult…intelligi should not be taken literally but should be translated as “mean.” Similar to the French “Je veux dire.”
  11. Larcher has this word “explained” translated as “interpreted.” I can see his point here in doing so, though I don’t know if this is fair to do in this context. Aquinas previously broke prophecy into two parts, seeing a vision and understanding or explaining a vision. Here he sets for the miracle of tongues in two parts, the speaking and the explaining of the language. By using “interpreter” it takes away this nuance.
  12. “auris zeli dei audit omnia” as apposed to the Vulgate, “auris zeli audit omnia”
  13. “spiritus autem dei loquitur mysteria” the Vulgate reads “Spiritu autem loquitur mysteria.”
  14. I Corinthians 2:11 according to Larcher.
  15. “pusillanimes” according to Aquinas. The Vulgate has “pusillianimes”
  16. The Aquinas copy seems to be missing some text here, and it is hard to determine what verse Aquinas is alluding to here. Therefore, it is omitted from the English translation.

2 thoughts on “Aquinas on Tongues: I Corinthians 14:1-4”

  1. Mr. Charles this website is truly a treasure, and I have been delving into it for the past couple of days reading the articles with a lot of pleasure. I hope you could clarify this doubt for me… 1 corinthians 14: 2 says the following- For he that speaketh in a tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God: for no man heareth. Yet by the Spirit he speaketh mysteries.
    The words ‘speaketh not unto men, but unto God, for no man heareth’ seems to imply a supporting statement for today prayer blabbering- because no one understands what is said and is taken for granted as the language from heaven.
    Is there any direct refutation of this argument to state that this is not what Saint Paul intended or meant when he wrote thus. It will be helpful if there are some citations of some authoritative sources if possible
    Thank you!

    • A whole series has been devoted to Paul’s coverage of tongues in I Corinthians at the Gift of Tongues Project. Here is a link to the intro. The series dwells on the Jewish rite of speakers and interpreters, how this tradition specifically fit in with Hellenic Judaism, and impact on Corinth. If the tongues of Corinth is understood from Jewish underpinnings, then ‘speaketh not unto men, but unto God, for no man heareth,’ relates to the instructor traditionally speaking in Hebrew. Public instruction in Hebrew with a translation into the local vernacular was a common rite of the Jewish faith. However, the people of Corinth were not fluent with Hebrew. The way around this was either the speaker or a third-party to provide the translation in the local vernacular afterwards. If the instructor did not know the target language, or an interpreter was not available, and the speaker continued in Hebrew, he was speaking a language that that only him and God could understand; the audience only hearing strings of different, unintelligible sounds. Paul felt that if either the instructor did not know the target language or no translator was available, it was best for the traditional Jewish teacher to remain quiet.


Leave a Comment