Aquinas on Tongues: I Corinthians 14:5-12

A translation of Thomas Aquinas on I Corinthians 14:5 — 12 from the Latin into contemporary English.

Translated from the Latin text: Reportationes 088 R1C cp 14 Pg. 388 lc2

I Corinthians 14:5 – 12

1c2. Here the Apostle excludes the objection or false understanding that one can have concerning the things mentioned before. For some were embraced to believe by that reason the Apostle preferred prophecy to the gift of tongues because it was that the gift of tongues ought to be frowned upon.

From which place so that he prevents this, he says, “and I would you,” whereby he first demonstrates that he intends to arrive at something, secondly he assigns a reason here. As it says in that place, “For greater, etc.” he then says, clearly this, that what was written above, I meant that I do not want you to reject the gift of tongues but “I wish everyone to speak in tongues,” nevertheless that, “I wish more that you would prophecy,” “that He is to bestow to all so that all people. . . etc., [might prophecy]” (Numbers 11:29), to which he assigns when he says, “for greater, etc.” as if he should say, therefore I wish that you would prophecy more, because “greater is, etc.” and the reason is of this manner, because sometimes some are being moved by the Holy Spirit to speak something mysterious, that they themselves do not understand. From whence in that place, they have the gift of tongues.

On the other hand, sometimes they not only are speaking in tongues but also those who are speaking, they interpret. Therefore, he also says, “unless perhaps they should interpret.” For the gift of tongues with an interpretation is better than prophecy because as it has been written, the interpretation of whatsoever difficulty relates to prophecy. Therefore, the one who speaks and interprets is a prophet and the one who has the gift of tongues and interprets [does so] in order for the Church to be built up. Consequently he says, “in order for the Church, etc.” that is he should not only understand himself, but also that he should build up the Church. “Let us mutually guard what are the things of edification” (Romans 14:19), and “Let each one of us please his neighbour in goodness for edification” (Romans 15:2).

“Now then brothers, etc.” He demonstrates here the gift of prophecy to be more excellent than the gift of tongues, by example and this in three ways: first by an example having been supplied by himself, secondly by the example having been supplied by a lifeless thing, in which place it says, “Yet there are things without life, etc.” Third by the example having been supplied by men who are speaking in diverse ways, as it says, “So many, etc.”[so many kinds of tongues in this world].1 He thus additionally supports by a personal perspective: he then maintains that I do not have the gift of tongues less than you, but that if I was to speak only in tongues to you and was not interpreting then I would be worthless to you and subsequently neither you to exchange to anyone else. And this is what he says, “Now then brothers, if I will come to you speaking in tongues.” This can be understood in two ways. Namely, whether in unknown tongues or to be literal, by whatever sign which has not been understood.

“What shall I profit you, unless I speak to you either in revelation, [or in knowledge or in prophecy or in doctrine?] etc.,”. Whereby it is bound to be noted with respect to those four things, specifically “whether in revelation, etc.” they have the ability to distinguish two modes. One way belonging to those things by which anything exists, and so ought to have been understood, that the vivid image of the mind for the purpose of acquiring knowledge also [originates] from the four things because whether it is from divine things and this vivid image pertains to the gift of wisdom. For concerning the divine things, as it has been written above, is revelation because “they are things of God that no one knows, etc.” and for that reason he says, “in revelation” (I Corinthians 2:11) which clearly that the mind is to be illumined for the purpose of acquiring knowledge, or its [origin] is from earthly things and not [originating] just from whatever but [originating] only tantum from them, which they are for the building-up of the faith, and this pertains to the gift of knowledge, and therefore he says, “in knowledge,” not geometry, nor astrology, because these do not pertain to the building-up of the faith, but in the knowledge which is relating to holy things. “He gave him the knowledge of the holy things, etc.” (Wisdom 10:10), or it is from future events, and this pertains to the gift of prophecy, for that reason he also says, “or in prophecy,” “she knows signs and wonders before they are to be done also evens of time and ages” (Wisdom 8:8).

For it ought to be noted that prophecy is not to be ordinarily taken here. In fact, following what was written above, but in fact, it is especially received here as the manifestation of future events only. And it is being defined according to this by Cassiodorus, “prophecy is announcing with unchangeable truth the inspiration of matters in the future.” “I will yet pour out teaching as prophecy, etc.” (Ecclesiasticus 24:46), or it is from moral acts and this pertains to teaching. And therefore he says “or in doctrine.” “He who teaches in doctrine,” (Romans 12:7). “Good instruction shall give grace,”2 (Proverbs 13:15). These can be distinguished in a different way with the diverse modes in regards to acquiring understanding and so one ought to know that all knowledge is either from a supernatural source, namely God, or from a natural one, namely from the natural light of our intellect. If then from a supernatural source, namely from the divine light having been poured in, this can be in two ways. Because either the knowledge is suddenly being poured-in and so it is by revelation or being successively poured-in, and so it is by prophecy. For the prophets did not suddenly possess [it], but successively and by parts, which their prophecies have demonstrated. For if knowledge is truly to be acquired by a natural source that is either through personal study, and so it pertains to knowledge, or being related by another person, and so it pertains to teaching. “Even things without life, etc.”

He shows the same thing by examples which have been selected from inanimate things, namely by instruments which seem to have a voice and first by instruments of joy, secondly by instruments of battle. Whereby it says, “For if uncertain etc.” He then says, this is not only to be well known by those which were written above, but again in reference to hose which give voice without life, because to speak in tongues does not profit others by no means alone and “Even things without life that give sound.”

Against this. The voice is a sound which has been brought forth and formed by natural means from the mouth of a living thing. It is not, therefore, these that are without life that give a voice. It is to be said that although the voice by no means exists except of animals, yet it can be said by a certain likeness, in fact accompanying that certain thing, such as [musical] instruments, they have a certain harmony and melody, and therefore he makes mention of these things, specifically concerning the cithara, which gives voice by a sense of touch, and the flute which is by blowing as3 these then give a voice lacking distinction. “How shall it be known, etc.” While man intends to express something by an instrument, say, some songs which are being composed whether about sorrow or joy,“You will have a song as in the voice4 of the sanctified solemnity and joy of heart as one goes with the flute and is to enter the mountain of the Lord” (Isaiah 30:29). Or even to playfulness, if the sound is confusing and indistinct, it will not be able to be determined to what is being played by any sort of flute or cithara.

Therefore, if a man is speaking in tongues and it is not being interpreted, any sort he would wish to say, he will not be able to be understood. “If indeed it gives an uncertain sound, etc.” He shows in this place the same thing by the example of an inanimate object, clearly by instruments having been arranged for battle. This similarity is being taken from the Book of Numbers 10:1-10, where, in fact, it is being read that the Lord instructs Moses that he was to make two silver trumpets which they were for the purpose of bringing the people together, moving the camp, and for battle. Also, anyone of these mentioned possessed a certain way concerning how the trumpet sounds because they were differently giving a sound when they were obligated to come together for a public meeting. Differently when they were moving the camp, and Differently when they were warring. For that reason, the Apostle argues that just as “if the trumpet is to give an uncertain sound,” that is indistinct, it is not known whether they ought to prepare themselves for battle. And so you, if you speak in tongues so much, unless you are to speak a distinct voice by which ought to be understood 5 cannot be understood by the trumpet. (Isaiah 58:1) “lift up your voice like a trumpet, etc.” For the reason why he is not able to know what you are speaking is because, “you will be one of those who are speaking in the air,” I Corinthians 14:9 which is useless. “I fight not as it were one who is beating the air, etc.” (I Corinthians 9:26).

“There are many, etc.” (I Corinthians 14:10) He takes up the example in this place the concerning those speaking diverse languages. He [Paul] does three things about this. First he shows the diversity of language, secondly the uselessness those speaking from themselves to another in foreign languages,6 which it says, “if then I know, etc.” (I Corinthians 14:11). Thirdly he finishes-up what he intended when it says, “So you also, forasmuch as you are zealous, etc.” (I Corinthians 14:12). With the first, he says there are many and diverse languages in the world, and anyone can speak whatever he wishes. Nevertheless, if he is not to speak a designated one,7 it is not going to be understood. And this is what he says, “There are many, etc.” This can be explained in two ways: because it can be connected with that which precedes, for it is being said, “you will be one of those who are speaking in the air, and there are many, for example, etc.” as if he should say, therefore in the air, that is, you are uselessly speaking in all the languages, because you are speaking without understanding which still by this they have [their] very own meanings of voice, that they are capable to be understood, for nothing is without a voice. Or it thus can be punctuated,8 “you will be one of those who are speaking in the air, and there are many, for example, kinds of languages,” that is, with individual languages.

“If then I do not know, etc.” He shows in this place the uselessness of this. And this is what he says, “If I am to speak in all the languages,” but, “If I do not know the power of the voice,” that is, the meaning of the voice. “I will be to whom I am speaking to a barbarian.” “I am about to bring upon you a nation from far-away, a nation to whom you are ignorant of the language”9 (Jeremiah 5:15). Note that barbarians according to some, these are being named of whose idiom is altogether different from Latin. However, others say that any foreigner is a barbarian to every other foreigner when in fact, he is not being understood by him. But this is not true, because, according to Isodore,10 barbarian is a particular nation. “In Christ Jesus there is not a barbarian, Scythian, etc.”11 (Colossians 3:11). But following that it is to be correctly said, barbarians are to be appropriately named to those who thrive by the power of the body, are deficient in the power of reason and as if they are outside the laws and without the rule of justice. And Aristotle seems to agree with this in his Politics.

As a result when he [Paul] says, “So [you also], etc.” (I Corinthians 14:12),12 he finishes what he intended and this can be arranged in two ways. First that it may be punctuated this way, as if he is saying, thus I will be a barbarian to you if I am to speak without meaning and interpretation, just as you will be barbarians to one another. And for that reason, “Seek that you may abound, etc.,” and this “forasmuch you are eager, etc.” or, another way, the entire thing is to be placed under distinction, as if he was to say, therefore you are not to be barbarians, in fact like I do in another way, “forasmuch you are eager of spirits,” that is, of the gifts of the holy Spirit, “seek” from God,13 “that you may abound.” “The greatest strength is in abundant justice” (Proverbs 15:5), which indeed is to build up others in justice. “Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and it will be opened” (Matthew 7:7).■

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

For more information:

  1. Douay-Rheims
  2. Douay-Rheims
  3. The actual copy reads si ergo haec dant vocem sine distinctione. “Si” here does not seem to fit. I think it is a copyist error and should read “sic.”
  4. The Vulgate reads “canticum erit vobis sicut nox” The Aquinas text has “vox” instead of “nox”
  5. “Interpretando” is a gerundive. Larcher has “unless you make your speech clear by interpreting or explaining” which doesn’t capture the nuance of the gerundive well. In Aquinas’ thinking, one can argue that “interpretando” also can mean to understand. Interpreting and understanding are synonyms in his view. or explained, anyone will not be able to know anything you are possibly saying. The proclamation Larcher has here, “By “bugle” can also be understood “preachers.” The key here is to understand the Latin for praedicator. The text is somewhat vague and can lead to different translations, and I think mine is more in keeping with the context.
  6. “in linguis extraneis”
  7. “si tamen on loquatur determinate” Larcher has “but if he does not speak precisely, he is not understood.” “Determinate” as an adverb does not exist so it is up to the translator to capture the nuance here.
  8. “Punctuari” I can’t find a dictionary reference from this here so I am guessing from the modern English usage, backed up by Larcher, plus the Latin verb appears to be infinitive passive. All this combined is my sort-of solution here.
  9. The Vulgate has “adducam super vos gentem de longinquo domus Israhel ait Dominus gentem robustam gentem antiquam gentem cuius ignorabis linguam” whereas the Aquinas text reads, “adducam super te gentem de longinquo, gentem cuius ignoras linguam.”
  11. The Vulgate has, “barbarus et Scytha servus et liber sed omnia et in omnibus Christus.” Aquinas only has “in christo iesu non est barbarus et scytha, etc.” He is assuming the reader knows the full verse when doing this.
  12. The Vulgate begins with “sic et vos” and Aquinas’ text begins with “sicut”
  13. Larcher doesn’t think this is a part of a Bible verse and translates it as regular text. A 1563 version produced by Castrensis agrees with Larcher. However the modern manuscript I am working from does believe it is. The wording here suggests that it is from I Corinthians 14:12. The Vulgate reads “quaerite ut abundetis.”

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