Aquinas on Tongues: I Corinthians 14:13-17

A translation of Thomas Aquinas on I Corinthians 14:13-17 from the Latin into contemporary English.

Translated from the Latin text: Reportationes 088 R1C cp 14 Pg. 388 lc3

I Corinthians 14: 13 – 17

1C3. The Apostle above demonstrated the excellency of the gift of prophecy over the the gift of tongues by having taken up the rationale by reason of exhortation’s function. In fact he showed the same thing by reason of the function of prayer. For we perform these two things by means of a language, namely prayer and exhortation.1

In regards to this, he does two things: For the first, he proves by reasonable grounds the excellency of prophecy over the gift of tongues. Secondly, by examples. In which place it says, “I give thanks to my God, etc.,” [v18] he does two things in respect to this. First he points out the necessity of prayer. Secondly, in regards to prayer, he demonstrates how more valuable the gift of prophecy is over the the gift of tongues. “For if I am about to pray in a tongue, etc.” [v14] He therefore spoke regarding the first:2 I said that the gift of tongues without the gift of prophecy has no value. “and therefore [he who speaks in a tongue]” [v13] since the process of interpreting is an act of prophecy which is more excellent than that [of the gift of tongues]. The one who speaks in a tongue, whether unknown or foreign, or some hidden mystery, “let him pray,” namely to God, “that he may interpret,” [v13] 3 that is, let thanks be given to the one who is about to interpret himself “praying that God would open the door,” (Colossians 4:3).

A gloss differently explains, “Let him pray. For it said to pray in two ways, namely either to plea or to persuade God,”4 as if he is saying, “the one who speaks in a tongue, let him pray” [v13] that is, so that he may persuade, “that he may interpret,” [v13] and so this gloss takes [to mean] prayer through this whole chapter. But this is not the apostle’s intention, but in fact [it is] for a plea to God. “For if I am about to pray, etc.,” [v14] this shows prophecy has more value than the gift of tongues with the one who is about to pray, and this is shown in two ways. First, the reason is taken up from the perspective of the one who is praying. Secondly from the perspective of the one hearing. In which place it says, “else, if you were to bless, etc.” [v16] in respect to the first, he does two things: with the first he is setting the rationale for putting forward [a position]. Secondly he removes an objection, in which place it says, “what is it then, etc.,” [v15] In reference to the first, one ought to understand that prayer is twofold. One is private, when anyone in fact prays within himself or for himself. The other [is] public when anyone prays before the people and for others and whichever way it happens to be used, both the gift of tongues and the gift of prophecy. He therefore wishes to show that in whichever method [there is] more value in the gift of prophecy than in the gift of tongues. In the first case with regard to private prayer, the speaker, if someone should be uneducated, who does his own prayer, says a Psalm, or Our Father and does not understand that which is saying, such a thing is praying in a tongue. It does not make any difference whether he should pray in words having been granted him by the holy Spirit or someone else’s words. And if there should be another who prays and understands what he is saying, this one prays and prophecies.

It is evident that it is more profitable for the one who prays and understands than one who only prays in a tongue, who in fact does not understand what he is saying. For the one who does understand, he is being reinvigorated also in regards to both the intellect and to affection. On the other hand, the mind of him who does not understand is without the fruit of reinvigoration. Since from this instance it is better one should be refreshed in regards to [both] the affections and intellect than in regards to affection alone. It is evident that in prayer the gift of prophecy [has] more value than the gift of tongues alone. And this is what he said: I say that “Let him pray, that he would interpret, for I am to pray in a tongue,” [v13-14] that is if I use the gift of tongues which results in the act of prayer so that I mention in some way something I do not understand, then, “my spirit,” [v14] that is, the holy Spirit having been given to me, “prays,” [v14] who inclines and moves my for the purpose of prayer. And whatsoever I gain in the prayer itself, because this specific thing, which I am being moved by the holy Spirit, is the reward for me. “For what we should pray, as necessity dictates, we do not know, but the holy Spirit himself makes us to ask.” (Romans 8:26)5 Or, “my spirit,” [v14] that is my reasoning, “prays,” [v14] that is it composes for me what I am to say those things which are for the purpose of good, whether special words or of other holy ones. Or “my spirit,” [v14] that is the power of seeing with the mind’s eye. “prays,” [v14] inasmuch they are the voices or likeness of bodies wholly constructed in the mind without being conceptualized by the intellect. He therefore supplies: “my mind,” [v14] that is my intellect, “is fruitless,” [v14] because it does not comprehend. Therefore [again] prophecy or interpretation is better in prayer than the gift of tongues. But is it possible at some time, or that whoever prays, and does not understand what he is praying, is to be without the fruitfulness of prayers? It is to be concluded that the fruitfulness of prayer is twofold. One fruit is the reward that aids the person, the other fruit is spiritual encouragement and devotion having been conceived by prayer. And one is being deprived in regards to the fruit of spiritual devotion who does not listen for that which he prays or does not understand. But on the other hand in reference to the rewarding fruit, it is bound to be said that one is deprived, because there exists many prayers without a reward, since a person has the ability to speak with difficulty one Our Father, without the mind potentially being brought to another subject. And therefore it ought to be said that when one who is praying diverts by these [words] which he says, or when someone in one rewarding deed does not continuously think in whatever pleasing act, because he does this on account of God, it does not discount the reckoning of a reward. The reason of which is [this]: because in all the meritorious deeds, which are ordained for the right end, it is not required that the intention of the one who is performing be connected with the end according to whatever deed.

But on the other hand the first thrust, which motivates the intention, continues to work in completion. Furthermore, if someone is distracted in some particular [thing] and this first thrust does the whole work of merit, unless it is being interrupted by a contrary affection which is diverting from the initial end to a contrary end. But it ought to be known that attentiveness is threefold. One is by the words which a man says and this is sometimes harmful inasmuch it impedes devotion. Another is to the sense of the words, and this is harmful, but not as much harm. Third is to the end and this is better and pretty much necessary. This is nevertheless what the Apostle means:“the mind is without fruit,” [v14] it is understood regarding the fruit of refreshment.

[Verse 15] “What is it then? etc.,”6 because someone could say: on account of whoever prays in a tongue is without the fruit of the mind, but nevertheless the spirit prays, surely is not one then obligated to pray in the spirit? For this reason the apostle removes this [thought] saying that one ought to pray in both ways as with the spirit and the mind because a person ought to serve God concerning everything which he has from God. But he has the spirit and the mind from God and therefore he ought to pray according to both.“With his whole heart he praised the Lord, etc.,”7 (Ecclesiasticus 47:10) and for that reason he says, “I will pray with the spirit, I will pray also with the mind, I will sing with the spirit, etc.,” and so he says I will pray and sing because prayer whether it is for the purpose of averting8 God [from doing something], like he says, “I will pray,” or for the purpose of praise, like he says, “I will sing”. Concerning these two “Is any of you sad? Let him pray: Is he cheerful in mind? Let him sing,”9 (James 5:13), “Let us praise the Lord, etc.,” (Psalm 9:12)10 “I will pray with the spirit,” that is seeing with the mind’s eye, “and with the mind” that is with meaning.

[Verse 16] “Else, if you will bless, etc.,” here he shows the following that the gift of prophecy is more valuable than the gift of tongues. Furthermore, in public prayer which is when the priest publicly prays, where sometimes he says things that he does not understand, sometimes to some extent which he does understand. And in reference to this he does three things. He first posits a rationale. Secondly, he explains it. In which it says, “How is he to say, etc.,”11 and thirdly he proves what he presupposed. In which place it says, “because what [you are saying he does not know] etc.,” he therefore says, I said that the gift of prophecy in private prayer has more value. “Else,” but on behalf of, and in public because “if you shall bless,” that is you were to give a benediction, “with the spirit,” that is in a language which is not to be understood, or with the power of mindful observation and having been moved by the holy Spirit.
“Who is to complete the matter for the uneducated?”12 Particularly with the uneducated, it is being asserted that this person only knows the language in which he was born. As if it were to say: “who is to speak that what he ought to speak in the place for the uneducated? so that he [the uneducated] is to say, “amen,” and therefore it says, “how should he say amen to your blessing?”13 Whereby a gloss explains, it is: “how can he share in the blessing having been made by you in the name of the Church?”“In which he that is blessed upon the earth, shall be blessed in God, amen:”14 (Isaiah 65:16). Amen is the same as let it be done, or it is so15 as if it should be said, “If he does not understand what you are saying, how will he adhere himself to the things which have been said by you? Certainly he has the personal ability to adhere, yet if he does not understand, but only in a general and not in a special [way], because he cannot understand anything of the value that you are speaking except that you are probably merely giving a blessing. But why do they [the priests] not give the blessing in the common [tongue], that they may be understood by the people and adhere themselves more to them? It has been said that this had been done16 in the early church, but afterwards, the faithful ones were taught and knew what they heard in the common office, the benedictions take place in Latin.

[verse 17] Consequently he demonstrates why [the uneducated] cannot say “amen,” when it says, “for you certainly,” that is “could well enough give thanks,”17. Inasmuch he does not understand [it] in a specific way, although he probably understands in general and is built up, like this: “Let no evil speech proceed from your mouth: but that which is good, to the edification of faith,” (Ephesians 4:29), and for that reason it is better that he [the priest] should not only bless in a tongue, that he must interpret and explain, granted that you who give thanks, are to do it well.■

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

For more information:

  1. exhortationem: in Evangelical circles this old word is still understood, but in contemporary society it is now considered archaic. There is no modern equivalent found so far, so it is left as is.
  2. dixit: this is in a perfect tense and I use this as the marker on how to translate the rest of the paragraph where some verbs can be translated as either present or perfect.
  3. Douay-Rheims
  4. Aquinas means by plea here is a prayer to avoid or take away something negative such as sickness, poverty, harm etc. The prayer to persuade is to ask for something beneficial.
  5. The Aquinas text reads, “nam quid oremus, sicut oportet, nescimus, sed ipse spiritus sanctus postulare nos facit.” whereas the Vulgate reads, “nam quid oremus sicut oportet nescimus sed ipse Spiritus postulat pro nobis gemitibus inenarrabilibus.”
  6. Douay-Rheims
  7. Douay-Rheims
  8. ie: praying that something physically or circumstantially may not become a reality
  9. Douay-Rheims
  10. The Vulgate reads “cantate Domino” whereas the Aquinas text has “psallite domino”
  11. Aquinas has “quomodo dicit” while the Vulgate has “quomodo dicet”
  12. Aquinas has “quis supplet locum idiotae” while the Vulgate has “qui supplet locum idiotae”. My translation varies considerably from the Douay-Rheims “how shall he that holdeth the place of the unlearned” I am translating Aquinas here on how he understood the text to mean, and this changes the translation.
  13. The actual “Reportationes” manuscript I am working from does not have the “amen” in the actual copy, “quomodo dicet super tuam benedictionem?” I think this is a copyist error at some point and am sure it belongs there.
  14. Douay-Rheims
  15. This is lifted directly from Larcher’s translation.
  16. “hoc forte fuit” – why he used this construct instead of the subjunctive, I don’t know why.
  17. Aquinas text has this piece in the subjunctive “tu gratias agas bene deo” while the Vulgate uses the simple present. It can arguably change the nuance of the text, and I have chosen to follow the mood that the subjunctive suggests.

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