Aquinas on Tongues: I Corinthians 14:18-22

A translation of Thomas Aquinas on I Corinthians 14:18 — 22 from the Latin into contemporary English.

Translated from the Latin text: Reportationes 088 R1C cp 14 Pg. 389 lc4

I Corinthians 14: 18 – 22

Ic4. This apostle shows the excellency of the gift of prophecy over the gift of tongues by the reasons which had been established on his own part. And concerning this he does two things: first he brings thanks concerning the gift of tongues which had been given to him by God. Secondly, he proposes himself as an example for them. Where it says, “But in the Church I wish, etc.” He goes on to say, “I give thanks, etc.,” as if he was to say, “Therefore I do not despise the gift of tongues, because I say that the gift of prophecy is more excellent but [tongues] ought to be retaining a high value as well.” From which it says, “I give thanks, etc.” Therefore it is about the one who is in the act of giving thanks. “In all things give thanks,” (I Thessalonians 5:18) or “I give thanks,” as if he is trying to say, “Therefore I do not despise the gift of tongues, as if one who is lacking in it, but on the contrary I have it.” And therefore he says, “I give thanks, etc.,” and not that they were to understand that all were speaking in one language. He says, “I speak with all your tongues,” “The Apostles were speaking in a variety of languages,”1 (Acts 2:4).

“But in the Church,” he sets himself here as an example, as if he is saying: “if I have the gift of tongues as you also [have], you ought to do that which I do.” “But I wish,” that is rather, I wish, “to speak in the Church five,” that is only a few words, “words with my sense,” that is with understanding. Namely, that I should understand and be understood. And because of this, “that I may instruct others also: than ten thousand,” that it is in whatever great a number, “words in a tongue.” Seeing that [this type of] speaking is not for understanding in whatever way it is going to be done, as explained above. They are saying something with respect to the reason he says, “five,” because the apostle seems to prefer that he would rather wish to say one prayer for the purpose of understanding than many without understanding. But prayer, according to the grammarians, in order for this having to make perfect sense, it must have five [things], namely the subject, predicate, copula verb, the determination of subject and predicate.2 To others it appears better for that reason because it ought to be spoken with understanding, in order that others may be taught. Therefore he asserts, “five,” because the teacher owes five, namely:

  • The nature of belief, “These things speak and exhort,”3 (Titus 2:15).
  • What one is compelled to do: “go ye into the world, etc.”
  • What one is compelled to avoid, namely sins. “flee as if from the face of a snake, etc.,” (Ecclesiasticus 21:2), “show my people wickedness, etc.,” (Isaiah 58:1).
  • One must be about hope, namely the eternal reward. “of which salvation they have inquired, etc.,” (I Peter 1:10).
  • One must be about fear, namely the eternal punishments, “go, those who must speak evil, into the eternal fire, etc.,”4

“My brothers, do not be unwilling, etc.” He shows here the excellency of the gift of prophecy over the gift of tongues, the reason having been established by the part of the unbelievers. He does two things in reference to this. First, he raises attention and answers those who have been attentive. Secondly he argues his proposition, where it says, “what is written in the Law?”5According to the first the apostle seems to exclude the cloak6 of excuse belonging to anyone who for that reason teaches rude and superficial things as if they show themselves as one’s preferring to live in simplicity,and for that reason the ones who do not care about the details do not arrive at anything that relates to the matter of truth. These ones possess the word of the Lord for this, “unless you be converted, and become as little children, etc.” (Matthew 18:3).

But the Apostle excludes this when he says, “do not become children in sense,” –that is do not become that type who speaks and teaches childish, useless, and stupid things. See the previous (remark in I Corinthians 13:11), “when I was a child, etc.” But what must you do to become children? With affection, not with understanding. So he consequently says, “but in malice,” whereby it ought to be known that children lack in actively thinking about evil and thus for that reason we ought to become children. “but in malice be children,” and they are lacking in actively thinking about good, and so we ought not to be children, on the contrary, we ought to be perfect men. And so for that reason he says, “and in sense be perfect, etc.,” that is you were to be perfect to discern [between] good and evil. From which it says, “But strong meat is for the perfect, etc.” (Hebrews 5:14) Therefore it is not to be praised in your simplicity which is being opposed to wisdom, but simplicity which is being opposed to cunning. And for that reason the Lord says, “be wise as serpents,” (Matthew 10:16). “But I would have you to be wise in good and simple in evil,” (Romans 16:19).

Consequently, when he says, what is written in the Law?” he is arguing for a purpose. Whereby it ought to be noted this argument, as is well known by a gloss, it was being distinguished by many parts, but according to the intention of the apostle it did not seem that it was to be applied in this topic except for one reason. And his reason is for the purpose of showing that the gift of prophecy is more excellent than the gift of tongues. It is such as this–all that is more valuable to this over the other is ordained first and better than that other which has been ordained for this. But nevertheless, the gift of prophecy is ordained for the conversion of the unbeliever than the gift of tongues, yet the prophets are more valuable for this than the gift of tongues, therefore prophecy is better.7

In respect to this reasoning he does two things: With the first he shows the gift of tongues and the gift of prophecy to what they are ordained for. Secondly he shows that the gift of prophecy is more valuable when it says, “if then the whole [Church], etc.,” in respect to the first he does two things. With the first he introduces authority.

With the second he argues by reason of authority at the proposition where it says, “wherefore tongues, etc.” In reference to the first it ought to be known that this is what he says, “what is written in the Law?”

It can be by the Law or by inquiry, as if he should say, “you ought not become children in senses but to be one who has become righteous,8 and this is to see and know the Law. From which place you are to be ones who have become righteous in senses, based on the fact that you know the Law, and in the Law, what is written about tongues? Some [tongues] are useless anytime for that to which they have been ordained, but clearly if I should speak in diverse tongues, specifically in the [tongue of the] people of the Jews, nevertheless man does not hear, etc.

It can be by the remissive Law,9 “what is written in the Law?” as if he is saying: “refuse to be moved like children for something which is to be eagerly desired who do not discern either the good or the not so good. It should be that you eagerly strive and consequently should prefer the better good but be as ones who have become perfect in the senses, that is you should be able to discern between the good and the greater good and eagerly strive in such a way.

And this happens, if you think what is written in the Law, “seeing that in other [tongues and other lips], etc.,” [along with the verse] (Wisdom 6:16), “To think, therefore, upon her, is perfect understanding.”10 And he says, “in the Law?” one must not accept the Law strictly as the five Books of Moses only, as it states, “that all things must needs be fulfilled which are written in the law of Moses, etc.,” (Luke 24:44) but for the whole Old Testament, as it states, “but that the word may be fulfilled which is written in their law: they hated me without cause.” (John 15:25). This is written yet in Psalms 24:19.11

This authority is received from Isaiah 28:11 where our account has, “In the utterance of speech and in other languages he will speak to this particular people.” This then is written [in I Corinthians 14:21]: “In such other languages,” that is in the diverse kinds languages, and “in speech,” that is in the diverse idioms and ways [a language] is able to be pronounced, “I will speak to this people,” namely to the Jew, this was a sign specifically given for the conversion of the Jewish people. “and neither so will they hear,”12 because in fact they did not believe in the sign which had been seen. “Blind the heart of this people, etc.” (Isaiah 6:10).

But why did God give them a sign if they were not destined to be converted? There are two reasons. One reason is because although not all were converted, nevertheless some were. “For the Lord did not cast away His people, etc.”13 Another reason is for the purpose that their damnation to appear more just, until their wickedness appears more clearly. “If I had not come and spoken to them, [they would not have sin: but now they have no excuse for their sin.] etc.”14 (John 15:22).

Consequently when he says, “therefore tongues, etc.” He proves with reason for the proposition by the authority which had been introduced as if he is to say, “by this it is clearly shown that the gift of tongues had been given. “Not for believers for the purpose of believing, because they already believe.”15 “Not according to your speech, [that we believe] etc.,” (John 4:42)16 but for the unbelievers, that they be converted.

On the other hand two explanations are set by Ambrose in this place in a gloss, which are not literal ones.17 One of which is that which he may be saying, like in the Old Testament I spoke to the Jewish people through tongues, that is through figures of speech, and through the lips, that is temporal good things18 to [the Jews] whom the promise is going to be acted on, so, until now in the New Testament, I speak also “in other lips”, that is in spiritual things, nor yet will they heed me in such a way, namely in reference to their multitude.19

Therefore tongues have been given “not for believers but unbelievers” for the purpose of making specifically evident their unbelief.

The other [the second reason given by the gloss] is “in other tongues”, that is obscure and allegorical, “I speak” because they are unworthy. “They will not heed [me says the Lord]”, that is they will not understand. As a result he shows for what purpose prophecy is ordained to be, namely for the instruction of the faithful ones who already believe. “Prophecies which have been given are…”20 “not for the unfaithful ones, who do not believe.” “Lord, who has believed our report?” (Isaiah 53:1) but for the faithful ones, that they believe and may be instructed. “Son of man, I have made you a special envoy, etc.,” (Ezekiel 3:17)21 “When prophecy would have failed, etc., the people will be scattered.”22

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

For more information:

  1. The Aquinas text differs from the Vulgate. The Vulgate reads “et coeperunt loqui aliis linguis” whereas the Aquinas text has, “loquebantur variis linguis apostoli.”
  2. The well known translator of the Aquinas text on I Corinthians, Fabian Larcher has, “But according to the grammarians, if a statement is to have perfect sense, it should have five things: a subject, predicate, verbal copula, a modifier of the subject and a modifier of the predicate.”
  3. Douay-Rheims. The quotation in the Aquinas text refers to 2:11 but it is actually 2:15.
  4. Note how Aquinas has slightly altered the quoted texts of Ecclesiasticus, Isaiah, I Peter, and Matthew 25:41 (not 25:21 as the manuscript wrongly demonstrates) to favour his argument, though he does assume the reader understands what the right reading ought to be.
  5. Aquinas has “in lege quid scriptum est?” whereas the Vulgate reads “in lege scriptum est quoniam. . .” This is the same as found in Luke 10:26.
  6. Lewis’ Dictionary refers to “Pallium” as “the philosopher’s cloak, a philosophic career or habit.”
  7. I found this piece starting from “All that is more valuable. . .” as one of the more difficult portions to translate. Larcher departs from static to dynamic here and actually does not follow the Latin. “Whatever contributes more to that to which another is principally ordained is better than the latter; but the gift of prophecy and the gift of tongues are both ordained to the conversion of unbelievers, although the gift of prophecy contributes more to this than does the gift of tongues. Therefore, prophecy is better.” His translation here is not reliable though much more readable than my own. I think there is come copy missing from the Latin text. I am going to leave it in rough form because I am unsure at this point what to do with it.
  8. The Latin is “perfecti.” Larcher translates it as “mature.” The Lewis and Short Dictionary has a number of definitions, including righteous, which they believe is found ecclesiastical literature. I am going with Lewis and Short.
  9. “potest legi vel interrogative. . . potest etiam legi remissive.” I am not sure what Aquinas is referring to here. It is some sort of religious or philosophical terminology I am not familiar with and can’t find any historical reference to it. It should not be taken literally, but I have no choice because I have no alternative.
  10. Bible translation from Douay-Rheims version
  11. Larcher changes it to Psalms 25:19.
  12. Douay-Rheims
  13. Romans 11:2 in the Aquinas text has “non repellit dominus. . .” instead of “non reppulit Deus. . .” as found in the Vulgate. Paul is quoting Psalms 93:14.
  14. The Aquinas text has, “si non venissem, et locutus eis non fuissem,” while the Vulgate reads, “si non venissem et locutus fuissem eis”
  15. The Aquinas text identifies this as actual Corinthian text, but I can’t find any reference to this in any Bible. A quick search on Google only returns Aquinas’ work on the subject.
  16. The NIV 2008, has a clearer reading, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe.”
  17. They are not to be taken literally.
  18. “temporal good things” “bona temporalia”. . . The Aquinas text here is doing a word play, linking the Jewish people to being like a child who lacks understanding. He just finished using bona (good) as a keyword a few paragraphs above relating to thinking as a child.
  19. Aquinas believed that some Jews will heed and convert, but nationally and ethnically, they would not.
  20. The Aquinas text quotes I Corinthians 14:22 as “prophetiae datae sunt” but this does not exist in our Vulgate.
  21. The Douay Rheims English translation of the Vulgate has it as “Son of man, I have made thee a watchman…” The Latin keyword is speculatorem. Roman generals had speculatores as special bodyguards, adjutants and messengers. In this context Aquinas was promoting the idea that the prophet was a special messenger from God for the Church body.
  22. “cum prophetia defecerit dissipabitur.” No difference in the Latin between Aquinas or the Vulgate. Douay Rheims has it as “When prophecy shall fail, the people shall be scattered.” “Defecerit” is in the perfect subjunctive, and knowing Aquinas keen sense that prophecy is one the major spiritual disciplines, he would mean it to be that this statement is hyperbole–something to think about but never to happen.

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