Aquinas on Tongues: I Corinthians 14:23-26

A translation of Thomas Aquinas on I Corinthians 14:23 — 26 from the Latin into contemporary English.

Translated from the Latin text: Reportationes 088 R1C cp 14 Pg. 389ff lc5

I Corinthians 14:23 – 26

A gloss suggests that perhaps in this place a different reason commences for making clear the purpose. But according to what has been written, it is not, except for one reason which has been settled and as it were, he is in the middle of his argument, namely that prophecy is more valuable than that to which the gift of tongues is ordained for. From which place he does two things in respect to this. With the first he demonstrates the divisiveness1 which follows to such an extent to the unbeliever by the gift of tongues. From which place it says, “However if all [speak in tongues].” The falling-out2 which follows from the gift of tongues without prophecy applies as well to the unbeliever. It is because they are being reckoned of an unsound mind who thus speak only in tongues, though the gift of tongues is to be ordained for the conversion of unbelievers, as is already well known.

And this is what he says, “However if all [speak in tongues] etc.,” as if he is saying, “it is well known from this place that tongues are not something that ought to be preferred to prophecy because,” “if [the Church] comes together”, specifically all the believers, “in one”, not only in body but also with the mind, “and the multitude of believers was one heart, etc.,” (Acts 4:32) are to be speaking in tongues, to foreign letters,3 or they are speaking unfamiliar and not recognized things,4 and, as long as they speak in a disorderly way, “someone uneducated enters”5 that is he who does not understand except his own language or the “unbeliever” for the reason which tongues had been given, “will they not say this,” that they are saying as follows, “that you are mad?” In fact whoever is not being understood is being reckoned as mad. For if a language is being understood and nevertheless the things which they are saying are concealed, it is still bad if it they are not to be explained. Because those who remain confident of the heathens who were concealing things which they did in their ritual on account of their own shame, can believe of you if you speak in secret. And this too is something of madness.

A contrary argument. It is the same to speak in tongues and to speak clearly enunciating [the Latin words] 6 to such a degree for the uneducated. Since then everyone is to speak clearly enunciating in the Church, that all is being said in Latin. It appears that it is madness in the same way. One ought to say to this: Madness existed in the early Church on that account because they were unacquainted in the custom of the Church, consequently they were ignorant of what they should do here unless it was to be explained to them. But certainly in the present all have been educated. Although from this point everything is being spoken in Latin, they still know what is taking place in the Church.

Consequently when he says, “On the other hand, if all prophecy,” he shows what usefulness follows from the gift of prophecy, and in regards to this he does three things. First he shows what kind of thing follows through the usefulness of prophecy in reference to the unbeliever. With the second he shows how this is going to follow where it says, “For the secrets, etc.,” [v25]. Third, he adds what kind of effect is to come out of such an experience, where it says, “and so, falling down on his face, etc.,” Then he says it is well known that the unbelievers are not feeling convicted by the gift of tongues.

“if then. . .” but instead; if these who come together, “prophecy,” that is all are to speak for the purpose of being understood, whether they explain the Scriptures or likewise revelations to them that they are interpreting things which have been brought about. 7 I say all not at the same time, but one after another they ought to prophecy in such a way. “and there come in,” specifically [to] the Church, “anyone uneducated,” 8 who does not have [the ability] except a mother tongue, this is good in respect to what follows after, because, “He is being convicted about some error,” 9 which is being shown to him. “after you showed me, I am confused” (Jeremiah 31:19) 10 about everything which they prophecy. “He is judged by all,” as if he [Paul] is saying, the person is being shown the condemnation by his evil habits and sins.

“But the spiritual,” 11 that is a teacher, 12 “judges everything, etc.,” For these two things he values prophecy, namely for the purpose of establishing of faith and the instruction of character. Moreover, how is this good to follow from the gift of prophecy? 13 He supplies it when he says, “the secrets of [his] heart,” that is it can be understood in three ways. One way and this is to be literal, that some in the early Church possessed the grace, they theoretically knew the secrets of the hearts and the sins of man. Whereby it is read of Peter, (Acts 5:1ff) that he condemned Ananias about the falsified value of land. And according to this it is read, “the secrets,” that is his hidden sins, “they are made evident,” by those who show them.

In another way from this, wherein someone sometimes touches on many things in preaching that men carry in the heart, as it is well known in the books of the blessed Gregory, where it says anyone can discover almost every emotion of the heart, as if he is saying that they are being exposed because “the secrets of his heart,” that is those things that they carry in the heart. “As the faces of them that look therein, shine in the water, so the hearts of men are laid open to the wise.” (Proverbs 27:19) They are laid open, that is they are being touched by them. In another way, because other times that this is being said about the secret of the heart that it is an uncertain entity to anyone and cannot be authenticated by him.

And it is being read according to this, “the secrets of his heart,” that is secrets about something in his heart which things he was doubting and not believing, they are laid open, namely when one frequently goes to Church they are made open to him. Likewise, Augustine speaks about himself that he went to the Church only for the singing and yet in that place he was uncertain about many things and in regards to this, things which he did not come for, were laid open to him. In fact reverence was the outcome because having been proven guilty, he was revering God. And it is to this that [Paul] says, “And so the one falling down,” that it is from that then he was proven guilty of and clearly shown the secrets of his heart, “the one falling down on the face will adore God,” “and falling down they adored him,” (Matthew 2:11) in respect to which it is a sign of reverence. On the other hand about the obstinate ones, it is being read that they fall backwards. “The way of the wicked is darksome: they know not where they will fall,” 14 (Proverbs 4:19). The true elect fall down on the face because it shows with whom he is being prostrated for, that it is a sign of reverence, “they praised the Lord, falling on their faces,” (Matthew 2:11 and Leviticus 9:24). “in His presence, the Ethiopians will prostrate,” 15 and not only will he show reverence to God but also to the Church, because, “one who affirms,” ought to say that God is truly, “among you,” which you are prophesying in the Church. “We will go with you: for we have heard that God is with you.” (Zechariah 8:23).

Consequently, it appears that the gift of prophecy is useful in relation to the unbelievers.

“How is it then, brethren?” In this verse here he maps out for them in relation to the use of the gifts of speech. And in regards to this he does two things. With the first he shows in which way they ought to maintain themselves towards the use of these gifts. With the second he constructs the principal intent. Where it says, “Wherefore, brethren, be zealous to prophesy,” etc., In regards to the first he does two things. With the first he shows how in an orderly manner they ought to maintain themselves in the use of the gifts of speech. With the second he expresses their presumption, where it says, “Or did the word [of God come out from you?] etc.” 16 He does three things in regards to the first. With the first he shows how in general they personally are obligated to behave in all the gifts. With the second, how they personally must behave in respect to the gift of tongues. With the third, he shows how they personally must behave in respect to the gift of prophecy. Where it says, “Let two or three prophecy” etc. 17 He therefore says: to prophecy is better than to speak in tongues.

“How is it then, brethren,” should the speech be delivered? For this delivery in fact is to be applied: for instance, “When you come together,” it is obvious that one [person] does not have all the gifts and therefore it is not expected to be utilized in anyone of you all of the gifts, but to each one a gift which he specially receives from God and that it should be much better for the building up [of the Church].

“Every one of you have,” some special gift, “some have a psalm,” 18 that is a song for the purpose of praising God’s name, or explains psalms. “He will lead me upon my high places [singing psalms],” (Habakkuk 3:19).

“Another has,” “a teaching,” that is he possesses public speaking for the purpose of building up character, or for an explanation and spiritual experience. “A man is known by his learning,” 19 (Proverbs 12:18). Another has an apocalypse, that is a revelation, whether in dreams or in a vision by some means. “God is in heaven who reveals mysteries,” (Daniel 2:8).

“Some have a tongue,” that is the gift of tongues, or for the purpose of reading the prophets. 20 “And they began to speak in various tongues, etc.,” (Acts 2:4).“Another interpretation,” (I Corinthians 12:10) “To others interpretation of speech,” etc., But these are being mapped out in such a way because either they are from solely from natural ability or they for the praise of God, and so he says, “has a psalm,” or for the instruction of a neighbour, and likewise says, “has a teaching.” If they are from God alone it follows in two ways: either they are inwardly hidden ones and says as follows, “has an apocalypse,” or externally hidden ones and he says as follows, “has a tongue.” And to the manifestation of these is a third, specifically, “interpretation,” and it must be done, “that all may be edified.” “Let every one of you please his neighbour unto good, to edification.” (Romans 15:2).■

Unless specified otherwise, all English Bible verses are quoted from the Douay-Rheims translation of the Latin Vulgate.

For more information:

  1. inconveniens: typically means, “not suiting, dissimilar” but I think Aquinas is on a word-play here with I Corinthians 14:23 “si ergo conveniat universa ecclesia” He is using inconveniens here as the opposite to conveniat.
  2. inconveniens
  3. The well known translator of Aquinas’ I Corinthians text, Fabian Larcher, has this section as “strange, or speak unknown and obscure things” In the contemporary English Christian tradition this would be a correct rendering, but it is not reflective of the text. My translation follows it more literally. Aquinas is including reading of a foreign text as part of speaking in tongues.
  4. vel loquantur ignota et obscura
  5. “intret aliquis idiota,” The Aquinas text has this all in the singular and the Vulgate has it in the plural. “intrent autem idiotae”
  6. “Although written Latin had remained homogenous, the pronunciation of spoken Latin had come to vary considerably from one part of Europe to another. How was spoken Latin to be unified as part of the movement to promote the cohesion of the Carolingian state? It was decided that Latin pronunciation should be firmly anchored to spelling and that when Latin was read out it should be pronounced litteraliter, ‘sounding every letter’, without accommodating the speaker’s pronunciation of local phonology as had traditionally happened in Romance-speaking regions.” French, from dialect to standard. By R. Anthony Lodge. Pg. 91
  7. interpretentur: the Aquinas text usually reserves this word for actively utilizing the prophetic office.
  8. I am not sure if the Aquinas text is referring to verse 24 or 25 which has the same structure. He does differ with either here by using “idiota aliquis” instead of either the Vulgate’s “intrent autem idiotae” verse 24 or “intret autem quis infidelis vel idiota” verse 25
  9. Aquinas text: “convincitur de aliquo errore” Vulgate: “convincitur ab omnibus”
  10. I am not sure if the Aquinas Biblical reference of Jer. 31:19 parallels the Vulgate, where it starts or ends.
  11. Aquinas text: “spiritualis autem…” as opposed to the Vulgate: “spiritalis autem”
  12. Latin: “doctor”: a Church leader with a strong reputation in theology and a moral lifestyle
  13. There is no question mark in the Latin but I think it should be there. “quomodo autem hoc bonum sequatur ex prophetiae dono”
  14. The Vulgate has the sentence in the subjunctive: “via impiorum tenebrosa nesciunt ubi corruant” while the Aquinas text in the future tense: “via impiorum tenebrosa, nesciunt ubi corruent”
  15. The Vulgate reads, “ante eum procident Aethiopes” and the Aquinas text has, “coram illo procident aethiopes.” Larcher realized the difference and skipped verse 9 altogether thinking 71:11 was the correct one. However, verse 9 is correct.
  16. The Vulgate reads: “an a vobis verbum” while the Aquinas text has: “an a vobis sermo”.
  17. The Vulgate reads: “prophetae duo aut tres dicant,” whereas the Aquinas text has “prophetent duo aut tres.”
  18. Vulgate Reads: “unusquisque vestrum psalmum habet.” while the Aquinas text has: “alius habet psalmum.”
  19. Douay-Rheims. Vulgate reads: “doctrina sua noscetur vir,” while the Aquinas text has, “doctrina sua cognoscitur.”
  20. “vel legendi prophetias” – I am not sure how to translate prophetias here. Larcher has it as “he reads prophecies” but I think it is the actual reading office here from a portion of the Bible.

Leave a Comment