Thomas Aquinas on the Doctrine of Tongues: Conclusion

Answers to the christian doctrine of tongues from the writings of Thomas Aquinas.

Thomas Aquinas
Thomas Aquinas, 1225-1274 AD


Thomas Aquinas was an immensely influential theologian, teacher, writer, speaker, and philosopher during the thirteenth-century. The ripple of his thoughts is still felt today in academic circles. His ability to combine greek philosophy, the intellect, the Bible, christian principles, the supernatural, and the use of a diverse library of writers, creates one of the most comprehensive christian thinkers ever.

This revered doctor of the Church represents the crosspoint between ancient tradition and modern thought. His works contain both new and previous ideas. All the above factors provide a rich and engaging narrative on the history and practice of the christian rite of speaking in tongues.

He believed that the supernatural was part of the everyday human experience. This premise comes as no surprise. Mysticism, magic, and miracle were a normative part of his world. It may be a stretch to call him a mystic—such a caricature would define him as one who delves exclusively in the abstract elements of spiritual living. Aquinas was far from abstract; he wanted to codify such experiences. He lived in an age where the intersection of human and divine activity were active social components, but the boundaries were blurred. He carefully sought answers about the interplay between these two entities.

The love of the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, who greatly emphasized the concepts of intelligence and knowledge, became a hallmark of Aquinas’ framework. This approach brings the doctrine of tongues in a slightly different territory and realizes new dimensions. The thoughts are unique to Aquinas. They were hardly embraced by the Church later on.

He properly notes the Greek Church Fathers along with Latin ones. His ideas of the temporality and liturgy of tongues resemble one attributed to Cyril of Alexandria* in the fifth-century—though Aquinas makes no mention of Cyril or the Alexandrian tradition he represented.1

His answers are not simple. Part of the problem lies in the fact that it is difficult, if not impossible, to translate his works into English. The traditional idea of translating his texts word-for-word, or as close to possible to this goal, builds an abstract layer not found in the Latin. This difficulty leads most readers to quickly stop reading his translation and look to third-party literature explaining his motivations.

His word selection in the original Latin is not entirely understood either and is a constant source of discussion.

This theologian/philosopher’s extensive views on the doctrine of tongues are found in two pieces of literature. Summa Theologica and the Lectures on I Corinthians.

Summa Theologica is his greatest literary output and considered a highly prized piece of philosophical christian literature. It is popularly available in English, but not well understood.

The Lectures are published notes taken by his students, especially Reginald of Piperno. The Lectures text is hardly available in English and lacks a critical examination concerning the doctrine of tongues. The following is an attempt to unpack this work for readers on the subject.

Summa Theologica covers a wider arc of the doctrine of tongues, whereas his Lectures on I Corinthians is lengthier and focuses more on the intellectual and liturgical.

These writings in both the English and source texts are available by going to this link: Thomas Aquinas and the Doctrine of Tongues Intro.

If Thomas lived today, he would appeal to an intellectualized pentecostal, charismatic, or third-wave audience (these three collectively known as Renewalists). He sets a high standard and exceeds contemporary renewalist theologies on the supernatural christian life. The Renewalists are still in the development stage whereas Aquinas built a stable framework.

His Definition of Tongues

His view of Acts and Corinthians in relation to language is so tightly defined that it is not fair to use the ambiguous English word, tongues as the default translation for lingua. He meant a standard human language or foreign language in all instances. Therefore, language should be the default term and is utilized frequently. However, since the term tongues is central to every discussion on the doctrine of tongues throughout English history, it is hard to omit the word. Wherever tongues occurs in this article, it is understood here as human language.

For more information on whether to use tongues or language when discussing the doctrine of tongues, see Languages or Tongues: the Semantic Battleground

His assumption about tongues revolves around a foreign human language that is either miraculous or liturgical speaking in a foreign language(s). He arrived at his conclusions by consulting a variety of sources and perspectives, including glosses from ancient writers. There is no reference to an ecstatic, angelic, or a heavenly one in his works. This absence indicates that he had no knowledge of a doctrine of tongues subset known as glossolalia, and thus there is no attempt to resolve in his interpretational schema. This result is consistent with all the church data up until the 1700s. The addition of glossolalia to the doctrine of tongues began its early development in German Protestant circles and became universally entrenched in the late 1800s.

Neither did he cite Epiphanius, Cyril of Alexandria*, or the Ambrosiaster texts, which suggest Paul’s reference to languages in I Corinthians as a different phenomenon from Pentecost based on ancient Jewish rites. Aquinas never referenced any Jewish literature or liturgy in his explanation about the gift of languages. They are notably absent.

Aquinas pondered greatly about both Pentecost in the Book of Acts and Paul’s address in his first letter to the Corinthians. His overarching theme was clear from his texts that the apostles speaking at Pentecost was a miraculous endowment of one or more foreign languages, both in speaking and understanding. He documented the concept of foreign languages in Summa Theologica:

It was more fitting that they should speak in all tongues, because they pertained to the perfection of their knowledge, whereby they were able not only to speak, but also to understand what was said by others. . . Hence a gloss says on Acts 2:6 that it was a “greater miracle that they should speak all kinds of tongues.2

The Lectures on I Corinthians demonstrate the Corinthian Church problem as the use of a foreign or liturgical language.3 Firstly, he explained unknown tongues was about speaking in a foreign language that other people did not understand. There are several examples from his works, but the following is the most succinct:

. . .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 means in an unknown language, and not having these things explained, 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..4

Secondly, he explained the Corinthian tongues as a liturgical problem of exercising rites in Latin and the layperson not understanding because it was not their mother-tongue. (More to follow below on this topic.)

He theoretically taught the tongues of Corinth was initially directed at unbelieving Jews to bring them to belief, “this was a sign specifically given for the conversion of the Jewish people.”5

Thomas Aquinas’ view of the doctrine of tongues assumed that the miraculous endowment of speaking in a foreign language was no longer necessary. He consequently breaks the doctrine into three paths after the early church period. Firstly, that the office had evolved into the liturgical public readings. Secondly, it transformed from a miraculous outpouring to a divine influence on those who had the learned ability to speak in a foreign language. Lastly, he believed the office of tongues was now a corporate rite expressed by the institutional church. It was no longer an individualized one.

These three options are detailed throughout the article.

“Gift” as a Sacred Word

As mentioned throughout the Gift of Tongues Project, the tongues issue in the Corinthian context initially was not a miraculous effect. Paul did not intend such a meaning. Rather, the use of a sacred language in Corinth was a structured part of an inherited rite from its Jewish parent. The gift of tongues idiom was not used in the Book of Acts. The doctrine evolved from the first book of Corinthians where the concept of charisma (χάρισμα), the transliterated Greek word we commonly translate as gift into English, was originally understood as a responsive act; an outward expression of a person touched by the lovingkindness of God. Paul understood charisma as whatever talents or disposition each individual uniquely possessed and channeled to express this gratitude. In this case, people with the ability to instruct in a foreign language, more specifically in Hebrew, were expressing this talent as an act of lovingkindess.

Later on, charisma lost this original sense. It changed from a human responsive act based on Jewish liturgy into a supernatural entity known as the gift of tongues. The Corinthian rite was then directly connected with Pentecost as the same miraculous entity. When exactly this transition occurred is not known. Aquinas’ use of donum linguarum “gift of tongues” demonstrates that this idiom was an established doctrine before his time.

For more information see the following articles:

The Cessation and Evolution of Tongues

Aquinas believed that the original purpose of the gift of tongues was a temporary phenomenon. The lack of a formal structure in the fledgling organization made this miraculous impetus necessary for the universal expansion of the Church. Once the Church had grown and internally developed multilingual speakers and interpreters, the role of miraculously enabled speakers was no longer necessary.

Now it was not fitting that they who were being sent to teach others should need to be taught by others, either as to how they should speak to other people, or as to how they were to understand those who spoke to them; and all the more seeing that those who were being sent were of one nation, that of Judea, according to Isaiah 27:6, “When they shall rush out from Jacob [Vulgate: ‘When they shall rush in unto Jacob,’ etc.] . . . they shall fill the face of the world with seed.” Moreover those who were being sent were poor and powerless; nor at the outset could they have easily found someone to interpret their words faithfully to others, or to explain what others said to them, especially as they were sent to unbelievers. Consequently it was necessary, in this respect, that God should provide them with the gift of tongues;6

This revered theologian makes no mention or gives examples of others continuing with this miraculous enablement through the centuries.

He believed that the liturgy of public readings of the Epistles and Gospels replaced the office of tongues in the early Church.

“In the mouth of two or three, etc..” (Deuteronomy 17:6) but it must be noted that this habit for the most part is being served in the Church for we have the [public] readings and the epistles and also the gospels in the place of tongues, and for that reason it follows in Mass two are being delivered, because only two are being said whose antecedent is to the gift of tongues, specifically the epistle and the gospel. Accordingly, in Matins many are done, in fact you say three readings in one. For in the former times they used to read a nocturn the next three night watches separately. Now however they are being spoken at the same time but on the other hand the procedure is not only to be preserved in regard to the number of those who are speaking but as well in regards to the way [it is done].7

Aquinas was referring to a traditional church liturgy that performed public readings of Scripture. They alternated between reading between the Gospels and Epistles. A calendrical cycle structured the Latin readings. The Public Reader performed this rite—one of the lower offices of the priesthood, an entry-level position.8 Whether this reading was a daily or weekly rite, Aquinas does not make clear. At present, the Catholic Church practices it this way, “On Sundays and solemnities, three Scripture readings are given. On other days there are only two.”9

He furthered Augustine, Bishop of Hippo’s assertion, that the individualized miraculous endowment was transferred to the corporate church and only operated in a corporate fashion during his day.

And therefore, as Augustine says (Tract. xxxii in Joan.), “whereas even now the Holy Ghost is received, yet no one speaks in the tongues of all nations, because the Church herself already speaks the languages of all nations: since whoever is not in the Church, receives not the Holy Ghost.”10

For more information on Augustine and tongues see Augustine on the Tongues of Pentecost.

Aquinas holding of Augustine’s position of the gift switching from the individual to the corporate has a basis in the historic church – though it was never a universal one.11 There are many perceived instances of inspired people using this miraculous gift throughout the medieval church.12

The eighteenth-century Pope Benedict XIV also disregarded Aquinas’ concept of tongues as a temporal gift. This Pope wrote a major work on defining speaking in tongues called De Servorum Dei Beatificatione et Beatorum Canonizatione. He wanted to establish guidelines on the miracle of tongues, especially as used for evidence for sainthood. Catholic tradition requires a proven miracle for anyone proposed for sainthood. A few individuals and controversially, Francis Xavier, were considered for sainthood by the production of this manifestation. Pope Benedict listed various instances of the perceived gift of tongues throughout history until his time as case texts.

Tongues in the Thirteenth-Century Church Liturgy

The influence of the Dominican liturgies, whatever they were at the time, had a great influence on Aquinas. He utilized liturgical contributions in his writings and considered them an important part of the christian experience.13 Unfortunately, there are few substantiated research articles in this period on the church liturgy that lead to substantial clues–one that effectively unpacks the mysteries surrounding Aquinas’ explanation regarding the doctrine of tongues.

An attempt is still necessary even without the full information. The understanding of his text on the gift of languages means a closer look at any church liturgy evidence during Aquinas’ time.

The Lectures on I Corinthians 14 identified the role of tongues in the church liturgy as the Latin language. They ascribed it the status of a sacred religious language. According to Aquinas, all Churches, regardless of their linguistic background, practiced the church liturgy in Latin:

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 done 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 Latin14

Latin was the clerical and religious language of the church and the international language of communication throughout Europe.

Aquinas goes on to state that public reading was important. The emphasis was on reading or chanting the Latin. He associates this practice with the problem tongues in Corinth, where people did not understand what was spoken. However, the difference between his church and the earliest one in Corinth was maturation. He posited that his church had developed an education system where people had developed an understanding of Latin as a sacred language. The people of Corinth had not mastered whatever foreign or priestly language was spoken in their midst.

He recognized Corinth as a linguistic conflict but fails to give any details of the initial problem. Instead, he utilized the Corinthian tongue’s reference to reinforce the role of Latin as a sacred language within his church context.

It is the same to speak in tongues and to speak clearly enunciating [the Latin words] 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 were 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.15

The requirement of Latin appears as a very stringent one. Not only was the person to speak, recite, or repeat the liturgy in Latin, he was emphatic about even the correct pronunciation.

R. Anthony Lodge described that they rigorously enforced pronunciation and usage: “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.”16

The use of Latin in the act of religious devotion by those who neither understood or spoke the language caused many problems. Dr. Joshua J. Mark, a philosophy professor at Marist College, New York, points out the consequences of this circumstance:

Since a medieval peasant was taught the prayers of the Our Father and Hail Mary in Latin, a language they did not understand, they recited them as incantations to ward off misfortune or bring luck, paying little attention to the importance of the words as understood by the Church. The mass itself, also conducted in Latin, was equally mysterious to the peasantry.17

This discussion on the use of Latin extends into literacy, which had a serious impact on the exercise of religious faith during Aquinas’ time. There is a general thought throughout historical tomes that almost everyone, including clerics, were ignorant of the Latin language. James Westfall Thompson, author of the Literacy of the Laity in the Middle Ages would differ. He found the level of Latin literacy was inconsistently applied through the Medieval ages and went through various waves. He cautioned against the stereotype that few, including clerics, were able to read or write Latin at least during the early Medieval age. There was a limited form of literacy, but not at the extreme that some report. Such an argument probably extends to the 1300s as well.18 He posited that Italy during the time of Thomas Aquinas had a higher Latin literacy rate in professional occupations, but the layperson remained illiterate.19 Robert N. Swanson, Professor of Medieval History at the University of Birmingham, takes it a step further and adds that the era had an: almost infinite variety of regional, parochial, familial, and individual Christianities which were subject to constant change and development.20

The research so far demonstrates exceptions abounded, and it is difficult to determine with certainty about the liturgical and literacy background behind Aquinas’ words. The small amount of internal evidence from Aquinas points towards Dr. Marks observation that the average layperson was functionally illiterate and did not understand Latin.

The prayers also had a mystical element added to them via the vocal style made by the priest. The priest would only whisper—an act to show extreme reverence.21 The combination of Latin spoken as a whisper fostered a sense of speaking in a mysterious, foreign, or strange language that few in the pews understood.

Summa Theologica and the Lectures on I Corinthians promote Latin as the primary language but nowhere do they rule out the use of foreign languages in certain cases. One cannot assume the absolute use of Latin in this period. This concept may be a later development. Were local and foreign languages mixed in with the prayers? Where did local languages in the liturgy fit in during Aquinas’ time? It is not known.

The Divinely Inspired Foreign Language Speaker

Aquinas specified how the corporate rite of tongues operated in his church environment. He believed that a person divinely inspired to speak truth with the learned ability to speak a foreign language replaced the person with the miraculous gift of foreign languages.

The passage on this topic is found in Question 176 of Summa Theologica entitled; On the Grace of Tongues. The traditional English translation is very abstract. Most readers skip the work because of the level of difficulty. A paraphrase is provided to overcome this obstacle:

Firstly, the gift of languages is important for advancing voices that spread out in entirely different directions—signs which provide evidence of someone’s accurate knowledge of truth. These signs were particularly notable displays, which accordingly were equipped by God implanting an impression inside a person’s mind. Whereby Augustine compares the gift of languages (Genesis 12:8) to an impression implanted by God. On the other hand, it was written above that the gift of prophecy comes about in the illumination of the mind for the purpose of understanding true knowledge. Therefore, prophetic illumination is more excellent than an impression—the person understands the meaning behind the illumination, whereas the emphasis on describing an impression is on the transmission of the words, not the meaning. Secondly, because the gift of prophecy pertains to the familiarity of many things. This office is nobler than familiarity with a voice only–a state that pertains to the gift of languages. Thirdly, because the gift of prophecy is more advantageous. The Apostle Paul proves this in I Corinthians 14 in three ways: firstly because prophecy is beneficial for the immediate building up of the church without having to get bogged down in a two-stage process because the one who speaks in languages profits nothing unless an explanation should follow. Secondly, the gift of languages is limited to the one who speaks what he does not understand, his mind is not engaged, because if he did understand what he was speaking, then this moves into the realm of the gift of prophecy. Thirdly, in reference to the unbelievers, who accordingly appear to be the express aim for the function of the gift of languages, should reckon those who are speaking in languages as those who are crazy, like the Jews who reckoned the apostles who were speaking in languages as drunk (Acts 2:13). Whereas the office of prophecy is far more effective, the unbeliever is convicted through the prophetic means, which deals with all the circumstances surrounding a person’s life, it manifests the secrets of their hearts. This apparatus is much better than the limited value of speaking in a foreign language.

For those who do not want a paraphrase, a literal English translation is found at Question 176: On the Grace of Tongues.22. The actual Latin source text is located at Corpus Thomisticum.

The context of Aquinas’ remarks is puzzling. Firstly, his references to the church liturgy assumed the readers fully understood them—activities that are not outlined and difficult to presently assess. The occurrence of a unified liturgy throughout the Catholic Church was not yet on the horizon. The Dominican order that Aquinas belonged was in the process of standardizing their own set of liturgies.

Secondly, his ideas of impression vs. Illumination are new buzzwords to the doctrine of tongues.

These two factors are outlined next.

Impression vs. Illumination


Aquinas believed that a divine impression (visiones imaginariae) first permeated the mind and then the person began to speak in either Latin or perhaps a foreign language. Aquinas associated this rite as part of the divine liturgy—a middle ground where both man and the divine met.23 The impression evoked the person to select from a various array of ordered prayers, sayings, appellations, and blessings. More than likely, these were already prepared in an orally transmitted type of official prayerbook. Whether an applicable bible verse, or piece of poetry, a quote from a saint, prayers for the deceased, ill, newborns, etc. or a passed down teaching or experience—all of this from rote memory. The priest or the person reciting any of these texts had no requirement to understand the words or even the language. The power was believed to be in the words and the sacred language of Latin as the causation for change. The individual involved in speaking the words was of casual importance. If there was a recipient named in the prayer, that person was not obligated to understand it either. There was no emotional or intellectual connection.

The curious reader, especially those who are familiar with Latin, may rightly challenge this interpretation on two grounds—my Latin translation of visiones imaginariae is not an established fact, nor is there enough substantiation to assert the idea of an oral prayer tradition. One may argue that visiones imaginariae is better explained as a pictorial vision—God planting a picture in a person’s mind that requires the recipient to explain in their personal words. This process makes the phenomenon an indirect revelation. In this framework, Aquinas would argue that the person does not need to understand what the picture means. The only requirement is to detail what they saw.

One must remain cautious about translating visiones imaginariae as pictorial vision or worse yet, left transliterated as imagination. These equivalents promote a subjective experience that is outside the realm of liturgy, ritual, or tradition. All these three factors are important to Aquinas, and it is highly doubtful he would abandon them for an individualized experience that would work outside these pillars. Aquinas was also a literalist and rigidly structured. It would be surprising to see him rely solely on mysticism as a guide. Pictorial vision or seeing with the minds eye are literally closer to his meaning. However, one should not interpret these English equivalents this way. The term visiones imaginariae is symbolic of divine influence, and literally understanding the proposed English equivalents may mislead the reader. Impression acknowledges that a divine influence has occurred inside the mind but does not explain how it happened.

The objection about an oral prayer tradition is a valid one. There are gaps where little data exists, and the conclusions here are an over-dependancy on indirect inferences. The perceptions about impression are opinions and up to each reader to decide whether they have value.


This word refers to the ability to use all of the senses, including the spiritual sense, and create meaning. A modern way of expressing this word is the skill to take disparate data from a variety of sources and make sense of it. Aquinas reserved this process for the office of prophecy. Impression only deals with raw data and is unconcerned with meaning. Illumination processes the raw data into meaning.

These two buzzwords began and ended with this doctor of the Church. They were never picked up by later writers or authorities of the Church.

There is much more to Aquinas on prophecy. The following header delves into more detail.

Prophecy and Tongues

The emphasis of Aquinas rests on combining prophecy with speaking in tongues. The Aquinas text stated over 21 times in his Lecture on I Corinthians 14 about the “the excellency of the gift of prophecy over the gift of tongues.” He ended the discussion on tongues in Summa Theologica in like manner. In almost every instance the wording is slightly different but has the same intention.

It is important to understand Aquinas’ definition because the prophecy-tongues relationship becomes an essential part of nineteenth-century studies on the christian doctrine of tongues. Aquinas’ is the first modern writer to make this association, though there is a slight reference by Cyril of Alexandria in the fifth century.24

This relationship can be found outlined in Summa Theologica, where he taught that:

  • Tongues is about words and physically retelling what one sees or hears. It does not necessarily mean the person interpreting is required to understand the meaning.

  • Prophecy is not just words and retelling, though this is a part of it. Prophecy enlightens the mind to understand meaning. This concept is why Aquinas uses to interpret as an act of prophecy. He has interpretation broken into two categories. The first one being the literal translation with no regard to the meaning. He reserved this method for the office of tongues. The second one is translating and understanding the meaning. This method is the office of prophecy.

Further information can be found in reading his Lectures on I Corinthians 14:5-12.

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.25

And a short while later:

The interpretation of speeches is reducible to the gift of prophecy, inasmuch as the mind is enlightened so as to understand and explain any obscurities of speech arising either from a difficulty in the things signified, or from the words uttered being unknown, or from the figures of speech employed.26

He believed that Paul would have joined tongues with the gift of prophecy when he paraphrased I Corinthians 14:14:

“I [Paul] said that the gift of tongues without the gift of prophecy has no value.”27

Prophecy was part of his framework for understanding and knowledge. Where we lump understanding and knowledge into one category, Aquinas developed a more complex system. He understood intellectual and divine comprehension as separate faculties. The ability to understand through supernatural means was to be infused in two ways: revelation and prophecy. A sudden divine infusion was called a revelation. A progressive infusion that came bit by bit or pieces over an extended period was called prophecy. Learning through natural means was called knowledge, and a concept, idea, or thought being related by another person was called teaching.28

The miracle of Speaking over Hearing

Aquinas was well aware of the different interpretations of the doctrine of tongues, including the one voice being emitted and being understood in the native tongue of the listener. This interpretation had been lingering and debated since at least the fourth century.29 He did not agree with this position and supported the traditional interpretation of those divinely inspired to speak in foreign languages. He pointed this out in his Lectures on I Corinthians:

Paul 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,”30

And in Summa Theologica:

. . . It is written (Acts 2:4) that “they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and they began to speak with divers tongues, according as the Holy Ghost gave them to speak”; on which passage a gloss of Gregory [Hom. xxx in Ev.] says that “the Holy Ghost appeared over the disciples under the form of fiery tongues, and gave them the knowledge of all tongues.” 31

. . . while speaking in one tongue they should be understood by all, or that they should speak in all tongues, it was more fitting that they should speak in all tongues, because this pertained to the perfection of their knowledge, whereby they were able not only to speak, but also to understand what was said by others. Whereas if their one language were intelligible to all, this would either have been due to the knowledge of those who understood their speech, or it would have amounted to an illusion, since a man’s words would have had a different sound in another’s ears, from that with which they were uttered. Hence a gloss says on Acts 2:6 that “it was a greater miracle that they should speak all kinds of tongues”; and Paul says (1 Corinthians 14:18): “I thank my God I speak with all your tongues.”32

Aquinas was well aware of the different theories on the tongues of Pentecost and its aftermath. This awareness is especially prominent in his overview found in Summa Theologica. He outlined several different positions.

  1. The apostles were given the ability to speak but did not possess knowledge of all the languages.
  2. The Apostles spoke in Hebrew, and everyone heard in their own language.
  3. Christ did not speak in every and language, and the present faithful do not speak in more than one language. Therefore, the disciples did not speak in all languages either.

He countered these three with:

  • The apostles were equipped with the gift of tongues to bring all people back into unity. It was only a temporary activity that later generations would not need. The later leaders would have access to interpreters which the first generation did not.
  • The gift of tongues was restricted for teaching the faith. It did not extend to speaking about acquired sciences like math or geometry.
  • They spoke and understood all languages. If it was a miracle of hearing, it would be much harder to substantiate as a miracle.
  • The gift of tongues had shifted from the individual to the corporate church. He quoted Augustine for support.

Praying in Tongues

. . .with regard to private prayer, the speaker, if someone so uneducated, who does his own prayer, says a Psalm, or Our Father and does not understand that which is he 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.33

Aquinas’ statement strengthens Dr. Marks’s previous remark that the layperson prayed a formulaic stanza from a Latin Psalm or Our Father (Matthew 6:9), hoping that there was a divine channel in the language and the words to cause change or comfort. When this occurred, and the person did not know what they were speaking, this was praying in a tongue.

Unknown Tongues

Another important theme that Aquinas addressed was the use of unknown tongues–a popular subject in present-day Renewalist circles. This reference is the earliest Latin usage of this idiom in ecclesiastical literature as it relates to this doctrine. Unknown tongues was a cornerstone of the Protestant revolt against the Catholic Church 300 years later and even made its way into Protestant English Bibles. 34 The inclusion into the Protestant English Bibles of unknown tongues allows an alternative interpretation of a mystical or heavenly language.

This compels the researcher to find out what Aquinas meant by the idiom. Did he believe that it was mystical or a human phenomenon?

A snippet from his Lectures on Corinthians reveals his understanding.

Preachers have become accustomed to preserve that way when they are to preach to men of an unknown tongue by means of an interpretation.35

Aquinas’ use of Unknown tongues, which is the English equivalent of lingua ignota, means a foreign language unfamiliar to the hearer. There was no mystical attachment.

If one goes a little deeper with this text, this quote provides the idea that church leaders, whether visiting, itinerant, or otherwise, spoke in Latin—perhaps a high priestly Latin. This speech was translated into the common vernacular. It provides evidence that the Latin Church was carrying on a structure of speaking and interpreting rooted in earlier Hebrew, Greek, and Syrian rites.36

Angels and Tongues

This Doctor of the Church presents an interesting proposition about the relationship between angels and the gift of tongues. He believed that Angels could influence people, especially priests, in their divine instruction to the laity. He added that angels did not have a body and cannot physically speak directly to a person or community. As a workaround angels could inspire a person’s mind to speak on its behalf. He then concludes that mankind, to some degree, has the mind of an angel. Angels directly reflected the character and nature of God and gave the priests, or those in authority, an elevated status. Such a state gave the priests authority in religious and sectarian, civil and legal matters.

The emphasis is on divine instruction to guide humanity. The language is the common or liturgical vernacular that the priest performs in daily life.

Aquinas does not follow a rabbinic tradition which taught that angels were restricted to knowing assigned regional languages, Hebrew, or the language of prayer.

Moreover, it must be examined more closely what the language of angels should speak. For when a tongue is to be a member of the body and for the same utilization [as brass or a cymbal] that it has reference to the gift of tongues, respecting the fact that sometimes it is being spoken in a language. It will be evident further along xvi; neither will it seem to be in accordance with angels who do not have limbs. One is able to say then that men, having the office of angels, they are being understood through the agency of an angel, that certainly it makes known the divine to other persons. (According to that in Malachi 2:7) “For the lips of the priests keep knowledge, and they require the law from his mouth because he is the angel of the Lord of hosts.” Behind these, it is being said with this sense, “if I speak with the tongues of men and angels.” That is the difference which they point out, not only of the smaller but also of the greater, one is able then to understand from the angels who do not have a body. Just as in Psalm 103:4 says: “who makes your angels spirits.” Although they do not have the ability to have a bodily language. Nevertheless, the language of power can be spoken by a likeness with these ones that they reveal to others what they occupy in the mind. It must be understood then because within the inquiry is, to some degree, the mind of an angel. From this, the highest of angels to the lowest they do not speak, neither by conversation, certainly divine themselves in essence, that they see absolutely everything from God Himself who is showing everything.37


This is the end of the series of Thomas Aquinas on the miracle of Tongues. Aquinas was not silent on the issue. He copiously wrote on the subject. How contemporary authors and researchers have neglected his works over the last one hundred years on the subject is perplexing. He should have been one of the top ancient writers consulted on the subject.

  1. See Cyril of Alexandria on Tongues: Conclusion, Cyril of Alexandria on Tongues: I Corinthians and other related articles in the Gift of Tongues Project under the a href=”″>Cyril of Alexandria Header.
  2. Summa Theologica. IIa IIae q. 176 a. 1 The “Summa Theologica” of St. Thomas Aquinas. Literally translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Second and Revised Edition. 1920.
  3. A previous version of this article had: “he viewed the Corinthian Church problem as a linguistic one of regular human proportions.” This clause was removed because it was an oversimplification.
  4. My translation. Lectures on I Corinthians 14:1-4
  5. Lectures on I Corinthians 14:18-22
  6. Summa Theologica Question 176: On the Grace of Tongues. The Summa Theologiæ of St. Thomas Aquinas. Second and Revised Edition, 1920. Literally translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Online Edition Copyright © 2017 by Kevin Knight
  7. Lectures on I Corinthians 14:27-33
  8. Harry Gamble. Books and Readers in the Early Church. New Haven: Yale University. 1995. Pg. 218. See also The Public Reader in the Church
  10. Question 176: Reply to Objection 3 (Benziger Bros. Edition, 1947) Translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province
  11. See Cessationism, Miracles, and Tongues for more information.
  12. Go to the Medieval section of the Gift of Tongues Project for details.
  13. Liturgical Prayer and the Theology of Mercy in Thomas Aquinas and Pope Francis. By Innocent Smith, OP. As found in Sage Journals. Nov. 30, 2018.
  14. Lectures on I Corinthians 14:5-12
  15. Lectures on I Corinthians 14:23-26
  16. French, from dialect to standard. By R. Anthony Lodge. Pg. 91
  17. Blog article; “Religion in Medieval Europe” by Dr. Joshua J. Mark. As found at Brewminate Sept. 29, 2019.
  18. James Westfall Thompson. Literacy of the Laity in the Middle Ages New York: Burt Franklin. 1960. Pg. 1
  19. James Westfall Thompson. Literacy of the Laity in the Middle Ages New York: Burt Franklin. 1960. Pg. 52 (Chapter III: Italy from 900 to 1300 ca.)
  20. Ronald N. Swanson. Religion and Devotion in Europe c. 1215—c.1515. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press. 2000. Pg. 8
  21. A summary of Theodor Klauser: A Short History of the Western Liturgy [1965]
  22. See Under Objection 4. The Summa Theologiæ of St. Thomas Aquinas. 
  23. My personal view based on inference but not fully thought out or substantiated
  24. See Cyril of Alexandria on Tongues for more info.
  25. Lectures on I Corinthians 14:5-12
  26. Lectures on I Corinthians 14:5-12
  27. Lectures on I Corinthians 14:13-17
  28. Lectures on I Corinthians 14:5-12
  29. See Gregory Nazianzus on the Doctrine of Tongues for more information.
  30. Lectures on I Corinthians 14:18-22
  31. It was previously stated in this article the gloss of Gregory was unknown and likely attributed to Gregory of Nazianzus. The gloss is referencing Gregory the Great. MPL Vol. 76. Col. 1222 40 Homilies on the Gospels XXX:4
  32. Summa Theologica. IIa IIae q. 176 The “Summa Theologica” of St. Thomas Aquinas. Literally translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Second and Revised Edition. 1920.
  33. My translation of Lectures on I Corinthians 14:13
  34. For more information on this see Uncovering the Unknown of the Unknown Tongues.
  35. Lectures on I Corinthians 14:27-33
  36. The following article The Jewish Liturgy and the Tongues of Corinth cover this in more detail and provides additional links.
  37. My translation from Reportationes. Vol. 6. 088 R1C cp13. pg 384ff. A full translation with notes is found at Thomas Aquinas Lectures on I Corinthians chapter 13

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