Gregory Nazianzus on the Doctrine of Tongues Intro

This is the beginning of a multi-article series on the works of Gregory Nazianzus on the doctrine of tongues.

No discussion on the nature and purpose of ecclesiastical tongues should omit this church father. However, the majority of Pentecostals and Charismatics who take a very deep interest in this subject, do not even know who this church father was, let alone what he stood for. It should be mandatory reading for anyone studying this topic. His coverage forces the contemporary mindset, whether a Christian mystic, or liberal theologian to reconsider the historical evidence.

In Gregory Nazianzus’ work entitled, Orations, an entire chapter is devoted to the subject of Pentecost, which is typically labeled as Oration 41. There are especially two sections in this text outlining what the tongues miracle may have consisted of (Oration 41:15-16).

He wrote about two specific options — the miracle of the Apostles speaking in every language that they were not taught, or it was the apostles speaking in one sound, and the hearers miraculously hearing it in their own language. It could be a combination of both, but the text doesn’t guide the reader to this third alternative. It is difficult to know which one is the historic right one, or how popular the miracle of hearing doctrine existed, and who promoted it. This is the central part of the historic debate.

What this series is about

This study will delve into a number of texts to solve this problem and more. It will look at the history of this controversy. First by building a source Greek text by not only consulting the version and editors notes found in Migne Patrologia Graeca, but looking at older versions.

Secondly it will analyze and compare the ancient Greek text and commentary provided by as many ecclesiastical writers on the subject that can be found. Alex Poulos, in his own research on the subject, has found at least three later writers covering this text. This will provide much needed clues to the original text and how to understand it.

Thirdly, it will examine the Syriac texts of Gregory Nazianzus to find any further hints.

Last of all, it is to look at how the Latin Church Fathers and translators understood this text. The oldest text we have today is not in Greek, but in Latin by Rufinus, who wrote it in the fifth century — though what we possess today is likely revised and updated from the original. He also took some liberties to amplify the text where he saw fit. So it is not exactly a literal translation. This can be of benefit, as it may demonstrate how the doctrine had evolved. The study will also look at evidence from Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, who indirectly asserted how Nazianzus ought to be read. The eighth century Venerable Bede weighed in on this riddle of how to understand this text, and offers some powerful clues. Jacobus Billius made a critical effort in the sixteenth century to understand by providing a Greek-Latin parallel text. His work was the basis for the Greek and Latin copy found in Migne Patrologia Graeca.

Who was Gregory Nazianzus?

Wikipedia has a good synopsis:

Gregory of Nazianzus (329 – January 25, 389) (also known as Gregory the Theologian or Gregory Nazianzen) was a fourth century Archbishop of Constantinople. He is widely considered the most accomplished rhetorical stylist of the patristic age. As a classically trained speaker and philosopher he infused Hellenism into the early church, establishing the paradigm of Byzantine theologians and church officials.[ref][/ref]

The old English translation of Nazianzus

An English translation of Nazianzus’ work, On Pentecost was completed in 1894 by Charles Gordon Browne and James Edward Swallow. It is easily available on the web.[ref]Translated by Charles Gordon Browne and James Edward Swallow. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 7. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1894.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. .[/ref]

A.J. Mason, editor of the 1899 publication, The Five Theological Orations of Gregory of Nazianzus, concluded that it wasn’t a very good translation, and would not recommend it:

The scholarship of the only English translation with which I am acquainted, in Wace and Schaff Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, is unfortunately far below the level of that of Cyril in the same volume, and the student will do well to avoid a work which is only misleading.[ref]The Five Theological Orations of Gregory of Nazianzus. A.J. Mason ed. London: C.J. Clay and Sons. 1899 Pg. xxiii. [/ref]

In respect to Nazianzus’ Oration 41, the Browne-Swallow translation is reliable, but it is old.

This series will provide a fresh English translation of Gregory’s works as it relates to the tongues doctrine. This series follows the typical structure of Gift of Tongues Project. Both the Greek and Latin texts that the English was translated from are provided. Since there has been so much ignorance created by faulty or lack of translations in the tongues debate, these have been provided to ensure the historic record is clear.

Translating the Greek attributed to Gregory Nazianzus is difficult. He loved classical Greek and draws from a diverse Greek community.

A fresh translation of Gregory Nazianzus’ Homily 41: 15 -16

Alex Poulos has gladly provided his time and expertise to provide the English translation.

The Oration On Pentecost is traditionally held to have been spoken on May 16, 381 AD.[ref] [/ref] What are the Orations? The Catholic Encyclopedia, found at New Advent’s website, gave a brief outline:

Both in his own time, and by the general verdict of posterity, Gregory was recognized as one of the very foremost orators who have ever adorned the Christian Church . . .Only comparatively few of the numerous orations delivered by Gregory have been preserved to us, consisting of discourses spoken by him on widely different occasions, but all marked by the same lofty qualities. Faults they have, of course: lengthy digressions, excessive ornament, strained antithesis, laboured metaphors, and occasional over-violence of invective. But their merits are far greater than their defects, and no one can read them without being struck by the noble phraseology, perfect command of the purest Greek, high imaginative powers, lucidity and incisiveness of thought, fiery zeal and transparent sincerity of intention, by which they are distinguished.[ref] [/ref]

Which Oration specifically is this homily?

There is also a conflict in which Oration number is which. The Migne Patrologia Graeca copy has the On Pentecost chapter at header 41. The Douay-Rheims Bible wrote in its commentary that this was header 44.[ref]Holy Bible: translated from the Latin Vulgate. Douay, Rheims Translators. London: George Henry and Co. ND (originally published in 1582) Pg. 157[/ref][ref] Thank you also to Áureo Ferreira who noted this in reviewing my previous online work on the subject [/ref] So too does Billius’ Latin translation of Nicetas of Serrone’s coverage of the works of Nazianzus. [ref]MPG. Vol. 127. Addenda: Expositio in Orationes S. Gregorii Nazainzeni XLIV. Col. 1477[/ref] and Billius’ Greek-Latin edition of Gregory Nazianzus[ref] Sancti Patris Nostri Gregorii Nazianzeni Opera Græc•Lat. Jac. Billius Prunæus, S. Michælis in Eremo. Paris: 1630. Pg. 715 [/ref] place it at chapter 44. A fourteenth century Greek text of Nicetas of Serrone’s placed On Pentecost at chapter 4.[ref]Nicetas Heracleensis. Gregorius Nazianzenus – BSB Cod.graec. 140 Pg. 159 [/ref] The Orations manuscripts contained in the British Library do not follow the same header format. There are some decorative enlarged letters that do imply a chaptering system, though it has not been identified into a logical sequence. It is clear that these texts do not follow what is found in MPG. It is not known whey there is a discrepancy between the numbering systems. However, since the MPG copy is the most ubiquitous, this chaptering and verse system will be followed.

Nazianzus’ doctrine of tongues can largely be found in his coverage on the event of Pentecost covered in Acts chapter two, and a few snippets found in other works. He does not quote or describe the problem of tongues in Corinth. Neither does he address or acknowledge the contributions of the Montanists, or any other group on the issue.

For further information:

2 thoughts on “Gregory Nazianzus on the Doctrine of Tongues Intro”

  1. Hi Charles, I am very thankful for this deep research on this topic. May I ask your thoughts on if the gift of prophecy is still practice. I imagine a place that lives out 1 Cor. 14 Where head covered women and uncovered men get up give a spirit led participatory worship service. From my brief study on this site, it seems that gift of tongues has ceased. Is it possible to have tongues cease but other sign gifts continuing. I just love to hear your toughts as I process all this new info as one who has dove deeply into these giants of the faith and the scriptures and probably have had a while to process it all. I love to hear your brief insights. Thanks David Lowe

    • Hello David. The rite of tongues is a central part of the christian identity. Generations of Christians who have read the Book of Acts feel inspired to recreate their own Pentecost in some manner. There are three questions one has to ask: are these events miraculous, manufactured, or a problem of us interpreting the texts correctly? Most events, in my opinion, are manufactured, but I leave out hope that there are some that are miraculous. However, anything to be defined as a miracle has to hardly occur, and if it does, it is a random event, and cannot be controlled as to when it will happen. Otherwise it cannot be called a miracle and would be classified as normative.
      As to the question of interpretation. If you read the website articles closely, especially with the tongues of I Corinthians, the situation Paul was addressing was not a mystical problem at all. It had to do with how to apply the Jewish liturgy in a Greek speaking world. As the church father Epiphanius described the problem in the fourth-century, the Church of Corinth had its lectures in Hebrew and the Greeks fought over the delivery of the simultaneous Greek translation. Such a bold assertion may seem new and a stretch from the traditional interpretation but this conclusion fits nicely within the diasporan Jewish liturgy at the time.
      As to prophecy, I tend to like Thomas Aquinas’ position. Thomas Aquinas had described it as the greatest gift because it could take all sensory data; whether physical, intellectual, or spiritual and make a cohesive meaning out of it all. If one takes this as a definition, then it is indeed still operative today.
      More thoughts on prophecy can be found in my article, Thoughts on Ecstasy, Private Revelation and Prophecy.
      I hope this helps.


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