An analysis of Augustine on Tongues and the Donatists

Augustine’s argument against the Donatist’s gives one of the richest earlier accounts on the Christian doctrine of tongues.

If it were not for the Donatists, Augustine would not have left such a legacy about the tongues of Pentecost and how it was perceived during his time. Their conflict with Augustine offers a wealth of information on the subject — much more than the Montanist movement.

The Donatists were a northern African Christian group; broken off from the official Catholic Church over reasons initially relating to the persecutions of Christians by edict of the emperor Diocletian early in the fourth century. After the persecutions abated, a controversy erupted in the region over how to handle Church leaders who assisted with the secular authorities in the persecutions. This became a source of contention and it conflagrated into questions of Church leadership, faith, piety, discipline and politics. The Donatists transformed into a separate Christian movement and statistically outnumbered the traditional Catholic representatives in the region. At the height it had over 400 bishops.1

For more information on the Donatists, go to Hoover’s thesis, The Contours of Donatism: Theological and Ideological Diversity in Fourth Century North Africa

Augustine was the Catholic Bishop of the ancient city of Hippo which was near the epicentre of the whole movement. He wrote against the Donatists trying to persuade them through logic and by state law to come back into the fold.

Since all the information on the Donatists on the gift of tongues can only be found in Augustine’s writings and there is yet to be found any materials written firsthand by the Donatists on this topic, it is difficult to assess the situation from a neutral perspective. It forces the researcher to postulate on a few outcomes regarding the Donatists and tongues. First of all, they may have asserted themselves as the true Church because they personally spoke in tongues and the Catholic Church did not. Secondly, Augustine’s polemic against their use of Christian tongues was a perceived weakness that he could exploit. In reality it may have not been central to the Donatist movement at all.

He may have been using the gift of tongues as a diversion from thornier issues between the two parties. This topic was a simple way to demonstrate the Catholic Church’s superiority over what was perceived as a populist heresy than to delve into the dark history of the Church under persecution and the betrayal of many key leaders.

Secondly, and more likely, the political argument that tongues was supposed to be a sign of unity, not dissension like the Donatists were accused of doing, was simply a good argument for Augustine to utilize.

Whatever the case, Augustine’s refutation against the Donatists leads to some very important writings on the subject.

Augustine was likely responding to a Donatist theological position in Sermo 267, Chapter 3: Chapter III. Why the Gift of Tongues is all but Withdrawn

Brothers, has the holy Spirit not been given now? Whoever thinks this is not deserving to receive. He is given and now. Why then is no one speaking in the tongues of all the nations just as he spoke who at the time was being filled with the holy Spirit? Why? Because this was a sign that has been satisfied.”2

Here Augustine illustrated that a theology was being advocated during his time that if one receives the holy Spirit, then one must speak in tongues.

Augustine approached this theological question repeatedly in a number of works. One argument pointed out the theological problems related to this concept:

“Can it now be to those receiving the laying of hands when they receive the holy Spirit, is there an expectation with this, that they must speak in languages? Or rather when we laid hands on those infants, does anyone of you pay attention to whether they were speaking in languages or when it was seen of them that they did not speak in languages, was it according to the perverseness of the heart with some of you that you would say, “These did not receive the holy Spirit, for if they had received, would they be speaking in languages even as was done in times past? Then, if it should not now be appointed as the evidence of the presence of the holy Spirit through these miracles, from what point does it take place, from which point does each one know that he himself has received the holy Spirit?”3

What does it mean “this was a sign that has been satisfied”? It shouldn’t be taken as absolutist. It refers to the individual act of speaking in tongues ceasing, not the corporate miracle.

Augustine meant that the individual endowment of miraculously speaking in foreign languages had ceased from functioning. The corporate expression still remained. It cannot be applied to mean the cessation of the corporate miracle of tongues, miracles, healings, or other divine interventions. This was not his intention.

Augustine had categorized the gift of tongues in his day as a miraculous corporate act of the Church. It had transferred from the individual. The following demonstrates this development of thought.

This corporate definition can clearly be found in a number of Augustine’s works. The first example is found in Enarratio in Psalmum CXLVII:19 (147:19). He believed that the question of why individuals during his time who have received the holy Spirit were not speaking in tongues was not the right question to ask. If one was to look for individual instances after the Church had extended into the world it would not be found, because that phase is over:

For at that time the Church was not yet spread out through the circle of lands, that the organs of Christ were speaking in all the nations. Then it was filled-up into one, with respect to which it was being proclaimed in every one of them. Now the entire body of Christ is speaking in all the languages. To those which it is not yet speaking, it will be speaking in the future. For the Church will multiply until it shall seize all the languages [in the entire world]. Hold fast with us until that time had come near, and you shall arrive with us to that which had not yet drawn near. I intend to teach you to speak in all the languages. I am in the body of Christ, I am in the Church of Christ. If the body of Christ is now speaking in all the languages, [then] also I am indeed speaking in all languages; to me it is that of Greek, Syrian, Hebrew, it is of every nation, because in unity, I am of every nation.”4

He further added that the true Church had taken on the duty to fulfil the promise of tongues to speak to all the nations and bring all peoples into unity, which it continued to miraculously do; “for since this small Church was speaking in the tongues of the nations, how is it, except that this great Church is presently speaking to the east even as the west with the tongues of all nations? It is merely a fulfillment as to which was promised at that time.” The “fulfillment as to which was promised at that time,” should not be interpreted to mean cessationalism but rather that this was an office that was established at the foundation and confirmed functioning since then.

Sermo 268 also confirms Augustine’s belief that the Church took on this role: “Whoever has the holy Spirit is in the Church, which is speaking in all the languages. Whoever is outside this Church, does not have the holy Spirit. For that reason indeed the holy Spirit deemed to reveal itself in the languages of all the nations, so the one that perceives to have the holy Spirit itself, that person is sustained in the unity of the Church, which is speaking in all the languages.”5

Augustine illustrated in Sermo 266:2 that the Church became an international entity because of the gift of tongues and this office confirms its validity: “the unity of the Catholic Church has been signified by gift of tongues.”

This is where one has to be very cautious with Augustine on this topic. He was pitting the Catholic Church as the true one because of its universality and inferring that the Donatists were not so ordained because of their regionalism. One can see a direct blow on the Donatists in Sermo 268 where the emphasis is on unity, which is a word play found in the Latin and lost in the English, inferring anyone creating disunity, such as the Donatists who were promoting their brand of speaking in tongues, was heretical.

“The holy Spirit commits to unity of the Church universal by the gift of tongues. On account of the holy Spirit having arrived, this present day is solemn to us, 50th from the resurrection of the Lord, but reckoning 7 x 7 results in 49. One is being inserted, that oneness is given in trust with us.”6

It was not only Augustine that had forwarded this position, Optatus of Milevus wrote the same around 370 AD, listing the countries the Catholic Church has spread to and then concluded to the Donatist leader Parmenian, “In none of the above named countries, said Optatus to the Donatis, Parmenian, are your people found, except in a corner of Africa. O, ungrateful and foolish presumption, said he, that you should attempt to persuade men that you alone have the true Catholic faith.”7

Augustine attempted in a number of ways to eradicate or control the Donatists, but without complete success. It is not entirely known when the Donatist movement died, but it is generally held to have happened in the seventh century under the Arab conquests.8

The Latin text, found in Migne Patrologia Latina, emphatically states that Augustine was arguing against the Donatists — even the chapter headings have their names labelled. But this is a later interpolation. The header text referring to the Donatists was a later editorial insertion included in the Migne edition. It does not exist in the official edition found at the Sant’ Agostino website. However, this is not a big problem. It was simply declaring the obvious. The movement was Augustine’s main local rival and he drew from this tension.


  1. David Benedict, Henry Clinton Graves. History of the Donatists. NL:NP. 1875. Col. 9
  2. MPL Vol. 38. Augustine. Sermo CCLXVII (267) Col. 1230ff Translation is mine
  3. MPL Vol. 35. Augustine. In Epistolas Joannis et Parthos VI:10 (6:10) Col. 2025ff. Translation is mine.
  4. MPL Vol. 37 Augustine. Enarratio in Psalmum. CXLVII:19 (147:19) Col. 1929. Translation is mine.
  5. MPL Vol. 38. Augustine. Sermo CCLXVIII (268) Col. 1231. Translation is mine.
  6. MPL Vol. 38. Augustine. Sermo CCLXVIII (268) Col. 1231. Translation is mine
  7. David Benedict, Henry Clinton Graves. History of the Donatists. NL:NP. 1875. Col. 26

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