Augustine on the Tongues of Pentecost: Intro

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An analysis of Augustine’s writings on speaking in tongues.

Augustine wrote a considerable amount on the subject which first appears to be an open and shut case, but a closer look reveals a diversity of thought propelled by political influences.

The conflict with the rival Donatist movement gives one of the earliest and extensive articles of tongues speech in the church. His coverage dispels the notion that the institutional church after Pentecost had quashed or ignored the christian rite of tongues.

The theories on speaking in tongues during Augustine’s time.

Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, 354-430 AD, was likely aware of the different theories on the subject. His contemporaries Gregory Nazianzus (329 to 390 AD) had posited that there are two options for the Pentecost outburst of tongues: it was either a miracle of hearing or of speaking, and more likely the latter. John Chrysostom (349 to 407 AD) held similar views to Augustine on the diminished role of divine tongues in the individual expression. An earlier North African leader named Pachomius (292 to 346 AD) was mythologized as having been divinely enabled to temporarily speak Latin. The first century BC Jewish Hellenistic philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, didn’t write about the gift of tongues, but he did cover the mechanics behind God speaking. He held that when God spoke it was in a sound that would implant in the hearers mind, bypassing the ears, being beyond human language.

Was it a miracle of speaking or hearing?

Sometimes he favored the miracle of speaking while others times of hearing. He does tend to allude to the idea of the miracle of one voice emanating and the hearers miraculously hearing in their own language.

  • “they began to speak in the languages of all the nations,”(1)Sermo. CLXXV:3
  • “they began to speak in all the languages, that in respect to those who were present, everybody was recognizing their own language,”(2)Sermo CCLII:2
  • “Each man speaking in every language”,(3)Sermo CCLXV:10
  • “Each man was speaking in every language, it was being announced beforehand because the Church was about to be in every language. One man was a sign of unity. Every language by one man, every nation in unity.”(4)CCLXVI:2

His coverage is found in a number of other Sermons(5) Sermo CCLXVII and CCLXVIII and in his work on the Psalms. In Enarratio in Psalmum he wrote this particular puzzling entry, “See that sounds went out in every language.”(6)Enarratio in Psalmum CXLVII:19 (147:19)

He picks and chooses given the situation. It appears that the mechanics behind how those divinely spoke in tongues was of no interest to him or was a priority. He had an apologetic motive against the large Dontatist movement, who asserted that they were the true Church. One of their confirming signs was that they spoke in tongues.(7)Augustine on Tongues and the Donatists

There is no question that the semantic range of this experience fell inside the use of foreign languages, nothing more. He used the term linguis omnium gentium “in the languages of all the nations” on at least 23 occasions, and linguis omnium, speaking “in all languages”. Neither does Augustine quote or refer to the Montanist movement in his works.

Augustine on the question, Should everybody speak in tongues?

The Bishop repeatedly answers the question “If I have received the holy Spirit, why am I not speaking in tongues?” Each time he has a slightly different read. What did he say? “this was a sign that has been satisfied.”(8)Sermo CCLXVII (267), MPL Vol. 38. Augustine. Sermo CCLXVII (267) Col. 1230ff. My translation In the writing called In Epistolas Joannis et Parthos, he jests with those who take this position, “when we laid hands on those infants, does anyone of you pay attention to whether they were speaking in languages. . .?”(9)MPL Vol. 35. Augustine. In Epistolas Joannis et Parthos VI:10 (6:10) Col. 2025ff and then offers a more theological slant in his Enarratio In Psalmum, “Why then does the holy Spirit not appear now in all languages? On the contrary He does appear in all the languages. 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.”(10)Augustine. Enarratio in Psalmum. CXLVII:19 (147:19)

The gift of tongues changed from an individual to a corporate expression.

The last one brings on an important theological perspective by Augustine on the doctrine of tongues. The gift being expressed through individuals has died, and now has been transferred to and operated by the corporate Church. More of this doctrine can be found in the next article, Augustine on Tongues and the Donatists.

Augustine about the cessation of tongues and miracles

This patristic leader’s position on miracles has been highly debated for 1600 years. This is apparent in the tongues citations provided above. However, the most disputed piece is not on tongues but on miracles itself as found in his work, De vera religione where he wrote:

Another thing which must be considered is the dissension that has arisen among men concerning the worship of the one God. We have heard that our predecessors, at a stage in faith on the way from temporal things up to eternal things, followed visible miracles. They could do nothing else. And they did so in such a way that it should not be necessary for those who came after them. When the Catholic Church had been founded and diffused throughout the whole world, on the one hand miracles were not allowed to continue till our time, lest the mind should always seek visible things, and the human race should grow cold by becoming accustomed to things which when they were novelties kindled its faith. On the other hand we must not doubt that those are to be believed who proclaimed miracles, which only a few had actually seen, and yet were able to persuade whole peoples to follow them. At that time the problem was to get people to believe before anyone was fit to reason about divine and invisible things. No human authority is set over the reason of a purified soul, for it is able to arrive at clear truth But pride does not lead to the perception of truth. If there were no pride there would be no heretics, no schismatics, no circumcised, no worshippers of creatures or of images. If there had not been such classes of opponents before the people was made perfect as promised, truth would be sought much less eagerly.(11)De Vera Religione 25 (47) as found in Augustine: Earlier Writings. The Library of Christian Classics. Translated by John S. Burleigh. Philadelphia: the Westminster Press. 1953. Pg. 248

This was written around 390 AD. 37 years later Augustine revisited this statement and softened his stance by adding in his Retractiones:

For when hands are laid on the baptized, they do not receive the Holy Ghost now, in such a manner as to speak with the tongues of all the nations; nor are the sick now cured by the shadow of Christ’s preachers as they pass by them, and others such as these, which, it is manifest, did afterwards cease; But what I said, is not so to be understood as if no miracles are believed to be performed now in the name of Christ : for I myself, when I wrote that very book, (De Vera Religione,) knew that a blind man had received his sight in the city of Milan, at the bodies of the Milanese martyrs, and several others besides; nay, such numbers are performed in these our days, that I neither can know them all, nor though I knew them, could I enumerate them.(12)Retractiones. English translation found in The Edinburgh Magazine and Literary Miscellany. Vol. 15. Edinburgh: Printed for Archibald Constable and Company. 1824. Pg. 688

What did Augustine intend? I have never seen in any Patristic literature where a church leader made a complete and concise reversal or retraction of a theological concept. This may be the closest that Augustine could achieve without having amassed some percieved shame or criticism of his legacy. A complete avowal would also have legitimized the majority Donatist movement whose emphasis on the gift of tongues symbolized their fidelity. Augustine spent decades in theological dispute with them on that very subject.

It is no surprise when he stated that miracles still occur, but some do not, he listed the individual speaking in tongues as the first example that is no longer utilized. This is in keeping with his various polemical assaults against the Donatists.

A specialist in Augustine, Prof. Jan den Boeft, considers the Retractiones text wanting. He thinks that Augustine is referring to the cessation of only a few miracles including speaking in tongues while most continued.(13)Jan Den Boeft. The Apostolic Age in Patristic Thought. A. Hilhorst ed. Leiden: Brill. 2004. Pg. 61 Prof. Boeft makes a proper connection between Chrysostom and Augustine on the de-emphasis on miracles whereby miracles were considered unimportant in the development of christian character and often antithetical. The penchant for miracles was considered a gateway to pride. Chrysostom had shifted the element of miracles away from the individual and moved the practice to the rituals and symbols of the corporate church and the cult of deceased saints.

See Chrysostom on the Doctrine of tongues for more information.

Augustine on the tongues of Corinth.

There was not found in any of his writings a theological analysis about the problem in Corinth. He does refer to I Corinthians 13:1 “If I speak in the tongues of men and angels…” over eight times. This appears to be a popular verse used by him in his argumentation against his Donatist rivals. He used this passage to emphasize brotherly love over ambition.

The neglect of Augustine on this subject.

It is surprising that his works have not entered into the primary source books as a central author explaining and defining the christian tongues doctrine. This problem is not unique just to Augustine. This is covered in more detail at the following article: Examining the Source Books on Glossolalia and Christian tongues.

It is also vexing how many of his works, which includes the tongues-passages, do not have popular English translations. He is one of the foremost writers who has withstood the test of time. One of only a handful of authors of any genre has managed to do that. If his works were more widely available in English, it would have changed the dynamics of the discussion over the last century.

His works are well written and thought-out with an easy-to-read style which most readers will come to appreciate.

For more info;

  • see the next article, Augustine on Tongues and the Donatists

  • Or the actual English translations of the important texts by Augustine relating to the Christian doctrine of tongues, Augustine on the Tongues of Pentecost in English. ■

  • Charles A. Sullivan

    Charles A. Sullivan

    Charles Sullivan is a researcher and writer on topics of textual criticism, linguistics, theology, Christian mysticism and philosophy. He also frequently likes to delve into contemporary social and ethical issues from a faith perspective.
    Charles A. Sullivan

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