Augustine on the Tongues of Pentecost

Augustine 354 — 430 AD.

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

Augustine was one of the most prolific writers on the doctrine of tongues. He understood the complexity and varied definitions that surrounded the christian doctrine of tongues. Unfortunately, he did not attempt to simplify the matrix of explanations. Nor does he outrightly endorse a specific position. Regardless of this problem, his writings reveal vital clues about the christian doctrine of tongues and its progression.

His comments reveal a diversity of thought propelled by a particular political motivation. He did not have any real concerns about the veracity of the doctrine and was ambivalent. He changed his approach and thoughts, depending on the audience. In some sermons, he often championed that the people speaking in tongues spoke in all the languages of the world and makes no mention about continuity or lack thereof. In others, especially against the rival Donatist movement, he promoted that the miracle had transferred from an individual to a corporate experience.

In some instances, he strengthened that the miraculous display had died off altogether. Readers of this blog are always critical of such general statements, and a portion of this article is devoted to explaining this aspect.

He picks and chooses about the nature and purpose of speaking in tongues given the situation. It appears that the mechanics behind how those divinely spoke in tongues were of no interest to him. His priority was to defeat the Donatist challenge.

Augustine was the Catholic Bishop of the ancient city of Hippo which was near the epicenter of the breakaway Donatist movement. He wrote against the Donatists trying to persuade them through logic and by state law to come back into the fold. He is considered one of the early pillars of Western Christianity and philosophy.

The Donatists

If it were not for the Donatists, Augustine would not have left such a legacy about the tongues of Pentecost. 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. There were concerns over how to handle church leaders who assisted with the secular authorities in the persecutions. The disciplining or expulsion of cooperative leaders became a source of contention within the African Catholic Church. The Donatists separated on this issue and transformed into a separate christian movement. At their height, they statistically outnumbered the traditional catholic representatives in the region with over 400 bishops.1

According to Augustine, one of the volleys that the Donatists hurled was their ability to speak in tongues. The Donatists argued that this act showed their endorsement by God, and since the Catholic Church did not speak in tongues, Augustine and his institution were outside God’s favor. The legendary Bishop of Hippo began a polemical doctrinal war intending to destroy their perceived supremacy.

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.

There is no firsthand information available today from a Donatist viewpoint. The writings of Augustine are the primary source. This lack of data creates difficulty to assess the situation from a neutral perspective.

Augustine attempted in many 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.2

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’s familiarity with the differing views of tongues

It is necessary to build a background before digging deeper into the conflict between Augustine and the Donatists.

Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (354-430 AD, was aware of the different theories on the subject:

  • His contemporary, 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, though Nazianzus thought speaking was the more credible route.3

  • An associate of Gregory Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, held that Pentecost was one sound spoken and miraculously transformed into a language within the person’s mind.4

    Gregory of Nyssa’s outlook has a historical antecedent. The first century BC Jewish Hellenistic philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, did not 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.5

  • John Chrysostom (349 to 407 AD) held similar views to Augustine on the diminished role of divine tongues in the individual expression and transferred the phenomenon into a corporate expression.6

    A follower of Chrysostom, Basil of Seleucia (@400 to 458 AD), held to a similar position to that of Augustine. He knows of the different options and plays with them without giving a clear picture of which set is the correct one.7

  • On the other hand, there is evidence that the idea of speaking in tongues continued in the Church. Irenaeus wrote in the second century about the continued use of foreign languages in the christian liturgy.8 An earlier North African leader named Pachomius (292 to 346 AD) supposedly had the temporary ability to speak in Latin tongue. Although Augustine never acknowledges such in his writings, he was undoubtedly aware of these or similar events.

Did Augustine think it a miracle of speaking or hearing?

Sometimes Augustine 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,”9
  • “they began to speak in all the languages, that in respect to those who were present, everybody was recognizing their own language,”10
  • “Each man speaking in every language,”11
  • “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.”12

His coverage is found in several other Sermons13 and his work on the Psalms. In Enarratio in Psalmum he wrote this particular puzzling entry, “See that sounds went out in every language.”14

There is no question that the semantic range of this experience fell inside the use of foreign languages and cannot extend to glossolalia. 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 doctrinal questions of tongues

The following quotes from Augustine move towards to two critical theological standards. The first is the theological question of whether everyone should expect to speak in tongues. The second is the shift of the individual to corporate experience of tongues. Both these motifs are examined in detail:

Should everyone speak in tongues?

The Donatist influence raised the question of whether one should miraculously speak in a foreign language when baptized—whether the Donatists believed this is uncertain. However, if one emphatically promotes the idea of speaking in tongues, this question naturally arises. Augustine refutes this expectation. The following demonstrates his opinions on the matter.

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.”15 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. . .?”16 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.”17

Augustine’s Sermo 267, Chapter 3: Chapter III. Why the Gift of Tongues is all but Withdrawn is a significant text:

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.”18

He approached this theological question repeatedly in several works pointing out the theological problems related to this concept. Here is an excerpt:

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?19

The shift from individual to corporate tongues

On numerous occasions, he shifted the doctrine of tongues from an individual to a corporate rite. The institutional church had taken over the rite of speaking in foreign languages to all the nations. It was no longer necessary for an individualistic endowment.

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 were 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.”20

Augustine believed the Church continued with its multilingual mission.

For respect to which 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 being completed now which was promised at that time. We have heard, we have seen, “Hear daughter, and see!” [Ps 34:11]. It was written to the queen herself, “Hear daughter and see!” Hear that which was promised! See that which was completed!21

The “fulfillment as to which was promised at that time,” should not be interpreted to mean cessationism but rather that this was an office that was established at the foundation and confirmed functioning since.

Augustine illustrated in Sermo 266:2 that the Church became an international entity because of the gift of tongues.

Tongues and Unity

He closely tied the doctrine of tongues to the importance of unity. The historical sign of tongues signified the universal expansion and unification of all peoples to the one true faith. The Bishop of Hippo countered that the individualized use of tongues by the Donatists went against the prime directive of unity. He repeats this argument frequently throughout the tongues-texts.

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.”22

the unity of the Catholic Church has been signified by the gift of tongues.

Augustine set up the Catholic Church as the true one because of its universality and inferred 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 wordplay 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.23

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.”24

Augustine about the cessation of tongues

This patristic leader’s position on miracles and its tongues prodigy are a contentious issue of debate since the Reformation. This argument is prominent in later Protestant works and absent in Catholic ones.25 This is apparent in the tongues citations provided above. However, the most disputed piece is 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.26

This was written around 390 AD. 37 years later Augustine revisited this statement, believing it was misunderstood. He published a correction in his Retractiones:

Likewise, this statement of mine is indeed true: “These miracles were not allowed to last until our times lest the soul ever seek visible things and the human race grow cold because of familiarity with those things whose novelty enkindled it.” For not even now, when a hand is laid on the baptized, do they receive the Holy Spirit in such a way that they speak with the tongues of all nations; nor are the sick now healed by the passing shadow of the preachers of Christ. Even though such things happened at that time, manifestly these ceased later. But what I said is not to be so interpreted that no miracles are believed to be performed in the name of Christ at the present time. For, when I wrote that book, I myself had recently learned that a blind man had been restored to sight in Milan near the bodies of the martyrs in that very city, and I knew about some other, so numerous even in these times, that we cannot know about all of them nor enumerate those we know.2728

Augustine’s intention remained intact. He believed in miracles but limited the scope. This reflection was an attempt to change people’s perception of what he wrote. He was not a cessationist—a later term applied to those who believe all miracles ceased after the formation of the church. He had not entirely figured out the role of miracles in de vera religione in his younger years. It was not yet comprehensive enough in his evaluation. In later years, he filled this void in Retractiones.

The Bishop of Hippo joins with Chrysostom holding a certain skepticism against the personal promotion of miracles and magic—elements that were commonplace in the ancient world until the sixteenth century.29 Augustine did not promote the cessation of miracles but better control mechanisms; one of them denying certain individualized gifts. Both him and Chrysostom also believed that an overemphasis on miracles was a gateway to pride. These two represented a fourth-century trend electing to switch the authority from the individual to deceased saints, symbols of the church, personal piety, and the authority vested in the Church. It is not known whether this was a personal agreement between Augustine and Chrysostom or was simply the intellectual spirit of the times.

The strong integration of miracles and magic within the world of Augustine and his contemporaries would make an the cessation assertion of all miracles too radical.30

Additionally, history shows that the idea of the individualized speaking in tongues giving way to the corporate expression never took hold as a universalized standard doctrine. This position competes against too many instances throughout centuries of ecclesiastical texts, where the individual expression of speaking in tongues occurred. These instances are documented throughout the Gift of Tongues Project. Enough to demonstrate that the individualized cessation of tongues never took hold.

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.31 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.

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 citation is a popular verse 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

Surprisingly, his works have not entered into the primary sourcebooks as a central author explaining and defining the christian tongues doctrine. This problem is not unique just to Augustine. More detail is given at the following article: History of Glossolalia: Patristic Citation.

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.

General Notes on Augustine and the Donatists

The Latin text, found in Migne Patrologia Latina, emphatically states that Augustine was arguing against the Donatists — even the chapter headings have their names labeled. However, 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.

For more info;

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 with links to the Latin.

  1. David Benedict, Henry Clinton Graves. History of the Donatists. NL: NP. 1875. Col. 9
  3. See Gregory of Nazianzus on the Doctrine of Tongues Intro for more information
  4. See An Analysis of Gregory of Nyssa on Speaking in Tongues
  5. Philo of Alexandria The Decalogue IX. (32)
  6. See Chrysostom on the Doctrine of Tongues
  7. See Basil of Seleucia on Pentecost: Notes for more information
  8. See Irenaeus on the Gift of Tongues for more information
  9. MPL Vol. 38. Augustine. Sermo CLXXV:3 (175:3) Col. 946
  10. MPL Vol. 39. Augustine. Sermo. CCCLII:2 (352:2) Col. 1550
  11. MPL Vol. 38. Augustine. Sermo CCLXV:10 (265:10) Col. 1224
  12. MPL Vol. 38. Augustine. Sermo CCLXVI:2 (266:2) Col. 1224-1225
  13. Sermo CCLXVII and CCLXVIII
  14. MPL Vol. 37 Augustine. Enarratio in Psalmum. CXLVII:19 (147:19) Col. 1929
  15. Sermo CCLXVII (267), MPL Vol. 38. Augustine. Sermo CCLXVII (267) Col. 1230ff. My translation
  16. MPL Vol. 35. Augustine. In Epistolas Joannis et Parthos VI:10 (6:10) Col. 2025ff
  17. Augustine. Enarratio in Psalmum. CXLVII:19 (147:19)
  18. MPL Vol. 38. Augustine. Sermo CCLXVII (267) Col. 1230ff Translation is mine
  19. MPL Vol. 35. Augustine. In Epistolas Joannis et Parthos VI:10 (6:10) Col. 2025ff. Translation is mine.
  20. MPL Vol. 37 Augustine. Enarratio in Psalmum. CXLVII:19 (147:19) Col. 1929. Translation is mine.
  21. MPL Vol. 38. Augustine. Sermo CCLXVII (267) Col. 1230ff. Translation is mine.
  22. MPL Vol. 38. Augustine. Sermo CCLXVIII (268) Col. 1231. Translation is mine.
  23. MPL Vol. 38. Augustine. Sermo CCLXVIII (268) Col. 1231. Translation is mine
  24. David Benedict, Henry Clinton Graves. History of the Donatists. NL: NP. 1875. Col. 26
  25. See Cessationism, Miracles, and Tongues: Part 1 for more information
  26. 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. For the Latin see de vera religione 25(47)
  27. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo. The Retractions. Translated by Sister M. Inez Bogan, R.S.M. As found in The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation. Roy Joseph Deferrari, ed. Vol. 60. The Catholic University of America Press. 1999. Pg. 55
  28. For the original Latin see Rectractiones. Liber I, 13:7
  29. The article on Chrysostom on the Doctrine of Tongues goes into further details on this.
  30. See Augustine and Miracles as found on a website dedicated to Augustine. I do not know what authority backs this site. The following article also traces magic and miracle through a medieval lens;
  31. Jan Den Boeft. The Apostolic Age in Patristic Thought. A. Hilhorst ed. Leiden: Brill. 2004. Pg. 61

7 thoughts on “Augustine on the Tongues of Pentecost”

  1. What is this sentence supposed to mean?
    “In some instances, he strengthened that the miraculous display had died off altogether. “

  2. I thought it interesting this quote was nowhere included in this article, considering its relevance:

    “In the earliest times, the Holy Spirit fell upon them that believe and they spoke with tongues, which they had not learned, as the Spirit gave them utterance. These were signs adapted to the time. For there was this betokening of the Holy Spirit in all tongues to show that the gospel of God was to run through all tongues over the whole earth. That thing was done for a sign, and it passed away.” – Augustin, Homilies on the First Epistle of John


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