Introductory Notes on the Gift of Tongues Project

The goal of the Gift of Tongues Project is find as many historic texts on the subject as possible, digitize them, translate, and provide a commentary.

The fourfold purpose of the Gift of Tongues Project:

  1. Identify and collate any ancient literature on the subject

    Large portions of ancient literature on this topic has been ignored, forgotten, or unresearched. This absence has negatively affected this whole subject and has led to erroneous conclusions.

  2. To provide the original sources in digital format

    All the pertinent texts found are digitized in the original language. All the material provided is at your digital fingertips and can be accessed in a matter of seconds. This has taken years to build. The database is provided free of charge and validates any conclusions made on this site.

  3. To provide the texts in English

    There never has been a substantial amount of ecclesiastical writings translated into English. My guess is less than 20%. Many translations are abridged, condensed, old English, or dynamically translated. The lack of English translations and problems associated with the existing ones have negatively affected the tongues debate. The supplying of English texts has become one of the greatest ambitions of this project.

  4. Trace the evolution of the tongues doctrine from its inception until now.

    This is a difficult task. There has been many twists and turns throughout the centuries.

Why study this topic?

Defining and understanding the christian doctrine of tongues is a big challenge. This has been one of the most difficult unsolved issues in the realm of Protestant, and lesser of Catholic, Christianity for the last 120 years. This also was a big motivation for the author to uncover this mystery.

Why has it remained unresolved so long? The answer is ignorance of the ancient records.

There is a litany of important ecclesiastical documents on the christian doctrine of tongues that have been left out of the story. This is because of three problems: first, few have studied or read the doctrine of tongues in the original texts — a lengthy examination demonstrates there are many critical historical texts on the subject that have never been utilized. Secondly, the lack of translations in English or any other contemporary language of ancient source texts has led to the assumption that history was silent on the subject, when it really wasn’t. Third, the last two hundred years of scholarly study have relegated church literature to the realm of myth, and considered an invalid source for serious inquiry. In doing so, they denied ecclesiastical literature its proper place in the tongues discussion. Thus, they came to an altogether different conclusion that obscured the traditional one. This ignorance of the historic record has led many to erroneous positions on the christian doctrine of tongues.

The Gift of Tongues Project started as a personal journey, and ends as a scholarly one. It was initially designed to prove the charismatic experience as correct and also as a mystical apologetic to the world that God does indeed exist. It then switched into a I really don’t care at all feeling. It felt petty to consume so much time to figure out when abject poverty, loss, pain, and violence daily surrounds us. However, the intellectual challenge is just too hard to resist.

The challenge of uncovering the christian doctrine of tongues is a complex mixture of theology, ancient religious rites, languages, cultures, Judaism, social movements, psychology and ancient Greek life. This combination makes a great playground for the historical theology process used in processing all this information. The various genres mixed together requiring a solution keeps me continually involved in the subject. I like the world of literature, texts, manuscripts, language and thought that this subject opens up.

The Gift of Tongues Project is a hobby — one that gave me the reason to keep my acquired Greek, Hebrew, and Syriac languages, along with the later learned Latin, intact. It also was a great distraction from the busyness of my day. While most watch television at night, I am frequently scanning volumes of Migne Patrologia Graeca or Latina, or other ancient works looking for signs.

The initial assumption was little or no literature existed on the subject. However, this attitude slowly changed. The research began before digital technologies and the internet took off, and so the traditional method of parsing through printed literature was the only option. The place to find ancient literature was at a university library, which for me was the University of Manitoba. It was assumed that the research would be done in a week’s time. Walking down the library’s corridor on Church Father Writings, I randomly pulled out an English translation which happened to be Cyril of Jerusalem. A page was accidentally found describing what foreign languages Peter and John spoke at Pentecost. No Charismatic, Pentecostal, academic, or any other scholar to my knowledge had ever quoted him before. It was a definitive statement that should have set the basis for almost any part of the tongues discussion, but it was completely absent. This started the journey of asking, looking, and finding significantly more texts. It forced the following question — why were so many Church writings missing from the debate? Cyril of Jerusalem’s text faded into the overall inquiry, but the question set the wheels in motion that took many years to unravel.

The wealth of untranslated literature and the labour required to identify, collate, and read is overwhelming. The task is a full-time job for a number of specialists to do over a long-period of time. However, the majority of Pentecostals and almost all Charismatics formally reject intellectual inquiry into substantive issues of faith. There are few capable in this sector with skills in the original languages to take on the task, and absolutely no financial, political, or emotional support exists to explore this issue. Those who are qualified to review such documentation are typically of Catholic background, and the importance of studying this topic has no importance to their communities so they hardly devote any principal resources to answer this question. Modern academics consider the issue irrelevant and have not added anything substantial to the conversation over the last 50 years. These factors have contributed serious ongoing hindrances to a proper study of the doctrine.

Members in the pentecostal or charismatic communities who have ancient language skills or employ a historic theology system of interpretation is faced with a difficult, almost impossible task because they don’t have internal support. This forces the researcher to embark on a charitable project that requires thousands of hours of volunteer effort with little or no encouragement from the community they participate in. The reward is not in financial or personal accolades, but in solving one of the most complex theological issues the last 100 years has to offer.

The most serious challenge was finding the original literature. Thanks to modern technology, this very big obstacle is being overcome. In the past a study of this nature would be almost impossible. Manuscripts and texts that did not belong to Migne Patrologia Graeca or Latina were shelved in monasteries, universities, and other remote locations. Specialized books too were held in reserve. Many were not available through inter-library loan. The circumstance required travelling to these locations to look at the original sources. A visit may require prior authorization because there are no guarantees that the officer in charge of the source material will grant a viewing either. Now, many institutions like the British Museum and the Vatican are posting their manuscripts online for free. Google and Microsoft are also in a race to digitize libraries around the world for public use. This data availability was unheard of even a decade ago and opens a treasure chest of data for anyone who uses the historical theology process. What used to take days or even months of planning, travel, correspondence and cost, can now be done in a matter of seconds.

With this availability a new problem has arisen – the lack of English translations. This circumstance is now the number one problem of defining the historical rite of speaking in tongues.

The study has an urgency because of the revived popularity of this doctrine. The amount of people who engage in or support the modern rite of speaking in tongues are staggering. 584 million people either identify themselves as Pentecostal or Charismatic all across the world – both organizations that emphasize this rite are a central part of their doctrines.(1)The Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life. Global Christianity A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population. December 2011. Pg. 17. Pew Forum notes this number could be larger.

However, the definition of speaking in tongues by those who practice and promote such a lifestyle is very mysterious and abstract. There is a complete lack of historical evidence to support such a contemporary phenomenon. This absence of historical literature has led to a variety of conclusions and has shaped the modern practice.

The growing popularity of this practice requires a critical evaluation.

How the goals are being accomplished

This project has been ongoing for over two decades now and finally almost near completion. It has accelerated in the last few years due to the innovations offered by the internet. Sites such as Google Books, and Perseus for Greek and Latin Dictionaries, have offered invaluable assistance.

There are many significant passages relating to tongues that have not been found in any popular English translations. The starting point was to look through the massive Migne Patrologia Graeca series which contains Ecclesiastical writings from the second to fifteenth centuries. It had to be sight read. There are no digital versions of this work available.

It is a tedious and time-consuming task. Some patterns and trends are beginning to develop that are different from the contemporary presuppositions on the topic.

Migne’s edition is not always the best text, but served as a springboard to finding the better ones.

The overwhelming amount of information collated and reviewed forced me to ask, Why do we think so differently about it today than they did?

This was an equally challenging question that is dealt with throughout the pages of this project.

This project is not so much a theological journey as it is a historical-critical one. It attempts to traverse through the epochs of tongues expressions by comparing various manuscripts, authors and trends. It also tries to chronologize the passing of the tradition through the centuries.

It is a project that spans over 2000 years of material which demonstrates that the definition has evolved. It aims to document the main contributors and movements over the various epochs of time, what or who influenced the changes, and how these antecedents have influenced our modern religious mindset.

Who this Project is For

  • This project is aimed at an intellectual religious audience familiar with the christian doctrine of tongues.

  • The level of reading difficulty is quite high. A familiarity with the controversy along with the Biblical literature related to it; especially the Book of Acts, Chapter 2 and I Corinthians Chapter 14 is required.

  • This is not purposed as a polemic against any religious group and their practices. Many denominations that have tongues in their statement of theology are positive organizations in their overall Christian life and witness. This is simply a detailed journey using a historic-critical method to graph and analyze the changing definition throughout history. It is up to the reader to apply it in their particular situation.

Apologies for Delving into the Realms of Philosophy (sort of)

Many important pieces of Patristic material are heavily influenced and framed within Greek philosophy. Readers may feel that some coverage may concentrate too much in this aspect, but this was the world that many of the ancient writers lived in. It cannot be ignored or underestimated.

Reconstructing a Framework

Largely due to the persecutions of Christians prior to the fourth-century, the availability of any Christian literature written from inception until 300 AD can be counted on your fingers. Those few address little about speaking in tongues – whispers and ghosts, but nothing substantive.

The fourth-century was the golden age of Church and Jewish literature. Many of the most well-known Christian authors can be traced back to this time. This is where the greatest corpus of literature can initially be found on the subject. Since these documents are around 300 years removed from the events and background that led to the origin and implementation of tongues in the early Church, they cannot be considered the absolute standard. However, these are the best documents available today.

With this in mind, the first objective will be to reconstruct the early Church interpretation based on remnants found in the gilded writers starting around the fourth century.

But this is not enough. As the research will later decidedly demonstrate, the early Church at least in the first century was a Jewish sect, based on Jewish faith and liturgy that crossed the boundaries into a Greek world.

So one must have a thorough combined understanding of Greek philosophy, Jewish underpinnings and the Church Fathers in order to arrive at a complete and thorough understanding of the subject.

This brings on a very apparent and immediate problem – the Graecanization of the Christian faith. Patristic writers liked to trace and explain the Christian movement prior to the fourth century in wholly Greek terms. Ambrose began his explanation of creation referring to Pythagoras. St. Thomas Aquinas had a certain love for the writings of Aristotle. The early Church writer Irenaeous spent a large portion of his writings polemically against the Greek concept of gods.

This was also noted by Harry Gamble in his book, Books and Readers in the Early Church, where he found that many of the Church leaders were converts from a Greek cultured background, “Most Christian writers of the second through fifth centuries were practiced in the rhetorical arts; not a few, Tertullian, Cyprian, Lactantius and Augustine, for example, were teachers of rhetoric before they entered the Church.”(2) Harry Gamble. Books and Readers in the Early Church. New Haven:Yale University. 1995. Pg. 35

Secondly, as admitted by John Chrysostom, the tongues controversy at least in Corinth, had no Greek antecedent, and because he was unaware of the Jewish initial influence, he could not find the solution, “This whole place is very obscure: but the obscurity is produced by our ignorance of the facts.”(3) NPNF1-12. Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians. Trans. Rev. Talbot W. Chambers, D.D., Homily 29. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf112.iv.xxx.html

It is indisputable the sources for both the ancient and modern definitions of the gift of tongues originated in fourth-century.

Another problem about building a framework about the early Church definition and practice from later literature is the amount of source material. It is small — but enough to build a basis for the early Church interpretation of Pentecost and the practice of tongues at Corinth.

Presuppositions and Caveats

The author presupposes the gift of tongues to be a supernatural phenomenon. This is borrowed from the author’s religious outlook. However, just because it was described as a miracle should not cause the researcher to have a closed the mind to the realm of possibilities. The Books of Acts and Corinthians do not provide a level of detail to definitively conclude and so subsequent writings must be analyzed to fill in the gaps.

The GOT Project intends to let the Church Fathers speak on their own terms in relation to the christian doctrine of tongues. The majority of books on this subject attempt to rewrite history to align with their ideology and have a heavy dependance on the small amount of English translations already available. This is a serious handicap on their part – something which the GOT Project attempts to avoid.

A few notes on the translations provided:

  • If a text is ably translated by someone else, this may be used. However, it must be examined first before being published on this site. Experience has shown that the quality of English translations varies. There are translations that are abridged, condensed, amplified or some other problem that one cannot just simply pass them as being true to its antecedent. So a process has been implemented. It is first compared against the original text. If it is not a good translation, it will be re-translated.

  • I have provided many translations myself because of the plethora of ancient texts on the subject that exist only in their original language. Although I have been very tedious in providing professional level translations, there always exists the element of error — though I don’t believe any error would be sufficient to change any conclusion herein. But still the reader must be aware of this reality.

Many modern documents, books, and authors on the gift of tongues lack the necessary citation and/or supply a quote to back-up their claims. In order to separate this research from others that have preceded, there will be a heavy emphasis on both citation and quotation.

How the Church Fathers were Researched

The approach to this project was simply to read as many ancient writings as possible. The subject could come up in an ecclesiastical text on any occasion because most Church writers were allegorists and not literalists. The result was a time-consuming reading and translating regimen that produced very positive finds.

By visually scanning through the image files of the texts, there is a chance that some important citations or subtypes are missed. Even though this is a good possibility, the ones that have been found are substantial enough to draw a definitive conclusion.

How much was looked at? The first 135 of the total 161 volumes of Migne Patrologia Graeca — a large compendium of Church writings from Clement in the 2nd century to the Council of Florence in 1438-39 was visually checked page by page for potential texts. The last 31 of MPG were not checked in such detail. Only the indices were analyzed for chapter headings that were applicable to the subject matter. Migne Patrologia Latina has been consulted but not as thoroughly as MPG. MPL has been digitized and one day will be looked at in further detail. There is no timeline for this.

Language Notes

The majority of the early textual work is concerned with Greek, Latin, and Aramaic with minor samplings of other writings. Syriac literature could have been more prominent but it is restricted due to time limitations.

Why does the study stop in the early 1900s?

The Gift of Tongues Project has revealed so far three important phases in the doctrine of tongues throughout history:

  • the traditional doctrine of miraculously speaking or hearing a foreign language. First to eighteenth-centuries.
  • the change to the doctrine of glossolalia in the nineteenth-century
  • the third mutation to a heavenly language in the twentieth-century

The goal of the project is not to trace every movement from the seventeenth-century onwards, but to follow why the definition had changed. The new definition had stabilized soon after 1906 so it is not necessary to go any further into the genre after that.

Tracing and explaining the modern tongues speaking movements is a topic unto itself and would require its own careful attention. I am not a specialist in pentecostal or charismatic studies and there are many others better equipped to add this part of the story in other materials.

A Short Linguistic Analysis

The initial intention was to do an etymology of the religious word tongues from a literary and linguistic perspective: first it was to discover its usage, various synonyms and potentially finding extra adjectives among the various pieces of Greek literature throughout the centuries. The second stage was to be comparing the Latin, Syriac and later translations.

By doing this, one could theoretically deduce whether tongues was intended to be ecstatic utterances, heavenly or earthly languages or any combination of the three.

As the translation work went on with the Ecclesiastical writers both in the Greek and the Latin, it became wholly clear that this was unnecessary.

The consistent message among the first fourteen centuries clearly demonstrated that it was a human language. This was so strong and clear, there was no reason to defend this. How this human language happened and the mechanics behind this were the sources of debate.

The focus of the project evolved and turned into a Rabbinic form of inquiry. Where did it start, who influenced who, why did it change and when, and how did it evolve to the definition we have today? A map is being developed about the key thinkers and movements who have passed down their doctrines and ideologies on the subject from one generation to another and why it has influenced many to believe what they do today on the subject.

The Gift of Tongues Project is the place to go for all the details on this journey which travels deep into history, language, theology, philosophy, institutional movements, and more.

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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3 thoughts on “Introductory Notes on the Gift of Tongues Project

  1. Hi – you don’t seem to have a contact form or email info on this site (at least, I couldn’t find it!), but thought you might be interested in this 1995 PhD thesis from King’s College, London: Heidi Baker, “Pentecostal experience : towards a reconstructive theology of glossolalia”. Details in the KCL library record:

    https://librarysearch.kcl.ac.uk:443/kings_v1:EVERYTHING:44KCL_ALEPH_DS000300222

    And it is available for PDF download from the British Library:

    http://ethos.bl.uk/OrderDetails.do?uin=uk.bl.ethos.364371

    There is a chapter on “historical perspectives”, but not quite of the dimensions of this project. Still, it might be something for a complete bibliography.

    Hope this helps!

    1. Thank you very much for the information on Heidi Baker’s thesis. It looks fascinating and I can’t wait to read it. Yes, a contact page is needed. Somehow this got lost in the updating of the website a while ago and was overlooked. Didn’t realize until you mentioned it. It will be fixed soon.

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