Introductory Notes on the Gift of Tongues Project

The Gift of Tongues Project aims to find as many historical texts as possible, digitize and translate them, 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 have been ignored, forgotten, or unresearched. This absence has negatively affected this subject and 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 accessible in seconds. This site has taken years to build. The database is provided free of charge.

  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 supply 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 have 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 doctrine has been one of the most controversial and unresolved issues in Protestant and, to a lesser extent, Catholic Christianity for the last 120 years. This tension was a big motivation for the author to uncover this mystery.

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

There is a litany of important ecclesiastical documents on the Christian doctrine of tongues left out of the story. This omission is because of three problems: first, few have studied or read the doctrine of tongues in the original texts — a lengthy examination demonstrates many critical historical texts on the subject are ignored or unknown. Secondly, the lack of translations in English or any other contemporary language of ancient source texts had led to the assumption that history was silent on the subject when it was not. 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 a different conclusion that obscured the traditional one. This ignorance of the historical record has led many to erroneous positions on the Christian doctrine of tongues.

The Gift of Tongues Project started as a personal journey and ended as a scholarly one. The study was to prove the Charismatic experience correct and as a mystical apologetic to the world that God does exist. It then switched into an 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 surround us daily. 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 is a great playground for the historical theology process of processing all this information. I like the world of literature, texts, manuscripts, and language that this subject opens up.

The Gift of Tongues Project is a hobby 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 was 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, 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. Based on the assumption that there was little to no ancient church literature on speaking in tongues, I thought a few days would wrap up any research. Walking down the library’s corridor on Church Father Writings, I randomly pulled out an English translation of Cyril of Jerusalem. A page described what foreign languages Peter and John spoke at Pentecost. To my knowledge, no Charismatic, Pentecostal, academic, or scholar had ever quoted him. 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 revelation 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 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 many specialists to do over a long time. However, most 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 no financial, political, or emotional support exists to explore this issue. Modern academics consider the issue irrelevant and have not added anything substantial to the conversation over the last 50 years. These factors have contributed to serious ongoing hindrances to properly studying the doctrine.

Members in the Pentecostal, Charismatic, or Spirit-filled communities who have ancient language skills or employ a historic theology system of interpretation are faced with a difficult, almost impossible task because they do not have internal support. This impediment 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. 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 serious challenge was finding the original literature. Thanks to modern technology, this massive obstacle is being overcome. In the past, a study of this nature would be almost impossible. Monasteries, universities, and other remote locations shelved manuscripts and texts that did not belong to Migne Patrologia Graeca or Latina. Many specialized books, too, were not available through inter-library loans. The circumstance required travelling to these locations to look at the 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. Now, 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 opened 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 first problem in defining the historical rite of speaking in tongues.

The study has urgency because of the revived popularity of this doctrine. The number of people who engage in or support the modern rite of speaking in tongues is staggering. Five hundred eighty-four million people identify as Pentecostal, Charismatic, or Spirit-filled worldwide.1

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 various conclusions and shaped 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 and is close to reaching its objective. 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.

Many significant passages relating to tongues 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 differ from the contemporary presuppositions on the topic.

Migne’s edition is not always the best text, but it 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 dealt with throughout this project’s pages.

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

The GOT Project purposely avoids the psychological, social, or metaphysical aspects. Many books are available on these subjects that the reader can find.

The GOT project 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. 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 work is not a polemic against any religious group. Many denominations with tongues in their statement of theology are positive organizations in their Christian life and witness.

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 on this aspect, but this was the world many ancient writers habituated. It cannot be ignored or underestimated.

Reconstructing a Framework

Largely due to the persecutions of Christians before the fourth century, the availability of any Christian literature written from inception until 300 AD can be counted on your fingers. Those before 300 AD 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 trace back to this time. This period is where one can find the most significant corpus of literature. 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 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 before the fourth century in wholly Greek terms. For example, Ambrose began his explanation of creation by referring to Pythagoras. St. Thomas Aquinas had a certain love for the writings of Aristotle. The early Church writer Irenaeus spent many of his writings polemically against the Greek concept of gods.

This influence was also noted by Harry Gamble in his book Books and Readers in the Early Church. He found that many of the Church leaders were converts from a cultured Greek 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

Secondly, as admitted by John Chrysostom, the tongues controversy, at least in Corinth, had no Greek antecedent. 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

Another problem with 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 create 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. The author borrows this assumption from his religious outlook. However, belief in the supernatural should not close the researcher to all the possibilities. The Books of Acts and Corinthians do not provide a level of detail to build a solid case. The need to fill in the gaps with early Church writings or later is necessary.

The GOT Project intends to let the Church Fathers speak on their terms concerning the Christian doctrine of tongues. Most books on this subject attempt to rewrite history to align with their ideology and heavily depend on the small number of English translations already available. This conclusion is a serious handicap on their part – something which the GOT Project attempts to avoid.

A few notes on the translations provided:

  • If someone else ably translates a text already, this is the priority for digitizing on this site. However, experience has shown that the quality of English translations varies. Some translations are abridged, condensed, amplified, or some other problem that one cannot simply pass them as being true to their antecedent. Examining the source and the English translation was a standard process here. If it is not a good translation, a new translation is given.

  • 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 do not 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 or supply a quote to back up their claims. To separate this research from others that have preceded it, there will be a heavy emphasis on both citation and quotation.

How the Church Fathers were Researched

The approach to this project was 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 positive findings.

By visually scanning through the image files of the texts, there is a chance of overlooking some crucial citations or subtypes. Even though this is a good possibility, the provided citations are substantial enough to draw a definitive conclusion.

There was a substantial amount of text visually scanned. 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 were visually checked page by page for potential texts. I did not rigorously check the last 31 volumes of MPG. Only the indices were analyzed for chapter headings that applied to the subject matter. Migne Patrologia Latina has been consulted but not as thoroughly as MPG.

Language Notes

Most 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 time limitations restricted this venture.

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 project’s goal is not to trace every movement from the seventeenth century onwards but to follow why the definition had changed. The new meaning 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 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, and synonyms and potentially find extra adjectives among the multiple 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 were 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 Greek and Latin, it became clear that this was unnecessary.

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

The project’s focus evolved and turned into a Rabbinic form of inquiry. Where did it start, who influenced who, why it changed and when, and how it evolved to the definition we have today? Why has it 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.

  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.
  2. Harry Gamble. Books and Readers in the Early Church. New Haven:Yale University. 1995. Pg. 35
  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

8 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!

    Reply
  2. Yes, I am very interested in this project. I am a professor at Oral Roberts University. I have contributed some on glossolalia in Acts in my work, Mighty in Word and Deed: the Role of the Holy Spirit in Luke Acts (Wipf & Stock).

    Thank you for your work,

    Dr. James B. Shelton

    Reply
  3. Hello there Mr. Sullivan!

    I am a student at Ohio Dominican University and have been wondering about this topic since my conversion to Catholicism in 2018. The idea of tongues as glossolalia (which I understand as the “babbling” utterances) has never sat well with me, but could never dismiss because of so many Catholic friends subscribing to it. I find it very unnerving, but try to be as charitable as possible. Anyhow.

    Thank you again for providing this incredible resource. I’ve forwarded it to like-minded friends and will be happy to share it with faculty. God bless.

    Reply

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