Answers to the christian doctrine of tongues from the writings of Thomas Aquinas.
Table of Contents
- Aquinas’ aspects of the miracle of tongues in Church history and practice
- The tongues of Pentecost and Corinth
- The miracle of speaking over that of hearing
- The merging of prophecy with speaking in tongues
- Tongues in the thirteenth-century church liturgy
- What he meant by unknown tongues
Aquinas was an immensely influential theologian, teacher, writer, speaker, philosopher and more during the thirteenth-century. His ability to combine Greek philosophy, the intellect, the Bible, Christian principles, especially from a mystical viewpoint, and the use of a diverse library of ecclesiastical writers, creates a rich array of works written by him. His coverage of the gift of tongues combines many of these wide-ranging abilities.
Aquinas lived in an age of heightened christian mysticism and his intellectual inquiry is mixed with mystic elements. If he lived today, he would appeal to an intellectual pentecostal or charismatic audience. He sets the standard high for mystic christianity and in many areas, exceeds the current pentecostal and charismatic theologies. These are still in the development stage whereas Aquinas and his world had built a stable framework.
He wrote considerably on the tongues issue. One of his works on the subject, Summa Theologica, is popularly available in English, but not well understood. Other works, such as his Lectures on Corinthians, has not been available in English, nor critically examined until now. Both an English translation on the topic, along with the Latin original are available by going to this link: Thomas Aquinas and the Doctrine of Tongues Intro.
The tongues of Pentecost and Corinth
It was clear from Aquinas’ texts that the apostles speaking in tongues was a miraculous endowment of every human foreign language, both in speaking and understanding. He made this clear in Summa Theologica:
“It was more fitting that they should speak in all tongues, because they pertained to the perfection of their knowledge, whereby they were able not only to speak, but also to understand what was said by others. . . .Hence a gloss says on Acts 2:6 that “it was a “greater miracle that they should speak all kinds of tongues.”
On the other hand, he viewed the Corinthian Church problem as a linguistic one of regular human proportions. He theoretically taught the tongues of Corinth was initially directed at unbelieving Jews to bring them to belief, “his was a sign specifically given for the conversion of the Jewish people”. He devoted much more text in practical terms which reference to the Church of his time. He explained unknown tongues was about speaking in a language that other people didn’t understand. There are a number of examples but this one is the most succinct:
But in Corinth because they were curious, they were more cheerfully wanting this gift than the gift of prophecy. Because it is now being said here to speak in a tongue, the Apostle means in an unknown language, and not having these things explained, as if he was to speak in the German tongue to some Gallic [person] and the result that it is not explained, this is speaking in a tongue. From whence all speech having not been understood nor explained, no matter what it is, is specifically speaking in a tongue.
The miracle of speaking over that of hearing
Aquinas was well aware of the different interpretations on the doctrine of tongues, including the one voice being emitted and being understood in the native tongue of the listener. This was an interpretation that had been lingering and debated since at least the fourth-century. He did not agree with this position and clearly supported the traditional interpretation of those divinely inspired to speak in foreign languages. He pointed this out in his Lectures on I Corinthians:
Paul says, “I give thanks, etc.,” and not that they were to understand that all were speaking in one language. He says, “I speak with all your tongues,” “The Apostles were speaking in a variety of languages,”
And in Summa Theologica:
“Reply to Objection 2. “It was more fitting that they should speak in all tongues, because they pertained to the perfection of their knowledge, whereby they were able not only to speak, but also to understand what was said by others. …Hence a gloss says on Acts 2:6 that “it was a “greater miracle that they should speak all kinds of tongues.””
He even goes so far as to quote a gloss on Gregory Nazianzus that the Apostles had the ability understand all tongues.
Aquinas was well aware of the different theories on the tongues of Pentecost and its aftermath. This is especially prominent in his writings found in Summa Theologica where he outlined a number of different positions.
- The apostles were given the ability speak but did not have knowledge of all the languages.
- The Apostles spoke in Hebrew and everyone heard in their own language.
- Christ did not and the present faithful do not speak in more than one language. Therefore, the disciples didn’t speak in all languages either.
He countered these three with:
- The apostles were equipped with the gift of tongues to bring all people back into unity. It was only a temporary activity that later generations would not need. The later leaders would have access to interpreters which the first generation did not.
- The gift of tongues was restricted for teaching the faith. It did not extend to speaking about acquired sciences like math or geometry.
- They spoke and understood all languages. If it was a miracle of hearing, it would be much harder to substantiate as a miracle.
- The gift of tongues had shifted from the individual to the corporate church. He quotes Augustine on this.
The merging of prophecy with speaking in tongues
The emphasis of Aquinas clearly rests on combining prophecy with speaking in tongues. The Aquinas text stated over 21 times in his Lecture on I Corinthians 14 about the “the excellency of the gift of prophecy over the gift of tongues.” He ended the discussion on tongues in Summa Theologica in like manner. In almost every instance the wording is slightly different but has the same intention.
On would first conclude the overuse of prophecy indicates that he did not fully comprehend the Corinthians tongues passages as to exactly what was happening in this first-century Church. However, this is not the case after a closer look at his definition of prophecy.
It is important to understand Aquinas’ definition because the prophecy- tongues relationship becomes a very important part of nineteenth-century studies on the christian doctrine of tongues. Aquinas’ is the first modern writer to make this association, though there are earlier parallels that weren’t so distinct like the fourth-century writings attributed to Cyril of Alexandria.
This relationship can be found outlined in Summa Theologica, where he taught that:
Tongues is about words and physically retelling what one sees or hears. It doesn’t necessarily mean the person interpreting is required to understand the meaning.
Prophecy is not just words and retelling, though this is a part of it. Prophecy enlightens the mind so as to understand the meaning. This is why Aquinas uses to interpret as an act of prophecy. He has interpretation broken into two categories. The first one being the literal translation with no regards to the meaning. This is reserved for the office of tongues. The second one is translating and understanding the meaning. This is the office of prophecy.
Further information can be found in reading his Lectures on I Corinthians 14:5-12.
For the gift of tongues with an interpretation is better than prophecy because as it has been written, the interpretation of whatsoever difficulty relates to prophecy. Therefore, the one who speaks and interprets is a prophet and the one who has the gift of tongues and interprets [does so] in order for the Church to be built up.
And a short while later:
The interpretation of speeches is reducible to the gift of prophecy, inasmuch as the mind is enlightened so as to understand and explain any obscurities of speech arising either from a difficulty in the things signified, or from the words uttered being unknown, or from the figures of speech employed.”
He believed that Paul would have joined tongues with the gift of prophecy when he paraphrased I Corinthians 14:14:
“I said that the gift of tongues without the gift of prophecy has no value.”
Aquinas understood intellectual and divine comprehension as separate faculties. The ability to understand through supernatural means was to be infused in two ways: revelation and prophecy. A sudden divine infusion was called a revelation. A progressive infusion that came bit by bit or pieces over an extended period is called prophecy. Learning through natural means was called knowledge and a concept, idea or thought being related by another person was called teaching.
Tongues in the thirteenth-century church liturgy
The Lectures on I Corinthians 14 identified the role of tongues in the Church liturgy. He attested to both the history behind the liturgy and what the Church of his day practiced. With the first, all Churches, regardless of their linguistic background practised the Church liturgy in Latin:
But why do they [the priests] not give the blessing in the common [tongue], that they may be understood by the people and adhere themselves more to them? It has been said that this had been done in the early church, but afterwards, the faithful ones were taught and knew what they heard in the common office, the benedictions take place in Latin”
The text also recognizes and points out that benedictions was an old one adopted from the early Church. Aquinas goes on to state that public reading too was important. The emphasis was on reading or chanting the Latin. He associates this with speaking in tongues. The reader was obligated do it with proper pronunciation as is documented below:
It is the same to speak in tongues and to speak clearly enunciating [the Latin words] to such a degree for the uneducated. Since then everyone is to speak clearly enunciating in the Church, that all is being said in Latin. It appears that it is madness in the same way. One ought to say to this: Madness existed in the early Church on that account because they were unacquainted in the custom of the Church, consequently they were ignorant of what they should do here unless it was to be explained to them. But certainly in the present all have been educated. Although from this point everything is being spoken in Latin, they still know what is taking place in the Church.
R. Anthony Lodge described that Latin during this period was rigorously enforced on the grounds of pronunciation and usage:“Although written Latin had remained homogenous, the pronunciation of spoken Latin had come to vary considerably from one part of Europe to another. How was spoken Latin to be unified as part of the movement to promote the cohesion of the Carolingian state? It was decided that Latin pronunciation should be firmly anchored to spelling and that when Latin was read out it should be pronounced litteraliter, ‘sounding every letter’, without accommodating the speaker’s pronunciation of local phonology as had traditionally happened in Romance-speaking regions.”
The connection is then made by Aquinas that the public readings originally came from the office of tongues in the early Church, which originally was lifted from the Mosaic Law and it has evolved since then to a formal Church rite.
“In the mouth of two or three, etc..” (Deuteronomy 17:6) but it must be noted that this habit for the most part is being served in the Church for we have the [public] readings and the epistles and also the gospels in the place of tongues, and for that reason it follows in Mass two are being delivered, because only two are being said whose antecedent is to the gift of tongues, specifically the epistle and the gospel. Accordingly, in Matins many are done, in fact you say three readings in one. For in the former times they used to read a nocturn the next three night watches separately. Now however they are being spoken at the same time but on the other hand the procedure is not only to be preserved in regard to the number of those who are speaking but as well in regards to the way [it is done].
He identifies in his time that the office of tongues had changed into public readings of the Epistles and Gospels alternating by two in one instance to three in the other. It was read in Latin on a regular basis. Whether this is daily or weekly rite, Aquinas does not make clear. At present, the Catholic Church practices it this way, “On Sundays and solemnities, three Scripture readings are given. On other days there are only two.” There have been many arguments over the centuries on how the office of tongues died since the early Church but many writers had failed to see it had evolved. Whether they disagreed with this evolution is another question but they failed to realize this existence in their conclusions.
What he meant by unknown tongues
Another important theme that Aquinas addressed was the use of unknown tongues. This is the earliest Latin usage found so far in Ecclesiastical literature as it relates to tongues. It predates the tongues controversy that erupted during the Reformation 300 years later. This term unknown tongues was a cornerstone of the Protestant revolt against the Catholic Church and was a political instrument infused in Protestant English Bibles. The important part here is to find out what he meant by it. As previously quoted:
. . .the Apostle means in an unknown language, and not having these things explained, as if he was to speak in the German tongue to some Gallic [person] and the result that it is not explained, this is speaking in a tongue. From whence all speech having not been understood nor explained, no matter what it is, is specifically speaking in a tongue.”
“Preachers have become accustomed to preserve that way when they are to preach to men of an unknown tongue by means of an interpretation.”
Unknown tongues, which is the English equivalent of lingua ignota, simply means to Aquinas a foreign language which the hearer is not experienced or familiar with. There was nothing mystical to it.
Thomas Aquinas believed that the gift of tongues had merged with the public reader and no longer had an office. This was reinforced when he stated that those who originally spoke in tongues needed a supernatural aid because they did not have access to interpreters or other tools to go out into the world and preach to the nations. Christianity after this initial thrust acquired those natural tools to sustain the message and therefore the miracle of tongues was no longer necessary. He also agreed with Augustine that the gift had transferred from the individual to the corporate church. If he was asked if tongues-speaking in the church had died, he would answer no. He would proceed to explain that this is the duty of the church now. Pentecost is still alive and active seeing that the church is speaking in all the languages of the world the message of salvation.
Aquinas holding of Augustine’s position of the gift switching from the individual to the corporate has a basis in the historic church – though it was never a universal one. Later medieval catholicism works do not adhere to such a policy. In fact, Pope Benedict XIV in the eighteenth-century did a major work on defining speaking in tongues. The Pope’s work was done to clarify the process for those individuals promoted for sainthood. An investigation for sainthood requires a proven miracle, and speaking in tongues was on the list. A few individuals and controversially, Francis Xavier, were considered for sainthood for producing this. Pope Benedict did refer to Aquinas, but ignores his argument on the transition of the gift of tongues from an individual to a corporate entity.
From reviewing all of Aquinas’ texts, he was not aware of any argument that represented a heavenly, ecstatic or prophetic language. This doctrine was a later development.
This is the end on the series of Thomas Aquinas on the miracle of Tongues. Aquinas was clearly not silent on the issue. He had much to write on the topic and is in the middle time line of the ever evolving tongues doctrine. He is a reference for the past, a source for the most major change in the tongues movement and an icon for the future development. All these features are represented in his writings.
For more information on the complete articles and translation of this series, please click on the following link: Thomas Aquinas on the Doctrine of Tongues Intro.