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Gift of Tongues

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(Glossolaly, glossolalia).

A supernatural gift of the class gratiae gratis datae, designed to aid in the outer development of the primitive Church. The theological bearing of the subject is treated in the article CHARISMATA. The present article deals with its exegetical and historical phases.

St. Luke relates (Acts 2:1-15) that on the feast of Pentecost following the Ascension of Christ into heaven one hundred and twenty disciples of Galilean origin were heard speaking "with divers tongues, according as the Holy Ghost gave them to speak." Devout Jews then dwelling at Jerusalem, the scene of the incident, were quickly drawn together to the number of approximately three thousand. The multitude embraced two religious classes, Jews and proselytes, from fifteen distinct lands so distributed geographically as to represent "every nation under heaven". All were "confounded in mind" because every man heard the disciples speaking the "wonderful things of God" in his own tongue, namely, that in which he was born. To many the disciples appeared to be in a state of inebriation, wherefore St. Peter undertook to justify the anomaly by explaining it in the light of prophecy as a sign of the last times.

The glossolaly thus described was historic, articulate, and intelligible. Jerusalem was then as now a polyglottal region and could easily have produced one hundred and twenty persons who, in the presence of a cosmopolitan assemblage, might express themselves in fifteen different tongues. Since the variety of tongues is attributed to the group and not to individuals, particular disciples may not have used more than their native Aramaic, though it is difficult to picture any of them historically and socially without at least a smattering of other tongues. The linguistic conditions of the country were far more diverse than those of Switzerland today. The number of languages spoken equalled the number of those in which the listeners "were born". But for these Greek and Aramaic would suffice with a possible admixture of Latin. The distinction of "tongues" (v. 6, dialektos; v. 11, glossa) was largely one of dialects and the cause of astonishment was that so many of them should be heard simultaneously and from Galileans whose linguistic capacities were presumably underrated. It was the Holy Ghost who impelled the disciples "to speak", without perhaps being obliged to infuse a knowledge of tongues unknown. The physical and psychic condition of the auditors was one of ecstasy and rapture in which "the wonderful things of God" would naturally find utterance in acclamations, prayers or hymns, conned, if not already known, during the preceding week, when they were "always in the temple", side by side with the strangers from afar, "praising and blessing God" (Luke 24:52-53).

Subsequent manifestations occurred at Caesarea, Palaestina, Ephesus, and Corinth, all polyglottal regions. St. Peter identifies that of Caesarea with what befell the disciples "in the beginning" (Acts 11:15). There, as at Ephesus and Jerusalem, the strange incident marked the baptism of several converts, who operated in groups. Corinth, standing apart in this and other respects, is reserved for special study.

In post-Biblical times St. Irenæus tells us that "many" of his contemporaries were heard "speaking through the Spirit in all kinds (pantodapais) of tongues" ("Contra haer.", V, vii; Eusebius, Church History V.7). St. Francis Xavier is said to have preached in tongues unknown to him and St. Vincent Ferrer while using his native tongue was understood in others. From this last phenomenon Biblical glossolaly differs in being what St. Gregory Nazianzen points out as a marvel of speaking and not of hearing. Exegetes observe too that it was never used for preaching, although Sts. Augustine and Thomas seem to have overlooked this detail.

St. Paul's Concept (I Corinthians 12-14).—For the Biblical data thus far examined we are indebted to the bosom friend and companion of St. Paul — St. Luke. That being true, the views of St. Paul on supernatural glossolaly must have coincided with those of St. Luke.

Now St. Paul had seen the gift conferred at Ephesus and St. Luke does not distinguish Ephesian glossolaly from that of Jerusalem. They must therefore have been alike and St. Paul seems to have had both in mind when he commanded the Corinthians (14:37) to employ none but articulate and "plain speech" in their use of the gift (9), and to refrain from such use in church unless even the unlearned could grasp what was said (16). No tongue could be genuine "without voice" and to use such a tongue would be the act of a barbarian (10, 11). For him the impulse to praise God in one or more strange tongues should proceed from the Holy Ghost. It was even then an inferior gift which he ranked next to last in a list of eight charismata. It was a mere "sign" and as such was intended not for believers but for unbelievers (22).

Corinthian Abuses (I Corinthians 14 passim).—Medieval and modern writers wrongly take it for granted that the charism existed permanently at Corinth — as it did nowhere else—and that St. Paul, in commending the gift to the Corinthians, therewith gave his guaranty that the characteristics of Corinthian glossolaly were those of the gift itself. Traditional writers in overlooking this point place St. Luke at variance with St. Paul, and attribute to the charism properties so contrary as to make it inexplicable and prohibitively mysterious. There is enough in St. Paul to show us that the Corinthian peculiarities were ignoble accretions and abuses. They made of "tongues" a source of schism in the Church and of scandal without (14:23). The charism had deteriorated into a mixture of meaningless inarticulate gabble (9, 10) with an element of uncertain sounds (7, 8), which sometimes might be construed as little short of blasphemous (12:3). The Divine praises were recognized now and then, but the general effect was one of confusion and disedification for the very unbelievers for whom the normal gift was intended (14:22, 23, 26). The Corinthians, misled not by insincerity but by simplicity and ignorance (20), were actuated by an undisciplined religious spirit (pneuma), or rather by frenzied emotions and not by the understanding (nous) of the Spirit of God (15). What today purports to be the "gift of tongues" at certain Protestant revivals is a fair reproduction of Corinthian glossolaly, and shows the need there was in the primitive Church of the Apostle's counsel to do all things "decently, and according to order" (40).

Faithful adherence to the text of Sacred Scripture makes it obligatory to reject those opinions which turn the charism of tongues into little more than infantile babbling (Eichhorn, Schmidt, Neander), incoherent exclamations (Meyer), pythonic utterances (Wiseler), or prophetic demonstrations of the archaic kind (see 1 Samuel 19:20, 24). The unalloyed charism was as much an exercise of the intelligence as of the emotions. Languages or dialects, now kainais (Mark 16:17) for their present purpose, and now spontaneously borrowed by the conservative Hebrew from Gentile foreigners (eteroglossois, cheilesin eteron, 1 Corinthians 14:21), were used as never before. But they were understood even by those who used them. Most Latin commentators have believed the contrary, but the ancient Greeks, St. Cyril of Alexandria, Theodoret, and others who were nearer the scene, agree to it and the testimony of the texts as above studied seems to bear them out.


CORLUY in JAUGEY, Dict. apolegetique (Paris, 1889); MELVILLE, Observationes theologico-exegeticae de dono linguarum etc. (Basle, 1816); HILGENFELD, Die Glossolalie in der alten Kirche (Leipzig, 1850); FOUARD, St. Paul, ses missions (Paris, 1892); BLEEK, Ueber die Gabe etc. in Theologische Studien und Kritiken, II (1829); REUSS, La glossolalie in Revue de théologie, III (Strasburg, 1851); SHEPPARD, The Gift of Tongues in the Early Church in Amer. Eccl. Rev., XLII (Philadelphia, May, 1910), 513-22; REILLY, The Gift of Tongues, What was it? in Amer. Eccl. Rev XLIII (Philadelphia, July, 1910), 3-25.

About this page

APA citation. Reilly, T. (1912). Gift of Tongues. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Reilly, Thomas à Kempis. "Gift of Tongues." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 14. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Thomas M. Barrett. Dedicated to Elizabeth Brown Knight.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. July 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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