Tongues in the Church Fathers -- By: Francis Gumerlock

Journal: Reformation and Revival
Volume: RAR 13:4 (Fall 2004)
Article: Tongues in the Church Fathers
Author: Francis Gumerlock

Tongues in the Church Fathers

Francis Gumerlock


The purpose of this article is to show how early Christian interpreters of the Bible understood the gift of tongues. After briefly describing a modern erroneous notion of tongues, a dossier of citations from early Christian writers, some in English translation here for the first time, will be provided. These citations, along with two accounts of alleged tongues miracles from the early church, will show that ancient Christians understood that the biblical gift of tongues was a miracle involving intelligible human languages.

Unintelligible Language?

One of the most common misunderstandings about the gift of tongues is that the miracle is an ability to speak a prayer language of which only God knows the meaning. This “ecstatic speech,” made up of sounds and syllables uttered by the mouth, completely bypasses the understanding, being unintelligible even to the recipient. This gift, proponents say, is a means by which a person can communicate the innermost groanings of his spirit to God’s Spirit (cf. Romans 8:26). It is sometimes equated with “the tongues of angels” that Paul spoke of in 1 Corinthians 13:1, but the locus dassicus to support this view of tongues is, “For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him,

but he utters mysteries in the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 14:2).

It is not the purpose of this article to give a thorough biblical refutation of this misunderstanding of tongues, but a few brief comments are in order. Romans 8:26 cannot refer to the gift of tongues because the passage speaks of unutterable (alaletois) groanings, or groanings which the KJV says “cannot be uttered.” Furthermore, when 1 Corinthians 14:2 is interpreted in the context of its chapter, it yields a completely opposite meaning than that of unintelligible speech. Paul’s whole argument is that tongues were not a means for private edification, but a gift to be used for communicating doctrinal content to others.

A Proper Understanding of Tongues

The gift of tongues, according to a proper understanding of Scripture, was a supernatural deposit into the mind of the recipient of a human language or languages that the recipient had not previously learned in the natural manner such as through enculturation or study. The new language or languages that the person received were intelligible human languages spoken...

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