The Interpretation of Tongues in the Middle Ages

The Interpretation of Tongues in the Middle Ages

By Francis X. Gumerlock

Antiphon, Vol. 10.2 (2006)

Introduction: Many Christians today, especially those familiar with the charismatic movement, understand “the gift of tongues” as ecstatic speech: sounds and syllables believed to be uttered by a Christian under the direction of the Holy Spirit. The meaning of these sounds and syllables, however, is completely unintelligible to both the speaker and most hearers. Comprehension of such an utterance, granted to at least one hearer, requires an additional direct intervention of the Holy Spirit. This second gift of an immediate understanding of glossolalic utterance is often referred to as “the gift of interpretation of tongues.”

Medieval commentators on the Bible understood the gift of interpretation of tongues quite differently. This article examines how Christians in the Middle Ages interpreted the phrase, “to another is given interpretation of tongues” (1 Cor 12:10), and then brings their interpretations into dialogue with contemporary Christianity. Under consideration are eight commentaries, from the ninth to the thirteenth centuries, on 1 Corinthians 12:10. These include the commentaries of well-known medieval theologians like Lanfranc of Bec (d. 1089), the Master of the Sentences, Peter Lombard (d. 1164), and the Angelic Doctor, Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274).

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