The Gift Of Tongues In Liturgy by Terry Donohue

  In  the past thirty years, since the onset of the Charismatic renewal in the Catholic Church, there has been much interest in and discussion of the charismatic gifts  Some of you have personal experience of these gifts, or have seen them in use in prayer meetings, healing masses, or other church events. The use of charismatic gifts, in particular the gift of tongues, is often surprising to people and raises many questions. This is especially true when these gifts are exercised during the public liturgy of the church. Is this practice just a fad? A new liturgical innovation? Emotionalism? Or is there some basis for it in the practice of the Church? This article will address these questions with an historical investigation of the use of the gift of tongues in Christian worship, paying particular attention to use in liturgy.

The Gift of Tongues

In his book, Spiritual Gifts, Clark states that the term "gift of tongues" or "speaking in tongues" can describe at least two different realities: (1) a gift of prayer used by an individual as a way of praising God, (2) a prophetic utterance given to a group in a tongue (this requires interpretation for the group to understand the message). I will be restricting my investigation to the first category, where the gift of tongues is used as a way of vocally expressing praise to God in speech or in song. I will first examine some New Testament evidence for its use in the Church.

The first association we can make between the gift of tongues and liturgy appears in the book of Acts. In several places, we see a strong connection between receiving the Holy Spirit and the exercise of the gift of tongues in praise of God. In Acts 2:1-11, the Apostles received the promised outpouring of the Holy Spirit and "began to speak in different tongues as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim," speaking about "the mighty acts of God." In Acts 10:44-46, Peter preached to the Gentiles and "the Holy Spirit fell upon all who were listening to the word." People knew that the Holy Spirit had come because "they could hear [the Gentiles] speaking in tongues and glorifying God." The Gentiles were then immediately baptized. Finally in Acts 19:5-6, after Paul baptized a group of men and laid hands on them, "the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied."

In these three cases, the coming of the Holy Spirit is made manifest by the gift of tongues. Whether before the laying on of hands or afterwards, the gift was an experiential sign of receiving the Holy Spirit. According to theologians McDonnell and Montague, in their work on Christian Initiation, there is a pattern of manifestations of the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts. When someone was initiated into the Church through baptism and laying on of hands, there was an expectation of experiencing a charismatic gift. The evidence of receiving the Holy Spirit was not necessarily one particular gift, such as tongues, but having some experience of the Holy Spirit.

From this we can draw some tentative conclusions about the New Testament Church. It is quite possible that receiving the gift of tongues was a frequent occurrence during Christian initiation. St. Paul devotes a significant portion of his letter to the Corinthians to explaining the correct use of the charismatic gifts, so they must have been fairly common in that community. He even says, "Now I should like all of you to speak in tongues…" (1 Cor 14:5), indicating that tongues could be quite common. Finally, according to St. Paul, the gift of tongues could be exercised either in speech or in song:

If I pray in a tongue, my spirit is at prayer, but my mind is unproductive. So what is to be done? I will pray with the spirit, but I will also pray with the mind. I will sing praise with the spirit, but I will also sing praise with the mind. (1 Cor 14:14-15)

The Church Fathers on Christian Initiation

We move now to the experience of the early Church Fathers, beginning with Tertullian in 2nd century North Africa, circa 198, who wrote a treatise On Baptism addressed to those about to receive the sacraments of initiation: Baptism, Laying on of hands, and Eucharist. He directs them to specifically ask for the charismatic gifts during initiation:

Therefore, you blessed ones, for whom the grace of God is waiting, when you come up from the most sacred bath of the new birth, when you spread out your hands for the first time in your mother’s house with your brethren, ask your Father, ask your Lord, for the special gift of his inheritance, the distributed charisms, which form an additional, underlying feature [of baptism]. Ask he says, and you shall receive. In fact, you have sought, and you have found: you have knocked and it has been opened to you. - On Baptism 20.

According to theologians McDonnell and Montague, the "spreading out your hands" refers to a posture of praise and intercession. "In your mother’s house with your brethren" refers to being in the church with the rest of the community. The newly baptized, who are about to join in the celebration of their first Eucharist, are exhorted by Tertullian to ask for the charisms. Tertullian adds, "you have sought, and you have found," indicating that they did not ask in vain. The most obvious conclusion is that they experienced various charismatic gifts (presumably including the gift of tongues) during the Rite of Initiation. McDonnell and Montague conclude with the following:

Tertullian ostensibly wants the newly baptized to be aware that such charisms (which he does not specify) are associated with baptism, that the charisms are expected, and that the neophytes should even, at this most appropriate moment, request them... Such a prayer indicates that the charisms belonged to the normal, day to day life of the ordinary Christian community. In addition to urging this petition, Tertullian suggests that it was granted. Charisms were facts of church life in the first centuries; therefore expectations that they would be granted within the rites of initiation does not seem unusual. Christian Initiation, p. 104-105.

Tertullian was not designing a new, innovative rite of initiation, but describing the practice of the Church at the time. The charisms, including the gift of tongues, were operating in the Church. This is corroborated by Irenaeus (130-200), who writes in Against Heresies, 5:6,1:

We hear of many members of the Church who have prophetic gifts, and, by the Spirit speak with all kinds of tongues, and bring men’s secret thoughts to light for their own good, and expound the mysteries of God.

The expectation of receiving charisms at baptism continued into the 4th century. In his Tract on the Psalms, 64:14, Hilary of Poitiers, a doctor of the Church, describes baptism as an experience of "intense joy, when we feel the first stirrings of the Holy Spirit" and where "we are inundated with the gifts of the Spirit." From his writing On the Trinity, we know that Hilary recognizes the use of all the gifts of the Spirit from 1 Corinthians 12, including the gift of tongues. Another 4th century Doctor of the Church, Cyril of Jerusalem encourages those preparing for baptism to "prepare your souls for the reception of the heavenly charisms." (Catechetical Lectures, 18:32).

The Decline of the Charisms

At the end of the 4th century we see a decline in the use of the charisms during Christian initiation. At this time John Chrysostom, an eastern Church Father, acknowledges that in Apostolic times, "whoever was baptized at once spoke in tongues and not only in tongues, but many also prophesied…" (On 1 Corinthians, 29) He states that during liturgies in the Apostolic era, "they used to compose psalms charismatically, by means of a charism." But when describing the Church of his own times, he says "charisms are long gone." (On 2 Thessalonians, 4) He does not mention the charisms in his list of the effects of baptism, nor does he give candidates for baptism any expectation of receiving them.

According to Kesley, in the 5th century, Augustine viewed the gift of tongues as a sign needed only for apostolic times "and it passed away." When discussing baptism, he clearly did not expect anyone to speak in tongues:

For who expects in these days that those on whom hands are laid that they may receive the Holy Spirit should forthwith begin to speak with tongues?

Why such a decline in the use of the charisms? Chrysostom complains that the church is lacking "life and virtue… Only the tokens of the charisms remain of those ancient times." And like Augustine, Chrysostom doesn’t think the charisms are needed any longer, saying:

In the beginning, charisms were given even to the unworthy, because the ancient period needed this help to foster the faith; but now they are not given even to the worthy because the faith is strong and firm enough not to need this support. In Principium Actorum

According to McDonnell and Montague, Chrysostom internalized and spiritualized the charisms in an attempt to show that they were still present in the church in a "modified" form:

Of the gift of tongues with unutterable groaning, Chrysostom said that this is what the deacon does in the liturgy when he intercedes for the people.

Many other reasons have been proposed for the decline in the charisms. McDonnell believes that there was a lack of theological reflection on the experience of the Holy Spirit in the early Church. He also points to an overreaction to Montanism, an heretical revival movement at the end of the 2nd century that placed exaggerated importance upon prophecy and other charisms. Since the charisms were associated with Montanis, there was guilt by association and the Church distanced herself from these manifestations. Another factor was the practice of infant baptism. Both Augustine and later Philoxenus taught that infants could receive the grace of baptism, but the experience of baptism could not be actualized until adulthood. This separation between the rite of baptism and the personal experience of Pentecost could account for a decline in charismatic experience.

Finally, writers such as Friedrich and Käsemann point to the institutionalization of the Church, where the prophetic gifts were associated primarily with those in the visible hierarchy (bishops and priests), rather than the whole Church. In particular, according to McDonnell, the charism of prophecy was called into question when the canon of scriptures was closed. Another explanation is that charismatic gifts were restricted to the heights of holiness and monasticism. Joseph Hazzaya, a Syrian mystic of the 8th century, mentions the gift of tongues when describing the later stages of the ascetic life, stating that "from this state of wonder you will derive a flow of spiritual speech (that is, the charism of tongues)…"

Although the practice of praying in tongues is new and peculiar to many Catholics, there is a significant tradition of the practice throughout the history of the Church. It appears that developments in the structure and practices of the Church resulted in the decline but not the cessation of the use of the gift of tongues.

Terry Donohue was recently ordained a Deacon with the Companions of the Cross-in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. He helped to establish Rejoice! Ministries, a lay community devoted to youth evangelization, based in San Rafael, CA.

  Read other articles of spiritual enlightenment in the June 1999 edition of the San Francisco Charismatics or return to the Main Menu by clicking on the blue.