Calvin Speaks in an Unknown Tongue?

Christianity Today on Calvin
Christianity Today on Calvin

A friend* recently mentioned that Ben Witherington posted to the Christianity Today Blog about John Calvin as “A Man of the Bible“. In that post Witherington refers to his experience reading Calvin’s Institutes and being particularly impressed by Calvin’s doctrine of the Holy Spirit:

I have fond memories of working carefully through Calvin’s Institutes for the first time, and being especially surprised by and taken with his profound theology of the Holy Spirit. I remember reading in Gordon-Conwell’s newspaper a rather interesting historical curio from a letter of Calvin about how one morning he woke up and found himself speaking in lingua barbaria. The article went on to speculate that Calvin may have spoken in tongues!

Well, given the curiosity of my friend about this quote, and the fact that I’m a librarian at Gordon-Conwell and have access to the institution’s archives, I thought it would be worth tracking down this “historical curio.” Below is the text as I scanned it from The Paper. (Here is an image file of the actual printed article.)

Quent Warford, “Calvin Speaks Unknown Tongue,” The Paper: Student Paper of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary 1.6 (March 24, 1975): 6.

Forasmuch as there has been much inquiry concerning the discovery at the Episcopal Divinity School, I feel obligated to shed what light that I can on the matter. After, all, molehills do have a way of being made into mountains, given enough discussion.

Quite frankly, I personally find any notion preposterous, to the effect that Calvin experienced glossolalia. Therefore, the only logical thing to do is to take the advice of my dear Church History professor, and go to the primary source.

The volume which allegedly contains the account of Calvin’s ecstatic utterances is in the library at the Episcopal Divinity School. It is his biography by his friend and confidant, Theodore Beza, entitled De Vitam Iohannes Cauvin. It is contained in

The Vault, the Rare Book Room at E.D.S. Entering The Vault involves a great deal of red tape, and the invocation of the higher powers of the B.T.I. Prof. Hiles’ dining-hall pass also came in handy.

De Vitam Ihohannes Cauvin was published posthumously by Beza. All it

contains concerning glossolalia is a small entry, confided to Beza by Calvin, shortly before the latter’s death. On several oc­casions, Calvin, in his devotions, found himself uttering a lingua non nota et cognota mini. That is, the language was not known or understood by him.

Himself a skilled linguist, Calvin set about to discover the orthography of the utterance. Unable to trace it, he confided to Beza that although the language was Hebraic in character, he yet feared that he had spoken a lingua barbarorum. That is, he feared having spoken in an accursed tongue, such as what was spoken by the Canaanites.

The matter was only a minor one to Beza, who allots it only a few sentences in De Vitam Iohannes Cauvin. Calvin’s concern was only a matter of linguistics. Therefore, there is not enough primary source material to build a case one way or the other.

My roommate, Ken Macari, was most helpful to me in interpreting this passage from Beza, since Latin is more native to him than to me. Yet I must say, however, that I found Calvin’s Latin to be very smooth, elegant, and Vergilian.

So, that’s it. A colleague of mine (who happened to be teaching Hebrew at the seminary at the time of publication) does not remember this article, and he wonders if it was a prank in the first place. I’ve searched Beza’s and Calvin’s works on the Digital Library of Classic Protestant Texts, but found nothing. If anyone knows anything about this work by Beza, please comment about it. I’m not sure if I’m motivated enough to try to get into “the Vault” myself.

*This friend is a student at GCTS and an employee at the Lego Store in the Burlington Mall. As George on Seinfeld would say “Worlds are colliding!”

Patristic Witnesses to Speaking in Tongues

Roger Pearse at the Thoughts on Antiquity blog has posted about an ongoing project to catalog and translate all references to speaking in tongues in the church fathers, undertaken by Charles Sullivan, a “patristic enthusiast.”   Dr. Sullivan then plans on publishing A History of the Gift of Tongues as a work reflecting the results of his 20 years of labor! I am sure that this work will be a welcome resource among Pentecostal scholars (and those interested in such phenomenon in the early church).

Pentecost Sunday

My pastor, Jim Williams of Gloucester Assembly of God, preached a fantastic sermon today on Acts 2. It was perhaps the most refreshing sermon I’ve ever heard on the chapter. Being a Pentecostal, I can assure you, I have heard many a preacher wax eloquent on this passage! For the most part, they’ve tended to focus on things like “tongues” or “power” or “witnessing” or some other kind of phenomenon having to do with the Pentecostal distinctives of today, but rarely have I heard a sermon that actually “agrees” with Peter’s own explanation of the events of Pentecost. The mighty rushing wind and the tongues of fire were not merely manifestations geared towards producing goosebumps on the backs of the people of Judea and beyond!* The proclamation of the “wonders of God” in other tongues (v. 11) was not meant to serve as a mere precedent for Pentecostal prayer. (There are other places in Scripture that support that!) No. The manifestations of Pentecost pointed to the exaltation of Jesus to the right hand of the Father. My pastor’s homiletical point was that “believers are to be compelling evidence that Jesus is Lord and Christ.” Jesus’ status is made explicit in Luke’s account of Peter’s sermon:

God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. For David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said,
   ” ‘The Lord said to my Lord:
     “Sit at my right hand
   until I make your enemies
     a footstool for your feet.” ‘
“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”

The manifestations of Pentecost were evidence of the inauguration of the risen and exalted Christ. In today’s Pentecostal circles (at least the circles where I’ve grown up), the issue of “evidence” is very important. For instance, the Assemblies of God “Statement of Fundamental Truths” (our “creed”) states that speaking in tongues is “the initial physical evidence of the Baptism in the Holy Spirit.”** Of course, I know that this point causes a bit of a interpretive hiccup even among many professed “Pentecostals” (myself included). That’s not the point of this post, though. What strikes me about Acts 2 (coming away from my pastor’s sermon) is that the phenomena that attended that first Pentecost does serve as evidence – not primarily of “Spirit baptism” (at least in “Pentecostal” terms) – but rather as evidence that the once crucified Jesus was now the exalted Messiah of Israel. He was not only the promised Messiah. He was also exalted as Lord. This is a scandalous statement for a sect birthed out of monotheistic Judaism given that kurios (the Greek word translated as “Lord”) is the the word often used in Greek translations of the Old Testament to translate the Hebrew name of God – Yahweh. Jesus, the exalted Messiah – Jesus, the exalted Lord, poured out his Spirit on the church that was to stand as evidence of his status at the right hand of the Father.

Well, I’ve rambled long enough. All that is to say that I very much appreciated my pastor’s sermon this Pentecost Sunday!

* Note that Michael Barber at “Singing in the Reign” recently posted an interesting explanation of the “tongues of fire” phenomenon in Acts 2 [HERE].