Friday, April 2, 2010

Did John Calvin Speak in Tongues?

Here is an interesting article from the archives of The Paper, a student publication of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. On page 6 of the March 24, 1975 issue is a short piece by Quent Warford, “Calvin Speaks Unknown Tongue.”
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.
If John Calvin found himself on several devotional occasions speaking in a language he did not know or understand — well, that certainly sounds to me very much like speaking in tongues.


Colin Maxwell said...


Just read your article via Twitter. Three things:

1) This is the first time that I have ever read such a claim, and while I am not a 'Calvin scholar', I am reasonably well read on his life and also in the tongues debate. I seriously have my doubts about the claim but obviously would not want to live in denial if it were true.

2) Even if it were true, Calvin obviously did not make a great spiritual deal about it. As far as your report goes, he confided on his death bed to Beza, his very close associate and friend.

3) Indeed, his immediate fear was that he was used the accursed language of Canaan which doesn't seem to have to wrapped his soul in spiritual ecstasy. Even, if by some strange phenonema, he had employed such a tongue as he feared, yet it is evident that he did not seek it and, as in #2, he did not promote it.

None of us know what a day might bring forth. Perhaps tomorrow, Calvin's experience might be mine. If so, I hope that I too would subject it to the teaching of Scripture and accept or reject, rather than bend Scripture to suit my experience.


Jeff Doles said...

The first I heard of this possibility in Calvin’s life was in a sidebar article by Ben Witherington III, “What Calvin Gets Right,” in the September 9, 2009 issue of Christianity Today (pp. 33-34). He appears to give it some credence.

No, Calvin did not make a great spiritual deal about — he wasn’t even sure of what it was. That he had some fear about it does not disprove that it was a divine manifestation. There are plenty of occasions in the Bible where men of God feared at some divine miracle and needed to be reassured with words such as, “Fear not.” For example, when Jesus walked on water, the disciples cried out in fear; Jesus said, “It is Me; do not be afraid.”

No, Calvin did not seek the experience, did not understand the experience and did not promote it. Perhaps some of his reticence is that those who were known to speak in tongues at the time were Roman Catholic. For example, Vincent Ferrier (1357-1419), who experienced the manifestation of tongues in his preaching work, was a Dominican. Francis Xavier (1506-1552), a contemporary of Calvin who also experienced this gift in his missionary work, was Jesuit. Calvin and the other early Reformers were averse to the miracles that were being performed in the Roman Catholic Church.

One of the misunderstood things about speaking or praying in tongues is that it is not about “wrapping” one’s soul in “spiritual ecstasy.” That certainly can and does happen, but it is incidental, not a necessary characteristic. Rather, it is speaking to God for the edification of believers, whether for the congregation (with interpretation) or for oneself (see 1 Corinthians 14:2-5).

We should always subject our experiences to the Scriptures. The Spirit of God will never do anything that is out of alignment with the Word of God. Inasmuch as the Scriptures do teach us about the Holy Spirit manifesting in believers with the gift of tongues — speaking in unlearned languages — then, to have such an experience would not be out of line with the Word of God or the Spirit of God. No bending of Scripture is required. Many Reformed have experienced the gift of speaking in tongues since Calvin’s day.

essielisa said...

I totally believe it!

Unknown said...


This is a most amazing question. And, I am very happy with it.

For me, there are three points to take into account:

First of all, considering the impact Calvin had on the short & long term in the spiritual realm of his own time and the times to come, I would say 'yes' he spoke in tongues.

Secondly, taking into consideration that the first goal of speaking in tongues is to build up the believer who utters it (see 1 Corinthians 14:2-5), I personally, believe he did spoke in tongues as he certainly needed it if you regard what he has achieved (without knowing what he would achieve), and, the fact that there was a lot of seen and unseen opposition.

Finally, without correct knowledge about speaking in tongues (purpose, goals, and, objectives) it cannot be experienced, neither grow.
That Calvin spokes it during private worship time, I am not surprised.
And, this 'speaking in tongues' has enabled the survival of the gospel through all ages. Without it no single believer in early christianity or medieval ages would have persist in their convictions in the moments of their persecution.

And, all points, count probably as well for Luther. I suppose he spoke also in tongues.

Reckless Abandon said...

Its easy to discern whether the gift of tongues is from God or the devil. First, if it was received while praying to God in the name of Jesus, its from God. Second, if it helps you to build up rather than tear down the body of Christ, its from God. Third, if your faith is increased when you received it which enables you to believe, its from God.

Unknown said...

the truth made simples. I agree