Augustine on the Ability to Control the Tongue

Throughout the letter of James he makes bold imperatives that should be true in Christians lives. These imperatives encompass all areas of life from our deeds to what we say. But does James give the Christian a basis on which these can be achieved? Augustine seems to think so.

Throughout Augustines writings on original sin a certain passage keeps appearing from an unlikely place. Writing against Pelagius he often cites from James 3:2, which says “For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.” He uses this passage to show that no one is sinless. A person can not control their speech by their own will. Originally, he probably gained this usage based on Jerome’s writings. Augustine doesn’t stop there though. He notices that James says that although humans cannot control the tongue by themselves they can by the wisdom of God begin to become a whole person and tame our tongues by God changing our heart and giving us wisdom.

This excerpt is Augustine’s On Nature and Grace:

“This is the wisdom that tames the tongue; it comes down from above and does not arise from the human heart. Or will someone dare to remove it too from God’s grace and in pride and vanity locate it in the power of the human being? Why then do human beings pray that they may receive it, if having it depends upon them? Is someone going to oppose this prayer to avoid harm to free choice, because it is sufficient unto itself by its natural ability to observe all the commands pertaining to righteousness? Let them oppose the apostle James himself, who warns with the words, ’If any of you lack wisdom, let them ask it from God who gives to all abundantly without rebuking them, and it will be given to them, but let them ask with faith, without hesitation (Jas 1:5–6). This is the faith to which the commandments drive us so that the law commands and faith obtains what we ask. By the tongue, which no human being can tame but the wisdom coming down from above can tame, ‘we all offend in many ways’ (Jas 3:2a). This apostle after all, did not state this in any other sense than his words, ‘No human beings can tame their tongues.’ (Jas 3:8).”[1]


  1. Answer to the Pelagians. Vol. I/23. Introduction, translation and notes by Roland J. Teske, S.J. Hyde Park, New York: New City Press, 1997, p. 232–3  ↩