These brief remarks will not be dealing with two areas: (1) the historicity of the Tower of Babel account in Genesis—since much has already been written confirming the historical value of the Biblical narrative and the unwarranted dismissal of it as primitive mythology like the legend of Icarus; and (2) the strong case for human language as arising just once, in a single location—and the nature of that language (French, of course).
Our concern here is, rather, with the theological meaning of the Babel incident and the implications of that story for understanding the significance of language in society.
So, what does the Babel event say theologically? It underscores a biblical teaching of absolutely paramount importance: that a fallen human race, individually and collectively, cannot attain heaven through its own efforts. Salvation cannot be gained by climbing up to heaven; the only way to reach heaven is by God’s grace, not by human works—physical, intellectual, cultural, or of any other kind whatsoever. Babel points directly to Jesus’ affirmation: “No one hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.”
Christianity is distinguished from all the other religions in the world by not being a religio at all (a set of rules by which one can satisfy God or the Ultimate), but rather by its realistic declaration that a fallen world is lost forever unless a loving God does the entire work of salvation—as he did by providing the unparalleled gift of the sacrifice of his own Son to be accepted by grace through faith, apart from the works of the law.
A secondary teaching of the Babel passage has to do with language—its crucial impact on human communication and a properly functioning society.
As a result of trying to attain heaven through their own efforts, the builders of the Tower lost a single, common language, and in consequence lost their ability to communicate with each other—and so to engage in meaningful societal activity.
In Europe at the moment, the European Union is in disarray. After years of standoffishness, the United Kingdom finally voted in a referendum to leave the Union. BREXIT is costing the UK an arm-and-a-leg and its negative effects have only begun to manifest themselves. Meanwhile, populism has raised its ugly head in many European countries (not just in Eastern Europe—Hungary and Poland—but in the older, more stable nations of Europe (Italy). The populist is invariably a nationalist with grave suspicions about anyone different from oneself. (“I trust not anyone but me and thee, and I am not so sure about thee.”)
Why has a “United States of Europe”—as envisioned by the founders of the European Union—never come about and seems today to be an utterly unrealistic dream? Answer: in contrast to the United States of America, where immigrants (even German Lutherans!) sooner or later had no choice but to assimilate to an English-language environment, Europe has remained divided linguistically. Language carries values, or, at minimum, the way in which values are seen, appreciated, and interpreted. As the Italian aphorism felicitously puts it, Traduttore traditore: every translation is a betrayal—since it never conveys both the full significance of the original statement or its aesthetic, emotional overtones. Literal translations achieve the former but very seldom the latter; “free” translations offer the latter without the former. A sobering illustration is Firtzgerald’s English translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, said to be “better than the original”!
But what about a successful country such as Switzerland with three official languages (German, French, and Italian)? Ah, but the fact is that Switzerland is a “Confederation,” not a Federal State, and the different linguistic regions are far different from each other. These linguistic enclaves share a long, common history that has cemented them together, but they are as different as Germany is from France or France from Italy.
A more common illustration of the linguistic effect on nationhood is Belgium, where, in general, the Flemish speakers cannot stand their French-speaking compatriots, and vice versa.
In Canada, “linguistic unity” is a myth. The Québécois did not ratify the Canadian Charter of Rights, for that would have required them to post bilingual signs. In the far larger, English-speaking Canadian provinces, official signage is in both English and French—even though, when I taught for three years in Ontario, I never met a native English-language Canadian who spoke fluent or even decent French. The two parts of the country exist along side each other, but hardly in an intimate relationship. When President de Gaulle of France uttered his famous line, “Vive le Québec libre!,” the Québécois were enthralled, and the rest of Canada absolutely appalled.
Recently, the Macron government in France, faced with increasing Muslim extremism, suggested that it might be well to increase Arabic instruction in the public schools. (Increae? Nobody had heard of any Arabic teaching in the French public sector.) This proposal, of course, demonstrated incredible naïveté.
One of France’s great strengths is its constitutionally-mandated support of French as the national language. This forces immigrants to a decent level of integration. The teaching of French in the public schools is very rigorous and impressive (teachers repeating the mantra, “The accents are as important as the letters”).
The French Academy has been ridiculed for refusing to accept many new foreign expressions in its official dictionary (one should say “courriel,” not “e-mail” but everybody says “mél” anyway). However, should a fine national language be denatured through the assimilation of American slang?
I am in process of obtaining French citizenship, the vast amount of paperwork having finally been accepted (including official copies of the birth certificates of my deceased parents!). The final stage is an oral examination of my ability to speak French.
Maybe the U.S. could learn something form all this? With no national language, California spends considerable amounts of tax dollars translating official documents into Spanish (driver’s license manuals, etc., etc.).
The biblical point here is that we do not give enough credit to the Scriptural treatment of language—its essentiality for society to function. In the New Testament, Jesus is described as the Word—the Logos—thereby connecting language to the very character and revelation of God himself.
Maybe if we took language more seriously, we would be more mature in our political expectations. Maybe we would also be more effective in our proclamation and defense of the gospel in a secular world where people simply do not understand the language of the traditional theologian—or of the TV evangelist, for that matter. We are to preach the gospel to every creature, and that certainly means that we need to respect language more and use it far more effectively in our circles and beyond them.
John Warwick Montgomery
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The late J. Barton Payne wrote a classic article—I have cited it more than once—with the disturbing title, “Hermeneutics As a Cloak for the Denial of Scripture” (Evangelical Theological Society Bulletin, 3, No. 4 [Fall,1960], pp. 93-100). This issue of the Global Journal is entirely devoted to a very recent and influential instance of this phenomenon as exemplified in the hermeneutic approach of Michael R. Licona. Lydia McGrew offers a detailed analysis of Licona’s latest book, with trenchant criticism of its methodology.
 Genesis 11:1-9.
 See, for example, Bodie Hodge, Tower of Babel (2013).
 Cf. Wayne Jackson, “The Tower of Babel: Legend or History?” Access date: September 21, 2018. https://www.christiancourier.com/articles/140-tower-of-babel-legend-or-history
 John 3:13.
 Romans 3:28; Galatians 2:16