“And God said, Let there be light,
and there was light.” (Gen 1:3)
By Stephen W. Hiemstra
The Bible takes words seriously. God uses words to create the universe. The Apostle John equates those words with the pre-immanent Christ:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.” (John 1:1-3)
The original Greek of this passage uses the Logos, which translates into the noun “word” in English, but in Latin and in modern Spanish Logos is translated as the “verb,” which emphasizes the action implied in the theology of this statement.
The seriousness of words is highlighted elsewhere in the Bible. In Genesis, Jacob tricks his father into giving him his brother’s blessing, but when his deception is discovered, his father refused to take back the blessing. (Gen 27:35) In Exodus, two of the Ten Commandments in the Mosaic covenant govern proper speech: taking the Lord’s name in vain and bearing false witness (Exod 20: 7, 16). Numerous times in the Gospels, Jesus heals and casts out demons with nothing other than verbal commands (e.g. Mark 5:13).
Pentecost Reverses the Curse of Babel
The importance of language in the formation of communities is highlighted in the Tower of Babel narrative, as we read:
“Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” (Gen. 11:1-4)
A couple of points need to be stressed about this account. First, having a unified language is explicitly related to the formation of community, in this case the city of Babel. Second, these people are proud, wanting to make a name for themselves, and they rebel, lest we be dispersed, explicitly against the divine commandment to: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” (Gen 1:28) So God cursed them to be confused by language and thereby forced them to disperse as commanded earlier(Gen 11:7-9).
The giving of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost occurred in this way:
“When the day of Pentecost arrived, they [the disciples] were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues [languages] as the Spirit gave them utterance.” (Acts 2:1-4)
Pentecost is celebrated today as the birth of the Christian church. Whereas language differences divided people in the Tower of Babel narrative, the gift of understanding and speaking different languages unite people through the gift of the Holy Spirit and the formation of the church.
Unlike other religions, Christianity does not assert that God prefers any particular language. The Bible is translated into more languages than you can name even though the Old Testament is written mostly in Hebrew and the New Testament is exclusively written in Greek. The “language of the church” is our understanding and worship of God, not the speaking of any particular language. This characteristic is a direct consequence of Pentecost and it is formative.
We know, for example, that many modern languages, such as English and German, evolved in response to translations of the Bible into local dialects and the support that the church has given to literacy and education over the centuries. Left to themselves, many languages fragment along class and ethnic lines leading to greater divisions and conflict. Likewise, national cultures fragment into sub-cultures and lose their cohesion as we have seen in recent years with the development of slang and music traditions more representative of generational and political divisions than of ethnic identities.
The idea that somehow postmodern culture is inherently superior to Christian culture because of new cultural insights suggests primarily a lack of insight into the history of the church. Because Christian culture is truly transnational, multicultural, multiethnic, and transracial, the Christian message need not be watered down or changed to accommodate a local culture so much as be expressed in culturally sensitive language. As at the original Pentecost, the church’s message should be heard by each in their own heart language.
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Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.