No Babel After Pentecost: The Unity of the Church as a Multiplicity of Tongues

In his book Biblical Authority After Babel, Kevin Vanhoozer acknowledges the common complaint lodged against Protestants that the Reformation, and in particular its notion of sola Scriptura – unleashed interpretive anarchy within the church, allowing each one to read the Bible as was right in his or her own eyes. The consequence, so the criticism goes, was and continues to be the splintering of Protestantism into innumerable denominations and factions, creating irreparable tears in the seamless robe of Christ. Vanhoozer rightly observes, however, that it is vitally important to carefully define what we mean by “unity”pieter_bruegel_the_elder_-_the_tower_of_babel_vienna_-_google_art_project_-_edited and “division”. After all, there are some forms of unity that God opposes, as is evident in the biblical account of Babel:

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.”…And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city (Gen. 11:4, 6-8).

Just as there are forms of unity that God opposes, so there are also forms of division that God desires. Consider Paul’s questions: “Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial?…What agreement has the temple of God with idols?” (2 Cor. 6:14-16). Consider also the division of tongues that took place at Pentecost:

And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?…we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.”…And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others mocking said, “They are filled with new wine.” (Acts 2:6-8a, 11b-13).

What is fascinating to me about these two accounts is the differing ways in which each portrays unity. At Babel, unity was all about drawing everyone to its center (a centripetal force) through human means in order to build a monolithic structure (the tower/ziggurat) while conserving a uniform language and resulting ultimately in self-referentiality (“let us make a name for ourselves”). At Pentecost, on the other hand, unity was accomplished by initiating an outward push toward the nations (a centrifugal force) through divine power (the Holy Spirit’s descent) in order to create a diverse community  (or better, communities) that conserved a multiplicity of languages and resulting ultimately in Christo-referentiality (“For there is no other name under heaven whereby we may be saved”, Acts 4:12).

This has significant ramifications for how we are to understand and assess what is properly meant by church unity. Vanhoozer writes:

Protestant Christianity is a kind of Pentecostal plurality. It is well known that Pentecost reverses Babel. The people who built the tower of Babel sought to make a name, and a unity, for themselves. At Pentecost, God builds his temple, uniting people in Christ. Unity – interpretive agreement and mutual understanding – is, it would appear, something that only God can accomplish. And accomplish it he does, but not in the way we might have expected. Although onlookers thought that the believers who had received the Spirit at Pentecost were babbling (Acts 2:13), in fact they were speaking intelligibly in several languages (Acts 2:8-11). Note well: they were all saying the same thing (testifying about Jesus) in different languages. It takes a thousand tongues to say and sing our Redeemer’s praise.

Protestant evangelicalism evidences a Pentecostal plurality: the various Protestant streams testify to Jesus in their own vocabularies, and it takes many languages (i.e., interpretive traditions) to minister the meaning of God’s Word and the fullness of Christ. As the body is made up of many members, so many interpretations may be needed to do justice to the body of the biblical text. Why else are there four Gospels, but that the one story of Jesus was too rich to be told from one perspective only? Could it be that the various Protestant traditions function similarly as witnesses who testify to the same Jesus from different situations and perspectives? Perhaps we can put it like this: each Protestant church seeks to be faithful to the gospel, but no one form of Protestantism exhausts the gospel’s meaning. Rather, it takes the discussion (“conference”) between the many Protestant churches to appreciate fully the richness of the one gospel. The particularity of each Protestant tradition is thus not a source of conflict but a servant of unity – the unity of the truth of the gospel. We ought not to call this “lowest common denominator/denominational” Christianity. It is rather a matter of “highest catholic denominator” biblical Christianity…that makes of Protestantism not a pervasive interpretive pluralism but a unitive interpretive plurality – a mere Protestant Christianity…The white light of mere Protestant Christianity is made up precisely of the diverse denominational colors. The differences, and the dialogue that they generate, really matter…

There is one gospel, but several interpretive traditions. What must not be missed, however, is the extent to which even in Protestantism there is a drive toward unity. That is largely because the economy of the gospel is oriented to unity – union and communion – too…[T]he unity of the church is both an indicative reality (we are one in Christ) and an imperative perennial pursuit (we must visibly display our unity in Christ). Mere Protestant Christianity represents this same project: displaying the plural unity of the church as it exists now in Christ…Denominational differences need not impede the unity of the church; rather, they can enhance it. They do so not by diluting their denominational characteristics, including distinctive doctrines, but by offering them as prophetic gifts to the whole church. Indeed, it is by inviting others into our own homes and enjoying table fellowship that we come to maturity in Christ.[1]

Although not mentioned here, Vanhoozer’s foil for the Protestant form of unity that he describes (i.e. Pentecost) is the Roman Catholic form (i.e. Babel). The points of comparison between “Babel unity” and Roman unity should be fairly obvious. Roman unity is all about drawing everyone to its center (i.e. under the papal successor of St. Peter in Rome) in order to build one monolithic structure (the Catholic Church), while conserving a uniform language (through its dogmas and magisterial teaching, not to mention the fact that Latin remains its sole official language) and resulting ultimately in self-referentiality (the Catholic Church directs people to itself as the one true Church of Christ, the originator and infallible interpreter of the canon of Scripture, the sacramental means 635946721278680865-thinkstockphotos-186428176of salvation, the prolongation of the Christ’s incarnation, the pillar and ground of all truth, etc.). Is this not manifestly a Babel-type unity, the very unity that God opposed in decisive judgment?

As Vanhoozer notes, Protestant unity is not less “unified” because it does not follow the pattern of Babel. To the contrary, it is a better form of unity inasmuch as it models itself after the work of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost that gave birth to the church in the first place. Protestant unity is accomplished by carrying forward Pentecost’s centrifugal movement away from any particular center and out toward the nations through the divine power of the Holy Spirit in order to create diverse communities (churches and denominations) that conserve a multiplicity of languages (including a plurality of interpretive and doctrinal insights) and resulting ultimately in Christo-referentiality (“For there is no other name under heaven whereby we may be saved”, Acts 4:12). In this case, (as it was in the New Testament), the multiplicity of Protestant churches and denominations are bonded together in Christ and by the Spirit, evidenced in a catholic core of beliefs and practices rooted in Scripture, guided by the ecumenical creeds, and given precise expression in the five Reformation solas.

To be sure, from the perspective of those up in the tower of Babel (Rome), those living on the outside (Protestants) who inhabit different communities (denominations) and speak amongst themselves in different tongues (interpretation and doctrine) would no doubt seem to be just a group of unruly babblers. However, Scripture is clear on how God regarded the unity of Babel, not only because he judged it, but also because at Pentecost he reversed it. And he did so not by rebuilding Babel and constructing a new monolithic edifice on Roman soil, but by uniting people divided by tongues simply through the power of the Holy Spirit and in the bond of Jesus Christ.


[1] Vanhoozer, K.J., 2016. Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity. Grand Rapids: Bazos Press, pp.223-225.