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From Babel to Pentecost: Proclamation, Translation, and the Risk of the Spirit


Not surprisingly, the Pentecostal event prompts the crowd to ask the essential hermeneutical question: “Whatever could this mean?” (2:12). The assembled people, who represent so many different cultures and languages, seek to overcome their confusion and to grasp the significance of what they hear. Finally, when some are so confused that they actually decide that the disciples are drunk and merely babbling (Babel-ing!), the Apostle Peter steps forward and delivers the church’s first official sermon, the first formal proclamation of the gospel uttered by the Spirit-filled Christian community. Peter informs his perplexed listeners that they are witnessing the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy. That prophecy indicates that the Spirit will proclaim the salvation of God through human voices, that through those voices the Spirit will call the nations of the earth to respond to that salvation, and that the Spirit will empower them to receive redemption through the medium of their own voices as they call upon the name of the Lord (2:17-21). Consequently, Peter’s sermon indicates that the Day of Pentecost centers on the act of calling, of calling individuals to respond to the Spirit by calling on the name of the Holy One who calls them.

So what does this story of flaming tongues and of foreign tongues, of confusion and of call, actually mean for Christian proclamation? I suggest it means that the Pentecostal miracle is the miracle of proclamation as translation. The Pentecostal event results in and from the Spirit miraculously calling fragmented humanity to a new unity, to the reintegrating dynamic of the amazing redemptive power working in the proclamation of the good news of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. The miraculous manifestation of being Spirit-filled is the power to translate the gospel so that all may hear it, although that hearing may still result in the possibility of confusion and misunderstanding. In other words, in the Pentecostal event, the Holy Spirit both reverses and repeats Babel. By enabling the church to proclaim the single message of salvation in multiple languages, the Spirit reunites the nations of the earth who have been fragmented since Babel. He accomplishes this through the “foolishness [confusion?] of the message preached” (1 Cor. 1:21), whereby everyone who responds to this message and calls upon the divine name will be saved. This reunification does not reestablish one single language and culture or confine individuals to one location. It does, however, scatter throughout the earth all those who accept this message of hope and grace in order that they might “translate” across cultures the good news that in Christ all people may share “one Lord, one faith, [and] one baptism” (Eph. 4:5).30

The Pentecostal miracle of translation—although truly an event in Derrida’s sense of unexpected, unique and, therefore, unrepeatable—does, in some manner of speaking, continue to characterize every instance of proclaiming the gospel in the power of the Spirit. Because the Bible always functions as the source of the originary language of the gospel, Christian proclamation depends on the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts of Scripture being translated into the audience’s language (English, German, French, etc.) in order for understanding to occur. When we proclaim the gospel, we either directly read or quote a text from an interlingual translation of the Bible, for example, the New King James Version, or, if seminary-trained, we give our own translation of a text. Of course, the Pentecostal miracle certainly affects contemporary proclamation in a less “supernatural” manner, since we now depend more on education than direct inspiration for the translated gospel. Nevertheless, every contemporary disciple of Christ, as an honorary member of Jerusalem’s Upper Room Community Church, testifies in the power of the Spirit by “repeating” Pentecost symbolically and disseminating the translated divine Word so that its message of hope can transcend cultural-linguistic boundaries.

Yet, Christian proclamation seldom limits itself merely to the reading/translating of a biblical passage. Ordi­narily, once we have read or referenced a text in translation, we then proceed to expound upon it, to preach a sermon or to give a testimony, and, in doing so, we move from interlingual to intralingual translation. Every time we stand to proclaim God’s Word, we attempt to restate or repeat the meaning we have “discovered” in the biblical text. For instance, after reading or reciting John 3:16 from an English translation, we may spend several minutes commenting on the verse, explaining it, and restating it so as to apply its meaning to our contemporary situation. We do all of this, obviously, in English, that is, by giving an English intralingual translation of a text we have just read in English! In other words, proclamation always happens “in other words!” When we proclaim the gospel, we constantly strive to be Pentecostal by depending on the Spirit to empower our expression of God’s Word “in other words,” constantly praying that the Holy Spirit will enable the “re-wording” of the Word.31 To be sure, proclamation as translation is always a reiteration, a re-wording of a divine Word previously spoken by God, a response to a call issued by the Spirit to go forth and proclaim the good news of salvation. Proclamation, then, can never be the first word but always a second word, a re-wording of a prior word, a recalling that calls others to listen to the message of Christ’s love and to call upon his name.

If proclamation is always translation, and if, as Derrida argues, translation is always hermeneutics, then all verbal testimony to the gospel must tolerate the restrictions inherent in both translation and hermeneutics. Christian testimony simply cannot reach the lofty level of absolute knowledge or absolute certainty.32 It must tolerate the reality that something is always lost in translation and that there is always at least two interpretations of any text. Furthermore, testimony itself ironically contributes to the difference and deferral of hermeneutics, since, as an interpretive translation, every testimony recontextualizes biblical texts by attempting to express their meaning in new historical and cultural circumstances. Such recontextualizations can only occur, however, by actually repeating the assumed meanings of the biblical texts in the form of a new text. Consequently, since re-wording the Word results in re-textualizing the biblical texts, the “other words” of proclamation come to expression themselves as oral or written texts that require interpretation!


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Category: Ministry, Summer 2007

About the Author: B. Keith Putt, Ph.D. (Rice University), is Professor of Philosophy at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. He has published several articles addressing issues relating philosophy of religion to certain post-secular theories of language and interpretation, specifically the radical hermeneutics of John D. Caputo. He has not only a professional, academic interest in postmodern thought, but also an interest in the ecclesiological implications that post-secular culture may have on understanding the Kingdom of God in the 21st century. His own personal Christian faith reflects a non-charismatic Baptist confessional tradition. Samford faculty page

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