The details of the story are fairly well known: Noah's descendants, still within Noah's lifetime (by Calvin's reckoning), pooled their various talents and employed their common tongue towards the end of building a really big tower. God, unimpressed by their design, confused their common tongue and chased them away, "driving them hither and thither like the members of a lacerated body."
Their crime, judging by its punishment, was grievous. But what exactly was it? Calvin denies that building a big tower was (or is) a sinful thing per se: "to erect a citadel was not in itself so great a crime." Calvin also denies that building a big tower was their ultimate goal. Their ultimate goal was "to raise an eternal monument to themselves, which might endure throughout all the ages." Their sin, in other words, was one of "headstrong pride, joined with contempt of God." They refused to employ their God-given talents for God's glory. They sought, rather, their own glory, and indeed, ultimately hoped that future generations would revere them as gods in light of their accomplishments. Such, indeed, "is the perpetual infatuation of the world; to neglect heaven" -- even, ironically, when trying to build a tower that reaches there -- "and to seek immortality on earth."
Calvin's reckoning of these men's exact sin, based largely on their own stated desire to "make a name" for themselves (Gen. 11.4), raises the moral bar for all of us. He reminds us that morality is rarely reducible to the rightness or wrongness of specific, concrete acts. Morality takes measure of motivation. If building a big tower were the crime committed by these men, we'd know how not to be like them; namely, by not building big towers ourselves. But since, in fact, "headstrong pride" and a self-idolatrous desire for glory were their sins, we have to ask ourselves whether or not we're guilty of the very same sins in whatever tasks we pursue. Arrogance and the desire for human praise can, of course, find expression in any number of human endeavors, from pushing a pencil to pumping petrol to preaching a sermon. Avoiding the crime of these men, then, is not so easy a thing as steering clear of skyscraper construction courses at the local college, it's a matter of regularly and honestly examining our hearts and asking ourselves why exactly we do the things that we do.
To put the matter another way, Calvin recognizes that there are two ways to build a tower. One is by rightly employing the gifts we've been by God; the other is by wrongly employing the gifts we've been given by God. Calvin, it should be remembered, thinks very highly of the abilities that human beings have been given by God, and the things they can and do accomplish through the exercise of those abilities. Indeed, he identifies human abilities in "matters of policy and economy, all mechanical arts and liberal studies" as gifts (dona) from God's Spirit, and warns us against despising such gifts, and the fruits they bear, in others (even, or especially, in the unregenerate), thereby despising the Giver of the gifts (cf. Institutes of the Christian Religion 2.2.13-16).
Proper employment of the gifts we've been given is a matter of putting them to use in fulfillment of God's mandates to work and worship, enjoying the exercise of them (as all gifts should be enjoyed), and setting our sights on God's glory (rather than our own) in the same. Noah's descendants might, in other words, have pooled their talents in brick-building, not to mention their obvious abilities in architectural design and construction, to "raise an eternal monument... which might endure through all the ages" to God, just as they might and should have employed their "community of language" towards proper "consent in [true] religion." And, not to be overlooked, they might have experienced considerable joy in the task--such is part of God's creative design for human work.
Instead they employed their gifts and their "community of language" to "excite war against God." In short, they built a tower the wrong way. God's punishment was appropriate to their crime. "The division of tongues" was "divinely inflicted upon men, because they impiously conspired against God."
Yet, true to divine form, the punishment of men revealed in Gen. 11 becomes a platform for the exercise and pageantry of divine grace. Diversity of tongues proves a platform, first of all, for the exercise of common grace. "In the midst of punishment, and of the most dreadful proofs of Divine anger against the pride of men, the admirable goodness of God is rendered conspicuous, because the nations hold mutual communication among themselves, though in different languages." In other words, the ability among human beings to learn foreign languages, and so to overcome the barrier between different peoples established by language, is evidence of God's persistent good-will towards his human creatures.
Diversity of tongues proves a platform, more significantly, for the exercise of saving grace. "[God] has proclaimed one gospel, in all languages, through the whole world, and has endued the Apostles with the gift of tongues. Whence it has come to pass, that they who before were miserably divided, have coalesced in the unity of the faith." The Gospel triumphs over man's sin and its consequences, uniting in Christ and his Kingdom those who have been linguistically and culturally divorced from one another. At Pentecost, where Christ's disciples proclaim their Lord in one language and our heard in others by the foreigners they address, the ultimate impotence and eventual ruin of Babel -- that is, of man's pride and its consequences -- is put powerfully on display.
We who have been made recipients of the grace that turns Babel on its head -- the grace that unites folk from every tribe, nation, and language into a single people and puts them in God's presence to praise and enjoy him forever (Rev. 7.9) -- have all the more reason (namely, gratitude) to build towers for our remaining days on earth in the right way, employing the gifts we've been given for the glory of the One who gave them and our own greater joy.
Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.