Last month, we examined the idea that God’s Word is not merely content. It is intentionally communicated content. God is a communicator. If you missed it, you can find it here.
This month, we will examine a characteristic of the communication of God as a case study. The non-universality of divine communication is both counter-intuitive and counter-cultural. Therefore, it has a lot to teach us about God and the values of His kingdom.
In short, the non-universality of divine communication is that fact that God could address all of humanity, but chooses not to. Lesslie Newbigin calls it “the scandal of particularity”.
“To a devout Hindu, heir to four thousand years of profound religious and philosophical experience, there is something truly scandalous in the suggestion that, to put it crudely, he or she must import the necessities for salvation from abroad. “Is it really credible,” the Hindu will ask, “that the Supreme Being whom I and my ancestors have loved and worshipped for forty centuries is incapable of meeting my soul’s need, and that I must await the coming of an agent of another tradition from Europe or North America if I am to receive his salvation? What kind of a god are you asking me to believe in? Is he not simply the projection of your own culture-bound prejudices? Come! Let us be reasonable! Let us open our treasures and put them side by side, and we shall see that your symbols and mine are but the differing forms of one reality shaped according to our different histories and cultures. If God is truly God – God of all peoples and all the earth – then surely God can and will save me where I am with the means he has provided for me in the long experience of my own people.”
The scandal of particularity is at the center of the question of missions. To be more precise, it is the problem of relating God’s universality to his particular deeds and words. God is over all and in all; not a sparrow falls to the ground without his will. Yet the Bible talks of God acting and God speaking in particular times and places. How are these related? With what propriety can we speak of particular acts of God if God is universal Lord of all? How can we relate this universality to this particularity?” (Newbigin, The Open Secret)
Newbigin’s interest is apologetic, so he proceeds to provide a theological justification of this characteristic of the divine communication. In the end, it is election, the selection of the remnant for the blessing of the whole world, that provides the justification. Newbigin’s thinking here is clear and coherent.
Our interest here is in God as a communicator, not in apologetics.
What does it mean that God has chosen not to communicate universally?
He has crafted a message for an elect (or selected) group or individual that is intended to be a blessing for the world. That was the case with Abram, with Moses, with Elijah, with the prophets, with John the Baptist. There is one important caveat: God has a universal salvific intent, but God has chosen to communicate through specific, non-universal messages.
Why has God has chosen to communicate the Good News primarily through ambassadors in communicating with the vast majority of humanity?
There are several characteristics that undergird God’s non-universal communication. that are worth examining. Remember, these reveal something about God and the values of God’s kingdom.
The opposite of universal is specific. God crafts messages, even in the Garden of Eden, that are specific to the person receiving the message. It should be astounding that God devotes so much of Scripture to revelation that is time-bound and specific to only a few people! When God tells Lot and his family not to look back at the destruction of Sodom, it is not a universal message for all people at all times. It is a warning for Lot’s family. The promise of a child in old age is not universal to all believers. It was a promise given to Abram and Sarai. The corollary to this principle is that God is the one who is active in selection and communication. God seeks out his enemies. God does not often choose to speak in universal principles universally proclaimed. Even when God chooses to use mass messaging (so to speak), His message is embodied in a person who goes to the place and proclaims the message. We can infer that God values something more than efficiency or speed.
Universal communication is an absolute. Universal messages are impersonal, each person and group receives the same message. The majority of God’s messages are based on long-term relationships with specific people or groups. It is relational, instead of absolute, and personal rather than impersonal. The Ten Commandments are based on a thousand years of history with the family of Abraham. The Prophets, Jesus. God spends most of recorded revelation speaking to (and through) people with whom He has established a relationship. There are exceptions (Balaam and His donkey for one), but the tendency is clear. It seems fair to say that God values relationships.
This is a characteristic that only makes sense in relational communication. For truly universal communication, every person across time should get the same content. But progressive revelation is an undeniable characteristic of God’s communication. Even the great prophets of yore wished that they would see what we have seen, but didn’t. God didn’t reveal the full plan of salvation to Adam and Eve before the Fall (or after the Fall, for that matter). Nor did God warn them about the snake, at least as far as we know. God didn’t reveal the fullness of the plan to Abraham, Moses, or the prophets. The disciples also seemed confused about what and how God was trying to work. This is counter-intuitive for Westerners raised in a culture where belief is intellectual assent to a set of truths. If that is what faith is, then God did a bad job of revealing Himself. If not, then we can see that our fallen-ness (not only of doing, but of understanding!) is far more serious than we would like to admit. It took thousands of years to lay a foundation that gave the message of salvation a hope of being accepted by a tiny portion of a single small nation. God reveals Himself in bits and pieces, slowly, over time, and one suspects, as we are able to accept.
God’s words and deeds complement one another and prove one another. His actions demonstrate the truths that He proclaims. This is not universally true! In other words, it has not been apparent to every person at every time that God’s words and deeds match, and it won’t be fully integral until the Second Coming. This is the concept of the Already / Not Yet kingdom. It is the confusion of the disciples at the foot of the cross. But the message of Scripture is that God’s words and deeds flow out of His Being, and they are all in perfect harmony. Which leads us to the most integral of all God’s actions, the Incarnation.
The logical end (in the philosophical sense) of integral mission is incarnation. If a message truly flows from one’s being without outside influence or mixed motives, then one’s actions must bear out the message. The Incarnation is the only possible way that God’s being could express itself given the fall of humanity. The expectation that God has of His ambassadors is also of “purity” (James 1), which means words and deed in consonance with and flowing out of our being. To embody the message with out life.
We could continue enumerating and describing characteristics of the divine communication for a very long time. But that is not the goal here. The goal is to provide a simple example of how God has communicated and what that tells us about Him, His character, and His values, and also about us.
How would you describe God’s communication?
Inconsistent. Exaggerated. Cryptic. I can think of places in the Scripture where those adjectives are appropriate.
Beautiful, clear, and encouraging. It is easy to find such passages as well.
What conclusions do you draw from what you observe? How do your conclusions match with what you know from Scripture?
Finally, which of these characteristics should be embodied in our own communication?
Post-Scriptum The sole exception to the rule of particularity seems to be God’s communication of wrath in judgments (particularly the Noahic flood).