Christianity 201

January 11, 2015

The Scandal of Particularity

The Message John 14:6 Jesus said, “I am the Road, also the Truth, also the Life. No one gets to the Father apart from me.

NIV Hebrews 1:1 In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2a but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…

Why’d you choose such a backward time in such a strange land?
If you’d come today you could have reached a whole nation.
Israel in 4BC had no mass communication.  (Song – Superstar)

one-way-jesusToday’s topic is something a little different. Don’t worry if this seems a little obscure, but scan the quotations below and try to get a handle on what’s under discussion. Some of it can be simply reduced to the questions, “Why one chosen people?” and “Why only one way of redemption?” Note: Not all the sources used today are necessarily Christian writers; they were selected for the relevance to the topic.

I noticed the phrase “scandal of particularity” in re-reading a favorite Phillip Yancey book, Reaching for the Invisible God; and decided to dig into it a little. He wrote:

Moses saw a burning bush that bedazzled him, changing the course of his life and of history.  Out of flames of fire he heard the voice of God speaking.  Yet God experienced that same burning bush as an accommodation, a limitation.  The bush appeared before Moses in the Sinai wilderness, but not in China and not in Latin America.  Thus began what critics call the “scandal of particularity.”  Why would God choose Israel out of all the available tribes?  Why would God incarnate himself in the person of Jesus and settle in a backwater province of Palestine?  God had little choice, to put it crudely, if he wished to communicate in a way humans could understand.  To impinge on our world, God must subject himself to the rules of time and space.  Any correspondence between the invisible and visible worlds, between God and human beings, works two ways, affecting both parties.  (p. 115)

At the blog Ex Cathedra:

That’s a theological phrase. It refers to the resistance many people have to the idea that God, the creator of the universe, would enter human history in a very localized way. For example, choosing the Hebrews to be in a peculiar covenanted relationship with him. Or in Christianity, becoming incarnate in one man only and making him the gateway to salvation for the whole world.

For people who assume that a Big God would never restrict himself to such a particular and peculiar path, but would teach universal moral truths through the varied prisms of every religion, this is an outrage, an offense, a scandal.

Lots of Christian theologians nowadays simply assume that in our “global and multicultural post-colonial world”, the assertion that only one religion (theirs) is true would be grotesque. They never notice, however, that certain other religions like, oh, I don’t know, Islam hold exactly the same view and without qualification or apology. And even for the dharmic faiths, one would have to ask, if Hinduism were sufficient, why did Gautama go to all that trouble to get himself enlightened?  Etc. etc.

Dan Wilt:

What if there is actually one way in the world? What if it’s a wide road in the coming to it, but a narrow road in the progressing on it? What if there indeed is a way of living for human beings, that one unique faith system (I include the faith systems of naturalism and evolutionism, all part of the “humanity’s best guess” club), at its essence, promulgates? What if the scandal of particularity is exactly the plan, and a way has been made that addresses hatred, death, love, goodness and the strangeness of the human condition.

…Jesus is the reason that Christian faith is a problem. “…No one comes to the Father but by me” is the bone of contention, and a Jesus who has been aligned with the Crusades, Inquisitions and Acquisitions of history is an unacceptable personage in the 21st century world…

…Jesus keeps us on my toes, I do declare. I believe that God is willing to live there on this rocky edge as well (I note here that in those times, for some beautiful reason, it is the music of worship that anchors and renews me in mind and heart). My layman’s studies of world history and civilization tell me that the “my god is better than your god” game is a long-standing past time. We view particularity, in some fields, as lacking in academic sophistication. However, in other fields, to be increasingly particular and specific leads us also the greatest of discoveries, and even to the answering of macro questions that have haunted us for time immemorial. Particularity is not always a bad thing. Certain us/thems, on sides of ideas and explorations, can be helpful to the whole – disagreement is not always the enemy.

At the blog The Three Taverns:

…This scandal rocks the Church, that is, the holy Christian and apostolic Church, and it offends the world at large.

It is the scandal of particularity. It is not some deep dark secret that God has been trying to hide. It doesn’t uncover some character flaw in God or moral failing on His part. It is not some devious and sadistic action on His part that brings Him joy in bringing upon people needless pain and harm. What it is is simply the way He does things. What He does and how He does it is scandalous. It is offensive.

The reason is it is? Because it is specific. So specific, in fact, that it is exclusionary. Not meaning that His love is exclusionary. His love is anything but. His love is inclusive. His salvation is for everyone. God loves everyone. He has offered salvation to every person. Jesus died for everyone. So, no, it’s not His love. It’s the way He brings about His love.

And here is the scandal of particularity. God’s love is in His Son Jesus Christ. It is in Him alone. That’s the scandal. That’s the particular nature of it. If you casually read the Scriptures you may not see it. If you read them carefully and take them to heart you will see more and more the scandalous nature of God and how He relates to us. You will see that no matter how you would like to view yourself God sees you in your sin. No matter what you think that you think of God, God knows that as you stand He is your enemy. No matter how you would like to shy away from your sin and the consequences that go along with it, God doesn’t shy away from it, He meets it straight on…

At Sacra Doctrina:

[Lesslie] Newbigin time and again underscores the importantly historical character of the Christian faith, that the concrete particularity of the Christian gospel is precisely what makes it relevant for all times and cultures.

This is the trajectory of the biblical witness, a continual narrowing of God’s electing and redeeming purposes (Noah, Abraham, Israel, David, a remnant, etc.) until they all come to focus upon the person and work of Jesus Christ, in order that the universal purpose of blessing might come to all nations.

Newbigin explains the Scriptural “scandal of particularity” in relation to the universality of the gospel. These two themes appear in Scripture side by side, without any apparent sense of tension. Newbigin explains this in terms of the biblical view of humanity, which doesn’t begin by “looking within and finding at the core of human reality a purely spiritual entity that is the object of God’s saving purpose” (70). Rather the biblical focus is upon “this real world of real people” in all of their created materiality and interconnectedness.