The Particularity of God

One aspect of God that I sometimes struggle with is something that I’ll call the particularity of God. I think this is best illustrated through a curious exchange that takes place as Jesus arrives at the grave of Lazarus, about to perform what is perhaps his most famous miracle. Jesus tells Martha that her brother will rise again, to which Martha replies that she knows that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.1 Martha has excellent theology! She knows that there will be a general resurrection, and she supposes that this is what Jesus is alluding to.

Of course, we all know how the story ends. Yes, there will be a resurrection on the last day, as Martha astutely points out. But in fact, on this particular day around two thousand years ago, Jesus chooses to raise a particular man from a particular grave. There must have been plenty of others who died that same day in Roman Judea, and perhaps even others in Bethany. Why this one particular man?

In other instances during his earthly ministry, Jesus hints that he has come to perform a particular task. When, at the wedding at Cana, Mary asks Jesus to perform a miracle, he tells her that his hour has not yet come,2 implying that he has already appointed a particular hour. Likewise, in ancient times God chose a particular nation, Israel, to be his people. It is true that God wills the salvation of all nations, but the instrument through which he chooses to accomplish this is the nation of Israel, and in particular the line of David.3

Of course, to the Christian, the ultimate instance of God’s particularity comes in the Incarnation, in the person of Christ—to put it poetically, in the Chalcedonian mystery. The eternal Creator entered into his creation at a particular time and in a particular place: in the Bethlehem of two millennia past. In the words of the Evangelist, the Word became flesh4; the Apostle says that he was found in human form.5 The essence, then, of the Christian religion is precisely that we worship a God who has made himself known in the particular person of Christ. Borrowing the imagery of Barth, Jesus of Nazareth is the point at which Creator and creation intersect,6 drawing into sharp relief our universal need of redemption and God’s particular plan for salvation.

It is an easy thing to admit the God of Spinoza, who demands mere intellectual assent. The pantheist’s deus sive natura is general and abstract, and therefore safely confined to the pages of academic exercise. It is a far harder thing to admit the God of Jacob, who may demand something far costlier. Take up your cross and follow me, he says.7 The Christian’s God, who is personal and particular, may demand personal and particular things of her.8

I think this is why I sometimes find it difficult to accept this divine particularity. A part of me would prefer an academic religion; that part of me is unwilling to accept that God calls me to a far greater thing. This greater Christian project is nothing less than a personal relationship with the living God through Christ! I sometimes forget that this is an even greater miracle than the raising of Lazarus: that God, who dwells in unapproachable light,9 makes himself known to us not just as the incomprehensible I Am Who I Am, but also as the familiar Abba.10

It seems to me that insofar as one grasps Christianity only abstractly, one has not grasped Christianity at all, for it is fundamentally about a particular God and our particular response to him. It is not sufficient to say that “Jesus died for sin”; rather, one must be willing to say that “Jesus died for my sin.” Or, as Luther once put it—as I learned in this past Sunday’s sermon—the Christian life consists largely in possessive pronouns.11 Perhaps this, then, is the antidote to my anti-particular tendencies: the personal application of Christ’s work.

  1. Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” John 11:23–27↩︎

  2. On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus also was invited to the wedding with his disciples. When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” John 2:1–4↩︎

  3. They are the Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen. Romans 9:4–5 (I am aware that there is some translation controversy here, but I don’t think it’s consequential to the central point of this musing.)↩︎

  4. The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:9–14↩︎

  5. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Philippians 2:5–8↩︎

  6. This is the Gospel and the meaning of history. In this name [Jesus] two worlds meet and go apart, two planes intersect, the one known and the other unknown. The known plane is God’s creation…our world. This known plane is intersected by another plane that is unknown—the world of the Father, of the Primal Creation, and of the final Redemption…The point on the line of intersection at which the relation becomes observable and observed is Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth, the historical Jesus… Karl Barth, translation by Edwyn C. Hoskyns in The Epistle to the Romans, OUP (1968), p. 29↩︎

  7. Then Jesus told his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? Matthew 16:24–26↩︎

  8. Now this quality is naturally not peculiar to the Christian God; a Muslim, I imagine, would say the same of Allah, though perhaps without as much reference to the Incarnation.↩︎

  9. …[God] who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one as ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen. 1 Timothy 6:16↩︎

  10. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” Galatians 4:6↩︎

  11. Note especially the pronoun “our” [in Gal. 1:4] and its significance. You will readily grant that Christ gave Himself for the sins of Peter, Paul, and others who were worthy of such grace. But feeling low, you find it hard to believe that Christ gave Himself for your sins. Our feelings shy at a personal application of the pronoun “our,” and we refuse to have anything to do with God until we have made ourselves worthy by good deeds. Martin Luther, translation by Theodore Graebner in A Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, Zondervan (1939)↩︎