Throughout the New and Old Testaments of the Bible, one may detect, among others, three major themes: Particularity and Universality; Nature and the Natural Law; and Grace. All three topics permeate the Bible, and yet may also be perfectly demonstrated in one single text: the first chapter of the Gospel of John. As in all the teachings of the Bible, these three themes communicate doctrines that apply to all mankind. One must fully grasp the concepts of Particularity and Universality, Nature and the Natural Law, and Grace, however, before he may extract the deeper meaning.
Particularity and Universality
The idea of Particularity and Universality may be interpreted in two different ways. Firstly, there is the situation where the literal level, sensus literalis, of a text may apply to a specific people or teaching (Particularity), while the deeper sense, or sensus plenior, may be referring to mankind in general (Universality).
One example of such a text is Genesis 3:15, which states, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; He will strike at your head, while you strike at his heel.” On the literal, particular level, it would seem that God is referring to Eve alone, and her “offspring” is mankind. The “you” referred to is the snake, the symbol of evil and Satan; his offspring are demons. “He will strike at your head…” implies that mankind, the offspring of Eve, will be embroiled in a constant battle with evil. This literal level translation denotes the universal aspect of the text.
The particular, then, is the sensus plenior, the idea that “the woman” is the Virgin Mary, and her offspring is Jesus Christ. The Divine Offspring will destroy sin for all mankind, but the devil, though destroyed, will return with a vengeance. There will be an endless struggle for souls between Christ and Satan. Thus, the particular is made clear by the deeper meaning of the text.
The other method of advancing Particularity and Universality is through a symbolic foreigner. There are many instances of foreigners being invited into what were previously only strictly Jewish ceremonies or communities. The Book of Ruth serves as a perfect example.
Ruth, a Moabite and therefore outsider, rejects her own familiar religion and customs to remain with her Israelite mother-in-law, Naomi. Ruth is not only embraced by the Israelite community but actually marries an Israelite named Boaz and becomes the great-great-grandmother of Jesus Christ.
Through the example of Ruth, it is clear that the Israelite people, who are God’s Chosen People from whom the Messiah will come, are not granted an exclusive monopoly on salvation. The belief that they are the particular elite comes crashing down with the addition of one from another culture: Ruth, the universal symbol.
The Book of Jonah treats of the same theme as Ruth, for the Ninevites, in their wickedness, are about to be destroyed by God. Jonah is sent to preach to them, they repent, and God retracts His punishment. Jonah, however, only understands particularity, for he is disappointed and wants God to punish them.
He does not comprehend that God reaches out to all in His Divine Universality. Some other texts which speak of foreigners preaching Israelite truths are Genesis 12:3, Exodus 3:15, Isaiah 56:6, and Acts of the Apostles 18:25. Thus, the foreigner interpretation of Particularity and Universality abounds.
Nature and Natural Law
Next, Genesis 1 best defines the idea of Nature and a Natural Law. The natural hierarchy of all Creation points to the fact that there is an order to it. God is the highest form of Being; indeed, He is Being Itself. Next comes man, who has being and reason, and of whom God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). The beasts have being as well, but are distinguished by men in that they do not have reason. Plants have only existence, and minerals, last of all, are solely matter.
The “image” and “likeness” of God in which man was created are human nature and grace, respectively. Grace will be treated of later, so only human nature will be discussed here. The two parts of human nature are reason and free will, and these two must agree.
Free will can only be used justly when it is in accord with reason. What guides reason, then? Clearly, there must be a sort of natural law by which the reason knows the difference between what is right and what is wrong. God Himself makes it clear that such a law exists: “If you do well, you can hold up your head; but if not, sin is a demon lurking at the door: his urge is toward you, yet you can be his master” (Genesis 4:7, emphasis added).
St. Paul, thousands of years later, emphasizes the same idea in his letter to the Romans. “[The Gentiles] show that the demands of the law are written in their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even defend them” (Romans 2:15).
Even in Moses’ time men recognized the existence of the natural law, for Moses proclaims, “For this command which I enjoin on you today is not too mysterious and remote for you…. No, it is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out,” (Deuteronomy 30:11, 14).
Additional references to the natural law may be found in the test of Abraham in Genesis 22, which was a test that disregarded the natural law; in Genesis 9:6; and in Romans 13, a full discourse on natural law. Natural law, then, is the law of God that is written in the heart of every man so that his reason may guide his potent power of free will.
The “likeness” of God mentioned above has been defined as grace. In that case, what is grace? St. Paul says, “They are justified freely by his grace through the redemption in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as an expiation, through faith” (Romans 3:24-25). Hence, grace is a means to justification.
Further on in Romans, St. Paul clarifies grace, “[W]e have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access [by faith] to this grace in which we stand, and we boast in hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:1-2). Since we may “boast in hope of the glory of God,” it follows that grace must be a friendship with God, a partaking in His glory.
In Galatians, St. Paul goes so far as to say, “…to ransom those under the law, so that we might receive adoption…. So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God” (Galatians 4:5, 7).
So, grace is not limited to a simple gift; it actually makes us children of God. It is the gift that allows us to get into Heaven. It is a “reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18); “circumcision” (Galatians 6:15); “inheritance” (Colossians 1:12); and makes us “fellow citizens” and “members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19).
The Prologue of the Gospel of John, which consists of verses 1 through 18, follows up on the concepts of not only Grace but also of Nature and Natural Law and Universality and Particularity. With regards to Grace, John says, “And the Word…full of grace and truth…. From his fullness we have all received, grace in place of grace, because while the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:14, 16-17).
Since the Word, the eternal Logos, of God is full of the most perfect grace and truth, He transfers nothing but grace in a fuller sense to mankind by becoming man Himself and glorifying human nature. His Incarnation is all the more splendid when one realizes that “All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life and this life was the light of the human race…. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (John 1:3-4, 9).
The Word of God is so perfect that It is, in Itself, a Person, and the Word of God created the universe. Thus it is that the Word humbles Himself infinitely by taking upon a human nature that He Himself created. He is the cause of human nature, for He created the order of the universe. Further, He is also the natural law, for natural law is a part of human nature.
Finally, the Word comes not only particularly, for “he came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him. But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name” (John 1:11-12).
Therefore, grace is not limited to a particular group of people, for those people rejected it by rejecting Him. Grace must be offered as a free gift to all, universally, for whoever wishes to take it.
Though the idea of grace being given by the Word appears somewhat new, the idea of the Word himself is known and predicted in even the Old Testament. The Book of Sirach plainly states, “From the mouth of the Most High I came forth, and mistlike covered the earth…over every people and nation I held sway. Among all these I sought a resting place; in whose inheritance should I abide?” (Sirach 24:3, 6-7).
The “inheritance” mentioned here is a foreshadowing of the grace that is later preached by St. Paul and others; it echoes Colossians 1:12. For the Creator tells the Word, “In Jacob make your dwelling, in Israel your inheritance” (Sirach 24:8).
Grace is a gift from God that makes man heirs to God; Israel is the Chosen People of the Lord; therefore, it naturally follows that the Chosen People will receive God’s Grace. But, as one learns from John, those to whom the Word came rejected Him, so grace is conferred upon all.
The eternity of the Word, furthermore, may be found in Proverbs: “The Lord begot me, the first-born of his ways, the forerunner of his prodigies of long ago; From of old I was poured forth, at the first, before the earth…. When he established the heavens I was there…. Then was I beside him as his craftsman, and I was his delight day by day” (Proverbs 8:22-23, 27, 30).
The Word is not created—the Creator begets him. He is “poured forth” as the creative Intellect of God to form all creation. Also, the Word is just as responsible for creation, for as God is the Creator, He is the Intellect of God that caused everything to have being, so powerful is He.
Thus, the three themes of Grace, Nature and the Natural Law, and Universality and Particularity are promulgated in either deep or shallow meanings of Biblical texts. From them, one can learn of the gift of grace given to man by God and how to attain it; of the very nature of man and how he is to follow the voice of God within him; and of God’s loving Mercy and how, if man does not follow the particular promulgated law, he may still retain hope of salvation.