Berlo & the Bible: Examining Tone in Revelation & Communication

Aristotle & The Rhetorical Triangle

Pathos, Ethos, and Logos. Anyone who has taken a basic public speaking course will recognize this as the basis for Aristotle’s rhetorical triangle. In simplest terms, it teaches that there is always more to communication than the mere words that are spoken or written.[1]

Something that I have begun to see more and more is a disagreement about the use of tone in current theological rhetoric. There are both accusations and defenses which revolve around the role of tone in communication. Some say that it is possible to agree with what is said, but to disagree with the tone in which it is said—therefore suggesting that the message itself has been compromised. And others dismiss this, saying that the truth is the truth regardless of how it is communicated. And so, the question we are left to ask is, can the tone of a message compromise the effectiveness of a truth claim?

For us to answer this question we will need to define tone and situate its role within communication. But we will also need to take a larger look at communication in general. Because Aristotle’s triangle is so familiar, we will use a different model. David Berlo’s “SMCR” model will guide us to think clearly about the components of communication. Ultimately, we will need to examine God’s revelation. More broadly the Bible presents for us a theological approach to God’s communication through the doctrine of revelation and more narrowly it presents for us particular instances where the role of tone in communication plays an important role.

Tone, as we will use it here, is the general character and attitude of something.[2] And at the end of this examination we will see that tone is an unavoidable aspect of communication because, just like body language is itself communication, tone is itself communication. In that sense, tone “says” something. What I am not trying to argue for here is the use of a monolithic tone, I am simply arguing that tone is in fact a valid category of communication because it is itself communication. Both in communication theory and in the Bible, how we say something and what we say, are both components of what is communicated. And therefore, it is possible to say the right thing in the wrong way—to compromise the effectiveness of a truth claim by the tone in which it is delivered. The Christian who is seeking to communicate with wisdom and in the fruit of the Spirit will seek to frame his/her message in a way that is consistent with the message itself.

Berlo’s Model

“SMCR” is a foundational model in communication theory. The acronym stands for Source, Message, Channel, Receiver. The model suggests that communication flows through these four categories. First, there is a source that encodes a message. The things involved in the source are communication skills, attitudes, knowledge, social systems, and culture. Second, there is the message itself. The things involved in the message are content, elements, treatment, structure, and code. Third, there is a channel through which the message is delivered. Things involved in the channel are hearing, seeing, touching, smelling, and tasting. And then finally, there is a receiver which decodes the message. And at this point we see an extremely valuable aspect of Berlo’s model, the things involved for the receiver are the exact same as the source. So, communication skills, attitudes, knowledge, social systems, and culture play the same role in decoding as they do in encoding.

One important insight from Berlo’s model is that for communication to flow from the source to the receiver, there must be shared points of connection.[3] At the most basic level, this can be illustrated by the importance of humans speaking the same language in order to communicate. It is not impossible to communicate with someone who speaks a different language, but it is much more difficult. Berlo’s assertion is that this also relates to all of the things involved in encoding and decoding.

Rudovick James unpacks this further by saying, “Bearing in mind Berlo’s insistence on the dyadic nature of communication, we need to remember that finding the ‘right word’ is not simply a matter of finding one which expresses what we want to say to our own satisfaction. It also has to have approximately the same meaning for the receiver as it does for us.”[4] Here, we are beginning to see why Berlo’s model helps us answer our initial question. One way to say the right thing in the wrong way is to say it in such a way that the decoder cannot understand it. But this is just one illustration. Points of connection in communication include all of the aspects involved (communication skills, attitudes, knowledge, social systems, and culture), not just agreement upon definitions.

But so far, we have only dealt with the importance of connection between the encoder and the decoder. What is also relevant to this conversation is how Berlo’s model looks at the message itself. An easy way to get at the importance of this is to consider the angle of structure. James writes, “If you have five assertions to make, you must structure them – you must impose one or another order on them. The ways you choose to arrange assertions in part determine the structure of the content.”[5] It is helpful to consider that the structure of a message matters for its effectiveness. For example, where you place an introduction or a conclusion, or how you develop the flow of an argument, isn’t arbitrary or unimportant to the communicated message itself. The structure of a message is just as much considered communication as the letters which are chosen to form the words that fill up that structure.

And here is why this is so important for our discussion about the role of tone in communication, James adds, “When we decode messages we make decisions as to the sources purpose, their communication skills, their attitude towards us, their knowledge, their status. We try to estimate what kind of person would have produced this kind of message, an estimation which depends on the source’s treatment of the message.”[6] All of the things that go into delivering a message end up being the message itself. Words, structure, and attitudes are combined together in the decoders mind as they receive (or don’t receive) the message. The goal, then, in wise communication is to make sure that what is being said and how it is being said produce harmony and not dissonance. If good content with bad structure can blur a message, then good truth with an inconsistent attitude can blur a message as well. I have chosen the word inconsistent here intentionally. I am not advocating for a monolithic attitude or tone. I am simply arguing that wise communication will seek to be delivered with an attitude and tone which are consistent with content; or else there will be dissonance.

Accommodation and The Incarnation

Now, while it is helpful to look at models like Berlo’s, we must always seek to evaluate every man made philosophy under the light of God’s revelation. Peter Jensen helps us think through God’s revelation when he says, “…the distinction between personal and propositional knowledge cannot be sustained…When we obey his (God’s) word, we obey him; when we trust his word, we trust him; when we study his word, we study him; when we preach his word, we preach him. He is not his word; and yet he is, for his word is the appointed place of our relationship, and he is supremely faithful to it.”[7] God has linked Himself to His revelation because that is essentially how communication works. You can sense the inseparability through the words communication and communion. We cherish God’s communication because that is how we experience communion with Him. So who God is (personal) comes to us through God’s word (propositional). When we do finally turn the corner to examining our own communication, this will be extremely important to keep in mind, because how we communicate God to others will inevitably shape who people believe God to be.

Now, what we must also affirm is that it is both God’s sovereign choice what to communicate about Himself and it is God’s sovereign choice how to communicate Himself. Carl Henry says, “If we are authorized to say anything at all about the living God, it is only because of God’s initiative and revelation. God’s disclosure alone can transform our wavering questions concerning ultimate reality into confident exclamations!”[8] And in God’s initiative, we know that He has chosen to communicate to us through human means. As the author of Hebrews so beautifully says in Hebrews 1:1-2, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.” So, God has communicated Himself to us, “in many ways.” And here is a key: God doesn’t bypass our humanity, but rather He stoops down to it in order to communicate to us. God gets on our level, and reformed theologians have called this “accommodation.”

In classic John Calvin fashion, he wrote about the principle of accommodation this way, “For who is so devoid of intellect as not to understand that God, in so speaking, lisps with us as nurses are wont to do with little children? Such modes of expression, therefore, do not so much express what kind of a being God is, as accommodate the knowledge of him to our feebleness. In doing so, he must, of course, stoop far below his proper height.”[9] So, when God reveals Himself to us, because He is incomprehensible, He must accommodate to us. God stoops, to use Calvin’s phrase.

And there is no greater display of this than the incarnation of the Eternal Son of God. Jensen makes this clear for us, “…knowledge of God through Christ does not bypass human faculties. This truth is implicit in the incarnation. The Son of God came in human flesh and communicated with human words, actions and gestures. He appealed to human sympathy, wisdom, imagination and reason; he taught, argued, preached, exemplified; he invited discussion, response, love, insight. The strong scriptural emphasis on God’s grace in making himself known is never at the expense of the reality of human response.”[10] The incomprehensible God has made Himself available. The God of all glory and goodness has embedded the communication of Himself directly in all that it means to be human through His Son Jesus Christ.

So what does this mean? It means that, theologically speaking, what God has said and how God has said it come together as a package deal. God communicates to us through the chosen channel of accommodation, but also, the accommodation itself communicates something of God to us. His benevolence and kindness are wrapped into His communication because any time God reveals Himself it is an act of grace. We know God through His revelation, and God is sovereign over both the content and the form. When God decided to communicate Himself by way of human language, He stooped down to forever impart Himself through human means in our conception of Him.

So let’s connect the dots between Berlo and the Bible before we look further into the Scriptures to see what the Bible says about our own communication. When God sovereignly revealed Himself:

1) He stooped to encode in ways that we could decode. This is not in any way to undercut the necessity of the work of the Holy Spirit in the reception of God’s revelation. Any healthy perspective of God’s sovereignty over both ends and means will not see a discrepancy here. God has appealed to our reason, even though His Spirit is necessary for the decoding of His revelation, because, as Jensen has already said above, “The strong scriptural emphasis on God’s grace in making himself known is never at the expense of the reality of human response.”[11]

2) He accommodated His revelation in order to give us points of connection. A great example is anthropomorphism. God does not have a body, but we do. And because we do, He chose to communicate Himself with concepts that we understand. God knows that our “communication skills” are infinitely below His, which is why His revelation displays His utter wisdom and competence. He comes down to our level, and that decision itself is an act of communication.

Which means that, 3) God has made perfect harmony between what He revealed about Himself and how He has revealed it. God tells us plainly that He is just and merciful, and in the cross of Jesus He displays it. God tells us that He loves the world, and in the sending of Jesus He demonstrates it. How God speaks and what God says are always ever in perfect harmony, something that fallible human beings cannot say. And as we will see, ambassadors of Jesus, who are seeking to preach Christ, will seek to frame their message in a way that also creates harmony between what is said and how it is said. We cannot have perfect harmony in the encoding and delivering process like God does, but we must strive after such harmony.

The Biblical Warrant

We turn now to the Bible itself to see how God Himself has given us warrant in His word to consider aspects of Berlo’s model in our communication, including tone. We will look at a few passages which demonstrate the use of tone, and we will look at a few that encourage the specific use of tone. The following passages will briefly be examined: Isaiah 40:1-2; Mark 8:33; 1 Thessalonians 2:7, 11-12; 1Timothy 5:1-2, 2 Timothy 2:24-25. Again, the goal is not to argue that tone in Christian communication is to be monolithic, it is simply to demonstrate that tone is a valid category of communication.

-Isaiah 40:1-2, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”

What we notice in Isaiah 40 is that God desires for His people to be comforted. And when God reveals how He wants them to be comforted He shares both the content of the message and the tone of the message. Without going into detail, the basic content of the message is pardon. God is sovereign over the message. And also, God sovereignly declared how the message was to be delivered—“tenderly.” God wanted harmony between the content and the form of the message.

-Mark 8:33, “But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.’”

In Mark chapter 8, Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ. It seems like Peter and the disciples are really getting it. But then, Jesus taught them that He must, “be killed, and after three days rise again.” In response, Peter took Jesus aside to rebuke Him. But, Mark tells us that Jesus rebuked Peter in return. The words which Jesus spoke would have been enough to communicate the tone of this communication, but in order that we are very clear on how Jesus delivered this message to Peter, Mark tells us that Jesus rebuked Peter. There is harmony between the sternness of a rebuke and the words, “Get behind me, Satan!”

-1 Thessalonians 2:7, 11-12, “But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children…For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.”

 A number of times in Paul’s letters he described his own character towards the people to whom he preached Christ. Here in 1 Thessalonians 2 Paul describes himself both as a mother and a father. Paul’s point is not that he was a mother, but that he treated them like a mother. But Paul was not monolithic in his approach, which is why he also adds that he was like a father. These expressions are intended to communicate a number of things, but at the least they communicate that Paul knew the value of both gentleness and firmness in His ministry. His maturity allowed him to exercise both and his wisdom shaped when he used both.

-1 Timothy 5:1-2, “Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity.”

In 1 Timothy, Paul gives instructions for the church. Here in chapter 5 Paul is not so much dictating what is to be said, but how it is to be said. If we were to put this into Berlo’s model, we might say that Paul is thinking through who the receiver is as he gives instructions to the source. Paul wants the encoder to take into account who the decoder is as he thinks through how messages are delivered. In this instance, if Timothy rebukes an older man, he may be saying the right thing, but he would be saying it in the wrong way.

-2 Timothy 2:24-25, “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth…”

In this passage, Paul directly speaks to how an opponent is corrected. It is true that Paul wants those in error to be corrected, but it is also true that Paul believed that the way in which we communicate matters. This passage, and others like it, demonstrate that God is concerned with both the content of a message and the form of a message because both content and form “say” something.

And another thing we learn from this passage is that God’s sovereignty doesn’t negate the importance of tone in a message because God is sovereign over both the ends and the means. We cannot skirt using wisdom in our communication just because God is sovereign over the response. God sovereignly works through human faculties, not around them. As Jansen said above, God did not bypass human faculties in His own self revelation, and if God did not do this, then we ought not bypass human faculties either—even if God is sovereign over the response.

So what about tone?

Now that we have examined Berlo’s model of communication, the theological impetus of God’s revelation, and looked at the way in which the Bible gives warrant to the importance of both what is said and how it is said, we need to define tone and situate its role within communication. According to Scott Ober, “Tone in writing refers to the writer’s attitude toward the reader and the subject of the message. The overall tone of a written message affects the reader just as one’s tone of voice affects the listener in everyday exchanges.”[12] With this in mind tone can be stern, boring, gentle, confident, exciting, sincere, or harsh because it reflects both our attitude towards the person and our attitude towards the matter dealt with.

What is helpful about this definition of tone is that it works off of a more simple definition of tone, but then also remains aware of the dyadic nature of communication as we saw in Berlo’s model. Tone both reveals the attitude of the encoder towards the person being communicated to and it reveals the attitude of the encoder towards the content of the message itself. And thus tone is received by the reader/listener along with the substance of the message. In Bible interpretation, we would consider tone as a part of the context of the message, and context always has bearing on meaning. And so if we should take tone into account as part of the context of our Bible interpretation, we ought to also see tone as creating an atmosphere for our own theological communication. How we say something creates the context for what is being said, and context governs language.

And that is what makes tone such a critical aspect of Christian communication because, as Jensen said above, we cannot separate the propositional from the personal. What we say about Jesus and how we say what we say about Jesus actually communicate Jesus Himself. When Paul said, in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5, “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God,” he showed us that how we preach Christ matters. The attitude and form of the words we say (and don’t say) reveal something of Jesus just as much as the words themselves.

Notice that when Paul described his own ministry, he appealed not only to the content of the gospel but also to his character and attitude in Acts 20:31. Paul says, “Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.” Paul reveals that the atmosphere he created with his attitude toward the content of the message and his attitude towards the people was consistent with his appeal. Paul wanted these Ephesian elders to remember both the content of his message and the context through which the message had been communicated because both carried significant meaning.

So what is the role of tone in communication? The tone we choose is as much real communication as the vocabulary we use. Because communication reveals something about a person, the tone that is encoded impacts the message which is delivered to the decoder. And at a deeper level, the tone of the encoder speaks to the character and attitude of the source itself. And this is most especially important for those who are communicating as ambassadors. We are not our own, and thus we do not communicate as our own. How we talk about God says something about God Himself.

Our Moment

Here is the hard reality that we must face, too much of our Christian communication can only be described in one way: selfish. If love is supposed to baptize our truth speaking, then it is categorically un-Christian to talk in self promoting, self righteous, or self interested ways. And yet this is all too easy and all too common. Neither in His teaching, in His rebukes, nor even in His warnings was Jesus ever selfish. All He did was in love. And communication that is loving necessarily involves taking the other person into account.

If tone is how we communicate our attitude towards the person we are communicating to, then tone is precisely how we baptized the truth with love. To say true things in selfish ways mis-contextualizes God’s truth. We must own up to the ways in which we have created dissonance. We must acknowledge that when we make our communication of Christ about us through one-up-manship, arrogance, and quarrelsomeness, we are communicating Christ in a way that He never would communicate Himself.

The goal is to be like God in our communication. And to be like God we must seek to have as much harmony between what is said with how it is said. There is no dissonance in God’s communication and at the same time there is much accommodation in God’s communication. So it should be our aim not to ever blur the content of the message by how we communicate it. This doesn’t mean that I am advocating for a monolithic tone and it doesn’t mean that I am suggesting that you can say the wrong things in the right way. Really, we should think of this more like Paul thinks of knowledge when he says in 1 Corinthians 8:2, “If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know.” In other words, just like there is a wrong way to know the right things that equates to a spoiling of the truth, there is a wrong way to say the right things that equates to a spoiling of the truth. Sour milk is still technically milk, but it can no longer serve its purpose. Hence, to deliver a message in the wrong tone is to compromise the effectiveness of a truth claim. It doesn’t mean that it is not true, but it does mean that it is not effective.

So what is the way forward? We ought to be seeking the maturity not to be monolithic in our tone. It takes the fruit of the Spirit to not be controlled by the passions of the flesh. Only as we grow in the fruit of the Spirit can we have the maturity to both do ministry and theology “like a nursing mother,” and, “like a father with his children.”

Also, we ought to be praying for the wisdom to know what truth is needed for a particular moment. Knowing when to rebuke or when to encourage is not always directly obvious. Having the ability to speak with different tones is one thing, but knowing when is the right time to employ them is another. As we study Jesus, who is Himself the wisdom of God, we will learn His knack for selecting the appropriate truth for the right situation. And in addition to studying Jesus, we ought to pray to the Father for wisdom, “…who gives generously to all without reproach…” according to James 1:5.

And then we must commit to the fact that there are some tones that are off the table for Christian communication. To communicate in a judgmental tone is off limits, to communicate in a harsh tone is off limits, and to communicate in a belittling tone is off limits; to name a few. These attitudes do not reflect an appropriate atmosphere for communicating Christian theology. These attitudes form a context which compromises the effectiveness of God’s revelation of Himself in Christ. To frame any Christian message using these tones creates irreparable dissonance.

Maybe as you have been reading this you have been thinking, who is he going after with this piece? I hope you will hear me say, “all of us,” including myself. I need to study Jesus more, grow in the fruit of the Spirit more, and pray to the Father for wisdom more, in order that my theological communication might more fully reflect the content of God’s word and the shape of God’s heart. Growing won’t be easy, but this is our calling: “…speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ…” as Ephesians 4:15 so beautifully summons us.

[1] Jaclyn Lutzke and Mary F Henggeler, The Rhetorical Triangle: Understanding and Using Logos, Ethos, and Pathos, 2010,


[3] Rudovick James, “David Berlo’s SMCR Model,” Visual Language Fall 2008, pg. 1.

[4] Rudovick James, pg. 2.

[5] Rudovick James, pg. 4.

[6] Rudovick James, pg. 4.

[7] Peter Jensen, The Revelation of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), p. 88.

[8] Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority (Set of 6), Kindle, vol. II (Crossway Books, 1999), Location 12471.

[9] John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge, Kindle, Book 1 Chapter 13 (Edinburgh: The Calvin Translation Society, 1845) Location 1756.

[10] Peter Jensen, p. 97.

[11] Peter Jensen, p. 97.

[12] Purdue Writing Lab, “Tone in Business Writing,” Purdue University,


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