Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Names for God

Throughout the Bible, God is given dozens, perhaps hundreds, of different names. They are familiar in our dialogue and church services: Prince of Peace, Almighty Father, Messiah, Holy Spirit, etc. Because God is both three persons and one God, a Trinity, we have names for each of the persons of God as well: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There are far more names for the Son than for either the Father or the Holy Spirit. The Son is referred to as the Logos of God, a term meaning word, logic, pattern, order and much more. He is also the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Savior, and perhaps in the Old Testament the Angel of the Lord. The church throughout history has also sometimes described God with phrases not found in scripture, but theologically appropriate in one way or another. Those of you who, like me, have read the novels of Stephen Lawhead know that he depicts ancient Celtic Christians as referring to God as the “Swift Sure Hand” and the “Many-Gifted Giver.”

Recently, a great deal of controversy has erupted as the Presbyterian Church accepted a report which encouraged its member congregations to use a collection of various phrases to describe the Trinity. Some of the sets of names in the report were at least arguably within reason, while others are anti-biblical and deeply troubling. The result of the report has not been a general applause for how advanced and civilized the Presbyterians have been, but rather horror on the part of the orthodox and mocking from the national press. The media laugh at people who call themselves Christians but who fail to believe in the basic tenets of Christianity. Even though I suppose they prefer those people to real Christians, they still know that what they are doing is in some way silly and enjoy mocking them in the public press.

What after all is in a name? Why are names important to us? Why are the names of God important to us? Claude Levi-Strauss contended that some names, such as those for race horses, are purely random and tell us nothing about what they identify. (As for his theory about race horses, I find that difficult to believe. While race horse names are odd, they are odd within a certain scope. No one calls their horse Molasses Molds’ Egg-Yolks.) Post modern writers sometimes claim that naming by another is an act of violence against the object named. This is largely because they resent the names that society has given to various people, things and groups. The ancients believed that a name gave you some kind of power over the person identified by it. And the descriptive value of names was taken seriously in ancient times. God gave a new name to Abram making him Abraham. Likewise, He took Jacob and gave him the name Israel. In the New Testament, the name of Saul becomes Paul and Simon becomes Peter. If one takes the Bible seriously, one would have to guess that there is something to naming. Adam, of course, named all the animals at God’s behest. This showed that he had authority over the animals and involved him in God’s creative process. The names that God has for Himself and the fact that Adam named woman are some of the factors that also relate directly to this controversy in the PCUSA.

Names of God in the Bible tell us something about Him. They reveal something about His nature and character. God tells Moses that He is “I Am.” This is often thought to show God’s self existence and transcendence. He who is who He is—life, being, immutable, eternal, forever, self-existent, self-explaining, self-revealing. Francis Schaeffer calls Him “the God who is there.” In Jesus’ identity as the Logos, we see Him as the revelation of God, how we see God, how we interact with God, how we know of God, how we think about God and how we think about everything. Jesus is the Word, the logic, the reason, the pattern, the order of God. In addition, He is the Anointed One, full of the Holy Spirit and chosen by God to be the redeemer of mankind. He is the Savior in His redemption of mankind. But Jesus is also identified in the New Testament as the Creator. “Without him nothing was made that has been made.” If you believe, as is pretty self-evident from the Bible itself, that the Bible is God’s revelation about Himself and that the names of God in the Bible are God describing and naming Himself, then the biblical names for God are pretty much all you really need. There are many of them, and they tell you a lot about God.

The difficulty for some people is that they’re not happy with God the way He is. For one thing, God as described in the Bible seems to them too patriarchal. Jesus is, after all, a man. As C.S. Lewis has pointed out, there is a man sitting on the throne of the universe, even though that man is also fully God. While in Genesis God does say “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over the livestock and over the earth and over all the creatures that move along the ground. So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him, male and female, He created them,” and although God does describe Himself through Jesus’ words as a hen gathering her chicks, the predominant language used for the Father throughout the Bible is also masculine. And in a world that is so eager to find the feminine to be divine as to believe hook, line and sinker the ridiculousness of the novel The Da Vinci Code, this masculineness of God is a difficult thing to accept. C.S. Lewis certainly thought that this naming of God told us something about God. He notes that while it is silly to think of God as masculine in the sense of masculine organs, there is something about the characteristics of masculineness that to paraphrase his words makes everything in the universe feminine by comparison to God in His masculinity. Hence the people of God are also almost always depicted as female. When God is unhappy with the unfaithfulness of His people, He describes them as an unfaithful wife. When in the New Testament the church is described, she is described as the bride of Christ. Indeed, the New Testament identifies marriage itself, the relationship between man and woman, as a metaphor or art type of the relationship between God and His people. It is indicated that the relationship between man and woman is what it is because in some way it was meant to express the relationship between God and His people. This, of course, meaning the way it was meant to be by God’s design, not the way sin has made it. And that is really the problem. We look at the relationship between men and women as affected by sin and we look at our culturally laden understanding of men and women as affected by sin and we see things that we don’t like. Sometimes, of course, we also see things we don’t like in God’s own order because of the sin in us. For either or both reasons, we become dissatisfied with what we understand to be the relationship between men and women and seek something else. We also sometimes seek a God who is someone else in order to give us what we think we want. The problem is that trying to remake God in our own image is idolatry. While there are many ways in which God condescends to us, we must ultimately accept Him as He is and for who He is. Any time we try to change who God is, we are not changing God, we are merely worshipping someone or something else, the one thing our God strictly forbids us to do. Only the real and living God can save us from His wrath and from our sins and from ourselves. No image of wishful thinking can provide real solutions to real problems, let alone lead us into eternity.

Names that try to say something about God that is not strictly biblical are problematic. And unfortunately, when surveyed, many of the names in the Presbyterian report do just that. Perhaps the worst is “compassionate mother, beloved child and life-giving womb.” This implies a degree of feminineness which is never attributed to God anywhere in the Bible. It seeks to enthrone a goddess in place of God and to worship the divine feminine in place of the divine. Likewise, some of the others like “overflowing thought, living water, flowing river” seem innocuous at first, but actually may convey to innocents the erroneous doctrine of modalism. Modalism is the idea that the Trinity is not really three persons, but rather one person who manifests himself in three different forms like ice, liquid water and steam. But the church long ago rejected modalism. The Bible teaches that God is one God, but He is also three persons. This is a difficult doctrine, but it is a biblical one. Modalism is not. Likewise, some of the report’s suggestions confuse the reality of other doctrines. Another one of the Presbyterian phrases is “Creator, Savior, Sanctifier.” The problem is that the New Testament makes it quite clear that Jesus is the creator, just as much as the rest of God. All of the persons of the Godhead are involved in the creation. In Genesis, we see the Spirit of God moving upon the waters. The New Testament tells us that Jesus is the creator, and without Him nothing was made that was made. And the Father has always been associated with creation. So this phrase is also less than satisfactory. Another, “Rock, Cornerstone and Temple” interferes with other biblical imagery. It is the Christian who is the temple of the Holy Spirit. It is not the Spirit that is the temple. In addition, when the Bible refers to the rock, it is usually referring to Jesus or to faith in Jesus, not to God the Father. Even “King of Glory, Prince of Peace, and Spirit of Love” is difficult because Jesus is in some ways the King of Glory as well as the Prince of Peace. In short, when people without the theological depth of the church fathers or the poetic powers of a William Shakespeare meddle with biblical metaphors, the result is mixed.

In our shallow and theologically na├»ve age, it is probably better for us to stick with the names of God described in the Bible itself lest we fall into error and confusion. This is not to say “give me that old time religion,” it is to say give me the Word of God, unsullied, unadulterated and unchanged. While not everything that we say or do is directly prescribed by the Bible, it is probably dangerous if we begin implying things about God that are not represented in the Bible. Presbyterians and other mainline churches are always worried about divisiveness. But they fail to rally around the one thing that can give them unity, the Word of God. Perhaps this is because the division is already there: a division between people who take God’s Word seriously, and people who only take their own word seriously.

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