Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Names of God and What They Mean

As Calvin argued in his Institutes (Bk. I, Ch. XIII), unless we contemplate God according to His self-revelation, only bare, empty, schematic notions of God will flit about in our brains, to the exclusion of the true God.
Unless we contemplate God according to His self-revelation, we go astray; we go afield.  To avoid that detour, we need to take recourse to those names by which He calls Himself, and to the actions and personality associated with those Divine names -- of which there are many:  Elohim, Yahweh, and Jesus, among them.  With God, there is graphic and startling historical and personal particularity.  He is this, not that; He is Himself, not some other.  He says and does these things, not those, and not nothing.  Aristotle’s god, you recall, is nameless, voiceless, and uninvolved.  It is not the God of the Bible, not Yahweh, not Elohim, and not Jesus.  They can talk, act, and relate; it cannot.
The loss of God’s many names is the loss of God and of reliable windows into His fullness, which those names help provide.  As Biblical theologians, we must beware of the appalling loss of depth and meaning that the word “God” has suffered because in place of His names we employ philosophical taxonomy and methods, which assimilate and reduce God to nature and to the philosophical deductions we draw from it.  These assimilations, reductions, and deductions can be corrected only by the invasion of God’s authentic, articulate, and gracious Godness in all its historical and human particularity in Israel and in Christ.  Only the objective revelation of the Lord God Himself can successfully turn back our penchant to subdue and reduce His divine reality into some form of our humanly-controlled and humanly-generated subjectivity.  By our methodologically illicit subjectivity, He is shrunken to the boundaries of our own alleged intellectual autonomy and its attendant misunderstandings both of God and self.  The sovereign, transcendent, and uncompromised objectivity of God does not permit unregenerate sinners to understand Him apart from His revelation of Himself in his words, works, and names, without which no natural theology can validate itself.  We cannot steal, we cannot fabricate, knowledge of God behind His back.  He gives it or it is never gotten.  God’s character, and therefore His glory, cannot be accurately and reliably abstracted by us from His creatures and His creation.  To do so is to presuppose a functional dualism between God and Himself:  Recall that in Christ and in Scripture God reveals Himself, and not mere information about Himself.  He does so only to the redeemed.  To think that self-deluded sinners can know God on some other basis than God’s self-revealing, that other basis being their own wicked making and doing, is to separate God from the Word, which is Himself, and in its place to conflate God with nature, which is not Him, but merely comes from Him.  The Incarnation means that God Himself enters history in Jesus of Nazareth.  In Him, with Him, and as Him, the Word remains forever.
A partial list of the Divine names in Scripture follows.  It indicates both separately and collectively the multi-layered richness of His character and of His relationships with His people.
         Yahweh [Lord, Jehovah] This is the most commonly used name of God in the Hebrew Scriptures and seems to emphasize His omnipotence as the Supreme Ruler of all things and, as such, was too holy even to utter, a reluctance carried on by some even until today.  Yahweh” is translated very loosely as "The Existing One,” which suggests that He is to become known and will reveal Himself accordingly.  As the existing One, He is set apart from all the false gods who do not exist outside the minds of those who invented them.
Elohim [God, Judge, Creator] Though the etymological derivation of this plural word is highly controverted, its usage is less so.  It implies the functional sovereignty of God over all things, period.  He made them and they are His.  He can rule over them as He wishes.
Adonai [Lord, Master] Just as “Elohim” is plural, so also is “Adonai” (the singular being “adon,” which normally is used of human leaders or sovereigns, though not exclusively so).  In reference to God, the plural “Adonai” is frequently used, and is sometimes translated as “my lords.”  Sometimes “Adonai” was used as a substitute for “Yahweh.”
El Elyon  [The Most High God] This name expresses the sovereign majesty of God and His unapproachable superiority.
Jehovah Nissi  [The Lord My Banner, The Lord My Miracle] The word “Nissi,” which derives from “Nes,” meaning "banner," recognizes that God is the banner under which the ancient Israelites conquered their enemies.
Jehovah-Rohi: [God is My Shepherd]  As famously articulated in Psalm 23, God is the Shepherd Who feeds, protects, and pastures His flock and each of its members.  As shepherd, God also is our friend, companion, and ally.
El Shaddai [Lord God Almighty, All-Sufficient One] According to some scholars, this name derives from an ancient word for breast and implies that in His mighty power God is also, so to speak, the Great Provider of motherly nurture and nourishment.
Jehovah Rapha:  [God the Healer] As our Great Physician, God restores and heals His people, both inwardly and outwardly.
Jehovah Shammah [The Lord Who is There] This name for God name indicates that He has not and will not abandoned His people.  He is "The God who is There," to quote Francis Schaeffer.  Even if God's people now are in grievous trouble, they will be restored because He is there and has not forsaken them.
Jehovah Tsidkenu [The Lord is Our Righteousness] In the Old Testament, this name indicates that God has spoken to us and has become known as the straight and righteous One, in Whom is no bentness or twistedness.  His character is therefore the measure of righteousness.  For that reason, He also is known as Jehovah Mekoddishkem, the Lord Who makes us Holy, Who sanctifies us and sets us apart for His use, to which He has dedicated us.
Qanna [jealous] God is depicted here as Israel's husband.  He is a jealous God, desiring our praise, allegiance, and affection for Himself.  They are rightly His.
Jehovah Jireh [The Lord Who Provides] Even in our hour of deepest need and most extreme circumstances, and no matter what our plight, God will provide.  Because He is the great and sovereign God, He will supply all our needs, perhaps in ways we do not know and cannot anticipate.  As Lord of the whole world, He is never without sufficient resources.  

Thursday, July 3, 2014

"il primo Amore"

         The connection between ideas and actions is intimate and enduring.  Because ideas have consequences, and because bad ideas have bad ones, it matters what you think.   The differences between natural theology and authentically Christian theology lead, therefore, to differences in spirituality, and they are our focus.
         I begin with an important and fundamental difference:  the difference between the first mover and the first lover, or what Dante called “il primo Amore.”
         If, in some degree, worlds reflect their makers, then consider this:  A world in motion is far different from a world in love.  Aristotle’s first mover is not, and cannot be, the first and greatest Lover, though Dante’s God can be the first mover, if we think of Love as spiritual motion, the way Dante does.  For him, indeed, “love makes the world go round.”  For Dante, God can be, and is, precisely that, the prime Lover, because Dante knows Christ, and knows the God revealed in Christ.  Multi-personal, interpersonal, everlasting Love lies at the core of Dante’s world, but not Aristotle’s, even though Dante inherited much from Aristotle, he did not inherit a prime Lover.  That had to come from elsewhere.  Being an aloof, distant, abstract and sub-personal force, Aristotle’s god could not give rise to Dante’s.  The chasm between the two gods and the two worlds they create is beyond mere difference.  It is incompatibility.  Mere motion, on the one hand, and righteous, self-sacrificial affection, on the other hand, must not to be confused or conflated.  Neither must the Gods from which they spring. 
         Consider, too, the difference in spirituality that the character and commandments pertaining to the two Gods in view (if we can say that Aristotle’s god even has a character or imposes moral requirements):  The difference is between (1) moving, and causing, on the one hand, and (2) loving, communing, incarnating, and self-sacrificing, on the other.  As even a moment’s reflection makes plain, personality-less, morality-less, love-less, and word-less unmoved movers like Aristotle’s cannot give rise to the Divine Comedy or to the spirituality it entails.  Much, very much, needs to be added to it before the piety of the Divine Comedy or the revamped heroism of Paradise Lost emerge.  That “very much” is the Word become flesh, the incarnation of Christ.