The Name and Identity of God: A Different Approach

The Name and Identity of God: A Different Approach

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I have argued against passing agenda item 20 for the following reasons: 1) it overreaches with its ambiguous use of “title”; 2) we should not continue to add doctrinal commitments to the obligations for ministers; 3) the statement sets a precedent of finding “hidden” meanings in our Declaration of Faith that are not explicitly present; 4) we should use the mechanisms already in place to respond to this issue.

The best way forward is for the doctrine and polity committee to issue a statement on God. In this post, I offer an example of such a statement. I believe it is biblical and draws clear lines but does so in a way that offers explanation and invitation rather than judgment and condemnation. In this sense, it is closer to how the Church of God has understood divorce and remarriage.

1. Introduction

1.1 Scripture offers two important claims about God that form the boundaries of theological reflection. God is holy and God is love. These two claims drive the Church of God’s commitment to holiness of life expressed through love for God and neighbor. Rooted in a deep immersion into scripture, the doctrine of God affirms divine holiness and love as the heart of the name and identity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

1.2 This statement sets forth what scripture means by God is holy and God is love. Since the whole Bible must be rightly divided, this also requires an exploration of how scripture uses language to describe the infinite and eternal God. Scripture communicates the nature of God in such a way as to remind us that God can never be fully captured by human words. This is because one of the fundamental problems of fallen life is the proclivity to construct God in our image.

2. God is Holy

2.1 The command, “Be holy for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev. 11:44-45; 1 Pet. 1:15-16) couches God’s demands in his nature. We must be like God in holiness. As the writer of Hebrews declares, the purpose of God’s plan is that “we may be partakers of His holiness” (Heb. 12:10; NASB). Holiness is at the core of God’s character expressed in both his transcendence and moral excellence. It encapsulates the absolute perfection and purity of God’s being.

2.2 Holiness differentiates God from all other claims to deity. The biblical proclamation “Who is like You among the gods, Lord? Who is like You, majestic in holiness?” (Ex. 15:11; NASB) leads directly to the first commandment that “you shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3). Even the giving of the divine name, Yahweh occurs in the context of holiness as God tells Moses that he is standing on holy ground (Ex. 3:5). Israel should never honor or glorify any other god because God has demonstrated his holiness by delivering Israel.

2.3 Holiness differentiates God from every attempt to remake God in our image. As the prophet Hosea declares, “For I am God and not a man, the Holy One in your midst” (Hos. 11:9). The full implication of the second commandment is that we cannot make false images of God in our hearts and minds as well as with our hands (Ex. 20:4; Deut. 5:8). To do so is to exchange “the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible mankind” (Rom. 1:23).

2.4 Holiness is the thread that links together every attribute in the fabric of the divine nature. Justice and righteousness are holiness in action. In his Discourses Upon the Existence and Attributes of God, Stephen Charnock states that without holiness God’s “patience would be an indulgence to sin, his mercy a fondness, his wrath a madness, his power a tyranny, his wisdom an unworthy subtilty. It is this that gives a decorum to all” (113). Holiness is the infinite beauty and perfect order of God’s life in which there is “no variation or shadow of turning” (Jas. 1:17).

2.5 By co-opting human language, God is stooping down to accommodate human hearts and minds. Scripture describes God as having arms, eyes, and wings. At the same time, scripture says that God is spirit (John 4:24) and that God is not a man (Num. 23:19; Hos. 11:9). Scripture proclaims God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and yet also asserts that the Son is eternally begotten of the Father. Normally, mothers beget children, but scripture assigns this action to the Father. These ways of speaking about God remind us that God is neither male nor female. God does not have a body, nor does God have parts as though God is composed of matter. In his holiness, God stands apart as the eternal, infinite, and immutable Lord of glory.

2.6 The claim that God accommodates himself to human language in no way detracts from verbal inspiration. Verbal inspiration means that the entirety of scripture comes from God. Its words and ideas express what God intends to say. This verbal inspiration only applies to the original languages of scripture. A translation participates in and conveys the authority of scripture in direct relation to its correspondence to the original languages. Scripture uses a variety of expressions about God to maintain God’s prerogative to define who he is and keep us from remolding God in our image.

3. God is Love

3.1 Scripture also claims that God is love (1 John 4:8). By describing God this way, scripture prioritizes God’s nature. God is love; love is not God. Divine love is a permanent and abiding movement that binds the whole Trinity together into the harmony and order of holiness. Whereas holiness refers to God’s perfection, love gives rise to this perfection.

3.2 To say that God is love means that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit move in and out of one another in a triune movement. Jesus declares, “I am in the Father and the Father in me” (John 14:10, 11). Scripture makes clear that the Spirit comes from the Father, but the Son sends the Spirit as the promise of the Father (Luke 24:49; John 15:26). The Spirit completes the divine fellowship by uniting Father and Son (Luke 11:13; Acts 2:38). Love is a single continuous movement that begins with the Father, flows through the Son, and comes to completion in the Spirit.

3.3 Love points toward a relationship expressed in the communion between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Father loves the Son in begetting him. This begetting is unlike any birth because the Son moves forth as the Father’s eternal Word and Image. By fully reflecting back to the Father all that the Father is, the Son loves the Father. Like parents who see themselves in their children, the Father sees and knows himself in the Son. The Father and the Son share their love with the Spirit by breathing the Spirit forth. The Spirit reciprocates this love by binding the Father and the Son together in the Spirit’s procession. As a child binds two parents together, sealing their love forever in the form of a distinct person, so the Spirit’s own distinctive personal identity seals the Father and the Son in perfect unity.

3.4 Scripture does not allow us to affirm divine unity or trinity in such a way as to destroy the oneness of God or the threeness of God. God is three in relationship and one in essence. The divine nature cannot be divided into three equal pieces like slices of a pie. One might think of how one flow of water can begin with a spring, move into a stream or river, and end in a lake. The Father is the spring; the Son is the river; and the Spirit is the lake. While there is one flow and one essence of water, there are three distinct forms that the water takes. The Father, the Son, and the Spirit are all entirely and equally God. None is subordinate to the other because all are the one Lord and God.

3.5 In God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all share the divine nature while each divine person possesses a distinctive characteristic that sets one apart from the other. The Father remains the one who begets the Son and breathes forth the Spirit. The Father is the origin of movement. The Son is the only-begotten Word and Image who shares with the Father in the breathing forth of the Spirit. The Son is the pattern or creative cause in the movement. The Spirit is the Gift and Breath who proceeds from the Father and the Son and who unites them in His eternal movement out from them. The Spirit is the perfecting cause or completion of the movement.

4. Naming God

4.1 The triune name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit stands in continuity with the revelation of Yahweh as the name of God in the Old Testament. Every Israelite recited the Shema: “Hear, O Israel, the LORD (Yahweh) our God (Elohim), the LORD (Yahweh) is one” (Deut. 6:4). When Paul declared that “the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Cor. 3:17), he was identifying both Christ and the Spirit as Yahweh, the Lord. To baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is to baptize into the name of Yahweh.

4.2 The name Yahweh is more than a mere description. God declares, “This is my name forever” (Ex. 3:15). The name separated God from all other rivals as the I AM (Ex. 3:14-17). The connection between the divine name Yahweh and the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit means that Christians cannot use any other name. Mother can never be a divine name in the same way that Father can never be seen as importing masculinity onto God. The use of pronouns in relation to the divine name should follow the biblical grammar of the Hebrew and Greek languages.

4.3 Scripture situates the divine name in its use of other names, titles, and descriptions in relation to God. Titles point toward a role or action. For example, God is called the mighty one (Gen. 49:24; Is. 49:26), redeemer (Job 19:25; Ps. 78:35), savior (Ps. 17:7; 18:2), king (Ps. 24:7-10; Is. 33:22), and shepherd (Ps. 23:1). The Old Testament utilizes the generic term for God from Canaanite culture to refer to God. The term El (God) and its derivatives (Elohim or God, Elyon/El Elyon, or Most High/God Most High, El Shaddai, or God Almighty/God of the Mountain) move between other names for God and titles given to God.

4.4 Alongside of names and titles Scripture uses numerous descriptions of God, such as warrior (Ex. 15:3), maker (Ps. 95:6), potter (Is. 64:8), father (Is. 63:16; 64:8), husband (Hos. 2:16), and mother (Is. 49:15). In the Old Testament, these metaphorical descriptions point back to the holiness and love of God in action to maintain covenant even when all others are unfaithful.

4.5 The New Testament utilizes titles and descriptions of God in the Old Testament to show that Christ is fully God. Bridegroom (John 3:29; Eph. 5:25-29), shepherd (John 10:11-16; Heb. 13:20; 1 Pet. 1:4; Rev. 7:17), king (Matt. 2:2; Mark 15:32; 1 Tim. 6:11; Rev. 17:14), and mother hen (Matt. 23:37; Luke 13:34) now apply to Christ in his relationship to his people. Yet, within the scope of scripture some passages refer to the humanity of the Incarnate Son while others refer to the divinity. For example, the submission of Jesus to the will of God is the submission of the human will to the divine will. It does not imply in any way subordination of the Son to the Father. The Incarnate Son is one person with a divine and a human nature.

4.6 When Christians pray, “Our Father,” we are not addressing the one God, but the Person of the Father who exists in communion with the Son and the Spirit. The one name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit points back to the triune life of God and our invitation to participate in the holy love expressed through that life. It is not in any way designed to import masculinity or femininity onto God, but to identify the Holy One of Israel as the mysterious, eternal Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Our response to God must always be “hallowed be thy name.”

5. Conclusion

5.1 The name of God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Although scripture uses other names, titles, and identifying descriptions of God, the triune name stands at the center. God uses the original languages of scripture to describe himself in ways we can relate to.

5.2 The triune God is the Holy One of Israel. Holiness refers to the fullness and perfect order of God’s own life that separates God from all others. As the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, God also exists in a communion of love. Love refers to a trinitarian order of relations so that everything is from the Father through the Son and in the Spirit (Rom. 11:36). This ordered love gives rise to the fullness of God’s own life and thus His holiness. We are invited into this trinitarian communion as we are united to the Incarnate Son through the Spirit of the Son (Gal. 4:6-7).

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