June 14, 2008

Naming God?

Some of the mainline Protestant denominations have struggled with the issue of God language as of late. Out of fear and frustration that the biblical and traditional name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is fueling oppressive and hierarchical patriarchy, some have proposed alternate language for describing God. In 2006, a study group in the Presbyterian Church (USA), while not denying the traditional language used of God, suggested alternative language such as:

Rainbow of Promise, Ark of Salvation, Dove of Peace
Speaker, Word, and Breath
Overflowing Font, Living Water, Flowing River
Giver, Gift, and Giving
Fire that Consumes, Sword that Divides, Storm that Melts Mountains
Rock, Cornerstone, Temple
Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier

These alternatives are problematic for a variety of reasons. First, none of these names are clearly trinitarian. That is, none of them adequately express Christianity's triune theism. How do we know that the Rainbow, Ark, and Dove share the same divine essence or substance. Inasmuch as Christianity affirms a triune God, a God who is at once both one and three, these descriptions are not uniquely Christian. They constitute a short step to tritheism, the worship of three gods.

Second, the proposed alternatives often describe God in relationship to creation. One may wonder why this is problematic. Names that describe the Triune One in relationship to creation are to be distinguished from the name that describes God as he is in himself, namely, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier describe God as relating to fallen creation. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit properly name the God who is distinct from the creation. Before anything else existed, God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Third, the alternative suggestions generally describe functions of God rather than names for God. God certainly speaks, but God is not "speaker." This is something God does rather than who God is. In contrast, Father and Son do not describe something that God does or a manner in which God functions. Instead, Father and Son describe the eternal relationship between the first and second persons of the Trinity. This is closely related to the second point above because it involves a glimpse into who God is essentially. It is also important to point out that the functions described do not generally refer to only one person of the Trinity. All three persons of the Trinity are understood as involved in creation, redemption, and sanctification. In contrast, Father describes the first person of the Trinity exclusively. The Father is neither the Son nor the Spirit.

Lastly, some of the proposed alternatives involve simile which is not appropriately used as a personal name. To make the point, I might be said to be like a bull in a china shop. But that doesn't mean I should be addressed as such, "Hey, bull in a china shop..." Similarly, God is like a rock, but God is not a rock. We must beware of proposed alternatives for naming God which illegitimately exalt simile to the level of a proper name.

Much more could be said here. But I think the point is made. We must be very careful in how we go about naming God. Some have so much reverence for the divine name that they do not even say it. I think God has given us a name because he desires to be known by name, but we could probably learn a lot from those so reverent. Let me also be clear that I'm not saying these suggested alternatives are illegitimate as helpful similes, metaphors, or symbols which might help us develop a more comprehensive understanding of how God relates to us. Each option should be evaluated in light of Scripture as to its usefulness in thinking about God. My point is simply that there is a difference between a name and function or comparison. God has given us a name and God has given us descriptions. We must be careful to discern between the two.