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A hundred and one names for God...

Proverbs 8   Psalm 8   John 16: 12 – 15
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
30 May 2010

Well, actually, there are more. A quick count of a list of biblical names for God I found on an evangelical website came up with 173 names for God in the bible alone. And when I looked at a Muslim site I discovered more than a hundred there as well. Many of which were the same or similar to those I found on the evangelical site, but there were some different ones as well. I didn’t check any hindu sites, but I know they have come up with many names and images for their experience of the divine in their tradition. It’s probably fair to say that in todays world there are hundreds of names for god, some of which go back thousands of years and some of which are far more recent.

But, the more dogmatically inclined of you may start to protest at this time: There is only one God, who revealed himself in Jesus Christ and engages with us through the Holy Spirit. One God, in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That’s how our creeds states it and that’s how we believe it.

I wish it was as simple as that! What we find reflected in Scripture is more multifaceted. For starters: The trinity as a concept does not appear in Scripture at all. It was an attempt at capturing the divine of a much later time, formulated in 381CE by the council of Nicea. An attempt that took time to mature and didn’t appear until sometime between 325 and 381 CE: In 325 when the first Nicene creed was formulated there is no trace of the concept yet in what the Church fathers put down, but after another 56 years of discussions and discord this is what they came up with in 381 when it talks about the Spirit:

And in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceedeth from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified, who spake by the prophets.

And when it talks about the Son:

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds (æons), Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father;

With the "begotten of the Father before all worlds" bit new in 381.
When it talks about the Father there is also a slight change where 381 says:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

325 said Maker of all things visible and invisible, but leaves out heaven and earth and puts it in later, after the statement about the Son.

I won’t go into the detail of the development of the Nicene Creed, because it would take longer than the 10 minutes of so I’ve got, but also because I don’t know enough about it to do it justice. What I wanted to show you is that one of the most important credal concepts of our faith took its time to grow. It grew in context: at a certain time in history, where certain questions were asked, where certain philosophical fashions prevailed, with certain socio economic circumstances playing their part in the back ground, discussion, understanding and biblical interpretation of the time all putting into the mix that came up with that magnificent creed that tried to answer all questions at once at that time, in that context.

That was 1700 years ago. Did these people live in the same world as we do? Yes and no. Were they confronted with the same issues as we are? Yes and no. Did they understand, reason and interpret the way we do? Yes and no. Was their context different from ours? Absolutely.

And so, when we try to make what they wrote down as their principal statement of faith our own, we should take into account that although they were the same human beings, confronting the same issues, living in the same world, understanding, reasoning and interpreting just like we do, their context was completely different from ours.

And that there are a hundred and one or more names, concepts, definitions and images in Scripture trying to define, name or image God which all grew out of a context of their own, responding to issues and trends in their own time. For instance: In a time where Israel was engaged in a constant battle for survival the term "Lord of hosts" was very popular, God a magnification of what were powerful and determining factors in their lives. "Eternal Wisdom" came up as a description for God in more peaceful times where court philosophers were engaged in the search of truth and true wisdom and named the elusive truer than truth, truth that keeps eluding us as humans God.

In Jesus time Jews were accustomed to be addressed, and address each other in a religious context, as children or sons and daughters of God. This terminology was introduced by some of the prophets and became important in Jesus’ time. It was used to differentiate between Jews, who were oppressed by the Romans, their land and self determination stolen, but who were children of the one God, and others who may have had more power and influence, but who were not children of the one God.

Those who lived and worked with Jesus put capitals the title CHILD, SON of God. Because, as far as they were concerned, he was a living image of God, someone in whom God revealed something of God’s essence and so much so that one could say he was one with God. Later, while Jesus the emphasis on Jesus’ sonship grew stronger and stronger, the original use in context moved into the background and the term Child and Son exclusively applied to Jesus. If it hadn’t been for the Hebrew scriptures would probably have been lost completely. Funnily enough, at the same time there is an undercurrent in the New Testament writings where the term has become more inclusive. Especially in the writings of the Jew Paul who says everyone, male or female, Jew or Gentile can become children of God if they follow in Jesus footsteps.

As Christian theology developed many names that had originally been used for God, were now also used for Jesus, emphasising the unity even more. So much so that some people started to believe Jesus had not been human at all but God dressed in a human skin. After a while the theological pendulum swung back, as it always does, because if Jesus was God and not human at all, following him becomes something pretty far out of our reach doesn’t it? And what he did and how he suffered is then not that special anymore either. So if Jesus wasn’t God, was he then fully human? Some said so, but the Church couldn’t quite agree with that either. Because if Jesus was only human, he would be no different than many others who have lived exemplary lives and why make him the centre of our faith then and not anybody else? And that’s how the learned fathers came up with the "of one substance with the father" and "incarnated by the Holy Spirit ... was made man". Jesus was both God and man they said and how that exactly worked they unfortunately left to our imagination and much speculation. At the time people would have understood the statement as an answer to both the "Jesus is God" party and the "Jesus is human" party. Issues not that different from questions asked about Jesus in our day and age we really don’t have an easy, unequivocal answer to. Was Jesus just an extraordinary man like Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela or was he more? And if he was more, what does the "more" consist of?

I am sure you’re starting to develop a headache by now trying to follow this totally over simplified version of the whole discussion. There is a lot more that comes into it. And it is important. Because it determines what is at the core of our faith. Why we put Jesus there and not someone or something else. So it needs thinking through, but perhaps not only thinking. Perhaps it needs feeling and experiencing through as well.

To me the simplest way to understand or feel my way into it is the celtic symbol of the Trinity, which is an endless loop with three "leaves". God, Jesus, the Spirit all one of one, but three distinguishable parts at the same time. God, the divine, that what people have experienced over the ages and still experience in many different ways and through many different means as energy, power, awe, wonder, law, wisdom, truth and a hundred or more other nameable ways, revealed himself in a very special way, flowed into, or flowed over in the man Jesus. To such an extent that the lines became blurred. In the memories of Jesus’ disciples as well as of those who later started to follow him. In Jesus God got hands and feet. Literally. And where God had communicated his essence before in many other ways (creator, maker, prophets, law giver etc) here something totally unique and more far reaching happened. Something we don’t only have the word of those who were there to witness it for, but something that somehow became alive and lived on after Jesus death and can be experienced still. Jesus became an independent reality reflecting and identifiable with that other reality of which he was an image. God. The "experience still", the mystery of Jesus life somehow living and breathing and working on, that something and somehow got the name Holy Spirit, an other separate identifiable part to the whole, connecting what happened back to before the beginning of Creation where it is the Spirit who breathes Creation into being, the very first way God starts communicating outside God self and starts to communicate with the world at a level that was there before but is now marked, recognised as representative of what was revealed of God in Jesus.

And here I begin to stutter. I don’t understand. With every line I add I realise there is more to say, deeper understanding that needs communication. It doesn’t let itself be put into words. And that is perhaps what we are bound to come back to every time we try to put a name to God, to our experience and understanding of the divine, that in the end there is no name, no understanding. That in the end there is only a stuttered attempt at the impossible.

Should we go back to the Jewish tradition of not even trying to utter the name of God? Or is it more in keeping with our tradition and the struggle we’ve had over the ages to embrace the many names side by side and let them speak their own separate truth in a cacophony of the mysterious essence of God? Having endeavored to apply greek rational thinking to what is, in the end, something that is beyond rationality, to embrace the hundred or more names we have as many coloured facets of the same diamond, as descriptions of something that is impossible to describe, as words for something that is only experienced in a life that seeks to become one with the mystery that took shape and became the core of our faith in Jesus? Amen.

John Godfrey Saxe's ( 1816-1887) version of the famous Indian legend,

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approach'd the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
"God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!"

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, -"Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me 'tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!"

The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant
Is very like a snake!"


The Fourth reached out his eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
"What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain," quoth he,
"'Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!"

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: "E'en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!"

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Then, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant
Is very like a rope!"

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

MORAL.

So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2010


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