The following is a lecture that Dr. Michael Maloney (who teaches theology in the Department of Religion) gave at a recent Abraham’s Table – An Interfaith Colloquium at Seton Hall University (November 3, 2014). The topic for this past Abraham’s Table was “The names of God: The meanings of God’s names in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.” Dr. Maloney provided a Christian perspective on the “Meanings of God’s Names.” The lecture is posted below.
“The Philosophical Development of Exodus 3.14 in the Christian Tradition,” by Michael Maloney, Ph.D., Instructor, Religion Department, Seton Hall University
I. Introductory remarks on the nature of the topic
It is said that the contemporary Catholic theologian David Tracy remarked that Christian theology began when Greek questions were asked of a Hebrew narrative (Cross Currents, “This Side of God: A Conversation With David Tracy,”www.crosscurrents.org/Tracyspring2002.htm). The remark is perspicacious, for the ancient Greeks wrestled with the problem of naming the Divine (or God), with some interesting results. For purposes of this presentation I am going to limit my reflections to the philosophical implications that result from Christian thinkers reflecting on the name of God granted to Moses in Exodus 3.14, “I am who I am.” The project, then, is to take Tracy’s remark seriously and see if we can’t catch sight of the way these two traditions, Greek and Hebrew, interact in the development of Christian theology.
II. The search for the arche: reason and revelation in ancient Greek thought
The pagan Greeks, beginning with Thales of Miletus (late 7th century b.c.e) began the trajectory of reasoned inquiry into nature, which eventuated in the development of what we now know as the Western philosophical tradition. Thales is accounted among the first of the so-called philosophers of nature, those men who endeavored, solely by the use of reason, to arrive at the arche, the first principle and cause, of all things. This project of employing reason to arrive at the arche, to, effectively, comprehend and name the divine, separated these men from the contemporary poets of their age, those who also sought the cause, the origin of all things, but did so with the aide of divine revelation.
The attempt to apprehend the One, the first principle, or arche, the origin of the many things that populate the world in which we live, can be viewed as, effectively, a demotion of the importance of these mere sensible things in the search for that which is ultimately responsible for them. It is the search for a unity behind the many things that populate the world, for the real behind mere appearance. This dynamism of the mind to get “behind” things to their origin is one that continues to animate the philosophical tradition in the West up to the present day.
Thales himself arrived at the conclusion that this first principle was water. Perhaps not an impressive conclusion from where we stand today, though I think it is possible to redeem his insight in a way that is counterintuitive. Nevertheless, his conclusion isn’t important. What is important is that Thales believed that he had apprehended the origin of all things, the divine, solely through the use of reason. The corollary here is that reality, in Thales estimation, is rational, intelligible, all the way through to its origin. And man, as that being endowed with reason and intelligence, is fit to read this reality.
As a means for underscoring the importance of Thales faith in the intelligibility of reality and of the intelligence of the human mind that enables it to apprehend this reality’s structure, it may be useful to compare him with his near contemporary, the poet Hesiod (late 8th century b.c.e.) In Hesiod’s poem Theogony (literally, birth of the gods) Hesiod indicates an ambivalence regarding the ability to know the origin of the gods, and thus the origin of reality itself. Unlike Thales, Hesiod does not endeavor to ascertain the origin of things himself, rather, he invokes and receives the aid of the divine, in the form of the Helicon Muses. In answer to his request to give an ordered account of the origin of all things, the Muses relate that first came Chaos, not a god, but a condition of the birth of the gods. In ancient Greek Chaos has the connotation not of randomness or disorder, but of abyss, or gap: that which, as literally, no-thing, is unknowable and unintelligible. So, it appears that one of the implications of Hesiod setting Chaos at the ultimate origin of reality is that this reality participates in that unintelligibility and irrationality as an effect shows forth the character of its cause.
So, at the beginning of the Western tradition we have offered to us two very different views on the nature and possibility of apprehending the first cause, the divine. Considering that to know the origin of a thing is ingredient to knowing that thing’s nature, the question of the nature of the origin is an all-important question. It is not simply a theoretical question, but impacts the possibility of knowledge of the self, one’s world, and the attitude one is to take to living in the world.
III. A few methodological reflections on the possibility of naming God
It may be useful to pause for a moment here, to reflect on this human endeavor to discern the name of God through the application of the mind to reality, particularly as this trajectory of ancient Greek thought will be appropriated by, and inform the development of Christianity almost from its very beginning. The very idea that human beings have the power to apprehend the divine raises a number of issues and problems. First, might not such an endeavor exemplify arrogance and hubris on behalf of humans? Is it our place to name the divine? And, second, would any God that could be comprehended by us seemingly finite human beings be worthy of the name God: that is, is a God comprehended truly God?
Put another way, doesn’t the very word God connote a being that is necessarily hidden from us, beyond our powers of perception and intellection? Presupposing that there is a God, could this God be approachable by us, apart from God’s deigning to reveal God’s self? Furthermore, and to jump ahead a bit, even if God wanted to communicate himself to finite creatures, presupposing here that God is infinite, is such a communication even possible? Could the finite receive a communication from the infinite without finitizing it? Is, then, a revelation from God as a self-revelation even possible? These problems were reflected on in ancient Greek thought, if not explicitly then at least implicitly; and they informed Christian reflection on God when this developing tradition appropriated Greek thought. These issues are still with us today. However, Christian theology should not be understood simply as a development of Greek thought, but, as Tracy say, is better understood as the development that emerges from the application of the questions and categories present in this tradition to the Hebrew narrative. The results are quite interesting.
IV. Names of God in Scripture
1. The creator God – Perhaps the first “name” for the divine that presents itself when one opens the Bible is God as creator. It is right there in Genesis 1:1-2-4a:
1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.
3 And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.
4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.[Revised Standard Version Bible, hereafter RSV]
There are several points to make about the image and name or names for God that are presented from the very beginning in Genesis. First, God appears omnipotent. God creates simply by speaking things into being. Second, God is rational and intelligible: God gives form to the formless, to the void. It is noteworthy here to compare this presentation of the beginning as ordering, with Hesiod’s beginning as unintelligible. Furthermore, God is good, as all that comes from God is good. I won’t expand much more on the narrative except to say that, as you are probably all aware, God creates over the course of seven days. On the reading of the Biblical scholar Amy Jill Levine [see her Teaching Company course Old Testament, lectures 1-2], this creation over a period of days is significant, for it indicates that this God is more powerful than time itself. Time, here recognized as symbolic of the infinite, that which goes on ad infinitum, is here tamed, domesticated by this God. This God orders the infinite and so is greater than the infinite, so to speak.
There is one more point to make with regard to this passage. The Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo, creation out of nothing, is a foundational doctrine of Christianity, but it is not explicitly found in the Bible. Rather it is extrapolated from this opening of Genesis. Furthermore, this notion of a creator God, a God who can bring beings into being out of nothing without himself being in any way lessened or polluted by this action of contact with the finite is foreign to Greek thought. It’s simply an idea that could not arise within the reference frame of the ancient Greek way of thinking. One has to look to the Semitic traditions for this notion of an aseitic, creator God who is in no way diminished or polluted in the act of bringing forth a distinct, finite other: creation.
1. God, present as other – Exodus 3:1-6. Moses looks upon the burning bush.
In Exodus we have an indication of the nature of God as wholly other, as divine mystery, as what the German Protestant theologian Rudolf Otto called the Mysterium Tremendum. This is a God who appears literally, unapproachable, unknowable, unless he deigns to be known by his creatures through a self-revelation. So, in one example of the mysteriousness and awesome, or awe-ful, nature of this God, we can look at the beginning of Exodus 3:
1 Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Mid’ian; and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.
2 And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and lo, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed.
3 And Moses said, “I will turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.”
4 When the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here am I.”
5 Then he said, “Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”
6 And he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.[RSV]
An interesting point to note here is that Moses is attracted to the burning bush. It is indicative of the fascination of the divine for the creature that even the creature’s acknowledged sense of a terrific aspect to the divine, is not enough to overcome this fascination. This powerful and wrathful aspect of the divine (a commonplace dimension of the divine in all religions) is exhibited later in Exodus 23
23 “When my angel goes before you, and brings you in to the Amorites, and the Hittites, and the Per’izzites, and the Canaanites, the Hivites, and the Jeb’usites, and I blot them out,
24 you shall not bow down to their gods, nor serve them, nor do according to their works, but you shall utterly overthrow them and break their pillars in pieces.
25 You shall serve the LORD your God, and I will bless your bread and your water; and I will take sickness away from the midst of you.
26 None shall cast her young or be barren in your land; I will fulfil the number of your days.
27 I will send my terror before you, and will throw into confusion all the people against whom you shall come, and I will make all your enemies turn their backs to you.[RSV]
This is a God whom one would be wise to think twice before approaching, let alone thinking that one could possibly wrest the name from this God. The Old Testament manifests different ideas about God, some seemingly antithetical: God is good and gracious, merciful and just, God is wrathful, quick to anger, etc. However, in Exodus 3.14 we have a singular instance of God’s self-revelation through the unveiling of God’s name:
13 Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, `The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, `What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”
14 God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, `I AM has sent me to you.'”[RSV]
It is this revelation of God’s name as “I AM” that I want to reflect on briefly as it has impacted the development of Christian thought, specifically in the area of philosophical theology.
III. Theological developments based on God’s revelation as “I AM”
1. Augustine on the proper name for God –
For Augustine, God’s nature is wholly spiritual, and is thus beyond the apprehension by the human mind. Even after God’s self-revelation, God remains a mystery.
Augustine’s conversion to Christianity, the religion of his mother, came, he relates in his Confessions, after reading some books by the Platonists. It was this reading that sparked in him the insight regarding the existence of spiritual realities, and thus paved the way for a reevaluation of the God of Christianity as a spiritual being.
How can we hope to understand God, when we do not understand our own minds, by which we desire to grasp Him? And if one does not understand one’s own mind, one should carefully consider the fact that it is the highest thing in our own nature . . . Certainly, we find nothing of a material nature in what is highest in ourselves, namely, our intellect . . . Therefore, we should not expect to find in God what we do not find in our best part, since he is far better than what is best in us. [[St. Augustine, On the Trinity, V, in Foundations of Theological Study: A Sourcebook, Edited by Richard Viladesau and Mark Massa, Paulist Press, 1991, p. 131, hereafter, FTS.]
It should be noted that God transcends apprehension by our intellect. God is unknowable, but not in the sense that God is irrational, or unintelligible, but in that his being transcends our powers of knowing. God is known as unknowable because of the kind of being he is; but we know that God is unknowable, and this is knowing something. God should be understood, then, as pure, spiritual being, in accord with John 4:24: “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
Furthermore, the material being which we confront in our day-to-day activity has its origin in God’s spiritual being: the spirit is the father of the material. True Being is Spirit and Spirit is Being (where Being is rational). Referring to Exodus 3:14, Augustine makes the case that God’s proper name is BEING:
God is, however, without doubt a “substance” or, if you prefer, an “essence” . . . And who is there that IS, more than the One who said to Moses, “I am who am,” and “Say to the children of Israel, “He Who Is” has sent me to you [Ex 3.14] . . . there can be no changeable qualities in God; and therefore God is the only unchangeable substance or essence. To him most especially and properly belongs the name BEING [esse] [St. Augustine, On the Trinity, VII, in FTS, p. 132]
There is one more step in this process of the development of the name of God given in Exodus 3.14 that I want to mention briefly, and for that I turn to the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas.
2. Aquinas’s reflections on God as Being: the presence of God to all things –
Like St. Augustine, Aquinas held that God’s nature transcends anything that we can grasp or say about it. Nevertheless, we can by analogy affirm certain perfections of God, because he creates us in his image. However, this predication has about it something of the via negativa: the negative way of predication. That is, because God is the Creator, and is Being, and that which he brings forth has being by his gracious extension of being to that thing, one can say that there is necessarily an analogy of being between the creature and God: the creature is, in some manner, like God, and God is, in some manner found in the creature. However, because God’s being completely transcends the finite being of things, our predications, based on the qualities we find in finite things, always fall short of God. Thus, we can and do say that to exist is good, and thus goodness is a quality of anything that exists, and so, as God IS, we must say that God is good, while recognizing that God’s goodness absolutely transcends that kind of goodness we find in things. God is good in a way that is incomprehensible to us, as the ground of goodness itself
Furthermore, Aquinas develops the idea of creation ex nihilo with respect to this idea that God is Being, to arrive at a powerful way of understanding God’s presence to his creation: God is the principle of a thing’s being:
God is not only identical with his essence, but is also identical with his act of existing . . . Since in God there is no potentiality, it follows that there is nothing in his essence other than his act of existing. Hence his essence is his existence [ST I, 3, a4]
God is in all things, not as a part, or a quality of things, but in the way that an agent is present in what it acts upon . . . Since God is subsistent Being, the being of creatures is his effect. . . . God causes things not only when they begin to exist, but at every moment that they are preserved in existence. . . . So long as a thing exists, God is present to it, giving it existence. But existence is what is most intimate to any being, and what is most interior to it, since it actually makes things to be whatever they are; hence it follows that God is intimately present in all things. [ST I, 7, a2]
It is notable, here, that Aquinas, while following Augustine in respect to God’s ultimate unknowability to the finite human mind, asserts essence, form, of God. It is the case that God’s essence is to-exist, where, to human beings, being is ultimately a mystery, the condition of knowledge, and prior to the intellect (the intellect having being). However, this assertion of form is tantamount to an assertion of ultimate intelligibility and rationality. God is knowable, and, is, in fact, that which is most intelligible and rational, to God’s self. The incomprehensibility of God should in no way be construed as a function of irrationality, unintelligibility on the part of God.
Aquinas’s understanding of the Creator God provides the Christian tradition with a powerful and deep way to understand the God-world relation. This Thomistic metaphysics of being can trace it origins back to both the dynamism of ancient Greek thought to apprehend the arche through the application of reason to reality that begins with the Pre-Socratics, finding its highest point of development in the thought of Plato and Aristotle, and to the Hebrew scriptures insight into God as a function of this God’s self-revelation in the revelation of his name to Moses in Exodus 3.14 as “I AM.”
Aquinas’s insight into reality, as identified with the trajectory of thought briefly sketched above, was to be taken up and further developed in countless thinkers and in myriad ways in the Christian tradition, including in the work of one of the most influential Catholic theologians of the 20th century, Karl Rahner, who combined this metaphysics of being with the turn to the subject initiated by modernity to elaborate a powerful theological anthropology and fundamental theology. Of the many questions that Rahner took up – and some say satisfactorily answered – one was focused on the possibility of a finite creature’s ability to receive a self-revelation from an infinite God. Rahner made a case for the actuality of such an event, and went further, to elaborate a possible form such an event might take: a hypostatic union of God and man such as found in Jesus as the Christ.