Herman Bavinck – The Names of God

bavinck3 In Scripture God’s name is his self-revelation. Only God can name himself; his name is identical with the perfections he exhibits in and to the world. He makes himself known to his people by his proper names; to Israel as yhwh, to the Christian church as Father. God’s revealed names do not reveal his being as such but his accommodation to human language. Scripture is accommodated language; it is anthropomorphic through and through. God himself is described in human terms via human faculties, body parts, emotions, sensations, and actions. In Scripture all creation, the theater of God’s glory, is mined for the description of the knowledge of God. God is immanent in all creation. Therefore, Christian theology opposes all dualisms, including those of modernity, that empty created reality of God, for then theology could not speak of God at all.*

We rightly use anthropomorphic language because God accommodated himself to creatures by revealing his name in and through creatures. We cannot see God himself; we can only see him in his works and name him in accordance with his self-revelation in his works. To deny this is to deny the possibility of knowing God at all. Some philosophers (Plato, Hegel) have tried to get around this by rejecting concrete representations of God in favor of abstractions such as the Absolute, the One, Life, or Reason. But, since these too are anthropomorphisms, they fail to solve the problem.

Of course, all our knowledge of God is ectypal or derived from Scripture. Only God’s self-knowledge is adequate, underived, or archetypal. Yet our finite, inadequate knowledge is still true, pure, and sufficient. Ectypal knowledge must not be seen as merely symbolic, a product of poetic imagination. God then becomes mere projection and religion mere subjective art. Christian theology teaches the opposite. We are God’s creation; he is not ours. While our knowledge of him is accommodated and limited, it is no less real, true, and trustworthy. As God reveals himself, so he truly is. His revealed attributes truly reveal his nature.

Scripture provides us with a variety of divine names, and theologians have suggested distinctions among them. The name yhwh, for example, points to the very being of God, the “One who is.” Philosophers came to speak of the Supreme Being or Nature and of the divine essence as Infinite Being or even Intelligent Being. Spinoza, for example, viewed God “as the unique, infinite, necessarily existing substance.… The absolute and immanent first cause.” This sort of theistic speculation easily deteriorated into pantheism.

In reaction to this rather cold, impersonal, rationalistic view of God, much nineteenth-century theology turned away from metaphysics and reduced religion to morality (e.g., Ritschl). God was the Father, the fountain of goodness and love; he is not Absolute Being but Love. There is much of value in this response, but it too is one-sided. The challenge of theology is to do justice to all the attributes of God revealed in Scripture.

It is this conviction that lies behind the teaching of Christian theology that God is “simple,” that is, free from composition. God is identical with each of his attributes; he is what he possesses. In God “to be” is the same as to be wise, to be good, or to be powerful. All God’s attributes are identical with his essence. In all his attributes he is pure being, absolute reality. We cannot refrain from speaking of God’s being, and in the description of God’s essence Christian theology places his aseity in the foreground as the primary attribute traditionally associated with the name yhwh. God is the One who exists of and through himself, the perfect being who is absolute in wisdom and goodness, righteousness and holiness, power and blessedness.

Though we cannot make distinctions between God’s essence and his attributes, it is permissible to make distinctions among the attributes. Each attribute expresses something special about God. God himself reveals his many perfections to us; we name him with the names Scripture itself provides. No one perfection fully expresses God’s being. In the past, theologians have distinguished three ways of obtaining the names of God, in the way of negation, or of eminence, or of causality, in relation to creatures.

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