How We Speak of God - Part 1

July 10, 2008 Length: 35:51

Fr. Thomas begins a four-part series on naming God and the language and words we use in the process.





It’s an ancient practice of the Christian Church, in East and West, from the earliest period, that the Church year, the Sundays of the Church year, the Lord’s days, the celebrations of the holy Eucharist on Sunday, the Lord’s day, throughout the year, following Pentecost would be called the Sundays after Pentecost. And the Sundays after Pentecost continue, as I mentioned already earlier, until the beginning of Great Lent. Then when Great Lent begins, the pre-Lenten season, of the Publican and the Pharisee, and the Prodigal Son, then the Sunday gospels have to do with the pre-Lenten season, and then the Lenten season, and then the Paschal-Pentecostal season, and then the rest of the year are the Sundays after Pentecost.

On the Sundays after Pentecost, the Sunday gospels, and generally the gospels throughout that period of time, all of the gospels at the daily readings at the eucharistic services, are taken from Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John is read during the Paschal-Pentecostal season, and the Sunday gospels and the daily gospels the rest of the year are from the so-called synoptic gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Then the readings begin right after Pentecost from Romans and then go through the New Testament: 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, and then Galatians, and then the captivity letters, the Philippians and Colossians, Ephesians. And they go right through, and then around Christmastime you have Timothy, Titus, and toward the end of the Sundays after Pentecost, as you draw near the beginning of Lent, then you’re in the pastoral epistles [that] are being read.

So this is how the lectionary works through the liturgical year in the Orthodox Church. Now in these epistles and gospels, of course, what is really happening is, in short hand, in the most simple way, you have the evangelists and the apostles and Paul and the writers of those texts commenting on the Paschal event: on Christ, on his life, on his teaching, and then, of course, always, in the light and through the light of his passion, his crucifixion, his death, and his being raised and his being glorified. And all of this activity, it is claimed, is done by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is poured out upon the believers and certainly is given to each person who is baptized into Christ, coming from the baptismal water, they are sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit. And then the Church herself is Christ’s body that is vivified and made alive by the indwelling and empowering inspiration and quickening that comes from the very Spirit of God.

Then Orthodox Christians believe that everything in the Church, as Christ’s living body, is a foretaste of the coming kingdom, of the coming age, that the Holy Spirit itself is kind of the earnest, the guarantee, the foretaste, the pledge of the coming age. And as the holy Fathers teach, from Macarius back in the fourth century to Seraphim of Sarov in the 19th century, human life from the Christian perspective is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit, to live by the Spirit of God, by the power of God, to have the mind of Christ, to be a child or son of God in Jesus.

During all of this, in all this way and in all these writings in the Scriptures, you have many words that are used about God, because it’s a speech about God. And of course, in contemplating and explaining and defending and confessing the Gospel of Christ, these New Testamental texts are also interpreting the Old Testament. They’re interpreting the Torah, the Law, Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Leviticus, Numbers. They’re interpreting the Chronicles and the Books of Kings, and they’re interpreting the Prophets and the Wisdom literature, and certainly they are interpreting the Psalms and kind of the catch-word, the short term for all of that is the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets; that’s what’s used in St. Luke’s gospel.

So the writings of the New Testament, the Christian Scriptures, the 27 books of the New Testament, are reflecting on what sometimes in the academy they call in jargon “the Christ event,” and we Orthodox Christians believe that they are properly, accurately, truly interpreting the Christ event, who Jesus is, why he is the Christ, what it means that he is the Christ, why he is the Lord, what it means that he is the Lord, what it means that he is the Son of man, what it means that he is the Son of God, and all that is said about him.

And a very wonderful Scripture scholar, a man named Martin Hengel, he said in one of his books a marvelously true thing; he said that in the 27 books of the New Testament, by the time you get to the end of the first century, within 50 years of the crucifixion and the glorification of Jesus, everything that needs to be said about him has been said, and it’s all found in those writings, and the following 19, 20 centuries of Christianity is a kind of a footnote or an explanation or an explication or a confession of those texts. And in that sense it’s really true. Patristic theology certainly is exegesis; it’s interpretation of the scriptural texts; that’s what it is. It’s defending the Gospel, proclaiming the Gospel, teaching the Gospel, apologizing or defending and answering for the Gospel. That’s what it is.

In the liturgy, of course, you have the celebration: the celebration of God’s victory, God’s Gospel in Jesus, the celebration of Christ’s life, his teaching, his parables, his discourses with the people, and then you have the celebration of his passion and his rising and all his messianic signs. Then you have in the epistles the controversies in the early Church and how the apostles even fought among themselves about how to properly understand and interpret and teach about Jesus and what to do with the Gentiles; all those kind of questions are there, and that is what is contemplated throughout the whole Christian year. That’s what Christians do when they come to Church: they hear the word of God, they hear the Scriptures, they sing the songs, and they meditate on the word and the words of God as revealed in the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, Israel’s Messiah, and the Savior of the world.

In these writings, and in all the writings about them—the writings of the Church Fathers and in all the words about them—certainly the Church’s liturgical services—the vespers and the matins and the hymns and songs and the songs that are read in the Sunday services and the eucharistic prayers and the baptismal prayers and the prayers for weddings and the prayers for funerals—they’re all using these words, and they’re all speaking about God and the things of God and all things in God. And what we want to do now, in a very simple manner, just point out what seems to be really true—I believe that it’s true; that’s why I’m saying it here, trying to speak the truth and to speak the truth in love and in God who is love and the beloved Son and the Holy Spirit, through whom God’s love is poured into our heart—to try to make the claim that when you take all these words about God—in the Bible, in the liturgies, in the writings of the saints, in the statements of the Church councils, the definitions and canons of councils—that basically I think it can be said accurately—I think this would be an absolutely true and accurate claim—is that there are basically four ways of speaking about God.

There are four ways in which words are used about God. I would say, having thought about this and worked in this my entire life, that really there are four ways and only four ways. Whenever God is spoken about, it’s one or another or a combination of these four ways. I’d like to share that with you now so that when you pray and when you worship and when you read the holy Scriptures and the gospels and when you read the Church Fathers, that you might check yourself to see: Is this accurate? Is this true?

And also to see, of course—this is one of the reasons why I’d like to speak about this and make this reflection right now—is because I think that when we look at this, we will see that certain confusion reigns, that many people, including many theologians and people who write books about theology and Christian doctrine, often confuse these four different ways of speaking. They mix them up; they don’t distinguish between them properly and accurately, and therefore what they say is just not proper and accurate; it’s confusing.

It’s confusing to the believers. And certainly if preachers in churches and writers of prayers, especially in the churches where ministers and so on are making up prayers and making up new church services and so on, which is not the case in the Orthodox Church, of course, but when this is happening, if the author, the person who is writing or speaking, the speaker, is not aware of how words are used about God, traditionally, scripturally, how words are supposed to be used about God, and don’t make proper distinctions between these ways, it can create a lot of confusion in people’s minds. People can get just totally mixed up and not even knowing what they’re talking about any more, and so you have the confused leading people into greater confusion.

It is important to make an effort, to try to make an effort to clarify how we speak about God. What are the kinds of words that we use about God, and how do these words relate to each other and how do they differ from each other? So I would just like to share with you what I think about this, how I understand it, and then you have to decide yourself how you understand it.

First of all, I would simply say that these four ways of speaking about God are the following four ways. Some words about God are names. They are names of God the Father, names of the Son of God, who is Jesus Christ, and names for the Holy Spirit. So one kind of speech, one kind of discourse about God, is using names, proper names.

Another way of speaking about God is to use words that refer to God’s attributes or God’s qualities or God’s characteristics. In Greek, that word would be idiomata, the things that pertain to divinity, the things that pertain to God. Very more technically, we would even say the things that pertain to God’s nature and what nature would mean—and we’ll talk about that in the future as well—would simply be what God is, what God is like. So we could use these terms that are terms of qualities, characteristics, and properties that belong to God.

A third kind of words that are used about God are about divine activities, about God’s operations in the world, God’s actions in the world, what God does, how God acts. So you have those kind of words.

And then, in the fourth kind of category—and I think it’s the last one; I don’t think there are any other categories—are words that are applied to God that are metaphorical words, kind of symbolic words, similes, comparisons, taken from creation, taken from the created order, and then are applied to God.

In some sense, all of the words about God are taken from the created order, because we, being creatures, only have creaturely words. We don’t have any other kind of words but words that are words of creatures, words that are known from our created world in which we live, because we don’t know any other world.

But what we want to say about that is that we have to know how we’re using those words, those human words, because that’s what we speak in: we speak in human words. Even the Word of God, if we speak about the Word of God, the Word of God is given to us in human form. The Word of God, for Christians, is a human Person, is Jesus Christ, but Jesus Christ is a man, so we know the Word of God through the humanity of Jesus, and we know the word of God through human words. When the prophets speak and when the Law is written, these are human words that are used. But we have to then also reflect on how human words are used to apply to the reality of God who is not human, to God as God as uncreated. God is God. He is not like anything in creation. In fact, all those who witness to God say that there’s nothing in creation that is totally comparable to God. God is completely different. God is totally holy.

Nevertheless, we have these words, so we have to know how we use them. Names, attributes, actions, and metaphors. So what I will do now is I will just tell you, speak to you, about some things about each of these categories and how I believe that they are to be used and are to be understood in the Bible and in Christian Tradition and how they relate to each other.

First of all, the names. The very term God can be considered a proper name, that God is the being, or God is that reality, however you want to use, that we can use when we want to speak about God. However, right from the beginning, here I think that it’s important to insist that God, even as a word, Theos, it’s more in the category of an activity of the divine being or supra-being or supra-non-being or whatever God is, that it is still also kind of a creaturely term.

However, whatever God is, however God is, whatever God does, for Christians, that reality is the Father of Jesus Christ, and is known, for Christians, in and through Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the one who makes God known. And that’s very important for us Christians, because we don’t begin with some kind of metaphysical dreams or meditations or ideas about what God is and what God ought to be like and how we ought to imagine God. We just simply say, right from the very beginning, that there is this Man, Jesus—Jesus the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth—and he speaks to us about God, and he reveals God to us in his humanity. As it’s written in the Scripture, no one has ever seen God, and God is invisible, God is ineffable, God is incomprehensible. If God is God, he’s beyond anything that humans can grasp, but at the same time the claim is that this reality that we conventionally call God is the Father of Jesus Christ. So for us Christians, the name of God is Abba, Father, the Father of Jesus Christ.

Because of who Jesus is and what Jesus does and how we come to speak about God following Christian revelation and Christian faith and convictions about Jesus, immediately that God is identified with the One who constituted Israel as his people. It was the God who chose Abraham and then was faithful to Abraham and to Isaac and to Jacob, and then, most important in some sense, it’s the God who led the Israelite people, the Hebrew people, out of Egypt, in their slavery to Pharaoh, and said, “I will be your God, and you will be my people, and I will make myself known to you and that you may know that I am God.” And then in that particular setting the name of God was originally was El Shaddai, the Most High; he was called El Shaddai, the Most High. In Greek that would be the epouranios Theos, the supra-heavenly One, the One who is over all things, the Most High.

And this God who was originally known as the Most High in the time of the Old Testament patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and so on—this very same God gave his name to Moses, a Hebrew prophet, the one who was raised up by this Most High God to lead the people out of Egypt, and he revealed his name to Moses as Yahweh, which is hard to translate; some people even think it’s untranslatable. It’s often simply translated as “I am, Ego eimi,” certainly in Greek writings and Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible, that’s what’s used. Sometimes in participial form it’s called Ho On, the One who Is, the existing One, the Being.

However, Hebrew scholars point out that that may already be a certain kind of metaphysation, ontologicalization, so to speak, of this name of Yahweh, making it into a kind of a category of metaphysics of being. I’m convinced in my studies that they are right, that when God says to Moses—Moses asks him his name—he says, “You will say that Yahweh has sent you, and I was once known as El Shaddai, the Most High, but now I will be known as Yahweh.” And I personally would follow those that would say Yahweh really is a kind of a non-answer. What it really means is “I am who I am. I will be who I will be. I will cause to be what I will cause to be. I will do what I want to do. I will act the way I want to act. No one will control me. No one will have an idea of me. No one will be able to put me in his pocket. No one will be able to kind of con me or appease me or use me for their own purposes.” That’s what, somehow, it seems that Yahweh means.

Here we have to know that when the Jews translated the Scriptures into Greek, they didn’t translate Yahweh in any one of these ways, but they used the word Kyrios, which means the Lord. Even the Israel people, the Jews, the Hebrews, when they were reading Scripture and that tetragram was there, that we normally call Yahweh, they were not allowed to say it. Only the high priest was to say it. It was a holy name. We’ll get to holiness in a minute. It was a holy thing. So when it was written, they would say out loud, “Adonai,” in Hebrew, which is “the Lord, Kyrios.”

So for Christians, following this whole tradition, the name of the real true God is the Lord. So it is Yahweh is God, or Adonai Elohim. You see, Adonai, the Lord, is Elohim, is God. It’s interesting, by the way, in Hebrew, the word for God, Elohim, is plural. It’s a plural word; it’s not a singular word. So, for example, the psalm will say, “Yahweh is God and has revealed himself to us.” That’s a psalm that’s used in the Orthodox Church every morning at matins. We sometimes say in our Church, “God is the Lord and has revealed himself to us,” but technically it should be, “Yahweh is God and has revealed himself to us” or “The Lord is God and has revealed himself to us.”

So the name of God would be “the Lord.” The Most High would be the Lord; that would be Yahweh, and that would be God’s name. Now, for Christians, that God is Jesus’ Father. So the name changes again, so to speak, from El Shaddai, the Most High, to Yahweh, the Lord, the “I am”—the “I am who I am, I will be who I will be, I will do what I will do, I will act as I will act”—then that very one is Abba, Ho Patir, the Father. And Jesus calls him Abba.

So for Christians who are in Christ, who by the Holy Spirit are anointed to become by grace, by faith everything that Jesus himself has in his relationship to the one, true, and living God, because of course the Scripture claims that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Moses, who is the God of the prophets, he is also the God who created heaven and earth. He is the God who, from the beginning, called everything into being, and there is no other God but he. There is no other God. All the other gods are no gods at all. All the other gods are figments of people’s imaginations or cosmic forces or demons or angels or whatever, but they’re not God. Sometimes they’re called gods in Scripture, in a certain way; that’s why the true God would be called the God of gods, the Lord of lords, the King of kings. And, of course, one of the names of God’s activities, as we’ll see, is King. In other words, the One who reigns. But the name of that One who reigns, who is the King, who is the true God, who is the living God, for Christians, would be, ultimately and most importantly, Father.

This is very important, because that means that the term “Father” is a name. It’s not a metaphor, it’s not something that patriarchal society dreamt up and sprung onto God. It is a revealed name of God through Jesus Christ. When you read the New Testament, you see that Jesus never ever spoke about God other than as Father, the Father, and my Father. Even when he speaks to the people, he says, “My Father and your Father, my God and your God.” Jesus is the Son of God, and God is literally this God: Yahweh, the Most High, the Creator of heaven and earth, the One who also is called holy in Scripture, kadosha, which means completely different, not like anything else. In Latin, they have an expression, totaliter aliter, completely and totally different, no way of being grasped, no way of being contained—known by his activities as being beyond anything that can be comprehended or said—that is Yahweh. That is the Most High; that is the Father of Jesus.

So what we could say is that this name, Father, is the proper ultimate name for God, and it is a name, and it has to do with God’s very being as God, God’s very nature as God in his personal… in his unique character, that he is Father. Now, however, we have to say immediately that for Christians God has a Son; that’s why he’s called Father. And the holy Fathers of the Church say he is essentially Father. He is Father by nature; he’s not Father by choice. The one, true, and living God simply has a Son according to his very being, his very reality. He begets. He expresses himself divinely in another, to use the jargon that we’ll talk more about later, divine hypostasis or another divine Person, who is distinct from himself yet is exactly everything that God himself is but is not the Father, and that would be the Son, that would be the Son of God.

So another name that we use—in Bible, in Scriptures, in prayers, in confessional statements—is Son of God, the Son of God, the Word of God, the Logos of God, the Devar Yahweh, who is the icon of God; the image and likeness of God divinely is this Jesus. So we have Jesus, and Jesus is a name. It means savior or conqueror or victor or healer; it has all those meanings. We usually think it means savior in English, but savior in Hebrew is synonymous with victor, synonymous with conqueror, synonymous with healer. So we have Jesus the Christ: Christ is the Anointed One. Jesus Christ is not a name like Joe Smith; it’s Jesus the Messiah, Ho Christos, Jesus the Anointed One.

So we have God, and we have Jesus, God’s Son, and these are names; God’s Son and God, they’re names. Father and Son, they’re names. And then we have Spirit of God, the Ruach Yahweh, the Spirit of the Lord, breath, wind, but normally in English spirit, in Greek spirit, pnevma, in Latin spirit, spiritus, in Hebrew ruach. So you have God, the Word of God, and the Spirit of God, and for Christians the Word of God is also God’s Son, it’s also God’s Wisdom, the Hochma; it’s also God’s Eikona, the Icon, and that is Jesus Christ. So you have the one God and Father; you have the Lord Jesus Christ, God’s Son; and then you have the Holy Spirit, who is called Holy Spirit, who is called the Spirit, who is called the Spirit of God, who’s called the Spirit of the Father—these are all scriptural terms—he’s called the Spirit of Christ, he’s called the Spirit of the Son. So you have the Spirit.

So for Christians there are these three whom Christians confess as being divine, as being truly divine. In everyday language, you could say each one is God. As you would say: Peter, Paul, and Mary, each one is man. Or if you said of three dogs, Fido, Rover, and Rex, three dogs. So each one of these is divine; each one of these is God. We will see that you cannot speak of three gods like you would speak of three men or three dogs or three animals or three horses or three golden rings. We’ll talk about this as we proceed, why we say only one God, but in any case, for now what we want to see and clearly to understand, [is] that one way of speaking about God is to use names. Those names are Father and Son and Holy Spirit. They are the one God and Father; the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ; and the Holy Spirit.

These are names. These are proper names, and therefore we worship God by using these names. We say, “Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.” Then we say that we are baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. But then we also may say, “Glory to the Father with the Son and with the Holy Spirit,” or we may say, “Glory to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit,” or we may say, “Glory to the Son with his unbegotten Father and his holy, good, and life-creating Spirit,” but Spirit, Son, and Father; Father, Spirit, and Son; God, Son of God, Spirit of God—these are the names.

For Christians, these names are not negotiable; they’re not negotiables. They are the names given to us by God by which he is to be honored and glorified and addressed. These are the names that are to be used when we speak about God, and what we see is that you cannot speak about the one God without speaking about him as Father; therefore you cannot speak about the one God without speaking about his Son, who is Jesus, the Messiah of Israel; and you cannot speak about the one God without speaking of the Spirit. And you cannot speak about the Spirit of God without speaking about the Son of God, because the Son of God, because the Son of God is the Son of God because the Spirit of God is in him, with him, on him, and he acts through the Spirit. You cannot speak about the Son of God without speaking of the Spirit; you cannot speak of the Son of God without speaking of God, who is the Father.

So you have that whole way of speaking that has to do with names, and it’s important for us Christians, and in our preaching and in our teaching, that we make it very clear that these are three distinct Persons—that’s the name that will come to be used. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are distinct, but they are inseparable, and that they have the very same divinity, because the Son has the divinity of God the Father; the Spirit has the divinity of the Father and also the Spirit has the divinity of the Son, and the Son has the divinity of the Spirit. And the Son and the Spirit come forth from God. We already reflected on this here on Ancient Faith Radio.

But what we want to insist upon right now is that these are names; they are not metaphors, they are not names of activities, they are not names of divine properties. You cannot say, for example, that sonship is a divine property. It isn’t; sonship is a characteristic of Jesus; it’s not a characteristic of God the Father. But you can also say paternity or being father is not a characteristic of divinity; it’s a characteristic of the one God and Father, who has a Son and Spirit who are not fathers. The Son is a son, and the Spirit is a spirit, and you have to come to understand very carefully what it means to be father, what it means to be son, and what it means to be spirit. In technical theological jargon, these are called personal characteristics, hypostatic characteristics, idiomata of the hypostases.

So the Father has his own characteristics, the Son has his characteristics, and the Holy Spirit has his characteristics, and the characteristics of each of those are distinct and different. Yet, when it comes to their divinity, to what they are, then their characteristics would be identical. What we want to catch here in this particular reflection is that there are names of three divine Persons—Father, Son, and Spirit—and the Father, Son, and Spirit are names of divine hypostases or divine Persons. What we will claim is that their divinity is identical; it is one and the same. The Son’s divinity and the Spirit’s divinity is the same divinity as God the Father, because the Son is the Son of God, and the Spirit is the Spirit of God, and they belong to God as God is; they belong to God’s very reality, to God’s very nature, to what it is to be God: there is Father and Son and Holy Spirit.

So, again, in technical language, which is used in liturgy, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the Holy Trinity, are called the Godhead, or are called Divinity, not Theos, but Theotis. And each one of them is Theos: God the Father is Theos; he is the God and Father. The Son is Theos, as the Nicene Creed would say, because he is God from God. And the Holy Spirit, [who] ultimately also will be confessed in Christian terminology in history, but not until about the fourth century, is also Theos, but the Spirit is understood to be Lord and Giver of life and totally divine already in the pages of the Bible, Old and New Testaments. We spoke about this before, and we’ll speak about it again from another angle.

But for now, let’s be clear that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are names: names of three Persons, hypostases, realities, whatever word here you want to use: three distinct realities, each of whom is divine, and each of whom has exactly the same characteristics that belong to divinity. So there is language, the Church has language, words, that apply to what we would call God’s nature, not to the three Persons, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as such, but to the divinity that each of the three Persons is. So there are characteristics that belong to divinity as such, and here the Bible and the Church and the Church’s liturgy, worship, and theology, and the writings of the Fathers, they would speak about these characteristics or properties or qualities of God that belong to the three divine Persons, whose names are Father, Son, and Spirit, Holy Spirit.

So in our next podcast, in our next reflection, we will reflect on the words that are used about divinity as such. You might say God as such or divinity, you might even say, in general. Words that can equally be applied to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and are applied to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and are applied to each distinctly and to each together with the other, and that is what we will reflect upon next time.