General Information

In Western culture, which for the last 2,000 years has been dominated by the Judeo Christian tradition, the word God generally refers to one supreme holy being, the divine unity of ultimate reality and of ultimate goodness. God, so conceived, is believed to have created the entire universe, to rule over it, and to bring it to its fulfillment.

In the Old Testament, God was called YHWH, pronounced Yahweh by most scholars; the exact pronunciation of the name was lost because it was rarely enunciated. In its place was read Adonai ("Lord"). The written combination of the tetragrammaton YHWH with the vowels of Adonai was traditionally rendered as Jehovah in English Bibles. Although the meaning of YHWH is disputed, it is frequently translated as "He who is" and probably designates YHWH as creator. In Islam, Allah stands for a similar notion.

Thus, as a functioning word, God in the first instance refers to the central and sole object of religious commitment - and so to the center of Worship, Prayer, and religious Meditation. Secondarily, God has been the object of religious and philosophical reflection, the supreme object of Theology and of most forms of speculative metaphysics.

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God is a puzzling and elusive notion, by no means easy to define. As the supreme being, the creator and ruler of all, God transcends all creaturely limits, distinctions, and characteristics. If something is definable only by its distinctions from other things, its limits, and its special characteristics, how is it possible to define the source of all things, which is not limited, distinguished, or peculiar? God is in neither time nor space; he / she / it transcends all substances and causes; is neither dependent on nor an effect of other things. Thus, he cannot be spoken of simply as a being among other beings lest he be conceived as a mere creature and thus not God. For these reasons, the concept of God inevitably tends toward that of the transcendent absolute of much speculative philosophy: impersonal, unrelated, independent, change - less, eternal. In some theologies, the concept moves into even more distant realms of abstraction. God can only be described negatively, as the negation of all that is experienced here and now, for example, as nontemporal, nonphysical, and unchanging.

In Jewish and Christian belief, however, God is also in some way personal, righteous, or moral, concerned with people and their lives and therefore closely related to and active within the world and the course of history. The reflective problems in this concept of God, the subject of debates throughout Western history, therefore, have a dual source: God, whatever he may be, is unlike ordinary things that can be described, and the notion of God includes certain dialectical tensions or paradoxes (absolute - relative, impersonal - personal, eternal - temporal, changeless - changing) that defy ordinary powers of speech and of definition. In approaching the divine, religiously or philosophically, one first of all encounters mystery and, with that, special forms or rules of speech - a characteristic as old as religion itself.

Variations in the Concept of God

Ideas of god vary widely from religion to religion and from culture to culture.

Many Gods

In those cultures that conceive of human life as totally supported and threatened by (and thus subordinate to) strange and uncontrollable natural and social powers, all such powers and forces - in animals, totems, rivers, trees, mountains, kings and queens, tribes, ancestors, holy men and women - participate in and manifest holy power. Here the divine is undifferentiated; it is universally present in important objects and persons.

In other ancient cultures that conceive of the person as unique and differentiated from natural and social forces and recognize the role of personal power in politics, these varied natural and cultural forces are personified or symbolized by gods and goddesses who control, work through, and manifest themselves in these powers. For example, Ares was the Greek god of thunder and of war; Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty; and Apollo, the god of light and order. The worship of many gods, known as Polytheism, characterized the religions of most of the ancient world. In every case, a deepening sense of unifying order in reality was accompanied by a drive toward a unity of these plural forces, toward Monotheism.

Impersonal World Order

In many advanced civilizations, the divine appears, not as a person, but as order or harmony; it is thus impersonal, universal, and omnipresent. Clear examples of this view are the Tao of Taoism and the notion of the Logos in Stoicism. Both are ultimately an impersonal and unifying principle of the world. Other forms of this view appear in the hymns to Indra in Hinduism and in the worship of Ahura Mazda, the god of light, in Zoroastrianism. In each of these religions, there is a dualistic principle: an impersonal order, harmony, or light represents the divine; but disorder, chaos, or matter represents the rest of reality. In modern philosophy and theology, the process thought of Alfred North Whitehead also emphasizes the divine as order, against an opposing principle of reality, creativity.

Undifferentiated Unity

Some religions conceive of the divine as the undifferentiated unity of all, a unity in and beyond all manifestations, powers, and persons. The ultimate becomes not only the whole of reality as its unity and ground, but it is so far beyond finite reality that it becomes relatively unintelligible and relatively unreal. In these cases, of course, the divine is thoroughly beyond ordinary speech and even beyond positive analogies, for language deals with the determinate and the finite. The clearest expression of this transcendence of all being and all thought is found in Mahayana Buddhism, which describes the ultimate principle in negative assertions and names it a Nothingness, or Voidness.

In this notion of the divine the originating religious categories of power, person, and order are infinitely transcended as characteristics essentially related to finitude and therefore antithetical to the divine. Correspondingly, the religious practices of meditation and the religious hope of ultimate release also transcend relations to nature, tribe, society, the course of history, and even all religious praxis and symbols. Such religions regard the Western notion of God, with its implication of personal being and its emphasis on the life of the self in this world, as an extremely inappropriate and even insulting way of regarding their own ultimate principle.

Paradoxes of the Biblical Concept

The paradoxes or dialectical tensions characteristic of the Western understanding of God are derived from the Bible. In the Old Testament, God transcends all the limited and special forces and powers of the human experience. On the other hand, his central characteristic, or mode of self manifestation, is his concern for and relation to history. Although he manifests his power in nature, the main arena for divine activity is the sequence of historical events related to the calling, the establishment, and the protection of his chosen people. In this activity, moreover, God reveals himself as moral or righteous, the source of the moral law, and is quick to punish those, even his chosen ones, who defy this law. He is, however, also a God of mercy, patience, faithfulness, and Grace. This God of history, Covenant, judgment, and promised redemption is assumed to be, and often clearly affirmed to be, the ruler of all events.

These aspects of the notion of God reappear, with some modification, in the New Testament. There the one God is also concerned with history, judgment, and redemption, but his central manifestation is Jesus Christ, through whom God's will for mankind is revealed, his judgments are made known, and his power to save is effected. The New Testament writers generally use the word God to designate the God of the Old Testament. Christ is understood as the fulfillment of the Messianic promise and as the Son, or Logos. His relation to God the Father and the Holy Spirit led to the development of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Both Jewish and Christian theology therefore display a dialectical tension between God's transcendence over nature and history as creator and ruler, and his personal, moral participation in history for the sake of humankind.

Philosophic Approaches

As the symbolic center of Western Christendom down to the Enlightenment, and as the fundamental concept in its understanding of nature, society, and human existence, God was the object of endless philosophical and theological speculation. During the long period in which Western culture understood itself and the world largely through the framework of Greco Roman philosophy (c. 200 - 1400), the notion of God was shaped with the help first of Platonic and then of Aristotelian categories. Because of Greek philosophy's bias toward transcendent, changeless, eternal realms of being, this religious tradition greatly emphasized the absolute nature of God: God was understood as pure act, utterly independent, changeless, nontemporal, and unrelated. The active, related, personal aspects of God manifested themselves chiefly in piety and through numerous angelic and saintly representatives.

During the Reformation, which emphasized the primacy of Scripture, the personal, purposive, active side of the biblical God again achieved prominence, and the philosophical side receded: God's judgments and his mercy toward humans were considered his central attributes. The transcendent and eternal aspect of this personal God was expressed in the eternal mystery and changelessness of his all determining will, especially the electing and providential will, rather than in the mystery and changelessness of the divine being.

The subsequent divergence of modern thought from Greco Roman traditions led to the introduction of new philosophical options emphasizing change, process, and relatedness. They give expression to a new dynamic and immanent interpretation of God and can be found in systems such as Process Philosophy. While recognizing and affirming in some sense God's absoluteness, eternity, and invulnerability, many modern theologians emphasize his participation in the passing of time, active relatedness to events, and consequent changeableness; they argue that such a view is closer to the biblical notion than is the older Greek view.

Knowability of God

Throughout history certain returning questions have been answered in different theological and philosophical terms. Perhaps the most debated question has been whether God is to be known by reason, by faith, or by experience. Each solution has had powerful and persuasive adherents. Those who argue that God can be known by reason offer one version or another of the classical proofs of God's existence: the cosmological proof from the existence of the world; the teleological proof from the order of the finite world; the ontological proof from the implications of the very concept of God as a perfect and necessary being; and the moral proof from the implications of moral experience. They argue that any theology intellectually respectable enough to speak to modern, intelligent men and women must be grounded in rational philosophy.

Those who believe God can be known only by faith tend to be skeptical of such philosophical proofs and possess a perhaps more transcendent image of God. For them, the God of rational theology, proved and tailored by thinking processes, is merely the creature of humanity's own wayward wisdom. God himself must speak to humankind if he is to be known rightly, or even at all, and therefore faith, as a response to divine Revelation, is the only path to a true knowledge of God. Finally, there are those who assert that God can be known neither by reason nor by faith but only by direct experience.

Reality of God

The secular climate of today's world has led to a reconsideration of the old issue of the reality of God, which has been denied by many humanistic liberals and by most modern Marxists. The appearance of the so called death - of - God theologies in the 1960s introduced the issue into the Jewish and the Christian religious traditions themselves where it has been the subject of considerable debate. Although most theologians have not followed the lead of the "God is dead" school, there is little question that today no theology can proceed, either by reason, faith, or experience, without raising and in some measure answering this primary query about the reality of God. Is the notion of God, which correlates so closely with the self understanding of humankind, merely a projection of humanity's self consciousness onto an unresponding cosmos? Many solutions have been proposed to this question, but the answer ultimately rests on faith.

Langdon Gilkey

P A Angeles, Problem of God: A Short Introduction (1974); J Bowker, The Sense of God (1977) and The Religious Imagination and the Sense of God (1978); J D Collins, God in Modern Philosophy (1959); B J Cooke, The God of Space and Time (1972); Dewart, Leslie, The Future of Belief (1968); H Dumery, The Problem of God in Philosophy of Religion (1964); A J Freddoso, ed., The Existence and Nature of God (1984); L Gilkey, Maker of Heaven and Earth (1959); J H Hick, ed., Existence of God (1964); G D Kaufman, God the Problem (1972) and The Theological Imagination (1981); J C Murray, The Problem of God: Yesterday and Today (1964); I Raez, The Unknown God (1970); M S Smith, Early History of God (1990); K Ward, The Concept of God (1975).


Advanced Information - I

(A.S. and Dutch God; Dan. Gud; Ger. Gott), the name of the Divine Being. It is the rendering (1) of the Hebrew 'El, from a word meaning to be strong; (2) of 'Eloah, plural 'Elohim. The singular form, Eloah, is used only in poetry. The plural form is more commonly used in all parts of the Bible, The Hebrew word Jehovah (q.v.), the only other word generally employed to denote the Supreme Being, is uniformly rendered in the Authorized Version by "Lord," printed in small capitals. The existence of God is taken for granted in the Bible. There is nowhere any argument to prove it. He who disbelieves this truth is spoken of as one devoid of understanding (Ps. 14:1).

The arguments generally adduced by theologians in proof of the being of God are:,

  1. The a priori argument, which is the testimony afforded by reason.
  2. The a posteriori argument, by which we proceed logically from the facts of experience to causes.

These arguments are,

Conscience and human history testify that "verily there is a God that judgeth in the earth." The attributes of God are set forth in order by Moses in Ex. 34:6,7. (see also Deut. 6:4; 10:17; Num. 16:22; Ex. 15:11; 33:19; Isa. 44:6; Hab. 3:6; Ps. 102:26; Job 34:12.) They are also systematically classified in Rev. 5:12 and 7:12. God's attributes are spoken of by some as absolute, i.e., such as belong to his essence as Jehovah, Jah, etc.; and relative, i.e., such as are ascribed to him with relation to his creatures. Others distinguish them into communicable, i.e., those which can be imparted in degree to his creatures: goodness, holiness, wisdom, etc.; and incommunicable, which cannot be so imparted: independence, immutability, immensity, and eternity. They are by some also divided into natural attributes, eternity, immensity, etc.; and moral, holiness, goodness, etc.

(Easton Illustrated Dictionary)

Attributes of God

Advanced Information - II

God is an invisible, personal, and living Spirit, distinguished from all other spirits by several kinds of attributes: metaphysically God is self-existent, eternal, and unchanging; intellectually God is omniscient, faithful, and wise; ethically God is just, merciful, and loving; emotionally God detests evil, is long-suffering, and is compassionate; existentially God is free, authentic, and omnipotent; relationally God is transcendent in being immanent universally in providential activity, and immanent with his people in redemptive activity.

The essence of anything, simply put, equals its being (substance) plus its attributes. Since Kant's skepticism of knowing anything in itself or in its essence, many philosophers and theologians have limited their general ways of speaking to the phenomena of Jewish or Christian religious experience. Abandoning categories of essence, substance, and attribute, they have thought exclusively in terms of Person-to-person encounters, mighty acts of God, divine functions, or divine processes in history. God is indeed active in all these and other ways, but is not silent. Inscripturated revelation discloses some truth about God's essence in itself. Conceptual truth reveals not only what God does, but who God is.

Biblical revelation teaches the reality not only of physical entities, but also of spiritual beings: angels, demons, Satan, and the triune God. The Bible also reveals information concerning attributes or characteristics of both material and spiritual realities. In speaking of the attributes of an entity, we refer to essential qualities that belong to or inhere in it. The being or substance is what stands under and unities the varied and multiple attributes in one unified entity. The attributes are essential to distinguish the divine Spirit from all other spirits. The divine Spirit is necessary to unite all the attributes in one being. The attributes of God, then, are essential characteristics of the divine being. Without these qualities God would not be what he is, God.

Some have imagined that by defining the essence of God human thinkers confine God to their concepts. That reasoning, however, confuses words conveying concepts with their referents. Does a definition of water limit the power of Niagara Falls? The word "God" has been used in so many diverse ways that it is incumbent upon a writer or speaker to indicate which of those uses is in mind.

God Is an Invisible, Personal, Living, and Active Spirit

Jesus explained to the Samaritan woman why she should worship God in spirit and in truth. God is spirit (John 4:24). The noun pneuma occurs first in the sentence for emphasis. Although some theologies consider "spirit" an attribute, grammatically in Jesus' statement it is a substantive. In the pre-Kantian, first century world of the biblical authors, spirits were not dismissed with an a priori, skeptical assumption.

As spirit, God is invisible. No one has ever seen God or ever will (1 Tim. 6:16). A spirit does not have flesh and bones (Luke 24:39).

As spirit, furthermore, God is personal. Although some thinkers use "spirit" to designate impersonal principles or an impersonal absolute, in the biblical context the divine Spirit has personal capacities of intelligence, emotion, and volition. It is important to deny of the personal in God any vestiges of the physical and moral evil associated with fallen human persons.

In transcending the physical aspects of human personhood God thus trancends the physical aspects of both maleness and femaleness. However, since both male and female are created in God's image, we may think of both as like God in their distinctively nonphysical, personal male and female qualities. In this context the Bible's use of masculine personal pronouns for God conveys primarily the connotation of God's vital personal qualities and secondarily any distinctive functional responsibilities males may have.

Christ's unique emphasis upon God as Father in the Lord's Prayer and elsewhere becomes meaningless if God is not indeed personal. Similarly, the great doctrines of mercy, grace, forgiveness, imputation, and justification can only be meaningful if God is genuinely personal. God must be able to hear the sinner's cry for salvation, be moved by it, decide and act to recover the lost. In fact, God is superpersonal, tripersonal. The classical doctrine of the Trinity coherently synthesizes the Bible's teaching about God. To place the name of God upon a baptismal candidate is to place upon the candidate the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19).

The unity of the one divine essence and being emphasized in the NT concept of a personal spirit implies simplicity or indivisibility. Neither the Trinitarian personal distinctions nor the multiple attributes divide the essential unity of the divine being. And that essential, ontological oneness is not torn apart by the incarnation or even the death of Jesus. Relationally or functionally (but not essentially) Jesus on the cross was separated from the Father who imputed to him the guilt and punishment of our sin.

In view of the indivisibility of the divine Spirit, how than are the attributes related to the divine being? The divine attributes are not mere names for human use with no referent in the divine Spirit (nominalism). Nor are the attributes separate from each other within the divine being so that they could conflict with each other (realism). The attributes all equally qualify the entirety of the divine being and each other (a modified realism). Preserving the divine simplicity or indivisibility, God's love is always holy love, and God's holiness is always loving holiness. Hence it is futile to argue for the superiority of one divine attribute over another. Every attribute is essential; one cannot be more essential than another in a simple, nonextended being.

God as spirit, furthermore, is living and active. In contrast to the passive ultimates of Greek philosophies the God of the Bible actively creates, sustains, covenants with his people, preserves Israel and the Messiah's line of descent, calls prophet after prophet, send his Son into the world, provides the atoning sacrifice to satisfy his own righteousness, raises Christ from the dead, builds the church, and judges all justly. Far from a passive entity like a warm house, the God of the Bible is an active architect, builder, freedom fighter, advocate of the poor and oppressed, just judge, empathetic counselor suffering servant, and triumphant deliverer.

As an invisible, personal, living spirit, God is no mere passive object of human investigation. Such writers as Pascal, Kierkegaard, Barth, and Brunner have helpfully reminded Christians that knowing God is like studying soils. However, these writers go too far in claiming that God is merely a revealing subject in ineffable personal encounters and that no objective, propositional truth can be known of God. Members of a creative artist's family may know him not only with passionate, personal subjectivity, but also objectively through examination of his works, careful reading of his writings, and assessment of his resume. Similarly God may be known not only in passionate subjective commitment, but also by thought about his creative works (general revelation), his inspired Scripture (part of special revelation), and theological resumes of his nature and activity. Knowledge of God involves both objective, conceptual validity and subjective, personal fellowship.

We have considered the meaning of asserting that God is spirit: the divine being is one, invisible, personal, and thus capable of thinking, feeling, and willing, a living and active being. There are, however, many spirits. The subsequent discussion of the divine attributes is necessary to distinguish the divine Spirit from other spirit-beings.

While considering the meaning of each attribute it is well to be aware of the relation of the attributes to the being of God. In the Scriptures the divine attributes are not above God, beside God, or beneath God; they are predicted of God. God is holy; God is love. These characteristics do not simply describe what God does, they define what God is. To claim that recipients of revelation can know the attributes of God but not the being of God leaves the attributes un-unified and belonging to nothing. The Scriptures do not endorse worship of an unknown God but make God known. The attributes are inseparable from the being of God, and the divine spirit does not relate or act apart from the essential divine characteristics. In knowing the attributes, then, we know God as he has revealed himself to be in himself.

This is not to say that through revelation we can know God fully as God knows himself. But it is to deny that all our knowledge of God is equivocal, something totally other than we understand by scripturally revealed concepts of holy love. Much of our knowledge of God's attributes is analogical or figurative, where Scripture uses figures of speech. Even then, however, the point illustrated can be stated in nonfigurative language. So all our understanding of God is not exclusively analogical. The revealed, nonfigurative knowledge has at least one point of meaning the same for God's thought and revelationally informed human thought. Some knowledge of God, then, is called univocal, because when we assert that God is holy love, we assert what the Bible (which originated, not with the will of man, but God) asserts. We may be far from fully comprehending divine holiness and divine love, but insofar as our assertions about God coherently convey relevant conceptually revealed meanings they are true of God and conform in part to God's understanding.

The divine attributes have been differently classified to help in relating and remembering them. Each classification has its strengths and weaknesses. We may distinguish those attributes that are absolute and immanent (Strong), incommunicable or communicable (Berkhof), metaphysical or moral (Gill), absolute, relative, and moral (Wiley), or personal and consitutional (Chafer). Advantages and disadvantages of these groupings can be seen in those respective theologies. It is perhaps clearer and more meaningful to distinguish God's characteristics metaphysically, intellectually, ethically, emotionally, existentially, and relationally.

Metaphysically, God Is Self-existent, Eternal, and Unchanging

Other spirits are invisible, personal, one, living, and active. How does the divine spirit differ? Significant differences appear in several respects, but we first focus upon the metaphysically distinctive characteristics of God.

First, God is self-existent

All other spirits are created and so have a beginning. They owe their existence to another. God does not depend upon the world or anyone in it for his existence. The world depends on God for its existence. Contrary to those theologians who say we cannot know anything about God in himself, Jesus revealed that God has life in himself (John 5:26). The ground of God's being is not in others, for there is nothing more ultimate than himself. God is uncaused, the one who always is (Exod. 3:14). To ask who caused God is to ask a self-contradictory question in terms of Jesus' view of God. Another term conveying the concept of God's self-existence is "aseity." It comes from the Latin a, meaning from, and se, meaning oneself. God is underived, necessary, nondependent existence. Understanding that God is noncontingent helps to understand how God is unlimited by anything, or infinite, free, self-determined, and not determined by anything other than himself contrary to his own sovereign purposes.

God is eternal and omnipresent (ubiquitous)

God's life is from within himself, not anything that had a beginning in the space-time world. God has no beginning, period of growth, old age, or end. The Lord is enthroned as King forever (Ps. 29:10). This God is our God forever and forever (Ps. 48:14). Although God is not limited by space or time, or the succession of events in time, he created the world with space and time. God sustains the changing realm of succeeding events and is conscious of every movement in history. The observable, changing world is not unimportant or unreal (maya in Hinduism) to the omnipresent Lord of all. No tribe, nation, city, family, or personal life is valueless, however brief or apparently insignificant. God's eternal nature is not totally other than time or totally removed from everything in time and space. The space-time world is not foreign or unknown to God. History is the product of God's eternally wise planning, creative purpose, providential preservation, and common grace. God fills space and time with his presence, sustains it, and gives it purpose and value. The omnipresent and ubiquitous One is Lord of time and history, not vice versa. God does not negate time but fulfills it. In it his purposes are accomplished.

In Christianity, then, eternity is not an abstract timelessness, but the eternal is a characteristic of the living God who is present at all times and in all places, creating and sustaining the space-time world and accomplishing his redemptive purposes in the fullness of time.

God is unchanging in nature, desire, and purpose

To say that God is immutable is not to contradict the previous truth that God is living and active. It is to say that all the uses of divine power and vitality are consistent with his attributes such as wisdom, justice, and love. God's acts are never merely arbitrary, although some may be for reasons wholly within himself rather than conditioned upon human response. Underlying each judgement of the wicked and each pardon of the repentant is his changeless purpose concerning sin and conversion. Unlike the Stoic's concept of divine immutability, God is not indifferent to human activity and need. Rather, we can always count upon God's concern for human righteousness.

God changelessly answers prayer in accord with his desires and purposes of holy love. Hence, although speaking in terms of human experience God is sometimes said in Scripture to repent, it is in fact the unrepentant who have changed and become repentant or the faithful who have become unfaithful.

God is the same, though everything else in creation becomes old like a garment (Ps. 102:25-27). Jesus shared that same unchanging nature (Heb. 1:10-12) and vividly exhibited it consistently throughout his active ministry in a variety of situations.

The immutability of God's character means that God never loses his own integrity or lets others down. With God is no variableness or shadow of turning (James 1:17). God's unshakable nature and word provide the strongest ground of faith and bring strong consolation (Heb. 6: 17-18). God is not a man that he should lie (Num. 23:19) or repent (I Sam. 15:29). The counsel of the Lord stands forever (Ps. 33:11). Though heaven and earth pass away, God's words will not fail (Matt. 5:18; 24:35).

Intellectually, God Is Omniscient, Faithful, and Wise

God differs from other spirits not only in being but also in knowledge. God's intellectual capabilities are unlimited, and God uses them fully and perfectly.

God is Omniscient

God knows all things (I John 3:20). Jesus has this attribute of deity also, for Peter says, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you" (John 21:17). God knows all inward thoughts and outward acts of humanity (Ps. 139). Nothing in all creation is hidden from God's sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the one to whom we must give account (Heb. 4:13). Isaiah distinguished the Lord of all from idols by the Lord's ability to predict the future (Isa. 44:7-8, 25-28). Clearly the Lord's knowledge of the future was communicable in human concepts and words. In the context Isaiah made predictions concerning Jerusalem, Judah, Cyrus, and the temple. These concepts were inspired in the original language and are translatable in the languages of the world.

How can God know the end from the beginning? In a way greater than illustrated in a person's knowledge of a memorized psalm, Augustine suggested. Before quoting Psalm 23 we have it all in mind. Then we quote the first half of it and we know the part that is past and the part that remains to be quoted. God knows the whole of history at once, simultaneously because not limited by time and succession, but God also knows what part of history is past today and what is future, for time is not unreal or unimportant to God (Confessions XI, 31).

The belief that God knows everything--past, present, and future, is of little significance, however, if God's knowledge is removed from human knowledge by an infinite, qualitative distinction. The frequent claim that God's knowledge is totally other than ours implies that God's truth may be contradictory of our truth. That is, what may be true for us is false for God or what is false for us may be true for God. Defenders of this position argue that because God is omniscient, God does not think discursively line upon line, or use distinct concepts connected by the verb "to be" in logical propositions. This view of divine transcendence provided an effective corrective in the hands of Barth and Bultmann against the continuity modernism alleged between the highest human thought and God's thought. And that influence finds additional support from the Eastern mystics who deny any validity to conceptual thinking in reference to the eternal. Relativists from many fields also deny that any human assertions, including the Bible's, are capable of expressing the truth concerning God.

From a biblical perspective, however, the human mind has been created in the divine image to think God's thoughts after him, or to receive through both general and special revelation truth from God. Although the fall has affected the human mind, this has not been eradicated. The new birth involves the Holy Spirit's renewal of the person in knowledge after the image of the Creator (Col. 3:10). Contextually, the knowledge possible to the regenerate includes the present position and nature of the exalted Christ (Col. 1:15-20) and knowledge of God's will (Col. 1:9). With this knowledge Christians can avoid being deceived by mere fine-sounding arguments (Col. 2:4). They are to strengthen the faith they were taught in concepts and words (Col. 2:7). And the content of the word of Christ can inform their teaching and worship (Col. 3:16).

In these and many other ways the Scriptures presuppose an informative revelation from God, verbally inspired and Spirit illumined, to minds created and renewed in the divine image for the reception of this divine truth. Insofar as we have grasped the contextual meaning given by the original writers of Scripture, our scripturally based assertions that God is spirit, God is holy, or God is love are true. They are true for God as he is in himself. They are true for the faith and life of Christians and churches.

The propositional truth that the Bible conveys in indicative sentences that affirm, deny, contend, maintain, assume, and infer is fully true for God and for mankind. Of course God's omniscience is not limited to the distinctions between subjects and predicates, logical sequence, exegetical research, or discursive reasoning. But God knows the difference between a subject and a predicate, relates to logical sequence as much as to temporal sequence, encourages exegetical research and revelationally based discursive reasoning. Although God's mind is unlimited and knows everything, it is not totally different in every respect from human minds made in his image. As omniscient then, God's judgments are formed in the awareness of all the relevant data. God knows everything that bears upon the truth concerning any person or event. Our judgements are true insofar as they conform to God's by being coherent or faithful to all the relevant evidence.

God is Faithful and True

Because God is faithful and true (Rev. 19:11), his judgements (Rev. 19:2) and his words in human language are faithful and true (Rev. 21:5; 22:6). There is no lack of fidelity in God's person, thought, or promise. God is not hypocritical and inconsistent.

We may hold unsweringly to our hope because he who promised is faithful (Heb. 10:23), He is faithful to forgive our sins (1 John 1:9), sanctify believers until the return of Christ (1 Thess. 5:23-24), strengthen and protect from the evil one (II Thess. 3:3), and not let us be tempted beyond what we can bear (1 Cor. 10:13). Even if we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself (II Tim. 2:13).

Not one word of all the good promises God gave through Moses failed (1 Kings 8:56). Isaiah praises the name of God, for in perfect faithfulness God did marvelous things planned long ago (Isa. 25:1). Passages like these convey a basic divine integrity in both life and thought. No contrast can be drawn between what God is in himself and what God is in relation to those who trust him. God does not contradict his promises in his works or in other teaching by dialectic, paradox, or mere complementarity. God knows everything, and nothing can come up that was not already taken into account before God revealed his purposes.

Because God is faithful and consistent, we ought to be faithful and consistent. Jesus said, "Simply let your Yes be Yes and your No, No" (Matt. 5:37). Paul exhibited this logical authenticity in his teaching about God. As surely as God is faithful, he said, our message to you is not Yes and No (II Cor. 1:18). Those who imagine that talk about God in human language must affirm and deny the same thing at the same time and in the same respect (in dialectic or paradox) have a different view of the relation between the divine mind and the godly person's mind than did Paul. Because God is faithful, we must be faithful in our message about him. Since God cannot deny himself, we ought not to deny ourselves in speaking to God.

Knowing the connection between personal and conceptual faithfulness in God we know that the idea that faithful persons ought not to contradict themselves did not originate with Aristotle. He may have formulated the law of non-contradiction in a way that has been quoted ever since, but the ultimate source of the challenge to human fidelity in person and word is rooted in God himself. The universal demand for intellectual honesty reflects in the human heart the ultimate integrity of the Creator's heart.

God is not only omniscient and consistent in person and word, but also perfectly wise

In addition to knowing all the relevant data on any subject, God selects ends with discernment and acts in harmony with his purposes of holy love. We may not always be able to see that events in our lives work together for a wise purpose, but we know that God chooses from among all the possible alternatives the best ends and means for achieving them. God not only chooses the right ends but also for the right reasons, the good of his creatures and thus his glory.

Although we may not fully understand divine wisdom, we have good reason to trust it. After writing on the great gift of the righteousness that comes from God, Paul exclaims, "To the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen." (Rom. 16:27). He had earlier alluded to the incomprehensible depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God (Rom. 11:33).

The interrelation of the attributes is already evident as the divine omniscience is aware not only of what is but also of what ought to be (morally); divine faithfulness and consistency involve moral integrity and no hypocrisy; and wisdom makes decisions for action toward certain ends and means in terms of the highest values. It is not so strange then when we read that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge (Prov. 1:7).

Ethically, God Is Holy, Righteous, and Loving

God is distinct from and transcendent to all his creatures, not only metaphysically and epistemologically, but also morally. God is morally spotless in character and action, upright, pure, and untainted with evil desires, motives, thought, words, or acts.

God is Holy

God is holy, and as such is the source and standard of what is right. God is free from all evil, loves all truth and goodness. He values purity and detests impurity and inauthenticity. God cannot approve of any evil, has no pleasure in evil (Ps. 5:4), and cannot tolerate evil (Hab. 1:13). God abhors evil and cannot encourage sin in any way (James 1:13-14). Christians do not stand in awe of the holy as an abstraction, but of the Holy One (Isa. 40:25). The Holy One is not merely an object of emotional fascination, but of intellectual hearing and volitional obedience.

Holiness is not solely the product of God's will, but a changeless characteristic of his eternal nature. The question Plato asked therefore needs to be reworded to apply to the Christian God: "Is the good good because God wills it? Or does God will it because it is good?" The question relates not to God's will or to some principle of goodness above God, but to God's essence. The good, the just, the pure, the holy is holy, not by reason of an arbitrary act of the divine will, nor of a principle independent of God, but because it is an outflow of his nature. God always wills in accord with his nature consistenly. He wills the good because he is good. And because God is holy, he consistently hates sin and is repulsed by all evil without respect of persons. The Holy Spirit is called holy not only because as a member of the divine Trinity he shares the holiness of the divine nature, but because the Spirit's distinctive function is to produce holy love in God's redeemed people. We are to seek to be morally spotless in character and action, upright, and righteous like the God we worship.

God is Just or Righteous

God's justice or righteousness is revealed in his moral law expressing his moral nature and in his judgment, granting to all, in matters of merit, exactly what they deserve. His judgment is not arbitrary or capricious, but principled and without respect of persons. OT writers frequently protest the injustice experienced by the poor, widows, orphans, strangers, and the godly. God, in contrast, has pity on the poor and needy (Ps. 72:12-14). He answers, delivers, revives, acquits, and grants them the justice that is their due. In righteousness God delivers the needy from injustice and persecution. Eventually God will create a new heaven and a new earth in which righteousness will dwell (Isa. 65:17).

God's wrath is revealed as sinners suppress his truth and hold it down in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18-32), both Jews and Gentiles (Rom. 2:1-3:20). In the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last (Rom. 1:17; 3:21). Believers are justified freely by God's grace that came by Jesus Christ, who provided the sacrifice of atonement (Rom. 3:24). Hence like Abraham, those who are fully persuaded that God can do what he has promised (Rom. 4:21) find their faith credited to them for righteousness (Rom. 4:3, 24). God in his justice graciously provides for the just status of believers in Christ. Righteousness in God is not unrelated to mercy, grace, and love.

In mercy God withholds or modifies deserved judgment, and in grace God freely gives undeserved benefits to whom he chooses. All of these moral characteristics flow from God's great love. In contrast to his transcendent self-existence is his gracious self-giving, agape love. He who lives forever as holy, high, and lofty also lives with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit (Isa. 57:15).

It is not that God is lacking something in himself (Acts 17:25), but that God desires to give of himself for the well-being of those loved, in spite of the fact that they are unlovely and undeserving. God not only loves but is in himself love (1 John 4:8).

His love is like that of a husband toward his wife, a father toward his son, and a mother toward her unweaned baby. In love God chose Israel (Deut. 7:7) and predestined believing members of the church to be adopted as sons through Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:4-5). God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).

Love cares for the aged, the oppressed, the poor, the orphans, and others in need. The loving God of the Bible is not unmoved by people with real needs (or impassible). The God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Job, Jeremiah, Jesus, Judas, Peter, and Paul suffered, indeed was long-suffering. In empathy God enters through imagination into the feelings of his creatures. Beyond that, God incarnate entered through participation into our temptations and sufferings. As H. W. Robinson has said, "The only way in which moral evil can enter into the consciousness of the morally good is as suffering." In all Israel's afflictions God was afflicted (Isa. 63:9). What meaning can there be, Robinson asks, in a love that is not costly to the lover? The God of the Bible is far from apathetic in regard to the vast suffering of people in the world. In love God sent his Son to die that ultimately suffering might be done away and righteousness restored throughout the earth as the waters cover the seas.

Since love involves commitment for the well-being of others, a responsible commitment, a faithful commitment, it is not classed as primarily emotional. Love is settled purpose of will involving the whole person in seeking the well-being of others.

Emotionally, God Detests Evil, Is Long-suffering, Compassionate

A.H. Strong says God is devoid of passion and caprice. Indeed God is devoid of caprice, injustice, or emotions out of control. We have earlier sought to negate any passions unworthy of God. Strong rightly adds, there is in God no selfish anger. However, God is personal and ethical, and both senses call for healthy emotions or passions. One who delights in justice, righteousness, and holiness for the well-being of his creatures can only be repulsed by the injustice, unrighteousness, and corruption that destroys their bodies, minds, and spirits. Hence the Bible frequently speaks of God's righteous indignation at evil. Righteous indignation is anger aroused, not by being overcome by emotions selfishly but by injustice and all the works of fallen "flesh." God detests evil.

Jesus and the Scriptures in general speak more often of God's wrath at injustices such as persistent mistreatment of the poor and needy than of love and heaven. Although the Lord is slow to anger, he will in no way leave the guilty unpunished, but will pour out his fury upon them (Nah. 1:3). None can withstand his indignation, which is poured out like fire and shatters rocks before him (Nah. 1:6). Apart from understanding God's wrath against evil, it is impossible to understand the extent of divine love in the incarnation, the extent of Christ's suffering on the cross, the propitiatory nature of his sacrifice, the prophetic Scriptures speaking of the great day of God's wrath, the great tribulation, or the book of Revelation.

God is patient and long-suffering. Properly jealous for the well-being of the objects of his love, God is angry at injustice done to them but suffers without losing heart. Long-suffering with evildoers God, without condoning their sin, graciously provides them with undeserved temporal and spiritual benefits. God promised the land to Abraham, but the iniquity of the Amorites was not yet full (Gen. 15:16). After over four hundred years of long-suffering restraint God in the fullness of time allowed the armies of Israel to bring just judgment upon the Amorites' wickedness. Later Israel worshipped the golden calf and deserved divine judgment like other idolators. But God revealed himself at the second giving of the law as "the Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness" (Exod. 34:6). The Psalmist could write, "But Thou, O Lord, art a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness" (Ps. 86:15). However, the day of God's grace has an end. Eventually, without respect of persons, God's just judgment fell upon Israel for its pervasive evils. God's long-suffering is a remarkable virtue, but it does not exclude or contradict God's justice.

Although theologians in the Thomistic tradition have taught the impassibility of God, the Scriptures do not hesitate to call God compassionate. Because of his great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail (Lam. 3:22). Even after Israel's captivity God will again have compassion on her (Mic. 7:19). The God of the Bible is not an apathetic God, but one who deeply cares when the sparrow falls. Jesus beautifully displayed this divine-human compassion for the hungry (Matt. 15:32), the blind (Matt. 20:34), the sorrowing (Luke 7:13). And Jesus taught the importance of compassion in the account of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:33) and that of the father's concern for his lost son (Luke 15:20).

The incarnate Christ felt what humans feel in all respects but did not yield to the temptations involved. As God in literal human experience, Jesus wept with those who wept and rejoiced with those who rejoiced. He remembered the joyful glory he had with the Father before the foundation of the world (John 17:5, 13). The divine-human author of our salvation, however, was made perfect or complete through suffering in this life (Heb. 2:10). Because he himself suffered, he can help those who suffer and are tempted (Heb. 2:18). The God revealed in Jesus Christ is no apathetic, uninvolved, impersonal first cause. The Father who Jesus disclosed is deeply moved by everything that hurts his children.

Existentially, God Is Free, Authentic, and Omnipotent. The modern concerns for freedom, authenticity, fulfilment should not be limited to mankind. Biblical writers seem even more concerned that God be understood to be free, authentic, and fulfilled.

God is Free

From all eternity God is not conditioned by anything other than himself contrary to his purposes. Good things, as we have seen, are purposed with divine pleasure and enduement. Evil things are permitted with divine displeasure. But God is self-determined, either way. Self-determination is that concept of freedom which emphasizes that personal thought, feeling, and volition are not determined by external factors but by one's self.

God is not free to approve sin, to be unloving, to be unwise, to ignore the hard facts of reality, to be unfaithful to what is or ought to be, to be uncompassionate or unmerciful. God cannot deny himself. God is free to be himself, his personal, eternal, living, intellectual, ethical, emotional, volitional self.

God is authentic, authentically himself

The God who in Christ so unalterably opposed hypocrisy is himself no hypocrite. We have emphasized his intellectual integrity or faithfulness above. Here we emphasize his integrity ethically, emotionally, and existentially. God is self-conscious, knows who he is and what his purposes are (1 Cor. 2:11). He has a keen sense of identity, meaning, and purpose.

God knows that he is the ultimate being, that there are in reality none to compare with him. In calling upon people to turn from idols, therefore, God in no way is asking something of us not in accord with reality. In steadfastly opposing idolatry he seeks to protect people from ultimate concerns destined to disillusion and disappoint. God desires our worship for our sakes, that we not succumb eventually to despair as one after another of our finite gods lets us down.

In the next place, God is omnipotent (Mark 14:36; Luke 1:37). God is able to do whatever he wills in the way in which he wills it. God does not choose to do anything contrary to his nature of wisdom and holy love. God cannot deny himself, and God does not choose to do everything by his own immediate agency without intermediate angelic and human agents. Although God determines some things to come to pass unconditionally (Isa. 14:24-27), most events in history are planned conditionally, through the obedience of people or their permitted disobedience to divine precepts (II Chr. 7:14; Luke 7:30; Rom. 1:24). In any case, God's eternal purposes for history are not frustrated, but fulfilled in the way he chose to accomplish them (Eph. 1:11).

God has not only the strength to effect all his purposes in the way in which he purposes them, but also the authority in the entire realm of his kingdom to do what he will. God is not a subject of another's dominion, but is King or Lord of all. By virtue of all his other attributes, his wisdom, justice, and love, for example, God is fit for the ruling of all that he created and sustains. God is a wise, holy, and gracious sovereign. As just, the power of God itself cannot punish sinners more than they deserve. To whom much is given, of him much shall be required; to whom little is given, of him little shall be required. But in the bestowing of undeserved benefits and gifts God is free to dispense them as he pleases (Ps. 135:6). Having permitted sin, God is great enough to limit its furious passions and to overrule it for greater good, as at Calvary (Acts 4:24-28). God can defeat the nations and demonic hosts that rage against him. No one can exist independent of divine sovereignty. The attempt to go one's own way independent of God is sinful insolence on the part of creatures who in him live and move and have their being. Only a fool could say that there is no God, when God sustains the breath the atheist uses to deny divine dominion over him.

Relationally, God Is Transcendent in Being, Immanent Universally in Providential Activity, and Immanent with His People in Redemptive Activity

As transcendent, God is uniquely other than everything in creation. God's distinctness from the being of the world has been implied in previous discussions of God's attributes metaphysically, intellectually, ethically, emotionally, and existentially. God is "hidden" relationally because so great in all these other ways. God's being is eternal, the world's temporal. God's knowledge is total, human knowledge incomplete. God's character is holy, humanity's character fallen and sinful. God's desires are consistently against evil yet long-suffering and compassionate; human desires fluctuate inconsistently and often intermingle evil with the good. God's energy is untiring and inexhaustible; the world's energy is subject to depletion through entropy. Hence God is over and above persons in the world in all these respects.

The incomparable divine transcendence involves a radical dualism between God and the world that ought not be blurred by a resurgent monism and pantheism. Although made like God and in the divine image, mankind is not (like Christ) begotten of God or an emanation from God of the same divine nature. The ultimate goal of salvation is not reabsorption into the being of God but unbroken fellowship with God. The unity Christians seek is not a metaphysical unity with God but a relational unity, a oneness of mind, desire, and will. To seek to be as God in a biblical perspective is not deeper spirituality but rebellious idolatry or blasphemy. Christians may respect nature as a divine creation but not worship nature as divine. Christians may respect the founders of the world's religions but cannot bow to any guru as the divine manifest in human form. Only Jesus Christ is from above; all others are from below (John 8:23). Because God is separate from the world, Christians cannot bow to any earthly power as God, whether that power be economic, political, religious, scientific, educational, or cultural. The inestimable benefit of bowing to a transcendent Lord of all is that it frees one from every finite, fallen tyranny.

A biblical theist not only believes that the one, living God is separate from the world, as against pantheism and panentheism, but also that God is continuously active throughout the world providentially, in contrast to deism. God is not so exalted that he cannot know, love, or relate to natural law in the world of everyday experience. A study of divine providence as taught in Scripture shows that God sustains, guides, and governs all that he created. The nature psalms reflect upon God's activity in relation to every aspect of the earth, the atmosphere, vegetation, and animal (e.g., Ps. 104). God also preserves and governs human history, judging corrupt societies and blessing the just and the unjust with temporal benefits like the sunshine, rain, food and drink. Through God's universal providential activity the cosmos holds together and his wise purposes of common grace are achieved.

But God is immanent in the lives of his people who repent of their sin and live by faith to accomplish the goals of his redemptive grace. "For this is what the high and lofty One says, he who lives forever, whose name is holy; I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite" (Isa. 57:15). Just as persons may be present to one another in varying degrees, God may be present to the unjust in one sense and to the just in a richer way. A person may simply be present as another rider on a bus, or much more significantly as a godly mother who has prayed daily for you all of your life. God is graciously present in forgiving love with the converted, who by faith have been propitiated, reconciled, and redeemed by Christ's precious blood. They become his people, he becomes their God. God dwells in them as his holy place or temple. The relational oneness of thoughts, desires, and purposes grows through the years. That unity is shared by other members of Christ's body who are gifted to build each other up to become progressively more like the God they worship, not metaphysically, but intellectually, ethically, emotionally, and existentially.


In summary, God is a living, personal Spirit worthy of whole-soul adoration and trust (because of his many perfect attributes), separate from the world, and yet continously active in the world.

Unlimited by space, God nevertheless created and sustains the cosmos, scientific laws, geographical and political boundaries.

Beyond time, God nevertheless actively relates to time, to each human life, home, city, nation, and to human history in general.

Transcendent to discursive knowledge and conceptual truth, God nevertheless intelligently relates to propositional thought and verbal communication, objective validity, logical consistency, factual reliability, coherence and clarity, as well as subjective authenticity and existential integrity.

Unlimited by a body, God is nevertheless providentially related to physical power in nature and society, industrially, agriculturally, socially, and politically. God knows and judges human stewardship in the use of all the earth's energy resources.

God transcends every attempt to achieve justice in the world, but righteously relates to every good endeavor of his creatures personally, economically, socially, academically, religiously, and politically.

Although free from unworthy and uncontrolled emotions, God is caringly related to the poor, the unfortunate, the lonely, the sorrowing, the sick, the victims of prejudice, injustice, anxiety, and despair.

Beyond all the apparent meaninglessness and purposelessness of human existence, God personally gives significance to the most insignificant life.

G R Lewis
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

H. Bavinck, The Doctrine of God; D. Bloesch, Essentials of Evangelical Theology; J. M. Boice, The Sovereign God; E. Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God; J. O. Buswell, Jr., A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion; L. S. Chafer, Systematic Theology; S. Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God; C. F. H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority, 4 vols.; J. Lawson, Comprehensive Handbook of Christian Doctrine; G. R. Lewis, "Categories in Collision?" in Perspectives on Evangelical Theology, ed. K. Kantzer and S. Gundry; G. R. Lewis, Decide for Yourself: A Theological Workbook and Testing Christianity's Truth Claims; J. I. Packer, Knowing God; W. W. Stevens, Doctrines of the Christian Religion; A. H. Strong, Systematic Theology; H. Thielicke, The Evangelical Faith, 2 vols.; O. C. Thomas, Introduction to Theology; A. W. Tozer, Knowledge of the Holy; H. O. Wiley, Christian Theology, I.

Doctrine of God

Advanced Information - III

The most fundamental teaching of the Bible and Christian theology is that God exists and is ultimately in control of the universe. This is the foundation on which all Christian theologizing is built.

The Biblical Concept of God


Questions concerning the reality of God are not discussed in the Scriptures; his existence is everywhere assumed. The opening passage which reveals God as Creator and Sovereign of heaven and earth sets the pattern for the remainder of the Bible in which God is viewed as foundational for a view of life and the world. The biblical question is therefore not does God exist, but who is God?

The Scriptures do recognize the existence of a professed atheism. But such atheism is considered primarily a moral rather than an intellectual problem. The fool who denies God (Ps. 14:1) does so not from philosophical reasons (which are, in any case, incapable of disproving the absolute except by affirming such), but from the practical supposition that he can live without considering God (Ps. 10:4). The Scriptures also recognize the possibility of a willful and therefore culpable "suppressing" of the knowledge of God (Rom. 1:18).

Knowledge of God

According to the Scriptures, God is known only through his self-revelation. Apart from his initiative in disclosing himself God could not be known by man. Human attempts to reason to God by various means, including the so-called proofs of God, while they can provide evidence for the need fo a god, do not yet attain to the knowledge of the true God (cf. I Cor. 1:21 a). Limited to the realm of creation, whether external nature or human subjective experience, man is incapable of reasoning to a valid knowledge of the transcendent Creator. God alone knows himself and discloses himself to whom he wills by his spirit (I Cor. 2:10-11). As the subject of his revelation God at the same time makes himself the object of human knowledge so that man can know him truly.

God has also revealed something of himself in his creation and preservation of the universe (Rom. 1:20), and to the extent that human reason yields a concept of a god it is undoubtedly related to this general or natural revelation. But the entrance of sin and its alienating effect blinds man from truly seeing God through this means (Rom. 1:18; Eph. 4:18). Moreover, the Bible indicates that even prior to the fall man's knowledge of God was derived not solely from the creation surrounding him, but from a direct personal communication with God.

While God communicates himself to man through a variety of means, including actions and words, human knowledge is fundamentally a conceptual matter and therefore the Word is the primary means of God's revelation. Even his actions are not left as mute works but are accompanied by the interpretive Word to give their true meaning. The revelation of God climaxed in the person of Jesus Christ, who was not simply the bearer of the revelatory Word of God as were all who spoke God's Word prior to his coming, but the personal divine Word. In him "all the fullness of deity" dwelt in bodily form (Col. 2:9). Thus in his work as Creator and Redeemer and through his words, God makes himself known to man.

The revelation of God does not totally exhaust his being and activity. He remains the incomprehensible one that man cannot totally fathom, both in his essence and ways (Job 36:26; Isa. 40:13, 28; cf. Deut. 29:29). Finitude cannot comprehend infinity, nor can human thought patterns, which are associated with the created environment, completely grasp the transcendent realm of God.

On the basis of this limitation of human reason modern rationalism has at times argued for the unknowability of God. Man's knowledge is said to be limited to the world of human experience, thus excluding the knowledge of a transcedent God. Such an equation of the incomprehensibility of God with unknowability is valid only on the premise that man's knowledge of God is derived through human reason. But the incomprehensible God of the Scriptures is the God who reaches out to man with the revelation of himself. The knowledge thus derived, although limited according to his good pleasure, is nevertheless a true knowledge of his being and work.

In giving us a knowledge of himself God gives his Word a finite form compatible with human creatureliness. Despite this necessary accommodation to the limitations of human understanding, the revealed knowledge of God is nevertheless an authentic knowledge of God. Theories which use the difference between God and man to deny the possibility of a genuine communication of true knowledge do not do justice to at least two biblical facts: (1) the truth that God created man in his own image, which certainly includes a likeness sufficient for communication; (2) the omnipotence of God, which implies that he can make a creature to whom he can truthfully reveal himself if he so wills. To be sure, there remains a hiddenness in relation to the total comprehension of God. But God himself does not remain hidden, for he has given true though partial knowledge of himself through self-revelation understandable to man.

The nature of our knowledge of God has been the subject of much discussion in Christian theology. Some have emphasized the negative character of our knowledge, e.g., God is infinite, nontemporal, incorporeal. Others, notably Aquinas, have advocated an analogical knowledge that is similar to God's knowledge and yet dissimilar because of his infinite greatness. Suffice it to say that even the negative (such as infinite) conveys a positive concept of greatness, and, while the position of analogy may be used to acknowledge a distinction in depth and breadth of understanding, there is finally a sense in which man's knowledge of divine things is the same as God's. For if man does not know God's meaning, he does not know the true meaning. Interestingly, the Scriptures view the problem of a true knowledge of God as moral rather than noetic.

Definition of God

From the biblical viewpoint it is generally agreed that it is impossible to give a strict definition of the idea of God. Defining, which means limiting, involves the inclusion of the object within a certain class or known universal and the indication of its distinguishing features from other objects in that same class. Since the biblical God is unique and incomparable (Isa. 40:25), there is no universal abstract category of the divine. Studies in comparative religions reveal that "god" is, in fact, conceived in the most different ways. Attempts to provide a general definition that encompasses all concepts of the divine, such as Anselm's "that than which nothing greater is conceivable," or "the supreme Being," do not convey much of the specific characteristics of the God of Scripture. Instead of a general definition of God, therefore, the Bible presents descriptions of God as he has revealed himself. These are conveyed through express statements as well as through the many names by which God identifies himself. Fundamental to the nature of God, according to the biblical description, are the truths that he is personal, spiritual, and holy.

God Is Personal

Over against any abstract neutral metaphysical concept, the God of Scripture is first and foremost a personal being. He reveals himself by names, especially the great personal name Yahweh (cf. Exod. 3:13-15; 6:3; Isa. 42:8). He knows and wills self-consciously in accord with our concept of personality (I Cor. 2:10-11; Eph. 1:11). The centrality of God's personality is seen in the fact that while he is the Creator and Preserver of all nature, he is encountered in Scripture not primarily as the God of nature, as in pagan religions, but rather as the God of history, controlling and directing the affairs of man. The central place of the covenant by which he links himself in a personal relationship to men is further indication of the scriptural emphasis on the personal nature of God. Nowhere is the personhood of God more evident than in his biblical description as Father. Jesus constantly spoke of God as "my Father," "your Father," and "the heavenly Father." Beyond the unique Trinitarian relationship of the divine Son with the Father, which certainly involves personal traits, the fatherhood of God speaks of him as the source and sustainer of his creatures who personally cares for them (Matt. 5:45; 6: 26-32) and the one to whom man can turn in believing trust.

The personhood of God has been called into question on the basis of our use of the word "person" with respect to human beings. Human personhood involves limitation that allows relationship with another person or the world. To be a person means to be an individual among individuals. All of this cautions us against an erroneous anthropomorphizing of God. Biblically it is more proper to see the personhood of God as having priority over that of man and therefore to understand human personhood theomorphously, i.e., a finite replica of the infinite divine person. Despite the final incomprehensibility of God's suprahuman personhood, the Scriptures portray him as a real person who gives himself in reciprocal relationship to us as a genuine Thou.

The biblical concept of the personhood of God refutes all abstract philosophical ideas of God as merely First Cause or Prime Mover as well as all naturalistic and pantheistic concepts. Modern equations of God with immanent personal relations (e.g., love) are also rejected.

God Is Spiritual

The Scriptures preclude the reduction of the personhood of God to a human level by the description of God as spirit (John 4:24). As the word "spirit" has the basic idea of power and activity, the spiritual nature of God refers to the infinite superiority of his nature over all created life. The weakness of the forces of this world, including men and beasts which are but flesh, are contrasted to God who is spirit (cf. Isa. 31:3; 40:6-7).

As spirit, God is the living God. He is the possessor of an infinite life in himself (Ps. 36:9; John 5:26). Matter is activated by spirit, but God is pure spirit. He is fully life. As such he is the source of all other life (Job 33:4; Ps. 104:30). The spiritual nature also prohibits any limitations of God derived from a materialistic conception. For this reason images of God are prohibited (Exod. 20:4; Deut. 4:12, 15-18). He cannot be restricted to any particular place or in any sense be brought under man's control as a physical object. He is the invisible transcedent living power from whom all derive existence (Acts 17:28).

God Is Holy

One of the most fundamental features of God's being is expressed by the word "holy." He is the incomparable God, "the Holy One" (Isa. 40:25, cf. Hab. 3:3). The word "holy," which in both Hebrew and Greek has the root meaning of separateness, is used predominantly in Scripture for a separateness from sin. But this is only a secondary meaning derived from the primary application to God's separateness from all creation, i.e., his transcendence. "He is exalted above all the peoples." Therefore, "holy is he" (Ps. 99:2-3). He is "the high and exalted One... whose name is Holy," and he lives "on a high and holy place" (Isa. 57:15). In his holiness God is the transcendent Deity.

The transcendence of God expresses the truth that God in himself is infinitely exalted above all creation. The concept of revelation presupposes a transcendent God who must unveil himself to be known. Transcendence is further seen in God's position as Creator and Sovereign Lord of the universe. As the former he distinguishes himself from all creation (Rom. 1:25), and in his sovereignty he evidences his transcendent supremacy.

The transcendence of God is frequently expressed biblically in terms of time and space. He exists before all creation (Ps. 90:2), and neither the earth nor the highest heavens can contain him (I Kings 8:27). A certain anthropomorphic sense must be recognized in such expressions lest God's transcendence be conceived in terms of our time and space, as though he lives in a time and space like ours only beyond that of creation. On the other hand, it is biblically incorrect to conceive of God in his transcendence as existing in a realm of timeless nowhereness outside of creation. In a manner that exceeds our finite understanding God exists in his own infinite realm as transcendent Lord over all creaturely time and space.

God's transcendent holiness is biblically balanced with the teaching of his immanence, which signifies that he is wholly present in his being and power in every part and moment of the created universe. He is "over all and through all and in all" (Eph. 4:6). Not only does everything exist in him (Acts 17:28), but there is no place where his presence is absent (Ps. 139:1-10). His immanence is seen especially in relation to man. The Holy One who lives in a high and holy place also dwells with the "contrite and lowly of spirit" (Isa. 57:15). This dual dimension of God is seen clearly in the description "the Holy One of Israel" as well as in the name Yahweh, which describes both his transcendent power and his personal presence with and for his people.

The biblical teaching of both God's transcendence and immanence counters the human tendency throughout history to emphasize one or the other. A one-sided transcendence is seen in the Greek philosophers' concept of the ultimate ground of being as well as the later deists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The various forms of pantheism throughout history give evidence of the opposite emphasis on immanence. The attractiveness of these exaggerations to sinful man is in the fact that in both man no longer stands before God in any practical sense as a responsible creature.

The Trinity

Crucial to the biblical doctrine of God is his Trinitarian nature. Although the term "trinity" is not a biblical word as such, Christian theology has used it to designate the threefold manifestation of the one God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The formulated doctrine of the Trinity asserts the truth that God is one in being or essence who exists eternally in three distinct coequal "persons." While the term "person" in relation to the Trinity does not signify the limited individuality of human persons, it does affirm the I-thou of personal relationship, particularly of love, within the triune Godhead.

The doctrine of the Trinity flows from the self-revelation of God in biblical salvation history. As the one God successively reveals himself in his saving action in the Son and the Holy Spirit, each is recognized as God himself in personal manifestation. It is thus in the fullness of NT revelation that the doctrine of the Trinity is seen most clearly. God is one (Gal. 3:20; James 2:19), but the Son (John 1:1; 14:9; Col. 2:9) and the Spirit (Acts 5:3-4; I Cor. 3:16) are also fully God. Yet they are distinct from the Father and each other. The Father sends the Son and the Spirit, while the Son also sends the Spirit (Gal. 4:4; John 15:26). This unified equality and yet distinctness is seen in the triadic references to the three persons. Christian baptism is in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19). Likewise, all three are joined in the Pauline benediction in a different order suggesting the total equality of persons (II Cor. 13:14; cf. Eph. 4:4-6; I Pet. 1:2). Although the Trinity finds its clearest evidence in the NT, suggestions of a fullness of plurality are already found in the OT revelation of God. The plural form of the name of God (Elohim) as well as the use of plural pronouns (Gen. 1:26; 11:7) and verbs (Gen. 11:7; 35:7) point in this direction. So also do the identity of the angel of the Lord as God (Exod. 3:2-6; Judg. 13:21-22) and the hypostatization of the Word (Ps. 33:6; 107:20) and Spirit (Gen. 1:2; Isa. 63:10). The Word is not simply communication about God nor is the Spirit divine power. They are rather the acting God himself.

As the product of the self-revelation of God, the Trinitarian formulation is not intended to exhaust his incomprehensible nature. Objections to the doctrine come from a rationalism that insists on dissolving this mystery into human understanding, i.e., by thinking of the oneness and threeness in mathematical terms and human personality. Attempts have been made to draw analogies of the Trinity from nature and the constitution of man. The most notable of these is Augustine's trinity of lover, the object of love, and the love which binds the two together. While this argues strongly for a plurality within God if he is eternally a God of love apart from creation, it along with all other suggestions from the creaturely realm proves finally inadequate to explain the divine being.

The doctrine of the Trinity developed out of the church's desire to safeguard the biblical truths of the God who is the transcendent Lord over all history and yet who gives himself in person to act within history. The natural human tendencies toward either a nonhistorical divine transcendence or the absorption of the divine into the historical process are checked by the orthodox concept of the Trinity. The first is the ultimate error of the primary distortions of the Trinity. Subordinationism, which made Christ less than God, and adoptionism, which understood Christ only as a human endowed with God's Spirit for a time, both denied that God truly entered history to confront man in person. Modalism or Sabellianism makes the persons of Christ and the Holy Spirit to be only historical roles or modifications of the one God. This error likewise tends to separate man from God; he is encountered not directly as he is in person, but as a role player who remains hidden behind a mask.

The Trinitarian doctrine is thus central to the salvation kerygma of Scripture, according to which the transcendent God acts personally in history to redeem and share himself with his creatures. Origen rightly drew the conclusion that the believer "will not attain salvation if the Trinity is not complete."

The Doctrine in History

The history of Christian thought reveals persistent problems concerning the nature of God and his relation to the world. These involve the related issues of transcendence/immanence, personal/nonpersonal perspectives, and the knowability of God. The earliest Christian theologians, who attempted to interpret the Christian faith in terms of Greek philosophical categories, tended toward an emphasis on the abstract transcendence of God. He was the timeless, changeless Absolute who was the final and adequate cause of the universe. Little could be predicted of him, and his attributes were defined primarily in the negative. He was the uncaused (possessing aseity), absolutely simple, infinite, immutable, omnipotent Being, unlimited by time (eternal) and space (omnipresent).

Although Augustine's view was more balanced with a view of the personal immanent, condescending God in the revelation of Christ, this philosophical understanding of God dominated until the Reformation, reaching its climax in Thomas Aquinas and the medieval scholastics. Aquinas held that philosophical human reason could attain to the knowledge of the existence of God. His stress, however, was on the transcendence of God and how little he could be known.

With an emphasis on biblical rather than philosophical categories, the Reformers brought more recognition of the immanence of God within human history but maintained a strong emphasis on his transcendence, as evidenced in the definition of the Westminister Confession of Faith.

Reaction to the traditional Protestant and Catholic understanding of God with its stress on the transcendence of God came with the rise of liberal theology in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The combination of new philosophies (e.g., Kant, Hegel) making the mind of man supreme for true knowledge, scientific advances that seemed to substantiate human abilities, and a new historical perspective that tended to relativize all tradition, including the Scriptures, led to a new understanding of ultimate reality. Because, as Kant argued, human reason could no longer establish the existence of a transcendent God, God became increasingly identified with the ideals of human experience. Talk of religious dependency (Schleiermacher) or ethical values (Kant, Ritschl) became talk of God. There was an almost exclusive emphasis on the immanence of God, with a tendency to see an essential kinship between the human and divine spirit.

World events including two world wars and the rise of totalitarian regimes brought the collapse of old liberalism with its immanentistic understanding of God and the reassertion of divine transcendence. Led by Karl Barth, theology sought to return not to the earlier philosophical concepts of God but to the categories of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures. Based upon a radical separation between eternity and time, the transcendence of God was exaggerated to the point that a direct revelation of God in human history was denied. According to this neoorthodox theology God did not speak directly in Scripture. As a result of this denial of a direct cognitive communication, with the consequent skepticism of any knowledge of God in himself, the accent on transcendence was gradually lost. The religious experience of man, usually interpreted according to existential philosophy, became increasingly viewed as the key to theological knowledge. God was understood primarily as the meaning he holds for the "existential experiences" of man.

This movement can be traced from Barth, whose theology maintained a strong divine transcendence, to Bultmann, who, while not denying God's transcendence, nevertheless focused almost entirely on God in the human existential experience, and finally to Tillich, who denied entirely the traditional God "out there" in favor of an immanent God as the "ground" of all being. Thus the transcendence of God has been lost in much of contemporary thought which seeks to do theology in the existential philosophical framework. Divine transcendence is simply equated with the hidden self-transcendence of human existence.

Other contemporary theologians seek to reconstruct theology in terms of the modern scientific evolutionary understanding of the universe. Such process theology, based on the philosophy of A. N. Whitehead, sees the fundamental nature of all reality as process or becoming rather than being or unchanging substance. Although there is an abstract eternal dimension of God which provides the potential for the process, he also is understood to encompass all changing entities in his own life and therefore to be in the process of change himself. As the universe is dynamic and changing, actualizing its potentialities, so also is God.

The wide variety of contemporary formulations of God that tend to define God in ways in which he is no longer the personal Creator and sovereign Lord of human history are the direct result of denying a knowledge of God through his cognitive self-revelation in the Scriptures and the sinful human propensity to autonomy.

R L Saucy

K. Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/1 and 2; H. Bavinck, The Doctrine of God; E. Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God; J. S. Candlish, The Christian Doctrine of God; W. Eichrodt, Theology of the OT,I; C. F. H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority, II; C. Hodge, Systematic Theology, I; Kleinknecht, Quell, Stauffer, Kuhn, TDNT, III, 65-123; G. L. Prestige, God in Patristic Thought; H. Thielicke, The Evangelical Faith, II; O. Weber, Foundations of Dogmatics, I.


Names of God

The Divine Names as Vehicles of Revelation

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Efforts to find the origins and significance of the Hebrew divine names in other ancient Near Eastern cultures have yielded generally disappointing results. One of the major reasons for this is that the ancient Hebrew theology invested these names with a uniqueness that renders investigation outside the narratives of the OT incapable of exploring fully their historical and religious significance.

Basic to ancient Hebrew religion is the concept of divine revelation. While God is conceived of as revealing his attributes and will in a number of ways in the OT, one of the most theologically significant modes of the divine self-disclosure is the revelation inherent in the names of God.

This aspect of divine revelation is established in the words of Exod. 6:3, "I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by my name the Lord [Yahweh] I did not make myself known to them." According to classical literary criticism, the verse teaches that the name Yahweh was unknown to the patriarchs. Thus, an ideological conflict exists between the Priestly author and the earlier Yahwist, who frequently put the name Yahweh on the lips of the patriarchs.

However, the words "by my name Yahweh I did not make myself known to them" have a somewhat hollow ring if the name Yahweh is understood only as an appellative. The reason for this is that Moses asks in Exod. 3:13, "What is his name?" (mah-semo). M. Buber has demonstrated that the syntax of this question does not connote an inquiry as to the name of God but an inquiry into the character revealed by the name. He says, "Where the word 'what' is associated with the word 'name' the question asked is what finds expression in or lies concealed behind that name" (The Revelation and the Covenant, p. 48). J. Motyer also concludes, "In every case where ma is used with a personal association it suggests enquiry into sort or quality or character, whereas mi expects an answer instacing individuals, or, as in the case of rhetorical questions, calling attention to some external feature" (The Revelation of the Divine Name, 19).

Exod. 14:4 also supports the view that the name Yahweh embodies aspects of God's character. It says, "and the Egyptians will know that I am Yahweh." It is hardly likely that the intent of this assertion is that they would learn only the name of the Hebrew God.

In the light of these observations, the use of the concepts of the name of God in the early narratives of the book of Exodus is far broader than simply the name by which the Hebrew God was known. It has a strong element of divine self-disclosure within it.

The corpus of divine names compounded with el and a descriptive adjunct also support this concept. The very fact that the adjunctive element is descriptive is an indication of its value as a source of theological content.

Typical of this type of name is el rot ("God who sees"; Gen. 16:13) and el olam ("God eternal"; Gen. 21:33). These el names sometimes emerge from a specific historical situation that illuminates their significance.

The Meaning of the Divine Names

Yahweh, Jehovah (LORD)

Efforts to determine the meaning of the tetragrammaton (YHWH) through historical investigation have been rendered difficult by the paucity of informative data relative to the various forms of the name ya in historical sources outside the OT. For this reason the investigation has generally followed philological lines. G. R. Driver suggested that the form ya was originally an ejaculatory cry, "shouted in moments of excitement or ecstasy," that was "prologued to ya(h)wa(h), ya(h)wa(h)y, or the like." He suggested further that the name Yahweh arose from the consonance of an extended form of ya with the "imperfect tense of a defective verb." Thus, he saw the origin of the name in a popular etymology and asserted that its original form was forgotten (ZAW 46:24).

Mowinckel proposed the theory that the tetragrammaton should be understood as consisting of the ejaculatory element and the third person pronoun hu,' meaning "O He!"

Another approach to the problem is to understand the tetragrammaton as a form of paronomasia. This view takes account of the broad representation of the name ya in extrabiblical cultures of the second millennium B.C. The name Yahweh is thus understood as a quadriliteral form, and the relationship of the name of haya ("to be") in Exod. 3:14-15 is not intended to be one of etymology but paronomasia.

The most common view is that the name is a form of a triliteral verb, hwy. It is generally regarded as a 3 p. Qal stem imperfect or a 3 p. imperfect verb in a causative stem. Another suggestion is that it is a causative participle with a y preformative that should be translated "Sustainer, Maintainer, Establisher."

With regard to the view that the tetragrammaton is an elongated form of an ejaculatory cry, it may be pointed out that Semitic proper names tend to shorten; they are not normally prolonged. The theory that the name is paronomastic is attractive, but when appeal is made to the occurrences of forms of ya or yw in ancient cultures, several problems arise. It is difficult to explain how the original form could have lengthened into the familiar quadriliteral structure. Mowinckel's suggestion is attractive, but speculative. It is also difficult to understand how the name Yahweh could have such strong connotations of uniqueness in the OT if it is a form of a divine name that found representation in various cultures in the second millennium B.C.

The derivation of the tetragrammaton from a verbal root is also beset with certain difficulties. The root hwy on which the tetragrammaton would be based in this view is unattested in West Semitic languages before the time of Moses, and the form of the name is not consonant with the rules that govern the formation of lamed he verbs as we know them.

It is evident that the problem is a difficult one. It is best to conclude that the use of etymology to determine the theological content of the name Yahweh is tenuous. If one is to understand the theological significance of the divine name, it can be only be determining the theological content with which the name was invested in Hebrew religion.

Jah, Yah

This shorter form of Yahweh occurs twice in Exodus (15:2 and 17:15). The former passage is echoed in Isa. 12:2 and Ps. 118:14. It also occurs numerous times in the formula haleluya ("praise yah"). Its use in early and late poetic passages and its formulaic function in the Hallel psalms suggest that this form of Yahweh is a poetic stylistic device.

The compounding of yah with Yahweh in Isa. 12:2 (yah yhwh) indicates a separate function for the form yah, but at the same time an identification of the form with Yahweh.

Yahweh Seba'ot ("Lord of Hosts")

The translation "He creates the heavenly hosts" has been suggested for this appellative. It is based on the assumption that Yahweh functions as a verbal form in a causative stem. This conclusion is rendered difficult by the fact that the formula occurs in the expanded form yhwh elohe sebaot ("Yahweh God of hosts"), which attributes the function of a proper name to Yahweh. The word seba'ot means "armies" or "hosts." It is best to understand Yahweh as a proper name in association with the word "armies."


The root of Elohim is El (el). The form elohim is a plural form commonly understood as a plural of majesty. While the word occurs in Canaanite ('l) and Akkadian (ilu[m]), its etymology is uncertain. In the OT the word is always construed in the singular when it denotes the true God. In the Pentateuch the name elohim connotes a general concept of God; that is, it portrays God as the transcendent being, the creator of the universe. It does not connote the more personal and palpable concepts inherent in the name Yahweh. It can also be used to apply to false gods as well as to judges and kings.


El has the same general range of meaning as Elohim. It is apparently the root on which the plural form has been constructed. It differs in usage from Elohim only in its use in theophoric names and to serve to contrast the human and the divine. Sometimes it is combined with yah to become Elyah.

El Elyon ("God Most High")

The word 'elyon, an adjective meaning "high," is derived from the root 'lh ("to go up" or "ascend"). It is used to describe the height of objects (II Kings 15:35; 18:17; Ezek. 41:7) as well as the prominence of persons (Ps. 89:27) and the prominence of Israel as a nation (Deut. 26:19; 28:1). When used of God it connotes the concept of "highest."

The name El Elyon occurs only in Gen. 14: 18-22 and Ps. 78:35, although God is known by the shorter title Elyon in a significant number of passages.

There is a superlative connotation in the word 'elyon. In each case in which the adjective occurs it denotes that which is highest or uppermost. In Deut. 26:19 and 28:1 the superlative idea is apparent in the fact that Israel is to be exalted above the nations. The use of the word in I Kings 9:8 and II Chr. 7:21 may not seem to reflect a superlative idea, but there is, as C. F. Keil suggests, an allusion to Deut. 26:19 and 28:1, where the superlative idea exists. The superlative is also evident in the use of the word in Ps. 97:9, where it connotes Yahweh's supremacy over the other gods.

El Shaddai

The etymology of sadday is obscure. It has been connected with the Akkadian sadu ("mountain") by some. Others have suggested a connection with the word "breast," and still others have seen a connection with the verb sadad ("to devastate"). The theological significance of the name, if it can be understood fully, must be derived from a study of the various contexts in which the name occurs.

The name Shaddai frequently appears apart from El as a divine title.


This appellation occurs only in Gen. 33:20 as the name of the altar that marked the place of Jacob's encounter with God. It denotes the unique significance of El as the God of Jacob.


The root 'dn occurs in Ugaritic with the meanings "lord and father." If the word originally connoted "father," it is not difficult to understand how the connotation "lord" developed from that. The basic meaning of the word in the OT is "lord."

Critical to the understanding of the meaning of the word is the suffix ay. It is commonly suggested that the ending is the first person possessive suffix on a plural form of 'adon ("my lord"). This is plausible for the form adonay, but the heightened form adonay, which also appears in the Massoretic text, is more difficult to explain, unless it represents an effort on the part of the Massoretes "to mark the word as sacred by a small external sign."

Attention has been drawn to the Ugaritic ending -ai, which is used in that language "as a reinforcement of a basic word," However, it is doubtful that this explanation should be applied in all cases. The plural construction of the name is evident when the word occurs in the construct as it does in the appellation "Lord of lords" ('adone ha adonim) in Deut. 10:17. And the translation "my Lord" seems to be required in such vocative addresses as "my Lord Yahweh, what will you give me?" (Gen. 15:2; see also Exod. 4:10).

It appears, then, that it is best to understand the word as a plural of majesty with a first person suffixual ending that was altered by the Massoretes to mark the sacred character of the name.

Other Divine Names

The name Baali occurs only once, in Hos. 2:16 (AV; "My Baal," RSV) in a play on words. The word means "my husband," as does isi, the word with which it is paired.

Ancient of Days is an appellation applied to God in Dan. 7. It occurs with other depictions of great age (vs. 9) to create the impression of noble venerability.

Abba is an alternate Aramaic term for "father." It is the word that Jesus used to address God in Mark 14:36. Paul pairs the word with the Greek word for "father" in Rom. 8:15 and Gal. 4:6.

The 'alep that terminates the form 'abba' functions as both a demonstrative and a vocative particle in Aramaic. In the time of Jesus the word connoted both the emphatic concept, "the father," and the more intimate "my father, our father."

While the word was the common form of address for children, there is much evidence that in the time of Jesus the practice was not limited only to children. The childish character of the word ("daddy") thus receded, and 'abba' acquired the warm, familiar ring which we may feel in such an expression as "dear father."

The Theological Significance of the Divine Names


The parallel structure in Exod. 3:14-15 supports the association of the name Yahweh with the concept of being or existence. It says, "I AM has sent me to you" (vs. 14; "The LORD has sent me to you" (vs. 15). The name "I AM" is based on the clause "I AM WHO I AM" found in 3:14 which, on the basis of the etymology implied here, suggests that Yahweh is the 3.p. form of the verb 'ehyeh (I am).

The clause 'ehyeh'aser 'ehyeh has been translated in several ways, "I am that I am" (AV), "I am who I am" (RSV, NIV), and "I will be what I will be" (RSV margin). Recently the translation "I am (the) One who is" has been suggested. The latter translation has much in its favor grammatically and fits the context well.

The main concern of the context is to demonstrate that a continuity exists in the divine activity from the time of the patriarchs to the events recorded in Exod. 3. The Lord is referred to as the God of the fathers (vss. 13, 15, 16). The God who made the gracious promises regarding Abraham's offspring is the God who is and who continues to be. The affirmation of vs. 17 is but a reaffirmation of the promise made to Abraham. The name Yahweh may thus affirm the continuing activity of God on behalf of his people in fealty to his promise.

Jesus' application of the words "I am" to himself in John 8:58 not only denoted his preexistence but associated him with Yahweh. Jesus was the fulfillment of the promise given to Abraham, the fulfillment of which Abraham anticipated (John 8:56).

In the Pentateuch, Yahweh denotes that aspect of God's character that is personal rather than transcendent. It occurs in contexts in which the covenantal and redemptive aspects of God predominate. Cassuto says, "The name YHWH is employed when God is presented to us in His personal character and in direct relationship to people or nature; and 'Elohim, when the Deity is alluded to as a Transcendental Being who exists completely outside and above the physical universe" (The Documentary Hypothesis, p. 31). This precise distinction does not always obtain outside the Pentateuch, but Yahweh never loses its distinct function as the designation of the God of Israel.

The name Yahweh Sabaoth appears for the first time in Israel's history in connection with the cult center at Shiloh (1 Sam. 1:3). It is there that the tent of meeting was set up when the land of Canaan had been subdued by the Israelites (Josh. 18:1). The name apparently had its origin in the period of the conquest or the postconquest period. It does not occur in the Pentateuch.

It is possible that the name was attributed to Yahweh as a result of the dramatic appearance to Joshua of an angelic being called the "commander of the host of Yahweh" at the commencement of the conquest (Josh. 5:13-15). The name would thus depict the vast power at Yahweh's disposal in the angelic hosts.

The association of this name with the ark of the covenant in I Sam. 4:4 is significant in that Yahweh is enthroned above the angelic figures known as the cherubim (II Sam. 6:2). Because the name was associated with the ark of the covenant, David addressed the people in that name when the ark was recovered from the Philistines (II Sam. 6:18). The name is often associated with the military activities of Israel (I Sam. 15:2-3; II Sam. 5:10).

The almighty power of Yahweh displayed in this name is manifested in the sphere of history (Pss. 46:6-7; 59:5). His power may be displayed in the life of the individual (Ps. 69:6) as well as the nation (Ps. 80:7). Sometimes he is simply referred to as "the Almighty."

The military connotation of the name was not lost, even in the eighth century, for Isaiah appeals to that name to depict the hosts of heaven that accompany Yahweh in his intervention in history (Isa. 13:4).


This is the more general name for God. In the Pentateuch, when used as a proper name, it most commonly denotes the more transcendental aspects of God's character. When God is presented in relation to his creation and to the peoples of the earth in the Pentateuch, the name Elohim is the name most often used. It is for this reason that Elohim occurs consistently in the creation account of Gen. 1:1-2:42 and in the genealogies of Genesis. Where the context takes on a moral tone, as in Gen. 2:4bff., the name Yahweh is used.

Throughout Genesis and the early chapters of Exodus elohim is used most often as a proper name. After Exod. 3 the name begins to occur with increasing frequency as an appellative, that is, "the God of," or "your God." This function is by far the most frequent mode of reference to God in the book of Deuteronomy. When used in this fashion the name denotes God as the supreme deity of a person or people. Thus, in the frequent expression, "Yahweh your God," Yahweh functions as a proper name, while "God" functions as the denominative of deity.

The appellative elohim connotes all that God is. As God he is sovereign, and that sovereignty extends beyond Israel into the arena of the nations (Deut. 2:30, 33; 3:22; Isa. 52:10). As God to his people he is loving and merciful (Deut. 1:31; 2:7; 23:5; Isa. 41:10, 13, 17; 49:5; Jer. 3:23). He establishes standards of obedience (Deut. 4:2; Jer. 11:3) and sovereignly punishes disobedience (Deut. 23:21). As God, there is no one like him (Isa. 44:7; 45:5-21).

The same connotations obtain in the use of the shorter form el. He is the God who sees (el ro i; Gen. 16:13) and he is el the God of Israel (Gen. 33:20).

As El Elyon, God is described in his exaltation over all things. There are two definitive passages for this name. In Ps. 83:18 Yahweh is described as "Most High over the earth," and Isa. 14:14 states, "I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will make myself like the Most High."

However, in the majority of cases the attributes of this name are indistinguishable from other usages of El or Elohim. He fixed the boundaries of the nations (Deut. 32:8). He effects changes in the creation (Ps. 18:13). El Shaddai occurs most frequently in the Book of Job, where it functions as a general name for the deity. As El Shaddai, God disciplines (Job 5:17); he is to be feared (Job 6:14); he is just (Job 8:3); he hears prayer (Job 8:5); and he creates (Job 33:4).

This name occurs six times in the patriarchal narratives. In most of those instances it is associated with the promise given by God to the patriarchs. Yet the name is often paired with Yahweh in the poetic material, and thus shares the personal warmth of that name. He is known for his steadfast love (Ps. 21:7) and his protection (Ps. 91:9-10).

The root of Adonai means "lord" and, in its secular usage, always refers to a superior in the OT. The word retains the sense of "lord" when applied to God. The present pointing of the word in the Massoretic text is late; early manuscripts were written without vowel pointing.

In Ps. 110:1 the word is pointed in the singular, as it usually is when it applies to humans rather than God. Yet Jesus used this verse to argue for his deity. The pointing is Massoretic, and no distinction would be made in the consonantal texts. Since the word denotes a superior, the word must refer to one who is superior to David and who bears the messianic roles of king and priest (vs. 4).

The name Abba connotes the fatherhood of God. This is affirmed by the accompanying translation ho pater ("father") which occurs in each usage of the name in the NT (Mark 14:36; Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6).

The use of this name as Jesus' mode of address to God in Mark 14:36 is a unique expression of Jesus' relationship to the Father. Jeremias says, "He spoke to God like a child to its father, simply, inwardly, confidently. Jesus' use of abba in addressing God reveals the heart of his relationship with God" (The Prayers of Jesus, p. 62).

The same relationship is sustained by the believer with God. It is only because of the believer's relationship with God, established by the Holy Spirit, that he can address God with this name that depicts a relationship of warmth and filial love.

In a sense the relationship designated by this name is the fulfillment of the ancient promise given to Abraham's offspring that the Lord will be their God, and they his people (Exod. 6:7; Lev. 26:12; Jer. 24:7; 30:22).

T E McComiskey
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

W.F. Albright, From Stone Age to Christianity; W. Eichrodt, Theology of the OT,I, 178ff.; L. Koehler, OT Theology; J. Schneider et al., NIDNTT, II, 66ff.; G. Oehler, Theology of the OT; M. Reisel, The Mysterious Name of Y.H.W.H.; H.H. Rowley, The Faith of Israel; H. Schultz, OT Theology, II, 116ff.; T. Vriezen, An Outline of OT Theology; H. Kleinknecht et al., TDNT, III, 65ff.

Also, see:
Arguments for the Existence of God
Also, see:
Jesus Christ

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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