Naming God: Does It Matter What We Call Him?

Naming God is an extremely important matter that too few of us take as seriously as we should. This issue gets pushed forward now and then when various progressive readings of Scripture are promoted in the church. Sometimes these progressive tendencies come from radical feminism. Sometimes they just come from careless non-Trinitarian concepts of God.

In February of 2008 the Vatican issued an eighty word document that produced the following newspaper headline: “Vatican Says Baptisms Using Wrong Words Are Not Valid, Must Be Redone.” The document said, “Anyone baptized in the name of the Creator, and of the Redeemer, and of the Sanctifier” or in the name of “the Creator, the Liberator and the Sustainer” didn’t really get baptized with Christian baptism. I happen to agree with this statement of the Vatican and I think many conservative evangelicals would be puzzled by such agreement.

Following the Vatican’s statement in May of 2008 Christianity Today reported that a Methodist minister “howled about the Vatican’s liturgical fundamentalism that values human language over divine grace.” What is wrong with this statement? A great deal actually but the fundamental problem (no pun intended) is that human language is itself a matter of divine revelation and grace. The church uses a Trinitarian formula for one primary reason—it gives expression to the statement of the Nicene Creed that Jesus is “very God of very God.” Further, it clearly expresses the truth of the Great Commission that we are commanded to baptize in the Triune name according to Matthew 28:18-20.

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All of this is important because God has chosen to reveal himself to us in the Bible. If he had not revealed himself then we would not know who he really is. Jesus refers to himself as the Son and he also speaks of his Father as God. But doesn’t he use other metaphors for the Godhead? The answer is obvious but the name that most designates God in the teaching of Jesus is Father. And in relationship to God, Jesus is always the Son. And the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God the Father. (He is also the Spirit of Jesus in a different sense.)  It is not without accident that the words of Matthew 28 say clearly that we are to baptize “in the name of the Father . . .” Note—Jesus says we are to baptize in the name of.

God’s name seems to always clearly reveal God’s character in Scripture. And God’s name reveals his communal nature (“perichoresis”) as well as his desire for a personal relationship with his people, a people who also have a name.

The problem with all of these radical attempts to rename God, especially in our hymns and liturgies, is that they replace the personal name of God with words that denote function, not personality. If we depersonalize God it will not be long until we miss this vital biblical emphasis entirely. Some have thus correctly noted that “Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier” encourages modalism, the heresy that says that Trinity is about God’s modes of operation rather than about something intrinsic to his essential being. The biblical doctrine says that all three persons are involved in creation, redemption and sanctification so these are not biblical ways to properly name the Triune God.

Other triads include: Creator, Savior and Sanctifier or Mother, Child and Womb (perhaps the worst of all given its almost total lack of biblical support).

Robert Jenson, one of the champions of Trinitarian theology in our time and one of my favorite writers on this subject, says that all of these kinds of ideas suggest we already know the Triune God thus we merely seek to find the right words to address him with. The facts are the other way around says Jenson. “The phrase Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is historically specific and can be what liturgy and devotion—and, at its base, all theology—must have, a proper name of God.”

God revealed his name to us in Jesus Christ. He is our Father. Jesus is his eternal Son and the eternal Spirit proceeds from the Father and is given by the Son. “God is serious about his name—which is why he took the trouble to reveal it to us in Christ. To create an alternative according to our cultural sensibilities is at best parody and at worst idolatry, even if it is constructed from the good metaphors God has given us. Most idols, after all, are created from God’s good gifts” (Christianity Today, May, 2008, page 21).

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