‘The God of the Living’ (Chapter 1)– Calling God Names

Names and naming in modernity and in antiquity are two different things in entirely. Names in antiquity often reveal or connote something about the nature of the one named. In Feldmeir and Spieckermann’s Biblical Theology, it is both interesting and important that they start with the issue of the names of God. To begin with the authors stress that in the paradigmatic prayer of Jesus, both the proximity and the distance between us and God is stressed. On the one hand he may be addressed as Father, on the other we can only do so in the context of the hallowing or sanctifying of his name. The authors take this to mean recognizing God’s holiness, and they take the phrased ‘hallowed be’ as God’s self-hallowing, so to speak. This may be doubted. The prayer is something for the disciples or learners to pray and Jesus wants to teach them to hallow God’s name. Nor is this a mere statement ‘God’s name is hallowed or sacred’. No, the beginning of the prayer emphasizes that the prayer recognizes that while God may be called Father and his nearness and approachableness is indicated, at the same time the distance between God and humankind is stressed. This is made clear in the Matthean form of the prayer where the one being hallowed is said to be in heaven. Feldmeir and Spieckermann stress that “the name can and will only benefit those who petition and praise only if they respect God’s sovereignty and do not attempt to control his presence” (p. 17). This latter point is worth stressing since often in antiquity and sometimes in modernity people thought that if they knew and correctly named a deity they could twist the god’s arm and get what they want from the deity. This still happens in some contexts today.

A second point made on the following page (p. 18) namely God’s strict self-differentiation from humankind is the pre-condition of encounter and having community with God. This is a point made in the Bible over and over again. The Creator/creature distinction is never dissolved though God in Christ crosses the boundary in one direction on our behalf. The problem, from the Biblical point of view, with many religions is they try to dissolve this boundary through pantheism (a little bit of God in all things), or through arguing for the divination of humans through religious encounter. The Bible rejects both such ideas. If you want to see a good example of what happens when this Creator/creature distinction is blurred or obliterated, look at Mormon theology about the divine and the human, where anthropology becomes the lens through which theology is remade and reconfigured so that ‘we may be as gods’. This fails to come to grips with the assertions about the unholiness of humans in encounter with God (see Isaiah 6), not to mention that holiness as a term often means ‘to be set apart from’ and so God’s holiness and God’s decision to draw near to us, as the authors say, stand in tension with one another. It is one of the major problems of contemporary worship that this tension is often not well preserved or even recognized. But 1 Sam. 2.2 is emphatic— in one sense, God alone is holy.

There is an interesting discussion about the relationship between holiness and glory on p. 19. The authors state: “if God’s holiness marks his distance from the unclean human world in Isaiah 6, then glory is the gift of participation in God himself that constitutes the abundance of the world”. Glory, in other words, is not something that sets God apart from his creation or creatures.

On the contrary, glory is the living presence and blessing of God which God sheds abroad in the world, hence the whole world reflects his glory. It is a notable defect in some forms of Evangelical theology that God’s holiness and God’s glory are confused and fused, with the end result that God is presented as some sort of self-absorbed deity jealously guarding his glory and demanding all recognize it, and indeed divine censure falls on anyone less than God who is glorified. This presentation of God as a glory-grabber rather than a glory-giver is at odds with the good point Feldmeir and Spieckermann are stressing here.

In fact one must distinguish between holiness, sanctification, ritual purity, and glory. God of course does not need to be sanctified. Humans do need such, both in the ritual and the moral sense precisely because they are not inherently holy (which is something different than being of sacred worth). God is holy, but when we are sanctified we become ‘saints’ holy and set apart ones. Only God can sanctify us in the ultimate sense, and that requires encounter with God. It is God’s sharing of his holy presence, his glory, which makes possible our becoming like God, but always only like God (it is an analogy and an approximation, but what it is not is a legal fiction).

God however is not satisfied with our being merely ritually pure. Nor is he satisfied with our being merely reckoned or counted as righteous, as we shall see in these posts. Nor is God in the end satisfied with someone else’s righteousness, namely Christ’s, being a substitute for our being actually righteous in the end. No, God’s goal is that we actually become sanctified, and so righteous. Like Isaiah in Is. 6 in the temple, a process of purification must happen to Isaiah for Isaiah to speak the pure words of God. God however does not just want holy individuals like Isaiah, he wants an entire people to be holy, a community. The authors stress that God will bind himself to Israel only on condition that they commit themselves to obeying God’s commands. This is similar to what we hear in John’s Gospel “you are my disciples if you keep my commandments”.

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