‘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”.

  • Peter Michael Yates

    This prompts a few questions that might be challenging (or even disturbing to some people).

    ~ Will God *only bind himself to Israel (providing the condition is met), or will he also bind himself to other holy communities in the diaspora (Jewish or not), as promoted by the apostle Paul?

    ~ Does the phrase ‘obeying God’s commands’ *only refer to the ten commandments, or does it also refer to other commands found in Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, that appear to be intended for people in Biblical times? (eg. “When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage … If any harm follows … eye for eye”, etc.). (Of course this is the OT, but Jesus did say, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law …”. Matt. 5:17)

    ~ Many people these days say that they have been ‘reborn’, and Jesus died to save them from their sins. Have they been misled into thinking that they are now very righteous? Should the most important section of the NT be Matt. 5,6,7 where the Sermon on the Mount defines all the qualities of Christian disciples? This section seems to show that the most righteous or sanctified followers are those who comply with the Sermon on the Mount teachings because they define what it means to be a true follower — one who doesn’t just depend on someone else’s righteousness. (A ‘cop-out’ in today’s language.)

    … Thanks for any response.

  • Dgibbs18

    Excellent post. I have heard the statement made that: “God does not share His glory with anyone”. Is this statement true in any sense.

  • Benw333

    Not only is that comment not true Brother Gibbs, it is completely contrary to what the NT says, which is that God desires to share his glorious presence and his holiness with human beings. That’s what salvation is all about.

  • Dgibbs18

    Thanks Ben: John 17: 21-23 maybe very useful since it show a sharing of God’s glory:from the God the Father to Jesus the Son to humans. Acts 12: 22-23 further shows that we as humans are also to “Give God the glory” (in the sense of acknowledging God as the soure of all good things). Thus there seems to be a circular sharing of glory: From God the Father- to His Son- to Humans – and from us back to God.

  • Dgibbs18

    Isaiah 42:8
    I am the LORD, that is My name; And My glory I will not give to another, Nor My praise to carved images

  • Benw333

    The problem with your citation of Is. 42.8 is that what is meant there is in fact God’s honor and unique status. It has nothing to do with the normal meaning of KABOD which literally means heavy, and doxa which refers to the shining presence of God which he does wish to share with others.

  • Bruce J. Kokko

    Prof. Witherington, Is it correct to understand kaba(o)d, which means heavy and granting the appropriate authority due, as ultimately meaning carrying someone’s rightful authority over us as a heavy burden–a weight of obligation? In any event, you are correct, Is 42:8 harkens back to the first three of the Ten Words and does not mean God’s glory that is His kingdom–the expression and translation of His Love in the creation of beings in His image who love Him by obeying Him in holiness. I am very excited by your closing conclusions in reviewing this book. At last, Christians might begin to understand that because of Christ’s faithfulness anyone who acknowledges Him as King–by faith walk in the necessary tension of love and holiness–is a part of the vast Kingdom of God that is His Glory.

    Hopefully what I have just said provides some answers to Mr. Yates’ queries (below). God commandments are to love Him first in unqualified and total subjection to His authority (i.e., the first four Words of God). This because only through such obedience do we understand what love in tension with holiness is and gain the ability to practice it (i.e., through the indwelling of God’s Spirit) and thereby fulfill the second commandment to love our neighbor as our self (i.e., the last six of the Ten Words of God). Jesus said these two commandments sum up all the Laws and the Prophets. He also said that the second is like the first; and this because the same love binds them together; for He commands us elsewhere to love others as God has loved us.

    God did not change moving from the OT to the NT, but Man’s relationship to Him did because of the advent of Jesus the Christ. The kingdom that God intended all along and has now come in Christ must operate in Love cradled in holiness because that is who God is. This requires course adjustments from all the deviations that have resulted with the fall of Mankind. Such adjustments define justice, and are the judgments of God in the OT, always executed, I might add, through mercy. These same course adjustments (justice) are what the church as the kingdom of God in an unjust world must also do through mercy (see T. Keller’s Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes us Just). In the end, God will have His kingdom complete, and this will entail final judgment: permanent and plenary adjustment to love and holiness.

    The Glory of God is an awesome beauty beyond words and worthy of infinite praise.

  • Bruce J. Kokko

    Prof. Witherington, Is it correct to understand kaba(o)d, which means heavy and granting the appropriate authority due, as ultimately meaning carrying someone’s rightful authority over us as a heavy burden–a weight of obligation? In any event, you are correct, Is 42:8 harkens back to the first three of the Ten Words and does not mean God’s glory that is His kingdom–the expression and translation of His Love in the creation of beings in His image who love Him by obeying Him in holiness. I am very excited by your closing conclusions in reviewing this book. At last, Christians might begin to understand that because of Christ’s faithfulness anyone who acknowledges Him as King–by faith walk in the necessary tension of love and holiness–is a part of the vast Kingdom of God that is His Glory.

    Hopefully what I have just said provides some answers to Mr. Yates’ queries (below). God commandments are to love Him first in unqualified and total subjection to His authority (i.e., the first four Words of God). This because only through such obedience do we understand what love in tension with holiness is and gain the ability to practice it (i.e., through the indwelling of God’s Spirit) and thereby fulfill the second commandment to love our neighbor as our self (i.e., the last six of the Ten Words of God). Jesus said these two commandments sum up all the Laws and the Prophets. He also said that the second is like the first; and this because the same love binds them together; for He commands us elsewhere to love others as God has loved us.

    God did not change moving from the OT to the NT, but Man’s relationship to Him did because of the advent of Jesus the Christ. The kingdom that God intended all along and has now come in Christ must operate in Love cradled in holiness because that is who God is. This requires course adjustments from all the deviations that have resulted with the fall of Mankind. Such adjustments define justice, and are the judgments of God in the OT, always executed, I might add, through mercy. These same course adjustments (justice) are what the church as the kingdom of God in an unjust world must also do through mercy (see T. Keller’s Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes us Just). In the end, God will have His kingdom complete, and this will entail final judgment: permanent and plenary adjustment to love and holiness.

    The Glory of God is an awesome beauty beyond words and worthy of infinite praise.

  • Bruce J. Kokko

    Prof. Witherington, Is it correct to understand kaba(o)d, which means heavy and granting the appropriate authority due, as ultimately meaning carrying someone’s rightful authority over us as a heavy burden–a weight of obligation? In any event, you are correct, Is 42:8 harkens back to the first three of the Ten Words and does not mean God’s glory that is His kingdom–the expression and translation of His Love in the creation of beings in His image who love Him by obeying Him in holiness. I am very excited by your closing conclusions in reviewing this book. At last, Christians might begin to understand that because of Christ’s faithfulness anyone who acknowledges Him as King–by faith walk in the necessary tension of love and holiness–is a part of the vast Kingdom of God that is His Glory.

    Hopefully what I have just said provides some answers to Mr. Yates’ queries (below). God commandments are to love Him first in unqualified and total subjection to His authority (i.e., the first four Words of God). This because only through such obedience do we understand what love in tension with holiness is and gain the ability to practice it (i.e., through the indwelling of God’s Spirit) and thereby fulfill the second commandment to love our neighbor as our self (i.e., the last six of the Ten Words of God). Jesus said these two commandments sum up all the Laws and the Prophets. He also said that the second is like the first; and this because the same love binds them together; for He commands us elsewhere to love others as God has loved us.

    God did not change moving from the OT to the NT, but Man’s relationship to Him did because of the advent of Jesus the Christ. The kingdom that God intended all along and has now come in Christ must operate in Love cradled in holiness because that is who God is. This requires course adjustments from all the deviations that have resulted with the fall of Mankind. Such adjustments define justice, and are the judgments of God in the OT, always executed, I might add, through mercy. These same course adjustments (justice) are what the church as the kingdom of God in an unjust world must also do through mercy (see T. Keller’s Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes us Just). In the end, God will have His kingdom complete, and this will entail final judgment: permanent and plenary adjustment to love and holiness.

    The Glory of God is an awesome beauty beyond words and worthy of infinite praise.


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