Editor’s note: The purpose of this series is to help our readers think through what the character of God is and it’s importance to the Christian faith.
- Dave opened our series by looking at the character of God and the inspiration of Scripture.
- Today Dave writes on understanding the names of God.
In the Bible, a person’s name is a description of his or her character. Likewise, the names of God are various description of his/her character. In a broad sense, then, God’s ‘name” is equal to all that the Bible and creation tell us about God. When we pray, “Hallowed be your name” as part of the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9), we are praying that people would speak about God in a way that is honoring to Him and that accurately reflects His character. This honoring of God’s name can be done with actions as well as words, for our actions reflect the character of the Creator we serve (Matt. 5:16). To honor God’s name is to honor Him. Exodus 20:17, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” This is a command that we not dishonor God’s reputation either by words that speak of him in a foolish or misleading way, or by actions that do not reflect his true character.
Now the Bible does give many individual names to God, all of which reflect some true aspect of His character. Many of these names are taken from human experience or emotions in order to describe parts of God’s character, while many other names are taken from the rest of the natural creation. In a sense, all of these expressions of God’s character in terms of things found in the universe are “names” of God because they tell us something true about him.
Herman Bavinck, in the Doctrine of God[i], gives a long list of such descriptions of God taken from creation: God is compared to a lion (Isa. 31:4), an eagle (Deut. 32:11), a fire (Heb. 12:29), a fountain (Ps. 36:9), a rock (Deut. 32:4), a hiding place (Ps. 119:14), a tower (Prov. 18:10) a moth (Ps. 39:11), a shadow (Ps. 91:1), a shield (Ps. 84:11), a temple (Rev. 21:22), and so forth.
Scripture uses various parts of the human body to describe God’s activities in a metaphorical way. Scripture can speak of God’s face or countenance (Ex. 33:20, 23; Isa. 63:9; Ps. 16:11; Rev. 22:4), eyes (Ps. 11:4; Heb. 4:13), eyelids (Ps. 11:4), ears (Ps. 55:1; Isa. 59:1), nose (Deut. 33:10), mouth (Deut. 8:3), lips (Job 11:5), tongue (Isa. 30:27), neck (Jer. 18:17), arms (Ex. 15:16), hand (Num. 11:23), finger (Ex. 8:19), heart (Gen. 6:6), foot (Isa. 66:1), and so forth. Even terms describing personal characteristics such as good, merciful, gracious, righteous, holy, just, and many more, are terms whose meaning is familiar to us through an experience of these qualities in other human beings. And even those terms that seem least related to creation, such as eternity or unchangeableness, are understand by us not intuitively but by negating concepts that we know from our experience (eternity is not being limited by time and unchangeableness is not changing).
The point of collecting all these passage is to show, first, that in one sense or another all of creation reveals something about God to us, and that the higher creation, especially man who is made in God’s image, reveals Him more fully.
The second reason for mentioning this long list is to show that all we know from Scripture comes to us in terms that we understand because they describe events or things common to human experience. Using a more technical term, we can say that all Scripture says about God uses anthropomorphic language—that is, language that speaks of God in human terms. Sometimes people have been troubled by the fact that there is anthropomorphic language in Scripture. But this should not be troubling to us, for, if God is going to teach us about things we do not know by direct experience (such as His attributes), He has to teach us in terms of what we do know. This is why all that Scripture says about God is anthropomorphic in a broad sense (speaking of God either in human terms or in terms of the creation we know). This fact does not mean that Scripture gives us wrong or misleading ideas about God, for this is the way that God has chosen to reveal Himself to us, and to reveal Himself truly and accurately. Nonetheless, it should caution us not to take any one of these description by itself and isolate it from its immediate context or what the rest of the Scripture says about God. If we did that, we would run the risk of misunderstanding or of having an imbalanced or inadequate picture of who God is. Each description of one of God’s attributes must be understood in light of everything else that Scripture tells us about God. If we fail to remember this, we will inevitably understand God’s character wrongly.
For example, we have an idea of love from human experience. That helps us to understand what Scripture means when it says that God is love, but our understanding of the meaning of love when applied to God is not identical with our experience of love in human relationships. So we must learn from observing how God acts in all of Scripture and from the other attributes of God that are given in Scripture, as well as from our own real-life experiences of God’s love, if we are to refine our idea of God’s love in an appropriate way and avoid misunderstanding. Thus, anthropomorphic language about God is true when it occurs in Scripture, but it can be understood rightly only by continual reading of Scripture throughout our lives in order that we may understand this language in the context of Scripture.
There is a third reason for pointing out the great diversity of description about god taken from human experience and from the natural world. This language should remind us that God made the universe so that it would show forth the excellence of His character, that is, that it would sow forth His glory. God is worthy to receive glory because He created all things (Rev. 4:11); therefore, all things should honor him.
Psalm 148 is an example of all creation being summoned to give praise to God:
Psalm 148:3, 7-11, 13, “Praise him, sun and moon,
praise him, all you shining stars! Praise the Lord from the earth,
you great sea creatures and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and mist,
stormy wind fulfilling his word! Mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars! 10 Beasts and all livestock,
creeping things and flying birds!11 Kings of the earth and all peoples,
princes and all rulers of the earth! Let them praise the name of the Lord,
for his name alone is exalted;
his majesty is above earth and heaven.”
As we learn about God’s character from Scripture, it should open our eyes and enable us to interpret creation rightly. As a result, we will be able to see reflections of the excellence of God’s character everywhere in creation: “the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isa. 6:3).
It must be remembered that though all that Scripture tells us about God is true, it is not exhaustive. Scripture does not tell us everything about God’s character. Thus, we will never know God’s full or complete name in the sense that we will never understand God’s character exhaustively. We will never know all there is to know about God. For this reason theologians have sometimes said, “God has many names, yet God has no name.” God has many names in that we know many true descriptions of His character from Scripture, but God has no name in that we will never be able to describe or understand all of His character.
[i] Herman Bavinck, The Doctrine of God, trans.and ed. By William Hendriksen (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1951), pp. 86-99