The Divine Name

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One of the most sensitive subjects in the church today is the name of God.  Feminist theologians advocate the use of names for God that are not patriarchal.  Theologians in areas of the world where Christianity is growing, such as Asia, seek freedom to employ names for God that fit their cultural context.  Others worry that the church might revert to the ancient pre-Christian Hellenistic idea that many names should be used for the divine because they believed that God is nameless whereas the God of the Bible has a particular name.

In his new book, The Divine Name(s) and the Holy Trinity (Westminister John Knox Press, 2011), Kendall R. Soulen of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D. C. seeks to guide the church in the appropriate ways to name God.  Soulen's exploration of the divine names for God in Scripture and in the orthodox Christian tradition has some of the excitement of a thriller, and I shall refrain from summarizing his argument so that you will read the book for yourself.  However, I shall mention some of the tantalizing subjects he explores.

One of his most important subjects is the relationship between the proper name for God revealed to Moses in Exodus 3:14 and the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.  In the Old Testament, there is a proper name for God designated as the Tetragrammaton.  The Tetragrammaton refers to the name for God in Hebrew that is translated into English as YHWH, often transliterated as "Yahweh," and usually indicated in the English text of the Old Testament as "LORD" in capital letters.

In Jesus' time, Jews never spoke or wrote God's proper name, but, out of reverence for the sacred name, avoided it by speaking or writing a substitute for it.  For instance, at the trial of Jesus before the Sandhedrin neither the high priest nor Jesus would utter the Tetragrammaton, but the high priest referred to the sacred name by speaking of "the Blessed One" while Jesus spoke of "the Power" (Mark 14:61-62).  Soulen discusses how there are over 6,000 instances in the Old Testament where there is an avoidance of the use of the Tetragrammaton and over 2,000 instances in the New Testament.  In the New Testament, the main name that is used as a substitute for the proper name of God is Kyrios, translated as "Lord."  He even discusses the earliest manuscripts of the New Testament in which a special code is used to set off substitutes for the Tetragrammaton from the other words of the New Testament:  whenever Kyrios is used for YHWH, the capital letters of kappa and sigma are written in place of Kyrios with a line across the top of the letters.

Over time Gentile Christians lost the custom of speaking or writing Kyrios as a substitute for God's proper name, and scribes ceased to use codes for the substitutes in the manuscripts of the New Testament.  A vital connection between the Old Testament name for God and New Testament names was broken.  Soulen advocates recovering this connection.

So then, what is the relationship between the proper name for God in the Old Testament and the Christian understanding of the triune God?

In brilliant exegeses of New Testament texts and analysis of the Nicene Creed, Soulen demonstrates how the Tetragrammaton is ascribed to the three persons of the Trinity.  The God of Israel gives his own name to Jesus Christ who is glorified in the Holy Spirit.  The meaning of the baptismal formula of baptizing "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" is that the Father bestows his proper name on the Son and the Spirit.

In addition to exploring how the proper name of the revealed LORD is maintained by reverent avoidance in both the Old and New Testaments, Soulen also explores how both Testaments use other names for God as well.

Of course, a prominent way of naming God is "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."  This name of the triune God will always have a secure place in the church because it is rooted in Jesus' own practice of addressing God as abba, Father.  Soulen shows that Jesus' use of the name Father is not general, but it is employed primarily only in prayer to emphasize the special kindship between Jesus and God.  Jesus' use of the familial name Father should not obscure other names he uses for God, and especially it should not obscure how Jesus honors God's proper name, the Tetragrammaton, to which he refers when he commands his disciples to pray, "hallowed be thy name."

Besides the Tetragrammaton and the kinship name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, there are many other names for God in both Testaments and the orthodox Christian tradition.  Soulen points out how the Nicene Creed implies the Tetragrammaton and uses the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but also employs new names drawn from local creeds, such as "Light from Light."  Tertullian used "Root, Tree, Fruit."  Augustine used "Lover, Beloved, Love."  Julian of Norwich used "Fatherhood, Motherhood, Lordship."  Paul S. Chung used "Dao, De, Qi."  And so on.  The lesson from Scripture and tradition is that the Spirit guides the church to use new names for God that fit the cultural context in which the church lives.

Soulen suggests that there is a "trinitarian" way of naming the triune God that preserves God's proper name, keeps alive Jesus' own personal language for God, and frees the church to name new names for God.  Most of his book is a demonstration of how this three-way approach appears in Scripture and tradition. 


This is a book rich in information and insight.  I have merely hinted at its substance, which you should read for yourself.  I highly recommend Soulen's The Divine Name(s) and the Holy Trinity.

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