Thursday, December 29, 2011

God's Name

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about God's name:

Q:  What is God’s Name?  Many religions talk about “god,” but does the Christian God have a unique name?

For Americans, it used to be that the identity of “God” was very clear.  55 years ago, the nation was largely Christian, and the question, “Do you believe in God?” meant, “Are you a Christian?”  In the years since, that clarity about the identity of God, along with the answers to many other spiritual questions has been largely lost.

Today, when someone speaks of “god,” they could mean the Christian God, but it is just as likely that they mean the God of some other religion, a deity they have cobbled together from the various thoughts of many religions, or merely a generic “higher power” which may or may not have a precise name.

This lack of clarity in the language for god is not unique to our culture.  For example, in nations which speak the Arabic language, both Christians and Muslims use the term “Allah” to refer to their god.  Likewise, both Jews and Christians could recognize the many terms used by the Old Testament as references to their god, even though their definitions of that God are drastically different.

The two most common Hebrew terms that the Bible uses for God are “Elohim” and “YHWH.”  Elohim is a general term used for a deity in the Hebrew language, but since the Israelites believed that only one real God existed, and that the others were false, this term came to be used as a specific term for their God, much like Americans would have used the word “God” until the late-1950s. 

YHWH, on the other hand was the proper name for God.  This is the name revealed by God to Moses when He spoke from the Burning Bush, saying, “I am that I am.”  Sometimes this word is written in English as “Yaweh,” and it is thought to be pronounced like “Yah-way.”  However the precise vowels within the name as well as its pronunciation cannot be decisively identified by modern scholars.  This is because the Israelites took the commandment against using God’s name in vain so seriously that they refused to pronounce it at all, instead substituting the word “Adonai” (which means “Lord”) or “Ha-Shem” (which means “the name”) when they would read it out loud.  Eventually, the vowel sounds within the word were no longer known by later generations and therefore lost to history. 

These Hebrew Words were translated into Greek in the New Testament as “Theos” (the generic term for a god) and “Ho Kurios” (which is literally translated as “the Lord”).  We also have specific revelation of God in the person of Jesus, who said that the only way to know God the Father was to know Him and the only way to come to God the Father is through Him.  Therefore, it is also accurate to say that God’s name is Jesus, as reflected in the early Christian confession, “Jesus is Lord.”  (i.e. “Jesus is YHWH.”)

For Christians, it is important to choose our language carefully when speaking about spiritual things, because we must remember that when we say the word “God,” it may not be understood by our neighbors in the same way we mean it, which can be an obstacle to accurately communicating the Truth. 

For myself, I have a personal habit of avoiding the generic word “God” to a large extent, when preaching or writing, because it is too easy today for every person listening to simply fill in their own definition.  For the sake of clarity, I instead attempt to use terms like The Trinity, The Lord, Triune God, God the Father, God the Son, Jesus, God the Holy Spirit, or The One True God as much as possible so that it will be abundantly clear to anyone listening that I am not speaking about a generic deity or about the God of every person’s individual understanding, but instead about a specific God who has revealed Himself in specific ways resulting in a precisely definable identity. 

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