Names, Titles, and Descriptions: Why Item 20 Overreaches

While I think its important to spell out how scripture speaks of God to secure our own way of describing God, I have also suggested that the prohibitions in agenda item #20 overreach. In this article, I want to spell out one way it overreaches.

First, there is a clear distinction in scripture between names and titles.

In ancient Israel, names point to the identity of the person. When God declares his name to Moses, it is more than a mere description. God declares, “This is my name forever” (Ex. 3:15). The name separated God from all other rivals as the one who is (I AM) and who is for Israel (Ex. 3:14-17). Being identified as the Tetragrammaton (the four-letter word), YHWH or Yahweh is the personal and proper name of God. Utilized more than any other descriptor for God, the name is invoked repeatedly to differentiate Yahweh from all rivals.

The connection between the divine name Yahweh and the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit means that Christians cannot use any other name. All suggestions to change the divine name such as Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier must be rejected as a distortion of the triune nature and a violation of scripture. The use of pronouns in relation to the divine name should follow the biblical grammar of the Hebrew and Greek languages. Masculine pronouns are the normal way to do this. Likewise, Mother can never be a divine name in the same way that Father can never be seen as importing masculinity onto God. The Father is the Father of the Son who is in relationship with the Son and the Spirit by eternally begetting the Son and breathing forth the Spirit.

Second, this unveiling of the divine name emerges from the rich way in which scripture uses names, titles, and identifying descriptions to convey the depths of the living God.

Titles point toward a function, role, or action. An ancient king might have many titles including King of Israel or King of Judah. For example, God is called the Mighty One (Gen. 49:24; Is. 49:26), Redeemer (Job 19:25; Ps. 78:35), Savior (Ps. 17:7; 18:2), King (Ps. 24:7-10; Is. 33:22), and Shepherd (Ps. 23:1). The prophet Isaiah refers to God repeatedly as the Holy One of Israel. This title stems from Isaiah's vision of God as the LORD of Hosts who is the perfection of holiness (Is. 6:3). While adon/adonai (lord/my lords) later became a substitute for Yahweh, it was initially employed as a title in a form of address. Abram addresses God as “the Lord Yahweh” in a phrase normally translated as “Lord God” (Gen. 15:2, 8). In this context, adon is a title given to Yahweh.

Third, some designations for God blur the lines between names and titles.

The Old Testament borrows the generic term for God from Canaanite culture and utilizes it to refer to God. The term El (God) and its derivatives (Elohim or God, Elyon/El Elyon, or Most High/God Most High, El Shaddai) move between other names for God and titles given to God. Yahweh declares to Abram, “I am El Shaddai” (Gen. 17:1).

Most modern translations follow the ancient Greek translation in rendering Shaddai as “almighty,” which is based on a possible connection to a Hebrew term that means “he devastates.” Another possibility is “God the Mountain” or “God of the Hills” in which the ancient term for mountain stemmed from the term for breast. There is a debate over the etymology of Shaddai although the balance is in favor of “almighty” rather than “mountain.”

God is telling Abram that he is the one whose power will nurture and bring to life Sarai’s womb so that Abram’s offspring will be as numerous as the sand. While the Old Testament borrows generic terms for God, it never uses the proper names of other gods like Baal or Asherah as substitutes for Yahweh.

The prominent evangelical writer Tony Evans connects El Shaddai to breast and states, "The name El Shaddai, when coupled with its root meaning, presents the image of God supplying the nourishment to sustain life" (The Power of God's Name, 191). Evans links the name El Shaddai to Isaiah 66 where God is described as a mother. He then says that God is bringing life to Sara's barrenness and will bring life to us.

One could dispute Evans’ interpretation of El Shaddai as rooted in a false etymology, but this misses the point. If the Church of God passed motion #20 in its current form, we would have to condemn Evans’ use of El Shaddai because it relates to a “feminine title” for God. Is this really the position the Church of God wants to take on a disputed etymology?

Fourth, alongside names and titles, there are identifying descriptions of God.

I have already said that titles and identifying descriptions are sometimes blurred in the Old Testament. Descriptions occur in narratives that depict God in relation to His actions on behalf of Israel. After God destroys the Egyptians in the Red Sea, Moses sings, “the LORD is a warrior, the LORD is His name” (Ex. 15:2). The description of Yahweh as a warrior relates to God fighting for Israel against the Egyptians. Is warrior a title or a description? It seems to be the latter. Scripture uses numerous descriptions of God in this way, such as a maker (Ps. 95:6), potter (Is. 64:8), father (Is. 63:16; 64:8), husband (Hos. 2:16), and mother (Is. 49:15).

In the Old Testament, these metaphorical descriptions apply to the identity of the one God in relation to creation. They highlight a covenantal relationship between God and the people of God, or a role or course of action God will take. All of them point back to the holiness and love of God in action to maintain covenant even when all others are unfaithful.

We can see that some instances of calling God father in the Old Testament seem to be a description. They are definitely not a name. This all changes with Jesus. Jesus’ teaching and relationship to the Father indicate that Father is part of the name of Yahweh.

When Christians pray, “Our Father,” we are not addressing the one God but the Person of the Father who exists in communion with the Son and the Spirit. Christians pray to the Father through the name of Jesus in the power of the Spirit. The one name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit points back to the triune life of God and our invitation to participate in the holy love expressed through that life. It is not in any way designed to import masculinity or femininity onto God but to identify the Holy One of Israel as the mysterious, eternal Father, Son, and Holy Spirit whose love gives rise to the beauty of holiness.

One of my concerns over the motion as written is that it simply asserts that “the use of feminine titles” is a violation of the Declaration of Faith. There is no attempt to wrestle with how scripture uses titles in relation to the name of God or descriptions of God. The statement confuses the triune name with titles. These are not the same. I can only conclude that as written, the motion is unbiblical and would have the Church of God condemn evangelicals like Tony Evans. Sometimes in our passion to defend scripture, we overreach. We become like Jephthah in making rash promises out of our zeal for the Lord that turn out to cost us much more than we thought (Jud. 11:29-40).