The words used to refer to ‘God’ in different languages are related to various concepts. The peoples of antiquity attempted to find in their languages a word to express their notion of God or, rather, their experience of encounter with the Divinity.
In the languages of Germanic origin the word Gott comes from a verb meaning ‘to fall to the ground’, to fall in worship. This reflects an experience similar to that of St Paul, who, when illumined by God on the road to Damascus, was struck by divine light and immediately ‘fell to the ground... in fear and trembling’ (Acts 9:4-6).
In the Slavic languages the word Bog (‘God’) is related to the Sanskrit bhaga, which means ‘dispensing gifts’, and which in its turn comes from bhagas, meaning ‘inheritance’, ‘happiness’, ‘wealth’. The Slavonic word bogatstvo means ‘riches’, ‘wealth’. Here we find God expressed in terms of the fulness of being, perfection and bliss. These properties, however, do not remain within God, but are poured out onto the world, onto people and onto all living things. God dispenses the gift of His plenitude and endows us with His riches, when we turn to Him.
According to Plato, the Greek word for God, Theos, originates from the verb theein, meaning ‘to run’. St Gregory the Theologian identifies a second etymology beside the one of Plato: he claims that the name Theos comes from the verb aithein, meaning ‘to be set alight’, ‘to burn’, ‘to be aflame’. St Basil the Great offers two more etymologies: ‘God is called Theos either because He placed (tetheikenai) all things, or because He beholds (theasthai) all things’.
The Name by which God revealed Himself to the ancient Israelites was Yahweh, meaning ‘The One Who Is’, that is, the One Who has existence and being. It derives from the verb hayah, meaning ‘to be’, ‘to exist’, or rather from the first person of this verb, ehieh — ‘I am’. This verb has a dynamic meaning: it does not simply denote the fact of existence, but signifies a living and actual presence. When God tells Moses ‘I am who I am’ (Ex.3:14), this means ‘I live, I am here, I am together with you’. At the same time this name emphasizes the superiority of God’s being over all other beings. He is the independent, primary, eternal being, the plenitude of being which is above being.
Ancient tradition tells us that after the Babylonian captivity, the Jews refrained out of reverential awe from uttering the name Yahweh, the One Who Is. Only the high priest could do so, and this once a year on the day of Yom Kippur, when he went into the Holy of Holies to offer incense. If an ordinary person or even a priest wanted to say something about God, he substituted other names for Yahweh, usually the name Adonai (the Lord). In script the Jews indicated the word ‘God’ by the sacred tetragrammaton YHWH. The ancient Jews knew well that there was no name or word in human language that could convey the essence of God. In refraining from pronouncing the name of God, the Jews showed that it is possible to be at one with God not so much through words and descriptions, but through a reverential and trembling silence.
‘How can we speak of the Divine names? How can we do this if the Transcendent surpasses all discourse and all knowledge..? How can we enter upon this undertaking if the Godhead is superior to being and is unspeakable and unnameable?’, says Dionysius the Areopagite. At the same time, God, being totally transcendent, is present in the created world and revealed through it. All creation longs for God, and more especially, we humans crave for knowledge of Him. Therefore God is to be praised both ‘by every name’ and ‘as the Nameless One’. Nameless in His essence, God is variously named by humanity when He reveals Himself to us.
Some of the names attributed to God emphasize His superiority over the visible world; His power, dominion and kingly dignity. The name Lord (Greek, Kyrios) signifies the supreme dominion of God not only over His chosen people, but also over the whole world. The name of Almighty (Greek, Pantokrator) signifies that God holds all things in His hand; He upholds the world and its order.
The names Holy, ‘Holy Place’, Holiness, Sanctification, Good and Goodness indicate that God not only contains within Himself the whole plenitude of goodness and holiness, but He also pours out this goodness onto all of His creatures, sanctifying them.
In Holy Scripture there are other attributions to God: Wisdom, Truth, Light, Life, Salvation, Atonement, Deliverance, Resurrection, Righteousness, Love. There are in Scripture a number of names for God taken from nature. These do not attempt to define either His characteristics or His attributes, but are rather symbols and analogies. God is compared with the sun, the stars, fire, wind, water, dew, cloud, stone, cliff and fragrance. Christ Himself is spoken of as Shepherd, Lamb, Way, Door. All of these epithets, simple and concrete, are borrowed from everyday reality and life. But, as in Christ’s parables of the pearl, tree, leaven and seeds, we discern a hidden meaning that is infinitely greater and more significant.
Holy Scripture speaks of God as a being with human form having a face, eyes, ears, hands, shoulders, wings, legs and breath. It is said that God turns around and turns away, recollects and forgets, becomes angry and calms down, is surprised, sorrows, hates, walks and hears. Fundamental to this anthropomorphism is the experience of a personal encounter with God as a living being. In order to express this experience we have come to use earthly words and images.
‘Father’ is the traditional, biblical name for God. His children are the people of Israel: ‘For Thou art our Father, though Abraham does not know us and Israel does not acknowledge us; Thou, O Lord art our Father, our Redeemer from of old is Thy name’ (Is.63:16). The fatherhood of God is, of course, not a matter of maleness for there is no gender in the Divinity. It is important to remember, however, that the name ‘Father’ was not simply applied by humans to the Divinity: it is the very name with which God opened Himself to the people of Israel. Male imagery was not therefore imposed on God, rather God Himself chose it in His revelation to humans (cf. 2 Sam.7:14; 1 Chron.17:13; Jer.3:19; 31:9). The three Persons of the Holy Trinity bear the names Father, Son and Holy Spirit, where the name Son belongs to the eternal Logos of God, Who was incarnate and became man. In Semitic languages where the word for Spirit (Hebrew ruah, Syriac ruha) is feminine, female imagery is applied to the Holy Spirit. Both the Hebrew and the Greek terms for the Wisdom of God (Hebrew hokhma, Greek sophia) are feminine: this opens the possibility of applying female imagery to the Son of God, Who is traditionally identified with the Wisdom. With this exception, for both Father and Son exclusively male imagery is used in the Eastern tradition.
The Orthodox normally oppose modern attempts to change traditional biblical imagery by making God-language more ‘inclusive’ and referring to God as ‘mother’, and to His Son as ‘daughter’, or using the generic terms ‘parent’ and ‘child’. For the Orthodox, the full understanding of motherhood is embodied in the person of the Mother of God, whose veneration is not merely a custom or cultural phenomenon, but a church dogma and an essential part of spirituality. It is therefore not a matter of cultural difference between the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics on the one hand, and the Protestants on the other, that the former venerate the Mother of God, while the latter pray to ‘God the Mother’. It is a serious dogmatic difference. Moreover, it is not simply stubbornness on the part of the Orthodox when they reject changing biblical God-language, but rather a clear understanding of the fact that the entire spiritual, theological and mystical tradition of the Church undergoes irrecoverable alterations when the traditional set of the divine names and images is changed.
Indeed, any name can be applied to the Divinity, while none can describe it. All names used for God in biblical and Orthodox traditions are aimed at grasping the mystery which is beyond names. Nevertheless, it is crucially important to remain with biblical God-language and not replace it with innovative forms. All names for God are anthropomorphic. Yet there is a difference between biblical anthropomorphism, which is based on the experience of the personal God in His revelation to humans, and the pseudo-anthropomorphism of modern theologians who, by introducing the notion of gender into the Divinity, speak of God as ‘He-She’, or ‘Our Mother and Father’.
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