What’s in a Name?

September 21, 2016

by Scott Oliphint

In the Old Testament and the New, the covenant community places emphasis on the significance of names. That principle continues today; we give our children names, not only as tags but to express something about them. So it is in Scripture.

Names are changed in Scripture as redemption redefines people: for example, God changes Abram’s name to Abraham, since he would be the father of many nations (Gen. 17:5); Jacob’s name is changed to Israel because Jacob strived with God (Gen. 32:28–29). So great is the biblical emphasis on names that the book of Revelation speaks of the saints receiving new names expressing the divine recognition of their specific character. Often the function of giving names in Scripture expresses specific, changed character and destiny of individuals.

The calling of the human race is to express the likeness and image of God. Part of that expression was in Adam’s responsibility to give other creatures names. This task is rooted in the principle that God himself provides us with names by which we may know him. Hence, particularly in the Old Testament, the importance of the divine name is stressed (see Ex. 33:19; Deut. 28:58).

Within the context of the divine-human relationships, God and his name are inseparable.

We should not be surprised, therefore, that any discussion of the attributes—that is, of the character of God—must begin with his names. To think of and ascertain God’s character by way of his names was a method revitalized during the time of the Reformation. God’s name is to be revered because his name is glorious and awesome (cf. Ps. 8:1). The name of God is so integrally linked to the being and character of God that within the context of the divine-human relationships, God and his name are inseparable. Because, for example, the name is the medium by which we know who he is, the punishment for taking his name in vain is severe; it is tantamount to a crime against him (see Lev. 24:10–23).

The ability to pronounce the name of God, the care with which his name is to be used, and thus the ability to know God and who he is, follow in Scripture the pattern of progressive revelation. God’s revelation intensifies as he moves in history to redeem a people. The clarity of God’s identity and character moves steadily onward as well. As is true with every aspect of divine revelation, there is a progressive and cumulative force through redemptive-historical revelation. This is no less true for the divine name(s). There is an intensification and accumulation in clarity expressed in such a way that the people of God are given more and more clues as to God’s character and how God’s name is to be properly pronounced.

The Classification of the Names

In light of this, it may be helpful for us to understand something of the standard classification of the names of God. As Berkhof notes in Systematic Theology, Bavinck bases his division of the names of God on the threefold classification of nomina propria (proper names), nomina essentialia (essential names, or attributes), and nomina personalia (personal names, e.g., Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). While these classifications are helpful, we should see that development of the nomina propria in biblical history reach their culmination in the nomina personalia. The names, and the name, that God ascribes to himself in the Old Testament are developed and reach their redemptive-historical climax in the triune name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

God is to be known rightly only as he reveals himself, and is to be addressed accordinging to his name, not according to some ascription of our own invention.

Note as well that at the end of the age, as Christ comes riding on the white horse, he is called Faithful and True (Rev. 19:11), and the Word of God (v. 13), and even though “on his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords” (v. 16), there is nevertheless a name written on him that no one knows but he himself (v. 12). So, the revelation of the name of God is of central concern even to the end of the age and beyond, and we are reminded that, though we know something of his name, we are still unable to know him as he knows himself.

Finally, with respect to the name of God, it is crucially important that we understand God’s name, or names, not simply as God’s somewhat arbitrary ascription of who he is, but as identifying the true God of heaven and earth in a unique way. In other words, since we know God only as he reveals himself, it follows that we know God’s name only as he reveals it. Given that, we should see that we do not have the option as his creature to ascribe to him a new name. He is to be known rightly only as he reveals himself, and is to be addressed accordinging to his name, not according to some ascription of our own invention.

We are not to address God by any other name than the name he has identified as his own. To attempt to tweak the name of God for purposes of cultural (or any other kind of) relevance is not to address God as he has revealed himself, but to address him according to how we want him to be, and thus is to come to him sinfully and in error. To put it in the most controversial way, it is not proper to address God in his nomina personalia as Mother. He has for good reason not identified himself in that way. That is not his name, and any attempt to stress that kind of address automatically calls into suspicion the authority of God to name himself and the authority of his revelation.

This piece is adapted from K. Scott Oliphint, God with Us: Divine Condescension and the Attributes of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 50–52. Used with permission of the publisher.

Scott Oliphint

Dr. Oliphint (PhD, Westminster) is professor of apologetics and systematic theology at WTS.

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