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I AM WHO I AM: Appropriate and Inappropriate Languages about God and Christ

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Earlier generations of Christians used to put a lot of effort to discern and talk about the nature of what it is that they believe. That is to say, for them, knowing “what it is” that they believe precedes from what it is they are to “practice and experience.” Worship is Learning the Language of God’s self-Revelation. Worship is only possible, when we begin to learn to speak the language of scripture, the language of God, the language of Yahweh’s self-revelation in Christ Jesus. Everything else is anywhere between defective and idolatrous. I am fluent in Amharic. The language is natural for me. I learned to speak it first and then to write it. I grew up with it. I think and dream dreams in Amharic. They say you know you have learned a language, when you begin to speak it in your dreams. Similarly, God was not my native language. He was simply foreign to me. I would not know him if I simply stare to heaven! As a matter of fact, I have had another language, the language of sin and death. I must now renew my mind to unlearn what I learned by nature, as I learn his revelation in Scripture. Thus, only by learning the language of His self-revelation in Christ, by repeating those words after him (as a child does), we shape our worship, our songs, and our lives. Have we started dreaming with His language? The language of God, the language of scripture?

I recently heard a preacher using several expressions for Christ that are simply inappropriate. I kept thinking to myself “why is he using that word to describe Christ?” Some languages are inappropriate to speak about God. Period. They are inappropriate because they are simply crude and demeaning. However most of the time, some expressions are inappropriate, not because the words themselves are, so to speak, but because God has not revealed himself to us that way. Remember, behind every assertion lies deep convictions. Biblical “Truth” has three important dimensions:

  • (1) Truth is a being. It is an ontological reality as such God is True. (Jer. 10:9-10; Jn. 17:3)
  • (2) Truth is propositional. Thus God’s Word is the source and standard of Truth. Likewise, His revelation to us is our epistemological starting place (Ps. 119:142; Num. 23:19; Titus 1:2; Heb. 6:18) and finally
  • (3) Truth is experiential and ethical (1 John 1:6, 8; 2:21, 27). Our obedience in response to God’s “true Word” is moral. Truth is never reduced to mental exercise. Truth is to be embodied and showcased to the World through obedience.

Therefore, earlier generations of Christians used to put a lot of effort to discern and talk about the nature of what it is that they believe. That is to say, for them, knowing “what it is” that they believe precedes from what it is they “practice and experience.” As Bavinck puts it so beautifully”

to know God is to live. This [knowledge of God] leads to adoration and worship; Knowing God is possible for us because God is personal, exalted above the earth and yet in fellowship with human beings on earth. (Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation, 27)

Thus, it was common at that time to speak of “the essence of God” and His “communicable and incommunicable attributes”, His “comprehensibility and incomprehensibility”, His “personality and absoluteness”, the “Economic and Immanent” relations among the persons of the Godhead, (i.e. God’s relationship with himself vs. His relationship with his universe— creature-creator distinctions), the “union of the two natures in the person of Christ” (Hypostatic Union), the nature of man as being created in “the Imago Dei”, the nature and makeup of the church, etc.…

However, living in a post-Kantian world—a deistic and dualistic worldview that believed in the universe’s absentee landlord, rather than an ever-present Creator-Lord— Christians began to slowly adopt the notion that the question of essence “the question of what is/ontology” as secondary and irrelevant, while the question of existence “experience” as prominent. This is pure idolatry. It is the exaltation of man to prominence and the reducing of God to experience. The exclusive focus, on the now and here dimension of our existence, relativizes God and domesticates him. Because it placed the “experience of God” above the knowledge of God. Hence, existentialism has become the main diet of the church for the last couple of hundred years. What is the common predicament between the best of the old liberal school of thought, that saw the universal fatherhood of God, and brotherhood of man, or the social gospel that puts social agendas above the need to reconcile with God, or the recent prosperity gospel, that which is really no gospel for it literally fails to understand the fulfillment of all God’s promises in Christ? It is the trading of knowing God for experiencing God. We tend to reflect so much on the experience of our relationship with God than on the nature of our relationship with God— which is a covenantal relationship inaugurated by Jesus Christ our Lord, which symbolized by the breaking of bread and wine on the night he was betrayed. The former is Tailored response to the individual that is so personal and subjective, while the latter is our common possession. We are not obligated to experience someone else’s experience. We are commanded to respond to God’s unfailing Word. The Word Produces experience.

We Christians rarely ponder on the nature of who GOD IS, as much as what he becomes to us and does for us. It is such a silly dichotomy. Because both are important. I am a huge believer in experiencing God. God is to be experienced! He is a personal God. He is the living God who interact with us in our daily lives. The problem is our dichotomy between knowing God and experiencing God. In Jesus God was both revealed and experienced. That is exactly what I am contending. Those who seek to experience God must seek to now him through scripture. God never contradicts his being and person. Therefore, our experience of God must mirror his person as revealed authoritatively in scripture. Else repentance is in order.

But when listen to our songs, listen to our debates, listen to our worship, listen to our sermons, we get to hear foreign notions of god to be entertained in our minds. We sometimes utter bizarre and inappropriate languages about God and Christ. Then we justify them by our experience. We claim to experience Him but without adequate reflection on who he is. Of course, on the one hand, when we ponder so much on who God is without proper application of “Who he is on who we are”, God is reduce to an abstract theory. On the other hand, if we spend time after time on seeking to experience God in a language almost improper for his being, then God has become nothing but a faint imagination of our minds and a product of our latest experience.

But in stark contrast, the bible presents our God as the living God, who speaks for Himself, and who discloses Himself. He can only tell us who “He IS.” If anyone tells you that he or she knows God based exclusively on his or her experiences of God— and never explicitly ground his assertions on Holy Scriptures— her God is her own making. God is the only one who can reveal God. Therefore the first question is a question of being, who God is. Was it not what Moses asked?

Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I am has sent me to you.’ ” Exodus 3:13–14 (ESV)

Another example is the “shema” (the word shema in Hebrew means –hear- which comes from the first word of Deut. 6:4

Hear Israel the LORD our God, the LORD is one”

This creedal statement teaches the Israelite an important truth about the nature of Yahweh as their Elohim. Yahweh, is the only God there is. Yahweh is God. That is Adonai is Elohim. This is Israel’s central theology, monotheism. Monotheism is a belief in one true God who created the heavens and the earth. The God who revealed himself as “Yahweh” when he redeemed a nation through the exodus, likewise he revealed himself yet one more time when the Father sent His Son and Spirit. This time, not through Moses, a human agent, but through his own Son who was given a human name: Jesus. Thus, John the Evangelist/ John the Baptist speaks of the Son’s revelation par excellence as follow

He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all. He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony. Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true. For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. (John 3:31–34)

Our responsibility, as I have written on several occasions, is first of all to ponder over the nature of his revelation to us, in Christ Jesus His Son, and our Lord.

© 2016, Samson Tilahun. All rights reserved.

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