The Gift of a Name

Etienne Gilson’s ‘metaphysic of Exodus’ begins with God’s giving of His name to Moses in Exodus 3:14, a giving which Gilson argues has, though itself not a philosophical statement, the most profound philosophical consequences in history. Why is this giving of God’s name unphilosophical?

‘…since he was God of the Jews, they already knew Him; and they knew Him as the Lord God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Time and again, their God had proved to them that He was taking care of His people; their relation with Him had always been personal relations between persons and another person; the only thing they still wanted to know about Him was what to call Him. As a matter of fact, Moses himself did not know the name of the one God; but he knew that the Jews would ask him for it; and instead of engaging upon deep metaphysical meditations to discover the true name of God, he took a typically religious short cut. Moses simply asked God about His name…'(Etienne Gilson, ‘God and Philosophy’, p. 39-40)

God gave His name, which as Gilson goes on to argue, is a religious answer to a philosophical question – that is, a decidedly non-metaphysical statement from which the deepest of metaphysical realities follows. This deepest of realities is, simply put, God, or, as He puts it, ‘I AM WHO I AM’, as He discloses it, and not as the human mind finds it. The giving of God’s name is the disclosure of that deepest of all realities – God Himself. However, though God revealed His name, He still remained ‘a most deeply hidden God’, (p.72).

Sonderegger, in her Systematic Theology, takes what I think is a similar, though more technical approach to Exodus. Her reading of Exodus shows that, in the burning bush, God can simply dwell with creatures. In the giving of His name, Sonderegger sees a disclosure of God’s reality as a ‘most deeply hidden God’:

‘Perhaps we might glimpse just this truth when we reflect on the Divine Name given to Moses: I AM That I AM. Often considered a kind of divine refusal to give a Name, we might rather say that it is a name that bears all Divine Reality in it, yet without disclosing all the “entailments” [NOTE: Here I think Sonderegger is at odds with a part of Gilson’s metaphysic of Exodus, where the entailments and attributes follow from God’s disclosure]. The I AM, the One, reveals His great Mystery, the Life beyond all thought, in His own self-naming and Presence to Moses: the Fiery One who cannot be contained. When we confess that God can be compared with no idol, that He is unique, invisible, Mystery, we lay hold of God’s own Aseity. These words are true of God, not simply our experience of Him, or our pious hope. Yet God just is Mystery: that is His Being.’ (‘Systematic Theology’, p. 88)

A most deeply hidden God indeed. Here, however, Sonderegger sees a kind of freedom in God’s disclosure, a freedom from any kind of theory of analogy or specific mode of God-talk:

‘Now, the self-disclosure in the burning bush invites us to see that we need not win through to a specific position on the doctrine of analogy, nor to a Barth-inspired doctrine of divine event, or dialectic, to lay hold of the divine disclosure to creatures. We are not forced, that is, to affirm a univocal, nor analogical, nor actualistic doctrine of divine predication.’ (p. 87)

Here then is one part of the gift: in simply disclosing His name, God has given us the gift of His reality, of His own drawing near. In doing so, as Gilson says, He has explained to men His nature, so far as it can be understood by men. God draws near and dwells, and this drawing near and dwelling is the explanation. God’s disclosure of his dwelling and his drawing near, His own presence, which, Sondergger argues, is given by a sign (and here perhaps Sonderegger out-actualizes Barth:

‘And because this is the Presence of the Divine nature, there is with it, a sign, a token, of this gracious Objectivity. The whole delivered people shall worship God on this holy mountain at the edge of the wilderness. It is an odd sign, this. There will not be another object, another thing serving as symbol or sign…but rather an act by the people who themselves look for the sign, a bowing down before the Lord who dwells on this mountain. The sign of my Presence is that you acknowledge my presence: you affirm, by word and gesture, that I am with you…The Lord God of the covenant will give objects to speak His Name, as He is both Subject and Object…And the Sign will echo just this simple Subjectivity: it will be freed slaves, rejoicing in the Presence of their God.’ (p. 220)

In the giving of His name, then, we see that God discloses His reality and His drawing near and His presence, and that the sign of His presence is the worship of Him, and that this sign of the God of the covenant echos God’s subjectivity. There is a key move here to be noted: the giving of God’s name is inextricably bound with the notion of covenant – revelation is covenantal.

‘He will give them a Name, a Divine Name that is His very subjectivity, the eternal I that remains Subject even in the objectivity of revelation. This act of revelation will be tied to a giving of the covenant, for it will take place as an exchange, a dialogue between the Lord and His creature, Moses. The Lord will identify Himself in a double form, as Subject and Object, as the I AM of sheer Subjectivity and as the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Objectivity of a title and Name for all generations.’ (‘Sonderegger, ‘Systematic Theology’, p. 221)

From the simple answer to a religious question asked by Moses, the simple gift of a name, then, we see the disclosure of the reality of God who simply dwells with creatures, and in whose presence and dwelling creatures are freed.

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