The Name of God in Exodus 3:14: How Revelation Trumps Speculative ‘Being’ Theology. Richard Muller and Emil Brunner in Critical Conference

Who is God? How can we know God? These are some of the most profound questions humanity can engage with. In the history of Christian ideas there has, of course, been an attempt to answer these types of questions as faithfully as possible. Because of the nature of God, and his ineffability, there is almost a grasping by many in an attempt to un-pack who God is in an articulate and maimonidesintelligible way. This is what we see taking place not just in the early church Patristic theology, but also in the spirit of that, in the Medieval church as well. The problem with being pushed up against an ultimate, like the living God, is that, again, people will take desperate measures in an attempt to talk God.

More forcefully, I will contend that in the medieval and post reformed orthodox theologian’s zeal to talk God they adopted philosophical talk about God and forcefully linked that talk with what we are provided with by Holy Scripture. One prime example of this is described by Richard Muller as he attempts to (artificially) argue that in fact the philosophical substance metaphysics of the medievalists and post reformed orthodox was not really a philosophical imposition upon God—when they attempted to talk about God’s inner-life, his being (ousia)—but instead there was an exegetical/biblical correlation which was driving their metaphysical thinking in regard to the inner-reality of who God is in himself. Muller identifies Exodus 3:14, where we encounter the tetragrammaton, and self naming of God as the touchstone passage appealed to in order to establish this exegetical linkage: “14 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.’” As Muller notes it is here where we are confronted with a correlation between the philosophers conceiving of God as ‘being’, and God’s revelation of himself and his self-being. Muller writes:

Etienne Gilson makes the very pointed remark, in The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, that the great source and starting-point of all medieval discussion of the being and essence of God is not Greek philosophy in general or Aristotle in particular, but Moses—in Exodus 3:14: “God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’” Nor ought we to attribute the use of Exodus 3:14 as a reference to the being of God as a result of ignorance of Hebrew and dependence on the sum qui sum of the Latin Vulgate. We read, for example, in the Guide for the Perplexed of Moses Maimonides,

God taught Moses how to teach them and how to establish amongst them the belief in the existence of Himself, namely, by saying Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, a name derived from the verb hayah in the sense of “existing,” for the verb hayah denotes “to be,” and in Hebrew no difference is made between verbs “to be” and “to exist.” The principle point in this phrase is that the same word which denotes “existence” is repeated as an attribute…. This is, therefore, the expression of the idea that God exists, but not in the ordinary sense of the term; or, in other words, He is “existing being which is the existing Being,” that is to say, the Being whose existence is absolute.

Of the Holy Name, Maimonides adds, “the tetragrammaton … is not an appellative; it does not imply anything except his existence. Absolute existence includes the idea of eternity, i.e., the necessity of existence.” The point must be made, with respect to Gilson’s remarks, that however much the classical philosophical heritage influenced scholastic formulation, the form that the influence took and, indeed, the medieval interpretation of the classical sources, was in large measure determined by biblical exegesis—and that, granting the Greek philosophical sources of medieval Jewish and Christian conceptions of God, those sources, taken by themselves, do not by themselves account for either the theology or the metaphysics of the medieval thinkers.

We must take exception to often-uttered claims that descriptions of God in terms of “substance” and “essence” lead ineluctably “to the unfruitful abstractions of the conception of God in Greek philosophy,” or that language such as that of Aquinas concerning God as “supremely existent” (maximè ens) is a “Grecian” as opposed, presumably, to a “religious conception of God.” Such claims assume, first, that discussion of the divine essence is a fundamentally Greek enterprise (if Gilson and Maimonides are correct, it is not) — and second, quite arbitrarily, that abstraction is both characteristically Greek and quite “unfruitful” and, in addition, is somehow divorced from the “religious conception of God.” We ought not to accept any of these comments uncritically, nor ought we to suppose that the medieval development of concepts of God as willing, as thinking, as loving, and as, by nature, spirit (none of which are without “religious” implication), can be severed in a facile manner from the issue of the divine being or essence.[1]

But is this really the case? Does Exodus 3:14 provide focus on the ‘being’ of God in such a way that it opens God up to being correlated with the concept of ‘being’ that the philosophers developed by their own wits? This is what Muller is attempting to argue in a smoke-and-mirrors fashion.

Contrariwise and rightfully so, almost as if Emil Brunner was responding directly to Muller, Brunner writes this in 1946:

The idea of the “Name of God” plays almost no part in the theology of the Early Church, or of the Mediaevil Church, in the Biblical sense of the word. On the other hand, it plays a very dubious part, since the Name which was made known on Sinai, especially the interpretation given in (Exodus 3:14) of the Name “I AM ThAT I AM”, was adopted by speculative theology and made the foundation of its identification of speculative ontology with the Biblical Idea of God. There are possibly few passages in the Scriptures which have been quoted and expounded more often in mediaeval theology than this phrase. Even the Fathers of the Church used it: for instance, Athanasius (Epistula de synodis, 35); Hilary (De Trin. L, I, nr. 5); Gregory Nazianzen (Orationes, 30, 18), and many others. … The real trouble, however, only started with the penetration of the Neo-Platonic idea of the identification of the summum esse and the summum bonum, that is through Augustine … (De Trin. 7, 5, 10). Augustine believes that he has found the point at which the Bible and Plato say the same thing: “Vehementer hoc Plato tenuit et diligentissime commendavit.” No one ever said this before Plato save in this passage in the Book of Exodus (De Civ. Dei, VIII, II). Maritain, indeed, is right when—speaking of this text, understood in this sense, he says: “Such passages contain virtually the whole Thomist doctrine of the Divine Names and of the analogy” (La sagesse augustinienne, p. 405).

In reality the Biblical text does not say this at all. Quite apart from the fact that the interpretation of the Name of Yahweh in the sense of E plays no part in the whole of the Old Testament, and “the honour given to the Name of Yahweh is completely independent of its etymology” (Grether, op. cit., p. 15), even the interpretation given in the E is quite different from that of “the One who IS”, or even “Being”. (In addition to Grether, see also Eichrodt, op. cit., I, pp. 91ff.). Even the Septuagint rendering contains a hint of philosophical suggestion which is entirely absent from the Hebrew text. “The Tetragrammaton lays the stress not upon God’s Being as He is in Himself, but upon His Being as it comes forth in revelation, not upon the Deus absolutus, but upon the Deus revelatus” (Grether, p. 7). The mediaeval use of the general interpretation of the Name of Yahweh (in the sense of E) has led to quite disastrous misunderstanding. The chapters in this book which deal with the Being of God and His Attributes, in their opposition to the mediaeval ontology, will show on what my opinion is based. It would be well worth while to write a critical historical account of the exposition of Exodus 3:14.

It is not only the Name of Yahweh, however, expounded in a speculative manner, which plays an important—though essentially negative—part in mediaeval scholastic theology, but also the notion of the Divine Names. Here, too, the “Areopagite” was a pioneer. His work, De Divinis  nominibus, founded a school of thought. But what he discusses (in this book) under the title of the “Names of God”, has nothing to do with what the Bible says about the Name of God. In this book the author is dealing with the question: To what extent are the ideas with which we, by means of thought, can try to conceive the Divine Being, adequate for the task? Naturally the answer is entirely negative: God is the One who cannot be named; all our ideas are inadequate. The Divine Nature is unspeakable. Certainly, just as the Divine Being is “nameless”, so also it can be described by all kinds of names, just as the One who transcends all existence is also the All-existing (I, 6). We can therefore say everything about God as well as nothing.

Thomas Aquinas (Summa theol., I, 13) introduced this doctrine of the Name of God into his system. By the “Name of God” he, too, understands the ideas by means of which we can “think” God: he, too, has nothing to say about the Biblical understanding of the Name of God. He has eliminated the pantheistic element in the Neo-Platonic teaching of his master, it is true, because at every vital point, by means of the idea of causality, he introduces the thought of Creation, which plays no part in the thought of the Areopagite. Through the fact that to him (Aquianas) the creaturely, as God’s creation, is analogous, the creaturely ideas also acquire the validity of analogical truths. But all this remains within the sphere of the speculative theologia naturalis and is therefore diametrically opposed to all that is meant by the Biblical idea of the “Name of God”.[2]

I just provided a lot of context, especially for a blog post, but it is important for the reader to see how Muller is countered. One of the most important aspects of what Brunner just communicated contra, Muller&co., was this clause, “The Tetragrammaton lays the stress not upon God’s Being as He is in Himself, but upon His Being as it comes forth in revelation, not upon the Deus absolutus, but upon the Deus revelatus.” The rest of what Brunner has developed is intended to support this one clause; it is the absolute opposite of what Muller is attempting to argue. What we have in Exodus 3:14 with the “I am”, according to Brunner et al., has to do with God revealing Himself in precisely personal terms; as the God who freely encounters his people by Name. The point was not a metaphysical one, but it is a personal one; one made in the context of God’s covenant with his forthcoming covenant people in the seed of Moses.

If Brunner is correct, and I believe he is!, what Muller is arguing through his appeal to Aquinas, Maimonides, et al. is false. It is a non-starter to impose speculative metaphysical language upon the text of Scripture, and suggest that the inverse is true. In other words, it is a false start to argue that the text of Scripture is what provided for the substance metaphysics of some of the Patristics, Mediaevals, and Post Reformed Orthodox; indeed it is petitio principii, or to beg the question. What we have provided for in Exodus 3:14 is the God who reveals himself by his Name; that’s what we can get from that passage, and we continue to find that type of disclosure over and again throughout the Old Testament finally climaxing in the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ (John 1:18).

Who Cares?

Why is this so important? Why have I written a blog post that is twice as long as the longest blog post should be (according to reader’s attention spans)? Because if we get God wrong everything else subsequent is wrong. I contend that Muller and the Post Reformed Orthodox have gotten God wrong, and those who seek to repristinate that theology (such as evangelical and classically Reformed theologians of today) are also getting God wrong. They are emphasizing speculative things about God, about God’s inner life (in se) by appealing to speculative theological categories through the via negativa (‘negative way’), and emphasizing things about God’s being, and his relation to the world in a God/world relation that are false. They have depersonalized God at the very point in Holy Scripture where God seeks to personalize himself by naming himself for his covenant people as Yahweh. They have replaced positive revelation (kataphysic) with speculative inferences about God based upon philosophical speculation that turns God into some sort of ‘Pure Being’ rather than the God who has always already been Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; i.e. again they have depersonalized God and his ways at the very point in Scripture where God has made himself known in personal ‘naming’ ways.

If we get God wrong, everything else following is wrong. That’s why this is so important, and should not be papered over. Martin Luther, in particular, understood all of this very well. His theologia crucis, theology of the Cross, is right in line with the observations provided by Brunner. And yet the Post-Reformed Orthodox ‘still-birthed’ (h/t Ron Frost) that whole Luther[an] trajectory by retrieving the type of speculative mediaeval theology that Luther repented of.

If you want to continue to follow this ground swell among young (and some more senior) evangelical and classically Reformed theologians, then that’s your choice; I won’t be there with you. There’s a better way, it’s the way that Brunner describes; it’s the way Luther went (which Brunner develops later); and it’s the way us evangelical Calvinists go.


[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Divine Essence and Attributes, Volume Three.  The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 50-1.

[2] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1949), 128-30.


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