Humanity seems to be having many problems with the name of God.
This does not only concern swearing or the many flippant uses of “OMG”.
It is not even limited to all the bad things that were done in the name of God in the course of history.
It goes further than being ashamed to acknowledge our faith in God (or lack of faith).
One of our problems is, namely, that we find it hard to accept that God has no name!

When God called Abraham to leave his country, no name was communicated. The author of Genesis referred to God using a title rather than a name, namely “the Lord”. Then when Moses met God in the burning bush and asked for a name, all he got was, “I am who I am”. This (or “I will be”) is also believed to be the meaning of the word JHWH, probably pronounceable as “Jahweh”. God is also called the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This seems more specific, but is still not a name. So although God is not “nameless” in the sense of being an anonymous force, God’s name is definitely as mysterious as God’s being. It underlines that God is the “wholly Other”, the One who is totally different, the One who cannot be known unless something or someone (partially) reveals it to us. As Christians we believe Jesus to be that someone.

The absence of a “proper” name for God is also significant in other ways.
It signifies the transition from polytheistic, tribal gods to belief in a monotheistic, universal God.
Something resembling monotheism had been tried only for a short period (no more than 17 years) in Egypt under pharaoh Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV). Actually, the belief in several gods was maintained, but Aten, the sun-disc, originally worshipped as an aspect of Ra, was believed to be above them. Therefore the title “god” was avoided and the other gods were simply not worshipped.[1] Aten was not thought of as a human-like person, but as pure Light without gender, the Creator of everything.

In Judaism, God was more permanently revealed as not just an invisible, very powerful “human”.
In spite of the imperfect human characteristics that would continue to be ascribed to God for some time, there was a sense that God could not have an ego which depended on human protection and recognition. Just as something changed in the way Egyptians had referred to Aten, by avoiding his title as “god”, so something changed in the way Israel referred to the God of Abraham, namely by avoiding to use a name. It would prove to be a better recipe. Since there was only one true God, there was no need for names. In other words, distinguishing God from the competition became irrelevant. The lack of a name also made sure that God could not be summoned like an ordinary mortal. In other words, it was a barrier against people claiming to “own”, control or fully understand God.

The religious leaders of Israel understood all this and insisted on not pronouncing the sacred “name”.
Wherever JHWH appeared in the sacred scriptures, they would say “the Lord” instead. In many texts, this would be the only reference to God. Sometimes “heaven” or “the angel of the Lord” would be used. There is a richness in such indirect references, which I think is underestimated. It forces us to think beyond superficial human categories, at the same time limiting the possibilities of manipulating others by putting words in the mouth of God. If God is the “wholly Other” he cannot be used in this way. This, paradoxically, makes God more human in the positive sense of the word, i.e. more loving. This is also how Jesus revealed His Father. It has consequences, also, for what we mean when we say that we were created in the image of God. Real humanity is restored when we cannot be bought or owned, but still serve each other; when the “wholly other” becomes the “wholly normal”.

The problem is that – whether we are religious or not – the image of God in us is either damaged or incomplete. It means that we have a natural aversion against the type of God as described above. We do not like a god to be better than us so that we might learn a thing or two or have to be saved from our egos. So how can we deny this God while appearing to be good or even religious? We have found several ways, all very successful. Here I present some ways, ordered from the most obvious to the less obvious.

  1. Using various names. This is basically what has led to, or at least helped to preserve, such a large number of different religions, movements and sects. Generally, people have not been prepared to maintain or find common ground. If they did, they were often not prepared to try and investigate the remaining differences. Some differences are no differences at all, like the word “Allah”, which is just “God” in another language. As long as comparative religion remains the realm of specialists (and they are needed because of the vast number of religions and the enormous linguistic and contextual problems), we will not see much progress, I am afraid. However, even a little progress would be welcome to promote mutual understanding, peace and spiritual wholeness.
  2. Using titles as names. Not everyone is aware that the words “god”, “Lord / Adonai”, “Messiah”, etc. are actually all titles or qualifications instead of names. The distinction is important, because in ancient times (and somehow still) the knowledge of someone’s name was believed to grant some sort of magical power over that person or deity, in this case in order to invoke the deity.[2] However, titles could and would also be used as names, especially when translated in another language. The disadvantage is clear. By manufacturing a name, people have once more assumed a degree of control and understanding that was simply not there. A good example is the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who intentionally misinterpreted the fact that the Masoretic bible listed the vowels of the title “Adonai” near the consonants of JHWH. The Masoretes had meant this as an instruction not to pronounce the sacred “name”, but to read “Adonai” instead. However, when treating JHWH like all the other words, you would get something like “Jehovah”. So when you just learn biblical Hebrew and
    you are not aware of the Jewish traditions governing the reading of the Tanakh, you will think that “Jehovah” is supposed to be the real name of God. Since Christianity as a whole does not use this name, the vast majority of Christians were simply considered to be heretics. In this way the Witnesses claimed ownership of the true God. Everyone else was worshipping a false god. End of discussion, literally. This is an extreme, but the use of “Adonai” in worship, as is the custom in some mainstream churches, can also be dangerous. Most people will not understand this as a title of God, not even if it is occasionally explained. It will often, however unintentionally, come across as some secret knowledge of the minister, which provides exclusivity to their community or strand of faith. It would be both easier, more effective and less pretentious to just use the word “Lord”.[3]
  3. Worshipping a “different” God or Christ. I have lost count of the number of times some Christian claimed that a fellow-Christian with different ideas did not believe in “the same” Jesus. This is a dangerous claim for several reasons. First of all it suggests that an entire god or saviour can be “made up”, while in fact the two believers are referring to the same deity, scriptures and/or historical figure. Secondly, it once again serves as a convenient way to end the conversation. If someone believes in a “different” god or saviour, what is the point of further discussion, they tell themselves. It reminded me of the way Roman Catholics believe in different appearances of the virgin Mary. In popular belief these appearances almost become like separate “Mary’s”. We have “our Lady of Walsingham”, “our Lady of Amsterdam”, “our Lady of sorrows”, etc. What separates them, the location of the appearance and the traditions that grew out of them, have sometimes become more important than the generic devotion to Mary. Well, I think something similar has happened to just about all names and concepts in Christianity and religion in general.An even more subtle and shocking example can be found in the early writings of Ellen G. White, one of the main founders of Seventh Day Adventism. She claimed that those Christians who rejected the “heavenly sanctuary” doctrine of one Hiram Edson, were in fact praying to the devil when they thought they were praying to Christ.[4] Here the object of worship became unrelated to any particular name or title. It was made dependent on a specific doctrine, one invented to explain why Jesus did not return in 1844. Now it is true that Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”[5] However, doing the will of the Father consists of totally different things than belief in a strange doctrine which did not even exist until the middle of the 19th Century. To imply that this doctrine and the Sabbath[6] separate “the sheep from the goats” is therefore a clear example of misplaced self-congratulation and unnecessary isolation. In this case, the effect of “possessing God” is not achieved by using a particular name, but a set of doctrines. Nevertheless it confuses the character and identity of God.
  4. Avoiding titles which are not gender-neutral. There is something to be said for avoiding the word “Lord”, when not applied to Jesus. In the Bible God is revealed as having some motherly qualities , as well. However, to use “Adonai” instead, does not really solve the problem, as Adonai is clearly male, as well. The female version would be “Anat”. A gender-neutral version is not available, although it could be argued that Adonai includes “it”, as the language would in that case default to the male version. However, in that case we might just as well use “Lord”, since our language also defaults (or used to default) to the male version when there is any doubt about gender. The title “Father” is a case in itself. Since our Lord (Jesus) used it in the first sentence of the Lord’s prayer, I would hesitate to chuck it out in order to be politically correct.
  5. Avoiding all names and titles. This happens predominantly in very liberal circles, to avoid offending adherents of other religions and any atheists that may be present. In spite of seemingly noble motives, it does not really solve anything, because the different frames of reference will remain present. It also shows that people do not really understand the difference between names and titles. Titles, certainly the gender-neutral ones, seem harmless to me, except in the case of atheists in the audience, who could be offended by any reference to an object of worship. The question then becomes whether we wish to reduce our message to a purely moral appeal. I think that would be unwise. It would mean that we no longer have a problem with the name of God only, but with the existence of any deity, so that we are almost atheists ourselves. I have nothing against emphasis on “love” and “ground of our being”, but if I were to scrap all the other titles of God, that would make for a very impoverished theology and experience.

So we have seen different ways of denying the mystery of God and claiming God for our own ends. Whether we hand out new names, uses titles as names, define God by our doctrines or avoid all references to God, in all cases we magnify God’s strictness with a zeal he will not own, to quote a line from the hymn “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy”. Sure, God is too great to be captured in words. Still, words can be vehicles of truth, if both their meaning and limitations are recognised and if they are used for the right purposes.

Heavenly Father, make us satisfied to call you the Most High.
Help us to reflect something of Your character rather than being clever with names.
If we use titles, may they be clear and witness to Your unfailing mercy and covenant.
Teach us to be humble, concentrating on Your love as revealed in Jesus, Your anointed Son.
So that we, too, will not be known by our name or title, but by who we are in You.




[2] “Various authors of late antiquity, among whom the Christian Clement of Alexandria, argue that normal human language was not appropriate in addressing higher beings or god(s). Homer already knew that there was a specific language of the gods, and despite centuries of human prayer in normal human language, the idea of a special divine language never completely disappeared from human imagination. In later antiquity it was believed that demons or gods understood the sounds of the voces magicae, even if the human producers did not. In other words, now these terms did serve communication but a communication that could only be understood by one of the two partners in the communication. Finally, in the same period, we also see voces magicae used in theurgy, ‘the compelling of a god’, for instance to make him appear or act according to the wish of the theurgist”. From: Magic and Ritual in the Ancient World, ed. Paul Allan Mirecki and Marvin W. Meyer, p. 116. In a footnote on the same page they add, “On the implications of name giving and the power inherent in knowing the correct names of gods or demons… literature abounds”.

[3] It could be objected that “Lord” implies a type of relationship in which one party dominates the other. That is not how God deals with us. However, that connotation is still present if we use “Adonai” or if we use the title “King”. It can only be dealt with by preaching on the kind of Lord or King we have. It could also be objected that “Adonai” is used to make Christianity more attractive to Jewish people. However, to be consistent, we have to use many other Hebrew words. I know some churches do this, but that will make it less clear for non-Hebrew speakers. It will also have the disadvantages as outlined above.

[4] As many would ridicule this vision, Mrs. White wrote a supplement, further defending her article in “The Day Star”. She denied having written that the devil was actually in the New Jerusalem, being prayed to, but she did not withdraw her statement that the unbelievers, the “disinterested and careless”, were ignorantly praying to Satan and receiving nothing but an unholy influence, without any love, joy or peace.

[5] Matthew 7:21 (NIV).

[6] Seventh Day Adventists traditionally consider the Sabbath to be the seal of God (granted by the Holy Spirit) without which people cannot be saved. Mainstream Christians consider the Holy Spirit to be the seal.