Ten Thousand Names

Ten Thousand Names

A second issue... is concerned with the question of the na-ture of the categories or concepts fundamental to or appro-priate for Christian speech about God. Should these be "personal," "historical," and "ontic" in character, as they surely are in scripture, or should they be ontological, metaphysical, and therefore "impersonal" in character, as in almost every speculative philosophical system, even an ide-alistic or panpsychistic one?

This question, as formulated by Langdon Gilkey, is an in-teresting re-framing of the ST2003 assignment:

Please produce a paper...having to do with God. Orient the paper around the question, "who is God?"...Subtopic #2 God as a being with Attributes. What is meant by the attributes of God? What is included in most lists? How do we know what God is like?...Is the idea of divine attributes outmoded?

The difference between Gilkey's question "what is appropri-ate speech about God" and Peters' question "who is God?" is theologically meaningful. In this paper, I examine methods of a number of theologies in characterizing God and ex-plore the implications of these methods.

It is helpful in this discussion to divide theologies into biblical, premodern, reformation, modern, and postmodern forms.

The Bible and the Attributes of God

The biblical materials do not present systematic theolo-gies. The biblical authors seem to speak of God more as a verb than as a noun. The psalmist sings of God's power, Exodus tells of God's mighty acts of freeing the people, Deutero-Isaiah promises an act of redemption, Paul tells of the resurrection. None say "God is omnipotent. Here is the proof." The histories, narratives, songs, and prophesies in the Bible control the theologies we may construct but they are not in themselves explicit theologies. In other words, it is formally correct to say "the biblical authors consistently describe God in a way that may be interpreted as omnipotent" but not "the Bible says that God is omnipotent." The biblical materials thus can serve as norms on our theologies.

The biblical manner of speaking about God only in histori-cal and relational terms is still a useable method. Thus one answer to Peters' and Gilkey's question is, "Listen to this story."

Premodern Theologies

Premodern approaches assume that there is an objective (ontologically real, aseity), propositional set of truths about a 'supreme being' that can be deduced from philosophi-cal principles.

Acquinas holds that although in statements about God the hu-man mode of signifying (modus significandi) does not corre-spond to anything in the divine being, the signified (sig-ni-fi-catum) does. Thus, for example, when we say that God is good, we do not affirm that any of our concepts of good-ness (modi significandi) apply to him, but rather that there is a concept of goodness unavailable to us, viz., God's un-der-standing of his own goodness, which does apply. What we as-sert, in other words, is that "'God is good' is meaningful and true," but without knowing the meaning of 'God is good.'

The very concept of 'the attributes of God' is grounded in this philosophical method, for attributes are the key charac-ter-istics in Aristotelian definitions. For God to have at-tributes requires God to be a 'being' or (in modern terms) an object. Premodern theologies, then, are quite happy to answer Peters' question, "God is the supreme being and has the fol-lowing attributes..."

A Reformation Approach

Reformation theologians, especially Luther, tended to speak of God primarily relationally rather than abstractly.

Paul and Luther...were concerned to assert...that the only way to assert this truth is to do something about it, e.g., to commit oneself to a way of life; and this concern, it would seem, is wholly congruent with the suggestion that it is only through the performatory use of religious utterances that they acquire prepositional force.

In contrast to the dominant metaphysical characterization of God...[The reformers] conceived of God centrally through personal rather than metaphysical categories: as almighty or sovereign power, as righteous or holy will, as gracious and reconciling love.

In their work the biblical form appears again. It can be said that for Luther God's relationships and actions are of pri-mary interest and God's aseity is irrelevant or unknowable. A reformation answer to Peters' question might run, "This is who God is in relationship to me..."


Existential theologians tend to consider God as 'being' as such rather than as 'a being'. Macquarrie's discussions are typical:

It follows that "God" has a twofold meaning: an ontological meaning, in so far as the word denotes being, and an exis-tential meaning, in so far as it expresses an attitude of commitment to, or faith in, being....The assertion "God ex-ists" may be expressed in another way as meaning that being "is" not alien or neutral over against us, but that it both demands and sustains, so that through faith in being, we can ourselves advance into fullness of being and fulfill the po-tentialities of selfhood.

We conceived God as holy Being. We conceived Being, in turn, as both transcendent and immanent--transcendent because it is not itself a being or a property of beings but the prior condition that there may be any beings or properties, and immanent because it is present-and-manifest in every partic-ular being. We conceived it further as both dynamic and sta-ble, and formulated this in terms of primordial Being, ex-pressive Being, and unitive Being. These conceptions supply our basic frame of reference for an interpretation of the attributes.

The basic stance, then is independent of revelation. Mac-quarrie, however then goes on to take the pre-modern at-tri-butes as givens requiring re-interpretation. He catego-rizes the attributes under the subheadings mystery (incom-pre-hen-si-bility), overwhelmingness (via negativa, infi-nite, eternal, omnipotent, omniscience, omnipresence), dy-namism (immuta-bil-ity, faithfulness, consistency, perfection, goodness), holi-ness (righteousness, justice, wrath, grace).

For Macquarrie, the attributes do not assert anything about God a se beyond affirming aspects of the previously philo-sophically established absolute otherness of God.

These attributes associated with overwhelmingness are, like the others, to be taken dialectically. They have been inter-preted here as pointing up the otherness of God, his utter contrastingness with man.

Methodologically, the modern approach depends on the indi-vidual's experience as the primary source of authority. Modern theology is thus fundamentally subjective.

The grounds for the modern critique of the idea of God have been essentially three: (1) the new emphasis on experience as the sole relevant and dependable source for valued and meaningful concepts and the sole ground for the testing of these concepts; (2) the corresponding shift to the subject as the sole seat of legitimate authority in all matters per-taining to truth...(3) the radical questioning of all exter-nal forms of authority.

Thus a modernist answers Peters' question with "God is not a who," but can answer Gilkey's question "I experience God this way and talk about God like this..."


James Cone, using a method common to liberation theologies, begins with an existentialist position but restricts the lo-cus of relevant experience to a specific community:

I am more convinced today than I was during the 1960s that the God of the Christian gospel can be known only in the communities of the oppressed who are struggling for justice in a world that has no place of them. I still believe that "God is Black" in the sense that God's identity is found in the faces of those who are exploited and humiliated because of their color. But I also believe that "God is mother," "rice," "red," and a host of other things that give life to those whom society condemns to death.

This is to say that theologically meaningful encounters take place only in the experience of the oppressed. The oppressed, in these systems, are revelations of God or are mediators be-tween God and the rest of humanity:

White religionists are not capable of perceiving the black-ness of God, because their satanic whiteness is a denial of the very essence of divinity.

Those who want to know who God is and what God is doing must know who black persons are and what they are do-ing....Knowing God means being on the side of the oppressed, becoming one with them, and participating in the goal of liberation. We must become black with God! ...Blackness, or salvation (the two are synonymous) is the work of God, not a human work....To believe is to receive the gift and utterly to reorient one's existence on the basis of the gift.

Unlike the existentialists, Cone does not emphasize God's transcendence. The concept of God as 'source of being' serves Cone as a warrant to ascribe specific attributes to God:

If creation "involves a bringing into existence of something that did not exist before," then to say that God is creator means that my being finds its source in God. I am black be-cause God is black! God as creator is the ground of my blackness (being), the point of reference for meaning and purpose in the universe.

This is a unique method, arguing that the nature of the creature reveals the nature of its creator.

Cone seems to answer Gilkey's question, "It is what we say about God that matters the most. I say that God is black." He answers Peters' question, "To tell you who God is, I have to tell you what God does for the oppressed."

Postmodern--A Social-Linguistic Approach

The Social-Linguistic approach developed by George Lindbeck is primarily interested in dealing with the ways in which we talk about God:

Thus the linguistic-cultural model of religion is part of an outlook that stresses the degree to which human experience is shaped, molded, and in a sense constituted by cultural and linguistic forms. There are numberless thoughts we can-not think, sentiments we cannot have, and realities we can-not perceive unless we learn to use the appropriate symbol systems. It seems, as the cases of Helen Keller and of sup-posed wolf children vividly illustrate, that unless we ac-quire language of some kind, we cannot actualize our specif-ically human capacities for thought, action, and feeling. Similarly, so the argument goes, to become religious in-volves becoming skilled in the language, the symbol system of a given religion. To become a Christian involves learning the story of Israel and of Jesus well enough to interpret and experience oneself and one's world in its terms.

This theology openly considers the effects of theological concepts as relevant for evaluating their truth:

Utterances are intrasystematically true when they cohere with the total relevant context, which, in the case of a re-ligion when viewed in cultural-linguistic terms, is not only other utterances but also the correlative forms of life. Thus for a Christian, "God is Three and One," or "Christ is Lord" are true only as parts of a total pattern of speaking, thinking, feeling, and acting. They are false when their use in any given instance is inconsistent with what the pattern as a whole affirms of God's being and will. The crusader's battle cry "Christus est Dominus," for example, is false when used to authorize cleaving the skull of the infidel (even though the same words in other contexts may be a true utterance). When thus employed, it contradicts the Christian understanding of Lordship as embodying, for example, suffer-ing servanthood.

Gilkey's question expresses this method of theology. Lindbeck would thus answer by saying that the way we talk about God both constitutes and is constituted by the way we are in relationship with God:

The claim that God truly is good in himself is of utmost im-portance because it authorizes responding as if he were good in the ways indicated by the stories of creation, provi-dence, and redemption which shape believers' thoughts and actions; or, to put the same point in another way, seriously to commit oneself to thinking and acting as if God were good in relation to us (quoad nos) [sic] in the ways indicated by the stories involves asserting that he really is good in himself (in se) even though, as the canonical texts testify, the meaning of this latter claim is utterly beyond human compre-hension.


I evaluate these methods in terms of explanatory power, naturalness of explanation, concordance with scriptural wit-ness, and pragmatic effects.

Lindbeck's method seems to have great power in integrating many perspectives in a natural way. For example, the connec-tion between faith and practice, the mediation of faith by community, the possibility of ecumenical conversation, the necessity to contextualize discourse about God, and the abil-ity of different theologies to express the 'same' faith.

The premodern approach is primarily an abstraction of the biblical assertions into categories. These can function like the grammar of the cultural-linguistic approach to control the experience with and conversation about God. The approach fails when it encounters other world views because of its as-sertion that it describes ontological realities. The method is not flexible enough to deal with new information.

The biblical method and the method of the reformers seem to be equivalent in results to the cultural-linguistic method in that they deal with God in relationship to particular commu-nities. By refusing to create logical systems, these methods respect God's transcendance while the emphasis on God's acts respects God's immanence. Importantly, an approach that tells of God through story and action can speak to people who do not or cannot think in abstract categories.

Unlike the cultural-linguistic view, in which God is en-countered primarily in community, exis-tentialist theologies concentrate on the interior encounter of the isolated indi-vidual with God. The existentialist approach feels emotion-ally empty with its faceless unknowable God. Existentialist theologies try to avoid this trap by asserting the biblical symbols, but then interpret away all of the relational char-acter, the knowableness, (the warm fuzzies or huggableness, if you will) from the symbols. While the biblical and cul-tural-linguistic forms begin with the exper-ience of encounter with God as im-manent, the existen-tialist begins with the en-counter with God as transcendent (if not alien).

Cone's approach seems to be almost an instantiation of the cultural-linguistic approach. It is not God's 'blackness' a se, that interests Cone, but rather the effects on the commu-nity that speaks of God in that way. What Cone's method seems incapable of, however, is ecumenicism. In other words, Cone does not leave God free to relate to all of humanity for God is revealed in the 'oppressed' in a privileged fashion.

For me, then, the cultural-linguistic method best fits my criteria as it seems scripturally consistent, has great ex-planatory power and naturalness, and pragmatically accords with my experience. The method implies that one may need to use different theologies when dealing within different commu-nities of discourse. For example, an adult class in a parish is a different community of discourse than a systematic the-ology class. It follows that commitment to the cul-tural-lin-guistic method requires developing facility with all these other methods in which conversation about God is to take place.


Cone, James H., "God is Black", in Lift Every Voice, Constructing Christian Theologies from the Underside, Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite and Mary Potter Engel, Editors, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990, 81-94.

Gilkey, Langdon, "God", in A New Handbook of Christian Theology, Donald W. Musser and Joseph L. Price, Editors, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1992, 198-209.

Inter-Lutheran Commission on Worship, Lutheran Book of Worship, Minister's Desk Edition, Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1978.

Lindbeck, George A., The Nature of Doctrine, Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age, Philadelphia: Westminster Press 1984.

Macquarrie, John, Principles of Christian Theology, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1966.

Metzger, Bruce M, and Roland E. Murphy, editors, The New Oxford Annotated Bible, with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, New Revised Standard Version, New York: Oxford University Press, 1994

Peters, Ted, God, the World's Future, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992

Peters, Ted, "ST 2004: Systematic Theology", syllabus, (Berkeley: PLTS 1995).

Tillich, Paul, Love, Power, and Justice, Ontological Analyses and Ethical Applications, London: Oxford University Press, 1954

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