I have begun reading R. Kendall Soulen’s The Divine Name(s) and the Holy Trinity. I know it sounds like a tedious theological topic. Trust me, though, this book is not that hard to read and it deals with its topic in a way that appeals to those of us who care about spirituality and devotional practice.
Soulen writes from a deep concern about the connection of Judaism and Christianity. In his book, The God of Israel and Christian Theology, he interpreted Christianity in such a way as to avoid replacement theology or supercessionism, the idea that the church has replaced Israel as the people of God. Michael Wyschogrod, an important Orthodox Jewish theologian, influenced him.
In this new book about the divine name, he begins by talking about names. Names may seem unimportant. You can call something anything you want and that doesn’t change its essence. Yet most of us hate to have someone get our personal name wrong. A lot of our devotional language speaks to the name of God or Christ representing something more. We sing, “There’s something about that name”. We end our prayers by praying in the name of Jesus. History speaks of martyrs who have died for the sake of the name.
Why, for instance, could we not call our God Zeus? It is just a name, right? But Soulen points out that the name carries a story with it. An example would be that in the case of Zeus the name carries with it his marriage to Hera and other mythological stories. The name would not work for Christian devotion.
Ok, if names are important, aren’t they still inadequate for God? How could a mere name measure up to the greatness of God? Soulen argues that names are necessary, even though inadequate. He recalls the story from Exodus 3 where Moses tells God that the slaves in Egypt are going to ask for a name. Their question is a legitimate question because “name of God is the linguistic token that signifies the uniqueness of God” (from the Introduction in the Kindle edition). But, like the bread and wine used in worship, the name becomes more than just a token. It participates in the mystery of the thing itself.
One of the names Christians use is Jesus. Another is the name of the Trinity. “The name of the Trinity signifies the eternal bond of tripersonal love revealed in the man Jesus. Christians know, as deeply as they know anything, that God without Christ and the Spirit is remote and unavailing, that Christ without God and the Spirit is a martyred saint, that the Spirit without God and Christ is power bereft of form and direction. Faith lives from the interconnection of the three” (from the Introduction in the Kindle edition).
Christians are asking the question about the name of the Trinity today because of three new issues that have arisen:
*the new relationship of Christianity to the Jewish people
*the explosive growth of Christianity in the “global south” particularly Africa and Asia
*the emancipation of women
Regarding each of these issues, Soulen hears the Exodus 3 question being asked of God’s people again, “Who shall I say sent me.?”.