Glorify Thy Name

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The impact of this development is already being experienced by some Christians in their congregational worship. Whether in the new Methodist service book in use for the past several years, or the so-called trial liturgies inflicted from time to time on those long-suffering Episcopalians, or the various new hymnals adopted by several of the major and mainline churches, traditional references to the Persons of the Holy Trinity are rapidly disappearing. Now what are we to say to all of this? Mystery and incomprehensibility certainly are appropriate terms when we speak of God.

God is mysterious; God is incomprehensible. If an apophatic principle in Christian theology makes it finally impossible to take seriously the defined affirmations of the Creed, then what is distinctive about the Christian faith? Other great religions, after all, such as Islam and Hinduism, likewise describe the divinity as incomprehensible. Are we Christians only saying the same thing as they? Do we have in Jesus a knowledge of God not otherwise available, or only a somewhat more advanced God-talk?

Indeed, if we Christians may no longer, with a quiet conscience, refer to God using the names Father and Son, are we really talking about the Christian faith at all? We should suspect here the presence of some terribly perverse thinking that needs to be cleared up. A critical reexamination of Christian apophaticism would seem to be the proper way of tackling the problem, and I suggest that we start by being apophatic about apophaticism. That is to say, that we commence by examining what Christian apophaticism does not mean. First, Christian apophaticism is not primarily an epistemological affirmation.

That is to say, when we Christians call the true and living God incomprehensible, we are saying something about God himself and not simply describing the limitations of our knowledge. It is not as though we knew where God was, so to speak, but were obliged to confess our inability to get there.


The difficulty of getting to God is a statement more about God than about us. It is not as though we human beings, by dint of deeper reflections, more lucid musings, or improved heuristic patterns, might somehow get closer to the summit. That we do not know the living God describes him, not us. Even to say that God transcends our concepts is inadequate, inasmuch as it suggests some relationship between our concepts and God, whereas Christian apophatic theology insists that there is no such relationship. For that reason, quantitative assertions of human ignorance here are only metaphorical.

In Christian apophatic theology we are not simply asserting that the human mind is insufficiently capacious to contain him. It would be an apophaticism owing more to Feuerbach than to St. Second, Christian apophaticism is not a merely logical reference. The incomprehensibility of the living God is revealed truth, not a fact available to unaided reason.

I believe it very important to insist on this point. If, as Aristotle wisely taught, understanding is the knowledge of things in their causes, then the Principle of Causality is the basis of understanding. I submit that a philosophical via negativa is even more pronounced in the entirely negative formula of St. To sum up, the philosophical concept of God, because it outruns, as it were, the Principle of Causality, is tautological and, as such, defies understanding.

Philosophy, after all, required no special revelation to know that a tautology is logically inaccessible. Third, Christian apophaticism is not Neoplatonic ecstasy. Plotinus, too, writes of the divinity as incomprehensible, but this is his way of identifying that divinity as The One, to hen. Observing that discursive reason necessarily introduces a distinction between the knower and the known, Plotinus recognizes it as an exercise in multiplicity.

To the extent that the atman, or soul, remains distinct from and relates to the Brahman, the Brahman is He, personal, manifest, and formed. But the mystical goal of this Upanishad is the absorption of the soul into the Brahman, as the drop becomes lost in the sea or the ray of light returns to the sun. Individuality disappears. There is no longer Brahman He; there is the formless, the unmanifest, the impersonal, but ultimately real, Brahman It. Brahman and atman are one, so that there is no more distinction between objective and subjective.

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Let me identify the aberration by posing this question: Is God ultimately It or He? Using the classical terms of Christian theology, is God first ousia or hypostasis , essentia or persona? It is unfortunately customary to dismiss such questions as excessively speculative.

To raise them is to risk being indicted for unnecessary Byzantine subtlety. Nonetheless, how this question is answered will make a great deal of difference to our analysis of apophatic theology. Maximus the Confessor—if the font of divinity is the divine essence, ousia, then God is ultimately impersonal. That is to say, it affirms that there is in God a priority of It to He. In fact, one runs across this idea rather often among Christians. Thus, the It of God, so to speak, is prior to the He.


I submit that, if this is the case, there is no ultimate theological difference between Christianity and Hinduism. I reject this notion and call it a theological aberration quite simply because it does not conform to the ancient creedal expressions of the Church. The Son can reveal this Father to us because he is in the bosom of the Father; he and the Father are one ; he is of the same essence homoousios as the Father.

When one says that God is incomprehensible because we are unable to conceive of the divine essence, that is correct; but it is still an inadequate way of describing Christian apophatic theology.

The Christian via negativa, unlike the impersonal apophaticisms of Hindu monism and Neoplatonism, is first an apophaticism of person. It is the Person of the Father who, in the fullness of his hypostatic freedom, is the source of the Son and the Holy Spirit. One might imagine that we were dealing with some longtime and very familiar friend who finally got around to telling us that he also had a son that he had been keeping secret from us and had at last decided to come clean about it.

The truth, of course, is that we do not know the true God except in the Son who reveals him. And the Son reveals this Father to us as eternal mystery, as infinitely incomprehensible, as the Father who lives in unapproachable light. If Christians speak of the incomprehensibility of God, then, it behooves them to be certain that they are talking about the true and living God manifest in Jesus Christ, not some philosophical Unmoved Mover, not some general, all-purpose divinity. The living God is not the Necessary Being to which clear thinking may reason its way. He is, rather, the personal God whose glory shines on the face of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Philosophy cannot reach, nor does it even begin to guess at, the real incomprehensibility of God. The true God is infinitely more inaccessible than any philosophy ever suspected. The incomprehensibility of the true God is a very specific and utterly unique mystery, not a general obscurity that we must somehow manage as best we can by juggling our metaphors. When Christians speak of the incomprehensibility of God, they are not talking of darkness but of light. So when we invoke God as the Father, we are pronouncing only what we know in Christ. At no time is it good theology to say that the Father of Jesus is not the Father.

Just where, then, is the ground for taking such a stand? This is purely private theology. It has nothing to do with either the Bible or the Church. Patristic literature asserts that, in God, the name Father is not titular but real. John It is just one more endeavor to conceptualize a mystery. Nor is it my point here simply to distinguish between a metaphor and a simile, for the difference between the two is only a matter of grammatical configuration.

Constructed on a comparison, both have the same conceptual content; a metaphor is only an implicit simile. In either case, whether explicitly or by inference, we are asserting that one thing is like another. A legitimate example of such a figure of speech is referring to God as a mother, a reference justified by Holy Scripture cf. Isaiah ; Matthew and favored by some of the saints.

Whether expressly or by implication, this usage is founded on an analogy; it is a comparison to motherhood as known through human experience.

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In no wise would it be theologically correct, however, to call God the Mother in any sense comparable to calling him the Father. It is not as though God somehow reminds us of dear old Dad, or even what dear old Dad should have been. Such attempts to explain how God is our Father represent a failure to accept the apophatic force of Christian theological language, an endeavor to reduce the mystery to human dimensions. When we invoke God as our Father, however, we transcend all that we know of fatherhood in this world; we make a formal departure from the purely figurative realm, surpassing pious metaphor to an absolutely unique and personal mystery.

The fatherhood of God is not a soft, benign, self-evident truth. Our God is not a father; even less is he like a father. Because of our incorporation into Christ, we are not simply called the children of God; we are the children of God cf. Truth to tell, in comparison with this Father, no one on earth should even be so called Matthew Some Christian thinkers have at times expressed this mystery rather boldly. Thomas Aquinas, for example, citing Ephesians f.

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Doubtless they are right, but I believe that his speculations here, rooted as they are in Holy Scripture and the dogmatic affirmations of the Church, are worthy of reverent consideration. They are not on a par with the irresponsible neo-gnostic speculations noted above. It is even alleged that the Christian Tradition itself encourages such a pursuit by providing suitable models. So the claim is made that Toledo XI, in its employment of such language, was intentionally striking out on some new and bold theological venture.

Such enthusiastic conclusions are, to say the least, premature. Indeed, I believe that they would greatly bewilder the venerable fathers at Toledo, and with a view to sparing them such bewilderment I propose the following four points for consideration. First, no one in the whole conciliar and creedal tradition regarded the word father, when used with reference to God, as having any sexual connotation whatsoever. The Cappadocians in particular had already gone to some length to say that paternity and sonship in God possessed no sexual reference.

It was the thing furthest from their minds. The very idea of sexuality in God, to say nothing of bisexuality, is more than slightly silly. Matthew While he yet spake, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them: and behold a voice out of the cloud, which said, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him. John Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.

John , When Jesus heard that , he said, This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby…. John ,32 Therefore, when he was gone out, Jesus said, Now is the Son of man glorified, and God is glorified in him…. Ephesians That in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus.

New International Version Father, glorify your name! Then came there a voice from heaven, saying , I have both glorified it , and will glorify it again. Christian Standard Bible Father, glorify your name. A voice from heaven then said, "I have already brought glory to myself, and I will do it again! Then there came a voice from the heaven, saying, I have clarified it and will clarify it again. King James Bible Father, glorify your name. American King James Version Father, glorify your name. American Standard Version Father, glorify thy name. There came therefore a voice out of heaven,'saying , I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again.

Douay-Rheims Bible Father, glorify thy name. A voice therefore came from heaven: I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again. Darby Bible Translation Father, glorify thy name. There came therefore a voice out of heaven, I both have glorified and will glorify [it] again.