Saturday, December 15, 2007

God has no name

Early Christians considered it important that God has no name, in contradistinction to pagans who had multiple gods and naturally wanted to know which god the Christians worshiped. Eusebius reports of Attalus, being roasted on an iron chair, that "when asked what was the name of God, he answered, 'God has no name like a human being has'." St. Justin Martyr in his second Apology argues that names are given by one's elders, and hence God has no name. Aristides in his Apology says: "He has no name, for everything which has a name is kindred to things created." After quoting Trismegistus to the same effect, Lactantius writes: "God, therefore, has no name, because He is alone; nor is there any need of a proper name, except in cases where a multitude of persons requires a distinguishing mark, so that you may designate each person by his own mark and appellation. But God, because He is always one, has no peculiar name." (The difference in reasons given suggests that there was a well-established doctrine that God had no name, but the reasons for the doctrine were not universally agreed on.)

The idea of God's namelessness is fruitful. It is true that there is the tetragrammaton", but that seems to have been completely unused by Christians until very recently. The early Christians would have thought that the use of a proper name made God too much like a pagan deity. (And, indeed, there is evidence of pagan deities with names akin to the tetragrammaton, e.g., in Ugaritic texts.) The Jewish cessation of use of a proper name for God, and its systematic oral replacement by "Adonai" or "Elohim", would have been seen not as protection against uttering a name too holy for our sinful lips, but as a deepening of the understanding of monotheism, of God's utter transcendence.

But in a way God has a name. The man Jesus Christ is his name to us. Christ is the Logos, the Word that reveals God, the word pointing towards God (I am reading "pros ton Theon" in John 1:1 in a way complementary to the usual reading of "with God"). But his name is unlike the names of humans. His name is a person, consubstantial with him. Nothing less than himself is sufficient for us to call him by. Yet, like a name, he is made sensible in the incarnation.


Mike said...


A small practical point on naming: your blog name is not on Chalmer's list of blogs. It ought to be on that blog roll. Just email him.

A somewhat more interesting point on naming. Kripkean/Millian views of naming raise interesting epistemological questions for 'God' taken as a name (rather than a title or "office"). It can turn out, if 'God' directly names God, that what is so named does not have the traditional properties attributed to God. This, I think, is the intuition so many undergraduates have when they ask how we know that God is omnipotent and so on. The hackneyed answer to this question is that God is definitionally so. But if the name does not refer via such a description, it is perfectly possible that God lacks all or most of these attributes. It raises some interesting epistemic possibilities.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Thanks for the Chalmers hint. Done.

Yes, that is interesting about the epistemological point. It also fits with a spiritual issue a friend of mine once had--he had trouble believing that God is good. I think that this is in fact the way the problem of evil affects some deeply religious people. The worry for them isn't whether God exists--that is as obvious as that their friends and family exist--but whether God is good. And, yes, that makes sense on the Kripkean/Millian account.

Another advantage of the Kripkean/Millian account is that it does not make sense of the question "Could someone else have been God instead?" And that question, I think, is one that we shouldn't be able to make sense of. :-)

That said, I feel that neither the direct-reference nor a definition-description model of 'God' really does justice to reality. I think these early Church Fathers were on to something deep... At least Justin Martyr specifically wants to deny a Kripkean account of 'God'. But I can't quite put my finger on what they are on to.

MG said...

Dr. Pruss (may I call you Alex?)

Your blog is very intellectually stimulating and helpful.

I was wondering if you have ever read any Eastern Orthodox philosophers or theologians on this subject. They have a lot to say about the significance of denying the "nameability" of God in one sense (and affirming it in another).

Have you ever heard of David Bradshaw?

Alexander R Pruss said...

No, I haven't read Eastern theologians on this, but it would be in character for them to be interested in this.

Tell me more, please...

Also about Bradshaw.


MG said...

Okay, I'll take a shot at it... if you need me to clarify terms further then please ask ("essence" or "energies" for instance).

Eastern theology is both apophatic and catophatic.

God's energies can be understood and spoken about. Normal ontological categories can be applied to them, and they can be spoken of analogically. Divine names signify particular energies of God. Goodness, power, glory, etc. are names of God and refer to God's energies.

God's essence cannot be contemplated or spoken about. It is "beyond being" (like Plato's Good) and can't have any ontological categories applied to it. When we say "God's essence" we are using a placeholder term for a causal nexus that we don't know anything about. This is how the East understands God's answer to Moses in Exodus 3: "I will be whatever I will be" is a non-answer, a refusal to be named.

David Bradshaw is an Orthodox analytic philosopher whose work is closely related to the question of divine "names"; you can read some of his papers here:

His work (including his book "Aristotle East and West: Metaphysics and the Division in Christendom") is a scholarly look at the early Christian view of God and the origins of the terminology and concepts the pre-Augustinian (and post-Augustinian Eastern) fathers used in their theology. The papers he has online are worth a look ("Christianity East and West", "The Divine Glory and the Divine Energies" and "The Concept of the Divine Energies" are great).

Alexander R Pruss said...

Thanks, MG.

Let me try a perhaps different, though related, idea.

I like the idea that proper names are "typed" (in the programming language sense of the word). What I mean by that is that you don't understand the name "Socrates" unless you understand that it refers to a human being, and you don't understand the name "Bucephalus" unless you understand that it refers to a horse, or at least an animal. Of course, a horse and a human can both be named "Fred", but that'll homonymy. A name, then, picks out a being of a particular sort.

This makes proper names parallel to demonstratives. It seems highly plausible that demonstratives are typed. When I point in the direction of Seabiscuit and say "This" the context needs to determine whether I mean "This animal" or "This body part" or the like. "This" gets its type from the context.

Now, if this is right, then the idea of God having a proper name is odd, because we can ask: What is the type of that name? But now we can bring out the notion that God is not a member of any natural genus. In reality, there is no genus deity--there is just God, He Himself, in His triune unity.

This idea is a deepening of monotheism. It is not just that there is, as it happens, only one God. Nor is it even that there is, as a matter of metaphysical necessity, only one God. It is that here there is no kind or genus for there to be more than one of.

I don't have a worked metaphysical theory for all I've said here.

St Thomas says that God is he who is, being itself. But he insists that being is not a genus.

By the way, here is an interesting fact of which something could perhaps be made. In the Syriac Peshitta, "Ehyeh asher ehyeh" (= "I am who I am / I who am am / I will be what I will be / I will be what I am / I am what I will be / etc." -- the possible translations are myriad) is not translated from Hebrew to Syriac, but transliterated, as if the translator were unable to find a paraphrase, or thought that any paraphrase would be misleading.