I’m tired of calling God “God”—and it might even be unbiblical

Posted by PeteEnns on October 9, 2015 in Bible and culture/current events biblical theology 63 Comments

GodI recently finished a book draft where I talk about God a lot. And it finally hit me that I’m tired of writing “God” all the time. It feels lazy to me—like calling my wife “human.”

I feel the need to find some other word.

“God” is a term found throughout the Bible. In the Old Testament it’s the English way of rendering the Hebrew word “Elohim.”

The thing is that Elohim is a generic word in the ancient world of the Bible—a lot of cultures used some form of it.

In the Bible it can refer to Israel’s God specifically, some other ancient god, or a whole bunch of gods. Elohim might even mean “angels” or “judges.”

In the ancient literature if Ugarit (north of Israel in present Syria), elohim refers to the Ugaritic pantheon of gods.

That makes me think the ancient Israelites could have put a little more effort into it instead of using a blahelohim2 general word for “divine beings”  when referring to “God. Way to be confusing, ancient Israelite writers.

When the Israelites wanted to distinguish their God from the other gods, they used God’s personal name YHWH, which might have been pronounced “Yahweh.”

Our English Bibles have almost completely lost that word, though. Through the influence of Jewish scribes from very long ago, YHWH has been replaced in English Bible with another generic title, “Lord” (spelled with the O-R-D in small caps—see Genesis 2:4).

To make matters even more confusing, the way in which Israel’s ancient writers described their God YHWH often looks like how other ancient peoples described their gods.

For example, YHWH controlling YHWH2weather and riding on the clouds (Psalms 24 and 68) mimics older descriptions of the Canaanite storm god Baal (who makes several appearances in the Old Testament).

Again, Israel—thanks for the confusion.

The New Testament runs into the same sort of problem.

The Greek word “theos” means “god” and is about as generic as you can get. It refers to divine beings intheos general and the gods of the Greco-Roman world. Why, in 2 Corinthians 4:4 it’s even used of another divine being, the devil.

And that’s the main word the New Testament writers use for God. Nice move.

Another Greek word referring to God is “kurios,” which means Lord and is also used of Jesus, but that’s generic as well. Caesar was kuriosalso called kurios.

To sum up, biblical writers, when talking about God, adopted ancient titles and metaphors from the surrounding cultures. There is nothing—no.thing.—special about these words.

“God” or “Lord” had for them built in meanings and connotations that were adapted and transformed to speak of their God.

It strikes me that, for us to be truly “biblical” in how we refer to God, we might be better off following the biblical practice more than the biblical words.

So I ask myself: what are some possible terms, titles, descriptors, metaphors from our own culture that we might adapt and transform to talk about our God in our time and place rather than using terms that are essentially meaningless in post-Christian culture—like “God” or “Lord”?

I don’t really have an answer. “The force”. . . ultimate meaning. . . the universe. . . higher power?

In my book draft I use “Presence” a few times, but I’m just not sure. I’m still looking.

In the meantime let me say this: if you are taken aback by the thought of using alternate language for God, especially using terms that sound very unbiblical, even pagan or trendy to you . . .

well . . .

Remember that the very same practice is carved into our own Bibles.

So, what modern terms or descriptors should we adopt? I’m not sure, but we might be most biblical when we don’t simply repeat biblical words for God but use some of our own.

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  • Sue

    Mm, thinking on this.

  • HZD

    Interesting thoughts, Pete. Thanks for this.

    During my time at Harvard, I wrote a paper on Genesis 14 and the Melchizedek pericope. In my research, I repeatedly ran into the parallels between the ancient Yahwistic religion and its Canaanite counterparts. To me, the use of the generic language pushed me in a slightly different direction than the one you have taken here. When Melchizedek blesses Abram in the name of El Elyon, a popular Canaanite deity, and, at least in its current redacted form, Abram recycles the language and ascribes it to YHWH, it seems to me that some affinity between those religions is being acknowledged. Put another way, at the very least it seems that Abram is seeing the hand of God and the presence of God all over the place. Genesis in particular doesn’t seem terribly concerned with the uniqueness of God over all the other gods. Instead, it seems concerned with the uniqueness of God’s relationship with Abraham and his descendants. That to me is fascinating. It opens the door at least a little to doing my best to see God all over the place–not least in other religions.

    And I don’t say all that as a full fledged universalist or relativist. I think that there is plenty in the Scriptures that militate against such a perspective. But the generic language, or more to the point, the ascription of formal titles like El, El Elyon, El Shaddai, Ba’al, and numerous other titles, not to mention outright plagiarism of hymns to Ba’al like occurs in the Psalms, all indicates a kind of approaches that softens the edges around revelation. The presence of God (there I go, using your two words in tandem) can’t help but appear all over the place; he is the creator, after all, and we all are made in his image. The generic language casts a very wide net, snagging truths, images, and theologies from other religions, but recasts them under a new meta-narrative and a single divine figure who reveals himself at many times and in many ways.

  • Steven

    I share your dilemma. Maybe “God” does as well. So I look to Yeshua of Nazareth…actions rather than words seem to define him. The imagery of Fire and Wind works for me.

  • http://thecuttingledge.com/ Phil Ledgerwood

    I hear many Jewish people today using “ha’shem” to refer to God in conversation. “The Name.”

  • http://twitter.com/jordanmantha Jordan

    Your argument seems to in some way contradict itself, at least the way I’m reading it. It seems to me that the use of “God” (maybe less so “Lord”) today is exactly similar to what you are saying the Israelites did with Elohim and YHWH, it’s just that our culture has been largely dominated by Judaeo-Christian terminology so “God” and “Lord” are the modern equivalents, but in terms of translation and cultural dominance.

    Is your concern that “God” or
    “Lord” are too descriptive (baggage) or not descriptive enough?

  • http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/ jesuswithoutbaggage

    A word I often use is the New Testament term ‘Father’ but it suffers from being masculine, which raises additional problems. Mother/Father is too awkward. When you discover a more perfect term, please let us know! I will be watching for it.

    • David

      How about Heavenly Parent…

  • http://www.12lions.com/ Cameron Shaffer

    How about Trinity?

    • Stephen W

      Or… Neo?

  • Ned Nederlander

    I often refer to my wife as Woman. Hey woman, fetch me a beer. She likes it.

    • Jeff Wishart

      Ned Nederlander??? You were my favorite star of the silver screen!

    • Bex

      How does she refer to you? Wait, don’t answer that. The world really doesn’t need the information.

  • Jeff Wishart

    I like calling God ‘God’ because it is generic. He (It) is too big to be specific. ‘God’ can encompass YHWH, Allah, Higher Power, The Force, and David Koresh.

  • brianleport

    The Creator and/or the Creator Spirit may be another way to speak of the Divine. Parent sounds scary or dopey (as an inclusive Father/Mother alternative). That’s the extent of my thoughts. 😉

  • Ross

    How about “I am who I am”, “You are who you are” “He/She/It is who He/She/It” is……hmmmm…….”The is who”………..hmmmmm. Nope really can’t think……..Big Daddy..Mummy……..nope.

    Seriously, a number of years ago when the church I attended went through one of its’ periodic schisms, everyone got embroiled in coming up with a new name for the split-off congregation, feeling frustrated with the whole process I suggested not to have a name (nor worry too much about articles of association etc etc), which was met with disdain or ridicule. I still think it was a good idea.

    Maybe the “divine greatness” is just too big or “other” to really have a name. Have you considered writing the book with no nouns at all attached to the ” “? How would writing about ” ” without any words attached end up? How would it make you and others think about this ” “?

  • Jon G

    uh, I don’t know…maybe “Father”? Yeah, that’s probably a good place to start… ;o)

  • https://www.popchrist.com Ian Panth

    Like @brianleport, I tend to use the title Creator God. I have found the term is often too generic and people import many presuppositions into the term. Of course, I also refer to the persons Father, Son, & Spirit where appropriate. On using alternate terms, Iraneus referred to God as the Demiurge at times because the Demiurge was associated with creating the material world. Of course, he denied anything lay behind the Demiurge as the Plato and the gnostics thought. The Creator works for me. As long as we do not revert to Jehovah. 😉 How come that is still in many of our songs?

  • Darrin Hunter

    In Orthodoxy, both liturgically and in general, we have long and often used that good ‘ol non biblical phrase “the Holy Trinity”. It is distinctively Christian and brings focus to the fact that our God is not a ethereal force or a monad but an eternal loving communion of divine Persons. I should note we don’t generally run around asking folks if they have met the Holy Trinity, but the father’s would sometimes call God our “three-sunned-divinity” or “divine Triad” etc. I think the generic “God” can easily collapse into a puddle of melted ice cream in our modern context…..”which God are we talking about?”

    Now, why especially the Old Testament so vaguely hints at this Triune God, is another troubling question. Yet Thomas, a good Jew knowing the shema (the Lord is one) can still say of Christ “my Lord and my God”.

    • Pete E.

      I see what you’re saying, Darrin, but the point I was trying to make in the post is that biblical witness uses words for divinity that “collapse into a puddle of melted ice cream in [their ancient] context.”

      • Darrin Hunter

        Agreed. Another good reason why we do not hold the doctrine of sola scriptura.

        • Pete E.

          Ooo, crafty (in a Proverbs 1:4 way, not Gen 3:1 way).

  • Kim Fabricius

    A teacher of mine, the late Colin Gunton, tells of a remark made by another teacher of mine, the late D.Z. Phillips, commenting on a collection of essays by several intellectual VIPs entitled The God I Want. DZ said that he couldn’t “imagine a sillier enterprise”, adding, “It’s not the God I want but the God you are damn well going to get.”

    The point being that when it comes to naming God, we don’t get to make it up as we go along, especially in order to be “modern” or “relevant”, a sure sign of theological panic, “chronological snobbery” (C.S. Lewis), and the gateway to making up a new religion altogether.

    Yes, for the early church “God” or “Lord” derived from the social and cultural location of Israel and Hellenism and, as you say, “had for them built in meanings and
    connotations that were adapted and transformed to speak of their God.” “Father” too. But that is precisely to say that henceforth, adapted and transformed, they carried specific semantic, historical, ontological, and moral weight, and did quite specific liturgical and theological work. These are foundational terms. That’s why even a good biblical word like “Creator” (c. 14 times in the NT) could not simply substitute for “Father” (c. 260 times in the NT).

    [By the way, “Father” was not chosen by the church as a generic term, let alone a gendered term, but received by the church because our Jesus, the Son, addressed Yahweh as Father (“Without the Son ‘the Father’ is not God but an idol” — Janet Soskice.]

    So we have to ask, what kind of work do, e.g., “the force” or “ultimate meaning” or “the universe” or “the higher power” do? To me, the first and fourth sound like the created beings/things that Paul puts in their place in Colossians 1:15-16; the second sounds like the default appellation of an existentialist philosopher; and the third is downright pantheistic. And “Presence” – better, but, in need of all sorts of qualifications – including transcendence, hiddenness, and indeed absence.

    Above all, we must bear in mind (a) that “The God of Israel has a proper name. There is no fact in Jewish theology more significant than this” (Michael Wyschogrod); (b) the God Jesus calls “Father” is (rather obviously) personal; (c) and the God the church eventually comes to understand as Trinity is (also rather obviously) relational; plus (d) lex orandi, lex credendi (“May the Force be with you”?).

    Our job should not be to come up with new “descriptors” or “metaphors”. Similes are a different matter. “Father” is a metaphor, “rock” or “a woman looking for a lost
    coin” are similes. If that’s what you’ve got in mind, by all means let us use our imaginations and listen to our poets, but only as our images are tested in the fires of tradition. Mainly, however, I think our job is to show that the word “God” and the foundational metaphors “Father” and “Lord” are not meaningless or dated but, distortions corrected, have rich and contemporary significance and purchase in the story the church indwells and tells about Israel and Jesus.

    • Pete E.

      Eh…not persuasive.

    • Darrin Hunter

      Yup. The adapting and transforming are not done individualistically, but communally and are generally preserved liturgically. God being ontologically and personally “Father”, means the Son is of the Father by eternal generation (poor John MacArthur). And because the Son is “one of the holy Trinity”, therefore God died on a cross (poor RC Sproul). The meaning of terms and titles are “traditioned” to each generation and this is a buttress against distortions, most prominently “biblical” distortions.

      • Pete E.

        Darrin, do you have a reformed background in a former life?

      • https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCwkk0UVdZFArX4_95b3H97A David J. Graham

        See the article ‘Reexamining the Eternal Sonship of Christ’ on John MacArthur’s Grace to You website. MacArthur has repudiated his former view; he now believes in the eternal sonship of Jesus Christ.

        • Darrin Hunter

          Yes, I am well aware of it. If I recall, Phil Johnson basically described the process as MacArthur coming kicking and screaming, and digging in for decades due to his personal interpretation of the scriptures.

          Even in his retraction, he seems to still be confused about the core issue of the distinction of Person and Nature. He says “In fact, the main gist of what is meant by “sonship” (and certainly this would include Jesus’ divine essence) must pertain to the eternal attributes of Christ, not merely the humanity He assumed” and also “So when Jesus was called “Son of God,” it was understood categorically by all as a title of deity, making Him equal with God and (more significantly) of the same essence as the Father.”
          The problem is, attributes are the divine energies/activities of the single undivided essence shared by the 3 Persons. But the “Son” is the Person of the Logos.
          Notice too that he says “not merely the humanity he assumed.” He seems to fall into the same dichotomy that Sproul refuses to correct. When the Person of the Son does something in either nature, it is the one agent of the Son who is acting. So God died on the cross, and Mary was the God-bearer.

          • https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCwkk0UVdZFArX4_95b3H97A David J. Graham

            Thank you for response, Darrin. Could you perchance recommend a solid work from an Eastern Orthodox perspective arguing for (or explicating) an EO understanding on christology (with special reference to eternal sonship)?

          • Darrin Hunter

            David, for me this section by St John of Damascus is simply breathtaking.
            Notice the focus on the monarchy of the Father as the origin of both the Son and Spirit. When he says “subsistence” it usually refers to Person. There are 3 subsistences and the difference between them is merely in the manner of their Personal existence: The Father alone is unbegotten, the Son is eternally begotten of the Father, and the Spirit proceeds from the Father alone.The begetting and procession are without beginning or end. As with other father’s, he mentions the Trinity as like a 3 sunned divinity. We shouldn’t think of the Trinity like a 3 piece pie, parts making up a whole.

  • Marie

    There you go, stirring things up again! Are all the different names used in the OT for God ones carried over from the surrounding cultures?

  • Chris Falter

    The Gracious and Merciful one.
    The Exalted one.
    The Ruler of the ages.
    The Guide.

    And these have the advantage of being completely comprehensible to Muslims–they are in a prayer devout Muslims say 5 times a day.

  • Luke Draeger

    Awhile back, I started using the name “Someone”. This happened when I came to the realization that I knew very little about this One who I am confident exists and is good. Using that name seems to help me to remain open to however this One chooses to reveal himself.

  • Paul D.

    “Providence” is reasonably good English term that seems to have fallen out of use lately.

    • PePas

      And then you come back to Lord, which is the germanic way of referring to the One who gives (bread (of Life))..!

  • KD Davis

    I vote for Hashem.

  • Pete E.

    Now you’re talkin’. . . yo.

  • Pete E.

    I sensed your pain :-)

  • http://omg-occasionalmuffledgrunts.blogspot.co.uk/ Jez Bayes

    Not a term borrowed from our culture(s), but I like to use ‘Creative Life Source’, because it explains the human predicament.

    When we declared independence (The Fall) we became disconnected from our loving ‘Creative Life Source’, started making mistakes and mismanaging creation, suffering the damage and harm of that self inflicted error, and became doomed to inevitable death – the consequence of being cut off from the ‘Creative Life Source.’

    The incarnation then becomes Jesus as the ‘Creative Life Source’ become human, taking on all our damaged state and its consequences, including the ultimate consequence of death, and defeating them, this logically reversing death in His own context and on behalf of all who accept His offer of being associated with Him in His death and resurrection.

    Thus we can be reconnected to the loving ‘Creative Life Source’, incompletely in this existence, and ultimately in eternity on the reNewed Creation.
    This allows for a modern slant on Christus Victor, with the word ‘sin’ not used, as it has too many associations with debatable moral issues, but allows for ‘sins’ to be the symptoms of our state of being damaged by our disconnection from the ‘Creative Life Source’.

    It outlines the Gospel in a way that remains Biblical, and which few Christians would argue against, but doesn’t have the Old Covenant or Reformation individualistic legal baggage in tow.

    It also incorporates the overall context from which we need rescuing, systemic sin, others sin against us, as well as our own faults, flaws and sins, rather than just addressing an individual’s own ‘guilt’, which is where most evangelical presentations of The Gospel (i.e. a popularised simplistic outline of the doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement) end up.

    So that’s my offer:
    The loving Creative Life Source.

  • PePas

    A few people have already hinted at this name: The One. Could also refer to the Messiah. And I like The Most High as well. I guess it depends on what works for whomever you’re trying to talk to. When talking to Him directly, any derivative of Father should do.

  • charlesburchfield

    dear Heavenly vector.

  • Andrew Foley

    Pete, I appreciate your thoughts and believe it is important to explore God in everyday terms (and also continue reflecting upon our perspective on God) but I also bring some push-back. A bunch of people within the progressive Christian/ emergent movements have embraced thinkers like Pete Rollins who is part of radical theology etc. When guys like Pete Rollins and Jack Caputo use the word ‘God’ they are not talking about an actual being. I think there is a danger in making God some kind of ‘existentialist idea’ or ‘symbol for the human spirit’ or ‘a mystery so vague that it could mean anything’. This leaves us with a worldview that has no life and no ultimate hope.

    The phrase ‘Ground of being’ has been cropping up again in progressive circles. What does that even mean? It could mean a bunch of maths equations or quantum physics.

  • Gary

    I’d think so. For a lot of folks, the word “God” is tied to pretty simplistic conceptions, ones that just don’t resonate with them. Perhaps the abyss, the void, or nothingness or the unknowable would work better than centering on a personified being in the sky.

  • Chris Armer

    You could follow the example of Mormons and call God “Heavenly Father.” :)

    • Gary

      And they get a Heavenly Mother too!

  • sonje

    I like the Finnish word, ‘Jumala’, which, I understand means ‘God’, but which, I also understand, began as a name for a particular god which was later applied to YHWH. I have qualms about using ‘YHWH’ but Jumala somehow seems alright – I suppose because the Finns have no qualms about it – and more like a name than a description.

  • barbara.hrrsn@gmail.com

    Is a name even necessary?

    • Gary

      For most all. Yup.

  • Ben Cribbin

    The Watcher. The divine spirit. Mother. The old man of the hills. Water, hunger. Listen. Emptiness. The divine nothingness. Snowman. Child

    • charlesburchfield

      I think Bob Dylan called him the Eskimo in the song about the mighty Quinn

  • http://www.michaelwilson.org Michael Wilson

    How about “Father.” That is what Jesus taught us to call Him. Plus, I don’t think He ever “wanted to be God.” He wants to be our Father. I believe that was His intention from the very beginning. Luke 3:38 tells us that Adam was the son of God. So, I choose to call Him Father or more affectionately Papa.

  • Andrew Dowling

    “God” I think carries with it way too much anthropomorphic baggage. I think “spirit” “force” “transcendent reality” are all better terms. But unfortunately New Agers have lumped some of their own baggage on those terms! :)

    • Pete E.

      Well, the biblical authors used “new agey” terms for God . . .

      • Andrew Dowling

        Very true, but they sometimes get literally lost in translation.

  • Marcella Hughes

    I serve a living God who has a Son and his name is Jesus and I won’t say it any other way. I call God my father. Ned Nederlander: If your wife likes you to call her woman that is fine but if my husband said to me Hey woman fetch me a beer I’d tell him to kiss where the sun don’t shine and get it himself. I think that is disrespectful.

  • Percival

    Modern terms and descriptors include portmanteaus like frenemy, sheeple, and Brangelina. So, how about “friend+ lord” = Ford; or Spirit + Son + Father = Sponther or Fasorit. Of course these might just end up making us look silly unless we add “Holy” to the beginning. See what that has done with the term “Holy Ghost?

  • BeamMeUp

    How about: The Christian god with no name (lower case intended).

  • SJ

    It’d be nice if more people knew El Shaddai was a feminine name for God.

    • Pete E.

      I’m not sure that’s right, SJ–at least it’s not certain.

  • Robert

    How about “Bob”?

  • Tim

    Perhaps The Artist Formerly Known as God? (using some sort of strange symbol to represent this, of course) 😉

  • orsidigital

    The premise that in ancient times only colloquial expressions were used to describe Him is the issue here. A cursory reading of God in even Wikipedia shows Father as the common definition. Or reading John. The current discourse is more like is father son and Holy Ghost “God”. Overall, don’t let anything get in the way of allowing His love into your life —
    It is too easy to let such conversations ironically create strife.