Early in the morning Moses went up Mount Sinai
as the LORD had commanded him,
taking along the two stone tablets.
Having come down in a cloud, the LORD stood with Moses there
and proclaimed his name, "LORD."
Thus the LORD passed before him and cried out,
"The LORD, the LORD, a merciful and gracious God,
slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity."
Moses at once bowed down to the ground in worship.
Then he said, "If I find favor with you, O Lord,
do come along in our company.
This is indeed a stiff-necked people; yet pardon our wickedness and sins,
and receive us as your own."
Brothers and sisters, rejoice.
Mend your ways, encourage one another,
agree with one another, live in peace,
and the God of love and peace will be with you.
Greet one another with a holy kiss.
All the holy ones greet you.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ
and the love of God
and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.
God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him might not perish
but might have eternal life.
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world,
but that the world might be saved through him.
Whoever believes in him will not be condemned,
but whoever does not believe has already been condemned,
because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
All the theses we were expected to defend during our seminary dogmatic theology courses began with a “definition of terms.” We had to give the meaning or “essential nature” of every word or concept in the thesis. A good way to begin if one is an “either/or” Greek thinker. But if one thinks like our Semitic “both/and” sacred authors, defining terms can be a problem – especially if one of those terms is “God.”
It’s no accident that our Trinitarian definition of God as “three persons in one” wasn’t formulated as such until the Council of Nicea in 325 CE, long after Greek thought had hijacked Christianity. If the question of defining God had come up in the first Christian century I’m certain our biblical authors would have challenged the questioner’s faith. The essential nature of God isn’t something a person of scriptural faith can provide with a simple either/or response. And certainly not something today’s three sacred authors would even think of doing. They’re much more concerned with talking about what they’ve experienced God doing in their lives than in defining who God is.
In today’s Exodus pericope, for instance, we must appreciate that our biblical writers presume a person’s name actually stands for the person. So when God proclaims the name “Yahweh” in front of Moses he/she is giving the great lawgiver an intimate glimpse into God’s nature, a nature which can only be grasped by someone to whom Yahweh’s been “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity.” In the mind of the sacred author, Yahweh is what Yahweh does.
By the way, I trust more and more Christians will gradually begin to use Yahweh’s name and not God or the Lord in their prayers. It’s a long story why that name isn’t employed in most English translations of the Bible. (The Jerusalem Bible is a notable exception.) But, as we hear in this Exodus passage, Yahweh certainly wishes to be called by that name. Why do we constantly refuse to honor his/her wishes?
Though Paul refers to God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit in our I Corinthians passage, he doesn’t mention anything about three persons in one God. He simply seems to be reminding his community about the different ways in which the God we follow is a “God of love and peace.” No matter how God comes into our lives – for Christians through Jesus and the Holy Spirit – these two attributes are always present. According to the Apostle, they’re parts of the divine nature we can and should be imitating.
John especially zeroes in on the love dimension. In one of the best-known lines of the Christian Scriptures, he reminds his readers, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” For John, being God’s Son doesn’t help Jesus lay claim to being the Second Person of the Trinity, but as proof positive that God loves us. He presumes that without some sort of sacrifice there can be no legitimate love. Especially in this passage the evangelist points us to the depth of God’s sacrifice.
It might be providential that Greek thought eventually permeated Christian faith. We probably couldn’t have catechisms without it. (Had we “stuck” with Semitic thought our books of Christian formation would be at least as thick as the Bible!) But on the other hand, such a way of either/or thinking also made it more convenient for us to define God rather than reflect on God’s actions in our lives. Certainly left us off the hook. I don’t know how someone would go about imitating a definition.