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Advent book review: Naming God: Addressing the divine in philosophy, theology and scripture by Janet Soskice

by
27 October 2023

John Saxbee considers the question how God’s people call upon him

IT HAS not always been so. In this masterly and very accessible survey, Janet Soskice, Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology in the University of Cambridge, demonstrates how it was as recently as the 16th century that whether and how God could be named gave way to focusing on whether and how God could be afforded existential definition and attributes. Soskice shows how, for by far the greater part of Christian history, these concerns were subservient to a preoccupation with divine naming.

Just think of the “O” antiphons, along with Alpha, Omega, Lamb, Lion, Almighty, Eternal, etc. The list is long and provides a thoroughly scriptural basis for the reclamation of divine naming as crucial to the relationship between philosophy and the Christian tradition.

But, of course, it is the story of Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3) which is pivotal. In spite of attempts to portray the God of the Hebrews as some kind of “metaphysical monster”, Soskice interprets the story as a foundational account of God’s love and nearness. It is about calling, and being called upon, which goes to the heart of how and why naming matters so much in our relationship to God, our neighbour, and the world around us. Furthermore, it is about how God, instead of being named, names Godself with the Tetragrammaton — “I AM WHO I AM”. This is not God as a Cartesian “timeless abstraction”, but “the God who Israel meets in her moment of need”. The Bible effectively names God as “Being itself” — at the heart of everything, near to everyone, and present in the practice of prayer.

Solstice shows how medieval and modern practitioners and proponents of the presence of God — from Gregory of Nyssa, via Augustine, Aquinas, right up to Karl Barth, Paul Ricoeur, and Pope Francis — are not so much seeking for a name that is the best description of God, “but the most appropriate name by which to praise God for God’s gifts to us”.

Naming God as “Being itself” is scriptural, but also consistent with the metaphysical implications of creation ex nihilo. It grounds all other names — Way, Truth, Beauty, Mercy, etc. — as relating analogically to ultimate Being Itself. To call upon God by such names is to call upon God as one who is present as “I AM WHO I AM” to all that is.

A chapter on how names work in general and with regard to the naming of God in particular is itself worth the purchase price. Some readers would wish for more explicit reference to the part played by divine naming in gendering God. Others will want to hear more from her about the implications of her conclusions for Christian theodicy. But this is a thoughtful and thought-provoking essay by one of this country’s leading philosophical theologians.


The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.

 

Naming God: Addressing the divine in philosophy, theology and scripture
Janet Soskice
Cambridge University Press £30
(978-1-108-83446-9)
Church Times Bookshop £27

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