God’s character

On Forgiveness and Majesty

All human life is constituted by forgiveness. Such forgiveness is both costly and difficult – for both offerer and receiver. Costly, because the telos is not to be drawn into a situation of truce but reconciliation, trust and love. Difficult, because two estranged parties are moved from a place of dissatisfaction and what has often become a strange comfort of calloused survival towards a place of new vulnerability, raw tenderness and tentative hope.

‘If forgiveness lies in the memory of wrongs suffered’, writes Miroslav Volf in The End of Memory, ‘it must lie more in what we do with those memories than in the memories themselves. And what we do with our memories will depend on how we see ourselves in the present and how we project ourselves into the future’. I was reminded afresh today in this podcast of the value for human community of Volf’s theological reflections on remembering rightly, on forgiveness, and on truthfulness as a form of justice.

I was also reminded of those haunting words from Simon Wiesenthal’s pen in his significant essay, The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness: It is clear that if we look only to retributive justice, then we could just as well close up shop. Forgiveness is not some nebulous thing. It is practical politics. Without forgiveness, there is no future’ (pp. 267–8).

One, of course, cannot stop there; but must proceed to inquire after the fountain – or source, or justification itself – of such forgiveness. Such asking will bring us – even if it takes eternity to do it – face to face with the true nature of divine majesty which is neither material vastness nor the majesty of force, neither the majesty of mystery nor the majesty of thought. The true majesty of God is his mercy. The true majesty of God is that he did what we would never have done – he had mercy on all flesh. His greatness is not in his loftiness, but in his nearness. God is great not because he is above feeling, but because he feels as none of us can. The majesty of God is completely saturated through and through with his forgiving love, which comes out most of all in his treatment of sin … his treatment of those who would wish him dead.

Names and the Name – 15

The Scriptures contend that God declares himself in what he does. Thus we can speak of God only in attentive acknowledgement of the way he demonstrates his nature (in his acts and his commandments).

Vriezen has noted that ‘God can only be denoted as the Real One according to the functional character of His Being, not in His Being itself.’ If Abba is correct that the basic idea behind the name in the context of Exodus 3 and 4 is ‘presence’ (rather than metaphysics) revealed in what Delitzsch calls ‘the active manifestation of existence’, then God is present in history revealing himself (his character) to humanity through his actions. Is this not why the Bible is more concerned with speaking of the ‘name’ rather than the ‘concept’ or ‘idea’ of God! This personal God will not be confused or subsumed with an idea, Hegelian or otherwise. This does not mean that we are not given to know God as he is in himself, only that we must neither divorce nor confuse ontology and soteriology.

God’s name identifies his nature, so that a request for his ‘name’ is equivalent to asking about his character (Exo 3:13; Hos 12:5). As Coffin notes, ‘The [divine] name is taken as the expression of His nature and character; and His revealed name is associated with His people Israel and with His sanctuary in their midst. Their meeting with Him is more than a meeting with a tribal god, and the basis of their joy is the knowledge of Himself as revealed in His name.’ But it is more than this. Behind Moses’ request is the whole question about how Israel were to understand and define their own future. If Israel were to leave ‘secure nonexistence’ (Robert Jenson) in Egypt and speculate on the promises of their fathers’ God, then they first needed to know what sort of future this God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is. The answer comes in the guise of the name itself: YHWH. In 6:2-8, YHWH moves to define himself as not only the covenant making God of their father’s, but now as the one who has heard the groaning of this slave people Israel in Egypt, and who has remembered his covenant promise, and is therefore determined to redeem these slaves out from under the burdens of the Egyptians with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment that they might be his people, and he their God, and that they might know that YHWH is their God.

The point is that God’s action in history is not primarily with a view to revealing something about himself so much as it is to reveal himself. In this God’s freedom is such that he becomes something that he has never been that his people might know him and become something in him that they could not become apart from his becoming human for our sakes. This revelation of God as being for us in covenant love and faithfulness means that he can be trusted.

It seems to me that attempts to understand the divine name (YHWH) have proved unsatisfactory because scholars have sought to interpret it in isolation from its context. When we do consider the Exodus 3 narrative in its context we discover that the revelation given to Moses at the burning bush was not the revelation of a new and hitherto unknown name, as some have argued, so much as it is the disclosure of the real significance of a name long known. The giving of the name ‘Yahweh’ was the framework of revelation in the religious foundation of Moses and pointed back implicitly to this historical confrontation of God and humanity and all that resulted there-from. What matters is God’s continued, active presence and relationship, and not some abstract existential concept of being.