Threefold Way of Divine Naming

Due to our finitude, our language cannot completely describe God comprehensively. However, due to our likeness to God (Gen. 1:27), there are certain qualities of creatures that reflect His attributes. Therefore, the Bible uses anthropomorphic language to describe God. Ironically, it is so tricky that men fall into the trap of idolatry because of anthropomorphism. Idolatry does not only mean worshipping false gods, but also mean “worshipping Yahweh through visible symbols,” (ISBE, Idolatry) (Hos. 8:5-6, 10:5) or “think that the divine being is… an image formed by art and imagination of man” (Acts 17:29). This states the danger of idolatry using anthropomorphic language about God.

The threefold way (way of causation, way of negation, and way of eminence) helps us avoid idolatry. In the way of causation, God is the source of all creaturely perfection, for example, “a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (Ps. 119:105) God is like human and other creaturely being that a creature object is helpful to name Him. But we can easily depict God as if He were the created object literally in this anthropomorphic language, instead focusing on the real attributes these names really point to. Then we need the way of negation.

In the way of negation, God is described in a negative way because he is set apart from all creaturely modes of perfection. Some of God’s names and attributes cannot be possibly described positively in human languages or with any creaturely objects, making us name God as “being not something.” Examples include God is immutable, meaning “the Lord do not change.” (Mal. 3:6) However, naming God in a negative way does not reveal any new knowledge about God. But by using negation, we mean to affirm attributes of God that are not incommunicable, and that are not found in humans. This points to the way of eminence of divine naming.

In the way of eminence, God is supreme in all perfection. For example, He is “steadfast love” (Ps. 51:1), and “the deliverer” (Ps. 18:2). But God is immanent, implying that these names in the way of eminence is meaningful if He is also the source of all creaturely perfection. This points back to the need of the way of causation.

By using the threefold way of divine naming, we can comprehensively cover the names that describe His being the source of all we need, and asserts attributes that are totally not human. This way of naming allows us to use the anthropomorphic language that is accommodated to human understanding; it is appropriate because all creatures are theomorphic: we are like Him as we were made in His image. (Gen. 1:27) This ensures that we are aware that some of the divine names reflect His holiness. Hence, we do not conceiving God in a naive creaturely ways as the Athenians did. (Acts 17:29)

  • Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, God and Creation. Edited by John Bolt. Translated by John Vriend. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003. [Amazon]
  • Frame, John M. The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God: a Theology of Lordship. Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 1987. [Amazon]
  • “Idolatry.” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ISBE) Online. [ISBE]
  • Swain, Scott R. Trinity, Revelation, and Reading: A Theological Introduction to the Bible and its Interpretation. New York, NY: T&T Clark International, 2011. [Amazon]
  • “Catholic views on God.” [Wikipedia]
  • Kwan-yuet Ho, “God of Psalm 51,” reformator: living perspectivally, WordPress (2016). [WordPress]

Feature image: dome of The Basilica Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

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