"Our God is a consuming fire" (part three)
March 10, 2016
Hebrews 12.28 prescribes that Christian worship be grateful, awe-filled, and reverent. Hebrews 12.29 describes why Christian worship should be so: "our God is a consuming fire." In the preceding post, we paused to consider the significance of this imagery and concluded that it presents God to us as a holy wonder, unprecedented and incomparable in his transcendent brilliance. We also concluded that, if this unprecedented and incomparable God is to be known, enjoyed, and worshiped rightly, he must interpret the meaning of his identity to us in his Word.
God answers our need for divine self-interpretation in the revelation of his name YHWH to Moses and in the actions whereby he brings his promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to pass through the events of the exodus. We may more fully grasp the meaning of the image of God as a consuming fire by contemplating the meaning of this name and the meaning of these events. We will pursue the first path of contemplation in the present post and the latter path in the post that follows.
The meaning of God's name
Along with the holy wonder of the burning bush, Exodus 3 also presents to us the holy wonder of God's name YHWH, the so-called Tetragrammaton. The name YHWH offers further insight regarding the image of God as a consuming fire.
Following a broad tradition of catholic and Protestant exegesis, the Leiden Synopsis identifies YHWH as "the proper name of God." By this name, the Synopsis explains, "God has set himself apart from everything." Like the sign of the burning bush, the name YHWH is unique and unprecedented. According to Francis Turretin, "this name is so peculiar to God as to be altogether incommunicable to creatures." Though God appropriates an almost endless variety of creaturely names in making himself known to his people--he is a warrior, a rock, and a fountain of living water, the name YHWH is not one that he shares with creatures (Isa 42.8). YHWH is God's "holy name" (Ps 145.21).
Given the incommunicable nature of God's proper name, God alone can provide the exegesis of its meaning. And this he does in Exodus 3.14 in response to Moses' request. "I am who I am" is not, strictly speaking, an etymology of YHWH, but a wordplay that expresses something of its enigmatic meaning (thus Andrea Saner). As God's proper name YHWH is absolutely unique, so its exegesis in Exodus 3.14 reveals that its meaning is wholly self-referential, self-interpreting, self-determined. YHWH and YHWH alone is the measure of YHWH's meaning. The Father in relation to whom every family in heaven and on earth is named (Eph 3.14-15) is not himself named in relation to heaven or earth but only in relation to himself.
Exodus 3.14's wordplay on God's proper name associates the name YHWH with "being," as the entire tradition of Christian biblical interpretation (higher critical biblical interpretation excepted) has acknowledged, following both Septuagintal and New Testament glosses of the name. YHWH is "the one who is" (Exod 3.14 LXX), the one "who was and is and is to come" (Rev 4.8). YHWH, moreover, is not identified as being-this or being-that but as absolute being-itself. To be YHWH is to be the absolute fullness of every good thing that may be found to exist in a finite and divided manner in God's creatures. YHWH is "the bread of life" (John 6.35), "the light of the world" (John 8.12), "the door" (John 10.7), "the good shepherd" (John 10.11), "the resurrection and the life" (John 11.25), "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14.6), and "the true vine" (John 15.1). YHWH, furthermore, is absolute being existing in and of himself. As the meaning of this name is self-referential and self-interpreting, so the being of YHWH is self-existent. YHWH has "life in himself" (John 5.26). Finally, the fact that this name is God's memorial name forever (Exod 3.15) indicates that YHWH is eternal and unchanging, a connotation picked up in New Testament evocations of this name as well (John 8.58; Rev 4.8).
YHWH is the proper name of God as holy wonder. By this name, God identifies himself as self-existent, unchanging, fullness of being, "I am who I am." The fire of YHWH burns but the bush is not consumed because YHWH is a fire that burns without need of fuel.
The good news of Exodus 3 is that this God is our God, "the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob," who exhibits his identity as YHWH in trouncing Pharaoh and his armies and in rescuing his people that he might dwell in their midst, that he might speak out of the midst of the fire, that his people might serve and worship him. As we will see more fully in the next post, this is the greatest wonder of all and the defining feature of Christian worship: that YHWH, the eternal and unchanging one, the holy one of Israel, would dwell in the midst of a sinful people and that they would not be consumed.