God’s Unique Identity: Being-In-Act and The Un-image-ability of God

The conclusion that is reached from the previous study is that Jewish monotheism was preserved throughout pre-exilic, post-exilic, and even late Second Temple writings. Along with this strict commitment to monotheism we also see the proclamation of the uniqueness of the God of the Jews; a uniqueness that characterizes God’s being as distinct from all others. Instead of applying metaphysical linguistic categories to describe the nature of God’s whatness, the current contention is that the Jewish depictions of God are not so much attempts at describing what the nature of divinity is but rather describing who God is to His covenant people; as distinct from the pagan gods of the surrounding nations. And thus, it is in this “who” that God’s “whatness” is revealed.

Returning to an issue mentioned above, Jewish monotheism was self-consciously monotheistic. The whole daily regimen of the Jewish people was centered on the unique character of Yahweh, from reciting the Shema to enacting the requirements of torah. All such religious activities contributed to the Jewish affirmation of God’s unique identity. For our purposes, identity is defined as “the personal identity of self-continuity.”[1] It is not merely an ontological description. Rather, identity includes “both character and personal story (the latter entailing relationships).”[2] In other words, God’s identity is His being-in-act.

Advocates of a being-in-act theo-ontology such as Barth, Jenson, and Jungel claim that being and act are inextricably held together.[3] “[We] cannot leave the sphere of [God’s] action and working as it is revealed to us in His Word. God is who He is in His works.”[4] Barth would not claim that God is non-existent outside of His works. He is not some sort of cosmic force or act. He is still affirmed as a person. “He is who He is without [His works].” But at the same time, “He is not another than He is in His works.”[5] Therefore, when describing God’s identity one need look no further than the very works that He performs.

Some have tried (in vain perhaps) to extrapolate from His works to His “essence.” But such extrapolation is neither beneficial nor precise. If one adopts the model of God that seeks to affirm that God’s actions (His revelation) are the expressions of the character of God, a dualistic (Gnostic-esque) view of reality easily emerges. According to this model, God’s acts are simply “signs” proceeding from His essential nature. Thus, one must extrapolate from His revealed “character” back to what He “really is.” In response to this, first of all, it might be noted that such extrapolation is done primarily through philosophical investigation, not theological exegesis. The language that is thus employed is very similar to (if not rooted in) Aristotelian property distinction. God then becomes a being comprised of component parts oft labeled “attributes,” which make up the sum of His essence. Therefore, it is easy to see how proponents of this view could very well be categorized within Gnostic-esque tradition, for they affirm the ability to reach a higher level of understanding through reasoned extrapolation (from revelation to God’s “real” identity). They are attempting to pull back the curtain (remove the mask) to reveal what is behind. Then once the “Real” is viewed, the person applies a linguistic symbol to an aspect of it, claiming then that this symbol is an accurate description; when in reality, all that has occurred is a form of idolatry. The person has sought to contain God within a linguistic symbolic representation.

A second response deals with the nature of God’s revelation in this paradigm. If God’s actions are somehow distinct from His being (the “Real”) then revelation is nothing more than a simulacrum. In other words, according to this way of thinking, God’s acts are nothing more than signs; signs that display whom He really is. Thus, our experience of God (through signs) is nothing more than a simulacrum. We don’t really know or experience God. We experience the shared signs of His revelation. But, if the above noted model is rejected in favor of God’s identity as His being-in-act then God is not withheld “behind the curtain.” He becomes present and experienced in full.

The indissoluble union of act and being is sometimes represented with seemingly metaphysical categories in the canon and in extra-Biblical literature[6] (even in Barth for that matter). But perhaps such language is better understood as theological rhetoric describing God’s identity (i.e. who God is), not defining divine whatness. In Moses’ encounter with God on Mount Sinai the voice of the Lord proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”[7] Here we see that God is declared as “merciful and gracious,” both terms that could be applied to God as properties of His metaphysical being. But a better approach would be to recognize that this self-designation of God refers to mercy and grace in His acts, His “keeping steadfast love for thousands [and] forgiving iniquity.”

In the Decalogue, we see that God is jealous, who will visit “the iniquity of the fathers on the children… of those who hate [Him].”[8] The threat here is that God will interact in horizontal affairs should the Israelites disobey Him. Can God thus be given the properties of “jealousness” and “justness”? Perhaps. But such categories might very well lead to metaphysical speculation and further confusion about who God is, which should be our primary concern. Our language is already stretched in trying to define who God is. Trying to define what He is will only further muddy the water.

This is not to say that any attribution to God of a linguistic category is somehow wrong. But rather than looking at such categories as describing the divine essence, we ought to be satisfied with claiming that such attributions are merely the human recognition of God’s consistent actions in the affairs of creation. Is there some theologically necessary reason for applying Greek metaphysical language to the God of Israel? The best answer seems to be, “no.” Thus, theologians ought to remain satisfied with describing God in terms of His theo-ontology, His being-as-act.

Once we begin to concentrate on who God is (over and against what He is), it becomes quite apparent that God is not like other divine beings in any way. He is unique, primarily in two ways: (1) God is who He is by way of His personal interaction with His covenant people and (2) by reference to His unique relationship as Creator and Sovereign over all things.[9]

It is through His personal interaction in the history of Israel that God’s being is defined–albeit by way of human analogy. God’s identity “breaks out of the human analogy, but its starting point is clearly the analogy of human personal identity.”[10] Much of the Jewish understanding of God comes from the Jews’ portrayal of God in the narratives of Israel. In these narratives God is one of the characters in the story. He is identifiable much like the other characters: He has a personal identity within the narrative. Different from the other characters in the narratives, however, His identity is uniquely consistent: He is consistently portrayed as the one who rescued the Jews from bondage in Egypt.[11] For the Jews, this is who God is. This is why He is unique: no other God delivered them from bondage but their loving God, Yahweh.

Yahweh is also unique because of His sole role as Creator of and Sovereign over all things. According to Bauckham, in Second Temple Judaism, the primary thing that “distinguished God from all other reality… is that the only true God, YHWH, the God of Israel, is sole Creator of all things and sole Ruler of all things.”[12] Even the gods that the gentiles worshipped were subject to God’s rule. Therefore He alone is worthy of worship because He is the sole Creator and Ruler of all things.

Perhaps it would be safe to conclude then that it is this unique identity of God that makes Him transcendent. He is transcendent – not because He exists in some lofty, Ideal world – but because he is Unique. And such uniqueness is such that in no sense can be transcended.[13] In other words, the unique identity of God is the greatest transcendent quality conceivable.

It is this transcendent quality (the uniqueness of God) that lies behind the Jewish concept of the un-image-ability of God. If one examines the first and second commandment of the Decalogue, this becomes quite clear. The prologue to the actual commandments is a reminder of God’s unique identity: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”[14] Then He follows this with, “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image.”[15] It is almost as if God were declaring, “I am the unique God, unlike any other you may have known. And in light of my unique identity, you are forbidden to worship these other non-unique gods, for they have done nothing for you (implied: they are really nothing). But I, Yahweh, have done much for you, by releasing you from bondage and giving you life. Therefore, you shall worship me alone in my uniqueness, not emulating the gentile nations, who create for themselves images for worship.”

That God is un-image-able is also clearly found in the Second Temple writings of Josephus:

He [Moses] represented him [God] as one, uncreated and immutable to all eternity; in beauty surpassing all mortal thought, made known to us by his power, although the nature of his real being passes knowledge… By his works and bounties he is plainly seen, indeed more manifest than aught else; but his form and magnitude surpass our powers of description. No materials, however costly, are fit to make an image of him; no art has skill to conceive and represent it. The like of him we have never seen, we do not imagine, and it is impious to conjecture.[16]

 Ignoring for our purposes here that Josephus self-consciously uses metaphysical terms in his depiction of God,[17] the striking emphasis in this passage is that God is unable to be imaged, as His “form and magnitude surpass our powers of description.” He is utterly transcendent in His unique identity. And thus, the consistent testimony concerning God’s identity is that He is un-image-able.

[1] Bauckham, God Crucified, 7

[2] Bauckham, God Crucified, 7

[3] Eberhard Jungel, The Doctrine of the Trinity: God’s Being is in Becoming. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976): 64

[4] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics. II. Vol 1. (New York : Harper & Row, 1961): 260

[5] Barth, CD II/1, 260

[6] Ex 34:6; Josephus, etc…

[7] Ex 34: 6-7

[8] Ex 20:5

[9] Bauckham, God Crucified, 10

[10] Bauckham, God Crucified, 8

[11] Robert Jenson, Systematic Theology. Vol 1. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997): 44

[12] Bauckham, God Crucified, 11. Most scholars believe that there was a shift during the intertestamental times from emphasizing God’s identity as being primarily concerned with His “saving acts in the election of the patriarchs, in the exodus of the people from Egypt, and in the gift of the land” to emphasizing God’s power as Creator and Sovereign over all things (see F. Hahn, “The Confession of the One God in the New Testament,” p. 71)

[13] Jungel, Trinity, 65

[14] Ex 20:2

[15] Ex 20:3-4

[16] Josephus, Ap. 2.167, 190-191

[17] In this fragment, Josephus seemingly applies Aristotelian language in describing God. But I am inclined to think that this small quote actually demonstrates the thesis from above; that both being and act are united in the Jewish understanding of God, for in one sentence Josephus can claim that God’s being “passes knowledge” and that “His form surpasses our powers of description.” But in the same sentence and context he can also assert that “by [His] works… [He] is plainly seen.” A further discussion of this can be found in Bauckham’s God Crucified, 8.