How far are we bound to the language of Scripture?


Lately, it has struck me more and more that God’s revelation of Himself in Scripture is a revelation of what He is NOT. Many of the theologians and mystics of the Church have spoken about this as the apophatic tradition, the tradition of knowing God by knowing that he is UNlike created things.

As an illustration, I would take the story of the burning bush:
Ex 3:13: Moses said to God: “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘the God of your fathers has sent me to you’, and they ask me, ‘what is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”

  • essentially, Moses is asking God, “which of the gods are you?” thinking in terms of the Egyptian or Near Eastern pagan gods, who each had a name. God answers with a non-name “I am/The Lord”.

In the same way, the 1st & 2nd commandments are very much about setting God apart from ‘gods’ - no images, no name, no others.

The story of Israel’s first king in 1 Samuel 3 also suggests that God’s rulers are NOT to be like the kings of the nations. In some ways, God wants to say, ‘don’t use the word king’. Much of the later misunderstanding of the Messiah, in which the Jews expect a temporal king, seems to fall into this gap.

Our Lord himself seems to say as much to Pilate “You have said so” (Luke 23:3); “You say that I am a king” (John 18:37).

Could it be said that God is trying to reveal Himself and His Messiah using the language of a bronze age Near Eastern tribe, but that neither the term ‘God’ or ‘King’ adequately describe who He is?

I have been wondering how far we should take the language of those deferential societies of old, even the concept of ‘Lord’, with its aristocratic and feudal connotations, as reflecting how God WANTS us to understand Him, and how far these are the limitations of a language that cannot contain Him. Any thoughts?


We have often appropriated words from other cultures into our own language. I’m not sure why it would be a problem to appropriate words in our description of God…of course understanding that no word describes God in His fullness. We are safest when we use words that have been used and approved by the Magisterium and are in common use by our Bishops…the successors of the Apostles.


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