Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Exodus 3:14 and The Ontological View

The Ontological View and Exodus 3:14

Exodus 3:14 is one of the most thought-provoking and highly debated
scriptures in all of Christian history. A question that immediately
comes up in connection with Exodus 3:14 is--what does Moses mean when he
records the authoritative words of God: 'tell them that I AM THAT I AM
has sent you'. Does this verse embody information that connotes
God's atemporality? Is God delineating His necessary existence (His ESSE A
SE) in this passage? Does this passage deal with ontological aspects of
God, or is there some other point that the writer wants us to glean from the
Hebrew phrase EHYEH ASHER EHYEH?

The second century (as I have contended elsewhere) was a time when Hellenistic religio-philosophical ideas permeated the church (ecclesia). One idea that trickled into the early Christian community was the notion of Divine Impassibility (APAQEIA). The notion of
impassibility seems to have distorted (conceptually) the biblical view of God's immutability. The ancient philosophical doctrine of divine impassibility chiefly stated that:

God was free of the changes and sufferings that characterize human life
and feeling, although derivatively it could also mean impassivity--that
God was indifferent to the changes and sufferings of man. It is
significant that Christian theologians customarily set down the doctrine
of the impassibility of God as an axiom, without bothering to provide
very much biblical support or theological proof . . . Even Tertullian,
for all his hostility to metaphysics, argued this way against Praxeas.
For Athanasius it was "an admitted truth about God that he stands in
need of nothing, but is self-sufficient and filled with
himself...Didymus the Blind took it for granted that the Holy Spirit, as
God, had to be "impassible, indivisible, and immutable." According to
Theodore of Mopsuetia, "it is well known...that the gulf between [the
Eternal One and a temporal being] is unbridgeable"; and again, "it is
known that variety belongs to creatures and simplicity to the divine
nature....The doctrine of the absoluteness and impassibility of God came
to form one of the presuppositions of the trinitarian and christological
issues; and the doctrine of the atonement in Anselm of Canterbury was
based on the axiom "that the divine nature is impassible, and that it
can in no sense be brought down from its loftiness or toil in what it
wills to do. (Pelikan, Jaroslav, The Christian Tradition I:52-4).

The idea of divine impassibility might seem as if it accurately elucidates
God's immutability. Such a conclusion apparently would be mistaken, however. For while the philosophical idea of divine impassibility seemed to articulate the nature of God, it appears to have distorted our understanding of it. The God of the Bible is not presented as an impassible deity. God is neither comparable to the First Mover of Aristotle nor can he be equated with The Good (the inexhaustible Ground of all Being) in Plato's Republic. To the contrary:

"Implicit in the biblical view of God as the Creator [is] the
affirmation of his sovereign independence: God [is] not dependent on his
creatures as they are on him . . . in their assertion of the freedom of
God, the prophets emphasized at the same time his involvement with the
covenant people in love and wrath. Therefore the Old Testament doctrine
of the sovereign freedom of God [cannot] be synonymous with the
philosophical doctrine of divine impassibility (APAQEIA)" (Pelikan, Christian Traditon, 52).

Impassibility denotes that God is free from the quality of becoming or
not subject to the vicissitudes concomitant with life in the finite
sphere of existence. In contrast, the Hebrew prophets affirm the active presence and power of God in their lives. They affirm a God who is living and
dynamic: EHYEH ASHER EHYEH. Exodus 3:14 contributes to this dynamic
view of YHWH. With the aforementioned information in mind, we will now
review this passage.

In the church of antiquity, Exodus 3:14 was believed
to be the supreme proof of God's impassibility. The hermeneutic views on this
text were divergent, yet there were numerous attempts to interpret
Exodus 3:14 in an ontological manner. Clement of Alexandria wrote that the verse meant that "God is one, and beyond the one and above the monad itself."
Hilary exclaims that Exodus 3:14 is "an indication concerning God so
exact that it expresses in the terms best adapted to human understanding
an unattainable insight into the mystery of the divine nature" (Pelikan, Christian Tradition,
54). Thomas Aquinas interpreted Exodus 3:14 in accordance with the Vulgate rendering "Qui est" (He Who Is). But is this view accurate? Should Exodus 3:14 be
understood in an ontological sense?

While I believe that all of the aforementioned ideas have some merit, it seems that that are only shadows pointing to the reality of God. Exodus 3:14 evidently is not an ontological statement of God's deity. It does not tell us so much about God's nature (His ONTWS), as it informs us about His purposes and functions with regard to the divine purposes. I would contend that the phenomenological view of Exodus 3:14 comes much closer to telling us what
the verse means. The phenomenological construal of the passage espouses the idea that God is the One who will "be" in the sense of carrying out His purposes (i.e. "he is the one causing to be"). In this exegetical paradigm, what God is to "be" is left unstated. He will become whatsoever he has to "become" in order to accomplish his purposes or manifest his presence. In Bibliotheca Sacra, Charles Gianotti offers some pertinent criticism regarding the ontological view of Exodus 3:14. He himself espouses either the phenomenological or the covenantal view. Concerning Exodus 3:14 and the ontological view, Gianotti writes:

This view seems to rest on the Septuagint translation of Exodus 3:14
(EGW EIMI hO WN). On the face of it, the use of eijmi seems to support
his view. This view is untenable for a number of reasons. Though the
Septuagint is a serviceable translation of the Pentateuch, the
Septuagint is not inspired; it is a human translation by Jewish
scholars. The primary understanding of Exodus 3:14 should come, rather,
from a contextual understanding of the passage as well as from an
analysis of the meaning and usage of the Hebrew term hy*h* and its
imperfect form hy#h=a# . . . Significantly, most interpreters translate
hy#h=a# in Exodus 3:12 as future (i.e.. "I will be [hy#h=a#] with you").
Yet, two verses later, why should not the same translation suffice?

Gianotti sums up matters by writing:

One may safely conclude that Exodus 3:14 does not support an
"ontological" or "existence" view; the name YHWH therefore is not rooted
in that view, by virtue of its close relation to Exodus 3:14.

In view of the Scriptural framework wherein Exodus 3:14 was originally
written, I espouse the phenomenological view of this verse. The passage
does not appear to support the ontological view favored by the early church writers.


Desiderius Erasmus said...

I agree that a bold, philosophical statement of absolute Being seems anachronistic in Exodus, and its interpretation has gotten ever more existential into the modern period. The "I Am" rendering itself sounds more like Tillich than YHWH to me. It might be useful, though, to delineate between two "phenomenological" meanings: God becoming, and God being there. It seems that the latter is the understanding Gianotti posits (though I'm only going by that limited quotation), and I think it works very well in the context.

Verses 11 and 13 parallel each other in that Moses tries to excuse himself, and so it seems intuitive that Jehovah's replies are parallel. In both cases, and this could work for God's reply to 4:1 and 4:10, he reassures Moses of his presence and engagement. I don't mean to say that his first reply limits the second (and the language is different), but it's fair to let it inform our reading of ehyeh asher ehyeh, given its ambiguity.

On the other hand, setting aside the ideological constructs of immutability and impassability, which are entirely foreign to the Scriptures, couldn't there be something to the traditional interpretation? An ontological statement here, though it may feel out of place, is not entirely extra-biblical. Job and Ecclesiastes are very existential so it is certainly not beyond the Tanak to be so philosophical, and we cannot rule out this kind of divine self-disclosure. Why such a peculiar reply? Is God being coy?

Edgar Foster said...

I love Google Books. I had not read Gianotti's article in years--it appears in Bibliotheca Sacra--but I found it in Roy B. Zuck's text _Vital Old Testament Issues_. See http://books.google.com/books?id=hpWE1kTCkHcC&pg=PA35&dq=exodus+3:14+and+the+phenomenological+view&lr=&sig=ACfU3U2aDYzs9sCx5doFaJ-NqyX3FgbF1A#PPA28,M1

By "phenomenological," Gianotti indeed does evidently mean "God reveals himself by his actions in history." I believe that this understanding of those momentous words to Moses at the thorn bush comport well with the words of YHWH (Jehovah), "I will prove to be." See Exodus 3:12.

Gianotti says that the Hebrew of Exodus 3:14 "cannot" support the ontological understanding of the text. I am inclined to agree based on what I know about metaphysics, ontology or philosophy. Job and Ecclesiastes may be philosophical in the broad sense of the term. But neither book is reflective in the strict philosophical sense. The writers of Scripture are not doing metaphysics which is why it is very difficult to get metaphysical or ontological mileage of scriptural pronouncements. I know that you know what I'm saying, but for example, Job is not being existential qua Sartre, Camus or Kierkegaard. He is not trying to discover whether there is any meaning to his suffering or whether there is none at all. His concerns appear to be theological (for lack of a better term) rather than existential.

Having said all of the foregoing, I appreciate your thoughtful remarks.

Best regards,