Christ therefore is, and always is; for He, who is, always is. And Christ always is, of whom Moses says: He that is has sent me.
–St. Ambrose of Milan, Exposition of the Christian Faith, 5.1.25
And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!”
–Revelation 4:8 (ESV)
The Secret Name of God
Moses was puzzled. First off, his ordinary day of shepherding had been interrupted by the inexplicable sight of a bush that was on fire, yet not burning up. Then a voice came out of the bush claiming to the God of the great patriarchs of old. To top it off, this voice was telling him, little old Moses who was on the run for murder and living with his father-in-law, that he would go to Pharaoh and set the people of Israel free. So Moses asks for assurance that God really has the right guy. God insists that He does. Moses is still not sure that he is talking to the right god. So he asks for a name. The reply:
God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.Exodus 3:14-15
Notice that “God also said”. In the Hebrew Bible, when a person speaks twice in a row like that, it means that they have received no reply. Moses was still confused, indeed dumbfounded, by the strange name that God had given him. “I am who I am”? What is that supposed to mean? This was not a name like Marduk or Osiris. How was Moses supposed to communicate that name to the Israelites, much less to Pharaoh? So God clarifies that the same God of the patriarchs is I AM. The Hebrew for the relevant part of verse 15 is (transliterated): Yahweh elohe abotekem elohe Avraham elohe Yishaq welohe Ya’akob (“The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”). Notice that both YHWH and Elohim are united here. The personal God of the patriarchs was thus being given a new name that had only been revealed to Moses. The people of Israel would come to believe that this new name was the truest and holiest name of God.
In revealing this secret name to Moses, God was giving to him the authority to act as his emissary on the earth. Those who bear the name of the Lord are his ambassadors (2 Cor. 5:20). More importantly, God’s new name was a revelation of His essential character. Perhaps the most noticeable aspect of this for Jews is the Lord’s holiness. We don’t even know how to pronounce YHWH, because it is considered such a holy word that good Jews never speak it aloud. Whatever else is going on with this name, it is clear that it (and the One who bears it) have tremendous power. Jews say “Adonai” instead, and adding the vowels of Adonai to YHWH leads to the familiar (but incorrect) pronunciation of “Jehovah”. Scholars generally believe that “Yahweh” is the closest we can get to the original pronunciation, but even that is just a guess. God is so much greater that us that even His true name is a bit of a mystery. As for what YHWH means, there have been many suggestions. A few, listed in the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible include: “Truly He!”; “My One”; “He Who Is”; “He Who Brings Into Being”; “He Who Storms”. YHWH is, as I said, clearly related to the Hebrew word for being or “to be”, hayah. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob just is.
There are a few awesome implications of this most holy name of God. The ESV Study Bible lists four: (1) God is self-existent, and therefore not dependent on anyone else for His existence; (2) God is the creator and sustainer of all that exists; (3) God is immutable in being and character (see Heb. 13:8); and (4) God is eternal in His existence. Thus, a quick definition of God is the self-existent, immutable, and eternal creator of all that is. This is a very different being from the one that Moses thought he was talking to. The gods of other nations may be creators or destroyers, and may have awesome power. But they are not the eternal and singular author and sustainer of everything. The God of the Hebrews, in his self-revelation to Moses, thus puts himself above all other gods as the only one who is truly worthy of worship. All those other gods might be powerful, but none of them are necessary for the entire cosmos to exist. This is why atheists miss the point when some say that they just “worship one less god than you”. We have not chosen to worship one god among many. We worship YHWH, the only author and perfecter of the universe.
The Leibnizian Cosmological Argument
For those of you with a background in philosophy and/or apologetics, alarm bells are probably going off about now. Reading these verses bring to mind my favorite argument for the existence of God: Leibniz’s cosmological argument. I like this argument because its relatively easy to understand, intuitively satisfying, logically sound, and difficult to argue against. It was, as the name suggests, developed by Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646-1715), a candidate for the smartest person to ever live. In addition to small accomplishments like discovering calculus and revolutionizing modern philosophy, he also devised a cataloguing system for Europe’s libraries that laid the groundwork for modern library science. Obviously, this is a great man. Of course, his cosmological argument was building on foundations going back as far as Aristotle running through St. Thomas Aquinas’s Five Ways. Nevertheless, his version has both simplicity and rigor on its side. The argument runs as follows:
Premise 1: Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence (either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause)
Premise 2: If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God
Premise 3: The universe exists
Premise 4: Therefore, the universe has an explanation of its existence (from 1 & 3)
Premise 5: Therefore, the explanation of the universe’s existence is God (from 2 & 4)
Conclusion: Therefore, God exists
This argument is logically sound, meaning that if you accept the truth of the premises, you must accept the conclusion. But are the premises sound? Let’s go through each one.
Premise #1: This premise states what is known as the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR). Without this principle, we would expect things to pop into and out of existence all the time for no reason whatsoever. If you were to encounter an elephant in your backyard, you would probably like to know why. The answer isn’t just that elephants sometimes materialize into backyards (and even if that was the kind of thing that happened, such events would themselves require an explanation). Science depends upon the PSR because otherwise we would never be able to rule out that the things we observe are happening for no reason. Logic would also be a goner. The PSR also allows us to explain a negative state of affairs. The question “why is that bush not on fire?” makes no sense, while the question “why is that burning bush not being consumed?” does. Both questions presuppose that things which exist have a reason for their existence.
Before we get to premise two, Leibniz makes an important distinction which is required in order for his argument to be valid. There are two types of existent things: contingent and necessary. Almost everything is contingent. The computer I’m typing this on is dependent upon the production of electricity and software developers and miners of rare minerals, etc., etc. You only exist because your parents…well, you know. If your parents had never met, you would not exist, and your parents would not exist if their parents had never met, and so on. In other words, contingent things are explained by the existence of something else. Necessary things, on the other hand, simply must exist by their very nature. In some possible universes, unicorns exist (they are contingent). But in every possible universe, a triangle has three sides. A circular triangle is an impossibility because three-sidedness is intrinsic to triangles. It is necessary. Thus, the concept of a triangle explains its own existence. This will be an important distinction as we move on to….
Premise #2: This is obviously the most consequential and controversial premise. We must first tackle the objection that the universe simply explains itself, i.e. the universe is necessary. The universe, however, is not necessary. Think about two kinds of questions related to octagons. “Why is that octagon red?” or “why is that octagon so big?” have intelligible replies (such as “it’s a stop sign” or “it’s an mixed martial arts ring”), whereas “why does that octagon have eight sides?” just deserves the retort “because it’s an octagon”. So does the question “why does the universe exist?” deserve the reply “because it’s a universe”? No, because existence is not a necessary quality of a universe. The universe must have an external cause.
The question, then, is what sort of thing is this cause of the universe? Well, the most notable fact of the universe is that it is always changing (at least at the subatomic level). Change means that some potential is actualized, like a train car being moved down a track. But even as an infinitely long chain of train cars cannot move without a locomotive, so too can cause-and-effect only have been put into motion by an uncaused (necessary) thing. This cause must be changeless, because the cause of the universe is pure actuality and pure actuality can have no unrealized potential (otherwise it would be contingent). I’ll pause here to note that infinite regress of contingency is logically impossible and would violate the PSR. The cause of the universe must also be timeless/eternal because time is simply a measure of change, and the cause is changeless. Furthermore, time and space are not separate entities but part of a continuum (thanks Einstein!), so that which caused all matter must have also caused time as well. The last two qualities leads to the inescapable conclusion that the cause of the universe is also immaterial. Material objects are subject to both change and time, and the universe’s cause cannot be either. If the cause brought the universe into being ex nihilo, it must be omnipotent (or, more modestly, unimaginably powerful). In other words, to be pure actuality, the cause must have no potential that it cannot actualize.
Lastly, the cause of the universe must be personal, that is, it must have the qualities of a conscious being rather than a mindless force. We can conclude this for at least three reasons. First, things that exist are either concrete or abstract. A stop sign is concrete; the shape of an octagon and the color red are abstract. Abstract things have no causal power, since they are merely conceptual, so the cause must be concrete. However, we know that the cause is immaterial, and the only concrete immaterial thing we know of are minds. So the cause is some kind of mind. Second, there are two kinds of explanations of physical phenomena: scientific and personal. The scientific explanation for why a pot of water is boiling involves heat exciting the water molecules; the personal explanation is that I’m cooking spaghetti. An ex nihilo universe must have a personal explanation, because a state of nothingness has no matter, energy, or physical laws that could provide a scientific one. Third, abstract entities only exist in the mind and some of them are necessary. Therefore, a necessary mind must have been their cause. In conclusion, the cause of the universe is some kind of mind, and this mind must know literally everything in the universe, thus we could rightly call it omniscient.
So, to sum up: if the universe has a cause, that cause is a necessarily existing, uncaused, changeless, eternal, immaterial, omnipotent, and omniscient being. We call such a being God.
Premise #3: This premise feels like it should have no objections, but there are some, albeit weak ones (in my opinion). Some scientists postulate a multiverse instead of a singular universe, but such a multiverse is no more philosophically necessary than a universe and so is contingent and needing an external cause. A popular view among some techie types is that we are living in a simulation produced by a super-intelligent artificial intelligence. But, of course, a super-intelligent AI is contingent as well, so what caused it? Lastly, some people believe that everything is just an illusion. How can we know that what we are experiencing isn’t just a massive dream? Well, if we can’t trust either our senses or out intuition, then science, logic, and, indeed, everything we might do to understand or meaningfully act in the world is pointless. That the universe exists is a basic premise for all knowledge. I think we can accept that it is true.
Premises #4 & 5, and Conclusion: The final two “premises” are actually just logical deductions from the first three, as indicated in my articulation of the argument above. Since the universe exists, it must have an explanation. And since the universe’s explanation must be God, God must exist. I have not tried to address all possible objections to this argument, but have just articulated it to the best of my understanding. The nature of the universe points to a Great I AM, and that I AM has revealed himself to be the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
The Necessary Christ
The idea that God is a necessary being may sound like the sort of highfalutin nonsense we’ve come to expect from both modern philosophy and medieval scholastics. But this idea is a fundamental Christian idea, and not just from the medieval Catholicism of St. Thomas Aquinas. See, for example, early Church father St. Jerome:
There is one nature of God and one only; and this, and this alone, truly is. For absolute being is derived from no other source but is all its own. All things besides, that is all things created, although they appear to be, are not. For there was a time when they were not, and that which once was not may again cease to be. God alone who is eternal, that is to say, who has no beginning, really deserves to be called an essence. Therefore also He says to Moses from the bush, “I am that I am”, and Moses says of Him, “I am has sent me”.St. Jerome, Letter 15.4 (to Pope Damasus, c. AD 377)
But it goes back ever further. Jesus Christ himself equates his own nature with that of the Great I AM. When walking upon the water, Jesus says the the disciples “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid” (Matt. 14:27, cf. Mark 6:50). That “it is I” is eigo eimi in Greek, literally “I am”. Jesus is demonstrating that He is God by walking on the water, just as He had mastered “the deep” in creation by ordering the cosmos (see Gen. 1:2). He makes this even more explicit in the gospel of John when the Jewish leaders scoff that He could not be greater than Abraham. Jesus’ reply: “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (8:58). St. Paul expounds upon this truth:
He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.Colossians 1:15-19
This is why the early Church fathers believed that the “angel” that appeared to Moses (and the “angel of the Lord” throughout the Old Testament) was actually the pre-incarnate Son. It was Jesus who appeared to Moses in the burning bush, just as St. Ambrose indicates in the epigraph above. And it is Jesus, the one “who was, and is, and is to come”, the necessary and eternal cause of all that is, whom we shall worship forever. God’s plan of salvation that He revealed to Moses at the burning bush was so much bigger than just rescue from slavery in Egypt. It was rescue from slavery to sin and a promise of everlasting life, of eternal joy in the presence of the Great I AM. In a time when everything seems always in flux and all foundations feel uncertain, may we hold onto this lasting truth and put our trust in Jesus, the Great I AM.
Endnote: A big tip of the cap to Catholic apologist Trent Horn and Protestant apologist William Lane Craig, along with the YouTube channel Inspiring Philosophy, for helping me to understand and articulate the cosmological argument, even though Horn prefers St. Thomas’s Five Ways and Craig prefers the Kalam cosmological argument. There may only be one Way to the Father, but there are many ways of discovering Him!