I Am that I AmMarch 30, 2009 — Deacon Duncan
No, it’s not a quote from Popeye. It’s the response of the biblical God to Moses’ request for His name. We can read about it in chapter 3 of the book of Exodus, verses 13-15:
And Moses said unto God, Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them, The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me, What is his name? what shall I say unto them?
And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you.
And God said moreover unto Moses, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, the LORD God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, hath sent me unto you: this is my name for ever, and this is my memorial unto all generations.
It’s a common misconception, and one that wasn’t corrected until centuries after Moses. Fortunately, the Council of Nicea came along in the third century and set us all straight. God is not an “I AM THAT I AM,” He’s a “WE ARE THAT WE ARE.”
It’s one of the great ironies of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Israelites in Moses’ day were polytheists, or more specifically henotheists: they believed in the existence of many Gods, but they worshiped only one of them (or at least, that’s what they were supposed to do). We see this in the early verses of Exodus 3, when God introduces Himself through the burning bush.
And when the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses. And he said, Here am I.
And he said, Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.
Moreover he said, I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. And Moses hid his face; for he was afraid to look upon God.
It’s not enough to tell Moses, “I am God.” Yahweh has to tell him which God, or he might think he was being addressed by some member of the Egyptian pantheon, or some other Canaanite deity, or even some new spirit. And, as the Decalogue tells us, God Himself was mindful of the need to make sure His people obeyed Him alone, and were not tempted by other deities, to worship them or serve them.
Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;
And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
If you read through the Law of Moses, you’ll notice that the blessings and cursings of God are all about earthly, material blessings and cursings. Once you died, you supposedly passed into the jurisdiction of a different god, the god of the dead. Yahweh was not the god of the dead, He was only the God of the living, in early Jewish thinking. Many years later, Jesus picked up on this belief and used it as the basis for his refutation of Sadducean theology, in Matt. 22.
But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.”
As an argument for resurrection, it makes no sense at all, since you don’t resurrect the living. But as a stab at the henotheistic beliefs of the Sadducees, it was devastating. How could God still be the God of patriarchs who had died, if indeed the dead passed into the jurisdiction of some other deity? They would belong to the god of the dead at that point, yet Moses said they still belonged to God. Very thought-provoking!
What happened between Moses and Jesus, of course, was the Babylonian Captivity, during which the exiled Jews were exposed to Zoroastrian and Mithraic beliefs. Those who returned from the Persian empire brought back beliefs that were foreign to Judaism but very familiar sounding to Zoroastrians: resurrection, judgment, angels, demons, heaven, hell, etc. The Pharisee (Farsi) Jews were very strict monotheists, and blamed all of Israel’s woes on their polytheistic beliefs and practices, and emphasized (with a certain amount of reinterpretation) the exclusivist aspects of Moses’ Law.
You would think, therefore, that Christianity, which sprang out of the Farsi traditions (monotheism, resurrection, judgment, etc) would be a strictly monotheistic religion. But Christianity developed in the context of a strong Osirian mythology, and the parallels with the death and resurrection of Osiris implied that the Christ, also, ought to be a divine figure. To many early believers, it was undeniable: Jesus’ own (somewhat ambiguous) declarations proved that he must be God, because he could hardly have been so blessed by the Father if he were lying about who he was.
Eventually, this led to a major crisis in the Church, since the faction that upheld the deity of Jesus was about equally matched by the faction that held to strict monotheism, and they were fighting over it (literally). The Church Councils “resolved” this problem by institutionalizing the contradiction and wrapping it in many layers of abstruse philosophical hand-waving, drawing hair-splitting distinctions between “being” and “person” and between “substance” and “essence”. And even then, they ended up declaring it a “mystery,” to excuse the fact that the best and most “inspired” theologians of the time could not truly reconcile the inherent contradictions.
Thus was born the idea of the Trinity: one God in three Persons, each fully divine, individually distinct, and yet one God. Many Christians since then (in defiance of the declarations of the Councils that defined the Trinity) have presumed to offer a simple explanation of how three can be one. For example, they compare Father, Son and Spirit to ice, water and steam (thus falling into the heresy of modalism). Or they compare the Trinity to the body, soul and spirit that man is alleged to have (thus falling into the heresy of saying that each Person is only a part of God). But the easy explanations have all been tried, and found wanting. Nor have the complicated attempts fared any better.
The Trinity is Exhibit A in the case against the Christian God being a real person. Truth is consistent with itself; the Trinity is not, and has been declared such by the Church itself, and thus is not the truth.
If we look at both biblical usage and common usage, we can see that the doctrine of the Trinity is as flawed as any other politically-motived compromise. (Not that compromise is a bad thing in politics, of course, but even there it’s a matter of expediency, and not a question of discovering fundamental truth.) Consider how often we refer to God as a He. That’s the third person singular pronoun, but according to Trinitarianism, God is not a singular person. If God is three persons, then grammatically we need to use the third person plural pronoun to refer to Him, er, Them.
But then you have the many Scriptural passages where God refers to Himself in the first person singular, even when He is saying things like “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” If that’s the Father forbidding worship and service to other divine persons, then there’s a whole lot of commandment-breaking going on among Christians who praise Jesus and let the Holy Spirit guide them.
Christians think their way around this problem by telling themselves that the Son and the Spirit are not “other gods,” they’re the same God as the Father. Once you do that, however, the noun “God” is no longer the identifier for a distinct, individual person, but instead becomes a collective noun, and identifier for a group of individual persons who share a common characteristic (namely, divinity). Which is fine, except that at that point there is no significant difference between Trinitarianism and polytheism. Mount Olympus was also inhabited by a number of distinct individuals, each of whom was fully God, and apart from whom no other [collective singular identifier for a group of divine persons] existed.
Plural divine individuals are God the same way plural human individuals are Man (as opposed to being Beast, or Plant, or Stone). Each of us can claim to be fully Man (or fully Woman, as the case may be). We’re not just part Man, as though some additional factor were missing that would make us fully human. We are Man. And the denizens of Valhalla are God, in precisely the same sense. Once you change the noun “God” from designating an individual Person to designating a group of divine persons, it is simply double-talk to pretend you are promoting a system that is different from polytheism in any meaningful sense.
And indeed, why would you need to? If three Persons can be one God, why not four? Or four hundred, or four million? If “God,” third person singular, is not singular but plural, what limits are there on how great the plurality can become? If God can have one Holy Spirit, why not seven? Why can’t Mary also be divine, and even the saints? If we are made in the image of the divine, why not say that we become that image?
Don’t worry, I’m not trying to convert anyone to Mormonism. Mormonism has its own series of internal and external contradictions. And yet, if Christians are going to buy into the dogma that multiple divine Persons exist, and are one God, they’ve got a conflict with the traditional monotheism upon which their faith is founded. They claim their teachings are divine revelation, yet they have all the flaws and frailties of any other product of political expediency, and thus expose the fact that their doctrine of God is not, after all, the truth.
So who is God? I AM THAT I AM, or WE ARE THAT WE ARE? If there were any rational way they could both be true, the Church would not have had to resort to declaring it a mystery. But since they are both declared to be true, when they cannot be, and since no such God shows up in real life, we can know that no such God exists. He (or They) is/are the flawed product(s) of fallible human imagination.