What Word Should We Use For “God”?

During the Perspectives class I’m taking, I continue to have my previously held views challenged, strengthened, tweaked, and often, some combination of the three. Last night, speaker Don Richardson shared a number of personal stories relating to what he calls “Redemptive Analogies“.

Richardson also spent a few minutes discussing whether or not the word “Allah” should be used by Christians to speak to Muslims about the “Christian” God. This is a topic I honestly haven’t thought, read, or discussed much about. Going into the night, I think I could understand both sides to it. After last night, I’m leaning more towards thinking it’s a proper thing to use the word “Allah” for God…As long as there are distinctions made so that the audience knows there is a difference between who Christians say God is and who Muslims say God is.

Primarily, however, I was reminded that the word I as an American use to describe “God” is an adapted word. “Elohim” and other words are the words that the Jews used in the Old Testament to refer to God. Then, as Jews spread out, and the Septuagint was written in Greek, the word that was used for “Elohim” was “Theos.”

In Acts 14:15 Paul & Barnabas, speaking to Gentiles in Lystra affirm the use of the word “Theos” when referring to “Elohim”. In John’s writings, he even uses the word “Logos.” All of this dates back to the account of Abraham and Melchizedek where Scripture affirms the Canaanite word for “Elohim” which was “El Elyon.”

Why did Paul & Barnabas use the word “Theos” instead of “Zeus?” Apparently one of the reasons is because what the term “Zeus” symbolized: king of the gods yes, but a created god. Therefore, Zeus would not be an acceptable word, since it’s imperative that the term for “Elohim” be an uncreated Creator. It also traces back to Greek philosophers coming to the conclusion of that all effects have a cause, and that there must be an ‘uncaused cause.’ That uncaused cause, is “Theos.”

So if the word “God” is not in the original manuscripts of Scripture, why do we use it? In various European cultures the word “God” (or similar words) was used to designate the divine Creator. Norwegians say “Gud”, and other Europeans say “Gut” or other similar sounding words. Thus, I as an American say “God.”

So, among Mandarin peoples the word “Shangti” works, among the Korean, “Hananim”, and among the Santal people, “Thakur Jiu.” Those words originally weren’t used to symbolize who God is. But after making linguistic connections, it was determined that the best word to be used for God were those local words. Missing attributes of the term for God can be filled in with teaching over time. Jews still deny that God is three persons, one God. But we still use the word “Elohim.” However, as Christians, we believe that Elohim is one, but He is also three persons.


About Aaron Golby

Christian. Husband to Katherine.
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