Terry L. JohnsonOctober 13, 2021
Were the Jehovah’s Witnesses right? Among their central boasts is that they have revived the covenantal name of God, the Hebrew YHWH, sometimes pronounced Yahweh and sometimes Jehovah, that Jesus came to restore. Ancient Hebrew has no vowels so the precise pronunciation may never be known. Given the growing practice among Evangelicals of referring in sermons and lectures to Yahweh, one would think that the Jehovah’s Witnesses were right. What they have advocated since the 1870’s has finally caught on, though with the former rather than the latter pronunciation. I would like to raise some doubts, or at least questions, about the now commonplace practice of invoking the tetragrammaton in popular, that is, non-academic settings.
Jesus’ Own Practice
First, if Jesus intended to revive the common use of YHWH, where is the evidence? The logic of revived use seems to be based on the strength of the revelation of the divine name to Moses in Exodus 3:14. Yet nowhere in the biblical record does Jesus challenge the then accepted practice (utilized throughout the Septuagint) of substituting Lord (Kurios) for YHWH (eg. Mt 4:10; 22:36-27, 43-45). There was much about first-century Judaism that Jesus did challenge (eg. Mt 15:1-20; 23:1-36). He was not above slaying sacred cows. Is it not significant that he left this one untouched?
Rather, Jesus taught us to call upon God by a new name, that of Father. “Our Father,” He taught us to pray (Mt 6:8-13; 7:7-11). Or more precisely, He taught that the name of God is of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Mt 28:19). The one “name” (singular) by which the one God is to be known is the three-fold name by which the three persons of the Godhead are to be known, that of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The name for the disciples of Christ is the three-fold name. Not only did Jesus not revive the use of YHWH but He instructed us to think about God and express our thoughts about God in terms of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Should we not consider this the normative usage of the divine name in the Christion church?
Second, there is the matter of practical consistence. Ordinarily, we don’t use God’s other Old Testament names. We don’t refer to Him as adonai (Lord). We don’t pray, “O Elohim…” (God). Amy Grant attempted to make the former of these (plus El-Elyon) and especially El Shaddai familiar with a poorly suited 1980’s tune but failed (see Trinity Hymnal’s inexplicable inclusion of hymn #42). In addition, we instinctively anglicize the names of Christ in the New Testament so that they don’t sound foreign and remote to us. We refer to Jesus not Iēsous and to Christ not Christos. He is Lord not kurios. We not only feel no obligation to pronounce the names of Christ as they are found in the New Testament, but we also don’t attempt to retrieve their Aramaic originals. The same is true of the names of the Holy Spirit (hagios pneuma), the Comforter (paraklētos) or of the Father (patēr), or God (theos). If we find it necessary to revive the Hebrew YHWH with the correct Hebrew pronunciation, would not consistency require that we utilize the other original divine names, and express them according to their original Hebrew and Greek pronunciation?
Third, the use of YHWH is unprecedented in the history of the church. Jesus and the apostles respected the tradition of using euphemisms for the covenantal divine name. No attempt was made by the church fathers to revive its use. No attempt was made by the medieval church to revive its use. No attempt was made by the Reformers or reformed churches to revive its use. No attempt was made by the post-Reformation Protestant Orthodoxy to revive its use. Normally conservative Reformed Protestants get a tad nervous when introducing ahistorical beliefs. Novelty has never been our game. Shouldn’t we be just a bit nervous about embracing a practice for which there is no precedent? Let me correct myself. No precedent, that is, except Charles Taze Russell and his Jehovah’s Witnesses. Shouldn’t there be a bit more discussion and reflection before we part company with a 2500-year-old tradition that neither Jesus, nor the apostles, nor the church’s formative theologians showed any interest in overthrowing?
Finally, I want reverently and respectfully to say that the sound of YHWH(however pronounced) in sermons and Sunday school classes sounds strange. It is unfamiliar. It sounds foreign. It sounds remote. It does not “feel” warm and inviting like “Jesus” or “Father.”
For these four reasons I would like to suggest that we reconsider the regular use of YHWH in public services. “Jehovah” appears in the King James Version seven times. It is more familiar and less strange to the ears of English-speakers. Hymns like “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” have furthered its familiarity. Yet it historically has not been the practice of Christian preachers to make regular use of Jehovah or Yahweh when referring to God, even if periodically they might do so, and if there might be some value for scholars to do so in academic settings. Let’s stick with what Jesus and the apostles and the church’s creeds and theologians have taught us: the name of our God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Terry Johnson is Senior Minister of the Independent Presbyterian Church of Savannah.