In Sacred Scripture the Psalmist proclaims blessed be the name of the Lord and in St. Luke’s Gospel, Mary attests holy is His name. All throughout Scripture there is found praise and reverence for God’s holy and terrible name. The virtue of reverence is the habitation of a certain wonder and awe in one who is confronted by holiness. There is an intimate link between reverence and holiness in that reverence is the proper response due to holiness. Gross irreverence towards any person or thing worthy of exalted esteem (i.e. holy) is called “blasphemy.” It will be argued that because His name alone is exalted it is blasphemy to take the Lord’s name in vain. To be established first will be God’s holiness. The purpose of this establishment is that if God is not holy then His name which signifies Him could not be holy. Following this will be an objection claiming that vain use of the Lord’s name is not blasphemous. This objection is directed at the heart of the thesis since, having established His holiness, the only plausible objection is to claim that His name does not participate in His holiness in vain utterances. Responding to this objection will be an exposition on the nature of names beginning with objects, then the proper names of persons, and climactically the name of God. This discussion on the nature of names will bind the outward sign of names to their inward signification, and thus remedy the objection. Finally, the conclusion will be an exhortation to bring glory to the name of the Lord.
“God’s name alone is exalted” means more than His name is above all names. His name “alone” excludes the sense of any other name being exalted over another, and entails that no other name is exalted whatsoever. His name alone is exalted because His name is that name from whence all other names derive their meaning. A name is the outward sign of inward essence, a manifest image of invisible being. Accordingly, the meaning of a name is the being of that which it signifies. Now God’s most fitting name is I AM WHO AM, which signifies His essence as Being itself. As Being itself, God creates and gives existence to all things, holding them into being. Therefore, God’s name, whose meaning is Being itself, gives meaning to all names by virtue of His Being giving existence to all things. Consequently, to use His name in vain is more than mere irreverence towards a particular outward sign, but rather irreverence toward the grossity of every inward essence because His holy name signifies the wellspring of all essence. Thus to vainly use His holy and exalted name is gross irreverence, and this is called blasphemy.
Reverence is the proper response due to holiness, and so His name is revered insofar as He Himself is Holiness. In order to arrive at the full meaning of “holiness,” the two ideas connoted by the word will be discussed. The first idea connoted by “holiness” is from the Greek “hagios,” meaning “to be set apart.” Items, places, and especially persons may be set apart, but above all else God, by virtue of being Creator, is set apart from all creation. While “set apart” may be said of one in relation to others, the substantive sense of “set-apartness” signifies the whole relationship between those which are set apart in as much as they are set apart. In order for something itself to be substantially “set apartness” it must be essentially one yet within itself have the relationship between those which are set apart. This applies most truly to the Trinity alone. He is said to be in Himself “Holiness” (substantially “set-apartness”) in that in Him there are three distinct Persons “set apart” one from another. The Father is holy, the Son is holy, the Holy Ghost is holy, and because the Three are essentially One, He is substantially Holiness. He is one in Being and three in Person and therefore He is Holiness itself.
The second idea connoted by “holiness” is from the Greek “hosios,” meaning “sanctioned,” which denotes “firmness.” Now the verb “sanction” signifies the act whereby the legislator confirms a law. Since God’s will “is the same thing as the eternal law,” His will is that which sanctions and His goodness is that which is sanctioned. God’s goodness is sanctioned, or firm, or immovable, both in that “God wills things…only for the sake of the end, which is His own goodness,” and in that “nothing else moves His will except His goodness.” The two are as immovable book ends, the firmness of source and summit; His will sanctions from that which is sanctioned and for that which is sanctioned, and that which is sanctioned is His divine goodness. Now in regard to the nature of goodness itself, St. Augustine says that “inasmuch as we exist we are good” and the same is true of God so that in Him existence (i.e. His very being) and goodness are “the same really.” Since God’s being is the same as His goodness, and His goodness is that which is sanctioned, He Himself is essentially sanctioned. His goodness is the beginning and end of all things and therefore He is Holiness itself.
Having taken these two connotations of “holiness,” the two ought to be brought together in an explicit way. It has been established that Holiness is the set-apartness of the Three, in that they are three distinct Persons, and also the sanction of the One, in that His being is the same as His goodness. These two ideas connoted by holiness are united in that “holiness” in the first sense is actively ordered toward “holiness” in the second sense. That is to say that His “holiness” in the sense of set-apartness acts according to “holiness” in the sense of that which is sanctioned. The two connotations of “holiness” are brought together then in the ordered activity of the Trinity, and this sort of “holiness in action” is “willing the good of another,” which is called His Love. God is Love itself in that the goodness of His divine will proceeds from the Father to the Son, and conversely, by way of “the Holy Ghost, or by Love proceeding.”
Now St. Thomas says that “holiness is attributed to whatever is ordered to God” and it is the action of holiness that it “proceeds by way of the love whereby God is loved.” Therefore whatever is ordered to God is made holy by the Holiness of God since by way of the “love whereby God is loved” holiness proceeds as from the Lover to the beloved. In the relationship between God and man, then, whoever is ordered to God receives the attribute of holiness through the procession of the love between God and man, and whatever is ordered to man also receives this attribute of holiness in so far as it participates in this love whereby God is loved. Among these things used in the relationship between God and man are holy objects such as bells, altars, and buildings, but also the very words by which man praises and reveres God. Words of praise such as “Almighty,” “Most Holy,” “Wise,” and “Loving” become holy themselves by virtue of their participation in loving God through their signification. Above all else God’s holy name, whereby He Himself is signified and addressed with praise and reverence, is attributed with holiness by its participation in this love between God and man. His name is holy in itself in that it is the manifest image of the invisible God, and His name is holy in the mouth of man in as much as it is lovingly ordered to its proper signification, which is God.
Now that Holiness has been established as God Himself and by participation, as all things ordered to God, the objection shall be put forth that the vain use of His name is not blasphemous: By the very fact that His name is being used in vain, His name is not in this instance participating in the love whereby God is loved and therefore is not itself holy. Therefore, praise and reverence are not due to the name of God and blasphemy is therefore impossible.
Elaborating on this objection, the specifically relevant kind of blasphemy, that is, “imprecatory” blasphemy, will here contribute: an utterance “is imprecatory when it would cry a malediction upon the Supreme Being.” Qualifying this, it should be noted that “blasphemy may be (1) either direct, as when the one blaspheming formally intends to dishonour the Divinity, or (2) indirect, as when without such intention blasphemous words are used with advertence to their import.”
In the direct sense of this kind of blasphemy, vain use of the Lord’s name is not imprecatory since it does not intend to cry malediction upon God. Rather His name is intended simply for exasperation or exclamation, which renders His name useless in such utterances. Now, according to St. Thomas, “‘vain’ sometimes signifies useless: ‘The Lord knows the thoughts of men, that they are vain’ (Psalms 93:11).” Therefore using the Lord’s name in vain is merely an idle use of words.
In the indirect sense of this kind of blasphemy, vain use of the Lord’s name is not imprecatory since vain use of the Lord’s name has no advertence to its import, and in this way it is impossible to cry malediction upon God. Now, according to St. Thomas, “sometimes ‘vain’…means foolish: ‘All men are vain, in whom there is not the knowledge of God’ (Wisdom 13:1).” Therefore using the Lord’s name in vain is merely an ignorant use of words.
The Lord’s name is sometimes taken in vain when said either uselessly or foolishly, and neither of these vanities are blasphemous. It is not the case that all utterances of the Lord’s name participate in the love whereby God is loved, whether positively or negatively, that is, for praise or malice. Furthermore, it is precisely when the Lord’s name is taken in vain that blasphemy is impossible, and therefore vain use of the Lord’s name is not blasphemous.
Responding to this objection will be a discussion on the nature of names in order to show that names are devoted conceptually to that which they signify. It will then be clarified that, contrary to the objection, vain use of the Lord’s name is indeed blasphemous.
It is embedded in man’s nature to name just about everything he finds. Since all created things are ordered toward man, the names which he gives them find their direct meaning in relation to him. Whatever man calls an object or creature, the same is its name because man, for whom the object is made, has named it in accordance with its being ordered toward him.
Hierarchically, above that which man names and below the holy name of God are the proper names of persons. “Proper names name persons, which alone are made in God’s image,” says Peter Kreeft. Now just as the names of all created things find their meaning in relation to man because they are ordered toward man, so too do the names of persons find their meaning in relation to God because man is ordered toward God and is made in His Image. Peter Kreeft articulates the nature of the names of persons when he says, “The true name is one which expresses the character, the nature, the meaning of the person who bears it. It is the man’s own symbol – his soul’s picture, in a word – the sign which belongs to him and to no-one else.” Now God alone sees the soul and He alone will give a new name to him that “overcometh” as both Isaiah and Saint John the Evangelist prophecy respectively, “and thou shalt be called by a new name, which the mouth of the Lord shall name,” and “To him that overcometh, I will give the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone, a new name written, which no man knoweth, but he that receiveth it.” St. John Chrysostom gives a few examples of names given by God, “who had called Abram Abraham, Sarai Sarah, [and] Jacob Israel. Many He had named from their birth, as Isaac and Samson; others again after being named by their parents, as were Peter, and the sons of Zebedee.” Holy Mary’s name is also a worthy example of a name befitting the person, since “Mary means…The beautiful or The perfect one,”[xxix] and we know of Mary that she is the greatest Saint and that she was immaculately conceived and assumed into Heaven because of her perfection.
Now that it has been established that the most fitting name for a person can be given by God alone, what is God’s name? If we are unable to give ourselves fitting names, how much less are we able to give God a name? According to St. Thomas, God’s essence is above all that we understand about Him and signify with word. He can be named by us, yet not fully and fittingly as if we could give Him a name that expresses the divine essence in itself. St. Thomas distinguishes that “as God is simple, and subsisting, we attribute to Him abstract names to signify His simplicity, and concrete names to signify His substance and perfection, although both these kinds of names fail to express His mode of being, forasmuch as our intellect does not know Him in this life as He is.” St. Thomas quotes St. Augustine saying “”The being of God is the being strong, or the being wise, or whatever else we may say of that simplicity whereby His substance is signified.” Therefore all names of this kind signify the divine substance.” Examples of names of God might be Wonderful, Counsellor, God the Mighty, the Father of the world to come, [or] the Prince of Peace. Therefore while “neither a Catholic nor a pagan knows the very nature of God as it is in itself…each one knows it according to some idea of causality, or excellence, or remotion. So a pagan can take this name “God” in the same way when he says an idol is God, as the Catholic does in saying an idol is not God.” These names given by man however, would still “fall short of a full representation of Him.” The most fitting name for God is no doubt the one which God Himself let be known to Moses. Moses said to God: If they should say to me, What is His name? what shall I say to them?…God said to Moses: I AM WHO AM. He said: Thus shalt thou say to the children of Israel: HE WHO IS hath sent me to you. This is the most fitting name of God because it is the name that God called Himself. Of this most fitting name of God, Kreeft notes that “there is only one name that you cannot say in the second person (you) or the third person (he or she), and that is “I”. Thus no Jew ever dared to pronounce that holy name, or even guess how the vowels were supposed to be pronounced, because it could be truly spoken only by God himself.”
Contrary to the objection then, whatever a thing is called the same is its name, and thus a name is conceptually bound to that which it signifies. Names are sanctioned from their first being given, set apart by belonging alone to that which they are signifying, and participate in love by their properly being uttered. The improper utterance of a name, which attempts to separate the name from the essence, as body from soul, participates in hatred and irreverence. Useless or foolish utterances of names are improper utterances since the names are not being appropriated to that for which they have been sanctioned and set apart. God’s name above all (not only His most fitting name, I AM WHO AM, but also any name which signifies the Divine substance (e.g. strength or wisdom)) is sanctioned and set apart for Him alone and most truly. The proper use of the names “HE WHO IS,” “Almighty,” “Wisdom,” and “Wonderful” orders them toward God either directly by being used to signify Him and thereby glorify Him or indirectly by knowing the being strong or the being wise as ultimately finding their meaning in HE WHO IS wisdom and strength. When these names are taken in vain then, they take from God what is due to Him, by their being attributed solely to something else or to nothing at all, instead of to Him. It is of gross irreverence to take from the Lord that which is His. Therefore it is blasphemy to take the Lord’s name in vain.
It has been established that God is holiness itself, and that His name is His manifest image in a word, made holy by virtue of His own holiness. Furthermore, all utterances of His name demand due reverence, and in giving due reverence and praise holiness proceeds as from the Lover to the beloved. Not from him who praises to Him who is praised, but rather from Him who is praised to him who praises, does holiness proceed. Words of praise such as “Almighty,” “Most Holy,” “Wise,” and “Loving” become holy themselves in the mouths of those who praise Him by virtue of their participation in loving God through their proper signification.
More than signifying Him, the name of God is so intimately tied to His essence that it is often talked about as Himself: “I will praise thee forever…and I will wait on thy name, for it is good in the sight of thy saints.” In his commentary on this verse, St. Thomas expresses that the goodness of God draws us to love Him when He adds that “this especially applies to those who are already in heaven…who see the essence of goodness, whence they cannot but love God.” His name too, draws us to love Him by its revealing to us the essence of God as through a glass in a dark manner. Thus every utterance of the name of God should be an act of praising Him and glorifying Him: “He is in himself full of glory, but his name should be full of glory among us, that is, it is to become glorious in awareness. And in order that he might be full of glory and illustrious among us, we must give him honour.”
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