R. Kendall Soulen
Fortress Press, 209 pages | Published October 4, 2022
Theologian Kendall Soulen has long waged a campaign to restore the name of the God of Israel to its rightful place in Christian theology. Known as the Tetragrammaton or YHWH, it was revealed to Moses in the theophany of the burning bush as reported in the third chapter of Exodus. Ancient Hebrew contained no written vowels, so no one now knows how it was originally pronounced. Since biblical times, it has traditionally remained unspoken — by Jews, and often by Christians as well. In English Bibles, the name YHWH is usually replaced by the word “LORD” printed in small capitals. This volume is the culmination of Soulen’s efforts to demonstrate the ongoing importance of the divine name, bringing together much of his previous work, now revised and reshaped into a book.
It is possible to accept Soulen’s argument that the Tetragrammaton plays an important role in the unity of the Christian canon without sharing his belief that it is “the single most important word in the Bible.” He offers abundant evidence that the New Testament continues to observe the Old Testament’s careful avoidance of any direct utterance of God’s personal name. Soulen demonstrates Jesus’ own practice of this “name-avoidance” in various ways, including the use of passive constructions, acknowledging his heavenly Father without uttering God’s personal name. How many Christians are aware that in the Lord’s Prayer “hallowed be thy name” is a prime example of “name-avoidance”? How many readers of the Bible (both Old and New Testaments) even notice the use of small caps in “the LORD”? And how many have any idea of its meaning or significance?
The book also addresses another issue dear to the author’s heart: supersessionism, the longstanding Christian assumption that “the Jews are no longer God’s elect people,” having been superseded by Christians through the coming of the Messiah Jesus. Most churches now acknowledge this as an error, particularly since the Holocaust, though many Christians continue to read the Bible through a supersessionist lens. Soulen clearly believes that supersessionism is the main reason so many Christians fail to see the unity of Old and New Testaments, and that failure to take seriously the revealed name of God is the key factor.
Not all readers will be persuaded that lack of attention to the Tetragrammaton is the main cause for failure to grasp the unity of the Bible or for the persistence of supersessionism, even though both issues are crucial to Christian theology. The argument of the book would have been clearer if the thesis announced by the book’s title had been presented first, and the issue of supersessionism then treated in a separate chapter of its own. Nevertheless, the book’s careful treatment of all these issues makes it a valuable contribution to the ongoing work of Christian theology.
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