In the Name of God, or Worship as Primary Theology

the LORDYou may notice that the Old Testament spells out “Lord” in all caps in several places. Other times, it uses “Lord” without the capitals. Why the difference? This is to represent a special word, the personal name of God: “jhwh.” The people of Israel considered this name so holy that they neither spoke it nor spelled it in full[1]—a sort of “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named,” but this out of reverence not dread.

This name has such significance throughout the Old Testament that when people do or say something important, they do it “in the name of the Lord.” The priests minister and pronounce blessings “in the name of the Lord.[2] The prophets prophecy and even call down curses “in the name of the Lord.”[3] David goes to battle against Goliath “in the name of the Lord.[4] And David, though he is king of a great and powerful military, writes songs about trusting in this name, not his military: “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.”[5]

Before we move further, let’s reconsider this word, Lord. When our Bible translations turn “jhwh” into “Lord,” it creates a different meaning for us. Most people who hear or read “the Lord your God” take it as two roles—Lord and God. This suggests something quite different than hearing it for what it is: God referring to himself by personal name. Because Jews refrain from speaking that name, they have used adonai as a popular substitution throughout history. Out of respect for that tradition and the Name of God, we’ll do the same here.

What’s in a name? Why does it matter that God should say, “I am adonai, your God,” and not simply, “I am your God”? God could even announce himself with more grand titles, “I am the Lord, the Creator, the King of all the Earth, your God!” Any of these titles command total devotion. So why “I am adonai”?

When we move from titles and roles to personal names, we change categories—from objects of devotion to subjects. A man named Martin Buber suggested that either we relate to others as subjects, as I and Thou, or we experience them as objects, I and It.[6] We speak about an object; we speak to another subject.

You’ve seen the ways that we treat objects and subjects differently. Doctors may speak about the diabetic patient being considered for surgery, an object of discussion. But when they speak to her as “Marjorie,” she becomes more. She becomes a real person, with a personal name. She becomes a Thou and not merely an It.[7]

And so God speaks to his people as adonai. A king is to be obeyed. A god to be worshiped. A deliverer to be praised. But someone with a personal name is to be known.

If we go only so far as to talk about God, to study God or think about what God must be like, we’ve done a small part of theology. If we go that far and stop, we may know about God as an object of study, even of devotion, but we will not know God, the Eternal Thou.[8]

Most “theological writing” can only do the objective work. It can serve only to point to God, to consider God in all his glory. It can help us to know more about God, a good and important pursuit, but a far lesser pursuit than real knowledge of God. For that greater task of theology, the church will help you more than any book.

In the church, we turn from speech about God and address the Eternal Thou in prayer and praise. In the church, we not only announce to each other God’s love, but we pray together, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” In the church, we not only proclaim God’s might, but we sing to God himself, “How great Thou art,” and “I’ll worship your holy name.”

When we worship and pray, we do primary theological work. All the rest––all the discussion about God––is secondary work. It can (and should!) enhance our primary work of worship and prayer. But it can never replace them.


Note: This is adapted from a larger piece I’m working on. It’s a portion I thought I could use your help with. I always enjoy hearing your feedback, but especially on this, I’d love to hear your thoughts.


[1] Thus no vowels. This is still the case for many Jewish believers today.
[2] Deuteronomy 21:5
[3] Deuteronomy 18:22; 2 Kings 2:24
[4] 1 Samuel 17:45
[5] Psalm 20:7
[6] See his brilliant book, I and Thou.
[7] As seen in Patch Adams (1998)––see the scene here.
[8] As Buber refers to God in I and Thou.

Related Post

3 thoughts on “In the Name of God, or Worship as Primary Theology

  1. What source did you find this distinction between primary and secondary theology? Digging into this currently and appreciate any insight you have!

    • Hi Jarred,

      Thanks for your question. I don’t have a source for this distinction. Though I’m sure I’m not the first to suggest it, it’s my own suggestion here. And I would expect that I’m differentiating differently than most others.

      • Thank you for the prompt response!

        I teach 11th grade theology and have used Mohler’s Triage (not the first to suggest it but a clear concise article) to encourage civil discourse between the represented denominations in class. I recently heard the primary secondary distinction at a conference and am researching it so that we as a class can better approach our study. Thank you for your article.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *