Normally, Jonathan Sacks is one of my favorite thinkers, and he’s also normally pretty careful. He gets a couple things wrong in his recent essay. I’ve reprinted part of it below.
“Some measure of the radicalism that is introduced into the world by the story of the Exodus can be seen in the sustained mistranslation of the three keywords with which God identified Himself to Moses at the Burning Bush.
At first, He described Himself as follows: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” But then, after Moses heard the mission he was to be sent on, he said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is His name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” That was when God replied, cryptically, Ehyeh asher ehyeh (Ex. 3:14).
This was translated into Greek as ego eimi ho on, and into Latin as ego sum qui sum, meaning ‘I am who I am’, or ‘I am He who is’. The early and medieval Christian theologians all understood the phrase to be speaking about ontology, the metaphysical nature of God’s existence as the ground of all being. It meant that He was ‘Being-itself, timeless, immutable, incorporeal, understood as the subsisting act of all existing’. Augustine defines God as that which does not change and cannot change. Aquinas, continuing the same tradition, reads the Exodus formula as saying that God is ‘true being, that is, being that is eternal, immutable, simple, self-sufficient, and the cause and principal of every creature’.
But this is the God of Aristotle and the philosophers, not the God of Abraham and the Prophets. Ehyeh asher ehyeh means none of these things. It means ‘I will be what, where, or how I will be’. The essential element of the phrase is the dimension omitted by all the early Christian translations, namely the future tense. God is defining Himself as the Lord of history who is about to intervene in an unprecedented way, to liberate a group of slaves from the mightiest empire of the ancient world and lead them on a journey towards liberty. Already in the eleventh century, reacting against the neo-Aristotelianism that he saw creeping into Judaism, Judah Halevi made the point that God introduces Himself at the beginning of the Ten Commandments not by saying, “I am the Lord your God who created heaven and earth,” but rather, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.”
Far from being timeless and immutable, God in the Hebrew Bible is active, engaged, in constant dialogue with His people, calling, urging, warning, challenging and forgiving. When Malachi says in the name of God, ‘I the Lord do not change’ (Malachi 3:6), he is not speaking about His essence as pure being, the unmoved mover, but about His moral commitments. God keeps His promises even when His children break theirs. What does not change about God are the covenants He makes with Noah, Abraham and the Israelites at Sinai.
So remote is the God of pure being – the legacy of Plato and Aristotle – that the distance is bridged in Christianity by a figure that has no counterpart in Judaism, the son of God, one person who is both human and Divine. In Judaism we are all both human and Divine, dust of the earth yet breathing God’s breath and bearing God’s image. These are profoundly different theologies.
“I will be what I will be” means that I will enter history and transform it. God was telling Moses that there was no way he or anyone else could know in advance what God was about to do. He told him in general terms that He was about to rescue the Israelites from the hands of the Egyptians and bring them to a land flowing with milk and honey. But as for specifics, Moses and the people would know God not through His essence but through His acts. Therefore, the future tense is key here. They could not know Him until he acted.”
There is a lot Rabbi Sacks gets right, and the influence of Plato and Aristotle was certainly strong on the Fathers, but their conception of God as Trinity always provided a certain separation and distinction from a strictly Platonic understanding. You can see the confusion in phrases like, “So remote is the God of pure being…” Whether or not Plato’s God was remote is certainly something that one can argue about. The early Fathers, however, didn’t conceive of God’s impassibility as something that resulted in a God that was more remote. They believed in a God that was more intimate with you than your own self-knowledge. The idea of God as Trinity meant that there was a perfect convertibility between the “remote” God of Sack’s conception and the person of Jesus in whom the fullness of the Godhead dwelt. Jesus isn’t a “bridging a distance” for there is no “distance” of that sort to bridge. He is revealing the presence of the God who says “I will be what I will be.”
This gets into some of the knotty areas of the inter-faith dialogue because the early Fathers didn’t conceive of Jesus or the incarnation as an event that changed God somehow. This is why the early Fathers identified the burning bush with the Virgin Mary. It was always and ever the God as Trinity that was being revealed.
So kenosis is never the bridging of a gap from a remote God to a present God. The “self-emptying of God in his creature is not a passage from what he is to what he is not, but a gracious condescension by which the infinite is pleased truly to disclose and express itself in one instance of the finite…God is not some thing that can be transofrmed into another thing, but is the being of everything, to which all that is always already properly belongs; there is no change of nature needed for the fullness of being to assume – even through self-impoverishment – a being as the dwelling place of its mystery and glory.” – David Bentley Hart.
I will be what I will be can include the kenosis.