Isidore of Seville was born in 560AD in Cartagena, Spain and served as the Archbishop of Seville for over 30 years. He is typically regarded as the “last scholar of the ancient world.” He was born into a wealthy family of high social rank and thus received a proper education. Many of his works have survived antiquity with the largest and most popular being “Etymologiae.” Etymologiae was the first attempt to develop a collection of universal knowledge from a Christian worldview. The work is 448 chapters in 20 volumes and deals with language, math science, theology, grammar, medicine, laws, architecture, space, etc. It is a fascinatingly detailed work. Isidore died in 636AD in Seville, Spain. The selection from today is taken from “Etymologiae” Book 7 on “God, angels and saints” and excavates the meanings behind the many names of God. Jerome also wrote an exhaustive piece on this very topic that Isidore both acknowledges and utilizes in this work. Today’s selection is taken from the 2006 Cambridge University Press release found here.
The most blessed Jerome, a most erudite man and skilled in many languages, first rendered the meaning of Hebrew names in the Latin language. I have taken pains to include some of these in this work along with their interpretations, though I have omitted many for the sake of brevity. Indeed, exposition of words often enough reveals what they mean, for some hold the rationale of their names in their own derivations.
First, then, we present the ten names by which God is spoken of in Hebrew. The first name of God in Hebrew is El. Some translate this as “God,” and others as ἰσχυρός, that is, “strong” (fortis), expressing its etymology, because he is overcome by no infirmity but is strong and capable of accomplishing anything. The second name is Eloi (i.e. Elohim), and the third Eloe, either of which in Latin is ‘God’ (Deus). The name Deus in Latin has been transliterated from a Greek term, for Deus is from θεός in Greek, which means φόβος, that is, “fear,” whence is derived Deus because those worshipping him have fear. Moreover ‘God’ is properly the name of the Trinity, referring to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. To this Trinity are referred the remaining terms posited below of God.
The fourth name of God is Sabaoth, which is rendered in Latin “of armies” or “of hosts,” of whom the angels speak in the Psalm (23:10 Vulgate): “Who is this King of glory? The Lord of hosts.” Now there are in the ordination of this world many hosts, such as angels, archangels, principalities, and powers, and all the orders of the celestial militia, of whom nevertheless he is Lord,for all are under him and are subject to his lordship. Fifth, Elion, which in Latin means “lofty” (excelsus), because he is above the heavens (caelum), as was written of him (Psalm 112:4 Vulgate): “The Lord is high (excelsus). . . his glory above the heavens (caelus).” Further, excelsus is so called from‘very lofty’ (valde celsus), for ex is put for valde, as in eximius (“exceptional”), as it were valde eminens (“very eminent”).
Sixth, Eie, that is, ‘He who is.’ For only God, because he is eternal, that is, because he has no origin, truly holds the name of Being. Now this name was reported to the holy Moses by an angel, for when Moses asked what was the name of the one who was
commanding him to proceed with the liberation of his people from Egypt, he answered him (Exodus 3:14): “I am who I am: and thou shalt say to the children of Israel: ‘He who is’ hath sentmeto you.” It is just as if in comparison with him, who truly ‘is’ because he is immutable, those things that aremutable become as if theywere not. That of which it is said, “it was,” ‘is’ not, and that of which it is said, “it will be,” ‘is’ not yet. Further, God has known only ‘is’, and does not know‘was’ and ‘will be.’ For only the Father, with the Son and Holy Spirit, truly ‘is.’ Compared with his being, our being is not being. And for this reason we say in conversation, “God lives,”
because his Being lives with a life that death has no hold over.
Seventh, Adonai, which broadly means “Lord” (Dominus), because he has dominion (dominari) over every creature, or because every creature is subservient to his lordship (dominatus). Lord, therefore, and God, either because he has dominion over all things, or because he is feared by all things. Eighth, Ia (i.e. Yah), which is only applied to God, and which sounds as the last syllable of ‘alleluia.’ Ninth, the Tetragrammaton, that is, the ‘four letters’ that in Hebrew are properly applied to God – iod, he, iod, he – that is, ‘Ia’ twice, which when doubled forms that ineffable and glorious name of God. The Tetragrammaton is called ‘ineffable’ not because it cannot be spoken, but because in no way can it be bounded by human sense and intellect; therefore,because nothing can be saidworthy of it, it is ineffable. Tenth, Shaddai, that is, “Almighty.” He is called Almighty (omnipotens) because he can do all things (omnia potest), but by doing what he will, not by suffering what he does not will. If that were to happen to him, in no way would he be Almighty – for he does whatever he wishes, and therein he is Almighty. Again, ‘Almighty’ because all things in every place are his, for he alone has dominion over the whole world.
Certain other names are also said for God substantively, as immortal, incorruptible, immutable, eternal. Whence deservedly he is placed before every creature. Immortal, as was written of him (I Timothy 6:16): “Who only hath immortality,” because in his nature
there is no change, for every sort of mutability not improperly is called mortality. From this it follows that the soul also is said to die, not because it is changed and turned into body or into some other substance, but because everything is considered mortal that in its very substance is now, or once was, of a different sort, in that it leaves off being what it once was. And by this reasoning only God is called immortal, because he alone is immutable. He is called incorruptible (incorruptibilis) because he cannot be broken up (corrumpere,
ppl. corruptus) and dissolved or divided.Whatever undergoes division also undergoes passing away, but he can neither be divided nor pass away; hence he is incorruptible.
He is immutable (incommutabilis)because he remains forever and does not change (mutare). He neither advances, because he is perfect, nor recedes, because he is eternal. He is eternal because he is without time, for he has neither beginning nor end. And hence he is ‘forever’ (sempiternus), because he is ‘always eternal’ (semper aeternus). Some think that ‘eternal’ (aeternus) is so called from ‘ether’ (aether), for heaven is held to be his abode.Whence the phrase (Psalm 113:16 Vulgate), “The heaven of heaven is the Lord’s.” And these four terms signify one thing, for one and the same thing is meant, whether God is called eternal or immortal or
incorruptible or immutable.
‘Invisible,’ because the Trinity never appears in its substance to the eyes of mortals unless through the form of a subject corporeal creature. Indeed, no one can see the very manifestation of the essence of God and live, as it was told toMoses (Exodus 33:20), whence the Lord says in the Gospel (John 1:18), “No man hath seen God at any time.” Indeed, he is an invisible thing,
and therefore should be sought not with the eye, but with the heart. ‘Impassible,’ because he is affected by none of the disturbances to which human fragility succumbs, for none of the passions touch him, not desire, wrath, greed, fear, grief, envy, and the other things with which the human mind is troubled. But when it is said that God is angry or jealous or sorrowful, it is said from the human point of view, for with God, in whom is utmost tranquillity, there is no disturbance.
Further he is called ‘single’ (simplex), either from not letting go of what he has, or because what he is and what is in him are not distinct, in the way that being and knowing are distinct for a human. A human can be, and at the same time not have knowledge.God has being, and he also has knowledge; but what God has he also is, and it is all one. He is ‘single’ because there is nothing accidental in him, but both what he is and what is in him are of his essence, except for what refers to each of the three persons. He is the ‘ultimately good’ (summe bonus) because he is immutable.What is created is good, to be sure, but it is not consummately good because it is mutable. And although it may indeed be good, it still cannot be the highest good. God is called ‘disembodied’ (incorporeus) or ‘incorporeal’ (incorporalis) because he is believed or understood to exist as spirit, not body (corpus, gen. corporis). When he is called spirit, his substance is signified.
‘Immeasurable’ (immensus) because he encompasses all things and is encompassed by nothing, but all things are confined within his omnipotence. He is called ‘perfect’ (perfectus) because nothing can be added to him. However, ‘perfection’ is said of the completion of some making; how then is God, who is not made (factus), perfect (perfectus)? But human poverty of diction has taken up this termfrom our usage, and likewise for the remaining terms, insofar as what is ineffable can be spoken of in any way – for human speech says nothing suitable about God – so the other terms are also deficient. He is called ‘creator’ because of the matter of the whole world created by him, for there is nothing that has not taken its origin from God. And he is ‘one’ (unus) because he cannot be divided, or because there can be no other thing that may take on so much power. Therefore what things are said of God pertain to the whole Trinity because of its one (unus) and coeternal substance, whether in the Father,or in his only begotten Son in the form of God, or in the Holy Spirit, which is the one (unus) Spirit of God the Father and of his only-begotten Son.
There are certain terms applied to God from human usage, taken from our body parts or from lesser things, and because in his own nature he is invisible and incorporeal, nevertheless appearances of things, as the effects of causes, are ascribed to him, so that he might more easily make himself known to us by way of the usage of our speech. For example, because he sees all things, we may speak of his eye; because he hears all, we may speak of his ear; because he turns aside, he walks; because he observes, he stands. In this way and in other ways like these a likeness from human minds is applied to God, for instance that he is forgetful ormindful.
Hence it is that the prophet says (Jeremiah 51:14), “The Lord of hosts hath sworn by his soul” – not that God has a soul, but he speaks in this way as from our viewpoint. Likewise the ‘face’ of God in Holy Scripture is understood not as flesh, but as divine recognition, in the same way in which someone is recognized when his face is seen. Thus, this is said in a prayer to God (Psalm 79:4 Vulgate), “Shew us thy face,” as if he were to say, “Grant us thy recognition.”
Thus the ‘traces’ of God are spoken of, because now God is known through a mirror (I Corinthians 13:12), but he is recognized as the Almighty at the culmination, when in the future he becomes present face to face for each of the elect, so that they behold his appearance, whose traces they now try to comprehend, that is, him whom it is said they see through a mirror. For in relation to God, position and vesture and place and time are spoken of not properly, but metaphorically, by way of analogy. For instance (Psalm 98:1 Vulgate), “He that sitteth on the cherubims” is saidwith reference to position; and (Psalm 103:6 Vulgate) “The deep like a garment is its clothing,” referring to vesture; and (Psalm 101:28 Vulgate) “Thy years shall not fail,” which pertains to time; and (Psalm 138:8 Vulgate) “If I ascend into heaven, thou art there,” referring to place. Again, in the prophet (Amos 2:13), “As a wain laden with hay,” an image is used of God. All these refer to God figuratively, because nothing of these things refers properly to his underlying being.