What ONE adjective would you use to describe God?

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Reflecting upon my recent post interacting with Eric Seibert’s recent volume Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God, as well as a recurring theme on this blog (see HERE, HERE, and HERE), I was thinking . . . how would I describe God with one word?  One adjective.

To be certain, ancient Israel has offered a host of adjectives to describe God.  In Walter Brueggemann’s massive Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy, he focuses upon the rhetoric of Israel’s utterance.  For Brueggemann, these adjectives arise out of Israel’s verbal utterance of YHWH, and thus move from specificity to generality.  So if “God delivers Judah from exile” (my example), then God is deliverer.  But God is surely much more than that.  God is . . . well, that depends on whom you ask.

So, do I suppose one word, one adjective can encompass all attributes (biblical ones, mind you) of God.  Hardly.  But I think it is an interesting question . . . in essence, boiled down to its bare basics, what is God? 

My one word?  In one of the posts to which I link above I used the word “paradox.”  I think that is fitting, yet I remain unhappy with it in response to this question.  I do, however, strongly feel it is on the mark.  Other words obviously come to mind . . . deliverer, trickster, lover, destroyer . . .

If pressed (and if allowed to use a Hebrew word), I would say hesed.  What one adjective do I think best describes God . . . covenantally-faithful.  God is, if anything, concerned ultimately with the covenant, the promise, and this description I think rolls into it all the grace, judgment,trickery, love, blessing, etc. that I see typifying the paradoxical divine character in the biblical text.

So, what ONE WORD (in English is fine, or you can cheat like I did and do a Hebrew word that has a two-word English translation!), what single adjective do you think best describes God?  Why?

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25 thoughts on “What ONE adjective would you use to describe God?

    telos104 said:
    October 15, 2009 at 9:26 am

    I like hesed, especially as it is one option that describes what/how He truly is, and isn’t so dependent upon my ability grasp it.

    Jason said:
    October 15, 2009 at 9:32 am

    This is a tough one, though I might be suspicious of anyone who claims to have God narrowed to a single descriptor. I think your “paradox” is suitable, and we could probably use the term “enigma” safely. The shortfall of words such as these is sometimes they convey God as unknowable, a position to which I have aversion. In as much as these terms convey that God is not knowable exhaustively, I think them to be accurate. But as you mention, it’s quite impossible to narrow God and his attributes to a single word.

    Charles said:
    October 15, 2009 at 9:58 am

    I would suggest “Holy.”

    Bob MacDonald said:
    October 15, 2009 at 10:12 am

    I still enjoy the image of Capon’s description of creation – three old men throwing olives at each other saying ‘tov, tov, tov’

    Put good down for my vote on the ultimate in reductionism.

    Roy "Eli" Garton said:
    October 15, 2009 at 11:05 am

    A one word adjective to describe God, hmm? How about “divine”? How’s that for being informative?! :)

      John Anderson responded:
      October 15, 2009 at 1:21 pm

      And deceptive! I know you, Garton!!!

    Bob MacDonald said:
    October 15, 2009 at 11:55 am

    better – from the libretto of St Nicholas. ‘He was prodigal of love’

    so ‘prodigal’

    Nathan MacDonald said:
    October 15, 2009 at 11:58 am

    Whilst I ponder the usefulness of this exercise, can you give me the one (yes, only one) adjective that summarizes you?

      John Anderson responded:
      October 15, 2009 at 1:23 pm

      Nathan:

      If you wonder about the usefulness of this exercise (and, btw, never did I claim it would be useful . . . I claimed I was curious. If you don’t find it useful, there is by no means any obligation to participate. Just so we’re on the same page) I am curious as to your view of the usefulness of much elsewhere in the blogging world. That aside, what one word describes me? How about “open.”

      Whew, that was MUCH easier than coming up with one for God. Ok, your turn (wink).

    Richard said:
    October 15, 2009 at 1:05 pm

    “Awesome” in its old English usage. :-)

    Nevada said:
    October 15, 2009 at 1:44 pm

    In a Barthian moment: “Other.”

    Rick Wadholm Jr said:
    October 15, 2009 at 3:00 pm

    ‘Hesed’ was what came to my mind before you got to it John. I find this to be inescapable and quite far reaching in scope. It would be my single term if limited to one.

    asc said:
    October 15, 2009 at 3:29 pm

    Bipolar?

    dannyfrese said:
    October 15, 2009 at 5:04 pm

    You cheated. Hesed isn’t an adjective.

      John Anderson responded:
      October 15, 2009 at 5:08 pm

      Ha! Ok, ummmm . . . hesed-y. (wink)

    Roy "Eli" Garton said:
    October 15, 2009 at 5:13 pm

    No, John, no. “Hesedic.” And Dr. Ellis thinks so highly of you. ;)

      John Anderson responded:
      October 15, 2009 at 5:47 pm

      Bite your tongue!

      Hesedic! Well done! “Hesed-y” sounds more Yiddish. Good call on correcting me.

    Adam Couturier said:
    October 15, 2009 at 6:19 pm

    My one word description of God: present

    anummabrooke said:
    October 15, 2009 at 7:47 pm

    I have an idea that somewhere, Brueggemann described God with the adjective “salty.” If so, I can’t see why we’re still looking for more adjectives.

      John Anderson responded:
      October 15, 2009 at 8:11 pm

      Brooke:

      That wasn’t tongue-in-cheek, was it? Either way, “salty” sounds a bit tame for Brueggemann, but still an accurate description.

      I will say this . . . if pressed for an English word, but gut reaction is to borrow from Brueggemann’s latest volume from Fortress and say “unsettling.”

        anummabrooke said:
        October 17, 2009 at 8:14 am

        No, not tongue in cheek, but it’s true that I can’t remember the source or even if I read it myself or heard it second-hand from a colleague. (I am tongue-in-cheek when saying that “salty” could be our one and only adjective for God, but let’s face it, if we had to pick just one…)

    mike said:
    October 15, 2009 at 9:50 pm

    another barthian descriptor: free

    Jill said:
    October 17, 2009 at 8:08 am

    John,

    I didn’t know Dr. MacDonald read your blog! Very impressive scholar. You should try to get an interview with him. I imagine that would help us younger would be scholars.

    Celucien Joseph said:
    October 17, 2009 at 10:36 am

    “Hesed” (i.e. lovingkindness, merciful) is my favorite one.

    John Anderson responded:
    October 18, 2009 at 10:05 pm

    Looks like “hesed” was a good choice; many agree with me on it. Of course, we don’t seem to agree as to the rationale for why.

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