Part 2: The Classical Interpretation of Exodus 3

Obviously, “I AM” is an important name and an important concept to God. It should be important to his people to understand its significance. Have most theologians understood it properly? Have the interpretations of the classical theologians from antiquity to the present? Have the interpretation of Philo and have the translators of the Septuagint properly understood the significance of I AM WHO I AM? The answer is a saddening, no.

Most commentators believe the statement “I AM WHO I AM” refers to a metaphysical statement about the nature of God apart from the context of the event. Norman Geisler’s views coincide with the interpretations of most of classical theologians. According to Norman Geisler, this statement in Exodus 3:14 declares that God is in the eternal now which confirms his attributes of simplicity, aseity, and immutability.

His method of exegesis is to observe the contextual word “be” and then attribute the philosophical notions of existence to that word “be.” He writes in his Systematic Theology:

The God of orthodox theology is eternal, not temporal. Therefore he does not really look forward to the future. He simply looks downward on it, since it is present to Him in His eternal now (as the great I Am of Ex. 3:14) (Geisler, 2011) p71.

Again, later on:

When Moses asked God his name in Exodus 3:14…He is the self-existent One who depends on no one else for His being. (Geisler, 2011) p417.

And finally:

Augustine affirmed that God is the unchanging Is, the I AM of Exodus 3:14…there is a Good which alone is simple and, therefore, which alone is unchangeable-and this is God. (Geisler, 2011) p447

Note there is absolutely nothing in the context of Exodus 3 to indicate any of these attributes. The only possible way to tie Exodus 3 to the concepts of simplicity, immutability, aseity and eternality is through the vehicle of Greek philosophy. If a scholar were to be intellectually honest, they would have to demonstrate “to be” as a clear indication for the the classical attributes of God. In other words, Scripture must demonstrate some reasoning or syllogistic explanation linking “to be” with immutability, simplicity or any other related attributes of God.

I will examine each of these attributes later with the accompanying proof texts offered by classical theologians. But first, we must understand the method of exegesis classical scholars will use to understand the text.

When examining the attributes of God, classical theologians tend to list as many verses as possible to demonstrate each attribute. The vast majority of these verses say little to nothing about these philosophical attributes but contain some tangential issue. For Example:

Psa 139:7 Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
Psa 139:8 If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.
Psa 139:9 If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;

Contrary to what many theologians claim, this Psalm is not a demonstration of the omnipresence of God. Rather, it demonstrations that the Holy Spirit is in David wherever he goes. To demonstrate a universal proposition like “God is everywhere” there must either a syllogism in the Scripture or the plain words “God is everywhere.” It is possible to list thousands of verses to demonstrate that God is somewhere, but none of these verses will demonstrate that God is everywhere.

In the same way, it is not enough to reference some verse that God exists (Ex. 3:14) and then proclaim that God is immutable, eternal and simple. There must be a demonstration from the Scripture that logically shows the connection between these attributes. Scriptures do not show such a demonstration. Only through Platonist philosophy, can one make a clear connection between existence and the classical divine attributes.

It might be important to digress a moment and explore the sense of the word “Platonic”. In what sense can one used the term “Platonic” to a theologian or philosopher? Norman Geisler calls himself a Thomist (a follower of Thomas Aquinas), yet he does not believe everything Aquinas teaches. So how could someone call Augustine, Origen or any other church theologian a Platonic theologian?

Certainly, Norman Geisler would not refer to himself as a Platonic theologian. In attempting to remove himself from the Platonic philosophers he points out minor differences between Christian and Platonic philosophers. If the concept of unchangeable is a Greek philosophical concept he argues that:

There are many things about the traditional Christian view of God that are contrary to Greek thought…the ultimate in Plato’s system was not God but the Good…Aristotle never considered his many unmoved movers to be the object of worship… (Geisler 2011) p450

There is no such thing as a pure Platonist today. Even the Neo-Platonic philosopher Plotinus, who considered himself to be a Platonist (and Augustine who referred to him as a Platonist), only borrowed selectively from Plato. Much of Plotinus’ borrowing was from Plato’s Parmenides. Here Plato introduces and discusses not only concepts similar to Plotinus’ god, but he also gives the arguments against this conception of god and never commits to either concept. Plotinus is called a Platonist because he agrees with core concepts and arguments introduced from Plato; not all concepts, or even most concepts, but certain similar concepts.

In the same way, Augustine, Aquinas, Origen and other church fathers may be referenced as Platonic philosophers because they used Platonic reasoning to establish certain concepts about God. Often theologians will look at Augustine or Calvin and see inconsistencies or evolving concepts. For example the “early” Augustine does not agree with the “later” Augustine. If one looks at the internal inconsistencies in Augustine and Calvin, then to the purist even Calvin was not a Calvinist and Augustine was not an Augustinian. When I use the term Platonist, I will mean someone is a Platonist by using similar reasoning to the Platonist philosophers, without similar arguments being explicitly stated in Scriptures. For example: God is the one who exists, therefore he must be simple and immutable.
The Platonic philosophers exhaustively investigated the meaning of true existence and attached many attributes to the word “to be”. Their antagonism to the traditional gods of Homer and Hesiod drove their bias towards immutability.

The traditional Greek gods were filled with conflicting passions and were enslaved to their lustful desires. Homer and Hesiod, the principle historians of the Greek gods, portray the gods with moral character that could be beneath humans’. When Homer describes the battle for Troy in the Illiad, the gods, both male and female, observe the battle and become enthralled for blood lust so much so, that they often appear in the battle and participate in the killing. Aeneas, a Trojan prince, will be rescued twice in the battlefield with the help of his mother Aphrodite. His father was Anchises, a human prince for whom Aphrodite lusted, and after two weeks of lovemaking, she tired of him. Nine months later she presented him with a human son, her son, Aeneas.

The Greek hero Diomedes, attempted to kill Aeneas, but he was attacked by Aphrodite. He in turn attacked the goddess, wounding her on the wrist, and caused the ichor (god’s blood) to flow. She dropped Aeneas, but Aeneas was rescued by Apollo. Ares, her brother was also on the battlefield and she borrowed his chariot fleeing back to Olympus. In pain she runs to her mother Dione, who cures her wound. Without a lot of sympathy, her father Zeus tells her to stay away from the war and let Ares and Athena handle it.

Obviously, the gods of blood lust, sexual lust, cowardice, and participation in human events did not prove suitable for worship in the eyes of Plato and Socrates. Resisting the gods of mythology, the Greek philosophers invented a god that had none of the human passions seen in their myths. Their god would be without passion (impassible), without change (immutable) and completely self-sufficient (aseitic) not requiring worship or gifts. Creating a god from a list of idealized adjectives is what the philosophers call reification (a derivative of the Latin “res” which means name).

The Scriptures do not make up God with a list of adjectives and then tie in these adjectives through logical syllogisms. The God in Scriptures is a God described mostly from his deeds and his actions. In the pivotal chapter of Exodus 3, describing God and introducing himself to the people of Israel, the attributes of impassibility, immutability and aseity are unmistakably missing.

How did these theologians make this circuitous journey from Scriptures to Greek philosophy? The concept implied by the verb in the phrase “I AM”, “to be”, is the key.

Grammatically, the word “to be” is used three ways. As a copula or connecting word that brings a predicate modification to the subject. The apple is red. Not all red things are apples, but red is one of the properties of the apple. Plotinus argues god has no predicates, so this category cannot apply to God.

Secondly, the word “be” can bring identity to the subject. Fred is the “one who is speaking to you.” In Greek philosophy, this has been used to describe the essential identity of God; God cannot be God without certain identities. Furthermore, Plotinus argues that it is impossible to talk about God at all, but only his essential attributes.

Finally, being can denote existence. Fred “is.” Plato and Plotinus argue God is beyond being. Aristotle insists that god, the unmoved mover, has primary substance or being. In Greek philosophy, “to be” is defined all three ways.

The word “being” ειναι infinitive form; on or ousia, the participle form; or estin the verbal form) in Platonic philosophy becomes the repository of all the concepts of the idealized forms. The everyday physical universe, of what we observe in life, was called “becoming” (genesis). The Greeks observed the real world was deteriorating and being renewed hence the word becoming.

In contrast what is real does not change. “Being” in its many forms became a connotation word meaning (often translated into English as “real” or “true”) that which is simple, permanent, and unchanging. Eventually, other attributes such as absolute unity, eternity, and incorporeality were added through Neo-Platonic philosophy.

Plato and his disciple Plotinus would venture one step beyond real being. The god or first cause of real being is not real being. Plato would say being is not real being (ouk ousias ontoV) but transcends essence. (epekeina ths ousiaV) Nonetheless, the concept of being is central to the discussion of what or who God is for classical philosophy.

How could this philosophical use of the word “to be” connotatively apply to the milieu of the 15th Century BC when Moses wrote the Exodus? Moses did not use Greek rationalization to explain God. No other author of the Bible did so. It took the classical theologians to confuse predilection with exegesis. They begin with a bias towards Platonic philosophy, and end with a God similar to the God of the Platonists.


Geisler, N. (2011). Systematic Theology, in one volume. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House.

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