Calling on the Name of the Lord
By Dave Norris
Some years ago I ran across a document that absolutely changed my thinking about the name of God.
The author was D. Preman Niles, and the research was from his doctoral dissertation while at Princeton University. What captured my interest was his argument that the name Yahweh (Jehovah) was orally invoked; that is, it was spoken audibly over people in connection with covenant. For example, when God renewed His covenant with Israel after they were judged for worshipping the golden calf, He did so by literally speaking His name over Moses, the mediator of this renewed covenant (Exodus 34).
The reason why the oral invocation of the name of God is sometimes invisible in English translations of the Old Testament is because the Hebrew phrase “liqroh beshem Yahweh” is actually an idiom. That is, while there are times when this phrase should betaken literally, where “to call upon the name of the LORD” has to do with worship and praise, there are other times when this phrase indicates that the name of Yahweh is itself called upon people in either covenant initiation or covenant renewal.
As I began to study Niles’s argument, the implication became clear. From the very beginning Yahweh’s name was used in covenant initiation. For example, in Genesis 4:26, when covenant was renewed after paradise was lost, King James’s translators were not altogether clear as to how to translate the verse. Did those entering covenant “call upon the name of the Lord” or were they “called by the name of the Lord”? Unable to decide, translators left this latter translation as a marginal reference. Niles’s thesis demonstrates that in actuality, “Yahweh” was called over those initiated into covenant.
A careful read of Exodus 20 reveals a covenant ceremony where Yahweh literally calls His name over the people in covenant initiation. Consider as well the worship service described in Numbers 6. At the high point of the service, scholars tell us that the priests literally called down the name of Yahweh on the people, and in the same act also invoked the very presence of God.
Before considering how the New Testament treats this subject, let us pause to consider two objections to what has been offered thus far. First, because of certain translations of Exodus chapter 6, some have suggested that the name Yahweh could not have been known until the time of Moses. But this simply cannot be true. Every time one reads “Lord” in small capitals in the King James Version, this is the translation of “Yahweh.” Consider that the name Yahweh thus appears as early as Genesis 2:4, and God specifically introduces Himself as Yahweh to Abraham in Genesis 15:7.
A second objection might be that the name of Yahweh was not verbally spoken by Jewish people. This is also not true. A significant amount of study in preparation for my dissertation convinced me of scholarly evidence that it was not until the intertestamental period that pronouncing the name of Yahweh fell out of use.
We may now consider what implications this may have for New Testament baptism. Two Old Testament passages are most significant in this regard. In Amos 9 there is a prophecy that at some future messianic time, the name of Yahweh would literally be called over the Gentiles. The Hebrew is clear that this is an oral invocation. Yahweh would be spoken orally over those Gentiles entering covenant.
The second text is equally instructive. Joel 2 prophesies that at a future time “whosoever shall call upon the name of Yahweh shall be saved.” (Peter quoted from the Septuagint which translated “Yahweh” as “Kurios” which is “Lord” in English.) Joel 2 is a covenantal text, and as such, the intention of Joel was not merely to say that an individual calling on the name of the Lord would be initiated into covenant. Rather, there is good reason to believe that Joel is saying something more; the name of Yahweh would be literally pronounced over Gentiles, initiating them into covenant.
Let me demonstrate how the New Testament writers understood the meaning of the Joel text. First, consider that it was normative for the earliest church to apply Yahweh texts to Jesus. Second, understand that Peter makes two different applications of Joel in Acts chapter 2. While Peter first utilizes Joel to explain how it was that the Spirit had been poured out, scholars tell us that the literary argument of Acts chapter 2 depends on Peter making further application of the Joel text. Academics suggest that Joel’s prophetic invitation to “call on the name of the Lord” was fulfilled by Acts 2:38, when the apostles called the name of Jesus over those entering into the new covenant through baptism.
In addition, consider how the Amos text is utilized in the New Testament. In Acts 15, when deciding whether Gentile converts would be compelled to keep the Torah in order to maintain covenant, James appeals to Amos 9. Recall that the meaning of the Hebrew is that the name of Yahweh would literally be called over the Gentiles. Citing this text, James concludes that the Gentiles did not have to keep Torah; it was sufficient that the name of the Lord was called over them. Further, it is not only the Hebrew of Amos but the Greek of Acts 15 that indicates that the name of the Lord is to be spoken orally. Because, once again, the church applied a Yahweh text to Jesus, scholars rightly assess James’s words as having reference to baptism in the name of Jesus. Further, it is not only Acts 15 which demonstrates such an oral invocation; the Greek underlying Acts 2:38 and James 2:7 confirm this same oral pronouncement of Jesus’ name. Consequently, it is not too much to say that there is an academic consensus that the earliest church baptized in Jesus’ name.
All of this sheds light on how Paul employs this same Joel text utilized by Peter. In Romans 10, Paul’s reference to Joel’s invitation to “call upon the name of the Lord” should be understood in an idiomatic sense. While it is true that public professions of faith were often made by new believers and that this was related to covenant initiation, what is also true is that such a profession was made in a baptismal setting. Further, it was understood by the earliest church that the act of baptism in the name of Jesus was central to covenant initiation.
Let us now consider three implications to this biblical understanding. First, while covenant initiation in both testaments was affected by the name of the one calling people into covenant, New Testament covenant initiation universally occurred in the name of Jesus. This is confirmed by Peter’s emphasis in Acts 4:12, that there is “none other name” than Jesus “whereby we must be saved.” Truly, if someone wants to follow the biblical pattern, he should enter covenant by being baptized in the name of Jesus.
The second implication relates to how a person is baptized. While I think it is good to have the person being baptized pray or even publically confess their faith, scripturally, initiation into covenant by baptism is accomplished by immersion (baptisma itself indicates this) when a representative of the church orally invokes the name of Jesus over the person entering covenant relationship. Lately, I have seen certain innovations in baptismal services. In some cases, people are having the person being baptized call the name of Jesus on themselves or the whole congregation call out the name of Jesus. Please understand that scripturally; “to call upon the name of the Lord” is fulfilled by one thing: the oral invocation of the name of Jesus over the person being baptized by an individual acting on behalf of the Lord and the church.
The third implication is one that the brevity of this article will not allow us to pursue. Even in the Old Testament, the oral invocation of the name of the Lord was associated with the coming of the very presence of God Himself. That is to say, where the Name was invoked covenantally, God’s Spirit was also present. Thus, in Numbers 6, where the priests are instructed to “call down my name” (NJB), it is in conjunction with a promise that the Lord’s “face” or “countenance” would also be present (both English words are translated from the Hebrew panim which is also translated “presence”). Such a relationship between the name and the Spirit has New Testament connotations. Consider I Corinthians 6:11. A number of scholars demonstrate that Paul has reference to a single event and is linking baptism in Jesus’ name with the Spirit. This is not to say the Spirit comes the moment that a person is baptized, only that both experiences are linked together in the context of initiation into New Testament covenant.
From, “Forward Magazine”/March-April 2009/Volume 40, Issue 2/Page 8-9, by Dave Norris