John Calvin, in Book 2 of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, unpacks the Ten Commandments in order to demonstrate the original significances of the Old Testament Law and the ongoing importance of the principles it contains. At the start of his examination, Calvin evaluates God’s naming of himself “I AM” in Exodus 20:2, and he develops a brief but profound theology of the names of God from which every Christian can benefit daily.
Divine Names as Gifts to Men
According to Calvin, the primary reason that God provides his people with a variety of names by which they may call him is “to keep the thoughts of the pious upon that God who by his covenant that he has made with Israel has so represented himself that it is in no wise lawful to turn aside from such a pattern.” It is by means of his names that God “distinguishes his sacred presence from all idols and invented gods,” which are born out of the human mind’s inability to “refrain from lapsing into some absurd invention.” In essence, the great diversity with which God names himself is “a remedy for this evil” and is intended to enable humanity to see past the murkiness of worldly and fleshly counterfeits and lock eyes and thoughts upon the shining face of the true and living God. It is clear that the variety of names that God uses for himself throughout Scripture matters.
The Lord’s names not only set him apart from the gods and idols devised by men, but they also serve as ornate boundary markers. In order to aid his people in serving him faithfully, the Lord “adorns his divinity with sure titles, and so fences us in, as it were, that we may not wander hither and thither and rashly contrive for ourselves some new god.” Calvin’s use of the word “adorn” here is significant in that it brings with it the connotation of intentionality: God purposefully made his names aesthetically pleasing. God did not simply give humanity multiple true names by which to call him so as to make sure it knew the “rules”; he gave it well-ordered, poetic names of all kinds and lengths and sizes with the capacity to delight and impress and amaze as well as declare truth, and, in so doing, has shown himself to not only be a beautiful God but to also be the God of Beauty who delights in all that is beautiful. Far from being the self-aggrandizing or dictatorial titles of a tyrant, God’s names manifest to men the beauty of the divine nature and provide mankind with a framework in which to live and move and be.
For example, while the Triune God of the Scriptures is the God who commands his people to “work out their own salvations with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12), he is also Yahweh-M’Kaddesh, “the Lord who sanctifies” (Ezekiel 37:28), which means it is he “who works in [them], both to will and to work, for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13). He commands us to live holy lives but also situates us inside of the sweet boundary of knowing it is he who is at work in us that we might grow and mature but not step outside the fence into legalism. Yahweh-M’Kaddesh is a name that both thrills with the steady rhythm of its consonants and soothes with the precious promise it contains.
Another example is El Roi, “the God who sees” (Genesis 16:13). As believers who live in light of the New Testament, we are familiar with the way God’s all-seeing nature is linked with impending judgment as revealed in passages such as Hebrews 4:13, which declares that “no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” In this sense, thinking about God as El Roi emphasizes his justice and holiness.
However, in the immediate context of Hagar’s story in Genesis 16, El Roi is a name of warmth and comfort, which Hagar gratefully applies to the Lord because he not only looked upon her favorably but also demonstrated that favor by sending an angel, a physical manifestation of divine protection, to proclaim news of blessing to her after she had been cast out into the desert.
When we put them together, we see that El Roi is the compassionate God who looks with eyes of love on fallen men and makes his love visible to them even while he is also the God who sees all, ignores nothing, and will require an account for every thought, word, and deed. He is a God who looks with love but does not overlook wickedness.
According to Calvin, the names of God represent “laws” in themselves that not only tell us who God is and who he is not but also communicate a bit of his Triune beauty to us by means of their inherent poetic splendor and diversity.
His theology of divine names also has profound implications for the Christian life as it is lived out in the divine presence. Understanding God’s glorious intentions behind his self-naming will bestow an even greater sense of gravity on the ways in which we use his names if we come to recognize that the names of God are, in fact, God’s names for God and not simply words invented by human beings.
Furthermore, learning the Lord’s names and the meanings behind them will enrich the spiritual practices that form rhythms in our lives (e.g., prayer, singing) by giving us an ever-expanding vocabulary on which to draw so we can name God with greater diversity. Rather than simply pray prayers in which we ask God to heal, we can call on Jehovah-Rapha, “the God who heals,” to act in accordance with the sweet promise in his name and heal to the uttermost. When our souls are filled to overflowing with an awareness of the way our God cares for us, we can sing songs to Yahweh-Rohi, “the Lord our shepherd.”
The more we learn new names and use them in new contexts, the more we will come to rightly understand the names of God; and the more we come to embrace the names and experience this seemingly minor shift in perspective, the more we will see God in new lights and long to spend our lifetimes enjoying and exploring all that is contained in, imaged through, and communicated by Yahweh, Elohim, Jesus, and I AM.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, 2 vols., The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 2.VIII.15.