Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

God the Illeist: Third-Person Self-References and Trinitarian Hints in the Old Testament

Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

God the Illeist: Third-Person Self-References and Trinitarian Hints in the Old Testament

Article excerpt

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Elmo has become Public Enemy #1. Internet discussions over the last few years have started to blame the shrill red Muppet for teaching children how to refer to themselves in the third person. Just as Elmo can announce, "Elmo has a question," so children around the world are declaiming of themselves, "Johnny hurt his finger." Parental concern is so prevalent that the Sesame Workshop website even carries a response to it.

It transpires that Elmo is not to blame. Children have referred to themselves in the third person for generations-typically copying their parents' own simplification of speech. But the topic has linguists once again talking about this phenomenon. Indeed, such third-person self-reference has undergone a resurgence in prominence in recent decades. Analysts recognize its widespread propagation through use by politicians (notably Richard Nixon and Bob Dole), by sports stars, and by prominent fictional characters (in influential literature/cinema such as Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, and famous television shows such as Seinfeld and The Simpsons). Such discussion is currently taking place under the formal label "illeism."1

This technical title is attributed to Coleridge in 1809.2 The phenomenon itself can be found in written English centuries prior to that. The same syntax even occurs in the Greek of the NT and the Hebrew and Aramaic of the OT. Since the first generations of NT believers it has been employed as a significant tool for divining OT hints of the trinitarian plurality of God. It continues to be promulgated by contemporary evangelical systematicians, particularly in the influential textbooks of the last hundred years.

Given the theological weight attributed by theologians to this syntactic phenomenon, coupled with renewed interest in it in the contemporary media, it is appropriate for us to critique how illeism has been used-and misused-in identifying the Trinity in OT texts. I propose that the various rhetorical uses identified by biblical and secular commentators offer a more responsible hermeneutic than do the revelatory claims made by many Christian apologists and theologians.


The texts scrutinized in this article are a subset of what we might generally call the "two Gods" texts of the OT. These can be difficult to organize systematically. For simplicity, we might recognize that the grammatical parameter of "person" helps us to identify and classify a number of related texts. There are places where Yahweh, speaking in the first person, refers to himself-or to someone else-as "Yahweh." This is formal illeism, though further complicated by the presence of a number of divine titles. Then there are prayers where a psalmist or prophet switches from speaking to God in the second person to speaking of him in the third person. And there are yet further passages where two titles for God, either identical or distinct, are both narrated in the third person. From the outset we should admit that these categories are somewhat artificial and display a degree of overlap. We will briefly survey the latter two, before returning to formal illeism (self-reference).

The classic "two Gods" texts are those which conjoin two names, both in the third person. The prime example is Genesis 19:24, where the narrator reports that "Yahweh rained sulfur and fire . . . from Yahweh." Exodus 34:5-7 recounts how Yahweh stood with Moses and "proclaimed the name Yahweh" (NRSV, ESV) or "called upon the name of Yahweh" (AV, RSV, NASB).3

A trinitarian interpretation of such texts can be traced at least as far back as Justin Martyr. His second-century "dialogue" with Trypho puts forward a number of Christological proofs from the OT which are all ultimately grounded upon Justin's claims for Gen 19:24.4 Justin's method clearly influenced ensuing Church Fathers, including Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, and Eusebius. …

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