In the comments on my post about the epithet Jesus so often used to refer to himself, Son of Man, some readers expressed surprise and concern at the notion to which I there referred in passing that God the Son, YHWH, was to be distinguished from God the Father, El Elyon, God Most High, Deus in excelsis. I noted that their difference is not of being, but of person: thus a reference to any Person of God would be a reference to God.
Readers worried nonetheless that the differentiation might be an innovation of recent liberal scholars of the Bible – of, that is to say, latter-day Gnostics – or even of mine. It is not. On the contrary, it has been with us from the very beginning, not just of the Church, but of Israel.
By coincidence, I last night came across a passage from one of the Fathers of the Church, St. Irenaeus of Lyons, that substantiates this claim. In explaining why the early Church differentiated between YHWH and El Elyon, and providing the Scriptural basis for the notion, he shows that it was considered orthodox by the bishops of the first centuries of the Church.
Bishop Irenaeus was one of the most important theologians of the second century, and separated from the Apostles by only one degree; he heard St. Polycarp of Smyrna, who was a student of St. John the Evangelist. His most famous work is Against Heresies, in which he demolishes Gnosticism in the several forms it then took. He wrote his Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, a brief but systematic exposition of the main points of the faith, in 190. The book is an epistle to his friend Marcianus, a fellow believer and adept in the faith. As such, it is a summary and précis of the arguments supporting the main points of Christian doctrine for a sophisticated apologist, rather than a detailed catechesis for beginners. It is one of our best sources of information about early Christian doctrine as it was understood by the most educated Christians.
Irenaeus spends a lot of time showing how Jesus is foretold in the OT. In the process, he makes clear how the early Church derived its understanding of the relation of the Son to the Father, YHWH to El, from the traditions of Israel. He writes of the Son:
43. So then we must believe God in all things, for in all things God is true. Now that there was a Son of God, and that He existed not only before He appeared in the world, but also before the world was made, Moses, who was the first that prophesied says in Hebrew: Baresith bara Elowin basan benuam samenthares. And this, translated into our language, is: “The Son in the beginning: God established then the heaven and the earth.”
This Jeremiah the prophet also testified, saying thus: “Before the morning-star I begat thee: and before the sun (is) thy name;” and that is, before the creation of the world; for together with the world the stars were made. And again the same says: “Blessed is he who was, before he became man.” Because, for God, the Son was (at) the beginning before the creation of the world; but for us (He was) then, when He appeared; and before that He was not for us, who knew Him not.
Wherefore also His disciple John, in teaching us who is the Son of God, who was with the Father before the world was made, and that all the things that were made were made by Him, says thus: “In beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him, and without Him was not anything made:” showing with certainty that the Word, who was in the beginning with the Father, and by whom all things were made, this is His Son.
44. And again Moses tells how the Son of God drew near to hold converse with Abraham: And God appeared unto him by the oak of Mamre in the middle of the day. And looking up with his eyes he beheld, and, lo, three men stood over against him. And he bowed himself down to the earth, and said: Lord, if indeed I have found favour in thy sight. And all that which follows he spake with the Lord, and the Lord spake with him.
Now two of the three were angels; but one was the Son of God, with whom also Abraham spake, pleading on behalf of the men of Sodom, that they should not perish if at least ten righteous should be found there. And, whilst these were speaking, the two angels entered into Sodom, and Lot received them. And then the Scripture says: And the Lord rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven: that is to say, the Son, who spake with Abraham, being Lord, received power to punish the men of Sodom from the Lord out of heaven, even from the Father who rules over all. So Abraham was a prophet and saw things to come, which were to take place in human form even the Son of God, that He should speak with men and eat with them, and then should bring in the judgment from the Father, having received from Him who rules over all the power to punish the men of Sodom.
45. And Jacob, when he went into Mesopotamia, saw Him in a dream, standing upon the ladder , that is the tree which was set up from earth to heaven; for thereby they that believe on Him go up to the heavens. For His sufferings are our ascension on high. And all such visions point to the Son of God, speaking with men and being in their midst. For it was not the Father of all, who is not seen by the world, the Maker of all who has said: Heaven is my throne, and earth is my footstool: what house will ye build me, or what is the place of my rest? (Acts vii. 49) and who comprehendeth the earth with his hand, and with his span the heaven — it was not He that came and stood in a very small space and spake with Abraham; but the Word of God, who was ever with mankind, and made known beforehand what should come to pass in the future, and taught men the things of God.
46. He it is who spake with Moses in the bush, and said: Seeing have I seen the affliction of my people that is in Egypt; and I am come down to deliver them. He it is who came forth and came down for the deliverance of the oppressed, bringing us out from the power of the Egyptians, that is, from all idolatry and impiety; and delivering us from the Red Sea, that is, delivering us from the deadly confusion of the Gentiles and the grievous vexation of their blasphemy. For in them the Word of God prepared and rehearsed beforehand the things concerning us. Then He set forth in types beforehand that which was to be; how in very truth He has brought us out from the cruel service of the Gentiles, and a stream of water in the desert has He made to flow forth in abundance from a rock; and that rock is Himself; and has given twelve fountains, that is, the teaching of the twelve apostles.
– Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching
So far as Irenaeus is concerned, then, Ehyeh is the Name of the Word, of God the Son. “I AM” is the Word the Father speaks.