Language & Ontology
In a recent post on ontology, I explained that the subject is not without its place in the study of Scripture and theology. Today, I want to demonstrate one of the ways in which this is true — the naming of things in Genesis 1-3. In these foundational chapters of Scripture, we encounter God and Adam naming various objects. God names all that he creates, and Adam names animals of the ground (cf. Gen 2:18-20), his wife/”the woman” (cf. Gen 2:22-23), and renames his wife “Eve” after the Fall (cf. Gen 3:20).
Many commentators have properly picked up on the fact that Adam’s naming of objects reflects his being the image of God, the God who speaks and names, categorizes and orders, arranges and controls by his Word. However, not many have taken into consideration the ontological implications of the differences between God’s act of naming and man’s act of naming. For while God and Adam both name objects, they do so in very different ways reflecting their knowledge of the object in question. And this, in turn, reflects on the very nature of objects themselves, i.e. the manner in which they are what they are.
The difference between God and Adam’s speaking, moreover, is not merely narratival. Rather, God’s speaking and Adam’s speaking are set in a rather clear contrast, one that is based on the distinction between the Creator and his creature. Man is the image and glory of God, but he is a creature nonetheless, one who is finite in his epistemological and, therefore, linguistic capacities.
God Names, then Makes; Adam Encounters, then Names
We see from the outset of Scripture that God’s knowledge of what he will create precedes his creating those things. This is implied by God’s use of the word “light” in Genesis 1:3, which is followed by God’s satisfaction in this newly created light —
And God saw that the light was good.
What God speaks into being is known already to him, and he does not name things on the basis of his having acquired knowledge of it. And this stands in stark contrast to man’s naming of things in Genesis 2:18-20.
Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him.
Whereas God names things, then brings them into existence; Adam encounters creation, then names creation after what he has learned of it. The story of Adam naming the animals in Gen 2:18-20 is just one example. We find another example of this process of encountering, learning, and naming in the very next verses (vv. 21-23).
So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,
“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.”
The Lord brings the animals to Adam; Adam names them. The Lord brings the woman to Adam; Adam names her. Adam names the animals and the woman according to what he has learned about them, as is evident from his statement that the woman will be called “Woman because she was taken out of Man.” A process of encountering, learning, and naming that is repeated again in Gen 3:15 & 20.
“I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.”
The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living.
Adam hears the Word of God, prophesying that Eve would bear a Son who would bring salvation from God’s judgment, and he names his wife in accordance with that truth. Adam believed, then he spoke. He encountered a part of creation (his wife), learned something about her (i.e. she would give birth to the One who would crush the serpent’s head), and named her accordingly (i.e. named her to be the mother of all living).
What Things Are Depends On God’s Word, Not Ours
A simple and very practical truth we can derive from this contrast between God’s naming and Adam’s naming is this — The nature of a thing is dependent not on what we observe, but on what God has declared to be the case. A very clear instance of this fact is also found in the opening chapters of Genesis. We read in Genesis 2:16-17 —
The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”
Here we are shown that God gave Adam special revelation concerning the nature of eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Eating of the tree, in short, is identified as bad, as deserving of punishment. Note that God does not say this on the basis of the fruit itself, nor on the basis of the effect that would result from eating of the fruit. Instead, the eating the fruit is identified as bad because God has decreed it to be so. God’s knowledge of the tree depends on his being God, not on the tree having certain properties that you or I can observe, taste, touch, or infer general conclusions from. The very commandment itself demonstrates that knowledge of the action could not be based upon experience, or upon man’s apprehension of the action and its properties, for the very act of doing this was itself sin.
Yet what does the Scripture say Eve did? Genesis 3:6 —
…when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.
The serpent contradicted God’s declaration concerning the nature of the action of eating the forbidden fruit, and the woman went along with his denial of God’s Word. And this is important to note, because the “badness” of the fruit was not inherent to the fruit itself, i.e. to any observable property, but to God’s decree. Thus, while it is true that to Eve the fruit was good for food, a delight to the eyes, and to be desired to make one wise, that doesn’t change the fact that it was not good, and eating it constituted a sin against God.
God’s Word defined the fruit and the action of eating the fruit. The fruit was not good for consumption because God had said so. The action of eating the fruit was a sin because had declared it to be so. And no matter what Eve observed, no matter what she believed made the fruit good, and no matter what she believed made eating the fruit good — God’s Word was fixed.
Eve could not learn something about the fruit that would change its very nature.
Nor could she learn anything about eating the fruit that would justify her breaking God’s command.
Things are what God says they are, not necessarily what we observe about them.
The Absence of Common Sense & The Resurrection of the Dead
What is the point of all this, then? Well, in a word, the point is to emphasize that our belief that the essential properties of a thing/action/process are those properties with which we are most familiar, or which seem to always be present with the thing/action/process in question is usually wrong. And if God has revealed what this thing/action/process is, then we certainly have absolutely no right to speak of our common sense understanding of this thing/action/process. We can only turn to the Scriptures for the truth about it.
As a result of this, we cannot appeal to our understanding, say, of the body as being a physical entity constituted in such and such a manner as being definitive of the body itself. We know from Scripture that the body is constituted of parts (cf. 1st Cor 12). We also know, however, that the body that is missing a member, or many members, nevertheless, remains a body, albeit a malfunctioning and marred one (also cf. 1st Cor 12). How, then, are we to speak of the body? What is the body? If the body is both the unity of physical parts, as well as the disunified collection of body parts, then what is the body? How does the body remain existent, moreover, if it is broken down into its constituent elements after sitting in the grave for decades, or even millennia?
God tells us that he will raise the dead, the bodies of the dead, in fact. But our perception of the body renders the doctrine of the resurrection incomprehensible to us. For if the body ceases to be a unity of limbs and appendages, etc, and it decomposes into chemical elements, our understanding of it is that it has ceased to be. Yet God says that it, and not something else, will be raised. God says that the bodies of the dead will come out of their tombs. So how is this the case?
In a word, as I’ve noted, a thing is not what we observe it to be; a thing is what God says it is. And what a thing is may always produce and/or be attended by certain properties that we observe and mistake for essential, when in reality they are accidental. The limbless man is not devoid of a body, even though his body may look nothing like mine. God knows what the essential properties of a body are, even if my mind cannot comprehend the body’s essential properties consisting in something other than what I can view with my eyes and touch with my fingers, or hear with my ears.
Scripture often contradicts our common sense notions. Let us not build doctrines or defenses of doctrines on such flimsy bases.
Soli Deo Gloria