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God's Gift of Speech: What's in a Name?

We don’t think about the mysterious power of speech enough. But words matter. The world was established by the word of the living God, by the God who is himself the Word (Genesis 1:3). This same God has created us in his image and given us the awesome and wondrous gift of speech. We are named by him as his image-bearers and then unleashed to name his world. But what exactly does it mean to name his world? What is naming, and how does it work? More importantly, how may we learn to do it faithfully?

Genesis 2 contains the first human words in the Bible. In Genesis 2:7-17, the Lord God forms man from the dust of the ground, breathes into him the breath of life, places him in the Garden to work and keep it, and grants him free access to every tree in the garden (with one notable exception). Following the prohibition, God takes stock of his solo image-bearer and moves to meet a glaring need. It’s in this context that man receives the awesome task of naming God’s world, of shaping God’s creation through the power of speech. So what exactly does naming involve?

Naming Is an Act of Delegated Authority

First, God grants Adam the authority to name. Adam does not simply repeat the names that God originally supplies. Instead, God brings the beasts and birds to the man “to see what he would call them.” Adam has significant freedom in selecting the name for each kind of animal. “Whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name” (Genesis 2:19, italics added).

Man is a co-worker with God in creation. Tweet

A simple analogy can illustrate the importance of this point. We’re all familiar with alphabet board books that parents read to their toddlers. The parents point to the picture of the red fruit on the first page and say, “Apple.” They point to the round toy on the second page and say, “Ball,” and the small, whiskered animal on the third page and say, “Cat.” This is not what God does with Adam. Instead, God brings the equivalent of a board book to Adam, points at the picture and says, “What do you want to call it?”

Man, therefore, becomes a co-worker with God in drawing out and filling out the meaning of creation.

Naming Involves Ordered Creativity

Naming mingles God’s work and man’s imagination; it involves the interplay between objective reality and human creativity. When Adam names the animals, he must name within the boundaries of God’s creative work. He must recognize and acknowledge that God has made the animals “according to their kinds” (Genesis 1:21, Genesis 1.24-25″ data-version=”esv” data-purpose=”bible-reference”>24-25; Genesis 2.20″ data-version=”esv” data-purpose=”bible-reference”>2:20), while still making use of his delegated authority to name as he sees fit. Thus, while Adam is given freedom and authority to name, this freedom is not unlimited. Adam’s freedom is bound by divinely established order.

The detailed account of the naming of the woman demonstrates this type of ordered creativity. The woman stands before Adam, built by God, the fruit of divine labor. Her existence, just as she is, is entirely established by God. He sets the boundaries. He provides the structure and order. But as Chesterton reminded us, “the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild.” And so Adam’s imagination goes to work. Adam sees her with poetic eyes and utters her name. Here is both reality and representation, a “given-ness” which Adam receives, and a “giving-ness” which Adam supplies. The first might be called the reality principle; the second the creativity principle.

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Joe Rigney (@joe_rigney) is Assistant Professor of Theology and Christian Worldview at Bethlehem College and Seminary and author of Live Like a Narnian: Christian Discipleship in Lewis’s Chronicles.