To Name the World

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; Psalm 33:6–9; John 1:1). 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.

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, 24–25; 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.

The reality principle is an arche, a starting point. It establishes a baseline as well as sets a trajectory. It points in a particular direction (or perhaps in multiple directions), and creates space and makes room for man’s creativity to soar. The creativity principle, when it’s used faithfully, presses beyond what’s (presently) there to the as-yet-unseen destination. Naming, then, includes both God’s design and intent in creation on the one hand, as well as man’s recognition of God’s design and advancement of God’s reign through his act of naming on the other.

Naming, therefore, transcends mere labeling. Naming is a way of moving forward, of making progress. It entails both recognition of what God has done and development beyond what God has done. It includes both discovery and invention. In naming, we both receive what God has done and build upon what God has done. Or better, human naming is actually God’s way of building, developing, and subduing creation, enlisting man as co-laborer in the work of bringing the world from one degree of glory to another.

Naming Is Our Great Privilege

This is the great privilege of being made in God’s image. We are called to subdue the earth. We are called to name God’s world. God has unleashed us to transform the world through our faithful naming. Music, visual arts, engineering, mathematics, business, education, preaching: in all of them, our goal is to internalize God’s word, thoughtfully engaging with God’s works, and then to faithfully and creatively transform God’s world through our words and actions.

When engineers and scientists analyze the world, they attempt to name it. With numbers. They represent reality (that’s naming) with 1’s and 2’s and 3’s and 4’s. Sometimes they throw letters in there just to confuse the rest of us. When a physicist translates reality into math, when a mathematician represents God’s world with her equations, they are engaged in naming. The only question will be whether they are faithful or not, whether they operate within the boundaries established by God in his word and whether their names fit with the world as we find it.

When photographers point and click, they too are naming the world. Pictures, as they say, are worth a thousand words, and so photographers speak to us through colors and pixels. They seek to capture something about the world — a smile, a child, a sunset, or an experience — with lenses and lighting. Their camera is a tongue and a pen, and they employ it to creatively and imaginatively frame and highlight givens in God’s world.

And, of course, when God’s faithful ministers ascend into the pulpit, they are seeking to name God’s world. All week they saturate themselves in the living word of the living God, hearing from him and having their eyes shaped and re-shaped by Holy Writ. Then they attend to givens in their culture and congregation — felt needs, hidden sins, deep pains, and sweet blessings. Then, in reliance on God’s Spirit, they speak, connecting God’s word to God’s works in the lives of God’s people, praying that their naming would not only be faithful, but gloriously fruitful.

“God has granted you the spectacular power of speech.”

So whether you’re behind the pulpit or behind the lens, whether you’re working with numbers, working with words, or working with paint, whether you’re typing emails, wiping noses, or swiping credit cards, remember: God has granted you the spectacular power of speech. So open your mouth, and faithfully name his world.