Is Adam’s Naming of the Animals a “Social Construction?”

“So the Lord God formed out of the ground every wild animal and every bird of the sky, and brought each to the man to see what he would call it. And whatever the man called a living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all the livestock, to the birds of the sky, and to every wild animal; but for the man no helper was found as his complement.” (Gen 2:19-20)

In his book, The Historicity of Nature, Theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg says:

“On the basis of the biblical view of spirit and consciousness, we could answer that the possibility of grasping reality external to ourselves with our consciousness is founded in the fact that the Spirit [i.e. Holy Spirit] in which we participate is also the origin of all life external to us, the origin of all the different forms of created reality. Something of the sort may underlie the curious statement in the Yahwist story of Creation that the ‘name’ of every living creature was to be whatever the human being called it (Gen 2:19). If we recall that, for the archaic mind, the name of a thing is not something external to it but contains the nature of the thing itself, it becomes clear that this biblical passage says nothing less then that the human being, because of his participation in the divine Spirit, is capable of grasping the nature of things.”1 Wolfhart Pannenberg, The Historicity of Nature, 2008. 113-114.

Pannenberg’s claim here, or so it seems to me, is that human beings can not only grasp the essence of objects in nature, but through the use of language, actually speak something true about the external world, and this because the Holy Spirit, through whom all natural things have their origin, to include human consciousness, allows us to participate in the rest of His created world. Our language captures the essence of natural things.

If this is true, then it is possible to avoid two errors that have plagued modernism: 1) that all naming is a mere social construct, and necessarily devoid of any inherent truth about external referents in the world, and 2) that we can know everything about the external world, apart from any work of the Spirit of God (i.e. through purely scientific or rational means). Instead, from a Christian perspective, we do construct some thing about external objects in the world, but the things we construct carry some inherent truth about their actual properties, even their essential ones. Hence, we construct partially true statements about reality, which could also mean that we know, in part, something about the world we experience.

Alternatively, due to sin, we do not know the world as it is exhaustively. As finite creatures our language, to include the language of science, is limited and, therefore, there will always be something mysterious about God’s creation because we cannot fully describe or name it. Even if we think, for example, that we have described some aspect of God’s creation exhaustively, history has shown that new, scientific paradigms, paradigms that literally overturn old ones, often lie just around the corner, even if that corner may be a hundred years down the corridor of time. However, that shift in science and its language is perhaps inevitable, and, if so, it lies dormant, waiting to upset the unmovable foundation, or “the assured consensus” of scientific knowledge we thought we had once-and-for-all established.

In sum, because God, through His Spirit, unites us to the rest of His creation, we can know in part something of the world around us, and, more importantly, we can even know God in part through our experience of His world. Therefore, when Adam named the animals, not only did he construct something, i.e. the animals’ names, he also discovered something, namely, Truth. Unfortunately, as sinners, our naming of God’s creation has been debilitated, and with it our access to His Truth.

“For now we see indistinctly, as in a mirror,
but then face to face.
Now I know in part,
but then I will know fully,
as I am fully known.” (1 Cor 13:12)

“The mind of the discerning acquires knowledge,
and the ear of the wise seeks it.” (Proverbs 18:15)

“As He was saying these things, many believed in Him. So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed Him, ‘If you continue in My word, you really are My disciples. You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.'” (John 30-32)

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