Sunday, November 5, 2023

Discover and Define

It was shaping up to be a good year for Carl. It was late May 1753, and the first volume of his latest book was rolling off the presses at Lars Silvius' workshop. The second volume would be ready in August. This wasn't his first book – not by a long shot – but it would make history. Carl – or 'Carolus Linnaeus,' as he styled himself in Latin – taught at Uppsala University in eastern Sweden, over 300 miles from the village where he was born and raised. There in Uppsala he lived with his wife, 12-year-old son, and four younger daughters in a little wooden house next to his orderly botanical garden, his 'living library of plants' all laid out in neat rows, with its menagerie of monkeys, parrots, and more. It was, in a way, his paradise to walk about in.1

The wayward son of a Lutheran pastor, having absorbed less of piety and more of botany, still Carl's deepest thinking had been shaped by the Book of Genesis.2 He was fascinated by what the world around him preached about “the Author of Nature” who had covered this earth with such diverse delights.3 And now, in his newest book, Species Plantarum, he proclaimed that “the world is the theater of the Almighty, adorned on all sides with the highest miracles of omniscient wisdom.” The human being is here, he said, as God's house guest. But any guest, wrote Linnaeus, is unworthy of the hospitality if he doesn't “know how to look at and appreciate the great things of the owner.” So, to acquit ourselves of being awful guests, it's only right to “research these creations by the Creator” so that each creature can be “clearly grasped and clearly named.”4

Out of his deep passion for nature, Linnaeus was on a mission to systematically organize all human knowledge about plants, animals, even minerals. For that reason, in this book he'd set out to catalog every known species of plant in the world, over 7300 of them, and give each a name – a scientific name in Latin with just two words, a genus and a species. Linnaeus' strategy, binomial nomenclature, is what we still use today. If you've ever heard of a Tyrannosaurus rex, well, that's its binomial nomenclature. Linnaeus was the first person to call you a Homo sapiens – he came up with binomial nomenclature for us, too. Every living thing in the world, once we discover it, gets a name in Linnaeus' style, from Felis catus (cat) and Canis familiaris (dog) to our national bird Haliaeetus leucocephalus (bald eagle). And for this scientific language of praise, he's gone down in history.

Seven years before this book came out, when he was already on that crusade and was several years settled into his garden home, a rival, Albrecht von Haller, had sarcastically accused Linnaeus of having “considered himself the second Adam.”5 And to understand why, we're going to need to reflect on this morning's passage.

Last Sunday, we learned that for Israel's neighbors, the phrase 'image of a god' was their way of setting the king apart from the slave-like or beast-like status of human beings before their gods. When Genesis proclaims the human being, the everyman, as made 'in the image and likeness of God,' then, it's a revolutionary declaration that we are, in our very identity, the royal species on earth. As the image of God, it's our royal responsibility to subdue the earth, to claim all the earth as our own and to steward its resources, cultivate it, and bring life and order to what once was dead and chaotic. It's also our royal responsibility to exercise dominion, to govern all the other living creatures around us, not as tyrants but as caring and compassionate kings and queens of nature.

And now, in today's passage, we have the scene where Adam's dominion is first put to the test, given its original opportunity to shine. “Out of the ground, the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens.” Then what? “He brought them to the human being” (Genesis 2:19). They come obediently, come willingly, come in fellowship and friendship and even play.6 This isn't a quick display; this is a one-by-one introduction. God is “calling on Adam to examine each animal carefully.”7 Adam was, in the words of one old saint, “at once immersed in the study of all natural things,” which the animals here represented.8 Adam isn't being spoonfed by the Lord. God wanted Adam – wants us – to learn some knowledge through our own effort.9

So Adam has to meet each and every kind of animal. He has to get to know each of them, not in theory but in experience. He has to look at them, listen to them, observe them, study them. So the man in the garden meets all these animals, with the expectation that he's going to use his authority, use his dominion, to understand them and name them. “Adam would have had to study the animals to name them appropriately.”10 And as a pair of biblical scholars put it, “if we are to rule wisely and well in creation, we need to learn all we can about the earth and other creatures for whose care we bear some responsibility.”11

Later in the Bible, we meet a man named Solomon. The son of David, he's a king, and God answers his prayers for wisdom. God giveth in abundance: Solomon was “wiser than all other men” (1 Kings 4:31). And one of the expressions of that, and of his kingship, was how much he knew and understood about God's world. We're told in the Bible that King Solomon “spoke of trees, from the cedar that's in Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of the wall; he spoke also of beasts and of birds and of crawlers and of fish” (1 Kings 4:33). In his proverbs King Solomon professes that God might be glorified when he buries his deep mysteries beneath the surface appearances of creation, but the royal glory of a king like Solomon is “to search things out,” to investigate, to uncover by study the truth about the world that God has buried there, waiting for it to be discovered (Proverbs 25:2). One expression of royal glory, one mode of exercising dominion, is to study and learn, to inspect and investigate, to explore and discover. The early scientist Francis Bacon quoted that very proverb of Solomon as applying to “the sciences which regard nature.”12 Because that's what Bacon saw Adam doing in the garden.

Here's something that might surprise you, especially if for decades you've been hearing people pit science and faith against each other. At the dawn of modern science, the story of Adam in the Garden of Eden was crucial to how modern science got started. A tradition had developed where Adam, the prototype human being in the garden, had incredible insight into the natures of things.13 Francis Bacon referred to “that pure and uncorrupted natural knowledge whereby Adam gave names to the creatures according to their propriety.”14 Even Linnaeus later said that “Adam knew them all and named them all according to their kind, species, and nature.”15

But it was obvious that, east of Eden, learning didn't work so smoothly. And so, to compensate for what they believed Adam lost in terms of knowledge, sensation, and dominion when he sinned, the early modern scientists decided we'd need to carefully use our reason, we'd need to verify everything with experiments, we'd need to create tools to magnify our weakened senses, and so on.16 And when they developed the scientific method, they said explicitly that their goal was to try to relearn what Adam knew and redo the sorts of things Adam did. Bacon believed that “the first acts which man performed in Paradise consisted of the two summary parts of knowledge: the view of creatures and the imposition of names.”17 Their goal was to exactly that, to repeat what they called “the first service that Adam performed to his Creator, when he obeyed him in mustering and naming and looking into the nature of all the creatures,” because praises are better aimed “when they are offered up to heaven from the mouth of one who has well studied what he commends.”18 Their hope was that sin's interference in human dominion over creation could be at least “in some part repaired... by arts and sciences.”19

Linnaeus couldn't have said it better. And that's how Linnaeus, in von Haller's eyes, “considered himself a second Adam” who “gave names to all the animals after their distinctive marks,” thus assuming an “unbounded dominion.”20 Linnaeus was imitating the man in the garden. This passage in Genesis has been recognized as “the biblical root of scientific taxonomy and all the natural sciences.”21 And Adam has even been called “the first scientist.”22 Dominion calls us to science, to philosophy, to history, to art, to exploration.

In learning about God's world like that, Isaiah says that such a person is being instructed by God (Isaiah 28:26). Isaiah describes the agricultural science of his day – things learned by reason, by experience, by trial-and-error – and boldly announces: “This also comes from the LORD of Hosts! He is wonderful in counsel and excellent in wisdom” (Isaiah 28:29). When scientists do science well, when historians do history well, when philosphers do philosophy well, God is the one teaching them things in their experiments and explorations, in their surveys and their studies. And that blows apart any ability we have to imagine that faith calls us to ignore them. Because that would be ignoring the Lord's own voice of instruction to us. So don't listen to the science-versus-faith folks, inside the church or outside of it. Because God wants us to strive to learn all that's good to know.

We have a biblical commission to learn about God's world: “An intelligent heart acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge” (Proverbs 18:15). We have a biblical commission to encourage others to learn more about God's world: “The tongue of the wise commends knowledge” (Proverbs 15:2). We have a biblical commission to pass on what we learn about God's world: “The lips of the wise spread knowledge” (Proverbs 15:7). We have a biblical commission to live our lives using what we've learned about God's world: “Every prudent man acts with knowledge, but a fool flaunts his folly” (Proverbs 13:16). And we have a biblical promise that using knowledge is a richer way to live: “By wisdom a house is built, by understanding it is established, and by knowledge the rooms are filled with all precious and pleasant riches” (Proverbs 24:3-4).

But back to Genesis. What is God up to in chapter 1? Creating things – and naming them. “God called the light 'Day,' and the darkness he called 'Night'” (Genesis 1:5). “God called the firmament 'Heaven'” (Genesis 1:8). “God called the dry land 'Earth,' and the waters that were gathered together he called 'Seas'” (Genesis 1:10). It's by both creating and naming, a two-part action, that God makes reality be what it is. So it should be pretty surprising that God then seems to take a step back. He brings all the living creatures to Adam, to humanity, “to see what he would call them” (Genesis 2:19).

That presumes, of course, that the human being can call them something. If we read through the text, this is the first hint, in biblical order, that the human being has such capacity. No other animal besides the human animal could name the animals. A chimpanzee has no chimp word for a lion or an ant, and certainly could never try to define 'lion' or 'ant.' But we humans have language. We humans have concepts, reason, intellect. St. Augustine said that “to distinguish [creatures] and differentiate between them by naming them is something only reason can do by making a judgment about them.”23 We can classify animals because we have concepts of their natures and the ability to express those concepts, and ideas about those concepts, in communication, in language. Alone among the earthly creatures, we have the power to name, the power of language creation.

So God is content, in this case, to yield the floor to Adam. God gave him the chance to choose how to call each critter. “And whatever the human called every living creature, that was its name. The human called names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field” (Genesis 2:19-20). That's something God didn't have to let Adam do. God could have dictated these names, could've said the final and only word on their reality. Instead, God lets Adam flex the power of language. God made humans to be what one scientist calls “compulsive classifiers.”24 So Adam crafts names, crafts words, crafts a language that, to his sinless mind, both suits the world as God created it but also shapes the world that God created. In a way, Adam's naming creates a “second world,” a world that mirrors and overlays the world as it came from the hand of God.25 What we have to remember is that meaning in our world isn't delivered by God on a silver platter, but neither is it totally up to us, as if the world could be just whatever we choose for it to be.26 Adam uses language to see the world as God made it and then, based on that truth, to decide “the social and functional place of each animal.”27 Adam verbally partners with God in constructing the reality and meaning of life.28

Naming – language – is often a display of power, an assertion of dominion. The psalmist points out that mighty kings had a practice of “calling lands by their own names,” thereby claiming a lasting dominion (Psalm 49:11). Even something so seemingly simple as naming is “a form of acting on the world” to claim it and change it.29 And so Adam naming the animals was “a symbol of his dominion” over them, an assertion of power.30 But for him, it was also a display of recognition, even of relationship – recognizing a shared reality between the human and the living creature, and using language to help bind that shared reality together.31

It's up to us whether we use our power to name to control and manipulate or to acknowledge and relate. Sadly, it's a power we easily misuse, especially when we name the world in ways that are at odds with the nature of things God made. There was a man named Victor Klemperer, a language professor in Dresden; he was in his fifties when the Nazi Party took power in Germany. Victor was, by birth, Jewish, the son of a rabbi. Forced into retirement in 1935, he only survived the Holocaust because of his German wife. During those agonizing years, he carefully studied the ways the Nazi regime manipulated the German language so as to skew the ways Germans were able to think about the world – “making language the servant of its dreadful system,” Klemperer called it.32 “The language of a clique became the language of the people: it seized hold of all realms of public and private life,” until everybody was speaking with “the same clichés and the same tone.”33 Publishing his studies immediately after the war, he insisted the only way to heal German minds was to unlearn “the language of Nazism.”34

Between that 'language of Nazism' and similar distortions of language in the Soviet Union, the novelist George Orwell in 1949 sketched a terrifying vision of a future state determined to rule the very souls of its citizenry through a revised version of English called 'Newspeak,' which was intended “not only to provide a medium of expression for the worldview and mental habits proper to the devotees of [the state ideology], but to make all other modes of thought impossible.”35 He pictured Newspeak as full of newly invented words that encoded value judgments – for instance, ideas consistent with the approved state perspective are called 'goodthink,' and forced-labor camps are called 'joycamps,' while Oldspeak words like 'science,' 'religion,' 'morality,' 'justice,' and 'democracy' had “simply ceased to exist.”36 Big Brother perverts language to keep souls under its dominion.

In much lesser ways today, various social forces have made language an arena for their struggle after power, engaged in a battle to shape people's language so as to reshape the world we see ourselves in. And they can do that because they're perverting a real human power, a power given by God: to exercise dominion over creation through the gift of language. We're meant to do it faithfully. We're meant to do it, not to amass power for ourselves at the expense of others, but to reflect God-given reality while ministering God's love and God's truth to the world. Building along the grain of what God has spoken, we should be naming the world without greed or corruption, but in holiness of mind and tongue. But we must name the world, name the things in the world. Because part of our dominion is the royal call to discover and define the world around us.

Which leads us to our Overlord, the One who wields supreme dominion, the One in whose footsteps all such human dominion is lived out: the Lord Jesus Christ. Before the world began to be, Jesus was the Word who was in the beginning with God, as fully all that God was (John 1:1-2). Jesus is the Word in whom the Father created all things, “and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3). “And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). They find their source in him, their substance in him, their coherence in him. Jesus is at the root of creation, and so all our study of the world, all our reasoning, exploring, is a great quest whose destination is ultimately Jesus Christ. As the Word that holds the universe together at the widest and smallest scales, Jesus is the Goal toward which all science is aiming, from Adam to Einstein, from Bacon to Linnaeus to Darwin and beyond.

And if he's the Word “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14), then he's the One in whom God speaks realities that all our language can't erase, but can only embrace him or pass away. His is the Name above any name Adam or Linnaeus ever gave. Jesus is the True Language of God, and only when we'll fully have Christ for our vocabulary and fully have Christ for our grammar will we name the world in trustworthy and true ways that stand the test of eternity. When we were sinners groping blindly in the dark, we heard him say: “I name you, though you do not know me” (Isaiah 45:4). And after all's said and done, “his servants he will call by another name” at long last (Isaiah 65:15), a “new name” unsullied by all the language games of the past, a name that gives us a new world (Revelation 2:17). In hope of his promise, go learn something about God's world this week, go speak of it in truthful ways, for the praise of the God who has made all things in the wisdom of his love!

1  Gunnar Broberg, The Man Who Organized Nature: The Life of Linnaeus (Princeton University Press, 2023), 194-204.

2  Gunnar Broberg, The Man Who Organized Nature: The Life of Linnaeus (Princeton University Press, 2023), 367.

3  Carolus Linnaeus, Hortus Cliffortianus: Plantas exhibens quas In Hortistam Vivis quam Siccis, Hartecampi in Hollandia, coluit Vir Nobilissimus et Generosissimus Georgius Clifford, Juris Utriusque Doctor, Reductis Varietatibus ad Species, Speciebus ad Genera, Generibus ad Classes, Adjectis Locis Plantarum natalibus Differentiisque Specierum [= The Garden of Clifford, Exhibiting the Plants that Live and Dry in the Gardens at Hartecamp in Holland, Cultivated by the Most Noble and Most Generous Man George Clifford, Doctor of Both Laws [i.e., Civil Law and Canon Law], Referring the Varieties to Species, Species to Genera, Genera to Classes, Adding the Native Places of the Plants and the Differences of the Species] (Amsterdam: n.p., 1737), dedication §1, translated in John L. Heller, “Linnaeus' Hortus Cliffortianus,” Taxon 17/6 (December 1968): 667.

4  Carolus Linnaeus, Species Plantarum, Exhibentes Plantas Rite Cognitas, ad Genera Relatas, cum Differentiis Specificis, Nominibus Trivialibus, Synonymis Selectis, Locis Natalibus, Secundum Systema Sexuale Digestas [= Species of Plants, Exhibiting Plants Properly Known, Relating to Genera with Specific Differences, Trivial Names, Selected Synonyms, Native Places, Classified According to the Sexual System] (Laurentii Salvii, 1753), 1:3.

5  Albrecht von Haller, letter dated 8 April 1746, quoted in Gunnar Broberg, The Man Who Organized Nature: The Life of Linnaeus (Princeton University Press, 2023), 305; and more fully Peter Harrison, “Linnaeus as a Second Adam? Taxonomy and the Religious Vocation,” Zygon 44/4 (December 2009): 879.

6  Michael S. Northcott, “Reading Genesis in Borneo: Work, Guardianship, and Companion Animals in Genesis 2,” in Nathan Macdonald, et al., eds., Genesis and Christian Theology (Eerdmans, 2012), 201.

7  Daniel I. Block, “To Serve and to Keep: Toward a Biblical Understanding of Humanity's Responsibility in the Face of the Biodiversity Crisis,” in Noah J. Toly and Daniel I. Block, eds., Keeping God's Earth: The Global Environment in Biblical Perspective (IVP Academic, 2010), 131.

8  John Cassian, Conferences 8.21.4, in Ancient Christian Writers 57:306.

9  John C. Lennox, Seven Days That Divide the World: The Beginning According to Genesis and Science (Zondervan, 2011), 29.

10  Robert C. Bishop, et al., Understanding Scientific Theories of Origins: Cosmology, Geology, and Biology in Christian Perspective (IVP Academic, 2018), 65.

11  Douglas J. Moo and Jonathan A. Moo, Creation Care: A Biblical Theology of the Natural World (Zondervan Academic, 2018), 80.

12  Francis Bacon, The Great Instauration (1620), in Jerry Weinberger, ed., Francis Bacon: New Atlantis and the Great Instauration, 2nd ed. (Wiley Blackwell, 2017), 17.

13  Peter Harrison, The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science (Cambridge University Press, 2007), 19; Mark A. Waddell, Magic, Science, and Religion in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2021), 24.

14  Francis Bacon, The Great Instauration (1620), in Jerry Weinberger, ed., Francis Bacon: New Atlantis and the Great Instauration, 2nd ed. (Wiley Blackwell, 2017), 17.

15  Carolus Linnaeus, lecture on minerals, 1748, quoted in Gunnar Broberg, The Man Who Organized Nature: The Life of Linnaeus (Princeton University Press, 2023), 209.

16  Peter Harrison, The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science (Cambridge University Press, 2007), 6.

17  Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning (1605), Book 1, VI.1.6, in G. W. Kitchin, ed., Francis Bacon: The Advancement of Learning (Paul Dry Books, 2001), 36.

18  Thomas Sprat, The History of the Royal Society of London for the Improving of Natural Knowledge (Royal Society of London, 1667), 349-350.

19  Francis Bacon, Novum Organum (1620), quoted in Joseph Agassi, The Very Idea of Modern Science: Francis Bacon and Robert Boyle (Springer, 2013), 53.

20  Albrecht von Haller, letter dated 8 April 1746, quoted in Peter Harrison, “Linnaeus as a Second Adam? Taxonomy and the Religious Vocation,” Zygon 44/4 (December 2009): 879.

21  Michael S. Northcott, “Reading Genesis in Borneo: Work, Guardianship, and Companion Animals in Genesis 2,” in Nathan Macdonald, et al., eds., Genesis and Christian Theology (Eerdmans, 2012), 198.

22  Christopher Watkin, Thinking through Creation: Genesis 1 and 2 as Tools of Cultural Critique (P&R Publishing, 2017), 108.

23  Augustine of Hippo, On Genesis Against the Manichees 2.11 §16, in Works of Saint Augustine I/13:82.

24  John H. Langdon, Human Evolution: Bones, Cultures, and Genes (Springer, 2023), 40.

25  Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (Free Press, 2003), 76.

26  Christopher Watkin, Biblical Critical Theory: How the Bible's Unfolding Story Makes Sense of Modern Life and Culture (Zondervan Academic, 2022), 99-100.

27  William P. Brown, The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder (Oxford University Press, 2010), 108.

28  Iain W. Provan, Seriously Dangerous Religion: What the Old Testament Really Says and Why It Matters (Baylor University Press, 2014), 88.

29  Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (Free Press, 2003), 75.

30  John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis 14.19, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 74:190.

31  Richard Bauckham, “Humans, Animals, and the Environment in Genesis 2-3,” in Nathan Macdonald, et al., eds., Genesis and Christian Theology (Eerdmans, 2012), 186.

32  Victor Klemperer, The Language of the Third Reich: LTI – Lingua Tertii Imperii: A Philologist's Notebook, translated by Martin Brady (Bloomsbury, 2013 [1947]), 16.

33  Victor Klemperer, The Language of the Third Reich: LTI – Lingua Tertii Imperii: A Philologist's Notebook, translated by Martin Brady (Bloomsbury, 2013 [1947]), 19-20.

34  Victor Klemperer, The Language of the Third Reich: LTI – Lingua Tertii Imperii: A Philologist's Notebook, translated by Martin Brady (Bloomsbury, 2013 [1947]), 2.

35  George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four: A Novel (Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1949), 303.

36  George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four: A Novel (Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1949), 307-309.

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