Author: Andrew Sargent Ph.D., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM
What’s in a Name? A Theology of Personal Identity
Personal identity is at the very center of our society’s cultural debate. The important question is, who gets to determine who you are? Modern society answers emphatically that everyone has the right of self-determination. As Christians seek to answer this question, a core biblical doctrine is frequently overlooked: The Theology of names. In doing so, significant ground is ceded to ideologies that do not find their grounding in Scripture. Today, let’s spend some time thinking about the significance of names in the Bible…
What’s in a name? This is one of the most famous lines passed down to us from Shakespeare. In a way, it is a great and concise articulation of the prevailing cultural dogma of self-determination. What IS in a name? Today, the answer would likely be something like this: a name is nothing more than an arbitrary designation given by someone who does not understand your true identity. We’ll come back to this later because it is not entirely incorrect. However, this is not how Scripture uses names. In the Bible, names carry a certain measure of significance and tell us something about the person. Let’s look at three ways that the Bible helps us to understand personal identity through the giving of names:
- Names tell us who we are and where we’ve been.
- Names tell us who we belong to.
- Names are not our true identity, after all.
Now, as we look at this list, we might see some things that appear overly simple, perhaps slightly oppressive, and even a bit contradictory. Bear with me as we unpack these. Hopefully, you’ll see how they all tie together cohesively.
Names Tell Us Who We Are and Where We’ve Been
How is a name not just an arbitrary designator? After all, didn’t your parents, who were young and overjoyed (and perhaps overwhelmed) by the reality of parenthood, simply pull a name at random from the ether and scratch it onto a piece of hospital documentation? Well, perhaps, but not necessarily. It likely depends on where you were born. Western society tends to put very little emphasis on family lineage or heritage when giving names. But, for much of the world, and through most of world history, this was not the case. Consider just how many genealogies you find in Scripture. Entire chapters are devoted to tracing family lines. In fact, the book of Genesis presents itself as a genealogy of the family of Abraham. Names, especially family names, tie you into that history.
This is certainly true for last names, which are not chosen but rather inherited. But this is also true of first names, sometimes more directly than others. Many families name children after ancestors, but nearly all families use names common within their own culture. Even when parents choose a name that is entirely outside the bounds of normal naming conventions, they do so for deeply personal reasons. Every parent who has named a child understands how sacred the duty of naming is. There are few decisions that rival the significance of selecting a name for another person. So, from this we can say that names tell us a lot about who we are, especially in terms of our family history. But the rite of naming brings out another important aspect of personal identity.
Names Tell Us to Whom We Belong
What does naming entail? Why, exactly, is it so significant? The answer is not always in the name itself, but also in what naming represents. Let’s consider some biblical examples:
Genesis 2:19, “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.”
Immediately after God creates Adam and places him in the garden, God gives him the command to take dominion over all creation, and over every living thing. What we see in Gen. 2:19 is Adam fulfilling the first step of that dominion. Now, naming is something typically done by a thing’s creator. When an artist finishes his painting, he gives it a name. When parents ‘create’ a child, so to speak, they name him or her. So, when God gives Adam the right to name all the living things, he is also giving Adam the right and responsibility to have dominion. This entails a sort of ownership and authority over the thing named. That authority carries with it the responsibility to care for it, as well. Whatever Adam names, he becomes the steward of those things. Parents understand this type of stewardship implicitly, with all the rights and responsibilities it entails.
Consider a few examples that solidify this concept:
Genesis 17:5, “No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.”
Also, consider Genesis 35:10, “And God said to him, ‘Your name is Jacob; no longer shall your name be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.’”
And one final, but powerful, example from the New Testament. When Andrew brings his brother Simon to meet Jesus, we read in John 1:42, “Jesus looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon the son of John. You shall be called Cephas’ (which means Peter).”
What do these have in common? Each of these rites of naming involves God changing the identity of the person named. God renames someone at a significant point in his life. He changes Abram into the father of many nations. He changes Jacob into Israel, patriarch of His chosen people. And he changes Simon into Peter, the rock through whom He will build the Church. In each case, as in the case of Adam, the naming, or re-naming, involves taking ownership. God is establishing His dominion in the lives of Abraham, Israel, and Peter. But God is also promising to do great things through them. With each of these names, God makes Himself responsible for the work that would come through them.
So, while Abraham’s mom may have named him Abram, God establishes a superior identity through a superior relationship. What is mind-blowing about this is when we realize what God has to say about our true identity.
Names Are Not Our True Identity, After All
While names tell us about who we are, where we’ve come from, and to whom we belong, the name our parents gave us is not our ultimate identity. That, only God knows. Listen to what Jesus says in Revelation 2:17: “To the one who conquers… I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.” Jesus knows you better than anyone ever could; better than your parents, better even than you know yourself. He has a name reserved for you that only He knows because, ultimately, you belong to Him if your identity is bound to Him.
So, as you think about the concept of personal identity, ask yourself who has the right to give you a name. Society asks “What’s in a name?” and declares that you are free to self-identify, to name yourself whatever you wish. In this worldview, you are who you say you are, and that’s all that matters. But in Scripture, we see the opposite: you are who God says you are, and, ultimately, that’s all that matters.