This is mainly an Old Testament word study prompted by, but conceptually quite removed from, my last two posts on formal causation. Such categories of Greek philosophy were, of course, quite unknown to the Old Testament writers. The English word “form” is often used of God’s creation, but is less often thought about than words like “create” or “make”. Getting a feel for what the Bible’s vocabulary means will help us to decide whether the “Statistical Deism” of modern theistic evolution is actually compatible with it.
For example, “Let the water teem” in Gen 20 might mean a hands off, permissive process … if in the next verse God didn’t create (bara = to bring to useful function) the great creatures with which it will teem. Similarly in v24 “Let the land produce…” has been said to speak of undirected evolution, but is actually paralleled with “God made (asah = make or do) the wild animals…” in the next verse.
But before we do that study, I should mention that the philosophical concept of forms does occur, albeit sparingly, in the New Testament. Aristotle did not really come to great prominence until the third century or so AD, but in a hellenized country like Judaea, and in the whole Roman world, standard concepts of the Academy were likely to be floating around society, just as ideas like “the subconscious” or “alienation” are now.
So when Paul, a highly educated diaspora Jew, writing to Greeks, speaks in Philippians 2 of Jesus being in the morphe of God, not only does he use the philosophical word we translate “form”, but he has in mind an equally fundamental identity with God’s very nature. And when he goes on to speak of his taking (in addition) the morphe of a servant, the same substantial idea is there. And so the passage confirms the Chalcedonian claim that Christ has two separate natures, and excludes both the Arian idea that Christ was created, not divine, and the trendy beliefs of those who have been called “kenotic Arians”, who believe that Jesus emptied himself of divinity, as if God could ever cease to have the morphe of God.
Similarly, when Paul says in Galatians 4.9 that he is in travail as of childbirth until Christ be formed (morpheo) in them, he is talking about an absolute transformation of their being, not some metaphor. Now to the Hebrew words.
chil – to bring forth in pain
In fact, that last example brings us fortuitously to our first OT word for “to form”, which is chil. Surprisingly that word has its etymology in the word for “pain”, and hence “labour pain” or “travail” (perhaps Paul knew that when writing Galatians!). By extension it applies to any productive work done with effort and diligence – like our phrase “taking pains”, or better still an expression used in my copy of Neal’s History of the Puritans, where his highest praise is reserved for “painful preachers”!
It’s hard to deny that part of the character of labour in childbirth is the personal concern in the outcome – one gives birth to what has come from ones own body. In other words, it’s an entirely hands-on word. In the Bible it’s used of God’s forming of Israel (Deut 32.18), of the earth and the cosmos (Ps 90.2, where it’s paralleled with the mountains being born) and of the gliding serpent (Job 26.13).
I don’t know about you, but I get no sense here of a God whose creative love consists of letting nature go so it can create itself and surprise him: this is literally a labour of love.
yatsar – to fashion
The other, commoner, word translated “to form” in the OT is yatsar. It’s used maybe 36 times in the sense of “form” (or “fashion”, or “frame”). But what gives us most of a clue about how it should be understood is its use as a participle, in which form it is the Hebrew word for “potter” (17 occcasions), or in four cases “maker.”
It is pretty obvious what connotations belong to such a word – if only from the use in Romans 9, where the potter’s freedom to mould and change his clay absolutely at will are stressed. The potter has the epitome of a hands-on job – more than a carpenter or metalworker – and form is the very currency in which he deals directly. To theistic personalists that passage in Romans is “problematic”, but the problem is not just with Paul, but the whole Bible. The Holy Spirit likes to describe God as a potter.
The first instance in Genesis is almost a literal allusion, for God forms Adam from the dust of the ground. But we should note that the same word, and the same ground, are mentioned later in the chapter, when God forms all the beasts and birds and – note this – brings each one that he has made to Adam to be named. Each individual type is the work of his own hands – and so his own mind and will.
I won’t reference all the passages for the sake of brevity, but God’s “pottery” is of a wideranging variety that would shame Josiah Wedgwood. In the natural world his hands-on forming includes light and darkness; the earth (formed so as to be inhabited); the dry land (which justifies his ownership of it); the mountains (paralleled with creating, present tense, the winds, revealing his thoughts to man, turning dawn to darkness and treading the high places of the earth); locust swarms (as punishment) and the spirit of man within him (paralleled with his stretching out the heavens and laying the foundations of the earth). Yatsar even covers that icon of evolution, the eye (“Does not he who formed the eye see?”. Yes, if it was God. No, if it was a blind watchmaker or an autonomous nature.)
But God’s yatsar also includes Israel; God’s suffering servant (formed in the womb specifically to be his servant and the one who will turn Israel back to him); Jeremiah the prophet (also formed in the womb but set apart before that as a prophet to the nations); and even the Assyrian king Sennecharib’s victories (formed and ordained in days of old – this potter plans well ahead).
Now, even the Bible writers recognised secondary causes, just as we do. The potmaking metaphor is just that. It is obvious that victories or human spirits are not literally made from clay, and there is no reason why Adam should be either. Almost any kind of evolutionary or other material process could accommodate to these terms.
But it’s clear that these two words, just like all the other terms used of God’s creative activity, are very personal, very intelligent and very goal-directed. They occur in various contexts and genres not just in Genesis but throughout the Bible. So to interpret them as speaking of the kind of letting-go creation that is so insisted upon by many now is, in effect, to sideline the Bible’s entire doctrine of creation and substitute ones own, based either on materialist science or on some other culturally-determined philosophical preferences.
And that, I’m afraid, is not holding and passing on the tradition of the prophets and apostles.