What does the Bible mean by “formed”?

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.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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4 Responses to What does the Bible mean by “formed”?

  1. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    You’ve done a commendable job reminding us of why the “hands-off” God or the alleged “freedom” of nature to unfold in whatever direction does not represent a faithful reading of Scripture or the long-standing Christian traditions developed from that Scripture since. But when you’ve put your executioner’s outfit away and donned your gardening clothes again, I have this question.

    Given that you don’t have a problem with deep time or evolutionary explanations (minus their bogus metaphysical baggage) what explanation of providence *do* you think best combines both of God’s books into a unified coherent account?

    I realize you’ve probably answered much of this already if I reread former columns here, but I won’t set that stop me from appealing for a summary statement here. So how about it? Use the back of the paper if necessary, as I tell my testing students. Just the meaning of life, the universe, and how it all fits together. You shouldn’t need more than one or two concise sentences, right?

  2. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    I now realize that my reply above had more of the “hanging’s too good for it” column in mind, but this column still inspired the same request (still standing) for a summary statement. Given the potter / pottery theme, which I agree is *the* major theme of Scripture, how does one then treat the seemingly ‘outlying’ passages with the phrases ‘let the earth produce…’? So perhaps this is also a formidable request for complete coherence of Scriptural understanding. Is there any respect at all in which the late, now executed “freedom of nature” still registers a weak pulse?

  3. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Merv

    Let’s (to fit the envelope) consider the “let the earth bring forth” + “and God created/made” pairs in Genesis 1.

    As an ancient text, I suggest they say no more than these things were of the earth, not of the heavens, when God made them: the earth even now brings forth plants, and (indirectly, since they eat what came from the earth) animals. Yet though there are now well established natural means of generation, we can still say, as Scripture does, that we are created by him – knit together and all that.

    Looking more generally, if God’s initial creation was of some natural evolutionary generative process (though see my comment to GD on Sy’s thread on the vague meaning of “evolution” as a word), then one could argue that “let the earth bring forth” was the means by which God created – classical theistic evolution falls within providence. What it excludes is the idea of evolution as a quasi-autonomous agent in itself, rather than an instrument in God’s hands. That’s the sticking point as far as I’m concerned – the rest is a question of science.

    Any help?

  4. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Codicil to the above…

    The way things are going it looks as though we may find teleology within evolutionary processes at some stage, in the form of some Neo-Lamarckian adaptive directed response to environmental change. That would at least enable one to identify an agent other than the nebulous “nature” or whatever. But though that would be a sign of clever mechanisms, it still would be hard to see it validly in terms of “freedom” or “autonomy”, but more in terms of instrumentality: literally, the ability God has given nature to evolve according to his plan – a true “evolution” in the sense of the unfolding of what was instrinsic.

    A harder case, for consideration of providence, is the old, non-evolutionary one of the lion that eats you up. It’s a higher animal with some unarguable kind of “choice”, if not rational choice, given it by God in its very nature. “Creaturely freedom” if you like – it’s not just a chess piece. It sees you walking in the wood, thinks “Munchies! And no horns either!” – a totally natural and, so to speak, voluntary action.

    Yet in God’s economy even the sparrow’s fall is providential, so how much more the hairs on your head and more important bits – God is the ultimate cause of your demise, or perhaps the one you prayed to antecedently for protection on your journey, with the result that the lion thought better of it.

    Whatever “mechanisms” there are in nature have to be sufficient causes for what results, so if God, according to Scripture, wills the thinning of our hair, or the bodily form of mankind, then there has to be a convenient lion, or a mechanism that will, not might, produce man, if we are to view it as operating only according to its nature, rather than by miraculous interposition…

    And yet under providence, any mechanism could do God’s will – there’s a fine line between whether, under God’s will, a lion does or doesn’t cross your path on the veldt, or whether you meet one in Kansas – the probabilities begin to verge on the miraculous in the latter case. So in the end, even bog-standard Neodarwinism could be a finely tuned tool in God’s hands as he governs both chance and necessity through quantum events or whatever – the problem comes when people see Darwinism’s apparent imprecision and presume God must therefore be content with imprecise results. Why would he? Who would benefit?

    The mystery of providence is going to be impenetrable until we see God face to face, but some dim light seems to come from a consideration of the astonishing intimacy with which he relates to creation. Creation ex nihilo is the expression of his will in matter – it must be, as there is no other agency involved. And once created, everything is not only sustained by him moment by moment, but has its living, moving and being in him, as Paul teaches in Acts 18.

    When we say God keeps us in existence, there is not some abstract property we have called “existence”, like keeping our batteries charged. Rather, God sustains and empowers what we are moment by moment, whether that be a lion after a meal or a Christian out for a walk – or even a Roman throwing a Christian to a lion. And that’s why thinkers like Aquinas developed concepts about God’s being the cause even of sinful acts, though not as sin – which is the contribution of rational, moral agents. The classic example of that is Acts 4.27ff of course – it’s not that God manipulates “helpless” people to do acts he then blames them for, but the fact that our acts, good and bad, take place only through God, and at a diffent level of causation.

    This is deep stuff, seen through a glass darkly, but the implication in natural creation is that to talk of events, involving non-rational agencies, taking place apart from God’s will is to take God out of his creation to a degree that neither Scripture, nor a consideration of God from first principles, allows. God is the first efficient cause of all actions, mediated usually via secondary causes, and each governed ultimately by his final causation – its purpose – which created those agencies and actions in the first place. Meditate on that for a couple of years and then get back to me…

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