Reprinted from When Thou Sittest In Thine House, by Abraham Kuyper, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan. 1929. Used by permission of Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Giving of Name
The newborn child is by no means alone in getting a name. On the contrary, there is a need to call everything that we severally desire to indicate, by a name of its own.
God the Lord Himself set the pace in calling inanimate things also by a name. “And God,” so we read in the majestic document of creation, “called the light day, and the darkness he called night.” In the same way God the Lordnamed the name of every part and element of the world, of the firmament, of the dry land, and of the seas.
And when man, created after the divine image, appeared on earth, his first thought at the sight of Eve was how to name her (Gen. 2:23); likewise God brought the beasts of the field to Adams,to see what he would call them (Gen. 2:19).
To call everything around us by a name has become a second nature to us, a necessity of our spirit. Every land bears a name, and every district and city and hamlet, and in city and village every street and byway and alley. Even houses are numbered, but of old every house, even now every estate, had a name of its own. And in our centers of commerce with our storehouses the case is the same.
Inexhaustible indeed is the flood of names wherewith man has covered the world. There is no river and no stream or pond, no bay or narrows, no cape or mountain, no coast or strand, in brief, no spot of ground on the whole earth, but man has named it by a name. By a name also every sort of plant and animal.
And this is not the end, for also in those sorts of animals we give our own animal again a separate name. There is no dog, but has a name of his own; no horse in his stall that is not called by a name of his own; and they who go out to milk the cow call her from afar by name.
In navy-yards this goes even so far that at the launching of the ship, she is ceremoniously named. Even at the naming of a ship sometimes prayer is offered. Fortunately not in the Dutch language, but in English and French, in a questionable way, there is frequent mention of christening a ship.
Yet it is at once evident that all this sort of naming is nothing but the far background that lies behind the naming of the name in highest sense, and that in all name-giving this highest is only reached when man kneels down, and prophecy is fulfilled, which God proclaimed by Ethan (Ps. 89:26): “He shall call me: Thou art my Father, my God, and the Rock of my Salvation.”
This is the highest naming. Thus resounds the name that is above every name. In the worship of the Only-One, all giving of names celebrates its absolute triumph.
Between that lower and this highest name-giving stands the naming of the human child. Taken from the earth, and yet created after God’s image.
It is for this reason that the naming of a child is a piece of history; that Holy Scripture comes back to it so often; and that God Himself has so frequently deigned to change human names into new names. Think of Abraham and Israel. And stronger yet, that as promise it is sure for every child of God that once he shall “receive a white stone, and on that stone a new name, which God shall give him, and which no one knows but God and he.”
Thus every child that is born should really have a name of its own, a name which no one else bore; and every one elected unto salvation should before and in baptism receive a name that would express what once eternally he shall be in the kingdom of heaven, and what the particular and appointed calling is, which to eternity is laid up for him.
Of the stars Isaiah the prophet says that God calleth them all by name by the greatness of His might, for that He is strong in power. Those names, those real, actual names of the stars are unknown to us; those God alone knows; and we help ourselves with mechanical names and speak of Mars and Mercury, of Jupiter and Saturn.
So the matter stands with respect to our children, in case they go into life. Their real name is not told us. That God alone knows, and only in eternity shall it be discovered to them.
If we could look into their being, we would know their real name; but now that we do not know this, we help ourselves with respect to our children with imperfect auxiliary names, and give them names from Scripture or family names, if not names in which, as though they were dogs or horses, our whim is at play.
One knows that at the end of the last century especially this whimsical desire to choose fanciful names was very strong. Only think of the very common name of Egalite, i.e., Equality, wherewith then thousands and tens of thousands in France, and also in our own country, were named.
So when God gives us a little child, and we come to giving it a name, we should first of all sense our impotence.
We see that little child, that newly-born infant, in the cradle, or on the bed in mother’s arms; but it is and remains a perfect mystery to us.
We do not understand that infant. It is a closed book to us. We can read nothing in that child as yet either of his disposition or of his character.
Also, before such a newborn infant our impotence is so entire.
And yet the babe must receive a name. He must be named in his baptism, he must bear a name, if you would make report of him to the clerk of vital statistics. Without a name no infant is thinkable.
Then to find a name that shall be prophetic is a task of such entire hopelessness that, as a rule, weeks before it is born a name is mutually agreed upon.
And it almost never happens that, before the child is finally given that name, it is gravely considered whether that name is suitable tothis child.
In Zacharias’ home this went so far that, of itself, the family gave John the name of “Zacharias.” The first son must be named after the father. Such was the custom, it spake for itself. And only when Elisabeth raised the objection, and Zacharias’ counsel was called in, did the child receive the prophetic, the of-God-ordained name of John (Luke 1:62).
And such is still the custom.
In every family certain names have become indigenous. From the two families of husband and wife these two series of names converge in the younger generation of the new household.
Right of custom has even here ordered a certain rule, and there are people among whom this rule is strictly kept that really every name of a child that is to be born is agreed upon in advance.
Such is the family rule, and so must his name be and not otherwise.
Herein lies something human, something that by reason of the coherence of our generation must be respected.
A dog, a horse, or a ship is just named. According to whim or fancy. Accidentally, and without further thought.
But with children the connection with former generations must be honored. Every child that is born is no oneling, but a bearer of the blood, and thus also of the traditions of parents and grandparents.
People stand related with people. We belong together. Together we form one great and broadly ramified society. And that relation, that connection, is expressed by giving the name of father and grandfather, of mother and grandmother, to children and grandchildren.
In every family an emulation should be alive, gradually to elevate one’s generation along spiritual lines; to lift it up to higher levels; to make it richer through and for God; and it is this stimulus to attain nobility of soul that comes to us from our ancestors, and which by this permanency of family names must operate in us.
Sometimes we diverge from this and ask some one outside of the family to be godfather to the child; or we give the child the name of a man of reputation, whose memory, after his death, is sacred to us.
In early Christian times this was done systematically. When from among the heathen one came to holy baptism, he had to give up his old name, and accept a Christian name. Such had been the custom in Israel with proselyte baptism. A heathen who went over to Judaism had to leave father and mother and abandon his past after the flesh, to pass over into the spiritual Israel, and there receive a new father, and from that father a new name.
This became the custom among Christians. He who became a Christian left his heathen affiliations and bid his heathen name good-by, to pass over into the spiritual affiliations of Christ’s people; among Christians to receive a new father, who was called godfather; and whose name he took.
With children, however, born of Christian parents, this of course could not be practiced. They were born in the covenant of grace, and as members of Christ’s church they were baptized. So they received at once their permanent name, which name could not be heathen, but had to be a Christian name. Even in the days of the martyrs, baptism was denied by the church when it was proposed to call the child by a heathen name. This was not permitted. It was a denial of the Lord.
But a loved name from outside of the family was allowed to be taken wherewith, as with a new element and with new spiritual power, to enrich the life of one’s generation. For by that name the spiritual significance of him after whom such a child was named was woven into the family traditions.
So it behooves us, in naming our children, to act consciously. With clear insight into our impotence, to call our children by that name which they have with God; but also with clear insight what the giving of such a family name or the calling after a revered name from elsewhere means.
A name means so much. When in serious moments you call one by his name, by that name you bore down into the deepest being of his soul. When in bitter strife of soul one calls himself by his own name, the impression of it upon his soul’s perception is so mighty.
Therefore one should really have but one name, and naming a child by three, four, or more names does not prevent that only one of these lives, and that the other as dead names stand alongside of it as mere figurants.
But one should take the name one bears seriously. And the foolish urge which is common especially among young girls to maim her name, and so to abbreviate it that a striking sound is heard, and with that piquant nickname to make a show, is evidence enough that in her heart and upon her lips higher seriousness has not succeeded to banish vain self-complacency.