1999 James A. Fowler
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A WORD STUDY OF
"NATURE" AND "NATURAL"
A. Wide spectrum of usage of these
B. Has created much ambiguity and misunderstanding
C. J. H. Bernard - "Few words have
been the source of so much confusion in theology as the
'nature'... The word only gives rise to ambiguity when we are
using it in reference
questions which touch theology" (Hasting's Dictionary
of the Bible. Vol. 3. pgs. 493, 495)
II. Brief history of the concepts and word usage of "nature"
A. Although the history of the concepts
could be explored in Egyptian thought, Hindu thought,
this study will limit historical observation to Greek and Judeo-Christian
had the greatest influence on Western Euro-American thought and
B. Hebrew thought
Hebrew language did not have equivalent words for "nature"
and "natural" as we use them
thought as it related Yahweh to the created order.
Yahweh was singular Creator who brought the created world
Created world was a manifestation of God's power, goodness, nature,
character and glory (cf.
Ps. 19:1-6; 29:1-9)
Processes of created world governed, regulated, sustained, and
providentially preserved by
Yahweh, as Creator, was distinct from created world, unconditioned
and uncontingent on physical
When created world connected with "gods", the result
Despite Yahweh's attempt to be personally involved in
life of Israel in feasts, tabernacle, temple,
etc., the Jewish peoples tended to
to view Yahweh as a detached, almost deistic, monad
to overemphasize the transcendence of God apart from created
to view God as arbitrary Law-giver to regulated created order.
There was no sense of "natural law," just God's Law,
primarily in the Mosaic Law.
C. Greek thought
contemporary Western thinking about "nature" and "natural"
are derived primarily from
primary words for "nature" and "natural"
in the Greek language were phusis, phusikos and
Derived from Greek root phu, meaning "being"
phusis carried with it the concept of origin, source,
commencement and descent.
The English words "physical" and "physics"
are derived from phusis.
history of Greek thought
Early Greek thought
Pantheon of polytheistic Greek gods emanated from Mt. Olympus
- Zeus et al. Types of
Physical elements of earth, air, fire and water were regarded
as the substances from which
the world was constructed.
Moved away from identifying physical world as phusis
abstract forms expressed in tangible nature
emphasized the knowledge of the nature of things
essential nature realized in rational conceptualization
Dualistic separation of physical from spiritual
abstract spiritual and rational is good
tangible physical is evil
hierarchical chain to mediate
Moved toward a more monotheistic concept
the "Unmoved Mover" is responsible for and operates
within the natural order
the "Universal Mind" is expressed in the rationality
Such a primal force moves all things in the natural order to
achieve their teleological objective.
thought in general
Had two broad concepts of nature
Nature as universal source of all things
Nature as the constitution and characteristics of all things
In this broad, dualistic concept of nature, there was a tendency
to merge concepts of deity with
the physical world, often in forms of pantheistic immanence.
Rationality, as the primary essence of deity, was inherently
and intrinsically expressed in
the natural world.
transference of Greek thought and language into Latin language.
The Latin words used were natura and naturalis
Derived from root words of natus and nativus, meaning
"to be born" or "to come into
being or existence by birth". (English "nativity"
derived from such)
Questionable whether Latin words were necessarily equivalent
to the Greek words.
English words "nature" and "natural" derived
from these Latin words.
The Latin words were broadened to mean
inborn, innate condition of physical order
essential, basic qualities of a physical object
normative, uniformity of physical order
personified rational soul of the universe, as in Greek.
D. Christian thought
Jesus Christ identified as preexistent Creator (cf. Jn. 1:1-4;
Col. 1:16,17; Heb. 1:2)
Jesus explained God's personal concern for created order (cf.
Matt. 5:45; 10:29)
There is divine teleological intent for created order to glorify
No antithesis between natural and supernatural. God in Christ
works naturally and supernaturally.
By incarnation God invests Himself within the physical word as
creature-man in Jesus Christ.
of Christian thought concerning God and created order
Countered overly transcendent and detached view of Hebrew thought.
Revised the Greek concepts of the immanence.
Greek immanence posited divine as inherent, intrinsic, innate
in natural order, necessarily
expressed in essential rationality
Christian immanence explains the indwelling of God in man in
spiritual union, whereby
He becomes the identity of the creature-man.
This retains the distinction of Creator and creature
This allows for balance of immanence and transcendence.
Dynamic means of initiating and maintaining this immanence is
by grace through faith.
(cf. Eph. 2:5,8)
Created order is not independent, autonomous or self- generative.
Man, in particular, is a dependent, derivative, receptive and
God's action of grace in Jesus Christ is conditioned by the freedom
of man's choice
This is not the mysticism of inner absorption or divinization.
This is not the Gnosticism of dualistic separation seeking acquisition
of Christian thought
Early development of Christian thought involved Hebrew peoples
often using Greek language.
New Testament written in koine Greek
employs Greek words phusis, phusikos and phusikôs
Relative infrequency compared to usage in Greek literature.
predominantly employed in vocabulary of apostle Paul
Paul reared in context of Greek culture in Tarsus
In using these Greek words Paul accepts some of the Greek concepts
that they conveyed.
In the early centuries of the extension of Christianity within
the Greek world there was an
Hellenizing absorption of Greek thought into Christian thought,
the pollution of which
remains to this day.
III. Contemporary English use and definition of the words
"nature" and "natural"
A. The English words are derived from
the Latin words natura and naturalis
B. They are closely associated with the
English words "physical" and "physics", derived
from the Greek
words phusis and phusikos.
C. Some meanings of the word "nature"
that comprise, attributes, traits, properties, features
character, hereditary, birth condition, congenital, genetic
desires, appetites, drives
species, genre, type, category, class, order
of all things in space and time, universe
10. power, force,
causality, self-existent generation, independent function
D. Some meanings of the word "natural"
to physical order - natural science, natural history
or primitive state of physical order - natural state, "back
virginal, unaffected, wild, raw, not artificial - natural foods
true to life - natural likeness
regular, uniformity - natural law
in the physical order - natural resources
in the physical order - natural selection
course of action, typical, customary - natural behavior
simple, common, straight-forward, authentic
with supernatural - natural revelation, natural theology
11. innate, inherent,
instinctual, intuitive abilities - natural talent
E. Some meanings of the word "naturally"
usually, generally, habitually
expected, consequently, of necessity, as a result
3. by birth,
F. Some meanings of the words "naturalism"
who appreciates and studies physical phenomena
portrayal of the physical order; realism in art or literature
of primitive state; environmental purist; uncultivated, untouched
the action or thought is regarded as caused by instinctual abilities
of the physical order as the only phenomena, the whole of reality;
denial of supernatural;
materialism, physicalism, scientism, epiphenomenalism, mechanism,
substantialism, spacio-temporalism, humanism, positivism, nominalism...
G. Some meanings of the words "naturism"
equivalent and synonymous with "naturalism" and "naturalist"
usage applies to nudism, natural state of undress, au natural
particularly in natural,
IV. Biblical use of the words "nature" and "natural"
A. Hebrew language of Old Testament
not have equivalent words for "nature" and "natural"
2. In Septuagint
(Greek translation of Hebrew Old Testament) phusis and
phusikos are not used
in canonical texts, but are used in apocryphal texts (cf. Wisdom
7:20; 13:1; 19:20;
Macc. 3:29; 4 Macc. 1:20; 5:8,25; 13:27; 15:25; 16:3)
translations sometime use the words: ex. 2 usages in NASB
44:31- "bird or beast which has died a natural death"
(lit. in Hebrew means "which is a
10:8 - "my natural color turned to a deathly pallor"
(lit. in Hebrew - "my glory was turned
B. Greek language of New Testament
Greek words phusis and phusikos, as used in New
1:26 - "women exchanged natural function for unnatural
(contrary to nature)
1:27 - "men abandoned natural function"
2:14 - "when Gentiles do instinctively the things
of the Law"
2:27 - "he who is physically uncircumcised"
11:21 - "God did not spare the natural branches"
11:24 - "what is by nature a wild olive tree...grafted
contrary to nature into a cultivated
olive tree...how much more the natural branches grafted
into olive tree"
Cor. 11:14 - "does not nature teach you that a man
with long hair; it is a dishonor?"
2:15 - "we are Jews by nature, and not sinners from
4:8 - "you were slaves to those which by nature are
2:3 - "you were by nature children of wrath"
3:7 - "every species of beasts and birds...has been
tamed by the human race (nature of
Pet. 1:4 - "you might become partakers of the divine nature"
Pet. 2:12 - "creatures of instinct"
10 - "the things they know by instinct"
To what extent are these usages influenced by Greek thought?
Is Paul employing these words with Greek concepts in mind?
also translates theios and theiotes (divine, Godhead,
deity) as "nature"
17:29 - "ought not think the Divine nature is like
gold or silver"
1:20 - "His eternal power and divine nature"
also translates homoiopathes (like urgings or passions)
14:15 - "men of the same nature as you"
5:17 - "Elijah was a man with a nature like ours"
also translates hupostastis (understanding or confidence)
1:3 - "the exact representation of His nature"
translates psuchikos (soulical) as "natural"
Cor. 2:14 - "a natural man does not accept the things
of the Spirit of God"
Cor. 15:44,46 - "natural body...natural body...natural"
3:15 - "wisdom that is earthly, natural, demonic"
translates genesis (come into being, born) as "natural"
1:23 - "a man who looks at his natural face in a
repeatedly translates sarx (flesh) as "sinful nature"
V. Consideration of the terms "human nature"
and "the nature of man"
A. Does man have a nature?
B. Is there such a thing as "human
C. If so, what is the "nature"
D. Does the "nature of man"
have to do with...
unified, holistic function?
physiological function, strength, superiority?
affection, emotion, intuition, sensate ability?
volition, free-will, freedom of choice, free agency?
function or capability?
constituted spiritual being?
derived spiritual source or origin?
depravity, fallenness, sinfulness, unregeneracy?
union with God, regeneracy?
nature vs. nurture?
inner propensities and tendencies?
selfishness, worldliness, sinfulness?
innate sense of "ought" to conform to normative acceptability?
intrinsic, innate characteristics of man?
14. The "image
of God" in man?
something "like" God in man?
attributes of God invested in man?
essential "godness" in man?
function of man?
E. What is a "natural man"
(cf. I Cor. 2:14)
F. Is "human nature" or the
"nature of man" a Biblical concept or term?
G. Some have concluded that these are
illegitimate terms evidencing the extent to which our language
and thinking has been influenced by Greek thought.
humans have got altogether on the wrong foot by our universal
acceptance of the
that, as humans, we have a 'human nature' by which we function.
I find the truth of
Word to be that we humans have no nature. ...the nature of a
man is the kind of spirit
motivates him and is expressed by his soul-body function. We
humans are on earth
contain and express, not ourselves, but solely the nature
of the deity in us."
VI. The popular doctrine of "two natures" in
A. Often alleged to be based on the
doctrine of "two natures" in the person of Jesus Christ
- deity and
humanity, divine nature and human nature.
B. Many terms used in explanation of
alleged "two natures"
11. None of these
terms has any basis in translation from the Greek text of the
C. Many Christian teachers have recognized
the illegitimacy of the "two natures" doctrine.
it not for a secondary meaning of the word 'nature,' it would
not be a proper designation
as it is now being used (as 'sin-nature')" (L. S. Chafer,
Systematic Theology, V 2)
'two natures' theory is unscriptural, self-contradictory and
baneful." (J. Sidlow Baxter, His
Deeper Work in Us.)
is a serious misunderstanding to think of yourself as having
both an old and new nature. We
do not have a dual personality." (John MacArthur)
VII. Seeking clarification of thought and usage of the
word "nature" in our Christian theology.
A. Theological foundations
commences with God - His nature and character.
maintains distinction of Creator and creature
recognizes the divine teleological intent to express His divine
nature in human behavior for
His own glory.
theology, in particular
recognizes the inability of man to self-create character (cf.
Jn. 15:5; II Cor. 3:5)
accepts the incarnational investment of God in man on the basis
of the redemptive work of
the incarnate Son of God.
understands the necessity of regenerative restoration of the
divine nature in man by the indwelling
presence of the Spirit of Christ. (cf. II Peter 1:4)
accepts the derivativeness of man as a dependent and contingent
creature designed to be spiritually
Christian thinkers the primary distinction has been between the
of God and the derivativeness and dependence of nature."
(Article on "Nature, Philosophical
Ideas of" in Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)
B. Biblical references to man and "nature"
New Testament usages
superiority of humanity over animals - James 3:7
false superiority of Jews over Gentiles - Gal. 2:14
behavior conforming to divine intent - Rom. 2:14
typical physical condition - Rom. 2:27
normative sexual relationships - Rom. 1:26,27
normative cultural acceptability - II Cor. 11:14
spiritual condition associated with evil spirit - Eph. 2:3
patterns of evil and destructive behavior - II Pet. 2:12; Jude
Do not refer to...
autonomous empowerment of man
independent potentiality of man to generate character of either
goodness or evil, righteousness
inherent or intrinsic human abilities of self-determination
implicit god-likeness in man (reason, free agency, etc.)
Biblical understanding of "nature" in reference to
man pertains to his spiritual condition.
"A creature's nature and essence is determined by its relation
to God."(H. Bavinck, Doctrine
"Nature" is primarily understood as the essential character
of a spiritual being that indwells
and manifests himself in human behavior.
God - righteousness, goodness, love
Satan - sinfulness, evil, selfishness
The nature of man is the nature of the spiritual personage that
indwells him, and is the basis
of his spiritual identity - derived nature.
Spiritual condition associated with the nature of the diabolic
spirit (cf. Eph. 2:3)
Spiritual condition associated with the nature of the divine
nature (cf. II Peter 1:4)
This interpretation best maintains the original meanings of phusis
root meaning of "being" or "presence"
linguistic meaning of "source" and "origin"
C. The interpretation herein espoused...
the distinction of Creator and creature, without monistic merging
whereby man is absorbed
in deity or divinized.
for a balance between transcendence and immanence in God's relationship
a dualistic antithesis of natural and supernatural; physical
an innate moral character to man of either goodness or sinfulness.
that man has inherent divine abilities.
the capabilities and functions of man's created humanness in
and volitional freedom.
that man can only function as the man that God intended him to
be when the divine nature
is restored to the spirit of man in regeneration, and is derivatively
allowed to be expressed
in sanctification unto the glory of God.
true religious conception (of nature)...refers every operation
of phenomenal force
the Agency of Supreme Mind, direction and ordering it in wisdom."
(J. H. Bernard.
on "Nature" in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible.
Vol. 3. pg. 495).
writer who is aware of this web of ambiguities in "natural"
and "nature" may well
to choose - whenever possible - words of greater precision and
stability of meaning."
on "Nature, Philosophical Ideas of" in Encyclopedia
B. It is the author's personal resolve
1. To refer
to "created order" or "physical order" instead
of "natural world" or "Nature."
2. To refer
to the "created condition of man" in his "humanness"
or "creatureliness" (including rationality
and freedom of choice) instead of "human nature" or
the "nature of man."
3. To refer
to "nature" in reference to man only in terms of spiritual
condition in association with
the spiritual indwelling and expression of God or Satan.