Do Things Have Natures?

Do things have natures? As I am posing the question, it is not simply a question of whether there are particular kinds of things in the world that have characteristic features, patterns of behavior, trajectories of growth and development. If that is what the word means, then the answer is obvious: Yes, each different sort of thing has a different nature. Lions are leonine, giraffes giraffean, printers have printerious qualities. My desk does not have the potential to take me to Mars because that’s not the nature of desks. As I suggest below, the Bible also affirms that things have natures in this naive sense.

As I pose the question, however, “nature” is an answer to a quest for explanation. It’s an answer to a Why? question. What is it that makes a thing what it is and not something else? What ensures continuity and trajectory of development and growth? Is there some metaphysical (or physical, genetic) principle that explains the specific character, the differences, and the maturation of things? Why do things behave and grow the way they do? Doctrines of nature are designed to answer these questions.

Positively, we can turn to the creation account to figure out whether the Bible teaches a doctrine of nature.

What makes light light, the firmament the firmament, the earth earth? What gives the earth the potential to produce plants? What gives animals the power to swarm and be fruitful in the sea and on the earth? What makes a winged bird a winged bird? Genesis 1 points to the creative power and blessing of God as the explanation. The firmament is the firmament because God made it a firmament; winged birds are winged birds because God made them so. Earth has the power to produce vegetation because God tells the earth to do so (1:11-12), and it has the special power to produce living creatures in the same way (vv. 24-25). Birds, sea creatures, animals and man are “fruitful” on the earth because God commands them to be and blesses them (1:21, 28).

Several times Genesis 1 uses the Hebrew word miyn , usually translated as “kind” (the LXX translates the phrase as kata genos ), and this is the closest thing that we find to a concept of “nature” in the creation account. Trees yield fruit “after their kind,” that is, according to the type of tree they are (1:11-12). Apple trees produce apples, pear trees pears. That is close to an idea of “nature” at least in a loose sense: It’s not unreasonable to interpret Genesis 1 to say that trees produce certain kinds of fruit because they are of the miynto produce that fruit. Yahweh creates “natural kinds” or groups, which have the natural potential to produce fruit of a certain type and not another type. Adam is made as the image of God. That is Adam’s “kind,” and he and his descendants reproduce creatures after the same kind. More on this below.

Earth produces animals according to kinds too (v. 24), but this is a somewhat different usage of the term than in 1:11-12. With plants, it’s reasonable to talk about wheat plants producing wheat because it is the “nature” of wheat plants to do so. But in verse 24, the earth doesn’t have a “nature” that makes it capable of producing living things. With regard to animals, “according to its kind” simply means “according to the different types and groupings.” Earth produces animals of all sorts, not because it’s the nature of earth to do so but because God tells it to.

According to Genesis 1, it’s not so much that things “have” natures, that they possess some invisible metaphysical principle that determines their qualities and capacities. Rather, if anything, they are natures, things of particular kinds, whose qualities and capacities are given and sustained by God.

Most of the other uses of miyn in the Old Testament are similar to the usage of Genesis 1:24-25. Noah gathers every beast “after its kind” (Genesis 6:20; 7:14), which simply means “of all categories and types.” The lists of unclean animals in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 use the phrase in the same sense, and the other Old Testament use of the phrase, Ezekiel 47:10, speaks of fish “according to their kinds.” We can certainly draw from this the notion that Scripture affirms that there are created categories of things. But these passages don’t give us much of an idea of what keeps a thing in the category that it’s in or what explains the way that certain categories of things behave and mature.

The New Testament does use the Greek word phusis at times, though I think it’s overstated to claim that the New Testament has anything as developed as a “doctrine of nature.” In a number of places, Paul uses the word in ways that have little to do with philosophical usage. He speaks, for instance, of circumcision “by nature” (Romans 2:27), of Jews as “natural branches” and Gentiles as “unnatural branches” of the tree (Romans 11:21, 24), and people who are “Jews by nature” (Galatians 2:15; I think Romans 2:14 refers to “Gentiles by nature,” and suspect that there’s a similar distinction in Ephesians 2:3). But of course, circumcision is not natural in our sense of the term; it’s a violent change of physical nature. Perhaps “by nature” here means something similar to what Genesis 1 means: There are groups and categories of human beings as there are of animals. Paul appeals to phusis as a ground for women having long hair (1 Corinthians 11:14), but here the word means something like “social convention.” Greeks would have been more likely to appeal to nomos than phusis here.

James 3:7 uses phusis as a close synonym to the Hebrew miyn. Speaking of the untamed tongue, he says that “every phusis of beast . . . has been tamed by phusei te anthropine . All kinds of creatures have been tamed by the ruling creature, humans. This is the only place in Scripture (to my knowledge) that speaks of “human nature” in direct terms. James uses the phrase, it seems, to sharpen the contrast between the tamed “natures” of beasts and the untamed “nature” of man.

In a few passages, Paul uses phusis in a sense that is much closer to the way it was used in ancient philosophy and in our common parlance. Sodomy is para phusin (Romans 1:26): Men are created to have sexual relations with women, not with other men, and so sodomy violates the sexual nature of man. He indirectly speaks of God’s nature by denying that idols are “by nature” gods (Galatians 4:8). Peter similarly speaks of the “divine nature” in which we participate by grace (2 Peter 1:4).

All very rudimentary, but at least the beginnings of a biblical understanding of “nature.” It’s not a large theme in Scripture, but it’s there and worthy of development. It has nowhere near the prominence that it attained in Christian theology. One would be hard-pressed to make the case from Scripture that a particular view of nature is crucial to the biblical outlook. If, hypothetically, Christianity had developed with only the Bible and not in dialog with Greek philosophy, nature would occupy a fairly small place in theology. Of course, Christian theology did develop in dialogue with Greek philosophy, and that’s our heritage. At the same time, it’s a heritage that we need always to test by Scripture.

Which brings me back to my tweet. Given what I’ve said, in what ways would a doctrine of nature be idolatrous?

First, going back to Genesis 1: Things are what they are because they are made that way by God. And, importantly, things do what they do because God calls them to do it. If the earth has the potential to produce plants (and it does), that potential exists only because it is gifted by the word of the Creator. (Earth has no “natural” capacity to produce animals, yet by God’s word, it does.) Doctrines of nature are idolatrous if they claim that that a thing has a principle of existence or potentiality in itself.

Second, not only the qualities of things as things, but the thing’s continuation over time as the thing that it is, depends on the word of God. God doesn’t implant natures in things and step away to watch things grow. God makes things a certain way, with certain qualities and potentials, and then keeps them in existence as those things and blesses them to realize the powers that He gave them at the beginning. When God takes away His Spirit, things die and return to the dust (Psalm 104:29). Doctrines of nature are idolatrous if they turn Deist and claim that things continue to be what they are, do what they do, become what they become because of something inherent within them. I’m with Chesterton: The sun doesn’t rise because of some autonomous power in the sun; the sun rises each day because God in the eternal delight of youth loves repetition, because God says each morning, “Do it again.” Secondary causes exist; God gives power to things so that they can give existence to other things, so they can give being to new states of affairs. But ultimately what ensures the order of the world, the consistency and regularity of created kinds, my own persistence as myself through time, is the faithfulness of God.

Third, because God made things what they are and sustains them as what they are, the potentialities and limits of creatures are His to determine. A doctrine of nature would be idolatrous if it teaches that natures place limits on what God might do to or with a thing. “The finite cannot contain the infinite” was an axiom of Greek philosophy. But the incarnation says the opposite. Theopoiesis says the opposite; we are made partakers of divine nature, Peter says. Because God created humans, He sets the limits of human capacity, and human nature is just as capacious as God wants it to be.

Finally, doctrines of nature and substance are often ways of dealing with issues of time and change. Substance is what stays the same through the growth of a seed to sapling and then to tree. Nature is the principle of development that ensures smooth growth through this process. Substances and natures thus seem to escape temporality and change, and this too smacks of idolatry to me – attributing eternity to an immanent (or transcendent) principle that belongs only to God. Again, on creationist terms, God Himself maintains continuity through time.

Aristotle’s doctrines of substance and nature are implicitly idolatrous in several of these ways. Of course, the Christian theologians who use the concept of nature believe in creation ex nihilo and embrace its “metaphysical” implications. For Christian theologians, “nature” and “substance” don’t mean what they meant for Aristotle. As David Hart has pointed out, Nyssa recognizes that the doctrine of creation bursts through the boundaries that Greek doctrines of nature had set. According to Hart, Nyssa says that God stretches human beings to become big enough to contain Him (cf. the perichoretic language of John 17). “Human nature” is not an autonomous principle or power that offers resistance to God. One of the greatest examples of the transformation of Greek metaphysics is a doctrine I strongly disagree with – transubstantiation. Luther mocked Catholics for not knowing Aristotle; for Aristotle, a transubstantiation must involve a transaccidentiation. Thomas would have had a ready answer: Of course it violates Aristotelian metaphysics, but God isn’t beholden to Aristotle.

Still, Wittgenstein was right about the bewitchment of words. Philosophical concepts like “nature” and “substance” can take on a life of their own and direct and shape Christian theology in idolatrous ways. When I hear people say that we need a doctrine of nature or substance as conceptual foundations of a worldview, I get worried. When people talk about a transformed nature as the thing that provides assurance of salvation, I think they’re looking to something other than God for security. Whatever we say about nature or substance, we cannot let it displace God as the anchor of created order. Which is why even venerable theological principles should be scrutinized in the light of Scripture.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis. This essay was first posted at Leithart’s personal blog in 2012.