On Nature
September 3, 2014

Should we use the category of “nature” in our theology?

Start, as ever, with some Bible-thumpin’: If someone were to construct a “metaphysics” or view of reality from the Bible alone, the category of nature would not be a prominent one. Here and there, the Bible uses this word and something like the concept of nature, but it’s not fundamental. The Bible doesn’t picture the world as a collection of created natures, but as a collection of creation things and processes and patterns of behavior. It doesn’t generally speak of the “nature of God” but simply of “God.” I think it’s noteworthy that the Bible makes so little of a category and term that philosophers have historically made so much of, and my starting point is simply to figure out what that might mean.

(For the record, I don’t think that we are actually capable of constructing a metaphysics from Scripture alone. We cannot unthink Greek philosophy, or expunge modern metaphysics from our instincts. In practice, insofar as theology is metaphysics, it always involves revisionary metaphysics. But it must be revisionary.)

Of course, we use a lot of terminology in theology that’s not found in the Bible – “Trinity” being the most prominent illustration. There’s nothing inherently wrong with extra-biblical language, and nothing magical about using biblical language. But our language is not a matter of indifference. There’s a risk in the language we use. Our language can “bewitch” us into certain ways of thinking. If we use extra-biblical language, we need to make sure that we’re defining it as best we can in terms that are consistent with Scripture. We strive to think God’s thoughts after Him, and that involves speaking His Words after Him.

“Nature” is an objectionable category when it assumes or implies that creation is autonomous, that creation can be what it is and act the way it does regardless of whether God exists, or that creation and its processes can be explained without reference to God. It becomes an objectionable category when “nature” takes the place of God in our explanations of why the world is as it is, or when “nature” is inserted into our explanations in a way that distances God from direct, personal management of the world. It is said that the Bible describes God’s relation to nature “mythologically”; so be it, and my question then is what a “mythological metaphysics” might look like.

“Nature” might be, for instance, a way of explaining why things are uniquely themselves, why each thing or kind of thing different from all other things and kinds. What makes a platypus different from a star? Answer: The platypus has a different “nature” than the star. If we say that, then it’s possible to say that each would each be itself and would be different from one another without reference to a Creator.

Theists will say, of course, that “nature” is given by God. Christians acknowledge that things are what they are because of the way God made each, even if they use the concept of “nature” to explain that. It is what it is because God gave it the gift of being what it is. But introducing “nature” into the discussion could imply a Deistic conception of God’s relation to the world, as “nature” becomes an explanation for why a thing remains what it is through time. Stars remain stars because they have the nature of stars, and the same goes for platypi. Things are what they are, remain what they are, because of something embedded within the thing. God embedded the nature, but then, perhaps, He stood back and watched the machine work on its own. Again, this makes it possible to explain the continuing existence of a thing without reference to God. Nature, rather than God, becomes the explanation for how the world is; or, at least, “nature” is added to God’s ongoing activity to explain the world.

Christians who use the category of “nature” may agree that a thing persists in being what it is, and retains the “nature” that it was given, because of God’s continuing action and interaction with it. But then I’m not sure what work “nature” is doing anymore. Why not leave “nature” out of it and simply say, “Things continue to be what they are because of God’s continuing interaction with them”? Every moment of a platypus’s life, he or she receives the gift of existing, and the specific gift of being a platypus, even the gift of being this particular platypus, from God. In this picture, things are stably themselves, but their stability doesn’t reside in the things but in the continuing action of the Creator, without which they would stop being stably themselves.

Of course, the platypus has its own powers and abilities, and that is sometimes what “nature” names. And those powers and abilities are real, secondary powers and abilities, secondary causes, that cannot be simply reduced to the first cause. Here, “nature” might be seen as a necessary protection against a kind of pantheism that collapses primary and secondary causation, and in so doing erases the Creator-creature distinction. If “nature” is a placeholder for that purpose, I have no real objection; but I don’t think it necessary. We can say this: God created the platypus with certain features, powers, abilities; those characteristics are real, and they genuinely belong to the platypus; God is the primary cause of all the actions of the platypus, but the platypus possesses real secondary causative power. We might even put it in terms of gift: God gives the platypus the power to this and that, to be this and that, and He continually gives that gift. We might here be saying “nature” in different terms. But the fact that we’ve kept God intimately involved with the platypus’s every move seems to me an advantage of this account.

“Nature” normally means a principle of growth. A thing’s nature sets the trajectory of its development. Because of an acorn’s nature, it “naturally'” develops into an oak tree, rather than into a mountain lion. I have two objections to this. First, again, this can be used to sideline God’s continuing interaction with creation. Things just grow “naturally,” whether or not God exists. Second, I don’t think things simply become what they become because of something inbuilt from the beginning. An acorn becomes the particular oak tree that it is not only because it is an acorn but because of the particular history of the acorn as it grows. An acorn grows up into an oak tree of particular size and shape because of environmental conditions, events (storms, etc), animal and human interference. What a thing becomes depends not only on the kind of thing it is, but on the relations and interactions it has with other things. What’s true for acorns is also, obviously, true for human beings.

As a principle of growth and development, “nature” also refers to limits. To speak of human nature is to speak of the boundaries of what it is to be human. Here again I have two objections. First, whatever limits a thing has are limits that God has set and that are subject to God’s control. Those limits aren’t limits on God, except as He chooses to observe them. It’s not in the nature of staffs to blossom with almond buds, but God can overcome the limits of a staff and make that happen. “Human nature” might be understood as excluding incarnation; it’s not in the “nature of finite humanity” to be united in personal union with God. Obviously, we cannot agree. Or this: The limits of human nature might be understood to exclude the possibility that the infinite God could dwell in a finite person, or to exclude the possibility that we might become “partakers of divine nature.” Again, we cannot agree because the Bible teaches that both are true of believers. Whatever human nature is, it has to be defined has possessing the capacity, by the work of the Spirit, to become a dwelling place of God and a partaker of divine nature.

Second, things become different from what they are. That platypus won’t remain a platypus forever; he’ll die and decay, and eventually there won’t be any platypus. The star won’t remain a star forever. Even human beings die and decay, and there’s ultimately continuity only because God performs a miracle and raises the dead. Besides that, you have a problem explaining human cultural constructions. A wood table shares some qualities with the tree from which it came, but it’s no longer the tree. Do we want to say it still has the “nature” of a tree? Or has it taken on a new nature, the nature of a table? If I had to choose, I’d choose the latter explanation, but if that’s true, then it’s hard to see what role “nature” is playing anymore. If we can change the nature of things, then they don’t have “natures” in the way that is normally understood. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem correct to say that the table retains the “nature” of the tree from which it came.

Philosophers who use the category of “nature” have ways of dealing with all this. But when I see that a) the Bible doesn’t talk much about nature or natures and b) using the categories seems to create some problems for explaining the world and c) other more biblical concepts can do whatever work “nature” is supposed to do, then I question whether it’s a useful category.

A word on nature/supernatural: Here again my objection is to any notion that the “natural” is independent of God, any notion of “pure nature.” What we think of as “nature” is a completely gratuitous gift of God. God didn’t need to make anything outside Himself, and the fact that He did is already an act of grace. Whatever God does over and above “natural” processes – whatever He does that is supernatural – is not gracious intervention into a world devoid of grace, but a gracious intervention in a “graced” creation.

Some years ago, I had an email debate with a Christian advocate of natural law; after a number of exchanges, we realized we  had large areas of agreement, apart from the fact that he was an advocate of natural law and I have been an opponent of it. I think the language we use is important, for the reasons I’ve explained. But I also understand that many of the Christians who use “nature” means something very close to what I’ve explained here. I’m not saying we’re all saying the same thing, or that the differences of expression don’t matter. I am saying that we are sometimes striving to say similar things with different words from different directions. Some solutions and formulations are more elegant and edifying than others, but here as elsewhere it’s critical to avoid reducing debate to slogans and labels.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Trinity House.

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