The Hebrew language has no word for "nature" equivalent to the Greek word physis [fuvsi"]. Hebrew thought and language were essentially concrete. Old Testament writers described the world around them, but spent little time in abstract reflection on it. Their basic interest in nature focused on God as Creator and on heaven and earth as his creation.
Genesis makes it clear that there is a creation order established by God. Plants bear fruit according to their "kind" ( Gen 1:11-12 ). God created fish ( 1:21 ), birds ( 1:21 ), and the other animals ( 1:24-25 ) which multiply according to their "kind." It is clear from these verses that various plants and animals have inherent characteristics that make them distinct from one another. It is also clear that God views these distinctions as "good."
There is a close bond between humankind and the rest of creation ( Gen 3:17-18 ; Psalm 96:10-13 ). There are physiological similarities between humankind and the rest of creation ( Gen 18:27 ; Job 10:8-9 ; Psalm 103:14 ). Humankind shares in creation's dependence on God's goodness for its continuance ( Psalm 103:15 ; 104 Isa 40:6-7 ). Nevertheless, creation order distinctiveness is particularly apparent as it pertains to humankind. Only people were created in the image of God ( Gen 1:26-27 ). Only people were the result of God's direct creative activity ( 2:7 ). Only into humankind did God breathe the breath of life ( 2:7 ). Only to people did God give dominion over the earth and the other creatures in it ( 1:28-30 ). Only to people did God give the responsibility to cultivate the earth ( 2:15 ). Only to humankind did God give special instructions regarding the tree of the knowledge of good and evil ( 2:16-17 ). When a helper for Adam was sought, none of the other creatures was suitable ( 2:18-20 ); only God's special creative act could provide that helper ( 2:21-23 ). Humankind's creation order distinctiveness is also described as "very good" ( 1:31 ).
The fall disrupted God's intended order for creation and for humankind ( Gen 3:16-19 ). Although it is cursed because of sin ( 3:17-18 ), creation is still viewed positively ( Psalm 33:5 ; 119:64 ). God still sustains it (Ps. 104), uses it to fulfill his purposes ( Job 37:1-13 ; Pss. 29 148:8 ), and declares his glory through it ( Psalm 19:1-6 ; 50:6 ; 97:1-6 ). Humankind, however, is regarded less positively. Men and women are viewed as conceived and brought forth in iniquity ( Psalm 51:5 ; 58:3 ). They are rebellious ( Isa 48:8 ), incapable of purity ( Job 14:4 ; 15:14 ), and completely wicked ( Psalm 14:1-3 ). Every intent and thought of their hearts is unremittingly evil ( Gen 6:5-6 ; 8:21 ). They have been corrupted at the very core of their being ( Jer 17:9 ). As a result of the fall, humankind has become absolutely sinful.
The noun physis [fuvsi"] and its cognates occur seventeen times in the New Testament. James uses the noun with the sense of "species" or "kind" ( 3:7 ). Jude uses the adverb (physikos [fusikov"]) with the sense of "by instinct" ( Jude 10 ) to refer to those things men and women know without conscious reflection. Peter uses two different forms of the word. He uses the adjective (physikos [fusikov"]) similarly to Jude ( 2 Peter 2:12 ) in comparing the unrighteous to "creatures of instinct." He uses the noun to refer to the innate character of God when he comments that God's promises have been granted to believers in order that they might become partakers of the "the divine nature" ( 1:4 ).
The other occurrences of physis [fuvsi"] (or physikos [fusikov"]) are in Paul's writings. The basic concept underlying all thirteen uses is that of correspondence to the post-fall creation order. There is a distinction between olive trees that are wild "by nature" and those that are cultivated ( Rom 11:24 ). Each type of tree grows certain branches "by nature" ( Romans 11:21 Romans 11:24 ), and any grafting of branches from one type to the other is "contrary to nature" ( 11:24 ). Similarly, there is an ethnic distinction between those men and women who are Jews "by birth" ( Gal 2:15 ) and those who are "physically" circumcised ( Rom 2:27 ).
Men and women are "by nature" objects of wrath ( Eph 2:3 ), but some dimly reflect the goodness of God's creation order in that they do "by nature" the things of the law ( Rom 2:14 ). "Nature" also makes a distinction between men and women ( 1 Cor 11:14 ). This distinction is respected in "natural" sexual relations between heterosexual partners ( Rom 1:26-27 ), but is contravened by sexual relations between homosexual partners who are described as acting contrary to nature ( 1:26 ).
The fact that Paul can describe idols as those that are "by nature" not gods ( Gal 4:8 ) suggests that there is One who has a divine "nature." As in the Old Testament, some of the attributes of this divine nature can be seen in the visible world of creation ( Rom 1:18-20 ).
God's original creation order established certain distinctions that he declared to be good. That creation order was disrupted by the fall, but it was not destroyed. The visible world of creation still displays, but remains distinct from, God's divine nature. Certain innate qualities remain that distinguish plants from animals. Distinctions among species (kinds) separate various plants from one another; the same is true of animals. Humankind retains its creation order distinctiveness, and within the unity of humankind certain ethnic and sexual distinctions are evident. Although the fall corrupted human nature and predisposed people to turn away from God, Christ's work on the cross has made it possible for redeemed humankind to turn toward God and partake of his divine nature once again. Similarly, although creation suffers under the curse of the fall, it too looks forward to the restoration of the original creation order.
John D. Harvey
Bibliography. F. H. Colson and G. H. Whitaker, Philo in Ten Volumes; C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans; P. Evdokimov, SJT18 (1965): 1-22; G. Harder, NIDNTT, 2:656-11; H. D. McDonald, EDT, pp. 676-80.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Nature, Natural'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".