Theology of Nature: an Introduction
The English word “nature” (Latin natura, Greek physis) is used in at least three senses: the constitutive nature of an entity (e.g. “a wolf is by nature cruel”); natural phenomena untouched by humans (e.g. “nature and culture are two distinct but related realms”); and the whole of reality (e.g. “nature has endowed human beings with a very complex brain structure”).
The New Testament uses the word often in the first sense (“Jews by birth”, Gal. 2:15; “by nature children of wrath”, Eph. 2:3, “natural branches”, Rom. 11:21.24), i.e. as the structure and constitution with which someone or something is born (see also James 3:6-7; 2 Pet. 1:4; 1 Cor. 11-14; Gal. 4:8). But there is no Hebrew equivalent for this Greek word physis.
The second and third senses of physis are not in the New Testament or the Old Testament, except in the Hellenistic, apocryphal 4 Macc. 5:5-8 (LXX), where the pagan Antiochus Epiphanes recommends swine’s flesh to Eleazar the high priest as a gracious “gift of nature” and says it is wrong to reject “nature’s favours”.
Etienne Gilson thinks with Malebranche that “nature is par excellence an anti-Christian idea, a remnant from pagan philosophy which has been accepted by imprudent theologians”. Aristotle and the Stoics used the word physis to denote more or less the whole universe with all its creative and regulative powers as a self-existent and self-sustaining whole.
In current usage one finds both the inclusive and the exclusive senses of the word “nature”, i.e. including humanity or excluding it. Nature has often been opposed to culture or civilization, especially since Rousseau. One of the several meanings of the word as given by the Oxford English Dictionary (1908 ed.) is:
‘... the material world, or its collective objects and phenomena, especially those with which man is most directly in contact; frequently, the features and products of the earth itself, as contrasted with those of human civilization’.
Theologians often speak of a process of “historicization of nature” in Israel when the three “nature-feasts” of unleavened bread, first fruits and booths (Ex. 23:14-17; Deut. 16:1-17) were related to acts of God in history. But the Hebrew OT does not make the distinction between nature and history, for the Hebrew language does not have words for these concepts as such. The great redemptive act of the exodus was as much an event in “nature” as in “history” (e.g. the burning bush, the ten plagues, the drying up of the sea, the land flowing with milk and honey, the thunder and lightning at the appearance of Yahweh).
The dichotomy between nature and many other entities, like grace, the supernatural, history, humankind, culture etc., seems peculiar to the Western tradition. The 9th-century European Christian conception of natura included God. John Scotus Erigena (c.810-c.877) gave the fourfold classification of nature: nature, creating and not created, i.e. God; nature created and creating, i.e. the Platonic kosmos noetos, or world of archetypal or universal ideas generating particular existents; nature created and not creating, in which category Erigena puts humanity, which cannot create ex nihilo; and nature untreated and not creating, a medieval conception of the final apokatastasis, or restoration, when all creativity will stop in a static perfection wherein God is all in all. But medieval thought never conceived a “natural order” which was independent of the “supernatural order”. “Nature” in our sense was a dynamic, contingent, caused entity. It had its own “natural laws”, but God was not subject to these natural laws and could interfere with them and annul them when needed, e.g. in the miracles. God is not bound by nature; nature is bound by God. God can also unbind the laws of nature.
This law-bound nature is active. Nature is an agent. All that happens in the world is caused exclusively by three agents: God, nature and humanity. Everything is an act of God, an act of nature or an act of humanity. When God acts, it is a supernatural act, as distinguished from the last two.
This way of thinking was strange to the Eastern Fathers. They spoke about acting according to nature or contrary to nature (kata physin or para physin), but they also never spoke about anything hyperphysikos (supernatural), except in a poetic sense.
For the Eastern Fathers, as for the biblical witness, the act of creation is the opening phase of God’s redeeming work. Both the book of Genesis and the gospel of John begin with an account of this opening phase. In the prophecies of Deutero-Isaiah we find that the framework of God’s redeeming activity is his original act of creation (Isa. 40:21-28, 42:5-9, 44:24-28, 45:12-25, 51:9-16, etc.). Part of God’s redeeming act is the restoring of creation (Isa. 41:17-20).
In the debate between the inclusive versus exclusive view of nature, Christians have to be careful not to fall into the trap of including just two entities - humanity and nature. The package has alwways three “poles” - God, humanity and the world. Neither the second nor the third could exist apart from or independently of the first.
It is important to note here the fundamental tension between certain Eastern religions and the West Asian tradition of Semitic religions. The latter prefer to put an almost unbridgeable gap between the world and the transcendent God. Hinduism and Taoism generally have the same ethos as Stoicism in the West, where the world is God and God is the world. Only Buddhism steers clear of this Semitic versus South-Asian debate.
By refusing to raise the question of God altogether and by positioning the world and humanity as two inter-related and interacting entities, everything being dependent on everything else and everything in a process of dynamic change, the Buddhist doctrines of causality and dependent origination of phenomena at least avoid the cleavage of transcendence and keep everything together.
The Christian teaching prefers the word ktisis (creation) to physis (nature) to refer to the whole world. The three classic passages in the NT are John 1:1-18, Col. 1:15-20, and Heb. 11:3. In speaking of the created order, the NT always insists that it is held together in and by the second person of the Trinity, without whom it would be nothing. The biblical tradition not only insists that the created order has its beginning in God but also affirms that without God the world has neither present nor future. The Eastern Fathers ofthe church continued this tradition. The classic patristic writing is Basil’s nine homilies on the Six Days of Creation, the Hexaemeron. Most of the key doctrines whose origin is wrongly attributed to Augustine in the Western tradition can be found in Basil and Gregory of Nyssa two generations earlier. The world does not begin in time, but in God’s will and word (Hexaemeron, 1:5ff). The six days of creation are not 24-hour days (caused by the sun, created on the fourth day) but long epochs. There is no “three-storey universe” as in Rudolf Bultmann’s caricature of patristic teaching. The created order is unfinished, dynamic, moving towards its fulfillment. Heaven is not a place but an order of many dimensioned reality closed to our senses.
Gregory of Nyssa (c.330-c.395) was more philosophical in his discussion of the created order. Spatio-temporal extension and incessant change are the characteristics of the created as distinct from the Creator. There is both continuity by participation and discontinuity by transcendence or standing apart, extension between God and world. The created order is a space-time process, or rather a procession, orderly and sequential, journeying through life from something to something. Life is an important aspect of that procession from origin to perfection; it is through the evolution of life that the procession moves forward. Human activity is the key for progress. Human aspiration for the greater good and humanity’s free creativity of the good are the factors that make the world meaningful.
In the Byzantine tradition, Maximus the Confessor (580-662) uses the word “nature” only in the first sense, i.e. the constitutive nature of a group or class of entities. For “nature” in the inclusive sense he uses ktisis (creation). Its original unity comes by virtue of its common origin both in non-being and in the creative energy of the logos, which holds it together. It has also a destined or eschatological unity, achieved by and in Jesus Christ, God-Man, body-soul, who took His body in the ascension to the heavens, or eternal realms. Creation is thus inseparable from redemption.
In modern science, nature was often thought of as an objectively existing entity, independent of the Creator and the observing human mind. Today the objective existence of a world can no longer be assumed in science. The world of phenomena can be seen as something emerging in human consciousness and experience, known to be ultimately composed of energy waves operating both in the mind and in the world.
Science persists in the hope that these phenomena can be explained without reference to any Creator outside of it. In science itself there is no basis for the concept of something called nature independent of God and humanity.
The concept of nature as a generic term for reality, whether inclusive or exclusive of humanity, is thus misleading. Christians know only a dynamic created order with a beginning and a destiny as well as a course or path to be traversed from beginning to fulfillment. This created order, which comes out of nonbeing, has the creative word of God as its original constitutive power and its present sustaining force. Its fulfilled unity is eschatological, to come at the end. This unity is achieved by the God-Man, body-soul Jesus Christ, who united in himself all things and reconciles them to God as a single offering.
The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed.
For the creation
was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of
the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be
liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom
of the children of God.