“NATURE” AND “NATURAL” – A WORD STUDY
Article by Ted McDivitt
This article stems from our recent study in the book of Romans, especially 1: 26, 27; 2: 14, 27. In these passages we see the words “nature” and “natural” used by the apostle Paul. I think many of us have had the wrong understanding of “human nature” and the “natural man” which largely is due to inconsistent translations.
If we were to ask most Christians how they understand human nature or the natural man, they probably would say these are sinful. Often I have heard people even use the expression, “sinful” or “carnal nature.”
My goal in writing this article is to expose these inconsistencies and to hopefully bring a proper understanding of these words as they are used in the Scriptures.
In the book entitled, “The Problem of Evil and the Judgments of God” the author makes an interesting comment. He states, “In God’s Word human nature is good. In evangelical theology it is bad, very bad. This is one of those terms which even greatly enlightened teachers of the Bible have altered utterly from its scriptural significance, so that ‘natural’ has become a synonym for sinful.”
In Rom. 2: 14, 15 the apostle Paul uses nature along with conscience in a positive manner. Is conscience good, or is it bad? “Paul appeals to his conscience (Rom. 2: 15; 9: 1). Of what value is this if it is altogether bad? We are to hold faith and a good conscience (1Tim. 1: 19). To be sure, there can be a defiled conscience and an evil conscience, but these condemn a man, and are indisputable evidence that his conscience is not on the side of sin. The inference from the theological theory of total depravity, that everything that pertains to man is radically wrong, is not true as to conscience. Neither is it true as to his nature. These are both against sin. In sinning conscience is suppressed. That which is unnatural is sinful (“Problem of Evil” pp. 89, 90).
“NATURE” AND “NATURAL” IN THE GREEK
AND WHERE THE PROBLEM LIES
The Greek word that is translated “nature” is “phusis.” It occurs in the following passages: Rom. 1: 26; 2: 14, 27; 11: 21, 24; 1Cor. 11: 14; Gal. 2: 15; 4: 8; Eph. 2: 3; Jas. 3: 7; 2Pet. 1: 4.
The adjective of “phusis” is “phusikos.” This is found in Rom. 1: 26, 27; 2Pet. 2: 12. This word should always be translated “natural” as it is describing the noun “phusis” (nature). Most translations that I have checked are consistent in this respect.
The real problem arises when we consider how the adjective for soul is translated. If “phusikos” was the only Greek word rendered “natural” in our Bibles, then there wouldn’t have been any confusion with the meaning of the word. “It is the alteration of soulish into natural which has caused most of the misapprehension as to human nature” (“Problem of Evil” p. 90).
The Greek word for soul is psuche. In the King James Version this is properly rendered “soul” 58 times, but unfortunately it is also rendered “life” 40 times. The Greek word “zoe” is equivalent to our word “life” and is consistently translated as such in the KJV 133 times. This means that in 40 instances the KJV leads the reader astray by translating “psuche” as “life” instead of “soul.”
Now in relation to our topic, since the Greek word “psuchikos” is the adjective of “psuche” (soul), it should always be translated “soulish” just as most translators were consistent in rendering “phusikos” (the adjective of “phusis”) as “natural.” But when we consider the KJV alone, we see that the Greek word “psuchikos” is rendered “natural” in the following verses: 1Cor. 2: 14; 15: 44, 45, and 46. It’s also interesting that in Jas. 3: 15 and Jude 19 the KJV has “sensual” which is closer in meaning to soulish because a soulish man is under the sway of his senses; his appetites. His physical pleasures dominate his life.
In the first passage (1Cor. 2: 14) we can see the particularly unfortunate mistranslation in the KJV. In a recent discussion in which I was involved, this was the verse used to prove that the “natural man” is sinful. Here is the verse as it reads in the KJV:
But the “natural” man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.
In this particular case the Concordant Literal New Testament is superior in that it always renders the noun “psuche” as “soul” and “psuchikos” as “soulish.” So in the CLNT, 1Cor. 2: 14 reads:
Now the “soulish” man is not receiving those things which are of the spirit of God, for they are stupidity to him, and he is not able to know them, seeing that they are spiritually examined.”
It’s the “soulish man,” not the “natural man” that is not receiving the things of the Spirit of God.
Dr. Bullinger in his Companion Bible at least makes the reader know that this comes from the Greek word “psuchikos” and that it is elsewhere translated “sensual.”
Rotherham’s Emphasized Bible reads,
But a “man of the soul” doth not welcome the things of the Spirit of God. For they are foolishness unto him and he cannot get to know them, because spiritually are they examined.
Properly translated we would see that it is not the “natural man” that is set against the things of Spirit, but rather the “soulish man” is against Spiritual things. This is true in 1Cor. 2: 14 and 15: 44-46.
“A soulish man likes the pleasures produced by eating and drinking and all other agreeable and delightful sensations, rather than the intangible experiences of the spirit. These do not appeal to him. But the mere fact of having a soul does not imply the lack of spirituality. Man has both, a spirit and a soul, that is, he has life and sensation. Yet the body is strongly inclined to follow its feelings. It is soulish at present. But the tyranny of the soul is a temporary condition, due to man’s mortality. Had Adam been created immortal, so that he could not die, the life-giving spirit would have so dominated his actions that he would not have sinned. Thus will it be with all mankind, when they are vivified…If we allow physical pleasure to dominate our life, then we are soulish, and in no state to receive spiritual revelations” (“Problem of Evil” p. 92).
A CLOSER LOOK AT THE OCCURRENCES OF “PHUSIS” (NATURE)
For the meaning of a word we should examine how it is used in all of its occurrences. Earlier I listed every occurrence of the Greek “phusis” (nature). The first two occurrences completely contradict the current theological conception that human nature is sinful.
Rom. 1: 26, 27 – “Therefore God gives them over to dishonorable passions. For their females, besides, alter the natural use into that which is beside nature. Likewise also the males, besides, leaving the natural use of the female, were inflamed in their craving for one another, males with males effecting indecency…”
Rom. 2: 14 – “For whenever Gentiles who have no law, by nature may be doing that which the law demands…”
How can anyone reading these verses come to the conclusion that human nature is sinful? It is only when we go against our nature and do something unnatural that we miss the mark. From Rom. 2: 14, 15, 27, we further learn that nature is allied with law and conscience.
In Rom. 2: 27 Paul writes of an uncircumcision one (one outside of covenant privileges – namely a Gentile) who by nature or instinct maintains the righteous requirements of the law. A “sinful nature” would be utterly impotent before the law. Does not this passage show that man, at least to some degree, is able to maintain law simply by following his nature or instinct?
Eph. 2: 3 and Gal. 2: 15
Of all the passages where “phusis” occurs, there is only one that on the surface seems to have negative connotations. It is Eph. 2: 3.
“…(among whom we also all behaved ourselves once in the lusts of our flesh, doing the will of the flesh and of the comprehension, and were, in
our nature, children of indignation, even as the rest)…”
I will admit, for some time I could not harmonize this usage of nature with all of the other occurrences where it is clearly positive. It wasn’t until a recent conversation with Rick Farwell that I was able to make any progress. During our discussion he suggested that the usage of nature in Gal. 2: 15 may shed some light on our passage in Eph. 2: 3. Therefore, to understand Eph. 2: 3 we will first examine Gal. 2: 14, 15. Paul writes:
But when I perceived that they are not correct in their attitude toward the truth of the evangel, I said to Cephas in front of all, ‘If you, being inherently
a Jew, are living as Gentiles, and not as Jews, how are you compelling the Gentiles to be judaizing?”
We, who by nature are Jews, and not sinners of Gentiles, having perceived that a man is not being justified by works of law, except alone through the faith of Christ Jesus…
Gal. 2: 14 sets the stage for 2: 15 – “All along having been a Jew” (naturally). “Naturally already been that way.” Jewish culture was submerged in the things of God by nature – naturally. But a Gentile had to become a proselyte. It wasn’t natural for Gentiles.
Gal. 2: 15 – “nature” is referring to “naturally,” or by birth, not Adamic nature, but more of the upbringing. It’s the idea of “Jews by birth.” “The Jew had much more than instinct. He had the law to direct his steps. Here, however, the apostle wishes to exclude his prerogatives. In this grace the Jew must stand on the same level as the Gentile” (“Problem of Evil” p. 95).
Here is another thought. Perhaps 2: 15-21 should not be broken into a new paragraph from verse 14. It’s all possibly what Paul is saying to Peter (or at least to verse 18 where Paul switches from “we” to “I”).
What Paul is saying is that even in our “Jewishness” (by nature) we are no different from the Gentiles when it comes to being Justified in God’s sight. Even by works of law we cannot achieve this righteousness.
However, the good news is, whether we are by nature Jews or by nature Gentiles, we do obtain righteousness through the faith of Christ. The righteousness of God comes upon us by His grace, not through the law. Therefore the truth of the “good news” is that God’s grace is just as much for Gentiles as it is for Jews. Peter and others needed to hear these words because by Peter’s actions just prior to this, he was swerving from this truth. By the same token, Peter was denying the truth that he learned from the vision in Acts 10. The truth is that Gentiles are cleansed, accounted righteous, and are saved in the same manner as the Jews – God’s grace (Acts 10: 28; 15: 11; Gal. 2: 15, 16).
This brings us to Eph. 2: 3.
I believe this is a similar thought as Gal. 2: 15. Beginning in Eph. 1: 13 through chapter 3, Paul is showing distinctions between Jews and Gentiles as is demonstrated by the use of the pronouns “you,” “yours,” and “we.”
Eph. 2: 1 is our present condition as believers, whether we are Jews or Gentiles. We are “dead to our offenses and sins.” I believe the CLNT has this right by using the word “to” instead of “in.” It is true as the KJV says, we “were dead in trespass and sins” but it is also true that the believers are dead to offenses and sins. Eph. 2: 1 is a reflection back to Romans chapter 6.
Eph. 2: 2, 3 reflect back to the summation of Rom. 1: 18-3: 20. Before we are given faith in Christ Jesus, we are all “children of indignation” and are “sons of stubbornness.” This is true even of those who by “nature” are Jews. In this respect there is no difference. As Paul declares in Rom. 3: 23,
For there is no distinction, for all sinned and are wanting (lacking, falling short) of the glory of God.
When I asked Phil Scranton about Eph. 2: 3, he said the following: “I understand this in the sense of ‘even in our nature.’ I don’t think Paul is necessarily saying that nature is bad or sinful, but that the influence of the Adversary and the lusts of the flesh are too much for it. Even with a good nature we all sin, being mortal and influenced by the norms of the eon in which we live.”
These thoughts from Phil seem to be similar to what I have said earlier. The Jews all along (inherently) had within their culture and upbringing the oracles of God and were taught to fear God and to keep His commandments. A sign of their reliance and dependency upon God was the work of circumcision. Gentiles did not have this covenant relationship and the legislation and the divine service and the promises (Rom. 9: 4).
But the point is this – Those who are by nature (by birth – naturally) Jews are in reality no different from these born as Gentiles in relation to being sinners and needing the deliverance which is in Christ Jesus (Rom. 3: 24).
FURTHER COMMENTS FROM A.E.K.
“The practical question arises for the saint, ‘What shall we do with this nature?’ If it causes us to sin, let us crucify it. If it keeps us from sin, let us encourage it. We are never exhorted to crucify our nature. We crucify the flesh with its passions and lusts (Gal. 5: 24)…The flesh is not subject to the law of God through sheer inability (Rom. 8: 7). Those who sow to the flesh shall reap corruption (Gal. 6: 8). Quite the reverse is true of our human nature.”
“A conscience constantly cultivated by contact with the living Word of God is the best means of discriminating between that which is of the flesh and that which is the fruit of instinct, or nature…Some of the distinctions are so apparent that even those who denounce human nature as totally depraved say nothing about such connections. For instance, matrimony is the result of instinct and is honorable in all (Heb. 13: 4). The apostle Paul categorically says that the one who marries does not sin (1Cor. 7: 28). Yet the leading works of the flesh are simply the unlawful abuse of the same relations (Gal. 5: 19). It is the failure to perceive the proper place of instinct that has led such ecclesiastic abnormalities as monasticism and nunneries, the segregation of the sexes on religious grounds is thoroughly unscriptural and, being contrary to natural instinct, has sometimes led to grave irregularities” (“Problem of Evil” pp. 96-98).
“The Scriptures would have us heed the teaching of nature, the leading of instinct (1Cor. 11: 14). We are not to do that which is beside nature (Rom. 1: 26)…Tradition seeks to suppress this divine gift, and calls it ‘sinful,’ but God declares that it is not. Let us purge our vocabulary from the false phrase ‘sinful nature,’ and seek to disinfect our thoughts from the poisonous impression that we must strive to be unnatural in our behavior in order to please God. Let us shed the false humility which refuses to recognize the good with which God has endowed all His living creation, the instinct, or nature, which alone preserves it from instant decay and death” (“Problem of Evil” pp. 100, 101).