Nature (in Theology)
NATURE (IN THEOLOGY)
Clarification of the concept nature has enriched the development of theology and the understanding of the Christian faith. It has given a more accurate understanding and depth to the theology of the Trinity, Incarnation, Redemption, Mystical Body, the Church, Mary, and man. Historically, the notion of nature has been focal in every era: from the Trinitarian-Christological controversies of Christian antiquity, through the grace disputes of Pelagianism and Protestantism, to Modernism and existentialism. The term nature is not met in the Old Testament nor does the concrete mentality of the Semites lend itself to an abstract and transcendental concept of nature, predicable of God, angels, man, and irrational creation. Though the word nature, φύσις, is used in the New Testament, its meaning must be determined in each instance from the context. St. augustine was hampered in his efforts to preserve the supernaturality of grace by his notion of nature in its primary etymological sense of natus, born. Although he maintained man's condition prior to the Fall to be "natural," the Doctor of Grace is not calling into question the supernaturality of that condition but is affirming the "original" characteristic of that state. In the decrees of the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon and in the writings of the contemporary Fathers there is a gradual precisional evolution of the term nature. St. Thomas Aquinas made a major contribution to Catholic theology by clearly distinguishing between grace and nature, fixing the boundaries of the natural order and the supernatural order. The contribution of current theologians would be their emphasis on the concrete, historical, and social aspects of nature.
In contemporary theology the term nature is used in two senses. (1) In a general sense, nature refers to the created universe (rational or irrational or both) with determined laws of interdependence and God as its source and end. (2) In a specific sense, nature includes not only the philosophical definition as that which determines a being's species and proper activity but a deeper understanding from revelation of the concrete nature of man, angel, and God. The following consideration of nature in theology is divided according to these two senses of the term.
Nature in a Specific Sense. The philosophical understanding of nature has already been treated extensively in the previous article; we may now proceed to a consideration of the contribution of revelation and theology.
Human Nature. Humanity does not know precisely just what human nature is or exactly how far it extends. Philosophy through experience and reflection gives certain definite concepts about nature, but humanity never knows exactly when too much or too little has been included in any concept. Theology goes beyond philosophy and sees nature as being from God and directed to God in special ways, as including supernatural and grace-qualified factors, and as being in a historical-social situation where new experiences in humanity's process of realization leads to an understanding of its essence and what is contingent. Humanity is always historically becoming, and therefore the understanding of concrete nature is also permanently in via. Philosophy, then, can give a well-grounded concept of the nature of humanity, but it is for theology with revelation to further consider humanity's nature in its supernatural context.
Three major constants appear in Catholic theological understanding of human nature. (1) Humanity is the image of god. Because of its special similarity to God, human nature has an immediate ordination to Him. Human nature itself, therefore, will ever constitute a moral principle for judging human behavior. (2) Humankind is one: it has not only an essential unity by human nature but an even greater unity in Adam and Christ. Therefore, the previously mentioned conformity-with-nature moral principle must be understood not merely of the individual but also of all humanity as one. Moreover, this oneness of humankind offers the natural foundation for the law of love of neighbor and has important consequences for the Church's social teaching. (3) The unity of human nature is one of the most distinctive characteristics of the Judeo-Christian conception of humanity, combining the two apparently heterogeneous worlds of matter and of spirit. History has shown that Christian insistence on humankind's fundamental unity is the sole effective remedy for monism, whether in the form of an idealistic spiritualism or of an empirical materialism. Even the Christian has not found it easy to avoid tendencies that overemphasize now one and now another aspect of humanity's enigmatic nature.
Humanity, in its capacity of incarnate spirit, has a place in the divine plan that surpasses its nature. Even though this human nature considered abstractly is not altered by its history, it must ever be borne in mind that abstract human nature never did nor does exist. The whole spiritual and cultural history of humanity testifies that it continually experiences new modes of realization and understanding of its nature. Theological consideration of human nature must never stop with an examination of human nature as such, but must always include concrete human nature with its history centered in its elevation in Christ.
Angelic Nature. Theology confirms philosophy's stand that human nature, incarnate spirit, crowns the material universe. However, above human nature is the angelic nature: "You have made him [man] a little less than the angels" (Ps 8.6). The existence of created beings of a purely spiritual nature is unknown to philosophy. In fact, the very concept carries with it the connotation of the unreal and the unrealizable to modern thinkers. Catholic theology, seeing the wonderful completion of the material universe in the manifold degrees of perfection, confirms the becomingness of a similar gradation in the spiritual universe. Humanity occupies the lowest place in this universe of spiritual beings, having a more perfect nature than what is purely material but still partially dependent upon matter. In accordance with the general providence of God, governing the inferior through the superior, angels have definite roles to fulfill in the lives of men and in the ordering of the whole material universe (see angels).
Theology of the Trinity and Incarnation. In expressing its belief in supernatural realities, the Church does not bind itself to any particular philosophical system. This is brought out most clearly when it presents its two most fundamental mysteries, the Trinity and the Incarnation, in terms of nature and person. In the formulation of these mysteries, these terms are analogies to be understood only in the light of the revealed reality. The foundation for the analogical application of the terms nature and person to these mysteries rests on a minimal number of philosophical presuppositions. Nature simply refers to that which constitutes the internal unity of anything. Person says nothing more than separateness from everyone and everything else—hence incommunicability. The precise meaning of these terms in the dogmatic formulas is grasped by the Church only by reflection on the very mysteries of the Trinity and the Incarnation. Because of the necessarily partial character of any expression of a supernatural reality, faith seeking understanding has always sought, and eventually used, other analogies to complement the nature-person analogy, e.g., those based on mutual relations, human mind, and human love.
The mystery of the Incarnation reveals a concrete, individual, human nature without a human personality. In the presence of this mystery, Catholic theology has been perennially confronted with the yet unanswered question of the relation of nature and person. Philosophy is usually content with the identification of the concrete, individual, existing nature and the person. Some contemporary trends in theology suggest a reexamination of this philosophical position, not only on an ontological, but also on a psychological plane.
Nature in a General Sense. Two questions are raised in theology by nature in a general sense: (1) concerning the relation between the natural and supernatural orders, and (2) concerning the different states of nature.
Natural and Supernatural Orders. By the natural order is meant the natural disposition and relationship of creatures among themselves and to God, the extrinsic author and end of everything within the order. Humanity with its natural faculties seeks to attain a perfect, mediate possession of God. This end could be attained by human activity in the material universe in accordance with the norm of the order—the natural law. By the supernatural order is meant the supernatural disposition and relationship of creatures among themselves and to God, the extrinsic author and end of everything within the order. Jesus Christ, His human nature elevated by the hypostatic union and sanctifying grace, beatific vision and love, is the one mediator between God and humankind and is therefore the intrinsic author and end of everything in this order. Humanity is elevated by a sharing in the divine nature (sanctifying grace) and in the infused divine powers (theological virtues). By union with Christ and corresponding activity in accordance with the norm of the order—the divine positive law—humanity can attain an immediate possession of God through beatific vision and love.
Though the natural order is not a de facto order, still theology is concerned with that order because of its manner of elevation. The supernatural does not imply the suppression of the natural but rather its supereminent realization. Hence the adages: "The supernatural is not opposed to but above nature"; "Grace does not destroy but perfects nature." These principles must, however, be carefully understood, for they contain a certain equivocation. The supernatural is not a perfection of nature within the order of nature. The Christian humanist is often tempted to view the supernatural as though it were simply a supreme realization of natural perfection. Central to the Christian message is the absolute incapability of nature to attain to the supernatural, for the supernatural is a perfection of a higher order than the natural. The supernatural, to be sure, is the full realization of nature but in a perfection that transcends the natural order completely. The Christian way of death-resurrection is one not merely of removing sin but also of transcending the natural for a greater openness to the supernatural received as grace—pure gift. Supernatural grace, therefore, is not some superstructure, imposing itself on human nature and disturbing the order of pure nature. Grace, it is true, is unexacted by humankind's nature, but God created humankind so that it could receive this gift and receive it as such: as an unexpected, unexacted gift.
The point of contact between the natural and supernatural orders is human nature, for only humanity, abstracting from the angels, is capable of being elevated to the supernatural order. This capacity in human nature is referred to as obediential potency. Theology clearly distinguishes this capacity in human nature for the supernatural, which God alone can fulfill, from all of humankind's other natural capabilities, which humanity itself can carry out. The existence of such an obediential potency in human nature is known only through revelation of the fact of actual supernatural elevation. Still this openness of the human spirit for the supernatural indicates not only a nonrepugnance but even a becomingness for the supernatural elevation. The conception, then, of obediential potency is not to be seen in its purely negative aspect as freeing humankind from the contradiction of a supernatural-natural union, but more positively as an inner, conditional ordination to the supernatural. This openness of spirit is central for the understanding of the scriptural doctrine that man is made in the image and likeness of God.
States of Nature. Even though, historically, nature never existed without the supernatural elevation, nature connotes a perfection complete in itself and hence could exist in a purely natural state. Theologians distinguish five different possible states of nature: (1) pure nature, with no preternatural or supernatural elevation; (2) integral nature, with preternatural endowments; (3) elevated nature (the original state of man prior to the Fall), with preternatural and supernatural gifts; (4) fallen unredeemed nature, incapable of attaining its end because of sin; (5) redeemed nature, superabundantly restored to its original elevated state by the redemption of Jesus Christ. Even though the last is the only actual state of human nature known, there would seem to be no intrinsic impossibility for the actual existence of the other states. In fact, some theologians see a certain appropriate completeness of the universe in positing the actual existence of these other states of nature on planets other than the earth.
God's Glory. "God saw that all He had made was very good" (Gn 1.31). Only the whole of God's creation contains the divinely intended manifestation of His goodness [see glory of god (end of creation)]. Every area of human endeavor contributes its proper insight into the glory of God discovered in nature. The scientist encounters the beauty of nature in its manifold variation, generous richness, and prodigious creativity. The philosopher discovers in nature an underlying permanence and unity that preserve a most wonderful order in the whole. Only theology attains to the ultimate harmonization of nature's multiplicity and unity in its Creator, who has revealed Himself to be one in nature and triune in personality. This triune Deity has, moreover, offered to share with all created nature His own harmonious multiplicity in unity. This properly divine beauty is shared in immediately by the more excellent angelic and, through Christ, human natures, mediately by all nature "because creation itself also will be delivered from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the sons of God" (Rom 8.21).
See Also: baius and baianism; destiny, supernatural; person (in philosophy); person (in theology); supernatural existential; trinity, holy.
Bibliography: y. e. masson, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al. (Paris 1903–50) 11.1:36–44. j. alfaro, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiburg 1957–65) 7:809–810, 830–835. h. lesÈtre, Dictionnaire de la Bible, ed. f. vigouroux, 5 v. (Paris 1895–1912) 4:1488–90. h. kuhn and s. otto, Handbuch theologischer Grundbegriffe, ed. h. fries, 2 v. (Munich 1962–63) 2:211–221. i. m. dalmau, Sacrae theologiae summa (BAC 2.2; Madrid 1958). i. solano, ibid. 3.1. r. le troquer, What Is Man? tr. e. e. smith (New York 1961). k. rahner, God, Christ, Mary and Grace, tr. c. ernst (his Theological Investigations 1; Baltimore 1961). j. b. hawkins, "On Nature and Person in Speculative Theology," Downside Review 80 (1962) 1–11.
[m. j. dorenkemper]