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The nature of “nature”

We all agree on the nature of nature right? Whether you're Christian, atheist, animist, whatever - we all breathe the same air, we all experience the same world, we're all moved by the same beauty, right? Well....

Let me give a very broad-brushstrokes history lesson and then say what I think the bible says...

Thomas Aquinas, the favourite theologian of Roman Catholics (1225-1274) was big on relating "Nature" and "Grace". In terms of knowledge and in terms of salvation Aquinas had a model of co-operation. We build towards God, He tops up our deficiencies with his grace.


God's grace does not destroy our works, it completes them - so said Thomas. He was very clear that no-one could think their way completely towards God, neither can we work our way completely towards heaven - we all need a helping hand. But that's how it works, God helps those who help themselves.

The rediscovery of the gospel in the 16th century completely destroys that way of thinking: We're saved and we know God by his grace alone.  Christ alone is God's gift coming down to us. And He is received, not by any religious capacity of our own, but by faith alone.  The green arrow comes down from heaven and then goes through us and out to the world. That's the gospel, and it obliterates the co-operation model.

But what happens when that gospel gets  lost again? Because it does get lost again post-reformation. This time it's not lost to medieval catholicism, it's lost to the Enlightenment.

With the Enlightenment there are also two elements, but they aren't so much nature and grace, they are nature and supernature (i.e. the supernatural).


Here, the nature arrow is no longer pointing up, it's pointing forwards. Enlightenment people come to believe that the natural world is pretty much self-sustaining. The world grinds along according to iron laws of physics which reason can discover. There's really not much point in anything supernatural, but maybe that realm does exist, up there, in an ethereal way divorced from "the real world."

Of course this is the world view we still have today. Some people believe there might well be a floaty, light green, supernatural realm. Others just believe in the reality of this self-sustaining natural world. And of course, once you've set things up like this, the atheist position looks like the most obvious one doesn't it?

In churches today there are two prevailing attitudes about how to relate "the natural" and "the supernatural" - both of them completely assume the Enlightenment worldview.

The first response is to agree that there are these two realms and never the twain shall meet. There's God and Jesus and the Spirit and faith and the Christian life... and then there's the real world. This is the heresy I'm most tempted towards.

The other response is to say "These realms do meet - they meet when freaky, unnatural stuff happens."

Once again the Enlightenment worldview is taken for granted because "God" is associated primarily with things that are not natural. The nature / super-nature divide is assumed, but this time the emphasis is on the supernatural.

People who take these two approaches might seem very different but, deep down, both are singing from the same (secular!) hymn sheet.

I suggest that the two realms that need co-ordinating are not nature and grace or nature and super-nature but Old Creation and New Creation (you could call it 'kingdom of man' and 'kingdom of God', or Adam and Christ, or flesh and Spirit). I think the true picture is more like this:

Here the old creation is the more transparent one - it is less real than the new.  It is subject to futility and plunging down into death.  There is an arrow here - there is a direction - but under Adam, that direction is downwards.

Overall however there is progress because the second Adam has come.  And He brings new creation.  Christians are part of this in-breaking kingdom even as we wait in this passing age.

On this view, What does it look like for God to show up?

Well God is at work in the Old Creation and intimately so, it's just that Old Creation goes from life to death. This is God's alien work, but His work nonetheless. His proper work though is the renewal of all things under the feet of Christ (from death to life).  Therefore the signs of His coming kingdom are restoration and recreation. God does indeed act in power in this passing age but "freaky" is not the point. New life is.

With this view of the world, What is the nature of "nature"?

Well let's forget the Thomas Aquinas split. Nature is not an obvious realm that we all understand similarly. It's not as though we all have one level of natural understanding that just needs topping up with grace in order to get the fullness of its spiritual meaning. No, the green arrow must come all the way down to convert us and give us new eyes, new ears, new hearts. We must be converted and then we will see the world the way it really is - a proclamation of Christ.

And let's forget the Enlightenment split. Nature is not a self-sustaining realm, divorced from the spiritual. It is the site of God's constant activity in every detail. Of course we must be in Christ to see it and we need the spectacles of the Scriptures to adjust our vision to these realities. But the world is not a neutral space - it's the theatre of Christ's glory:

The earth is full of the glory of the LORD Jesus (Isaiah 6:3; John 12:40-41).

The heavens are declaring the glory of Christ (Psalm 19:1; Romans 10:17-18).

Creation is proclaiming the gospel of Christ (Colossians 1:23).


12 thoughts on “The nature of “nature”

  1. Paul

    Very helpful.

    Nature and grace are two ways of looking at the world. Naturally we are atheists and we are always tempted to see the visible world around us as an end in itself, as something worthy of worship or ultimate concern [Ephesians 2:12; Romans 1:25]. When we trust in Jesus so we are born again and see all things, visible and invisible, with Jesus at the centre. The visible things are understood in their proper perspective - passing, but held together and directed from the throneroom of heaven.

    It is so important to remember that grace is not something that comes in at Genesis 3 but at Genesis 1:1. The whole of creation is the overflowing grace of God, mediated by Jesus in the power of the Spirit. Redemption flows from the same gracious Saviour God as creation.

  2. Ben Epps

    Thanks Glen. Love it.
    Just puzzled by the last sentence: that's not a common way of understanding Col 1v23.
    Mischievously, I might ask: if all creation is proclaiming the gospel, then what need do we have of evangelists?

  3. Glen

    Thanks Paul, you're so right about grace being at the foundation of nature - not the icing on the cake!

    Hi Ben,

    Psalm 19 says all creation is explicit in its gospel proclamation - it even declares the Light of the World as the Champion Bridegroom, vanquishing darkness and bringing light and life. Romans 10:17 calls the heavens' proclamation "the word of Christ." Jesus is LORD, creations voice proclaims it.

    But of course Psalm 19 finishes by saying "the LAW of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul". Scripture - like a pair of Spectacles (cf Calvin) - needs to refocus our vision to see what's already there (hence the need for evangelists!) But what's already there is a declaration of the LORD Jesus in every detail of creation.

    Unfortunately Christians often view the world through Aquinas's spectacles. They imagine that nature only reveals a limited amount and it needs topping up by revelation. To my mind, this is a thoroughly Roman Catholic way of seeing the world - evangelicals should be more gospel shaped! After all Paul simply says that the gospel has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven. As an evangelical I just want to take that seriously...

    (he said equally mischievously...) :)

  4. Brian Midmore

    For Aquinas justification meant what justification and sanctification, mean for Protestants. There was an initial coming into God's family at Baptism through the remission of sins and then the ongoing sanctification process continued to justify the Christian. This process of additional justification occurred with the cooperation of the believer. Although a protestant might quibble with the detail of this I don’t think it can be said to be 'Not the Gospel'(this begs the question 'What is the Gospel?) In a way Aquinas is only trying to understand that the final judgement will be according to works. Although we might baulk at the idea of cooperation the sanctification process which for Aquinas justified us before God comes about by the grace of God. I don’t believe it is fair to cast Aquinas as 'an enemy of the Gospel'. In deed Cranmer (influenced by Bucer) believed in an increasing justification based on works. Of course it is easy to see how an all powerful church can abuse such ideas by defining what these works of justification should be. But if we see this process as happening by the grace and the spirit of God we might conclude that it is not far from what Paul taught.

  5. Howard Nowlan

    Aquinas' approach was born out of a time when the options were Platonic idealism or Aristotelian empiricism. The Thomistic approach chose the latter, but Roman Catholicism didn't, in truth, find this as comprehensive as required, as questions regarding the nature of sacramental grace remained disturbingly unresolved. The cause, of course, was the limitation of the philosophical 'difficulties' of this framework (natural theology, as shown in Islam, leading to a definition of God very different to that revealed in Christian theology, which is crucially trinitarian in nature). The consequence, so troubling for us, was not merely the tendency to revert/polarize into Platonic or Augustinian (pre-Thomistic) avenues, but to witness the birth of Nominalism, effectively making God unknown again and, as a result, making morality 'the' crucial theme. The legacy of this marked, for example, Trent's rejection of justification and assurance and mutes Protestantism when it also treads (as it has so often done) a path away from those Reformational certainties and thereby away from Christ. The cardinal truth, found only in the robust theology of the Reformers, is that "God has so radically changed us by His saving work, that I no longer trust in myself, but only in Christ". Only by understanding these considerations can we really begin to appreciate why there are weaknesses in much of what currently passes as 'mainstream' belief and practice in both Roman Catholic and Evangelical circles.

  6. Brian Midmore

    Thank you Howard. I confess that I don't know a lot about Aquinas. I suppose I was reacting against Glen's caricature of Aquinas's teaching as 'God helps those who help themselves'. This is the kind of comment you might expect from two old ladies at a bus stop. It suggests that Aquinas knew nothing about the Christian religion at all. A casual glance at websites about Aquinas show that his theology was very comprehensive and deeply thought through. Maybe incorrectly I concur.

  7. Brian Midmore

    Hi Howard,
    I would be interested in your explaining how exactly the failure to understand that“God has so radically changed us by His saving work, that I no longer trust in myself, but only in Christ” effects current evangelical/catholic practice/belief. You say that this was central to the reformation but is this only in retrospect? Was it seen at central at the time? How does Aquinas treat the Holy Spirit. Did he see this as an active and real presence/force in the believer? If he did is this not the real change that has happened to the believer, he now has the Holy Spirit?

  8. Howard Nowlan

    To touch on some of your questions, Brian, Aquinas saw regeneration somewhat differently to the Reformational understanding. An infusion of grace is received at baptism which stays with the person, allowing them, but not forcing them, to do good works. He didn't accept that the Holy Spirit played any part in these works (i.e. motivated them), but that love alone motivated the person to do them. This view was coupled to his understanding that human reason, though marred by the fall, was still marked by God's image, so infusion provided the means for us to produce such works (which he viewed as the ethical goal of our present lives). Several of these views are shared by Roman Catholicism and, sadly, in many popular evangelical approaches to belief (hence my distinction between the clarity of Reformational teaching on Justification & Sanctification and what is often understood as 'christian' teaching). As I noted in my initial reply, it's important to place his teaching in the context of the principal systems of theological and philosophical thought that were central to his times.

  9. Howard Nowlan

    "Thomas refused to conclude that good works are motivated by the Holy Spirit acting upon the will to inspire us to obedience. For Thomas, if love is to be authentic, it must be our own works of love in cooperation with grace" Dr Ryan Reeves - Professor of Historical Theology, in his article The Significance of Thomas Aquinas. The official teaching of Roman Catholicism, derived from Thomas' writings, states: "by the grace of Baptism, as adoptive sons and daughters of God, we can merit for ourselves additional graces of sanctification through Christian charity and good works. It is always the gift of God’s love that brings forth merit through charity" (The Catholic doctrine of Justification by Grace, as stated on the St Aquinas website), This is, however, something distinct from the grace imputed at baptism by the Holy Spirit.

  10. Brian Midmore

    Is'nt there a paradox that as we are controlled by the Holy Spirit we thereby know more freedom not less. Thus to be empowered by the holy spirit means to be released to be ourselves. Is'nt this something of what TA is trying to elucidate. We are freed from the power of the flesh so that we ourselves can love. Thus it is our deeds that are rewarded at the last judgement. We cooperate with God by dying to the flesh and living in the spirit.

  11. Howard Nowlan

    Aquinas isn't arguing for this, Brian (hence my initial references regarding his understanding of our nature prior to regeneration). Whilst Thomistic theology believes in an imputation of grace at baptism, it defines works as something which must come from us (there is, in effect, a 'willingness' and capacity in us to be obedient to God). This is very different from a Reformational view. I'll have to pick up any replies in a few days, as I'm now away and off-line until Tuesday attending a family funeral.

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