I recently read Peter Leithart’s piece on nature at the Trinity House page here, and my initial reaction was to pose a test case scenario for him. It looked like this. I wrote Peter and asked him to write an article that assumes his “un-metaphysic” about nature, and use it to demonstrate the sinfulness of getting, for example, a sex change operation. This has to do with his point about the nature of limits, and I really want to see how his approach protects “natural” limits from the perversions of men.
So I asked him to write an article on this for the excellent reason that I wanted to read it. But turnabout is fair play, and while Peter said he would give it some thought, he also asked me to answer my own question. So okay, we both need to write something. Here is my shot at it.
What I was looking for is some kind of anchor found in the world that is capable of saying “thus far and no farther.” I think that nature provides us with an ancient boundary stone that we are not supposed to mess with, and I was trying to come up with an example that is not expressly prohibited in Scripture.
Paul says that certain activities are “contrary to nature,” but I am genuinely interested in how it is possible to deny that nature has a nature, and still do the casuistry in drawing a distinction between getting braces for your kid’s teeth, for example, which overcome a limit in nature, and getting him hormone shots, which do the same thing. Both involve procedures, both require medical training, both are altering “what is,” and so on.
I suspect the key difference between Peter’s approach and mine on this topic is found in his first paragraph. But before proceeding to discuss that, I need to point out that there are many observations that Peter makes in this post that I agree with, the central one being that if we lay nature spread out on a dissecting table and cut it up, and act like we are disinterested observers focused on “just the facts,” we will simply prove the truth of Wordsworth’s dictum, “we murder to dissect.” I don’t want anything to do with an impersonal nature, grinding away in obedience to impersonal natural laws, observed, if at all, by a bored and distant Deity.
Here are the sentences from Peter’s first paragraph that perhaps highlight our different approaches.
“Here and there, the Bible uses this word and something like the concept of nature, but it’s not fundamental. The Bible doesn’t picture the world as a collection of created natures, but as a collection of creation things and processes and patterns of behavior.”
The way this is posed reminds me of the problem of the one and the many. Are we getting to the giant lego nature by means of stacking up all these little legos, such that nature is the sum of all these smaller natures? Or are we doing something else?
There are three basic observations I would want to make about this. In order to say that the Bible does talk about something, but that this something is “not fundamental,” we first have to do a search for synonyms. If I might, let me use an illustration that may annoy my baptist friends, but I am not doing it on purpose. I am merely in pursuit of a higher truth. Before I was paedo baptist, life was simple. All I had to do was get a concordance, look up all the instances of baptism and baptizing, look at who it happened to, and the discussion was done. And if we limited it that way, I think this is a fair read. But central to my change of mind was the realization that I also needed to look up and incorporate into my theology of the issue words like generations, covenant, circumcision, olive trees, Jew, Gentile, promise to Abraham, grafting, new Jerusalem, and so on. In short, the issue was much bigger than I had previously thought, regardless of how I came down on it.
It is the same kind of thing with nature. God doesn’t create “nature” by name in the first chapters of Genesis, but He does create the heavens and the earth. He creates all these things, culminating in the creation of man. And the first thing He sets man to do is the task of naming. Now naming in Scripture is not a matter of attaching arbitrary labels. It means looking at a thing, perceiving its characteristics (one might say nature here), and giving it a name. This is how Adam names his wife, for example. “And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man” (Gen. 2:23). Her second name goes the same way. “And Adam called his wife’s name Eve; because she was the mother of all living” (Gen. 3:20).
So if we defined nature as that which is identified by a wise act of naming, then I think it is safe to say that nature is fundamental.
Second, I don’t see why the phrase “concept of nature” has to be equated with picturing the world “as a collection of created natures.” Because the world was created, and is not an accident, we can assume that the whole thing is designed from top to bottom. It presents an exquisite unity, and at the same time it still has identifiable parts. We have already dispensed with clockmaker Deism which should make it safe for me to return to the image of making a clock. A clockmaker doesn’t put parts with defined natures together randomly, only to be surprised at the end of the process with a clock. No, the natures of the parts and the nature of the whole is all one glorious unity. We don’t need to get there by a process of simple addition. Nor do we get to nature of a periwinkle by starting with the nature of the cosmos and then subtracting. God did it all together.
And last, getting to the question I posed, I believe that the idea of nature is helpful to us when we remember that we, the observers, the scientists, the namers, are part of the show. We are not transnatural beings describing nature, but rather natural beings describing nature. In other words, what is out there resonates with something that is in here. When nature teaches me that it is disgraceful for a woman to shave her head (1 Cor. 11:14), I am not saying that the shaving reveals a divinely placed tattoo on her scalp that says, “This is disgraceful.” What Paul means is that there is something in the observer that recoils. In another place he says that the Gentiles by nature observe certain things that are contained with the law (Rom. 2:14). But this means that there is a certain impulse that arises within them, and which they cannot perhaps give a reasonable accounting for, but which is authoritative nonetheless. In short, an important part of general revelation is the capacity for getting the creeps.
So when parents give their thirteen-year-old daughter some lipstick, we might think “too soon,” or “too much,” or “just right,” but no reasonable person would think it is a blasphemous outrage. But if they were to give that same tube of lipstick to their thirteen-year-old son, the thing becomes a monstrosity. We receive important information from the feeling we have that it is unnatural.
Now the reason it does is that nature has an authoritative role in teaching us how to name. Adam named Ishah according to her nature, and according to his own. He saw his bone, and hers. He saw his flesh, and hers. She shall be called woman. When he saw her capacity for bringing new human life into the world, he gave her another name, also in accord with her nature. She is called Eve because she is the mother of all the living.