Phusei, Phusik-, Phusis
In an article on the use of "nature" in Paul (Relations Natural and
Unnatural..., Journal of Religious Ethics 14 (1986), Richard Hays argued
that the word should be understood to refer to "an intuitive conception of
what ought to be, the world as designed by God" (194). Hays relates the
word to the Edenic situtation in Genesis and implies that the word should be
understood to relate to God's providential intention for creation.
The use of phusis and its related forms in the New Testament,
however, does not bear out this conception. Most often the word is used
in the New Testament in the form _phusei_. Hays considers that its
"anarthrous dative singular form . . . actually functions in a
quasi-adverbial manner . . .; its nominal character is largely dissipated
in this construction" (197). This seems like back-pedaling; Hays doesn't
give an example in which even a dissipated sense of "providential
intention" is meant in the form _phusei_. Nor does he give an example
(other than Romans 1) in which even the noun form _phusis_ could easily
be interpreted as "providential design."
In Galatians 4:8 we read:
Alla tote men ouk eidotes theon edouleusate tois phusei mE ousin theois.
"But at that time when you did not know God you served as slaves those
who were not by _phusis_ gods."
Surely Paul is referring to idols. Idols were not, of course, part
of God's providential design, nor could they have any "nature" in the
sense of being the way they ought to have been. Idols, as artificial
creations, also couldn't have had an inherent character or essence. In
fact, the English translation "those who were not by *nature* gods"
introduces a pleonasm: if the idols weren't gods, of course they
couldn't have the natures of gods. What does _phusis_, "nature",
add to the sense? The only sense which seems to shed any light on
the phrase is Lewis & Short (abr'd) I.3: "The outward form, stature,
look, Latin _species_, like phuE." In their *evident characteristics
and apparent behavior* the idols certainly were not gods: they weren't
immortal, they weren't all-powerful, they weren't even alive, as one
could see by going up to them and kicking them. :) If this is how
we understand _phusei_ here, it is no longer pleonastic, and it now
fits the sense of very well.
In 1 Cor. 11:14 we read:
Oude hE phusis autE didaskei humas hoti anEr men ean komai atimia autOi
vv. 13-15: "Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a wife to pray to God
uncovered? Doesn't _phusis_ itself teach you that if her husband has
long hair, it is dishonorable? But if his wife has long hair, it is her
Hays admits this use of _phusis_ probably means "the character of
some person or group of persons, a character which was largely ethnic and
entirely human" (197). But why keep shifting the sense of the word?
What if it means the same thing here as it did in Galatians? It may be
that neither universal nature or even particular human nature are at
issue. This passage is very controversial, as to what the problem was
and as to what solution Paul was suggesting, but if _phusis_ here means
evident characteristics and behavior, then Paul may be referring to the
_phusis_ of the people involved, not others to whom they may be
compared. In other words, he may be defending the right of women to
cover themselves since they normally liked to "glory" in their long hair,
just as men liked to go "uncovered" since they would be embarrassed by
long hair. It may be that some men were forbidding women to cover their
heads even though the women wanted to cover their heads, perhaps based on
the notion that in Christ there was neither male nor female. This
understanding of _phusis_ alone would radically change the usual
understanding of this passage.
Again, in Galatians 2:15 we read
HEmeis phusei ioudaioi kai ouk eks ethnOn hamartOloi...
The context is Paul rebuking Peter and Barnabas for separating from
Gentiles at meals. "You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not
like a Jew. How is it then that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish
customs? ... We who are Jews by _phusis_ and not Gentile sinners..."
Hays assumes the translation should be "by birth" (197). Again, why
change the sense of the word? Behavior and outward customs are at issue
here in this passage. Jews by _phusis_ are contrasted with Gentile
"sinners": surely even Gentiles were not pagans by birth-disposition. It
is much more likely that here again Paul means outward characteristics;
in the case of Jews, minimally circumcision; in the case of Gentiles,
their uncircumcision, paganism, and sinfulness.
In Ephesians 2:3 we read:
En hous kai humeis pantes anestraphEmen pote en tais epithumiais tEs
sarkos hEmon, poiountes ta thelEmata tEs sarkos kai tOn dianoiOn, kai
Emetha tekna phusei orgEs hOs kai hoi loipoi.
NIV 2:1-3 (adapted): "As for you, you were dead in your transgressions
and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world
and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work
in those who are disobedient. *All of us also lived among them at one
time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its
desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were children, by _phusis_, of
Here Paul is saying that he himself, with the rest of them, was a
child of wrath. The form _phusei_ is inserted into the middle of a
genitive construction in a way that closely ties it to the phrase:
"children by _phusis_ of wrath." Surely Paul is not here referring to
providential plan, since God did not preordain Paul for damnation, but
for salvation. He is also not referring to some unchanging internal
characteristic of his person either, since Paul obviously later repented
and changed his manner of life. _Phusei_ must be understood to refer
directly to that former manner of life: children of wrath, _as was
evident by our behavior_. Here Paul is using a form similar to what one
might call the "Semiticism" of "son of perdition" used by Jesus, to refer
to someone who _by their actions_ demonstrated that they, at that moment,
would be damned if they were to be judged. Thus _phusei_ makes the best
sense when it has the same sense as it has elsewhere in the NT.
Leaving Paul, in 2 Peter 1:4 we read
Di' hOn ta timia kai megista hEmin epaggelmata dedOrEtai hina dia toutOn
genEsthe theias koinOnoi phuseOs, apophugontes tEs en tOi kosmOi en
V. 3ff: "His [God's] divine power has given us everything we need for
life and piety through our knowledge of him who called us to his own
magnificence (doksEi) and virtue (aretEi). *Through these he has given
us his great and precious promise, so that through them you might become
sharers of a divine _phusis_ and escape the corruption of the world by
Here it is only vaguely possible that the word _phusis_ could refer
to providential design, if Hays's heavily Calvinistic theology is to be
applied, and the Christians are given no credit for choosing to believe
in Christ or follow him in their behavior. On the other hand, inserting
all of the previous uses of _phusis_ here makes even more sense.
Christians are now living a pious life, one of glorious honor/virtue,
unlike the corrupt greediness of the world. It is in that way that the
Christians will share the _evident characteristics_ of God, the
observable behavior characteristic of God. It is God's _phusis_ which is
being imparted to humans - how could it mean God's plan, since it would
mean God had a plan for himself?
In Jude 10 we read:
Houtoi de hosa men ouk oidasin blasphEmousin, hosa de phusikOs hOs ta
aloga zOia epistantai en toutois phtheirontai.
"And these people blaspheme what they don't know about, and whatever
things they have experience of, _phuskOs_, like irrational animals, by
these things they are destroyed."
It is most likely that since here the behavior of these people is
being discussed, that _phusikOs_ refers to that behavior, and not to any
unchanging personal nature, much less to a providential design. Although
they may be *acting* like animals, God did not intend them to act that
way. Yet here it is plainly said that their behavior is _phusikOs_.
They don't know (oidasin) God, so all they know is what they experience
(epistantai) sensually, by their behavior. Their evident characteristics
are those of animals.
In Romans 2:14 we read:
Hotan gar ethnE ta mE nomon ekhonta phusei ta tou nomou poiOsin, houtoi
nomon mE ekhontes heautois eisin nomos.
vv. 14-15: "Indeed when Gentiles who do not have the law do by
_phusis_ things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even
though they do not have the law, since they show [endeiknuntai] the
practice [ergon] of the law that is written in their hearts, their
consciences also testifying, and their thoughts now accusing, now
Again, reading "providential design" into this passage, even in a
diluted way, makes nonsense of it. Surely God intended for both Jews and
Gentiles to follow the law in their hearts, though here Gentiles are
being favorably compared to Jews. It is wrong to assume that _phusei_
here refers to the "universal natural law", a concept ill-developed at
the time, but if anything, better rendered by the "law that is written in
their hearts." It is their practice of that law, in their decent
behavior, that is their _phusis_. If they plainly, and in their evident
behavior, demonstrate they are following the requirements of the law,
then they must be showing (endeknuntai) that they have a law written on
their hearts. Hays would have us believe this might mean "birth," but
again, not all Gentiles were righteous by birth; much less could it mean
"by custom"; since Paul's whole point is that they had no _nomos_. It
was in Stoic usage itself, which Hays sees reflected in Paul, that
_nomos_ as "custom" was distinuished from _phusis_, "nature." It is much
more likely here that Paul is not using _phusis_ in the Stoic technical
sense. This is evident from the consistent use of _phusis_ throughout
the New Testament. Only in James 3:7 would a translation of "species" be
better than "outward characteristics and observable behavior," although the
meanings are obviously closely related, unlike those Hays suggests of birth,
providential design, or ethnic custom.