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Nature and Natural Phenomena

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

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NATURE AND NATURAL PHENOMENA.1. The inquiry as to the attitude taken up by Jesus towards the natural, visible, tangible world which is the physical environment of the soul, is affected and limited by the fact that our Lord was not a philosopher or a scientist, but a spiritual teacher. His only mission was to preach the doctrine of the Kingdom of God, and to this He rigidly restricted Himself. Thus He nowhere enunciates a cosmology; He gives us no explicit theory of the providential order; He leaves the scientific conceptions of His day where they were, correcting no current mistakes as to the meaning of natural phenomena, and giving no intellectual synthesis of His own of the facts of the physical universe (see Wendt’s Teaching of Jesus, i. pp. 151–153). This at once both hampers us and frees us in dealing with our special subject. It hampers us because we have to glean such hints as are possible for our purpose from scattered references to natural phenomena and to the order of nature as a whole, which occcur incidentally in His teaching. But it also assists us by enabling us to understand that no sinister or misleading suggestions lurk behind the silence of Jesus on the innumerable problems that try the modern mind in its outlook on the natural order. The revelation of Jesus does not contain a complete conspectus of the facts of the world in all their aspects: it is a spiritual revelation, which aims at the enlightenment of the soul as to the vital truths of conduct, and as to the ideal relations between it and its Heavenly Father. Every element in the teaching is subordinate to this central consideration. In seeking for such light as is possible on the attitude of our Lord to the physical world, we must, therefore, bear this limitation constantly in mind.

2. We also find here the key to the kind of references which are made by our Lord to the facts of nature. These references are, fortunately for our purpose, very numerous in proportion to the bulk of His teaching as it has come down to us, and this for a reason we shall presently deal with. But they all belong (1) to the class of facts that were quite familiar to His hearers. His aim was always entirely practical, and His illustrations and references to nature are thus extremely simple and obvious. We seek in vain for any recondite, or technical, or unusual allusions; they all lie consistently in the path of common observation; so much so that hardly any of them need interpretation to the simplest modern minds. And (2) they are of that class which lend themselves obviously to the uses of illustration, being vivid, pictorial, and frequently recurrent in the lives of ordinary men and women, so that anyone familiar with His teaching could not fail afterwards to be reminded of the spiritual truths He had taught, because no one could go through a single day of average experience without coming across one or more of the natural facts used in His matchless collection of illustrations. By this means He turned nature into a whispering gallery of spiritual truths, and filled each common day with perpetual reminders of His central teaching, thus enlisting both the understanding and the memory of His followers in His permanent service as a revealer of religious truth. Any devout and careful student of the Gospels will readily find the justification of these remarks in the pages of the Evangelists.

3. Incidental, however, as are the references to nature and natural phenomena in the words of Jesus, they are full of suggestiveness as to His attitude to the material world. Through the rigid self-limitation which He imposed on Himself we catch the glow of His spirit; through the narrow windows of His imagery rays of light pour out in many directions on the mysteries of life and providence. It is not, perhaps, possible to construct a complete Christian Weltanschauung, or ‘View of the World,’ out of the scattered references of Jesus to nature; but in the light of His teaching it is certainly possible to suggest the lines along which such a theory must run. His doctrine of the Fatherhood necessitated an attitude towards nature as well as man, and this attitude is consistently maintained by Him in all His words and habits of thought as recorded in the Gospels.

4. Christ’s theory of Providence in the natural order.—(1) The first characteristic in the attitude of Jesus towards the facts and arrangements of the organic world is a certain beautiful calmness and screnity. The facts which so deeply disturb us in our view of nature—suffering, the preying of one animal on another, death—were just as familiar to Him, who was an accurate and careful observer, as to ourselves; moreover, He who was so sympathetic with men in their sorrows, must have been equally accessible to the sorrows of dumb creatures. Yet there is no trace of any disturbance of mind in Him as He met these familiar facts. His profound trust in God’s goodness to His creatures enabled Him to view their sufferings with an equanimity in which there could have been no trace of hardness or indifference. It is the calmness of a mind so firmly centred in the idea of the Divine love and care that it suffers no shock at the most disturbing and harrowing of natural events. His references to the Providence that looks after the interests of flowers and birds, which are ‘clothed’ and ‘fed’ by God Himself, are full of a sense of the Divine benignity and goodwill towards His meanest creatures, and He uses this fact as an argument to quell the needless anxiety of men, who belong to a far higher order of being (Matthew 12:12), as to the sources and sureness of the natural provision for their own life and wellbeing. If God so ‘clothes the grass of the field,’ and ‘feeds the fowls of the air,’ He will surely much more attend to the temporal wants of His children so that they may consider themselves free to attend to their proper spiritual interests (Matthew 6:25-34). That the optimism of Jesus is not the result of careless observation or lack of sympathy is seen also in His acknowledgment of the evanescence and perishableness of vegetable and animal life (Matthew 6:30). Jesus teaches us that ‘God feeds the sparrow and also attends his obsequies’ (Luke 12:24, cf. Matthew 10:29). The sufferings peculiar to animal life and the incidence of natural death are clearly normal facts in our Lord’s view of nature, and need contain no problem for faith.

(2) Another feature of our Lord’s view of the providential order is His recognition of the orderliness and faithfulness of natural law. There is every indication that in realizing this He found a deep and constant pleasure. The world to Him was the home of order, and, as such, an indication of the will and character of the Creator and Sustainer of all things. He loved to notice and draw attention to this characteristic of the natural world (cf. Matthew 5:13; Matthew 7:16-18; Matthew 7:24-27, Mark 4:4-8; Mark 4:26-28; Mark 9:50, Luke 10:18; Luke 12:24; Luke 13:8; Luke 19:34, John 3:8; John 10:3-5; John 15:1-4 etc.) Specially interesting to Him were all the phenomena of growth, which He so often uses as a symbol of the laws of the spirit (Mark 4:4-8; Mark 4:26-28; Mark 4:31 f., Mark 13:28, Luke 13:8; Luke 13:21, John 15:2-4), and of the habits of animals (Matthew 6:26; Matthew 7:15; Matthew 10:16, Luke 13:34; Luke 17:37, John 10:3-5; John 10:12 etc.).

(3) This leads us to the most important of all the characteristics exhibited in our Lord’s treatment of natural phenomena—His profound sense of the function they fulfil as suggesting spiritual facts and laws. His purpose in using natural imagery is not summed up in the fact of its picturesqueness and mnemonic aptness. However handy it may have been as a mould into which to throw His teaching, He evidently believed that there was in addition to this a real correspondence between the laws of organic and of spiritual life. He lived in two worlds, with an intensity of interest that has seldom been approached—the world of sense and the world of spirit. These two worlds to most men are divided by a deep chasm; but to Him there were innumerable bridges of connexion between them, and His thoughts traversed these in a perpetual play of happy insight, finding in both unending correspondences that were real and true, each shedding light into the heart of the other. Or, to vary the simile, we may say that to Him nature was the mirror of the spirit, in which He ever caught glimpses of the profoundest laws and operations of the higher life of the soul and of the character of God as the Lord of both. When He said, ‘The kingdom of God is like—,’ He was exercising no mere ingenuity of fancy, neither was He inventing fictitious similarities between disconnected spheres of existence; rather He was holding up the gold and silver sides of the same bright shield of Truth.

(4) In entire consistence with this view of our Lord’s imagery, we novice the complete absence, in His view of the world, of any such distinction as has been drawn by modern thinkers between the natural and the supernatural. Living, as He did, in the perpetual sense of His Father’s presence and power and love, such a distinction would be to Him utterly unreal. In His cosmology there was no third term, such as ‘force,’ or ‘energy,’ or ‘law,’ coming in immediately between the Divine will and its result. There was only God—the Creator and Sustainer—and nature was the material expression of His loving care and energy. What we would attribute to a secondary or efficient cause He always attributed to the direct activity of the Father. ‘Your heavenly Father feedeth them.… Shall he not much more clothe you …?’ ‘Not one of them falleth to the ground without your Father …’ ‘My Father worketh hitherto.’ In this sense of the immediacy of the Divine activity we find one of the most characteristic traits of the religious attitude of Jesus towards the natural world. The same consideration throws a suggestive light on the way in which He exercised His ‘miraculous’ gifts. To Him there was nothing ‘supernatural’ or inexplicable in the wonderful deeds He wrought. They were rather perfectly natural signs of the activity of God in and through Him: ‘My Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works’ (John 14:10). Even in the case of an act of healing which was performed without any overt reference to the Divine power, as when He said, ‘I will, be thou clean’ (Luke 5:13), the same attitude of dependence on the Father’s favour and power must be presupposed (cf. John 5:19). To Jesus, therefore, the wonderful works which He wrought were but the expression of the will of God through Him, and were as natural as the forces that eventuate in the ‘blowing clover and the falling rain.’ If this were borne in mind, perhaps the difficulty of the miraculous would not be what it is to many nowadays. The key would be seen to lie in the region of personality rather than of a ‘supernatural’ law over-riding a natural law. Jesus being who and what He was, it was as natural for Him to work miracles’ and to exercise an exceptional control over the ‘forces’ of nature, as it was for Napoleon to do extraordinary things through his gift of control over men, or for a great scientist to initiate fresh changes in the forms and conditions of matter. The differentia of the soul of Jesus was an unbroken fellowship with God as His Father, which manifested itself in all He did, and, among other ways, ill the power to use natural forces in a unique way in order to fulfil His filial mission.

5. There is another aspect of the attitude of Jesus to nature and natural phenomena which must not be overlooked, and which, however incidental it may be to His mission as such, is replete with suggestion and helpfulness. We have pointed out that His scientific and philosophic interest in nature was merged into the religious interest which always controlled His soul. What of the artistic interest which is so strong in the highest type of mind? Here again we must speak of the subordination of all to the spiritual outlook and temper. None the less is it clear that Jesus was profoundly sensitive to the beauty of the world. He loved Nature for her own sake, and because she ministered to His love of what was fair and good to look at. And if it is true that the ‘function of art is (1) to teach us to see, (2) to teach us what to see, and (3) to teach us to see more than we see,’ then the discourses of Jesus reveal the artistic temperament in all His references to the facts of the natural order. See art. Poet.

(1) His faculty of observation was extraordinary. His eye took in the smallest detail of the outward world with loving appreciation. We have references to the march of the seasons (Matthew 24:32, Mark 13:28); to the orderly stages of growth (Mark 4:28); to the varying response of various kinds of soil (Mark 4:4-8); to the mystery of development (Mark 4:27; Mark 4:31); to the habits and dispositions of animals (Matthew 10:16, Luke 9:58; Luke 13:34; Luke 17:37, John 10:3-5; John 10:12, cf. Matthew 7:15); to the customs of the household (Luke 13:21, cf. the many references to the law of hospitality, and to human intercourse and social life). He was never at a loss, indeed, in drawing upon the resources of His observation for the purpose of illustrating His own teaching, but was like a householder, ‘bringing forth from his treasure things new and old’ (Matthew 13:52).

(2) In the same way He teaches us what to see. A wise selection must be made in storing the mind with facts and impressions, so that the multiplicity of Nature may not overwhelm the mind, or cause us to lose our way in the confusion of her wealth. And while, as we have seen, there was nothing too great or too small to arrest His eye or interest His mind, there is one interest which evidently dominated His mind in His watchful observation of natural phenomena. That was the ordinary human interest. And this is always true of the highest art. The painter, the poet, the sculptor, are eminently and broadly human in their approach to Nature; what has no reference to human experience and action and passion lies outside the scope of her appeal to them. A glance at our Lord’s parables and illustrations at once reveals this dominant human interest. He refers only to those aspects of nature that in some more or less definite way intermingle with the daily or occasional experience of human beings. There was a practical as well as artistic purpose in this; for He was thus able to interest His hearers more readily in the higher truths which He was anxious to impress upon their minds and to commend to their sympathies.

(3) He teaches us to see more than we see, for the natural became in His hands a translucent veil through which the spiritual poured its light and inspiration into the hearts of men. Here art once more became handmaid to religion: and the beauty of nature became a vehicle for the higher beauty of holiness and truth. The same artistic gift is seen in the beautiful, vivid, and balanced form in which He clothed His imagery and parabolic teaching. His language is wonderfully clear and pictorial and apt: the mould into which He runs His illustrations is in keeping with the simplicity and beauty of its content. There is the happiest marriage of word and fact, type and antitype, in His teaching. This reveals the Master both of material and of expression. The earthly forms in which the Incarnate Word enshrined His message have caught something of His own Eternal quality and beauty, and will stand for ever as unique and unforgettable as the truth they embody. ‘The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life’ (John 6:63).

Literature.—Mozley, Univ. Sermons, 122; Shairp, Stud. in Poetry and Philos. 310; Expositor, iii. ii. [1885] 224; F. W. Robertson, Human Race, 163; J. Caird, Univ. Ser. 300; S. J. Andrews, Man and the Incarnation, 105; W. G. Elmslie, Memoir and Ser. 240; D. W. Forrest, Authority of Christ (1906), 143.

E. Griffith-Jones.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Nature and Natural Phenomena'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament.​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​n/nature-and-natural-phenomena.html. 1906-1918.