Published as a single article in DBSJ 2 (Fall 1997): 81–103. Used by permission.
Part 2 continues Part 1’s consideration of what “nature” means in the “one or two natures” question.
As was previously noted, the use of the term nature as it relates to the question of one or two natures does not stem primarily from a particular text. Instead, it can more correctly be viewed as a theological term, essential to the discussion at hand, but whose meaning is generally derived from its common, ordinary usage. Webster, for example, defines nature as “the inherent character or basic constitution of a person or thing: essence, disposition, temperament.”1 Smith helpfully observes that
except when it is used for the material world or universe, the term “nature” does not designate a substance or an entity. Instead, it is a word which refers to the inherent or essential qualities of any substance or entity.2
We might simplify by saying that nature can be defined as “the characteristics which make a thing what it is,” or as Smith says, “a set of characteristics.”3 The important thing to remember is that nature and person must be carefully distinguished. Here we have been helped by the discussion of Buswell, who argues that “a nature is by definition a complex of attributes.” His more complete statement reads: “A person is a non-material substantive entity, and is not to be confused with a nature. A nature is not a part of a person in the substantive sense. A nature is a complex of attributes, and is not to be confused with a substantive entity.”4 Thus a nature cannot act and the Bible never speaks of a nature as acting.
By defining nature as a “complex of attributes” we can, for instance, correctly speak of Christ as having both a human and divine nature. By a human nature we mean he possessed all those attributes or characteristics essential for true humanity and, in like manner, by a divine nature we mean he possessed all those attributes or characteristics essential for true deity. Natures are not persons and natures do not act; thus Christ was one person with two natures. Therefore, it is perfectly acceptable to use two-nature terminology to describe Jesus Christ. Orthodox theology has traditionally used such terminology even though it is not found in the Bible. But, as Smith has wisely observed, “it is perfectly proper to speak of the (single) nature of Jesus as the God-Man. In so doing one would cite all those characteristics which are true of Him as the unique God-Man.”5 In describing Christ as having one nature or two natures, a different meaning is not being given to the term nature—“a complex of attributes”; rather, we are simply grouping various attributes of the one person into either one or two groups emphasizing different aspects of the one person. Though, admittedly, not our normal perspective, if we were to describe the God-man as having one nature, we would include all those attributes which are essential to both natures—human and divine. If, as is our normal practice, we describe the God-man as having two natures, we are separating and grouping those attributes according to their distinctive qualities, whether they are human or divine. We are not suggesting by this two-nature terminology that these two natures are separate entities or persons. But we may conclude that, theologically, two-nature terminology seems quite helpful, if not essential, for understanding the one God-man.
By understanding nature as a complex of attributes, one is perfectly justified in using the term to describe the believer as having either one or two natures. In two-nature terminology the believer is usually said to have an old or sinful nature as well as a new nature. This old nature can be defined as “a continuing tendency to sin or rebel against God,”6 or “as that capacity to serve Satan, sin, and self acquired through Adam.”7
When the believer is viewed from the perspective of his old nature, the focus is on those attributes or characteristics which dispose him to sin. The old nature is in effect a disposition to sin which remains in the regenerate person. In similar fashion the new nature can be defined as “the capacity to serve God and righteousness acquired through regeneration.”8 It is a disposition toward holiness. Two-nature terminology provides us with what Smith calls a “useful abstraction,” enabling us to “speak of our ‘old nature’ when referring to the set of characteristics which is intrinsically ours by virtue of being born into this world as sinful persons—in contrast with those characteristics which are ours as a result of regeneration.”9
In similar fashion, our understanding of nature as a complex of attributes permits us to view the believer as having one nature. By this we would be referring to all those attributes, whatever they are, necessary to describe the individual as a fallen human creature who has also been regenerated. In actuality, however, it is difficult to find a critic of the two-nature view who, in rejecting that view, argues instead that the believer has only one nature. Critics of the two-nature view mostly avoid using the term nature at all. Packer rejects its use since he believes the two-nature view employs the term contrary to its use “both in life and in Scripture.” He adds “that ‘nature’ means the whole of what we are, and the whole of what we are is expressed in various actions and reactions that make up our life.”10 I have previously suggested, contrary to Packer, that Scripture may in fact use nature in the same way the two-nature view does (Eph 2:3; 2 Pet 1:4); but, even if Packer were correct on that point, he certainly falters when he insists that nature must mean “the whole of what we are.” Clearly, he would not want us to believe that when he speaks of Christ’s human nature, he intends “the whole” of what the God-man is. In truth nature can refer to “the whole of what we are,” but it does not have to. As Smith explains:
It is proper to speak of a believer as having only one nature if the term is used to mean a “complex of attributes” which characterize an individual, and if this “complex” includes all the characteristics, good and bad, which describe the individual. But this does not disallow the use of the term as an abstraction to label various complexes of attributes such as that complex due to my Adamic inheritance.11
So, it may be concluded, contrary to Packer, there is nothing illegitimate about using nature, especially as a theological term, to refer to those characteristics, both good and bad within the believer—the new and old natures. Neither is it illegitimate to speak of the believer as having one nature, one complex of attributes, as long as those attributes describe the whole individual—including both good and bad characteristics. Thus, the difference between one-nature and two-nature terminology is not over the meaning of the term nature but rather the usage of nature to describe different complexes of attributes. The value and attraction of two-nature terminology is that it provides convenient terminology to describe the struggle with sin within every believer. Those who decry the idea of two-natures in the believer would still strongly affirm that struggle, but they simply believe that it is not theologically accurate to describe it as a struggle between the old and new natures. Such terminology, they feel, can be misleading.
But, in reality, those who object to two natures in the believer have a difficult time ridding themselves of two-nature terminology. One could hardly find a more strident opponent of the two-nature view than John Gerstner, yet his own position is that “the Christian is one person with two struggling principles [emphasis added].”12 Another opponent of the two-nature view, J. I. Packer, explains that “believers find within themselves contrary urgings,” which he identifies as their “regenerate de- sires and purposes” and their “fallen, Adamic instincts.”13 Thus it seems that it is difficult to accurately describe the struggle which takes place within the believer without talking about two opposing somethings—principles, desires, urgings, etc. While it is true that two- nature terminology can be misleading and has sometimes been tied to inadequate views of sanctification, this is not necessarily so. The problem is not with two-nature terminology per se, but with a defective theology which happens to use two-nature terminology. But before we deal with this issue, it behooves us to look more carefully at the scriptural descriptions of the believer’s struggle with sin.
1 Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 10th ed., s.v. “nature,” p. 774.
2 Charles R. Smith, “Two Natures—Or One? An Attempt at Theological Clarification,” Voice 62 (July–August 1983): 20.
4 J. Oliver Buswell, A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion, 2 vols. in 1 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1962, 1963), 2:52.
5 Smith, “Two Natures—Or One?” p. 21.
6 Anthony A. Hoekema, Saved by Grace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), p. 214.
7 Gordon R. Lewis and Bruce A. Demarest, Integrative Theology, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 3:196.
9 Smith, “Two Natures—Or One?” p. 21.
10 Rediscovering Holiness, p. 83.
11 Charles R. Smith, review of Birthright: Christian, Do You Know Who You Are? by David Needham, in Grace Theological Journal 3 (Fall 1982): 288.
12 Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth, p. 232.
13 J. I. Packer, Concise Theology (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1993), p. 171.
Bill Combs serves as Academic Dean as well as Professor of New Testament at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, where he has been teaching since 1983. He earned his BA at Tennessee Temple University, and his MDiv and ThM degrees at Temple Baptist Theological Seminary. He holds a ThD from Grace Theological Seminary. Dr. Combs has also served in pastoral ministry. He and his wife Pansy are members of Inter-City Baptist Church in Allen Park, MI.