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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Physical

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PHYSICAL (φυσικὁς, ‘natural,’ ‘inborn’).—To this word a distinctive and conspicuous place has been given in the terminology of modern science, and that very appropriately; for the object of science in every one of its branches is to acquire such a knowledge of the Universe as shall correspond exactly to the constituted and established nature of things. Neither the word ‘physical’ nor the word ‘nature’ (φύσις) occurs in any of the four Gospels. But nevertheless many things which fall under the description of both terms, as scientifically used, occupy a large place in all the Gospels; and there high importance is necessarily and designedly attached to them. It is true that one has only to run one’s eye reflectively over the pages of the Gospels to discover that in them the moral order of things is the matter of supreme and controlling interest. But while that is so, it becomes also apparent that this moral interest is not only involved in the physical order of things, but is inevitably and to a vast extent dependent upon it. Thus, e.g., it is everywhere manifest in these narratives of our Lord’s earthly life and work that He appeared among men as an individual Being. This implies that the physical order of existence was epitomized in Him in the same way and to the same extent as it is in every individual human being. It implies that His body was the organ of the moral order of the world as the latter existed in the spiritual constitution of His being, and as it came to manifestation in the moral or spiritual activities of His life within the sphere of His moral relations to God and to men. It implies, also, that His bodily constitution and life placed Him in direct relations with, and in constant dependence upon, the whole order of the physical environment in which He lived and moved and had His being as ‘God manifest in the flesh’ (1 Timothy 3:16). And so it becomes obvious that if He had not entered into these incarnate relations with the physical order of things, He never could have become the Son of Man, and if He had never become the Son of Man He never could have revealed Himself to humanity as the Son of God (John 1, 2 Corinthians 4:6). For these reasons, then, and others that sprang out of them or were otherwise related to them, our Lord was necessitated to make the physical order of the world a subject of reflexion, and to embody in His teaching such ideas of it as He considered to be fit for communication as a part of His general message to mankind. That He did make it a subject of extensive and profound, careful and sympathetic study, is as evident as any other fact in the Gospels. It is equally evident, too, that as the result of this study He formed some very definite and highly important conceptions regarding the order of things in question, more than one of which were entirely original. It may be affirmed, moreover, that none of the ideas of this order, to which as a Teacher of humanity He attached momentous importance and value, can ever be superseded by the teaching of either Science or Philosophy. What, then, were the leading constructions that He as a religious Teacher put upon the physical order of the world?

1. For one thing, this order of things presented itself to His mind as a medium of Divine revelation (e.g. Matthew 5:44-48; Matthew 6:25-30). The question as to the order of things physical, and its significance, must have shaped itself in His mind at an early stage in His life of observation and reflexion. What the result of His inquiry was appears in His teaching. The most general and important item in that result was the discovery of the presence and activity of God in the established order of organic and inorganic existence. To His mind God was immanent and operative in nature; and it is in the same view of the relation of God to the physical order of the Universe that modern Theism and Philosophy have begun to rest. That such was indeed His view appears from His own utterances on the relation of God to the order of things physical; which show that nothing was further from His mind than the reckless idea in which God is conceived as existing only in a relation of externality to this order and as acting upon it from without. When, for instance, He saw the sun rise and rain fall, and pondered on the extensive and complicated orderly system of physical means and ends to which sunrise and rainfall belong, He perceived in these occurrences manifestations of the immediate activity of God (Matthew 5:45), and He was too unerring a thinker not to know that God’s will and therefore God Himself must be immanent in the established system of things in which He conceived the Divine activity as displayed. Nor is there any real collision here between Christ and modern science in regard to the system of activity to which sunrise and rainfall are due. When He said, ‘Your Father which is in heaven maketh his sun to rise … and sendeth rain,’ He used words which are absolutely consistent with the strictest scientific ideas of the natural forces and laws by which the same events in the physical order of things are now explained. For if the scientist is able to explain, and right, from his own point of view, in explaining these events by the action of physical forces and the laws of their operation, this explanation does not account for the existence of these forces themselves, for their persistence, for the perfectly and constantly regulated mode in which their respective forms of activity are manifested, or for the originating cause of the complicated and exquisite adjustment of these forces and their activities to the ends they serve. For these things there is only one satisfactory explanation, and that is the immanent and immediate activity of God. And Science and Philosophy have been rapidly becoming aware that no better explanation is likely ever to be found.

But, further, for Christ the revelation of God and His activity in the physical order of the world possessed a moral significance. God as a Moral Being—and because as such He is perfect—can never act unless morally, even in the system of things physical. This truth regulated the whole of our Lord’s conception of God’s relation to this order, and of His ways of administering its provisions. And therefore it is that He saw in such physical events as sunrise and rainfall manifestations of God’s beneficence and magnanimity. He ‘maketh His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust’! These words are a striking revelation of the perfectly fresh, intelligent, discerning eyes with which Christ looked upon the physical order of things, and contemplated God and His activity as therein manifested. This appears when three things are noted.—(1) There is only one established physical order of things. (2) This order is constituted throughout on one and the same homogeneous plan, and it is necessarily regulated accordingly. (3) Therefore it is impossible for this order to be so administered as to make distinctions of any kind in the distribution of its provisions among men. Here distinctions cannot be made even between the evil and the good, between the just and the unjust. Therefore as the Author and the Administrator of this system of things God makes no such distinctions. Within this sphere of the relations between God and men, the good and the evil, the just and the unjust, are the same to Him. His impartiality to both sorts of men is as absolute and universal as the rising of the sun and the falling of rain. And God Himself has so ordered the physical universe that it should be so, and that it cannot be otherwise. And, so far as any one can say, Christ was the first to notice and fully to appreciate the true meaning of these obvious but vastly important facts. In sunrise and rainfall He saw nothing but instances of the manifestation of the loving-kindness of God to all men, good and evil alike, and of His magnanimity towards evil and unjust men. For it was one of Christ’s governing ideas as a Teacher that God did not need to punish evil and unjust men for their sin by withholding from them any of the beneficent provisions of the physical order of things. He knew and taught in effect that it is with the moral order of things and God’s unerring and all-sufficient administration of it, as the moral Governor of the world, that evil and unjust men have to reckon; and therefore, in the exercise of the magnanimity alike of His love and of His justice, God dispenses to them, in common with good and just men, a full and free share of His sunshine and rain. So Christ understood this matter (cf. Matthew 5:21-30; Matthew 11:25-26, John 9:39-41 with Matthew 5:45).

2. But, further, these views that Christ held as to the physical order of the world suggest the inference that He must have looked upon this system as an order of law. That He did so regard it is evident from His teaching, when the latter is carefully and fairly examined from this point of view. The term ‘law,’ as defined by science, is of modern origin, and therefore it is never employed in this sense in the Gospels. But the Gospels are rich in recognitions of a large variety of those facts for which the term ‘law,’ as scientifically understood, stands; and recognition of these facts was made by Christ Himself. The modern conception of the order of things physical, which the term ‘law’ is employed to denote, is, that it is an order in which perfect constancy and regularity reign universally and persistently, and that even in the case of its minutest phenomena and its subtlest processes. Did Christ, then, perceive and acknowledge the great features of the physical order on which this conception is founded? He did. In all its essential forces and laws the physical order was the same in His time as it is to-day. Science has not created any of the forces or laws in question; it has only discovered and formulated them. Moreover, it is evident that Christ’s observations and His reflexions on nature were prompted and controlled rather by religious than by scientific motives or reasons. It is to be admitted, again, that He never made the physical order of things a direct subject of teaching, but always made it subservient to the religious or moral ends He had in view. Still He was deeply convinced of the constancy and regularity of the physical system of existence in the midst of which He lived and taught, and on which He depended (e.g. Matthew 7:16-20, Mark 4:3-32). That it was so is evinced by the following facts:—(1) A large proportion of His teaching was based on the principle of comparison. (2) The most of His comparisons were indications of resemblances between the things of the physical order of the world and the things of the Kingdom of God, which are in reality the things of the moral order of the world, considered as an order in which the will and purpose of God are coming to realization in the moral relations of God to men and of men to Him and to one another in Christ. (3) In His comparisons it was His custom to lay conspicuous emphasis on those phenomena of the physical order of things in which the constancy and regularity of this order are prominent. (4) His manifest reasons for doing so were such as these—His whole conception of the Kingdom of God implies that He regarded it as an order of perfect moral constancy and regularity, i.e. as an order of moral law. But few, if indeed any, of His hearers had any idea of the Kingdom of God as being such an order. On the other hand, however, they were familiar with many of the phenomena of constancy and regularity in the physical order of things. Therefore His object in calling the attention of His hearers to these phenomena was to lead their minds up from the things of sense to the things of faith, and thereby to convey to them the conception, and to awaken in them the conviction, that the things of the moral order of the world, like the order of things revealed to their sense-perception, were things that had real existence, things that were indeed founded in moral principles of absolute constancy and regularity, and things therefore to be relied upon with the utmost confidence. (5) These considerations, then, all imply that the physical order of things from which our Lord drew His comparisons must have been regarded by Him as a system of order, a system in which constancy, regularity, law reigns. The whole principle of comparison as thus explained is applied, e.g., in Matthew 7:15-20.

3. But the physical order of the world was regarded by our Lord as also a sphere of Providential administration (e.g. Matthew 5:44-48; Matthew 6:25-34, Luke 12:4-7). It is important to note the fact that all His allusions to this branch of the subject here considered, imply that He conceived of the Divine providence as exercised within the boundaries of the physical system of things. This system is, so to speak, the machinery employed by God in all the various manifestations of His providential care. But if this system is an order of physical constancy or law, all the exercises of the Divine providence must be regulated by this fact. So Christ’s teaching represents it as being. He never spoke of providence as in effect a system of Divine activities in which God, interposing in the interests of the objects of His care, either ignored the established order of physical existence or made breaches in its established arrangements. All the ways in which He saw the providential activities of God manifested in care for His creatures were ways in which the established orderliness of the physical world came into effect, as in the case of the rising of the sun and the falling of rain. That is to say, in Christ’s view the physical order of the world is constituted on a providential plan, in which a perfectly arranged and regulated system of means is adjusted to serve the beneficent ends contemplated by God.

What Christ’s ideas were of the leading features of the administration of this system is suggested by those passages of His teaching to which attention has been called. He believed the providential activities of God to be at once universal and particular, and this belief is in accordance with the nature of things. He believed also that God’s providential activities are not only immanent and immediate, but persistent. They are as unslumbering and restless as the physical energies or forces in the activities and effects of which they are manifested. He believed, moreover, that God’s providential interest and care extended even to birds and flowers as well as to human beings; and this belief, also, is justified by the necessities and arrangements of the physical order of things to which they as living beings in common with men belong. For they, as living beings, have each physical needs according to their own respective natures and places and destinies in nature; and therefore it was not unworthy of Christ to form and take delight in the conviction that their Creator was providentially faithful to them.

But withal, it remains to be added here, that Christ believed that human beings have a higher value for God as the God of providence than the birds of the air. And this is why. The birds of the air have no place, or task, or destiny in the moral order of the Universe. But it is otherwise with men. They are endowed with a moral nature; their life is a moral vocation; they have a moral destiny to shape in co-operation with God. And this explains and manifests the perfect wisdom of Christ as a teacher, in including all men within, and in excluding all other living creatures on the earth from, the moral government of God and its system of administration. He constantly paid truthful and perfectly wise respect to these two great facts in His teaching:—(1) The fact that God is ever and always providentially and actively related to men as physical beings, having physical necessities and requirements in their life; and (2) the fact that He is ever and always governmentally and actively related to them as moral beings, having moral necessities and requirements and responsibilities in their life (e.g. Matthew 11:25). This distinction between the providential and the governmental activities of God, in His relation to men and in His ways with them, has a determinative place in the truth taught in the Gospels.

4. Finally, all Christ’s allusions to the physical order of the world present a deep religious complexion. He saw in this order, and in the relations between God and men as therein revealed, conditions and opportunities provided for the manifestation of pure and high forms of religious life. Men are dependent on the beneficent ministrations of the Divine providence. As moral beings it is their duty to recognize this fact, to pay due respect to it, and to cherish and manifest gratitude to God for all the various forms of His providential loving-kindness and faithfulness. Within the domain of Providence, moreover, reasons constantly exist and occasions are ever arising for men to exercise trust in God. Here also as well as in their own hearts men may find the presence of God in their life. And here they are summoned to imitate the ways of God’s providential beneficence. In all these various ways Christ related His religion to the physical order of the world and its providential administration. His Sermon on the Mount shows that He wished and intended them all to have an essential place in the life of every one of His disciples. And in His own life they were all fully observed and manifested. See, further, Nature, Providence.

Literature.—Wendt, Teaching of Jesus, i. 151 ff.; Bushnell, Nature and the Supernatural; Drummond, Nat. Law in the Spiritual World; Mozley, University Sermons, pp. 122–144; Expositor ii. vii. [1884] 103, iii. ii. [1885] 224.

W. D. Thomson.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Physical'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/p/physical.html. 1906-1918.

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