Q&R with Brad Jersak: What does “children of wrath” mean? (Ephesians 2:3)

Question

I have a question about Ephesians 2:3 and the meaning of one of the words that Paul uses in it.

The Greek word is “phusis/phýsis” and it’s translated as “nature.” Here’s the verse:

“…among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”

This is a good example of where Christians get the notion that we have a “sin nature.” I’m wondering why Paul uses this language. Does his use of “nature” differ from how western Christianity understands it. Or in his own growth, did he still see people as fundamentally evil? Personally, I have concluded that sin is a disease, and never fundamental to our humanity. So, wrestling with verses like these can be vexing at times.

Response

Vexing indeed! And a thoughtful question!
Translators and interpreters of Ephesians 2:3 can’t help but bring their theological premises to the table. That’s the reality of translation. In this, case, profoundly so. For example, to translate physis (φύσις) as “nature” involves importing an understanding of “nature” loaded with theological assumptions. Now, “nature” is not a terrible translation IF we didn’t automatically associate it with innate ontology (the fundamental truth of our being) associated with Augustine’s doctrine of “original sin” (inherited guilt and condemnation from birth). More simply, “nature” used that way would refer to the “truth of our being.” But the word can also describe the “way of our being” – the pattern of behavior that we develop. It’s similar to the “nature vs. nurture” debate. It a child “good-natured” or “ill-natured” because they were born that way? Or does their upbringing inform their nature? All that to say, there is no “objective” way to translate or interpret Paul here. Our theological leanings affect how we read him.
The fact is that we translate by usage, attentive to context, and physis has a broad semantic range. Greek lexicons say it can include:
  • the nature of things, the force, the laws, order of nature [ontological use]
    • as opposed to what is monstrous, abnormal, perverse
    • as opposed to what has been produced by the art of man: the natural branches, i.e., branches by the operation of nature
  • birth, physical origin,
  • a mode of feeling and acting which by long habit has become nature [existential use]
  • the sum of innate properties and powers by which one person differs from others, distinctive native pecularities, natural characteristics: the natural strenght, ferocity, and intractibility of beasts.

So, too, what is “natural” as over against “spiritual” can also describe “natural” inclinations and habits that develop over time or in the context of families and cultures. “What becomes natural” could include any default mode that emerges from our wounds, addictions, or defiance. Nature in this sense can refer to our natural orientation or instinctual reactions, whether from birth, by habitat, or by habit.

So, while some translations skew toward ontology, Thayer’s Greek Lexicon indicates that one way to read φύσει in not from birth, and it’s interesting that they use Ephesians 2 as their example! Thayer’s says φύσει can be:
c. a mode of feeling and acting which by long habit has become nature: ἦμεν φύσει τέκνα ὀργῆς, by (our depraved) nature we were exposed to the wrath of God, Ephesians 2:3 (this meaning is evident from the preceding context, and stands in contrast with the change of heart and life wrought through Christ by the blessing of divine grace; φύσει πρός τάς κολασεις ἐπιεικῶς ἔχουσιν οἱ Φαρισαῖοι, Josephus, Antiquities 13, 10, 6.
But Thayer’s also acknowledges opposing views, which focus on nature-by-birth:
(Others (see Meyer) would lay more stress here upon the constitution in which this ‘habitual course of evil’ has its origin, whether that constitution be regarded (with some) as already developed at birth, or (better) as undeveloped; cf. Aristotle, pol. 1, 2, p. 1252{b}, 32f οἷον ἕκαστον ἐστι τῆς γενέσεως τελεσθεισης, ταύτην φαμέν τήν φύσιν εἶναι ἑκάστου, ὥσπερ ἀνθρώπου, etc.; see the examples in Bonitz’s index under the word. Cf. Winers Grammar, § 31, 6a.)). 
So if our Lexicon is not definitive, usage in context must be our determiner. Meaning derived from the immediate context matters, which brings us to the other troubling phrase, “children of wrath.” First, we need to ask how the NT uses the phrase “childen of.” I see three main uses:
  • natural birth, either immediately (son of Mary) or by ancestry (son of David)
  • spiritual birth (children of God)
  • imitation (children of the devil – John 8)
This last sense is very important and most overlooked. Have a look at this section of Jesus’s dispute and watch the underlined phrases for sonship by imitation:
39 “Abraham is our father,” they answers. 
“If you were Abraham’s children,” said Jesus, “then you would do what Abraham did. 40 As it is, you are looking for a way to kill me,… Abraham did not do such things. You are doing the works of your own father.”
41 “We are not illegitimate children,” they protested. “The only Father we have is God himself.”
42 Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me. 42 Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. 44 You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him… 45 Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me!”

If we bear in mind that “children of…” can describe lived imitation as demonstrated in John 8, rather than always assuming ontology, then we begin to get a handle on the way “sons of” or “children of” works in Ephesians, indicating a disordered disposition seen in a pattern of behavior, rather than congenital precondition of depravity. Here are the first verses of Ephesians 2. I’ve italicized the phrases that indicate “nature” as this pattern of disordered behavior, with some intervening commentary:

1 And you were dead in your trespasses and sins,
[Dead how? Dead why? From birth? No, dead in our sinful lifestyle]
2 in which you formerly walked 
[How I use to BE? (ontology). No, how I used to WALK (live). My pattern of bevavior]
according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air,
[“According to” – following, immitating, living by the course/pattern of the world system and its unholy prince] 
of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience
[“sons of disobedience” … offspring of a way of living, disobedient offspring in immitation of the world and the devil] 
3 Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our fleshindulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, 
[again, obviously a pattern of behavior driven by disordered (unnatural) passions]
and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.
[Here, the NIV interprets the genetive “of wrath” to mean “deserving of” and allows their theology to intrude on the translation. But is that how we would read its parallel above? “Sons deserving disobedience”? No way. What then?
To preserve the parallel with “the spirit working in the sons of disobedience,” and the “children of the devil” who immitate his works (John 8), we would want to make “of wrath” descriptive of their nature/behavior (they were ‘wrathy’ – marked by hatred and violence) and the outcomes of that lifestyle. I.e., their judgment is intrinsic to their sins – the wrath of self-destruction, rather than “objects of God’s wrath”. To the contrary, where is God in this?     
4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved),
Even when our orientation to God, to ourselves, and to others was full of wrath, fueled by the world system and the spirit of violence, what did God do? Not wrath. God is mercy and therefore raised us up in Christ by grace, so that we could be his children by imitation, doing good works he has prepared for us to do.
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Brad Jersak

Brad Jersak

Brad Jersak is an author and teacher based in Abbotsford, BC. He serves as a reader and monastery preacher at All Saints of North America Orthodox Monastery. Read More