Galatians 4:8 NIV Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods.

by nature φύσει (physei)

Noun - Dative Feminine Singular Strong's 5449: From phuo; growth, i.e. natural production; by extension, a genus or sort; figuratively, native disposition, constitution or usage.

Philippians 2:6-7 NIV Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage, rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.

the] form μορφῇ (morphē)

Noun - Dative Feminine Singular Strong's 3444: Form, shape, outward appearance. Perhaps from the base of meros; shape; figuratively, nature.

Why did Paul not use the Greek word "phusis" in Philippians 2:6-7 but instead used "morphe" if he intended to say nature?

Does the Greek word "morphe" (form) also mean "phusis" (nature)?

  • NIV is an interpretative or dynamic eq translation so don't expect literal translation over it. See the related que hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/4634/… see the lexicons on physis it means more inherent unchangeable nature, origin, genealogical nature, this is why he didnt use that word perhaps for Jesus. Morphe form shows he could change it. stepbible.org/…
    – Michael16
    Commented Jun 30, 2022 at 11:18
  • I am more concerned in figuring out why this word φύσις is never used for Jesus or God ever in the LXX or NT. Only the Romans later used it to describe Christ's nature, but it is just strange that we don't find this word used for God/Jesus. I suspect that as the lexicons say, this word only pertains to contingent beings that grow (root φυω), which has been begotten or birthed.
    – Michael16
    Commented Jul 7, 2022 at 12:50
  • @Michael16. Interesting. Thanks. Please add more details and turn your comments into an answer. Commented Jul 8, 2022 at 8:48

4 Answers 4


The word "form" was better suited to his purpose than "nature" because the change in mode of existence was the context, rather than the bare nature difference. That is, it's more important for St. Paul to contrast being God with serving other humans as a slave, than it is to contrast the divine and human natures, since the former is a greater contrast—one can be God and take on the human nature, and still remain lofty and royal and be served by all humanity, whereas being in the form of God yet choosing to serve humans, is a more impressive, more humble (hence its being used as the example of humility par excellence). Inasmuch as this change in "form" already implies the assumption of a human nature (since it could only have been achieved in the way it was achieved, in the way it was achieved), it is also more semantically rich (carries slightly more meaning and value) therefore.

One will find this a lot in St. Paul, where a frustratingly (apparently) ambiguous or less-than-precise phraseology or term is used instead of the more precise (read: later, developed), less ambiguous. But the longer one mulls over the specific wording chosen, the more one finds a greater depth and wisdom in the words, such that they evince much forethought and deliberation as regards to their choice.

For though the words may be "those of a simple man" in form, yet is the wisdom contained therein "not" (2 Cor 11:6). This characterises St. Paul—great simplicity of speech and at once great wisdom and care.


Φύσις as Genetic Nature Pertaining to Origin

Etymology From φῠ́ω (phúō, “grow”) +‎ -σῐς (-sis).
My hypothesis is that physis pertains to functional order of the world; the birth-nature; species; biological functional order. Its root is φύω fyo- So, it seems appropriate for the created beings, the way creatures ought to behave, the natural order the way they were created or grew up. I thought into this because the word is never used for Jesus and God, when it could be the perfect word choice in describing the divine nature of Christ, if it meant "nature" as we understand it today. But he chose morphe (form), not physis. This is why the word could not be appropriate to be used for the eternal Christ who has no origin and ancestor.

Strong's: φύω phýō, foo'-o; a primary verb; probably originally, to "puff" or blow, i.e. to swell up; but only used in the implied sense, to germinate or grow (sprout, produce), literally or figuratively:—spring (up).


  1. to beget, bring forth, produce; passive, to be born, to spring up, to grow: Luk 8:6; Luk 8:8;
  2. intransitive, to shoot forth, spring up: Heb 12:15 (Winer's Grammar, 252 (237). Compare: ἐκφύω,
  • Strong's- φύσις phýsis, foo'-sis; from G5453; growth (by germination or expansion), i.e. (by implication) natural production (lineal descent); by extension, a genus or sort; figuratively, native disposition, constitution or usage:—(man-)kind, nature(-al).

Physis: Nature means

  • Thayer:
    -a. the nature of things, the force, laws, order, of nature; as opposed to what is monstrous, abnormal, perverse: ὁ, ἡ, τό παρά φύσιν, that which is contrary to nature's laws, against nature, Rom 1:26; the natural branches, i.e. branches by the operation of nature, Rom 11:21; Rom 11:24.
    -b. birth, physical origin: ἡμεῖς φύσει Ἰουδαῖοι, we so far as our origin is considered, i.e. by birth, are Jews, Gal 2:15; ἡ ἐκ φύσεως ἀκροβυστία, who by birth is uncircumcised or a Gentile (opposed to one who, although circumcised, has made himself a Gentile by his iniquity and spiritual perversity), Rom 2:27.
    -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, Eph 2:3
    -d. the sum of innate properties and powers by which one person differs from others, distinctive native peculiarities, natural characteristics: φύσις θηρίων (the natural strength, ferocity and intractability of beasts (A.V. (every) kind of beasts)), ἡ φύσις ἡ ἀνθρωπίνῃ (the ability, art, skill, of men, the qualities which are proper to their nature and necessarily emanate from it), Jas 3:7; θείας κοινωνοί φύσεως, (the holiness distinctive of the divine nature is specially referred to), 2Pe 1:4 (Ἀμενωφει ... θείας δοκουντι μετεσχηκεναι φύσεως κατά τέ σοφίαν καί πρόγνωσιν τῶν, ἐσομενων, Josephus, contra Apion 1, 26).

  • BDAG -condition or circumstance as determined by birth, natural endowment/condition, especially as inherited from one's ancestors in contrast to status or characteristics that are acquired after birth, eg, Gal 2:15, Rom 2:27, Eph 2:3, Rom 11:21, 24, etc.

  • LSJ: φύσις (φύ˘σις, εως,) Etym. φύω

  1. the nature, natural qualities, powers, constitution, condition, of a person or thing, Od., Hdt., attic
  2. like φυή, form, stature, ἢ νόον ἤ τοι φύσιν either in mind or outward form, Pind.; τὸν δὲ Λάϊον, φύσιν τίν' εἶχε, φράζε Soph.; τὴν ἐμὴν ἰδὼν φύσιν Ar.
  3. of the mind, one's nature, natural bent, powers, character, Soph., etc.
  4. often periphr., πέτρου φύσιν σύ γ' ὀργάνειας, i. e. would'st provoke a stone, Soph.; ἡ φ. αὐτοῦ for αὐτός, Plat. II. nature, i. e. the order or law of nature, κατὰ φύσιν πεφυκέναι to be made so by nature, naturally, Hdt., etc.;—opp. to παρὰ φύσιν, Eur., Thuc.; so, προδότης ἐκ φύσεως a traitor by nature, Aeschin.:—so, in dat. φύσει, by nature, naturally, Ar., etc.:—f4usin 24exei, c. inf., it is natural that . . , Hdt., Plat.
  5. origin, birth, φύσει γεγονότες εὖ Hdt.; φ. νεώτερος Soph.; so, τὴν φύσιν Xen. III. nature, universe, Plat., Arist. IV. as a concrete term, creatures, animals (cf. φύστις), θνητὴ φ. man kind, Soph.; πόντου εἰναλία φ. the creatures of the sea, Soph.; θήλεια φ. woman- kind, Xen.; οἱ τοιαῦται φύσεις such creatures as these, Isocr. V. a nature, kind, sort, βιοτῆς φύσις Soph.: species, Xen. VI. sex, Soph., Thuc.

Notice Thayer's better translation of Romans 2:27 "uncircumcised by birth", instead of the Bible versions, which use "by nature" or "physically uncircumcised". Also, Gal 2:15 We are Jews by birth, not sinners. Gentiles' uncircumcision and Jew's circumcision is not incidental, contingent or acquired, it is their inherited culture. It is best to conclude that the word means inherited-nature, genealogical upbringing, genetic-instinct. It doesn't mean nature as in proper-characteristic in general, but the traits something grew up with; or a habitual practice which becomes like a second nature, a figurative usage. The word is only used for creaturely species (man or animals), and their genetic behaviour. For this may not be an appropriate word choice to use for God or Christ, who has no origin.

Peter writes, however, that we become shareholders of the divine nature, in 2Peter 1:4. Here, the phrase divine nature θείας φύσεως, is adjectival: divine or godly nature/order/righteous-behaviour - cf Hebrews 12:10 share his holiness, rather than the genetic-nature-of-God himself. So, we can avoid this as an example of the word used for God's own nature.

ESV [2Peter 1:4] .. so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.
[1Pet 1:3-4] ...According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you,

It must mean sharing the divine gifts, inheritance, and works of righteous functions/order, those who gain divine nature (godly order of function) by being begotten of God, or by godly acts, like becoming the righteousness of God by following the righteousness required by God; and not the divinity itself: Noun Theotes, from Rom 1:20 his eternal (power) and divinity.

Abbott-Smith Manual Greek Lexicon Theotes: θειότης, -ητος, ἡ,

[in LXX: Wis 18:9*;] divine nature, divinity: Rom 1:20 (for ex. from Papyri, v. MM, Exp., xv). † SYN.: θεότης G2320*, deity, godhead, divine personality. θει. = divine nature and properties, a summary term for the attributes of deity, differing from θεότης as quality or attribute from essence.

Compare the usage of μέτοχος - partaker, Heb 6:4 tasted the heavenly gifts and become partakers in the Holy Spirit. Hebrews 3:14 For we have been partakers of Christ, if we hold the beginning of our foundation firm to the end (SLT).

Galatians 4:8 Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. This phrase τοῖς φύσει μὴ οὖσι θεοῖς is used for the pagan gods, "those not being Gods by their birth-nature, or original-nature", they are imagined/made Gods by men.

This word is not used for God/Christ, as far as I have searched, and I am eager to find any references in the Bible-apocryphal scope; feel free to answer in comments. The Romans however, creatures of their instinct, sinners by nature, had no problem using physis for Christ, in their theological creeds after the end of the world, as we see from their creeds and history.

The Chalcedon Creed in 451 AD.

ἕνα καὶ τὸν αὐτὸν Χριστόν, υἱόν, κύριον, μονογενῆ, ἐκ δύο φύσεων [ἐν δύο φύσεσιν] ,69 ἀσυγχύτως, ἀτρέπτως ,70 ἀδιαιρέτως, ἀχωρίστως 71 γνωριζόμενον· οὐδαμοῦ τῆς τῶν φύσεων διαφορᾶς ἀνῃρημένης διὰ τὴν ἕνωσιν, σωζομένης δὲ μᾶλλον τῆς ἰδιότητος ἑκατέρας φύσεως καὶ εἰς ἓν πρόσωπον καὶ μίαν ὑπὸστασιν συντρεχούσης, οὐκ εἰς δύο πρόσωπα μεριζόμενον ἢ διαιρούμενον, ἀλλ᾽ ἕνα καὶ τὸν αὐτὸν υἱὸν καὶ μονογενῆ, θεὸν λόγον, κύριον Ἰησοῦν
one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures,75 inconfusedly, unchangeably,76 indivisibly, inseparably;77 the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ, as

You can notice, and it is well known to the scholars that the Romans, being pagans, misunderstood the word mono-genes which means only (Latin unicus) with monogennetos- only-begotten and shamelessly twisted monogenes in the Latin translation as unigenitus. They had no knowledge of religion and theology (of the Jews). They believed Jesus was really a begotten smaller god, caused by God the father who alone is the uncaused cause. Hence, coming from the womb of God, the Son shares the same divine physis nature. This contingent, created (although not ex-nihilo) or begotten god concept was close to their polytheistic culture, hence they could freely use physis for Christ to describe his inherited, ancestral divine nature. He is god from his origin or birth-nature, according to them.


As someone mentioned in the comments, the NIV is not a literal translation. The translators strove to "recreate the experience of the original audience - blending transparency to the original text with accessibility". In other words they are striving to convey ideas without necessarily adhering to the literal meaning of some of the Greek words.

φύσις (physis) and μορφῇ (morphē) might be understood along the lines of underlying nature as opposed to outward form.

English words derived from φύσις include "physics", "physiology", and "physical.

Words derived from μορφῇ include "morphology" (the study of form and structure of organisms), "amorphous" (without form), "polymorphic" (having multiple forms), and "anthropomorphic" (attributing human characteristics to non-human forms).

Other places where Paul uses φύσις

Διὰ τοῦτο παρέδωκεν αὐτοὺς ὁ Θεὸς εἰς πάθη ἀτιμίας. αἵ τε γὰρ θήλειαι αὐτῶν μετήλλαξαν τὴν φυσικὴν χρῆσιν εἰς τὴν παρὰ φύσιν

For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature (Romans 1:27, KJV)

καὶ κρινεῖ ἡ ἐκ φύσεως ἀκροβυστία, τὸν νόμον τελοῦσα, σὲ τὸν διὰ γράμματος καὶ περιτομῆς παραβάτην νόμου.

And shall not uncircumcision which is by nature, if it fulfil the law, judge thee, who by the letter and circumcision dost transgress the law? (Romans 2:27)

εἰ γὰρ σὺ ἐκ τῆς κατὰ φύσιν ἐξεκόπης ἀγριελαίου καὶ παρὰ φύσιν ἐνεκεντρίσθης εἰς καλλιέλαιον, πόσῳ μᾶλλον οὗτοι οἱ κατὰ φύσιν ἐγκεντρισθήσονται τῇ ἰδίᾳ ἐλαίᾳ;

For if thou wert cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and wert graffed contrary to nature into a good olive tree: how much more shall these, which be the natural branches [lit. branches according to nature], be graffed into their own olive tree? (Romans 11:24)

Paul also uses μορφῇ in verse 7 of the Philippians passage:

ἀλλʼ ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσε μορφὴν δούλου λαβών, ἐν ὁμοιώματι ἀνθρώπων γενόμενος

But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men.

Mark uses the word describing Jesus on the road to Emmaus:

Μετὰ δὲ ταῦτα δυσὶν ἐξ αὐτῶν περιπατοῦσιν ἐφανερώθη ἐν ἑτέρᾳ μορφῇ, πορευομένοις εἰς ἀγρόν.

After that he appeared in another form unto two of them, as they walked, and went into the country (Mark 16:12)

The meaning of the Philippians passage is that Jesus' self-emptying is a voluntary act of humility and love, which demonstrates his divine and human natures. He has always existed in the form of God and is equal to God the Father, but in his love for humanity voluntarily emptied himself of his divine glory and took on the form of a servant by becoming a man.

Theophylact of Ohrid, a Byzantine Greek commentator, wrote:

He did not consider it robbery to be equal to God, since He is God by nature, but emptied Himself of His own glory and assumed the form of a servant [μορφῇ δούλου], that is, a human being. For as God, He was in the form of God [μορφῇ Θεοῦ] and equal to the Father, but as man, He took on the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. Thus He conjoined what is human to what is divine and made them one person, the Son of God and Son of man. This is the mystery of the Incarnation, which we must believe and confess. And this is also the pattern of our life: to imitate Christ's humility and to empty ourselves of our own will, so that we may become servants of Christ and of one another.


First, the NIV is not and does not claim to be very literal translation of the Greek NT. The meaning of the two words are, according to BDAG:

φύσις (from which the English "physics")

  1. condition or circumstance as determined by birth, natural endowment/condition, especially as inherited from one's ancestors in contrast to status or characteristics that are acquired after birth, eg, Gal 2:15, Rom 2:27, Eph 2:3, Rom 11:21, 24abc, etc.
  2. the natural character of an entity, natural characteristic/disposition, eg, James 3:7b, 2 Peter 1:4, Gal 4:8, Rom 2:14.
  3. the regular or established order of things, nature, eg, Rom 1:26, Rom 2:14, 1 Cor 11:14.
  4. an entity as a product of nature, natural being, creature, eg, James 3:7ab.

Thus, in Gal 4:8, the meaning of φύσις is indeed, "natural characteristic/disposition". Thus, the NIV appears to have conveyed the correct meaning, as do most other versions.

μορφή (from which the English "morph" and its many derivatives)

form, outward appearance, shape, ... he took on the form of a slave = expression of servility Phil 2:7 ... This is in contrast to expression of of divinity in the pre-existent Christ ἐν μορφῇ Θεοῦ ὑπάρχων although he was in the form of God ... becomes the the supporting framework for Christ's servility and therefore his kenosis Phil 2:6. The risen Christ ἐφανερώθη ἐν ἑτέρᾳ μορφῇ appeared in a different form Mark 16:12 ...

As previously pointed out by Ellicott (see his comments on Phil 2:6, 7, see appendix below), these two words can, at times have meanings that overlap, and the OP has found an example.

Ellicott succinctly observes in his comments on Gal 4:8 -

(8) Them which by nature are no gods.—The gods of the heathen are called by St. Paul “devils.” (See 1 Corinthians 10:20 : “The things which the Gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice to devils, and not to God.”)

The Cambridge commentary arrives at a similar conclusion on Gal 4:8 -

them which by nature are no gods The order of these words, so far as the position of the negative particle is concerned, is uncertain in the original. Adopting the A.V. we explain, ‘which by nature (in reality) are not gods, but demons’. If however the negative stand earlier in the sentence, the rendering will be, ‘which are not by nature, (not really, but only by repute) gods’. If the former be retained, comp. 1 Corinthians 10:20, “The things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God.” If the latter order be adopted, we may compare 1 Corinthians 8:5, “there be that are called gods.”

APPENDIX - Ellicott on Phil 2:6

(6) Being in the form of God.—(1) The word “being” is here the more emphatic of the two words so translated, which lays stress on the reality of existence (as in Acts 16:20; Acts 17:28; 1 Corinthians 11:7; Galatians 2:14). Hence it calls attention to the essential being of Christ, corresponding to the idea embodied in the name Jehovah, and thus implying what is more fully expressed in John 1:1. (2) The word “form” (which, except for a casual use in Mark 16:12, is found only in this passage of the New Testament) is to be carefully distinguished from “fashion.” There can be no doubt that in classical Greek it describes the actual specific character, which (like the structure of a material substance) makes each being what it is; and this same idea is always conveyed in the New Testament by the compound words in which the root “form” is found (Romans 8:29; Romans 12:2; 2 Corinthians 3:18; Galatians 4:19). (3) On the other hand, the word “fashion,” as in 1 Corinthians 7:31 (“the fashion of this world passeth away”), denotes the mere outward appearance (which we frequently designate as “form”), as will be seen also in its compounds (2 Corinthians 11:13-14; 1 Peter 1:14). The two words are seen in juxtaposition in Romans 12:2; Philippians 3:21 (where see Notes). Hence, in this passage the “being in the form of God,” describes our Lord’s essential, and therefore eternal, being in the true nature of God; while the “taking on Him the form of a servant” similarly refers to His voluntary assumption of the true nature of man.

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