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Preternatural vs. Supernatural: What’s the Difference?

The supernatural has fascinated humankind for thousands of years. Ghosts, gods, myths, and mythical creatures are a few examples of how humanity has explained the unexplainable. We tend to believe the two terms are one and the same, but they generally are not. So, what’s the difference between “preternatural” and “supernatural”?

“Supernatural” originally referred to something miraculous, performed through the agency of God. Later, many began to apply it more broadly to ghosts, spirits, and other beings perceived to be beyond the realm of observation. “Preternatural” means extraordinary. Although many people use these terms interchangeably, there are stark differences between them.

Both terms are used frequently in theology, philosophy, and science. If you desire to seek knowledge of the preternatural versus the supernatural, continue reading. You will discover the differences of each as applied in all of these disciplines.

Preternatural vs. Supernatural

PreternaturalSupernatural
Extraordinary, existing outside of nature, beyond what is natural, not explainable by ordinary means.Relating to existence beyond the physical, directly observable universe, especially relating to God, a god, or spirit.

Originally limited to the suspension of the laws of nature through divine agency, but it became associated with ghosts and other spirits in the 19th century.

Preternatural and supernatural generally do not share a definition except when someone uses them to describe something of a superlative degree, as in a person who runs at a “supernatural” or “preternatural” speed (source).

However, this originally applied only to “preternatural,” though you might see the terms listed as synonyms on occasion (source).

More often, “preternatural” implies something extraordinary in contrast to “supernatural,” which implies something miraculous. Developing out of theistic scholasticism and Medieval Latin, both terms used to be far more distinct. However, the secularization of the 19th century saw a distinct shift in their use (source).

What Does Preternatural Mean?

According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, preternatural is an adjective (descriptive word) we use to describe something that exists apart from nature, transcending what we believe to be natural or ordinary (source). 

“Preternatural” comes from Latin, praeter naturam, meaning “beyond nature.” Medieval Latin scholars during the mid-1200s began using the term praeternaturalis, which developed into English preternatural by the 1570s (source).

During the 13th century, the term praeternaturalis referred to unusual occurrences, either perversely evil or abnormally good. During the 1500s, the term indicated anything strange, foreboding, or ominous.

By the late 1700s, scholars began to use “preternatural” in a more favorable light to describe fascinating supernatural or heavenly phenomena. Today,  we use the term “preternatural” most often to describe people of exceptional abilities.

Something “preternatural” is something that may have seemed impossible but apparently was not. After reading this article, you may wish to read our article “Plausible vs. Possible: What’s the Difference?

What Does Supernatural Mean?

According to the Collins Dictionary, the term “supernatural” is an adjective that refers to anything we might consider beyond the observable natural universe, not explainable by natural laws.

We use the term “supernatural” when we refer to characteristics we associate with God, gods, demigods, spirits, or the devil, including ghosts, goblins, unearthly beings, anything we consider eerie or associated with the occult. 

Unlike its original use, we often hear people using it in the sense of something extraordinary. For example, when we refer to something unparalleled such as a jet moving at an unnatural speed, we say it is supernatural. 

“Supernatural” first appeared in the 15th century and meant “of or given by God.” English derived “supernatural” from Medieval Latin supernaturalis meaning “above or beyond nature, divine,” from the Latin super- (above) + natura (nature).

The term “supernatural” had its beginnings in the 1400s and referred to some of God or given by God. Noah Webster defined it as something miraculous or beyond the laws of nature. In other words, something supernatural is something that would require the power of divine agency to accomplish.

However, beginning in the 1800s, the term “supernatural” became synonymous with ghosts, goblins, evil spirits, etc., as well as retaining its connection to all things associated with heaven (or hell).

Supernatural, as a noun, saw its first use in 1729 about a supernatural being. In 1830, the use as a noun expanded to apply to something apart from the well-established system of nature.

What’s Considered Supernatural?

“Supernatural” is a term that theologians and philosophers often use in the study of metaphysics, which deals with first causes, being, and the fundamental nature of reality. What different disciplines, religions, and cultures regard as supernatural varies greatly, so let’s take a quick look at a few perspectives on the supernatural.

Theology

Theology is a term that refers to the study of God and divine things, from Theos, the Greek word for God. Theologians often study religious faith, experience, and practice, primarily concentrating on the Old and New Testaments and the Christian tradition. 

In theology, defining what is natural and what is supernatural can be quite a controversial topic. In an article for the Harvard Theological Review on defining the supernatural, George T. Knight of Tufts College stated that there are three primary meanings of the words “nature” and “supernatural” in theological literature (source).

The first view is closest to the definitions we’ve already listed, where the supernatural relates directly to God and his immediate works. Nature is everything God created after it has left his hand, especially matter. 

This view does not always include angels, demons, or discarnate spirits, but those holding this view would classify them as belonging to the supernatural when it does.

The second view regards nature as all being or all that is, pointing to the “nature of God” as an example and noting that every being has a nature. The lines between the natural and supernatural become blurred, and pantheists share similar views. 

For example, Scotus Erigena described nature as all things, both created and uncreated, while others claimed that miracles were the most natural of events.

The third view states that nature refers to the region of necessity, while the supernatural refers to the free will of both divine and human beings. They associate free will with creative power above nature and view thought or the mind as a manifestation of God.

A List of Well-Known Theologians

The list of prominent theologians is exhaustive; however, their contributions to the subject are invaluable and have shaped the meaning and understanding of the supernatural. Below I’ve highlighted a few of the more well-known theologians and philosophers (source).

St. Paul the Apostle: Christian, one of the first generation of leaders of Christianity,  considered the second most crucial theologian after Christ.

Origen: A Christian theologian and biblical scholar of the early Greek church. He is known for the Hexapla, a synopsis of six versions of the Old Testament.

St. Thomas Aquinas, Dominican Priest: Medieval Scholastic, Italian Christian Theologian, and Philosopher who wrote the Summa Theologiae and the Summa contra gentiles.

Erasmus: Dutch Humanist, the greatest scholar of the northern renaissance known for his annotated Greek New Testament.

Martin Luther: German theologian and religious leader who began the Protestant Reformation.

John Calvin: Theologian and ecclesiastical statesman — 2nd generation of the Protestant Reformation.

Science and the Supernatural

Scientists do not use the term “supernatural.” Instead, they refer to the “paranormal. The term “paranormal” emerged around 1905 as another way to refer to things we cannot explain through scientific laws. 

These include events or supposed phenomena as defined in popular culture as a set of practices, beliefs, and objects that dominate in society at one time or another. Many use this term to refer to supposed supernatural phenomena like the following:

Extrasensory perception: ESP and telepathy 

Spiritualism: religious movement believing dead spirits can communicate with the living. 

Pseudosciences: ghost hunting and cryptozoology — a subculture intent on proving entities exist from recorded folklore such as Bigfoot, the chupacabra, or the Yeti.

Ufology: belief in the existence of alien UFOs.

What’s Considered Preternatural?

Something “preternatural” appears outside of the natural, hanging somewhere between that which is miraculous and the humdrum. 

Theology and Preternatural

In the field of theology, “preternatural” can simply mean extraordinary. However, it can also refer to deceptive trickery or witchcraft through demons that violate the laws of nature. Anything defined as unnatural, strange, inexplicable, extraordinary, and abnormal is preternatural.

While it is beyond anything natural, it is also not strictly supernatural. However, in Catholic theology, you will often find the definition of “preternatural” to include superhuman phenomena. 

This can be when God uses natural forces and produces an effect beyond the original natural force or when angelic or demonic forces interact in space and time (source).

St. Thomas Aquinas succinctly explained the difference between the natural, supernatural, and the preternatural (source).

Natural WorldWhat happens all or most of the time.
Preternatural WorldWhat rarely happens but is by the agency created beings when it does.
Supernatural WorldGod’s direct actions.

According to St.Thomas Aquinas, the created world is one where only God has the power to ignore the laws of nature of the world He created, though demons can manipulate the laws of nature.

By the 16th century, many began to associate preternatural phenomena closely with demonic activity and the occult.

Thomas Aquinas also referred to the three gifts of immortality, integrity, and infused knowledge as preternatural, while grace was supernatural. The three gifts were preternatural because they were gifts that strengthened human nature (source).

Popular Culture and the Preternatural

Ghost, Halloween Decoration, Scary, Dead, Car Crash
Image by Amber_Avalona via Pixabay

Anthropologists often apply the term “preternatural” to refer to the beliefs of popular beliefs regarding fairies, monsters, and such. As per an article published by Merriam Webster, “Uncanny, Preternatural Monsters,” the following are some of the strangest beasts in the dictionary.

Chupacabra:    a vampiric creature that drinks the blood of livestock said to exist in North and South America.

Snallygaster: a mythical nocturnal creature from rural Maryland that preys on poultry and children.

Werewolf: a person that transforms into a creature possessing the form of a wolf. 

Hodag: a mythical creature with lateral horns and a hooked tail seen primarily in the states of Wisconsin and Minnesota. It is both melancholy and ferocious.

Dybbuk: an evil spirit or a wandering soul. In Jewish folklore, a dybbuk enters and controls a living body, and it requires exorcism using a religious rite.

Tommy-knocker: the spirit of someone killed in a mine.

Sasquatch or Bigfoot: a hairy human-like creature living in the northwestern United States and western Canada. 

Guytrash: a specter or ghost in the form of an animal.

Wyvern: an English beast depicted as a winged creature with two legs, much like a dragon.

Cerberus: a three-headed dog whose job is guarding the gates of Hades, hailing from Greek mythology.

Windigo: from Algonquian mythology, a lost hunter forced to eat human flesh.

Zombie: a supernaturally reanimated human with no will and capable only of automatic actions.

Kraken: a Scandinavian monster from the sea. 

Science and the Preternatural

With the arrival of early science and its emphasis on the material world, the concept of preternatural shifted to mean strange or abnormal occurrences supposedly violating the way nature works, usually referring to false miracles instead of witchcraft or the occult. This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.

Ms. Daston, the author of  Marvelous Facts and Miraculous Evidence in Early Modern Europe, noted that this occurred after the term “preternatural’ became so closely associated with demons. 

Such an association with the word led to the unintentional naturalization of demons. The resulting skepticism led to the deletion of demons from the term, leaving only natural causes. 

Final Thoughts

Modern usage of “preternatural” and “supernatural” has become blurred, but they were originally very distinct.

The word “supernatural” is most accurate when we apply it to divinity, while it’s best to use “preternatural” to refer to something extraordinary or outside of what we would consider normal or natural, like an unhealthy preternatural for something.

While modern science clarifies much of the supernatural and preternatural, it cannot explain everything. There will always be a place for the study of the natural, preternatural, and supernatural in our modern world.

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