John Polkinghorne on Natural Theology, Part 1

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November 27, 2010 Tags: Design

Today's video features John Polkinghorne. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

As part of the H. Orton Wiley Lecture series in Theology on the campus of Point Loma Nazarene University, Reverend Dr. John Polkinghorne inspired students and faculty alike in thinking about the interaction between science and the Christian faith. The first lecture, entitled, Natural Theology, was delivered on November 15th, 2010. The entire MP3 is available for download here.

Below, we provide a transcript of the portion that extends from 10:06 to 16:10. This portion describes a very interesting and, we think, extremely helpful way of thinking about intelligent design. Many think that the Intelligent Design Movement is largely an attempt to revive the two hundred year old arguments of William Paley. Polkinghorne however, describes a new natural theology, one quite different than that of Paley. He points us to a deeper approach to the interface of science and the Christian faith than that associated with the intelligent design movement.

We provide a written transcript of the talk to make it easier to mull over Dr. Polkinghorne’s ideas while you listen.

“William Paley… wrote a book, a famous book, called Natural Theology. Paley’s form of natural theology was an uninhibited appeal to the inspection of the world. He produced the argument from design in a familiar form pointing to the atlas of living beings, surviving and functioning in their environment, pointing to such things as the amazingly complex optical system of the mammalian eye and so on. The existence of these things were manifest demonstrations of the existence of the divine designer who brought them into being. It must have seemed a very persuasive argument.

Indeed many people perceived it that way but of course the rug was pulled from beneath that argument in 1859 when Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in which Darwin was able to show how the patient shifting and accumulation of small differences between one generation and the next over very long periods of time could bring into existence the appearance of design without requiring the direct intervention of a divine designer. The key thing that enabled Darwin to have that insight was the realization of deep time and that living things had existed on the earth over vast periods of time and that there was the possibility of slow change in the characteristics of living beings. And that perfused Darwin’s demolition of Paley, essentially producing a disillusionment with natural theology in many theological circles. But we are living in a time when there has been a revival of natural theology. It is not only a revived natural theology …but it is also a revised natural theology. It is revised in two very important ways.

First of all it is more modest in the claims that it makes. It does not claim to talk in terms of proofs of God’s existence, but it talks about insight which suggests the existence of a divine creator…The claim is that theism enables one to understand more than atheism. So the new natural theology doesn’t appeal to truth, but it appeals to what you might call best explanation; that to see the world as a divine creation makes it more intelligible than the opposite deduction: that the world is just a brute fact with no further explanation.

It is also revised because it is not trying to rival science on its own ground. With hindsight we can see that the old-style-natural-theologians like William Paley were actually making a mistake about the relationship between science and religion. They were trying to use religion to answer scientific questions…

Science doesn’t require augmentation from theology or any other discipline in its own proper domain. So the new natural theology doesn’t set itself up as a rival to scientific explanation as the best explanation, but as a complement, as a complementary relationship to scientific explanation —to place that understanding in a broader and deeper context of intelligibility…

So the new natural theology is not part of a war between science and religion, but is a part of a peaceful co-existence of mutual help and exchange of gifts between science and religion.

So if the new natural theology isn’t answering scientific questions what sorts of questions is it answering?.... In particular it is answering what you might call meta-questions. Meta-questions arise in a particular context, and their very character takes you beyond the context of their origin. So the questions that natural theology addresses today are questions that arise out of our experience of doing science but which are not in themselves scientific questions. Science essentially only answers questions of how… They are not scientific questions but they arise out of scientific experience. They are meaningful and necessary to ask and we seek to find answers to them, but if we are do so we will have to look elsewhere—beyond the science. The claim of natural theology is that a theistic belief affords the most natural persuasive explanation of our state of affairs.”

Commentary written by the BioLogos editorial team.

Reverend Dr. John Polkinghorne, a British physicist and theologian, is widely regarded as one of the most important scholars in the science/religion discussion today. He worked in theoretical elementary particle physics at Cambridge University for 25 years before becoming an Anglican priest in the early 1980’s. Polkinghorne has written many books on issues in science and theology, including Science and Christian Belief, Belief in God in an Age of Science, and Questions of Truth (with co-author Nicholas Beale). Among his numerous honors, Polkinghorne was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, and he was awarded the prestigious Templeton Prize in 2002.

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Martin Rizley - #42458

December 3rd 2010

but we know from Scripture (though not from science) that Jesus Christ was not conceived in the natural way, but by a miracle of God.  Does this call to embrace by faith a ‘revealed’ truth that can never be proven or disproven by science (like Jesus’ virgin birth, or Adam’s special creation by God)  prove that God is a Deceiver, since purely ‘naturalistic’ paradigms can always be assumed to explain the physical data?    Not at all.  God is no ‘trickster,’ but we can deceive our own hearts if we refuse to avail ourselves of the light that Scripture sheds on the question of origins; for then we are refusing to take the ‘known’ as our epistemological starting point for our investigation of the ‘unknown.’  Al Mohler’s most recent blog post addresses the importance of having a sound epistemology for making any progress in a true knowledge of the world. (See

Rich - #42459

December 3rd 2010


The point Martin is making does not depend on the details of his example.

The point he is making is that closeness in genetic makeup does not automatically imply historical relationship.  Evolutionary biologists simply assume that it does, but there is no logical reason why it should. 

Since chimpanzees are very similar in general structure to human beings, we would expect a high degree of genomic similarity.  But those similarities might just as well spring from the use of a common genetic toolkit to achieve common purposes, much as several different cars from the same company might use the same type of brakes, steering, fuel injection, etc., even though they have different instrument panel designs or trunk space. 

Martin’s motives are different from mine.  He’s trying to rescue the literal sense of Genesis; I’m not.  He’s opposed to common descent on principle; I’m not.  But his point is a good one.

Your position, like Martin’s, is based on a religious premise.  You assume that God would only create through wholly natural means.  TE and YEC are both based on metaphysical assumptions about the way God operates.  ID makes no such assumptions, and thus is the only non-dogmatic position.

R Hampton - #42462

December 3rd 2010

Had one studied Jesus’ DNA, there would have been no scientific evidence at all of the supernatural character of His conception

Half of Jesus’s human DNA came from Mary his mother and a genetic comparison would be able to prove this, But what of the other half?

The Y chromosome that Jesus inherited did not come from a human, so we ought to expect his Y-DNA would be a singularly unique sequence of 60 million base pairs. Theoretically his Y-DNA ought to be different from every single male (alive or dead) and so lie outside every known Y-DNA haplogroup—proving Jesus, unlike the rest of mankind, did not genetically descend from “Y-chromosomal Adam”.

Larry - #42463

December 3rd 2010

“The point he is making is that closeness in genetic makeup does not automatically imply historical relationship.”

Actually, I’m afraid that it does. You simply assert that it doesn’t - and you are wrong. The only process capable of producing the high genetic homology we observe is inheritance; there is no other. Your continued straw man attacks on evolution are remiscient of some of the most anti-scientific creationists around; I seem to remember such intellectual luminaries as Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron making the essentially the exact same argument with aeroplanes. Even creationists trained in biology reject your argument and yet you are still using it Rich. Give it up now - you are simply wrong - admit it. The case for common descent extends much further than homology anyway, into redundancy, synteny, pseudogenes, as well as what are known to be phylogenetic markers. You claim not to be “opposed to common descent on principle” and yet every single comment you make on the subject confirms that you are.

Martin Rizley - #42470

December 3rd 2010

R Hampton,
You write, “Theoretically his Y-DNA ought to be different from every single male (alive or dead) and so lie outside every known Y-DNA haplogroup—proving Jesus, unlike the rest of mankind, did not genetically descend from “Y-chromosomal Adam”.” 
I think that we both have to admit that the miraculous creation of Jesus’ Y-DNA is a unique event outside the realm of empirical and scientific study—so really, neither one of us can speak dogmatically about its character.  However, if it was the purpose of God in the incarnation to make Jesus like us in every way except for sin, it is entirely possible that, as an aspect of being made “like us,” God fashioned Jesus’ Y chromosome to look just like that of any first-century Palestinian male, with the same psuedogenes, etc.  In other word, I see no theological reason to believe that Jesus’ genetic makeup would have distinguished Him in any way from the rest of us—the one factor that made His humanity distinctive was His sinlessness.

Rich - #42472

December 3rd 2010


I said that closeness in genetic makeup does not automatically imply historical relationship.  I am making that as a point of logic, not as a point of empirical science.  If you can’t grasp this, head straight for Philosophy 100.

Whether one can argue *evidentially* from genetic evidence to common descent is another thing.  But I was speaking of *logical implication*.

However, even empirical arguments are not a slam-dunk.  All of the things you mention—redundancy, synteny, pseudogenes, etc.—are surely compatible with common descent, but are irrefutable “proof” of common descent only on the presumption God works only through natural causes, which begs the question of origins.

The reason that you don’t understand my position on common descent is that you can’t understand that anyone in these debates might be genuinely neutral about it.  You imagine that everyone is like yourself and Martin—highly partisan.  The option of theoretical caution never occurs to you.  And that’s precisely the problem in these debates: most people in most camps lack theoretical caution.  They therefore constantly over-claim and always react indignantly when their position is even questioned, let alone rejected.

R Hampton - #42473

December 3rd 2010

I see no theological reason to believe that Jesus’ genetic makeup would have distinguished Him in any way from the rest of us

But I do, since Mary is the sole source of his human material. So either Jesus had no Y chromosome or he was given a divinely conceived Y chromosome.

Mary’s virginity manifests God’s absolute initiative in the Incarnation. Jesus has only God as Father. “He was never estranged from the Father because of the human nature which he assumed. . . He is naturally Son of the Father as to his divinity and naturally son of his mother as to his humanity, but properly Son of the Father in both natures.”

Jesus is conceived by the Holy Spirit in the Virgin Mary’s womb because he is the New Adam, who inaugurates the new creation: “The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven.” From his conception, Christ’s humanity is filled with the Holy Spirit, for God “gives him the Spirit without measure.” From “his fullness” as the head of redeemed humanity “we have all received, grace upon grace.”
- Catechism of the Catholic Church

This is one of the genuinely few indisputable miracles and yet you seek to explain away the supernatural.

Larry - #42477

December 4th 2010


The ‘point’ you claim to be making is meaningless. It is akin to claiming we don’t know that radiometric dating indicates an ancient earth, or that starlight shows an ancient cosmos as we can’t be sure these haven’t been somehow divinely influenced, or simply created that way. It has echoes of last Thursdayism. I could also argue we can’t be sure that today isn’t the first day in history, but so what? It simply uses up space on this blog and achieves nothing.

Why has your hypothesis been abandoned not only within the scientific community (that occurred over 150 years ago), but even within YEC literature? Can you answer that one simple question? They most certainly are not working “on the presumption God works only through natural causes.” So again you misrepresent everyone else, it has nothing to do with “irrefutable proof”; we are talking about evidence, vast quanitites of compelling evidence that you refuse to look at.

Are you seriously claiming that the notion that we (and all other placental mammals) were designed with defective egg-laying genes is a scientific hypothesis that is equivalent to the understanding that they represent a signature of our egg-laying non-mammalian ancestry?

Greg Myers - #42478

December 4th 2010

Roger writes
“Are ideas that are stored in books dead or alive?  If they are dead, how can they be raised again?  If they are not dead. they are alive.  Ideas are encoded into words by minds.  Other minds can understand these words and transform them back into ideas.  Nonetheless these ideas exist in the form of code in books and other media.”

Ideas are not stored in books.  High-contrast markings (symbols that encode a language) are stored in books.  If you are literate, and the book is written in a language you understand, and if you have the right background to understand what is written, then you analyze the words, and take some meaning (more or less related to what the author may have been thinking).  This meaning is filtered by your own culture, background and ideas.  When the book it not being read, it is only ink and paper.  When it is being read, it serves as a proxy for person-to-person communication.

But you seem to agree that minds are the crucial component.  Ideas do not live in books, they are at best encoded in books (in your words, dead).  When they are accessed by a comprehending brain, they can live in the reader’s brain.  This is not mysterious, it is simply communication - it is what language does.

Greg Myers - #42479

December 4th 2010

You are moving the goalposts a bit.

We were talking about a 6,000 year old earth, special creation and everyone on earth descending from Adam and Eve, and then Noah and his family.  None of these are supported by the evidence, no matter how you spin it, and so you have to embrace some form of Last Thursdayism.

As far as your digression to Jesus, according to the Bible (Matthew and Luke), he has two sets of ancestors.  Tracing his lineage through Joseph always seemed a bit odd (given that the bible also claims Joseph was not the father).  The Mary lineage, assuming parthenogenesis, would be simple to confirm, and could easily back up at least that there was no human father.  But of course, Last Thursday, god could have done anting he wanted.

Greg Myers - #42481

December 4th 2010

Rich writes:
“The reason that you don’t understand my position on common descent is that you can’t understand that anyone in these debates might be genuinely neutral about it.  “

It is a little hard to imagine that anyone, after looking at the evidence, could be neutral about evolution, absent some powerful prejudice.

If you compartmentalize, it does make it easier.  The evidence does indeed strongly compel us to accept evolution.  If there is a god working through nature in such a way as to leave no trace, we could of course find no trace.

Is there any reason why god would do such a thing as hide his act of special creation behind the appearance of evolution?  Do we have any reason to suspect god is doing such a thing?  I think the fair answer is no and no.  It seems both false and ludicrous to even suggest such a thing.

Until a few hundred years ago, no one even suspected evolution, or that the earth was 4.5 billion years old, or that the universe contained trillions of stars.  If god made it all, why save these false trails for us now?  Why should the tools that make the natural world intelligible make god seem irrelevant?  It was not a rejection of god that lead to evolution, but an embrace of evidence and reason.

Martin Rizley - #42483

December 4th 2010

RHampton,  “So either Jesus had no Y chromosome or he was given a divinely conceived Y chromosome.”  If the Y chromosome is what determines a child’s sex, why would anyone doubt that Jesus had a Y chromosome?  Yes, it was divinely created, but that didn’t make it a ‘divine’ chromosome.  Chromosomes are inherently human—they do not belong to divine, but to human nature.  So Jesus’ chromosomes, both those contributed by Mary and those specially created by God, were all ordinary human chromosomes.  When Paul contrasts Adam with Jesus—the one of the dust, the other of heaven—the contrast is between Adam and the resurrected, ascended Christ.  At his resurrection, Jesus’ body was glorified and took on heavenly properities distinguishing it from the mortal, earthly body which He entered this world.  That is why Jesus is called the ‘last’ Adam.  I see no reason, therefore,  to assume that Jesus’ mortal body was different from ours in any respect.  God is fully capable of creating by miracle a Y-chromosome that is physically indistinguishable from one received from a human father.  I am inclined to think that’s what God did.

Rich - #42485

December 4th 2010


Your examples of starlight and radioactive dating pertain to the age of the earth, which I don’t question, and therefore are not to the point.  But then, since you regularly confuse ID arguments with YEC arguments, it’s not surprising that you’d bring them up.  And you appear to be unable to make the important scientific distinction between observed things like radioactive decay rates and the speed of light and inferred processes such as macroevolution.

You speak of “my hypothesis.”  I’ve advanced no hypothesis.  I’ve corrected misrepresentations of ID.  That’s not the same as promoting ID.  And even if I were promoting ID, since ID is compatible with both common descent and natural processes, it shouldn’t bother you; but it still does.  Apparently “design” is a dirty word for you, which is an odd position for a Christian to take.  So perhaps you will tell us how God guaranteed that man would evolve, if there was no design in the process?  I’m sure the process engineers at all the factories on the planet would be interested in learning how you can guarantee an outcome using processes that are inherently undirected.  Do tell.

Rich - #42487

December 4th 2010


I didn’t say that God was working through evolution, and I didn’t say that God wasn’t.  I said the question should be left open, and examined in an undogmatic light.  Atheists and YECs are incapable of considering that question undogmatically, because of their prior commitments.  Atheists won’t allow God, and YECs won’t allow evolution.  As a natural skeptic, I distrust prior commitments.  How can anyone know there is no God?  How can anyone be sure evolution didn’t happen?  And how can anyone be sure that, if a God existed, he wouldn’t use a process of evolution rather than direct creation?  And if evolution did happen, how can we be sure that it was primarily through Darwinian mechanisms?  I treat nothing as beyond criticism, neither “religion” nor “science” nor “Darwin” nor “evolution” nor anything else.  But in all these debates, people from the various camps set forth their non-negotiables.  For YECs, it’s God and a literal Genesis.  For atheists, it’s no God and Darwin.  For TEs, it’s a lame duck God and Darwin.  The only camp I can find that isn’t filled with partisan dogmatists is the ID camp, and there I situate myself, not because ID is so great but because every other position is so awful.

Greg Myers - #42490

December 4th 2010

“And if evolution did happen, how can we be sure that it was primarily through Darwinian mechanisms?”  You mean besides that evolution is what we mean by Darwinian mechanisms?

It takes no prior commitment to atheism, or even skepticism, to accept evolution.  Most of the early scientists working on evolution, like many today, are people of faith - yet, even with a religious world view, they accept the evidence for evolution. 

But what does it mean to say that god is working through evolution?  Evolution describes the world as we find it, which in no process or method relies on divine intervention, or exhibits continuity gaps requiring special creation.  If god is hiding in the mundane stuff of evolution, he does not want to be found.

To say that ID is not filled with partisan dogmatists - all ID is is simply the dogmatic claim that god did it.  It has not delivered on its promises of research, definitions, algorithms, mechanisms, specific examples - but this is because it was conceived of as a cynical end-around the prohibition of teaching creationism in schools.  It was a feint, and now its makers have retreated, leaving it an empty shell.

Larry - #42495

December 4th 2010


Those examples I mentioned were simply meant to be a response to your argument that no amount of evidence or data could ever indicate common ancestry as we simply couldn’t know God wouldn’t have created it that way ‘de novo’. But this argument can be extended into every avenue of scientific investigation. Yet you continually refuse to discuss why for example we share thousands upon thousands of pseudogenes with other species, or why the mutations occur in a specific pattern, those shared between humans and orangutans are also shared by gorillas and chimps, those shared by humans and gorillas are also shared by chimps. Since you clearly refuse to even discuss the vitellogenin gene, here’s the olfactory receptor gene paper. There are no mutations in that study that violate the phylogeny.

Or how about the fact the speciation time for human and chimpanzee lice matches with great accuracy the speciation time for humans and chimps. That is to say that the different species of parasites which both we and chimps have are estimated to have been the same species at precisely the same time we and chimps were the same species.

Larry - #42496

December 4th 2010

It is quite clear to all following that your ‘hypothesis’, which you propose as an alternative to common descent, is one of ‘common design’ and you claim this is just as plausible an interpretation of the data, yet you have done precisely nothing to demonstrate why this is so. This is a hypothesis that has been rejected (5 YEARS AGO) within creationist literature, and has been repeatedly pointed out to you, yet you are still offering it up. If it’s such a great explanation, why has it been rejected by absolutely every serious, trained scientist who has looked at the data?

Todd Wood’s writings on biology, even as a YEC, are several grades above anything the Discovery Institute has ever put forward. “Partisan dogmatists” is to me a perfect description of the likes of Meyer, Wells, Dembski, Klinghoffer, and many others over at the DI in their poisonous and vitriolic crusade against ‘Darwinism’ (I personally would exclude probably only Behe and Sternberg from being so described).

Jon Garvey - #42497

December 4th 2010

@R Hampton - #42473

Theologically the virgin birth was “only” a miraculous sign of a special birth, and has no relationship to Jesus being the Son of God. The Y chromosome was not God’s fatherly contribution: Jesus body was normally human, and only the manner of his conception was unusual.

Scripture doesn’t say he had no human father - he is in fact said repeatedly to be the Son of David. That line is where I’d put my money if, indeed, it were proper to question God at all about it.

Martin Rizley - #42500

December 4th 2010

Greg,  You write, “You are moving the goalposts a bit.  We were talking about a 6,000 year old earth, special creation and everyone on earth descending from Adam and Eve, and then Noah and his family.”  No, Greg, I was not talking about that—where did I make any mention of a 6,000 year old earth or the flood in Noah’s day?  You want to bring those things up as a distraction from the point I am making, which is not to defend a particular interpretation of the days of creation or the extent of the flood, but to demonstrate that there is no such thing as ‘non-ideological science;’ all scientific theories are built on paradigms which are accepted on philosophical grounds, and that is nowhere more evident than in the neo-Darwinian hypothesis.  If God exists and is actively involved in moving creation along by direct supernatural intervention, He could well have acted as a “genetic engineer”  by supernaturally intervening at each stage in the creative process.  That is, each time He brought forth a new ‘kind’ of creature, He could have taken cells from one previously created and genetically ‘restructured’ those cells, so as to ‘grow’ a new creature from the old one.  (continued)

beaglelady - #42501

December 4th 2010

Or how about the fact the speciation time for human and chimpanzee lice matches with great accuracy the speciation time for humans and chimps. That is to say that the different species of parasites which both we and chimps have are estimated to have been the same species

God designed different species of lice and then designed specific host species for each one.  It’s a marriage made in heaven.

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