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Motivated Belief: John Polkinghorne on the Resurrection, Part 2

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April 11, 2013 Tags: Science & Worldviews, Science as Christian Calling
Motivated Belief: John Polkinghorne on the Resurrection, Part 2
The King James Bible (1613 edition) (Source)

Today's entry was written by Ted Davis. You can read more about what we believe here.

My last column presented the opening section of the chapter, “Motivated Belief,” from Theology in the Context of Science, by John Polkinghorne. That excerpt introduced the concept of motivated belief, itself. In this second excerpt, Polkinghorne brings his pursuit of motivated belief to the Bible.

My editorial policy for these excerpts is explained at the bottom of this post.

Motivated Belief (part 2)

There are two broad kinds of motivation for religious belief. One looks to certain general aspects of the human encounter with reality, while the other approach focuses on particularities of personal experience, including what are understood to have been specific acts of divine disclosure expressed through uniquely significant events and persons. The first kind of motivation includes the concerns of natural theology, presented as a ground for general theistic belief. We have already given some attention to this topic [in an earlier chapter]. By itself, natural theology can lead only to a rather abstract concept of deity, as consistent with the spectatorial god of deism [i.e., a god who merely stands apart and watches] as it is with the active God of theism. The considerations presented in the last chapter went beyond this aspect in order to seek enriched theological insight, of a kind capable of including the concepts of unfolding continuous creation and divine providential interaction with history. However, only obliquely, through the recognition of relationality, did the argument of that chapter make contact with the defining specificities of Christian faith. For that purpose one has to have recourse to the second kind of motivation for religious beliefs.

This latter approach is the concern of revealed theology, presented as the ground for the beliefs of a particular faith tradition. In this chapter I want to give concise consideration to how one might formulate such an approach to Christian belief. An adequate treatment would require extensive discussion and, in a modest way, that is a task that I have attempted elsewhere. [In a footnote, Polkinghorne stresses that the subtitle of the cited book is “Theological Reflections of a Bottom-up Thinker,” one of the themes this series of columns develops.] Here my purpose is simply to sketch enough of the argument to illustrate and support the claim that theology does indeed trade in motivated belief and that it can present its insights in a manner fitting for consideration in the context of science.

Addressing this task will serve to indicate how Christian believers may best commend their faith in an intellectual setting in which thinking is much influenced by the successes of science. Recent high-profile attacks on religious belief by some scientists have made much play of depicting believers as if they were simple-minded fideists [those who rely on faith alone] of an anti-intellectual mindset. The demolition of such strawmen is an unworthy polemical strategy. Christian theology’s pursuit of motivated belief demonstrates the misleading character of this kind of antireligious argument.

Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins,
author of The God Delusion (Source)

Over the summer, we will present excerpts from a chapter devoted to natural theology in a different book by Polkinghorne, Belief in God in an Age of Science. In the meantime, those who want an overview of his general approach are invited to read the earlier installment in this series (part 1 and part 2).

In earlier chapters we looked in some detail at the arguments that natural theology can deploy. The deep and wonderful order of the world was pointed to as being suggestive of a divine Mind expressed in creation. The anthropic fine-tuning that enabled an initial ball of energy to develop into the home of saints and scientists was interpreted as being suggestive of a divine Purpose at work in cosmic history. Other arguments of natural theology suggested that the existence of value, both moral and aesthetic, is best explained in terms of human intuitions of God’s good and perfect will and of human participation in the Creator’s joy in creation (see here and here).

These are not knock-down arguments—there are no such arguments, either for theism or for atheism—but they offer insightful and satisfying ways to gain an enhanced understanding of the richness of human experience. However, even if they are granted maximal persuasiveness, these general kinds of consideration can only lead to a generic concept of God, conceived in such terms as deity thought of as Cosmic Mind or the Ground of Value. They can serve to put the question of the existence of God onto the agenda of enquiry, but they necessarily leave unanswered many questions concerning what the nature of that God might actually be. For example, does God really care for individual human beings? Any attempt to answer that question has to look to something more specific than general experience.

My own religious belief is in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. I want to outline the motivations that I believe support my Christian faith, living and thinking as I do in the context of modern science, so different in many ways to the context in which Christianity began two millennia ago. It would not be enough for me to rest content with the God of natural theology, who is too distant a kind of deity, corresponding in nature to the rather abstract arguments concerning order and value invoked in support of this kind of belief. Einstein possessed a kind of cosmic religiosity, inspired by the wonderful order of the universe, but he was emphatic that he did not believe in a personal God.

To find such a God he would have had to be willing to look elsewhere, beyond the austere insights of fundamental physics. Belief in a deity who is properly to be spoken of in personal terms, however stretched the meaning of those terms must necessarily be, has to be motivated differently, by reference to particular events and persons, understood as affording revelatory disclosures of unique and unrepeatable significance. It is precisely this specificity of divine action and communication that makes the personal language of Father appropriate in Christian discourse, rather than the impersonal language of Force, which would carry the implication of an unchanging mode of divine expression, unrelated to any particularities of person or situation, just like the unyielding law of gravity. We shall return to this matter when discussing the issue of miracle [in a subsequent excerpt from this chapter].

These considerations underline how essential it is to have a right understanding of the nature of revelation. What is involved is not the mysterious deposit of infallible information, conveyed in an incomprehensible and unchallengeable fashion, but rather it is the record of those particularly transparent occasions that have been open to an exceptional degree to the discernment of the divine will and presence. Christian theology accords a normative status to the Bible precisely because it contains an irreplaceable account of God’s dealing with God’s chosen people, the Israelites, and the uniquely significant history of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. One might say that scripture functions as the “laboratory notebook” containing the record of these “critical observations” of divine self-disclosure. Its role is not that of the authoritative textbook in which one can conveniently look up all the ready-made answers. Scripture is something more subtle and more powerful than that.

​Portion of a page in a laboratory notebook used by
Nobel prize-winning physicist Robert Millikan, pertaining to his
famous experiments on oil droplets (source)

There are many different modes in which the Bible can be read, and one of the most important of these is simply as providing motivating evidence for Christian belief. This is a theme on which I have written a number of times, most extensively in my Gifford Lectures. In this chapter I want to sketch an outline of how the careful and scrupulous study of the New Testament can provide the reasons why I believe that Christian belief does indeed correspond to what is the case. I shall seek to offer the argument in the evidence-based manner that seems consistent with taking seriously the context of science within which Christian belief has to be expressed and defended today.

The writings of the New Testament originated in a particular part of the ancient world and they were written over a specific period of some forty years or so. They are very diverse in their character. Three of the major authors involved, Paul, John, and the unknown Writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, display a depth of theological originality and understanding that secures for them a permanent place of creative influence in the history of Christian thought. Much of the writing in the New Testament has the occasional character associated with letters, but other parts are more systematic in construction, including four examples of what was then a novel kind of literature, gospels, whose accounts of Jesus of Nazareth are shaped by the authors’ desire to proclaim the good news of God’s salvific purposes, which they believe have been made known and accomplished in him. It is important to recognize that the gospels are not modern biographies written in the detached manner of scientific historiography. They are interpreted accounts of a remarkable man, and they are intent on making clear the meaning of what the authors believe was happening in what had been going on in his life, death, and its aftermath. No scientist could deny the importance of proper interpretation if true significance is to be discerned. Raw data (readings in counters, marks on photographic plates) are insufficient by themselves to tell a story of evident interest.

Looking Ahead

Look for the next excerpt from this chapter, focusing on Jesus, in about two weeks. 

References and Credits

Excerpts from John Polkinghorne, Theology in the Context of Science (2009), copyright Yale University Press, are reproduced by permission of Yale University Press. We gratefully acknowledge their cooperation in bringing this material to our readers.

Editorial Policy

Most of the editing for these excerpts involves breaking longer paragraphs into multiple parts, altering the spelling and punctuation from British to American, removing the odd sentence or two—which I indicate by putting [SNIP] at the appropriate point(s)—and sometimes inserting annotations where warranted [also enclosed in square brackets] to provide background information. Polkinghorne uses footnotes a bit sparingly, and I usually find another way to include that information if it’s important for our readers.


Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. At Messiah, Davis teaches courses on historical and contemporary aspects of Christianity and science and directs the Central Pennsylvania Forum for Religion and Science.

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Seenoevo - #78616

April 16th 2013

Most of the Polkinghorne words quoted in #78577 above seem OK to me. However, I was wondering about these:

“The fact that there are tectonic plates has enabled mineral resources to well up from within the Earth, replenishing over many millions of years the chemical richness of its surface.  The raw material for endless generations of life became available in this way.”

Does Father Polkinghorne believe life sprung spontaneously from lifeless minerals and chemicals, from the proverbial primordial soup?

If so, is the pulpit (or his parish magazine) the place to be promoting this? Is THIS the gospel truth?

beaglelady - #78647

April 17th 2013

Does Father Polkinghorne believe life sprung spontaneously from lifeless minerals and chemicals, from the proverbial primordial soup?

I really don’t know.  I would guess that he would NOT believe that God did some sort of magic to get life going.  I do know that he believes that God intended a fruitful universe. 

If so, is the pulpit (or his parish magazine) the place to be promoting this? Is THIS the gospel truth?


I see no evidence that he is promoting this idea.  If you do, please provide the evidence.

GJDS - #78618

April 16th 2013

The positive aspects of P’s thoughts may be found in statement such as, “It is precisely this specificity of divine action and communication that makes the personal language of Father appropriate in Christian discourse, rather than the impersonal language of Force, which would carry the implication of an unchanging mode of divine expression, unrelated to any particularities…” and further, “to the discernment of the divine will and presence. Christian theology accords a normative status to the Bible precisely because it contains an irreplaceable account of God’s dealing with God’s chosen people, the Israelites, and the uniquely significant history of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.”

It is important to be aware of the contrast that P uses – personal language, as opposed to impersonal force; a one-to-one experience through the revealed word, which is given a similar intimacy and meaning that we may find between father and child, mother and her children. The notion of ‘chosen people’, is also not emphasised enough in arguments that become misdirected to science and ‘how the world is’.  After all, the world is relevant to the extent that it fulfils the divine purpose set before the beginning of the world. 

“..... display a depth of theological originality and understanding that secures for them a permanent place of creative influence in the history of Christian thought.” This is a profound statement – P is showing us that depth, originality and understanding have been brought to us by individuals, chosen by God, for that purpose. It is beneficial for us to meditate on this when we argue about the Bible as the word of God – it may just be the case that God is so pleased with the thoughts and actions of those He has called, that He may say to us, “I endorse what Paul has said to the Christians I have chosen and called”.

GJDS - #78624

April 17th 2013

I cannot paste comments using the reply option – this is a response to the discussions between Jon and Ted. I have followed the discussion with great interest, and have tried to understand this: “I believe we must look to a kenotic theology that respects human freedom and focuses on the passibility and suffering of God.”


Philippians 2:5-8 “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross”.


I (like others who have commented on this passage) note that Paul commences with an attitude, which is Christ-like. This means we aspire to follow Christ as the Son of Man, who shows us what it is to be human and acceptable to God. Paul states that Christ existed in the form of God ..... this clearly states that Christ as equal to God, or Christ is God. The point in this passage is the attitude of Christ as the Son of man – both in form, and also in attitude, coming to live amongst us as a servant to all. This attribute, and attitude, is the most poignant message of the Gospel, which God had determined that all humanity would be saved. The humility shown by Christ was in that He knew, as God knows, that the death on the cross was an act of obedience, as stated prior to this, when He prayed that “God’s will be done”. It is God’s will that all should be saved through His Son. (continued)


GJDS - #78625

April 17th 2013

(continued) This does not show that God is diminished in some way – on the contrary, the passage elevates the message of the Gospel, by showing that God chose to live amongst us as a human being, for the clear and specific purpose – to provide for us a way out of sin and death. God suffered for us, and with us, by becoming a human being who lived without sin – yet He still chose to accept the (unfair) impact of sin that we human beings commit. He did not ‘try to get out of this suffering’ by saying He was sinless and also He is God – he did not grasp this. Christ now shows us the fullness of God, in that we are aware of the Mercy of God (Kyrie Eleison). It seems to me (and I am not settled on this matter at this point in time) that by seeing that Christ was obedient and suffered for our sins, that the theology may be extended to the trinity – if this is the thinking behind this doctrine, I ask the questions:


(1)   Does Russell (and other theologians) see this as a means by which God the Father and the Holy Spirit suffered on the cross? If so, why state it in this way – it is pointless to say that Christ as the Son of God suffered and died for the forgiveness of sin, but somehow this needs to be restated in another way.

(2)   How is human freedom affirmed or exemplified by the suffering of Christ on the cross – my understanding is that humanity is ‘bound’ to sin through his fallen nature, and Christ has provided a way for us to be free from this bondage. Surely it is not a respect for human freedom, but the evil consequences of human sin that Christ chose to die, and thus remove these consequences.

(3)   How do these theologians expand their doctrine to include a relationship involving the trinity, and who is the other beings that are to related (or form a relationship) with the trinity?

(4)   I suggest that one extreme (and incorrect) view of this doctrine may mean that Christ relinquished His divine nature, and the error continues to depict his suffering purely as a human being (and not the Son of God). Such thinking would be wrong on so many levels, and a conclusion would include the death of Christ on the cross was insufficient to remove the sins of the world. Such a point of view would be completely at odds with the Gospel and the Christian faith. Do some theologians subscribe to such a doctrine?

I would welcome comments on these matters.

Ted Davis - #78646

April 17th 2013

Excellent questions and comments, GJDS, thank you for them. As you say, we’re getting to the heart of the matter now.

Relative to your (1) about Russell’s views, please go back to one of my columns last year on TE and note the passage I quoted from Russell, which speaks to your question: http://biologos.org/blog/science-and-the-bible-theistic-evolution-part-4

Jon Garvey - #78626

April 17th 2013


God chose to live amongst us as a human being, for the clear and specific purpose – to provide for us a way out of sin and death. God suffered for us, and with us, by becoming a human being who lived without sin – yet He still chose to accept the (unfair) impact of sin that we human beings commit.

You’ve touched an important point here. One tunes in looking for enlightenment about integrating science and Christianity, and finds a construction site where the whole gospel is undergoing radical redefinition. As you say, the key Philippians passage, although in a book whose theme is <suffering for the gospel>, assumes that suffering to be for sin and death. In the kenotic theories, that becomes invisibly transformed into Christ’s suffering for human suffering (just as the man Jesus’s “making himself nothing” also becomes God’s “self-emptying.”)

In the theories’ extension to the creation-evolution field, the issue “sin” morphs into “the suffering of the whole universe.” Human suffering becomes, as it were, just one example of that - and human sin a subset of that suffering - even a result - rather than its cause. So the act of substitutionary grace in the Son’s becoming man for man’s rebellion (regardless of the issue of Patripassarianism) tends towards becominging instead an act of God’s restitution for the suffering that God’s creation (or the freedom he granted its processes) has inflicted on its creatures. Were God not to suffer in solidarity with his world, he would in the end stand accused of injustice… that may yet happen, of course, if (as is possible in Open Theism) he miscalculates the future. In the words of my namesake Guy Garvey (of the band Elbow) that would be “grace under pressure” indeed.

So, for example, Russell’s extension of the kenosis of Christ to the eschaton has to do with providing justification for the sufferings of every organism that has ever existed - maybe every cell. I guess if one commits to the freedom and self-creation of inanimate matter, then cells must have feelings too. Such ideas di, I guess, have the strength of (a) bringing Christ and his suffering to centre stage and (b) confirming the cosmic dimension of the gospel. But the Bible already teaches both things, only in very different terms.

Final observation: there comes a point in any theological system where it’s almost impossible to re-frame how one understands, say, a Bible passage. We all have such blinkers, but the first theological task is to ask the Bible text to cut across our presuppositions (too much evangelical preaching is finding a convenbient text to support those presuppositions - I don’t know if that’s ever true in Orthodoxy). So I suspect one could read the whole of Philippians and simply not notice the bedrock assumption that sin, and its remedy, is the starting point, nor that any other interpretation is possible of ch2 but God’s eagerness to offload his divinity.

GJDS - #78628

April 17th 2013


I think orthodoxy has had so many disputes over such a lengthy period, that we are not so inclined to seek arguments as often these days. On a more serious note, I find this line of thinking very different, and as is my habit, I tend to ask more questions - thus, from your comments about every cell suffering, I have to ask, what is meant by suffering? If the entire creation needs to be ‘treated’ in some way by God/Christ, just how would this make sense, especially in the light of a new creation that is to come about when this is finished. And as for justification, this is a topic in its own right; how do these notions treat our justification before God - I cannot get the outlook dealing with the creation, using such terms.

I guess I will continue to repeat the statement I made very early on, when I became interested in this site - that it begins with our understanding of law, and how we see a distinction between: (i) the Law of God, (ii) laws of science, and (iii) laws of a community. The question of freedom becomes reelvant after this, and we then equate sin, redemption, and the attributes that Christians grow (in) as we follow Christ, and the Grace and Mercy that God shows in all of this. 

The discussion regarding harmony between faith and reason (and science) imo is a narrower and with the exception of theistic evolution, not as cetral to these other aspects of the Faith.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #78629

April 17th 2013

Merv is saying that it is not an either/or choice; one does not have to abandon the divine simplicity in order to affirm God’s relationship with the world after the manner of complex, composite entitities. He’s trying to wean you from your habit of getting fixated on certain concepts and inordinately praising or condemning them.

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Eddie and GJDS,
Yes, God is transcendent.  That is not an issue.  I am certainly not denying that.  Jesus as the God/Human is certainly transcendent. 
God does not HAVE to be Simple to be transcendent, unless you think that God is Absolutely Transcendent which God would be if God were Simple.  The Christian God is both Imminent and Transcendent    
However God does not lie.  God does not reveal Godself as Personal or a Trinitarian Complex/One Being if God is really a Simple/One Being.  God does not reaveal God as both Transcendent and Imminent, if God were Simple and thus only Transcendent and Absolute. 
I repeat that is no evidence in the Bible that God is a Simple Being, so your effort to depict God as such comes purely from philosophical speculation.  God is not Impassive as God would be if God were really Simple.
Again what is the Image of God?  Is God really Simple, but creates us as complex, so God must pretend to be Complex in order to communicate with us?             


Eddie - #78633

April 17th 2013


I did not say that God had to be simple to be transcendent.  But there is a long theological tradition in the West which says that God is simple.  You can disagree with that tradition, but you cannot simply dismiss it as if its proponents—people on the level of Aquinas—don’t know what they are talking about.

I do not claim to understand what theologians mean when they say God is “simple.”  If the term is meant merely negatively—God is not made up of parts, as physical things are—I think that is unobjectionable.  What it means positively, I cannot say.  

You are taking “simple” to imply that God is impassive, without relationship to human beings, etc.  Yet clearly Aquinas and others believed that God related to human beings, so they did not understand “simple” in that way.

If I may make a suggestion, instead of simply improvising, using your own “off-the-cuff” reasoning to figure out what “simple” means—why don’t you go to a university library and spend a few hours reading about how theologians actually use the term?  Surely you can find material in a wide variety of sources, starting with general reference works such as the Britannica and the Catholic Encyclopedia, and moving into more specialized studies of the idea of God in the history of Christian thought.  If you actually learned how the term “simple” is used by theologians before you started arguing on the internet about why they shouldn’t be using it, you might gain some insight into the problem which caused the theologians to employ the term “simple” in the first place.

How about it, Roger?  Some old-fashioned research on your part—will you do it?  

Roger A. Sawtelle - #78643

April 17th 2013


You said that you do not believe that there is a God Beyond God.  We agree.

Others are saying that there is a God beyond the God revaled in the Bible.  I do know that complex is different from simple.  God reveals Godself in the Bible to be the Complex Personal God.  That is all I am saying. 

The tradition of a Simple God comes from philosophy.  Theologians combined the two, because they thought it was necessary.  Now I believe it is not necessary and actually harmful. 

We need new worldview based on a Complex/One God.  Others do not agree and attack me for saying this.  They are satisfied with the old ways of thinking, even though they know or should know that science and theology have gone beyond the old wayof thinking

I expect to be busy with other things for the next few days.  Talk to you after that.         

Jon Garvey - #78644

April 17th 2013

Others are saying that there is a God beyond the God revealed in the Bible. 

Roger, there is a point beyond which misrepresentation becomeswilful,  mischievous and offensive.

GJDS - #78657

April 17th 2013

Reply to Ted #78646

Thanks for your link and comment Ted – I understand that the basis for the outlook discussed by Russell and others includes suffering by Christ for the entire Universe and all that is in it, and this is taken to be within the trinity. I can understand the sentiment encapsulated within such a view and it seems to ‘blunt’ the notion that God may, somehow, be unfair in punishing everyone because Adam and Eve made a mistake.

I see two areas for discussion in this. The first would revolve about considering the story of Adam and Eve as a mistake – one we may treat as, “Ooops, I should not have done that”, which may leave us wondering why God would get so serious about the affair. I think this trivialises the entire message – thus I tend to emphasis the intractable nature of ‘Law’ – by this I mean an act that contravenes Law (in toto) sets into action events and consequences that are permanent to human reality. This is generally discussed as the fall by classical theology; we may put a more scientific/philosophical side to it by considering Law in toto as the nature of all that humanity may understand. From this (briefly in this short discussion) we may conclude that the creation is what it is today, regarding ourselves and the dynamics of the world, including outcomes that cause suffering. 

The second area is that of suffering as something that God had designed to specifically cause us and other animals, pain. I think we make a mistake when we view it as such, and I am partly in agreement with P regarding the impact of events on the earth as part of the natural order. However P does not include the possibilities that may be considered as alternatives (within a hypothetical scenario) if humanity has avoided the fall. By this, I mean we have the ability to avoid the consequences of nature’s activities – but we have, throughout history, not taken such a course of action.

These brief remarks show the need for redemption of humanity and when this is completed, the entire creation would be free from the consequences of acting against God’s will. I do not think that it is reasonable to argue that God must do something, because He has made the Universe to be what it is. Indeed, the magnificence of the Universe testifies to God in a grand manner, and is added ‘evidence’ to humanity that we need to repent and put sin behind us. Humanity needs justification and redemption – we do not need to justify God’s ways to humanity, but the reverse, we need to find justification before God. Christ provides this.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #78897

April 22nd 2013


The concept of a God Beyond God originated from these words of Eddie found above in post 78554.

one does not have to abandon the divine simplicity in order to affirm God’s relationship with the world after the manner of complex, composite entitities.

First of all this statement indicates that our basic understanding of God is Simple.  I repeat that is not Biblical.  I have asked you repeatedly for clear evidence in the Bible, OT or NT that God is Simple.  Transcendence is not proof that God is Simple, because God is also Immanent.

Simplicity is the polar opposite of Complex, which means that something must be either/or not both/and.  The advantage of the One/Complex God is that unity and complexity are compatible as simplicity and complexity are not. 

Could a Simple God act in a complex manner?  Maybe so, but why?  It is like saying that an honest person can tell lies to communicate with dishonest people. 

Jesus reveals God to be a loving heavenly Father.  Jesus Himself is the Person, while being the perfect Image of God the Father.  Even the Holy Spirit of Love is Personal. 

When we start from the Biblical revelation we start with the Personal God, not a simple divinity.  We start with the Father of the Prodigal Son, not some simple abstract spirit.  The question then arises as to why would God reveal Godself as Personal, as Trinity, if God were not Personal? 

In the Qur’an Allah makes it clear that He is Simple.  “Say, He, Allah is One.  Allah is He on Which all depend.  He begets not, nor is He begotten.  And none is like Him.” Chapter 112, the Unity.

Honestly I cannot think of any reason.  Of course Eddie wants me to research the writings of humans to find out why they think that God is Simple.  Even though he has said to be an expert in this field and strongly affirms the Simplicity of God, he seems not to be able to give strong argument himself. 

Just as you commend me for being open about my understanding of God as Personal, I commend Tillich for his openness is his belief in the God Beyond God.  Incidentally to have learn much from the writings of Tillich, including the Courage to Be.  I am not in disagreement with him much of what he wrote, just this one point.   

If one is going to affirm that God is Simple, it is best to affirm that this is the God Who is beyond the God of the Bible, as did Tillich, rather than say that the God of the Bible reveals God as Simple, Which is not true. 

With that said, if I misrepresented your point of view, I apologize.  I thought that you and Eddie were in agreement, but it seems that I was mistaken.       

Jon Garvey - #78900

April 22nd 2013


Tillich seems an interesting pivot point here. On the one hand, he’s accused of joining Aquinas in positing an impersonal, unapproachable God. On the other, his concept of God was in fact a reaction against the personal attributes of the God found in Aquinas (and Anselm, etc). Both views can’t be right.

I perceive that his “God above God” is actually saying that the real God has to be “the ground of our being” beyond the personal to be any help to that rare creature “modern man”, and that personal descriptions such as the Bible’s are merely metaphors that might be helpful in approaching the reality. So it would be, perhaps best put as “God above “God” [quotes implying lack of actuality to the lower God].

I suppose for the modern theologian (including you, perhaps?) a rejection of Tillich’s position requires answering the many grave charges he brings against traditional belief in a personal (broadly understood) God (charges which I see prominently in the current science-faith debate, especially the pathological fear of God’s personal  knowledge and power constituting tyranny, puppetry, coercion, megalomania, micromanagement and blah blah blah adding up, in the end, to “limitation of man’s sacred autonomy”.

It’s odd that theistic personalism comes at things from the opposite end for, apparently, the same ends. God must be a person like us because the Bible says so, and must have emptied himself of divine attributes like omniscience and omnipotence, must have left creation to create itself, must in the kenotic Christ have been prone to error etc or else be guilty of tyranny, puppetry, coercion, megalomania, micromanagement etc , which must limit man’s sacred autonomy.

“Modern man” seems to reach the same conclusions whatever view of God he takes, even when they’re diametrically opposite. But I say the root of all the errors is modern man’s obsession with self-determined freedom, which he learned in the Renaissance and after. I know many people who are alive now, and therefore just as modern as Tillich’s angst-ridden atheists, who find comfort and hope both in God’s transcendent power and knowledge, and in his personal concern and involvement. I just don’t acknowledge Tillich’s criticisms, or van Tills or Peacockes, as valid.

Neither Eddie or I are modernists because neither of us see autonomy as the sole or greatest good, and so Tillich’s non-personal God holds no attraction, and neither does the hands-off all-too-human deity of the neotheists. Neither, I am sure from my limited reading of his work, would they to Aquinas, whose whole approach was (a) rigorously committed to the God of the Bible (b) faithfully committed to the transcendence and glory of the Trinitarian God and (c) sacrificially committed to the God who loved him personally.

His argumentation for his position is both detailed, reasoned and biblical, and impresses me a lot more than most of what I read in modern authors - including, sadly, John Polkinghorne for all his strengths. I don’t expect everyone to agree with that conclusion - though it would be good if people studied him first before deciding that only “new” is good. But I don’t think, with respect, that you’ve answered his objections to what he would see as the grave weaknesses in your position any more completely than you’ve answered Tillich’s coming from a radically different viewpoint.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #78902

April 22nd 2013


You have failed to answer the question, “Why does God reveal Godself to be Personal, if God is not Personal?”

I do not consider myself to be a “modern man.”  I do condiser myself to be a sinner saved by grace.”  If I were not an autonomous being, I could not be a sinner.  If God were not a loving personal God, there would be no way that God would have sent Jesus to save me from my sins. 

My point of view is very old and found in Johannine theology augmented by Paul.  The Father sent the Son to reconcile the world back to God through the Holy Spirit.  God is Love.  God is Relational.  You must be born of the Spirit to know God.

Jon Garvey - #78904

April 22nd 2013

You have failed to answer the question, “Why does God reveal Godself to be Personal, if God is not Personal?”

That’s because it was the wrong question. I thought I’d already made it clear, if only by citing Aquinas, that I believe God to be “more than personal,” rather than “not personal”. Just as I believe him to be all wisdom, rather than wise; all-seeing rather than far sighted; infinite in mercy, rather than just patient and perfect righteousness rather than just better than me.

God has revealed himself to be a Father, though he is not male

To hold us in his arms, though he has no body

To dwell in unapproachable light, and in thick darkness - though we may approach him in Christ and will see him face to face - though a face is part of a body, and the Father is not embodied. (that’s Pauline)

To need nothing (Pauline too - Acts 17.25) though it is mutual need that fuels most personal relationships

To be light, although light is a pure, simple energy (that’s Johannine), not a mixture of anything.

To know everything ( that Johannine too) although ordinary persons change because they acquire new knowledge

To love us, although there is no other like him (Isa 46)

To  fill heaven and earth, though ordinary persons are finite by definition

To be unchanging (Num 23) and the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb 13) although persons change.

Analogies and metaphors abound, and that’s because God is all in all, in whom we live and move and have our being, and no words are adequate to describe him. And that’s why I don’t speak of God as a person like other persons, though I encounter him personally through faith.

In the end I’m not personally too worried by analogies being taken literally - better even to see God as a man in the sky than as a force (“the ground of our being” runs that risk to me). But I worry when people then use the analogy to impose their own measure on what God should be: I am a person - I err - therefore Jesus erred. I am a person - I don’t know the future - therefore God doesn’t know the future (or else shuts the knowledge away from himself in one of his complex “parts” so as to be more like me).

Eddie - #78907

April 22nd 2013


I confirm your assessment of my position, and thank you for your exposition above, including the Biblical passages.  I agree with you entirely.  To say that God is something more than personal is not to deny that there is an aspect of God that is personal.  And to say that God is “simple” does not mean that God is like a steel ball-bearing—perfectly spherical and uniform throughout and inert.  Of course ball-bearings don’t create anything, and don’t get into personal relationships with human beings.  But Maimonides and Aquinas were never fool enough to picture God’s “simplicity” with a metaphor like that.

Roger acts as if the Trinitarian nature of God—God’s being Three rather than just One—somehow proves that God is not “simple.”  Yet the simplicity of God was insisted upon by Christian theologians as well as by Muslim and Jewish ones.  That should tell Roger that he has misinterpreted the term “simple.”  And it should cause him to want to learn more about what the term means in theology.  It should cause him to want to to go to a library and research the term, and to put off arguing about it until he has learned its proper usage.  But he seems to prefer theology by improvisation to theology by research.  He seems to prefer to “wing it,” confident of his powers of “general reasoning.”  That’s why he and I don’t hit it off.  I think that theology should 9 parts study for every 1 part of “winging it”; his proportion seems to be rougly the reverse.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #78932

April 22nd 2013


Thank you for your response.

To be light, although light is a pure, simple energy (that’s Johannine), not a mixture of anything.

Is light simple?  You take a prism and light becomes a rainbow of colors.  Yes, light is not a mixture, but yet it is not simple.  Light is complex/one, both one and many.  

To need nothing (Pauline too - Acts 17.25) though it is mutual need that fuels most personal relationships.

Of course God needs nothing, but it is clear that God wants many things.  God wants people to live in peace, justice, honesty.  God has a will and a purpose, does God not? 

There is every evidence in the Bible that God thinks.  God makes decisions.  YHWH just does not act.  God waits to the right time and place to act.  God has a plan that God works out in a deliberate way.

Thinking, planning, creating are not simple processes.  They involve making choices, choosing between alternative possibilities.  If God does this, God is not purely Simple.  Nor is God a mixture of the complex and the Simple.  God is ONE, which means God must be both One and Many, not merely One or Simple. 

God did not need to create the universe, but God did.  God does not need humanity, but God created us with all the problems that has entailed.  God not only created us, but God puts up with our sin and foolishness. 

God not only puts up with our sin, but decided to get involved with God’s people by making a covenant with them.  God not only made a covenant with humanity, but sent the Second Person of the Trinity, the Logos, as a Human Being to live in our world as one of us, to be born, live, suffer and die for humanity.

God does not have to do anything, but GOD IS WHO GOD IS.  God does what God does because God wants to, because God is Love.  God loves because God is relational.  That has little to do with philosophy and everything to do with God.  

(James 1:17 NIV)  Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, Who does not change like shifting shadows.

Yes, as James wrote God does not change, but gives us good and perfect gifts to meet our every need.  God does not need us, but wants us to love God, because God loves us and we need God.  This is the basis for our mututal relationship with God.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #78933

April 22nd 2013


I believe that the theologians you mention do believe that God is Impassive, which logically means that God is unable to “empathize” with the needs of humans.  Some theologians have written that the Father sent Jesus as a Human Being so God could know what being human is like.    

As I have said I know the difference between unity and simplicity.  It is clear in the Bible that God is One, and it is just as clear that God is not Simple.  If we confuse the two we have a real problem.  Yes, some theologians say that the Father is Simple or Absolute, while the Son is Relational, but that divides the Trinity and is inconsistrent with the Bible.

You seem to be claiming that a Simple God can do complex things and appear complex, but the Complex/One God cannot appear to be simple or act simply as needed.  You have a double standard, which allows you to say that even if God appears to be Complex/One in the Bible, God is Simple.    

To try to fit God into the simplicity box where God does not belong is not right.

Eddie - #78938

April 22nd 2013


I’m not “trying” to do anything.  I’m merely suggesting that you look up the primary sources—Origen, Gregory Nazianzus, Augustine, Minucius Felix, Abelard, Albert the Great, Aquinas, Ockham, Maimonides, Rashi, etc.  —and spend a few weeks carefully reading what they have to say about the simplicity of God, before you form any judgment.  I would neither affirm nor deny the doctrine of divine simplicity before I had done that.  

In other words, until you can honestly and truly say:  “I understand the doctrine of the simplicity of God,” you should not be saying, “I object to the doctrine of the simplicity of God.”  

That’s all I have to say on this topic.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #78959

April 23rd 2013

To Eddie and everyone else.

Please read carefully.

I find that the argument that most everyone thinks is between science and theology is actually between science and philosophy.  The biggest problem that scientists have is with “teleology” rather than faith and teleology is a philosophical concept.  Scientists object to Idealism which places Ideas over facts and Idealism is the basis of philosophy. 

This is a serious problem because one cannot solve a problem unless one defines it properly.  By defining the problem as science vs theology we make the problem irresolvable, because that is not the problem.

However part of the issue is that the church married theology and philosophy, which has put the church on the same side as philosophy where it should not be, rather than independent of philosophy where it should be.  Now philosophy is wrong concerning the nature of reality and this threatens the church because we have put all of our eggs in the philosophical basket.      

Now Eddie insists that I read the good doctors of the Middle Ages who tried to reconcile the Bible with Greek philosophy in order to understand the “doctrine of divine simplicity.” The apperent assumption is that if I understood it, I would agree with it, whether it was Biblical or not.

Every bone in my Protestant body and every synapse in my Protestant brain tells me that is not right.  While I can accept that fact that the role of the theologians to interpret the faith in the light of current thinking in that and other eras, no way can philosophy or any other human endeavor determine Who God is.  In other words Philosophy cannot determine God is Simple if the reveals God to be Complex/One.

Eddie thinks that I do not understand the purpose of the doctrine of divine simplicity.  I believe I do.  First I understand the role of the One in Greek philosophy.  Greek Philosophy is built on the primacy of the One as found conundrum of the One and the Many and the One of this thought must be the Simple One, not the Comple/One.  Thus God based on Greek philosophy is the Simple One.

The problem with this is that the God of Christianity is the Trinity is the Complex/One.  There there is needed two Gods, the Biblical revealed Triune God, and the systematic hidden Absolute Simple God.  I believe that there is only One Biblically revealed God.

Besides integrating the Bible after a fashion with philosophy the role of divine simplicity is to protect the transcendence of God.  Unfortunetely it does this by sacrificing God’s Integrity, God’s Oneness.  God does not need or want human thinking to protect God’s Integrity. 

God is One because God is One, not because philosophy or theology says God needs to be One or must be One.  Christians live by faith in God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, not by our understanding of divine simplicity.

There is no inherent conflict between Christianity and science.  There is inherent conflict between the simple God of philosophy (and Islam) and science.                    

Roger A. Sawtelle - #79035

April 24th 2013

Thank you, Ted, for making it clear where Rev. Polkinghorne stands on this issue. 

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