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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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Jon Garvey - #78427

April 11th 2013

It always seems to me that natural theology (in its broadest sense, such as the approach of people like Paul Davies) leads one to the point at which the absence of revelation would be something of an anomaly.

“The Deity” creates a comprehensible Universe, with human comprehenders, of which the vast majority have a concern to know their maker in some way. Yet the Universe is in such a relationship to its Creator that such knowledge is unattainable “from below” (despite JP’s preferred direction of approach!). So either God must give it in some way, or leave it to imagination or delusion, for inscrutable reasons of his own - it’s hard to imagine he would be limited enough to watching us stumble about as some kind of experiment.

So in that limited sense, even revelation has a place in natural theology, to show the necessity of another epistemology from that point on. In other words, reason is unlikely to be adequate on its own to assess competing views of revelation: revelation will become part of the search in itself, just as one can only explore love by actually loving.

Lou Jost - #78443

April 12th 2013

Jon, you argue that revelation should be expected if a caring god exists. From an atheist’s point of view, the ambiguous nature of the alleged “revelations” (and there have been many throughout history, as you know) show that a caring god does not exist. You said “it’s hard to imagine he would be limited enough to watching us stumble about as some kind of experiment” but that is the kind of god you do indeed have, if the bible is revelation. The bible is notoriously ambiguous, and self-contradictory in parts. Religious people stumble, even fight, over how to interpret it. If it were really revelation, a non-trickster-god could have made its meaning clearer. God could even automatically update its pages as human knowledge progressed. Automatic updates would have set the bible apart as the real revelation, against the Book of Mormon or the Bhagavad-Gita or the Quran which don’t update themselves.

Some religious people think that there would be something wrong, infringing on free will, with making it too obvious that the bible was the word of god. Yet in the past, god was quite willing to make it obvious, according to his own  “revelation”.

Either your god is a trickster-god, or the alleged revelations are just what they look like, products of local cultures.

Jon Garvey - #78446

April 12th 2013

Why is revelation not more perspicacious? One could equally ask why it is as clear as it actually is. The fact is that one third of the world’s population finds Biblical revelation clear enough to count themselves as Christians, by some margin the largest religious group.

As I said in my first post, the fact of competing revelations is a genuine issue, but not entirely to be clarified by natural reason - and blow me, the first thing you do in reply is to present a natural anti-theology. Life is more interesting than that.

For quite apart from the formal claims of religions, including Christianity, there is the daily experience even of many people not self-identifying with one religion that they have experienced something personal of divinity. They come to faith because the gospel fits with that experience in a way they have not found elswhere.

Just as Ted’s article is not intended as an apologetic to atheists (or it would be couched in very different terms), so neither was my comment. I am neither ashamed nor apologetic that my knowledge of Christ, though conforming to reason and quite defensible in that way, comes largely through different means of knowing every bit as valid and much richer than reason. I posted to remind those who do share faith in Christ (a majority here) that bare reason is an insufficient way to find him, not because God is unwilling or unable to do a better job, but because the nature of revelation itself demands it be so.

I could say that the existence of many conflicting truth claims is no sort of evidence that truth does not exist (any more than incompatible theories negate science), but that would be against the spirit of what I was trying to say about the limits of reason. So instead I’ll state it thus: just because many people claim all kinds of knowledge about God does not invalidate the reality of my being known by Christ.

Lou Jost - #78448

April 12th 2013

Jon, my point wasn’t to say that conflicting claims of revelation make them all false. Rather, I was agreeing with you that revelation would be expected if there was a caring creator, “So either God must give it in some way, or leave it to imagination or delusion, for inscrutable reasons of his own - it’s hard to imagine he would be limited enough to watching us stumble about as some kind of experiment.” My point is that revelation could easily have been clear, but it is not. On your view, god has left a large part of the world to imagination and delusion (and not due to their own choices but to “acts of god” like the accidental location of their birthplaces). This does not make sense from your perspective, as you yourself say in that quote. From my perspective, though, it makes perfect sense; it is just what we would expect if these “revelations” were not real.

Lou Jost - #78465

April 12th 2013

To be more clear: “On the view that the bible really contains revealed truth, god has left a large part of the world to imagination and delusion (and not due to their own choices but to “acts of god” like the accidental location of their birthplaces).”

GJDS - #78437

April 12th 2013

Knowledge of God is how commence these discussions – this means that what humanity knows of and about God has a beginning, which is revelation. It is the primacy of such knowledge, because God has chosen to reveal Himself as an act of grace, which needs to be emphasised. History shows that humanity has adopted concepts and imaginations of gods, and tried to render such concepts to themselves as gods, with the erroneous results that we now may understand. I cannot see natural theology as having a ‘commencement point’ in that nature (or study of nature) would provide any type of knowledge of God on it own; this is so even if human beings speculate that God may have caused the creation.

Once human intellect is fully aware of God and His attributes, human intellect may than try to add to such knowledge through various activities, including that of philosophy and science. In this way, faith enables us to achieve a harmony with philosophy and science. It is difficult to argue that someone who chooses atheism would somehow come to the knowledge of God through science. Christianity has the profound dimension in that we are also shown that God has planned the salvation of humanity through the sacrifice of His Son. When we ‘add’ this knowledge we may begin to understand that ‘all things work for the good’ to those called in Christ.

Chip - #78449

April 12th 2013

Hello Lou,

I have to admit, I chortled to myself when I read about updates to revelation: “Damn!  I just got comfortable with Revelation_2.2.  Revelation_3.0 isn’t compatible with my upgraded worldview! And I’ve just invested in all new philosophical assumptions…!”

Anyway, on the one hand, I’m sympathetic to the view that revelation could be clearer, as I have often wished as much myself.  On the other, your repeated objections to ambiguity seem a little…  well, I guess if I wasn’t clear on something, I wouldn’t necessarily or automatically ascribe my lack of clarity to a “trickster”-communicator.    I’m quite sure, for example, that it wouldn’t have gone well for me if I had employed that argument with one of my college profs when I found the content to be less than completely straightforward.

More generally, there are few texts written anywhere—by anyone at any time for any purpose—that cannot be interpreted differently or even misinterpreted, even by well-meaning readers.  IOW, as soon as anything is put to paper, a certain amount of ambiguity seems to be unavoidable, and is a function not just of the text, but also of the interpreter, and his background in the subject, his intellectual capacity generally and even his willingness to engage with it.  In my case, for example, I didn’t fail to finish a classics minor as an undergrad because I couldn’t.  I didn’t finish because I decided it wasn’t worth the investment. And this wasn’t Homer’s fault. 

Having said all that, I actually find the basic biblical message to be both relevant to me personally and not hard to understand.  Consider for example, the following excerpt from Paul’s letter to Titus:

3 Once we [christians], too, were foolish and disobedient. We were misled and became slaves to many lusts and pleasures. Our lives were full of evil and envy, and we hated each other.   4 But—“When God our Savior revealed his kindness and love, 5 he saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He washed away our sins, giving us a new birth and new life through the Holy Spirit.[a] 6 He generously poured out the Spirit upon us through Jesus Christ our Savior. 7 Because of his grace he declared us righteous and gave us confidence that we will inherit eternal life.” 8 This is a trustworthy saying, and I want you to insist on these teachings so that all who trust in God will devote themselves to doing good. These teachings are good and beneficial for everyone.

What parts of this are unclear in your opinion?  Which are anachronisms?  If they were to be updated, what sorts of revisions would you make to make it more like “real revelation?”

Lou Jost - #78451

April 12th 2013

Yes, be sure to check the auto-update feature to avoid investing in outdated presuppositions!

I agree that the excerpt you gave doesn’t contain anachronisms, but lots of passages do. Instead of anachronisms, your passage could use  consistency checking software. This merciful god is the same one who killed almost everybody on earth, remember, and who may (or may not) send people to eternal damnation. While theologians try to reconcile the merciful yet vengeful, loving but child-killing god, wouldn’t it be nice if god just fixed those pages so they explained the aparent conflicts, or got rid of them? If this were really revelation, why would god let you stumble around, to use Jon’s phrase? Why would the bible not be automatically translating itsself into all languages? Why would god just reveal his word to 1/3 of the people on earth? Why would god not have a website?

Lou Jost - #78452

April 12th 2013

This is, after all, the same god whom many readers think has been micro-managing the molecular workings of everyone’s reproductive cells to guide evolution. This is an interventionist deity, according to them. Yet he doesn’t seem to care whether people believe his “real” revelation or imposters’ revelations (even though believing the wrong one can supposedly get us in trouble with him later).

Merv - #78457

April 12th 2013

God has lots of web sites, Lou.  You’re on one of them now.

Lou Jost - #78459

April 12th 2013

That explains the lightning storm outside my window…

beaglelady - #78466

April 12th 2013

That would be Thor…

Ted Davis - #78538

April 15th 2013

I would say that we are all in plenty of trouble, Lou, as God sees us, whether or not we’ve encountered God’s self-revelation in Christ. God has plenty of reasons to be unhappy with us, just as (following the book of Job) we have plenty or reasons to be unhappy with God. The good news here—and what is the “gospel,” if not good news?—is that God is gracious. I’ll borrow a few lines from one of my favorite films, A Man For All Seasons, about Sir Thomas More.

More (speaking to the axeman at his execution): Friend, be not afraid of your office. You send me to God.

Thomas Cranmer: You’re very sure of that, Sir Thomas.

More: He will not refuse one who is so blithe to go to him.

Ted Davis - #78539

April 15th 2013

To which I add, from St Paul, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face.” I share Lou’s puzzlement about God (with a nod to Einstein) not wearing his heart on his sleeve; but, the Christian faith has always been about the God who was crucified, about the God who was—who is—the crucified Messiah, a concept that Polkinghorne rightly calls an “oxymoronic combination of defeat and victory, resulting from the fact that God’s way of manifesting saving action is not through naked power but by the acceptance of suffering and the transcendence of death.” (Belief in God in an Age of Science, p. 34)

Say what you wish, Lou, about an “interventionist” deity acting at the level of molecular biology (a view that I find plausible myself, so I’m not exempting myself from your criticisms), but there are deep, powerful reasons why Christians believe that God almost always acts in “mysterious” ways that do not manifest “naked power,” and the crucifixion lies at the heart of this: it makes no rational sense that the Messiah would be crucified, just as it makes no rational sense that God would love creatures like us, or that God would descend to taking on human form. This is what Paul meant by “foolishness to the Greeks.”

Those reasons are primarily theological and biblical, not scientific—contrary to what Jerry Coyne says about Christians simply wanting to make the heart of our faith (the Resurrection) unassailable by science, since the Resurrection was a “one-off claim” (Coyne’s term); see https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2013/04/01/must-we-assume-naturalism-to-do-science/.

Lou Jost - #78464

April 12th 2013

Chip, in addition, how do you explain that god only bothers to expose 1/3 of the world’s people to this revelation? He could have used parallel prophets and/or multiple Jesuses to spread his revelation throughout the world, but no. It is like he doesn’t take the task very seriously. 

Or maybe, just maybe, these alleged revelations are cultural phenomena, perhaps driven by particularly insightful and charismatic individual teachers like Jesus or Buddha or Confucius, but not really more than that. The patterns observed are well explained by the latter hypothesis. They don’t really make much sense on the hypothesis of divine intervention. (I know, who am I to judge what makes sense for a god…)

Roger A. Sawtelle - #78454

April 12th 2013

One thing striking about this presentation is that some of us were arguing as to whether God is Personal (Complex) or Simple (Impersonal.)  Polkinghorne is saying here that the impersonal God of Einstein is not good enough for him and I don’t hear anyone arguing with him

Another thing is that if God went to all the trouble of creating the universe or even the multiverse, how could God not care about the universe.  Creators are about their creations.  It seems to me that only philosophers could imagine a situation where God is so limited by God’s own power that God is impassive, God doesn’t care. 

Finally the belief that God is impassive is based on the understanding that God is Absolute.  The Bible disproves this theory.  We need a new theology to replace the old absolutist philosophy.  

Science is coming to the understanding that there are no absolutes in nature, and everything is related.  Therefore nature is no longer aloof and impenetrable, it is relational and understandable, similar to God.    

Jon Garvey - #78472

April 12th 2013

Roger - you were contrasting personal with impersonal. The rest of us, I think, were contrasting personal with suprapersonal.

As a trichotomist, I’m sure you ought to appreciate the difference - after all, there is a significant difference between God being supernatutral and unnantural.

GJDS - #78467

April 12th 2013

Polkinghorne points out the two ways we may be motivated to obtain knowledge of God: “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.”

It is important, in this discussion, to understand that it is inappropriate to try inserting another approach which amounts to aggressively promoting an anti-theistic outlook. This is particularly obnoxious, as it is based on a view that unless god or gods do this and that to convince them, otherwise they will continue to aggressively be anti-theistic. No rational person can base an argument on what something in their imagination does not do – even when they wish it to be done.

Getting back to the remarks by Polkinghorne, I would question the notion that God reveals Himself in some ad hoc manner, or that the Christian fain has been dependent on random events during the history of humanity, and these become the basis for the Christian faith. In fact, the entire basis for Israel has been the covenant, discussed in great detail in the first five books of the Bible – any attempt to understand the OT within another context will automatically lead to error. The Christian faith is based entirely on a new covenant, in which Christ is the redeemer and also the way of life; the Faith teaches this through the Gospel and traditions of the Church, and we are encouraged to live accordingly. This encompasses general aspects of human reality AND particularities of personal experience. Natural theology imo is useful in achieving a harmony between faith and reason. It is not a means by which philosophy and science become a form of revelation or obtaining divine insights, such as e.g. the mind of God.

The general aspects of the human endeavour with reality include a nebulous, but worldwide view, of a spiritual dimension to human reality. This is observed in the records of all cultures and nations. It seems rather ironic that atheists take great encouragement from the elimination of pagan practices and their various deities (as atheists denigrate belief in God by appealing to the obvious vanity of idolatry), even though the major influence leading to their demise has been Christianity. If memory serves, I recall that Christians were accused (from many other accusations) of being atheists because they would not regard statues as gods, which pagans obviously considered deities to be worshipped. Atheists seem to now understand such practices were obviously vain, and insist they have discovered this, and display missionary zeal in their attempts to ‘stomp out’ such ‘self-delusional’ practices.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #78477

April 13th 2013


Polkinghorne is saying that God is Personal, or saying that God reveals Godself as Personal (as Trinity,) which is the same thing.  Therefore the Supernatural, that is God, is Personal. 

Tillich said that there is a God beyond God, the SupraSupernatural, which is beyond Personal, and thus is supra- or meta-Personal.  I do not think that there is a God beyond God.   


Merv - #78482

April 13th 2013

“There is no God beyond God” is, I think, a very good classical theistic statement, Roger.  However, God is bigger than our mere personalized concept of God.   So it is speculated (with considerable theological logic) that the ‘essence of God’ (which cannot be reached or seen or even in principle analyzed) must be the ultimately pure existence.  When God creates and enters this world to relate to us in terms we can understand (even in human form no less) He took on the ‘creatureliness’ of this existence with all its messy complexity.  And our limited understandings which can only attempt to reach towards that Divine essence will necessarily fall short and see only the ‘outer clothing’, and that through a glass darkly.  So perhaps the complexity you wish to attribute to God is more accurately attributed to our lesser human understandings of the same.  This isn’t to say complexity is bad so much as to say that when we are necessarily not at the perfect center, then there is a great variety of other places we can be.  Our most pressing question then, is can we at least face the right direction from where we are?  Sixty-six books of our Bible plus worlds of theology and layered traditions on all that suggest that this can be seen as a complex task.   At the same time, saints have had and spoken of those rare glimpses inward that suggest an ultimate simplicity is God’s trademark, whereas the obscuring [yet sometimes helpful and necessary for this life] complexity is ours.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #78488

April 13th 2013


Thank you for your agreement, but then you justify a God Who goes beyond our Biblical understanding of God.  Jesus was a Person, right?  If so how can you put down “our personalized concept of God” for some “higher” impersonal philosophical view of God?

When we look through the glass clearly the face of God that we see had better be that of Jesus. 

God made the universe and called it “good,” not messy.  Sin (bad relationships) is the problem, not complexity.  God calls us to live in the world, to be complex as the world is complex, not to withdraw into some idyllic simplicy.

I have had my mystical metaphysical experience also.  I heard this discussed on Easter weekend on NPR (Ira Glass?).  This profile of the mystical experience emphasized the inter-comnnection of everything.  That is what I experienced.

This is in accord with Ezekiel’s mystical visions of the divine wheels, Eze 1:15-21, 10:9-13.  When we talk about oneness with the universe and with God we are talking about complexity because we are not the same as God or the universe.  We are talking about unity and complexity or harmony or complex/one.  This is not the same as Simplicity.     

Thus I do not see any conflict between this kind in mystical unity and the complex/unity of God found in the Trinity and God as Person.      




Merv - #78491

April 13th 2013

I only have time for a short reply.

Jesus is indeed “the image of the invisible God…”.  (Colossians 2:15)  But that doesn’t mean that God is limited to a fleshly bipedal body with its local senses and sensibilities.   God reached out to us by coming into our world—“He emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant ...”   But this does not mean that God is limited to a personal, bound-in-place-and-time existence like we are.

Regarding complexity;  I was not equating complexity with sin.  But I do think sin contributes to the complexity of our religious lives.

Regarding simplicity;  I’m not sure why you have such a resistance to the notion of simplicity, Roger.  I know it is used pejoratively in some places (Proverbs?) to mean something like “not very intelligent and certainly not sophisticated”.  But the word does have other (good) meanings as well that you should investigate.  For that matter so should I.  I think a case can be made from Scripture, though it may use other words that capture the sense to which I am referring.    You should listen to that beautiful Shaker hymn sometime, Roger ... “T’is a gift to be simple, t’is a gift to be free, t’is a gift to come down where we ought to be ...”     Indeed our Lord saw many things in this sense:  e.g.  “Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no’; anything more is from the evil one.”  (my paraphrase in a hurried moment…)  Other examples could be given at a later time.


Eddie - #78554

April 15th 2013

Roger wrote:

“When we look through the glass clearly the face of God that we see had better be that of Jesus.” 

So God has a beard and looks Jewish?

You are missing Merv’s point.

Merv was not “putting down” a personal understanding of God.  He was pointing out the inherent limitations of our human conceptions.  There is something in God that is personal, yes, but there is also something in him that transcends the personal.  Normal, daily Christian experience cannot hope to grasp that transcendent aspect of God.  Some mystics claim to have done so.  The divine simplicity is something that philosophers can affirm, but that the empirical mind cannot grasp.  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.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #78495

April 13th 2013


It seems you missed the conversation that took place in the previous blog, that is Pt 1 of this series.

Merv - #78496

April 13th 2013

well…  I was there.  But I guess there are advantages to being forgetful.  Everything’s always fresh.  You’ll have to be more specific about what it is in my post above that was there, and then which post number it was in.

GJDS - #78497

April 13th 2013

It is instructive to understand what the Bible teaches regarding sin – this is particularly relevant in view of the unusual discussions regarding God and simplicity, and the even stranger notion that “sin is bad relationship”.

There are too many instances in the Bible that show sin separates us from God, so I will offer a smaller number: Is 59:2, Is 64:7, Mic 3:4, Luke 13:27, Rom 8:7. Other verses show God is Holy, and also the importance of keeping the Law as perfected by Christ, and keeping the faith. Rom 7:13-25 shows the centrality of the law and our inability to live without sin, and Paul shows this leads to the ultimate separation, which is death, while we would find life in Christ.

The law also shows us that we should not take God’s name in a frivolous manner and attribute characteristics to God that are in fact human attributes; Christ lived amongst us as a human being without sin. This is the central tenet of the faith, and He became a sacrifice for us so that we may be forgiven our sins. This is what brings us back to God. So while He was human in every way, the vast difference is that Christ was without sin and perfect in God’s sight.

All teachings of the Christian faith are consistent with the essence of God being comprehensible to us using terms such as simple, pure, holy, without variation, and so on. There is no room for such nonsense as complexity or similarities to human beings. The medieval theologians understood that even when we use human terms to discuss God, we are bound by the limitations of our understanding and language – thus if we say God is omnipotent, we are also implying that God may not limit Himself if He chose, to fulfil his purpose.

The best we can do is search for terms that are consistent with our understanding of God as Holy, Sacred, Pure, Perfect, without variation (or simple essence), without limitations; in doing this we agree with the Classical and Orthodox theologians who also state that we are limited in how we understand (and may discuss) these matters. Only the Holy Spirit can know the things of God.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #78508

April 14th 2013

To Merv and others,

Psalm 8

A psalm of David.

1. O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is Your Name in all the earth! You have set Your glory above the heavens.

2  From the lips of children and infants You have ordained praise because of Your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger.

3  When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have set in place,

4  What is a human being that You are mindful of him, a person that You care for him?

5  You made him a little lower than Elohim, God, and crowned him with glory and honor.

6  You made him ruler over the works of Your hands; You put everything under his feet:7  all flocks and herds, and the beasts of the field,8  the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas.

9  O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth!

GJDS - #78509

April 14th 2013


Just what does the Psalm do for your odd argument that God is complex or that sin is some sort of ‘bad’ relatioship - this response is simply odd, to put it mildly.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #78520

April 14th 2013


The question is the Image of God.  Did God create humanity in God’s Image or not?  What is God Image?

Thus far no one has questioned the understanding that God created Humanity in God’s Image, but the fact is that all of you seem to be saying that God and humanity are very different beings.  Thus you seem to be denying the reality of the Biblical statement, if not the fact.

Human beings are complex/one beings.  You say that God is purely Simple.  If that is true humans are created in the Image of God.

The Bible says that God is a Person.  That is why Polkinghorne rejects Einstein’s belief in an impersonal God.  “What is a human being that You are mindful of him, a person that You care for him?” 

Persons are mindful, aware, caring beings.  David, the psalmist, sees YHWH as a Person, Who creates, thinks, and loves.  Either this is true or this revelation of Who God is is false.  If God is Simple, all of the information revealed in the Bible about God is false. 

Psalm 8 says that YHWH created humans a little lower than Elohim, which is the usual word for God in the OT.  If humans are complex/one, but God is Simple One, how could humans be created at little lower than God, and be totally different?  “A little lower than God” is wording consistent with “in God’s Image,” meaning similar but not the same. 

Thus both of these revelatory statements indicate that God and humans are similar.  The Bible indicates that this similarity is based on the fact that God and humans are both persons, complex/one beings.  From what Polkinghorne says I think that we are in agreement.  Maybe Ted would disagree. 


GJDS - #78523

April 14th 2013

You seem to get things confused (again, and I am not the only one to point this out to you) - God is not like a human being - it is impossible to find anyone who would equate human attributes with those of God. If one takes your ascertains seriously we would be faced with the horrible notion that God also sins. This is the argument of atheists, in that God can act as a powerful spoilt human child, such as for example Nero, in that he may love one minute and hate the next, with all of the terrible consequences. An image is simply that, a likeness that God had decided to take on for humanity. I do not think that any Christian theologian would agree with your odd view. A relationship is often used to show how people may be related or interact with each other. Theologically a relationship between God and humanity can only occur through Christ and only after a human being repents of sin and is reborn - this is what Paul is showing us in the verses I mentioned in Romans. Your notion of making God and his revelation true or false is another indication of the error your have adopted.

The relationship that people such as Polkinghorne mention, is through an act of Grace and after our sins are forgiven. Calvin and other refer to this as a regeneration; Paul says it is a new man who lives in Christ and through Christ. It is impossible to misunderstand this Christian teaching.

The term ‘simplicity’ used theologically, and which you fail to understand, is a term that is similar to holy, sacred, pure, unchangeable. These terms cannot be applied to human beings - instead, for humans it is often referred to as ‘plain, uncomplicated, easily understood’. The latter terms would refer to human beings, but not to God. I cannot state these things with greater clarrity, so I leave it at this.

On relationships, read the Sermon on the Mount. People who display these attributes and character would be in good standing with God through Christ. Your notion of relationships is similar to many beings interacting - this interaction may be good or bad, depending on the character of the people involved. Human beings can only interact with God after repentance and faith - these attributes are considered good in the sight of God.

I do not think anyone would agree with your outlook.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #78521

April 14th 2013


If according to Jesus humans are commanded to be in right or good relationship with God, others, and themselves, sin would be in wrong or bad relationship to God, others, and ourselves.

Merv - #78524

April 14th 2013

Roger, for someone who consistently shuns the concept of simplicity you sure do make sweeping ‘either-or’ statements of the sort that suggest that your views are entirely Biblical, and anyone who disagrees is just pulling their case out of thin air with no Biblical support whatsoever.  But you show no sign of understanding or even grappling with the positions you so consistently oppose.  Have you engaged with any Scriptures problematic for your views?  Any that suggest that God’s ways are infinitely higher than ours and incomprehendable to us?  Are you even aware that any such Scriptural grounding of other views exist?  And is it possible that you are right about some things, and yet at the same time your opponents may also be right about many things?  Engagement benefits all of us.  You like complexity, and would paint everything including God with that brush.  So start imagining that the subject of these exchanges (our understanding of God) actually has some complexity to it.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #78525

April 14th 2013


God so loved the World that He gave His only Son so that whosoever believes in Him should not perish beut have everlasting Life. 

God loved us before we loved God.  We do not have to repent and have faith for God to love us, but, yes, we were sinners who failed to return God’s unconditional love for us.

Only when we accept ourselves as sinners and God’s forgiveness of our sins and the sins of the world can we truly love God and receive eternal life with God through the Holy Spirit.  Only then are we found to be righteous in Jesus and are in right relationship with God saved by grace and in right relationship with God through faith.

Repentance, faith, and love are not attributes, but relationships.  I think that you would be very surprised how many people agree with my outlook.  God is Love. 

GJDS - #78530

April 14th 2013

Repentance is performed by an individual, freely, and in response to an understanding that as a human being I/we have sinned and have come short of the glory of God. The law teaches us that we have sinned. I cannot fathom your use of language even on the most easily understood aspects of the Chrisitan faith.

Faith and Love are gifts of the Holy Spirit - just how do you get even this confused with your odd insistance on some type of nebulous relationship?

A relationship can cover everything from an interaction, to relating to others, to blood relations, and to emotional attachments. After repentance and baptism, we are shown by Christ and the Spirit that we regard God as our heavely father. This is very specific and not some type of catch phrase for the odd philosophy you aspouse.

“We do not have to repent .....” this has to be the oddest of all odd statements I have heard from you .... Haven’t you read: ‘unless you (we) repent, you (we) shall all likewise perish’. No-one can come to the Father .... so much of the Christian teaching require this, that I am astonished at your language. You seem to have a nack for mixing various verses in the Bible and come uo with the oddest statements. And I emphatically state that no theologian that I have read would ever agree with you. You turn Biblical teaching into some type of slogan and try to convince yourself you have a theological understanding.

Jon Garvey - #78533

April 15th 2013

Roger at least exposes his views on theistic personalism to examination and criticism. Frankly I’m far more concerned about the hidden personalism that lies underneath much current TE thinking. In its most overt form, this takes the form of open theism - nowadays the most pervasive personalistic stream diluting Evangelicalism both in US and to some extent over here in the UK.

But even where open theism is rejected, it is a personalist theology of God that logically lies behind TE’s ideas of the freedom of nature, creation as kenosis, and the whole central emphasis on theodicy. As a former Catholic poster here, Ben Yachov, once said, “classical theism needs a theodicy like a fish needs a bicycle.”

I have found very few, if any, willing to respond to critiques of these views - I suspect because in their evangelical heart of hearts they have a bigger vision of God than theistic personalism gives, and don’t realise, or want to realise, the incompatibilities between the two sides of their profession.

Merv - #78534

April 15th 2013

Jon, I’ve never considered myself a Calvinist—in the sense of not placing much stock in the doctrine of predestination.  I cling firmly to the notion of personal free will, not because such a thing must be true (much less proveable if it was), but because having some ‘ownership’ or ‘responsibility’ seems to me the only practical perspective by which any person could possibly live.  If ‘freedom’ is such a slippery fish at these philosophical levels for us, how much more will it be impossible to capture regarding other animals or inanimate matter?  So while I agree with you that we probably throw the concept around too loosely in discussions where our terms are in need of as much definition and precision as we can muster, at the same time even criticizing such use doesn’t seem to accomplish much since the concept may well only exist in our heads anyway.  Yet ‘freedom’ seems to be our operating presupposition about life.  We try in vain to peek behind the curtain and see the thing itself, but in the end we just carry on.


Jon Garvey - #78568

April 16th 2013


Reformed teaching doesn’t deny human freedom - only the validity of the post-Renaissance univocal concept of free-will that is totally independent of God as the first source of will, as of everything else. So it’s another classic v personalist thing: just as God’s supra-personal simplicity leaves us able to relate to him personally and not impersonally (contra Roger), so his sovereign will allows us to relate to him in freedom, not bondage.

Only God is not to be seen as just one instantiation of a “being with will”, set alongside humans as other “lesser beings with wills” and, as it were, in competition with them. Similarly he is not a being with more knowledge and intelligence than us, but knowledge itself, from which our knowledge derives. As someone on Ed Feser’s latest relevant thread asks, what IQ would God have? 1000? 1,000,000? - Or isn’t that just a dumb question?

But you appear, like so many here, to have confounded the freedom of rational creatures with the purported freedom of “nature” in mentioning Calvinism at all here. One can give a rational account of human will in terms of consciousness, intention, moral sense and accountability - all incontrovertibly true both biblically and in experience - despite the deeper theological questions about the relationship of those to God’s overseeing will.

My complaint is that not only is “nature’s freedom” both incoherent and unbiblical, but that in the last 18 months of challenging it here nobody at all has stepped forward to defend it rationally. That makes it pretty much a busted flush to me. More below in my reply to Ted.

Ted Davis - #78537

April 15th 2013


I realize that you are not a fan of open theism. I haven’t made up my mind about it yet, though I would say that I am open to open theism—that is, I am not convinced that it is wholly erroneous, as you apparently are. You rightly say that open theism is connected with some versions of TE—including Polkinghorne’s, as you realize—but I need to emphasize that there is no necessary connection between TE (the belief that God uses the process of evolution to create living things, including humans) and open theism (the belief that God does not fully know the future before it actually happens). Many of your comments here seem to imply that there is a necessary connection. I simply wish to point out that TE and open theism are not necessarily connected. Robert Russell, e.g., arguably the most sophisticated Protestant theologian in the “orthodox” TE camp, is not an open theist.

As for Polkinghorne, if I understand his position correctly (I am not fully confident in this case), he is an open theist not as a result of accepting evolution; rather, he is an open theist b/c he believes in genuine, libertarian freedom, and he does not believe that such freedom is logically compatible with exhaustive divine foreknowledge of all future events, including the actions and choices of human agents. God knows what God will do, but God does not know absolutely everything that you and I will do. As P says at one point (Theology in the Context of Science, pp. 62-63), “Open theology pictures God as in providential interaction with divinely ordained natural processes and with the divinely allowed acts of free agents. On this view, the history of the universe is understood to resemble an unfolding improvisation in which the Creator is ceaselessly at work to bring about a harmonious resolution of the great multi-part fugue of creation.” P’s language about “divinely ordained natural processes” contrasts subtly with his language about “divinvely allowed acts of free agents.” I want to make sure that we don’t miss this subtlety.

Jon, I gather that your theological convictions do not allow for libertarian free will? Or, perhaps, you think that somehow genuinely free acts are still known in advance by the Creator? (I grant that possibility, indeed I wrote about it myself in my first published paper more than 30 years ago, though I am no longer sure I agree with it.) Readers are obviously under no obligation to agree with Polkinghorne (or me, or Jon, or anyone else). But, I want to make sure that they understand the logic of his position.

beaglelady - #78551

April 15th 2013

Should probably add that in Polkinghorne’s scenario where God doesn’t know something, he chooses not to know, as a loving act, in order to give his creatures freedom.  (It’s not as if He’d like to know but is really clueless.)

Eddie - #78553

April 15th 2013


It’s dubious that the God of orthodox Christianity can “choose not to know,” given God’s essential characteristics.  From the point of view of “classical theism” that would be like saying that the sun can choose not to give off heat and light.

Of course, Polkinghorne may not feel bound to defend the classical understanding of Christian theism, and that is his right.  But since BioLogos in the past (and I’m not making Ted Davis responsible for the other columnists or management statements here) has often made statements to the effect that it holds to a traditional, orthodox understanding of Christianity, there would then be some tension between the view of Polkinghorne and the view of a number of other TEs who have written columns here.  

I would love to see those theological differences brought out into the open, and discussed and debated on this site by the other columnists and the management.  But based on past precedent, the chances of that happening here are low.  

By the way, Ted, I’m enjoying the Polkinghorne excerpts.  I find that I agree with him on a good number of things.  He, along with Russell, is definitely a cut above most other TEs in theological sophistication.

Jon Garvey - #78570

April 16th 2013


If we’re trying to build a solid interface bertween theology and science, then the devil must be in the detail. “Free as a clade” won’t become a popular proverb unless some serious work is done on defining that freedom.

I’ve raised before the question of whether it would in the slightest way show my love to give my money its freedom by scattering notes to the wind. Nobody replied, but I suggest it would be nonsense because (a) money has no desire or appreciation for such freedom, (b) it is not in money’s nature to benefit from blowing in the wind and (c) money’s actual value is to be used intelligently and with many constraints by me - perhaps even to purchase freedom for other people.

Regarding evolution, I can conceive of rational humans being given freedom by God - but not surely to evolve, except by artificial means. Our gene frequencies are a given, not a choice. I can even, in a restricted way, conceive of higher animals perhaps having “freedom” - in the sense of their daily behaviour. But that has no bearing on evolution, except Lamarckian evolution, either. The same, of course, is true in spades of archaeans or bacteria: “free to be selected for fortuitous fitness” is no more liberating for them than for the last to be picked for a school ball-game.

So who has been given this freedom? Genes, which we are told mutate through no choice of their own or even teleologically? The chemical elements that came, and come, together to form life, as they either follow determined laws of mass action or suffer chaotic or quantum indeterminacy passively? Or the universe as some Gaia-like entity in the nebulosphere?

Present this freedom in a form that actually means something, and it will be possible to agree or disagree.

beaglelady - #78577

April 16th 2013

Nobody is saying that genes make choices. This is something that Fr. Polkinghorne wrote for his parish magazine after the great tsunami. It speaks a bit about the freedom given creation:

Great natural disasters, like that which we have seen in the Indian Ocean, trouble all of us and perplex religious believers as they wrestle with the question of God’s role in these matters. It would be foolish to suppose that there is some simple formula that could, in a few sentences, remove all our difficulties, but there are two thoughts that may be of some help as we think and pray and give in response to what has happened:
One reason why the tsunami occurred is that we do not live in a magic world, but in a creation that has been given the gift of reliable and regular laws of nature by its Creator. The great fertility of life in all its forms depends on that gift.  But it also has its inescapable shadow side.  A world of evolving fruitfulness canno help also being a world with malformations and ragged edges as part of it.  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.  Yet if there are tectonic plates, they will also occasionally slip, producing earthquakes and the huge ocean swells that accompany them. You cannot have one without the other.  We all tend to think that if we had been in charge of creation we would have kept all the nice things and discarded all the bad ones. The more we learn scientifically how the world works, the more clearly we see that this is just not possible, for fruitfulness and destructiveness, order and chaos, are inextricably intertwined.
The second thought is a specifically Christian insight into God’s relationship to suffering.  Our God is not just as compassionate spectator of events, looking down in pity from the safety of heaven, but we believe that, in the cross of Christ, God himself - living a human life in Jesus - has truly been a fellow-sharer of the anguish of the world.  Where is God in the suffering of creation? The Christian answer is that God is a participant alongside us in the strangeness and bitterness of events.  I believe that this insight meets the problem of suffering at the most profound level possible.

beaglelady - #78579

April 16th 2013

For a fuller treatment you could also read Fr. Polkinghorne’s book, “Theology in the Context of Science”  where there is a discussion of the so-called free will defence of God.

Jon Garvey - #78584

April 16th 2013

Hi Beaglelady

Thanks for being the first to attempt a serious reply in many months! JP’s tsunami commentary is a good example of the general argument that God allows evils for some greater good, with which I fully agree.

It’s even a good example of the Plantinga type of freewill defence, in which human freedom necessitates a world in which causes have real consequences, including the possibility that the regularities of nature will combine in unexpected and dramatic ways, and I have no problem with that either. Classic theism, back to Aquinas and even the Bible, confirms the place of contingency in the universe, though it is careful not to divorce it ultimately from God’s providential will, unlike neotheism.

Where I have a problem is with the personification of nature or the cosmos under the emotive banner of freedom. As you no doubt know, Plantinga’s defence has been criticised for not applying to so-called natural evil. JP, of course, bridges the perceived gap thus:

I have added to it the free-process defence, that a world allowed to make itself is better than a puppet theatre with a Cosmic Tyrant.

How exactly is the world being tyrannised if God makes it (with or without secondary causes) rather than letting it make itself? What even does it mean for something to make itself? A symphony is not unjustly coerced because we play it rather than letting it play itself - being played by people is its very nature. And that begs the question, of course, of persuading the symphony it that wants to compose itself in the first place.

Even the puppet theatre itself speaks against the analogy - none of us who have enjoyed Wallace and Grommit have any moral qualms whatsoever because Nick Park has sovereignty over their every action. Nor are we, or the puppets, cheated by that fact, even though they are actually characters created in the image and likeness of rational beings (especially Grommit). Might I suggest that a film actually made by W & G would be - well - awful.

“The world”, apart from its rational and, arguably, more sentient beings, is no more capable of being tyrannised than plasticine puppets are - unless one wants to embrace panpsychism, vitalism etc - in which case “the world” becomes indistinguishable from a Demiurge and gnosticism has replaced Christianity.

Those beings that are actually capable of suffering injustice - such as man or arguably higher animals - have no ability to “make themselves” by evolution, but only (under Neodarwinian assumptions) to suffer whatever existence an unthinking law-driven + contigent process might impose on them.

There are, then, three possibilities that we, as people in the world, might consider of our own existence:

“I freely made me as I am” - that’s self-evident nonsense.

“God freely made me as I am” - I’m happy with that, as have been the saints down the millennia: I don’t feel at all tyrannised by it, even when I wonder about the arthritis I’m getting in late life, or even when I recognise secondary causes like my parents or guided evolution. And I am doubly thankful when I realise that it was by the Logos, the word and wisdom of my heavenly Father, who also died for me, that the Bible says all things were made, including yours truly.

“The world freely made me as I am” - that confuses me a lot, and worries me somewhat: if God is the highest Creator, and I am in his image, why did he delegate and not do the job himself? He sounds like a Head of State who’s more interested in giving corporate banks “freedom” than in making sure the little man gets a good result… you can spin the story any way you want, but analogies aside the “Cosmic Tyrant” imagery is high on rhetoric but lacks any coherent substance that I can see . And it directly contradicts Scripture’s imagery, too, which ought to count for something.

Ted Davis - #78585

April 16th 2013

Thank you for the expression of support, Eddie. I’m glad that you find Polkinghorne and Russell a theological cut above “most other TEs,” but surely that shouldn’t be so surprising: they are, after all, theologians. You might rightly point out that we need more folks like them to influence the larger TE camp, but I’ll say it for you.

The root problem here, as I see it, is the difference between blogging and serious scholarship. Forgive me (anyone) if this sounds “elitist,” for I am simply saying what the landscape looks like to me, and I am just one pair of eyes looking out on it.

Blogging is still at this point mainly about the popularization of serious ideas that originate elsewhere. Most heavy duty theologians, scientists, and other scholars do not blog (I said “most” b/c there are at least some exceptions). They do their serious work at length, not in 1500-word chunks, and they don’t have to worry about explaining their newest ideas in terms that will make sense to people outside the “ivory tower,” or even to fellow academics from other fields. And, at least in the humanities, most of the serious work is still being done in print books or academic journals (whether electronic or print) that are simply not readily accessible to readers without ready access to academic libraries. Ultimately, the conversation about science and religion is about the humanities, much more than the sciences. The bottom line it’s just very hard to get the best stuff to a larger number of people in a form that is digestible to them.

I’m doing what I can, in limited time and with limited financial resources, to bring some of the best stuff to more people in (I hope) a form that won’t be entirely indigestible. The two chapters of Polkinghorne that BL is presently presenting are something of a trial balloon, to speak frankly. If they take off, perhaps more balloons will be coming.

Ted Davis - #78586

April 16th 2013

As for God “choosing not to know” certain things, Eddie, your point is well taken. At the same time, it’s important to realize that P’s position is intermediate here, between (on the one hand) the classical view of God, heavily influenced by both Greek philosophy and biblical revelation; and the process view of God, which I (at least) see as even more influenced by Greek philosophy (specifically Aristotle’s emphasis on the world of becoming). In the process view, the limitations on God’s knowledge and power come from external necessities, as with Plato’s Demiurge; in P’s view, they are freely chosen by God. So, P looks “liberal” (on those points) to classical theists, while he looks “conservatvie” on the same points to process theists. Since he is no process theist, he has no difficulty embracing the bodily Resurrection, the actual divine origination of the universe, or a future embodied life with God in a new heaven and earth. That is, he has no difficulty affirming that God has the power to act “outside” of the course of nature, which is of course anathema to process theism.

Whether the type of path P takes will prove to be a viable middle road remains to be seen. Ditto for Russell or any other Christian thinker who accepts evolution but also accepts the ecumenical creeds—the type of middle road that was all but untravelled in the era of the Scopes trial, but is now seeing some traffic in our time.

Jon Garvey - #78569

April 16th 2013


There is no necessary link between open theism and TE at all, but there is a contingent association  between many current TEs and OT, which needs explaining.

See my reply to Merv re human freedom, which I hold to be a different question from the one I raised. I’m not really seeking to engage with JP’s open theism here, but with Roger’s carry-over from another thread (I responsed positively to JP in my first post on this thread). I don’t fully understand the nature of Polkinghorne’s position on OT, though I’m pretty certain from your remarks that it all follows inevitably from his espousing theistic personalism, so is relevant to what’s been discussed, but I was making a different point.

What I cannot fathom is how so many see no difference between the freedom of humans or God, and the freedom of genes, or chemicals, or a universe, “to create themselves in their own way and in their own time”. It seems to me that this concept makes any real sense only in the context of the panentheism or process theology that were prominent in the contemporary science-faith dialogue, or in the kind of panpsychism that Tom Nagel seems to be espousing as an alternative to theism.

Actually, panpsychism could fit in a classic theistic framework - but in that case, inherent teleology in nature would be subsumed in God’s purpose as first cause. But I’m willing to wager that the steady procession of evangelical BioLogos writers celebrating nature’s “freedom” are not panentheists, process philosophers or panpsychists - so in what way is that “freedom” any more than a democratic-sounding buzzword?

So my scenario is this: from an evangelical base that has become “infected” with theistic personalism/neotheism, the whole idea of God as being, and needing to be, “like us” comes. From that also follows the absolutisation of freedom, the relativisation of God’s knowledge and so on.

The kenotic theology of Moltmann etc can only really arise on that basis - it doesn’t come from Scripture, as I’ve argued here and here. But it seems to appeal particularly to those favouring orthodox Neodarwinism because it seems to make a virtue of God’s problematic non-action in evolution. This newly non-coercive God (notice the competitive personalism in that term - it puts the “being” God on the same univocal spectrum as his created “beings”) deliberately steps back to make nature a democracy.

Open theism, though neither a mainstream Christian or evangelical view, nor a necessary consequence of Moltmann, also often appeals to many theistic evolutionists because, once more, it makes a virtue of the necessity of “chance” by calling it “freedom”. Which is no more than a polemic trick. Additionally, open theism appears to have theodicy value by making “evil” outcomes as surprising (and unwelcome?) to God as to people.

But the root, as I suggested above, is in first losing the majesty of the classical view of God’s nature and substituting Scotian “univocity” or its modern equivalent, theistic personalism. After that step, God inevitably becomes a tyrant evetually unless he gives the whole universe the vote.

The specific question I raise again, though, regardless of the theological path people took to get to it, is why the whole concept of “free nature” (as totally distinct from “free people”) is anything other than unintelligible and incoherent apart from the vitalism, panentheism, process theology or panpsychism that most BioLogos evangelicals have rejected.


Ted Davis - #78588

April 16th 2013


Thank you very much for the thoughtful commentary, including the links to the lengthier comments on your blog.

P’s “free process” defense is just one of several suggested by various TE proponents, as you probably know. The great question of theodicy in relation to any understanding of God’s relation to the whole of creation is challenging, to say the least. This applies regardless of which conceptual “box” one belongs in or is closest to—TE, ID, OEC, or YEC. (I don’t give the atheists a pass either, even though God for them does not exist. For them, theodicy still exists, but in a different form: why should we rebel against our “selfish genes,” if there are no ultimate categories of good and evil?)

Since you have at hand Russell’s Cosmology from Alpha to Omega, let me point you to pp. 189-93, where he has a fully sourced and detailed, though brief, discussion of the general discussion among Christian authors in his section of the modern “dialogue.” Eddie sometimes calls for us to see the interactions, to hear the exchanges among participants in this conversation. This is one of the places where the tip of that iceberg is visible, and one can uncover some of the rest of the iceberg by following the footnotes. Indeed, the entire book is like this; much of the invisible conversation can be revealed by tracking down the references and paying very careful attention to Russell’s very carefully worded prose.

I certainly can’t do that work for our readers, but you (Jon) and Eddie might want to take this suggestion further, if you are so inclined. I suspect that Jon’s theological instincts will ultimately prove to be significantly at odds with Russell’s, despite the latter’s rejection of open theism. For example, Russell has a much more positive view of Moltmann’s The Crucified God than Jon does. As he says on p. 192, “Rather than look to process theology, I propose we locate the problem of divine action and quantum physics in an explicitly trinitarian doctrine of God. In The Crucified God, which I take to be a landmark in 20th-century Protestant theology, Jurgen Moltmann pointedly argues that only a move from a ‘weakly Christianized monotheism’ to a fully articulated trinitarianism can respond to the theological problem of the cross.”

You certainly must do your own thinking, Jon, and so will I. Perhaps (as you say) the whole approach advocated (in general) by P, Russell, Moltmann, and many others in the modern “dialogue” is profoundly unorthodox, b/c it’s coming (in your analysis) out of a type of “personalism” that is simply unacceptable to you. Those you critize here might reply by saying that your theology is (ironically) not sufficiently biblical, b/c it’s too Greek. I can only say with Russell: “I believe we must look to a kenotic theology that respects human freedom and focuses on the passibility and suffering of God.” (p. 191) I also respect your freedom to come out in a very different place: you must go where your commitments drive you.

Jon Garvey - #78594

April 16th 2013


Thanks in turn for your thoughtful response. You were right in suspecting that Russell’s recourse to kenosis was the main (almost the only) point at which I found I differed seriously from him. However, even there I felt he had some good points to make about the need for a Christological resolution of questions of suffering - I just differ on what those questions are, and in the understanding of how Christ’s suffering relates to Creation.

You may have noticed that I did a series of several blogs after those I linked to before, on an alternative Christological/Trinitarian view of Creation, so as to contribute positively rather than appear as merely critical.

I’m even more sympathetic to the position of Moltmann than this particular debate gives me opportunity to acknowledge. But like Richard Bauckham (who has written a lot on Moltmann), I find he’s good where his position derives from Scripture, and less good when he sits loose to it - fortunately his take on the suffering of God takes in more than kenosis.. which does sit loose to Scripture.

Open theism, as I’ve said before, is to me only a symptom of more fundamental differences about the nature of God. As to whether classical or personalist theism is more Biblical I’m happy to argue for the former (in the tradition of the Church). But in any case it is still significant that the latter is a minority position in the Church at large, yet over-represented in Theistic Evolution. And that raises again the important question of whether the aim of BioLogos, for example, is to show Christians the compatibility of evolutionary theory with mainstream theology, or to move them towards a non-mainstream theology in order to accommodate to a particular approach to current evolutionary theory. If so, it should be stated upfront.

The personalist/classical dichotomy applies to theodicy in particular. I believe I’m right in saying that in a former column you said that a truly Christological theodicy was the answer to Old Testament theodicies such as that of Job - which I seem to remember you considered “provisional” (apologies if misremembered).

But I would reply that theodicy, intrinsically, is the attempt to see if God can give an adequate account of himself and his actions. In the light of the cross, it says at its best, that will finally be the case.

But I would say that to hold God to account at all, as if he were just another example of accountable persons, is to commit to the agenda of neotheism anyway. Job’s theophany was not a theodicy, but a version of the beatific vision (to use the scholastic handle) which renders such an accounting superfluous. The willing suffering of Christ on our behalf, ordained (we read) before the foundation of the world and therefore in his mind even as he created it, will not provide arguments to justify God so much as deepen the meaning of that beatific vision. The New Testament’s refusal to attempt to give us an acceptable theodicy, other than the call to let God be God, seems to me to support that view.

1 Cor 13.11-13 refers.

Ted Davis - #78606

April 16th 2013

Thank you for the further thoughts, Jon. I will respond only to this of yours:

“And that raises again the important question of whether the aim of BioLogos, for example, is to show Christians the compatibility of evolutionary theory with mainstream theology, or to move them towards a non-mainstream theology in order to accommodate to a particular approach to current evolutionary theory. If so, it should be stated upfront.”

I think I can say, on behalf of BioLogos, that our aim is to raise the level of conversation about these issues, to help Christians (and others) see that Ken Ham and Richard Dawkins aren’t the only two positions worthy of consideration, and that evolution per se does not contradict genuine Christian faith. I’m not interested in “accommodating” my understanding of Christian faith to any particular approach to current evolutionary theory, but I’m always interested in relating my faith to the world as we actually find it. That’s Polkinghorne’s attitude also; that’s what he means by saying that science and Christian belief are “cousinly” disciplines, and it’s worth remembering that one of his first books is  called The Way the World Is.

Chip - #78543

April 15th 2013

Hi Lou.  Reams and reams have been written on this stuff—my brief responses follow, for what they’re worth…

On Anachronisms

I agree that the excerpt you gave doesn’t contain anachronisms, but lots of passages do.

Awesome; already we have a couple points of agreement:  1) There are no anachronisms in the Titus passage—which I included to illustrate exactly that point:  Namely, that the most important portions of revelation are in fact timeless, making the anachronism critique moot.  2) Many of the other passages that do contain anachronisms do so because they’re ancient texts, in which anachronisms are to be expected.  Should David or Paul, for example, have written their works in such a way that they were (somehow…) free from all anachronisms in every language and culture in which they were read?  Would someone reading in Gaul in AD 1000 have been helped by your website idea?  Would you level the anachronism critique against, for example, Tacitus or Marcus Aurielius?  If not, your bias is showing.

On Damnation

Here, I’m more sympathetic, as I have a hard time with some of this as well—partiuclarly on an emotional level (anyone who doesn’t, hasn’t thought very deeply about the issues).  But having said that, on an intellectual level, the line of argument you seem to be making creates more problems than it solves, IMO.  Again, a couple questions:   1) Do you want to live in the kingdom of God?  Is this something you look forward to?  Is it appealing, attractive?  If so, as Titus points out, access to the same is freely available to one and all.  Welcome aboard. 

If not, do you think God should compel you to reside there? Drag you in against your will?  In this case, it would seem to me that being separated from God (and his resources—a situation we might rightly call “hell”) is what you want—especially when you don’t really seem to have a very high opinion of him in the first place. 

Bottom line:  your position seems inconsistent to me.  On the one hand, you seem to be saying that it’s unjust that some people are kept out, while at the same time actively moving away from the gates that are standing freely open.   

Which leads us to…

On Access

Why would god just reveal his word to 1/3 of the people on earth

I actually don’t know what the percentages are, but they’re certainly higher than that.  If 1/3 of people self-identify as xians, then the number of people who have been exposed to revelation but rejected it (as you apparently have) must be higher.  Still, the point is valid:  some haven’t heard.  What about the proverbial Man in Borneo? 

In a very small nutshell, my own view is that while specific revelation is better/clearer, general revelation is sufficient to know God. As Romans 1 states, for example: 

They know the truth about God because he has made it evident to them. For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God.

Thus, no one is without witness. 

And finally…

On Dissent

Yet he doesn’t seem to care whether people believe his “real” revelation or imposters’ revelations…

Here, I’d ask you what the alternative is.  Are you asking for God to quash all non-orthodox views?  Really? Be careful what you wish for.  Your views are pretty non-orthodox, and you seem to appreciate the freedom to express them—in some cases with a fair amount of edgy sarcasm (which I appreciate, BTW). 

Again, the position seems  a little inconsistent to me:  “I’m going to express my dissent by objecting to the fact that God’s allows dissent…”

My own view is that the license to speak and articulate freely is a gift.  God is secure enough to roll with a few critical punches, and many people—as was the case with me—learn more about him through the exercise of the freedom to articulate ideas that are… less than right in line with his platform.  It’s only one of the many gifts he’s provided for you, and me, and all of us. 



Roger A. Sawtelle - #78549

April 15th 2013

(Mat 5:44-48 NIV) But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,

(45) that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

(46) If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?

(47) And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?

(48) Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.


Jesus told us to love everyone, even our enemies, so we can be perfect like God the Father Who love and blesses the just and the unjust alike with rain. Gosd first loved us so that we might love God. This is good Biblical theology.

Love and faith do come from God, but so Christians have a monopoly on love and faith. Do Christians live in ghetto of some sort or do we all live in God’s world and we all experience to some extent God gifts of Love and Faith?

They are not things, but the way we should relate to others as Jesus taught us and Paul expalined in 1 Cor 13. They are not nebulous, but real and clear.

In this time terrorism and narrow ideology we need love and faith more than ever.


GJDS - #78564

April 16th 2013


I have tried to discuss your view regarding simplicity and complexity. I cannot see how your comments on love and faith progress this discussion - all Christians  agree that the gifts of God’s Holy Spirit include love and faith. I have not extended the discussion in the way you seem to suggest. The question has been all along related to your odd view that God is complex, and I have tried to show you that this is error. I have also tried to show that using the term ‘relationship’ brings in other matters, that in themselves, do nothing else but confirm the notion of God as simple, holy, unchangeable, and so on.

GJDS - #78563

April 16th 2013

Jon, Ted, Eddie, and Merv,

From my point of view, these useful discussions are getting us closer to the ‘matters that matter’ (forgive the play on words). The two points that need a clearer understanding are: (i) what is our understanding of how God may act in the world, and (ii) what is it that we mean when we speak of freedom.

Most profound aspects of human existence appear to have a straightforward meaning, followed by a deep and almost inaccessible meaning at the same time. I think these two areas fit in with this notion. Orthodoxy (with a huge effort and considerable suffering) has provided us with a firm and sound understanding of point (i), but not in the context of the advances in science over the past few centuries. Our western civilisation has paid a huge price in pain and suffering as it tries to understand point (ii).

My profound and heated discussions with the person I regard as my friend throughout eternity, was on point (ii). He, as a former soldier who fought and bled, insisted that freedom was equated with liberty, and being very, very, orthodox, insisted this is what we understand as freedom when we discuss God. I argued that freedom when discussed within the faith in Christ, is much more than this, and is our ground of being – this means that God has ‘granted’ this freedom to us for our sake (just as He breathed life and man became a living soul), and this requires our understanding, and our will, to choose the good, freely and within a totality of being.

On point (i), I am still trying to understand the point in dispute – my ‘best guess’ is that with an understanding the creation is what it is from science, some appear to struggle with concepts such as ‘open theism’, which seems to say that God may ‘allow nature to take its course’, or perhaps nature is created in such a way that God has ‘allowed himself’ the opportunity to intervene, or direct its course. On this matter, I recommend we try and discuss what we understand as time. From my perspective, once we accept that God is not limited by time, the notion of tinkering, or intervening, becomes redundant. Heller also writes of mathematics which may show that ‘time is created’, or somehow comes into ‘existence’ as his equations take form.

I think continued discussion on these points would be useful. On adding evolution, I cannot get past what I consider obvious, in that evolutionist themselves confess, within their given constraints, that as a theory within the context of these discussions, it is inadequate.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #78576

April 16th 2013

Merv wrote:

Are you even aware that any such Scriptural grounding of other views exist? And is it possible that you are right about some things, and yet at the same time your opponents may also be right about many things?


You and I have been a part of this discussion for some time now.  Surely you know that I have argued this basic topic many times with Jon and Eddie, with Eddie and Beagle Lady, and with Eddie alone.  Now I am arguing it with Jon, GJDS, and you. 

Each time others have said that my position is flat out wrong. Now if my position is so totally different from yours and mine is correct, then yours must be totally wrong.  This is how all of you seem to see it.

Now my position is that you are mistaken in one simple but important aspect of theology.  I do not accuse you of being a heretic as I have been.  However it is clear to me that God reveals God as a Person in the Bible which is by definition a Complex/One Being. 

There is no Biblical reason to suppose God is a Simple/One Being, but there are philosophical reasons to think that God is Simple.  In my view the Bible generally overules philosophy and I find good reason to do so in this case, which I explain in my books if anyone cares to read them.

Jon refered to the Biblical statement, “Hear O Israel, YHWH, your God is One,” as proof that God is Simple.  We are agreed that God is One, but this does not prove that God is Simple.

My response is that humans are persons (complex/one,) because they are created in the Image of God, Who thus must be a Person.  If you can show me strong evidence that humans are created in the Image of a Simple God, I will take it very seriously.

Our theology, our faith, and our culture at its best is based on the dignity of human beings, which can only be founded on the concept of being created in the Image of God.  Complex humans created in the Image of a Simple God does not fly.

Psalm 8 quoted in full above brings these issues together.  GJDS didn’t seem to understand this, but he is from a different theological tradition.  If you understand the psalm to support your view, speak out.

Yes, God is very different from us in some ways, but this did not prevent God from creating us in God’s Image, from making covenants with us, from revealing Godself through the Bible, and especially through Jesus Christ. 

Surely if God were Simple, He would have made that very clear through the Scripture and would not have sent Jesus to die upon the Cross for our sins.       


Merv - #78609

April 16th 2013

Hello, Roger.  Thanks for the reassurance that you don’t consider me a heretic.  I’m not in the business of declaring such things about other people either, so I hope I haven’t come across that way to you.

You still seem to be in a boolean world where it is you (and the Bible) against everyone else, and either you are totally right about everything or else everybody else is.  I can’t speak for others here, but I just do not see any ‘all-or-nothing’ packages in what you espouse.  I have delineated the things you say which are reasonable and biblical:  e.g.  God relates to us in personal ways, and that God is known to us in a triune way (through Christ and His Spirit no less).  So I’m mystified as to why you feel you are on some new theological branch. 

Thanks for sharing Psalm 8.  It is a beautiful, indeed.  And the verses you shared from the sermon on the mount are ones I’ve shared here too.  We are indeed called to be perfect, as impossible as that is until God transforms us.  Here also is a passage from Isaiah 55:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says Yahweh.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Eddie - #78632

April 17th 2013



I have not argued that your position is “flat out wrong.”

I could not have said it was “flat out wrong” because I do not understand it well enough to say that it is wrong.  Rather, I find it incoherent.  The theological and philosophical concepts you employ are jumbled together in a fashion that makes it impossible to locate your precise argument, if there is one.  

Roger A. Sawtelle - #78612

April 16th 2013


I quite agree.  Must of not most of what I have said is not new to ost people.  However there are older strains of theological thought that resist ideas that they consider modern and wrong.  Eddie and probably John seem to subscribe to this view.  GJDS is Orthodox and accepts the Orthodox point of view, which is different.

The thing that is important to me is that we need a new world view to bring together science, philosophy, and theology.  Christianity holds the key to that new world view, which is must be complex/one.  While it is understandable that there is resistance to such a change, the intensity of these resistance seems over ther top.

Yes, human ways are different from human ways.  I associate this with pride.  Whenever people think that have things all figured out, God finds a way to upset the applecart.  That is what happened to the Pharisees and the Saducees.  They except for a few like S/Paul lost out, while a young girl like Mary trusted in God and was redeemed.

Jesus was the Son of God because He was willing to be a servant, while everyone else was looking for or was looking to be a “Leader.”  This is how God is different from us, not some philosophical or scientific reason.  Look at Phil 2:1-11.

I find that the Bible keeps me humble.  Others might not agree with this, but I constantly find in it new revelations that come from God and not from my brain.  It is too bad that so many associate believing in the Bible with a narrow interpretion of Genesis 1 and 2, when there is so much beauty, wisdom, and knowledge in that Book. 

I find that we can understand God when we listen to what God says, and not try to make what the Bible says fit our way of thinking.  I can see this is different from how most people think, but I do not think it is revolutionary in a negative way.            

GJDS - #78617

April 16th 2013

”... and accepts the Orthodox view, which is different” ......” new world view, which is (must be) complex/one”.

I am waiting to hear from anyone (with the exception of you Roger) who sees ‘your view’ and how this is accepted by anyone, and how the Orthodox view differs on the matters we are discussing. The central point is that of freedom, and if some propose that ‘nature can make itself’. This rightly goes against the views of all Christian traditions.

As to a new world view you seem to be promoting, it comes over as an incoherent ‘something’ that you keep refering to as ’ ... triunian ... complex/one… relational….” and yet you fail to put forward anything but a series of slogans. Just what is it that you think differs so much from Christian teaching - and who has agreed with this view that you seem to have?

It is insufficient to make such statements - blow me down, you profess humility and than claim to have a new ‘world changing’ view. Even people like Calvin and Luther were not inclined to make such claims - I do not see anything you say that would approach anything these people have achieved, and have written. Is this your understanding of humility? 

Still, looking thorugh various sections of the Bible is always a welcomed activity - so perhaps that is where all of this rather confusing (albeit in your mind a new view that Christianity has that differs from Orthodoxy) may have relevance.



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