Searching for Motivated Belief: Understanding John Polkinghorne, Part 2

| By Ted Davis on Reading the Book of Nature

In my last post, I presented John Polkinghorne’s attitude to scientific and religious knowledge and explained his approach to natural theology. Today, we briefly examine his theology of nature and his attitude toward the Resurrection.


Matthias Grünewald, The Small Crucifixion (c. 1511/1520), National Gallery of Art

Understanding John Polkinghorne: Theology of Nature

John Polkinghorne’s interest in natural theology is important, but what really sets him apart from most others is that he combines it with an equally strong interest in theology of nature, which is not the same thing. Where natural theology involves, “metaquestions about the pattern and structure of the physical world,” theology of nature involves, “metaquestions about how its historical process is to be understood.” Rather than “looking to the physical world for hints of God’s existence,” we look “to God’s existence as an aid for understanding why things have developed in the physical world in the manner that they have.” (Belief in God in an Age of Science, p. 13)

On this front, Polkinghorne advances a strongly Christocentric theology of creation, stressing Jürgen Moltmann’s notion of The Crucified God . In the context of Polkinghorne’s theology of nature, the point is that the Creator is the crucified and resurrected second person of the Trinity. Since I devoted a column to this before, I won’t say more here, except to alert readers to the singular importance this particular idea has for him—especially when facing the problem of suffering. “The insight of the Crucified God lies at the very heart of my own Christian belief, indeed of the possibility of such belief in the face of the way the world is.” (Belief in God in an Age of Science, p. 44)

Situating John Polkinghorne: The Resurrection of Jesus

Many Christians today see science as posing dangerous threats to their faith, challenging their understanding of the Bible and undermining core tenets such as the bodily Resurrection of Jesus, the historical basis on which the Christian faith stands or falls. “Evolution” is often identified as the problem, but the real danger is unbridled naturalism. A commitment to naturalistic methods, known as “methodological naturalism,” (MN) has been an integral part of science and medicine since the ancient Greeks. Those methods have been highly successful at producing a coherent, often very convincing picture of nature and the history of nature.

Advocates of Intelligent Design and some other Christians reject MN, but many Christians who work in the sciences and related fields (such as engineering, medicine, or the history and philosophy science) support MN as a properly grounded and properly limited way of understanding reality. In their view, a robust Christian faith is consistent with a commitment to MN, provided that the limits of scientific inquiry are not simply equated with the limits of rationally grounded belief. Polkinghorne fits squarely in this category.

To understand more clearly where Polkinghorne lies on the larger landscape of science and religion, let’s consider his approach to the Resurrection. Many contemporary thinkers, including some theologians and clergy, believe that “science” has somehow made it impossible to believe in the Resurrection, the deity of Jesus, and even belief in the transcendent God of the Bible.

A prime example is John Shelby Spong, a retired Episcopalian bishop whose books have sold more than one million copies. Spong sees the bodily Resurrection as a figment of the disciples’ imaginations, a vestige of a theism that now we must throw away like a threadbare suit of clothes. For Spong, Christians today need to go “beyond theism” throwing out the baby of divine transcendence—the fundamental truth of monotheism—along with the bath water of the credulity and mythology of the pre-modern authors of the Bible and the ecumenical creeds. Spong’s message is that “Christianity must change or die,” and all in the name of “science.”

As Spong likes to say, his work is very controversial, and not just among rank-and-file Christians. Scholars have also railed against him. “I have been attacked in books from the religious right by such people as Alistair MacGrath [whose surname is actually spelled McGrath], N.T. Wright, and Luke Timothy Johnson,” he complains (Why Christianity Must Change or Die, p. xvi).

I understand (with much sadness) that we live in a highly polarized age. Nevertheless, it’s difficult for me to grant much credibility to an author who identifies McGrathWright, and Johnson as representatives of the “religious right.” Indeed, if anyone here is distorting the news it is Spong, not they. As the (late) great Catholic biblical scholar Raymond Brown once observed, “I do not think that a single NT [New Testament] author would recognize Spong’s Jesus as the figure being proclaimed or written about.” (Birth of the Messiah, note 321 on p. 704)

Matthias Grünewald, The Resurrection (a wing of the
Isenheim Altarpiece, ca. 1515), Unterlinden Museum,
Colmar, France

Polkinghorne certainly understands science far more than Spong does, and his conclusions about the implications of science for Christian beliefs are markedly different. With respect to the Resurrection, he is basically on the same page with his friend Wright, whose profound book, The Resurrection of the Son of God, he cites with appreciation. Belief in the Resurrection is well supported by the evidence, and the Resurrection, itself, is “the pivot on which the claim of a unique and transcendent significance for Jesus must turn.” Considering authors like Spong (although he does not explicitly name him), he adds, “it would be a serious apologetic mistake if Christian theology thought that operating in the context of science should somehow discourage it from laying proper emphasis on the essential centrality of Christ’s Resurrection, however counterintuitive that belief may seem in the light of mundane expectation.” (Theology in the Context of Science, pp. 135-6)


Looking Ahead

This is the Easter season, and I’ll return in a couple of weeks to begin examining Polkinghorne’s approach to the Resurrection more fully, using excerpts from the chapter on “Motivated Belief” from his recent book, Theology in the Context of Science.


References & Credits

Raymond E. Brown, Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. (1992).

John Polkinghorne, Belief in God in an Age of Science (1998).

John Polkinghorne, Theology in the Context of Science (2009). My review for First Things online is here.

John Shelby Spong, Why Christianity Must Change or Die (1998).

About the Author

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.