John Polkinghorne on Natural Theology, Part 1

Featuring: Transcript written by the BioLogos Editorial Team

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elaine Howard Ecklund, Herbert S. Autrey Chair in Social Sciences and Professor of Sociology at Rice University

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- Elaine Howard Ecklund, Herbert S. Autrey Chair in Social Sciences and Professor of Sociology at Rice University
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