Motivated Belief: John Polkinghorne on the Resurrection, Part 2

| By Ted Davis on Reading the Book of Nature

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 & 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.

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.


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