[Paleopsych] First Things: Theology for Physicists
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Theology for Physicists
May 2005: Books in Review
First st Things 153 (May 2005): 39-42.
Science and the Trinity: The Christian Encounter with Reality
By John Polkinghorne, Yale University Press. 208 pp. $24.
Reviewed by Stephen M. Barr
The story of science and religion since the Middle Ages has been one
of estrangement rather than conflict. When the Aristotelian synthesis
shattered, science and theology drifted apart, becoming at last
disconnected universes of discourse.
Over the last few decades many theologians and some scientists have
attempted a new "dialogue of science and religion" in order to end
this estrangement. A leading figure in this dialogue has been John
Polkinghorne, a respected theoretical particle physicist at Cambridge
University who, in the early 1980s, left scientific research in
mid-career to become an Anglican clergyman and devote himself to
writing on science and theology.
The science-theology dialogue has chiefly dealt with natural theology
and such basic issues as the existence of God, the order and
intelligibility of the universe, the evidence for design and purpose
in nature, and the limitations of a crassly reductionist materialism.
It has brought greater understanding and even some agreement among
people of diverse backgrounds and concerns, ranging from agnostic
seekers to people of traditional faith.
And now, according to Polkinghorne, the dialogue is ready for a new
stage--where theologically deeper and specifically Christian subjects
are addressed. Science and the Trinity: The Christian Encounter with
Reality, based on Polkinghorne's 2003 Warfield Lectures at Princeton
Theological Seminary, is a contribution to this new stage of
Along the way, Polkinghorne argues that going beyond the basics of
theism can make belief more credible to nonbelievers. He makes an
analogy with natural science: "Significant scientific advances often
begin with the illuminating simplicity of a basic insight,... but they
persist and persuade through the detailed and complex explanatory
power of subsequent technical development."
In the same way, theism is more persuasive in the form of a richly
elaborated theological tradition than in the bare abstractions of
philosophy. He therefore maintains that the next stage of dialogue is
best conducted from within a particular tradition of faith. For him,
the tradition of "Trinitarian theology" provides the most persuasive
and satisfying "theological thickness."
Polkinghorne contrasts his own attitude toward tradition with that of
three other prominent "scientist-theologians": Paul Davies, Ian
Barbour, and Arthur Peacocke. In order of increasing respect for
Christian tradition, Davies represents the "deistic" approach, Barbour
the "theistic," Peacocke the "revisionist," and Polkinghorne the
Polkinghorne'sunderstanding of proper theological "development" owes
more to modern liberal Anglicanism than to John Henry Newman.
Nevertheless, in spite of what he calls his "flexibility of
hermeneutical strategy," Polkinghorne really is quite traditional in
many ways. He believes in the Trinity, the virgin birth, the empty
tomb, and the post-resurrection appearances of Christ. Although
comfortable with modern biblical criticism, he is able to muster a
degree of skepticism toward the hyperskeptical approaches of its more
Polkinghorne also differs from the other scientist-theologians he
discusses in his view of the proper relation between theology and
science. Davies, Barbour, and Peacocke are all to some degree
"assimilationists" who seek "to achieve a greater merging of the two
disciplines." Polkinghorne sees a danger in this: Christian theology
has its own sources, insights, methods, and internal logic, so that it
risks being denatured if "theological concerns become subordinated to
the scientific." Still, theology should take account of scientific
insights, for these not only raise important questions for theological
reflection but can even "motivate the imposition of certain
metaphysical constraints" on what could be considered satisfactory
answers. Nevertheless, unlike Peacocke, Polkinghorne does not think
any "radical revision" of Christian doctrine is required to meet the
challenges raised by modern scientific thought.
The particular questions addressed in Science and the Trinity concern
the role of Scripture, God's relationship to the universe, the nature
of what Polkinghorne awkwardly calls "God in Godself," the Eucharist,
and eschatology. Polkinghorne's method in addressing these questions
is empirical and inductive. "Because I am a theoretical physicist," he
writes, "the style of thinking I adopt is a `bottom-up' approach,
which seeks to move from experience to understanding." He certainly
does not reject the idea of divine revelation, top-down though it may
be. But he tends to conceive of revelation as "an experiential
encounter," in which "critical episodes" led the people of Israel,
later the first Christians, and finally ourselves to "revelatory
insights." The Bible is thus a "record of experience," in the
interpretation of which "creative freedom" is allowed--while tradition
is the sum of the Christian community's ongoing experiences and
reflections, to be mined in an eclectic way.
In other words, Polkinghorne does not wish to be in "unthinking thrall
to the past" or to authority, whether in the form of a book or a
Church. And yet, he also wishes to avoid the danger of "loose
individualism" or "rampant relativism" that could lead to "willful or
fantastic manipulation" of the Word of God. He acknowledges that some
"degree of control" must be exercised by "the oversight of a
truth-seeking community" and "the sifting and receiving role played by
the whole Christian community."
Who is this community and how much sifting does it do? "It is
comparatively easy," he assures the reader, "for those of us who seek
to `operate within the orbit where the bible is interpreted' to
recognize each other, even if sometimes we find the other person
saying something very different from what we ourselves think." "What
we ourselves think" is a typical turn of phrase for Polkinghorne, and
it suggests that much individualism remains even after all the sifting
has been done.
There is a great deal of value in Polkinghorne's reflections on many
of the subjects he takes up in this book. On several key points,
however, he is every bit as radical a revisionist as Peacocke. This is
particularly so with regard to the omniscience, immutability, and
simplicity of God.
Polkinghorne embraces the fashionable idea that God does not know the
future--either because it does not exist to be known, or because God
deliberately chooses not to know it. He argues that this view of
omniscience makes room for free will, simplifies theodicy, accords
with the developmental nature of the world, and makes God's knowledge
truer to that which is known (as though things that happen
successively must be known successively).
These are flimsy arguments upon which to base a revision of doctrine.
The first was demolished by St. Augustine, who pointed out that God's
knowledge of future acts no more renders them unfree than our own
knowledge of past acts renders them unfree. The third and fourth
arguments are based on the fallacy that acts of knowing must partake
of the qualities of the things known. (It is not true, for example,
that one's knowledge of smells is smelly, or that one's knowledge of
be evil. No more, it would seem, must knowledge of change be
But aside from this philosophical flimsiness, what is surprising about
Polkinghorne's arguments, given the context in which they are made, is
that they are not based on anything science has taught us about the
world. In fact, his position is open to the objection that it does not
square with what physics has learned about the nature of time. One's
stream of consciousness can be divided into past, present, and future,
and Newtonian physics projected this tripartite division onto the
whole physical universe. But Einstein showed that spatio-temporal
relationships are more subtle: there is no absolute meaning to the
question of what is happening (or coming into being) "now" throughout
the whole universe. And if it is a mistake to project the timeline of
our mental states onto the entire universe, it is even less justified
to project it onto God, who infinitely transcends the universe.
It is equally ill-defined to speak of "the future" or "the past" in
some global sense. Furthermore, to correlate God's supposed past,
present, and future mental states with what is going on in the world
"simultaneously" with them imposes upon the world exactly the
one-dimensional temporal structure that physics tells us it does not
Polkinghorne attempts to preserve the idea of divine immutability by
positing within the divine nature both a "temporal pole"and an
"eternal pole." He suggests this may help resolve what might be called
the empty throne problem--"how one is to understand the continuing
providential governance of the universe during the episode of the
earthly life of the incarnate God." The traditional answer, according
to Polkinghorne, is that since only the Son was incarnate, the other
two Persons of the Trinity were still in heaven to mind the store, as
it were. He rightly prefers the idea (which he somehow imagines to be
Calvinist) that the Word continued "to participate in the governing of
creation" during Christ's earthly life. How is this to be conceived?
He suggests, with "some trepidation" and "considerable tentativeness,"
that "it was the temporal pole of the Second Person that became
incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, while the eternal pole continued its
timeless participation in the divine essence and governance."
Both the supposed empty-throne problem and Polkinghorne's proposed
solution must strike anyone who has grasped the main point of the
Council of Chalcedon as peculiar. The required distinction is not
between two "poles" within the divine nature, but between the divine
nature of Christ, which is eternal, and his human nature, which is
temporal. Related confusions lead Polkinghorne to abandon the dogma of
divine simplicity. "Trinitarian thinking," he writes, "surely
indicates a degree of complexity existing eternally within the divine
nature." As traditionally understood, the Trinity does not involve a
split within the divine nature. Rather, each Person is understood to
possess the whole divine nature. In Jesus, St. Paul writes, "the
fullness of the Godhead dwelt bodily"--the fullness, not a piece or a
Polkinghorne's Trinitarian theology is not the traditional one, but in
the end that may matter little. It is not for his Trinitarian
speculations that he is justly honored, but for his powerful and very
public witness. His life and writings have given eloquent testimony
that one may be both a man of science and a man of God.
Stephen M. Barr is a theoretical particle physicist at the Bartol
Research Institute of the University of Delaware. He is the author of
Modern Physics and Ancient Faith (University of Notre Dame Press).
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