John Polkinghorne and the (slightly altered) shape of theistic evolution

The book Debating Design, though now nearly a decade old, is useful for understanding some of the main inputs to the current science-faith situation. Paradoxically I’m learning more about Theistic Evolutionists than Intelligent Design proponents from it, although it predates the foundation of BioLogos by several years. One of the most widely respected of the “serious” TE theorists is John Polkinghorne, probably because of his combination of mainstream scientific and theological credentials and his ability to write to a popular audience. His chapter supplements what I have learned from his Belief in God in an Age of Science and elsewhere, but leaves unresolved the problems I have with his ideas. 

For unlike those I have mentioned such as John Haught, who seem to me to present a consistent but finally incoherent view, Polkinghorne is only incoherent where he draws on their ideas, but appears to try and join them to contradictory themes in an inconsistent way. Either that, or he has some integrative principle I haven’t been able to fathom – you must judge.

His chapter starts with a good overview of the cosmic fine-tuning principle, as you’d expect from a Christian physicist. This he demarcates from the “design inference” of ID because the latter deals with occurrences in the scientific world of natural laws, whereas fine-tuning, preceding the creation, cannot be investigated by science, so is “fair game” for design. My first problem with this is that, on his own account, some of the physical constants appeared after the big bang, so are potentially explicable scientifically. So how is that any less “God of the gaps” than, say, divine intervention at the origin of life? This is brought into sharper relief if one considers the non-cosmological fine tuning he omits, such as that Michael Denton (whose book he cites) describes in the earth’s environment. In that light, the distinction between “put-up jobs” before and after the Big Bang seems artificial.

I’m more troubled, though, by his detailed biblical justification for this distinction, since it is plain wrong. He equates it with that between the Hebrew ‘asah (ordinary “Paley’s watch” making) and bara (“the word reserved in the Hebrew scriptures uniquely for divine creative activity, which can be understood as the sustaining of created reality”). For start, as word studies show, the divine activity of bara is essentially the designation of function, not just de novo creation. And moreover, his sharp distinction between the words is false as they are interchanged almost synonymously in Bible accounts of God’s work. Bara is applied, amongst other things, to “heavens and earth”, “sea”, to people, creatures, celestial inhabitants (seldom discussed in science-faith literature!) and named stars. ‘Asah is applied to the firmament, lights, beasts, people, and “everything God made” in Genesis alone, and to “heavens and earth” in Exodus. This is just exegetical laziness on Polkinghorne’s part, and is important because it completely undermines a biblical case for the fIne-tuning distinctions he makes, that were already doubtful from the scientific side, and so for the sharp division so often made between God’s and man’s making activity.

He goes on to distinguish the ex nihilo creation of God and man’s manipulation of existing materials. This is valid – I’ve argued on BioLogos against the easy use of ideas like “co-creation” on these grounds. But to be fair, it’s not a distinction the Bible makes absolutely: bara is certainly used only of God, but ex nihilo is not taught until later in the Bible than the Pentateuch, and even then God’s creativity includes more than that, or even that plus sustaining things in existence. God makes things, too.

Polkinghorne moves next on to more interesting and useful ground, discussing well the idea that complex novelty depends on the mixture of stability and flexibility we in fact see in Creation: “the edge of chaos”, as he describes it. Rightly or wrongly I saw parallels with such ideas in one of my recent posts. But as I say there, it is suited to a universe where God is closely involved in Providence as much as, or more than, a godless one of chance and necessity, or (closer to Polkinghorne’s position) a self-organising one.

Yet here he lapses into the “received science-faith wisdom” on creation’s autonomy, showing that he is just as capable of emotive rhetoric as van Till or Haught. In just one paragraph he contrasts “puppet theatre,” “everything dances to God’s tune,” “Cosmic Tyrant,” “unrelenting grip,” “holds on tightly,” “enslaved world” and “not the creation of a loving God” with “allowed to be itself,” “make itself,” “in its own time and in its own way” and “liberty.” If you ever get to read any seventeenth century controversial theology you’ll notice a stylistic resemblance, but there the object of opprobium is the heretical opponent rather than the Deity.

He adds a surprisingly contradictory example from Arthur Peacocke, given the “dancing to God’s tune” image above, in which creation:

… is not the performance of a fixed score, determined from all eternity, but rather an improvisatory performance, led by the Creator who is, in Arthur Peacocke’s striking phrase, “an Improviser of unsurpassed ingenuity.”

The “striking phrase” comes, one should remember, from a panentheist and Process Theologian: in the scheme Polkinghorne has hitherto presented, it is Creation that is the improviser on an 8-bar riff of divine law. It’s a pretty analogy, but really just shows that Peacocke prefers jazz to Bach. An equally striking verbal case could be made for the Beethoven score that enables the orchestra of nature to soar the heights of God’s creative passion, as compared to a bunch of avant-garde free-jazzers passing off random squawks as art. You pays yer money, and yer chooses yer rhetorician. But it’s not good theology.

To end this section he makesa brief allusion to our old theme of creation as divine kenosis, “an extremely important aspect of twentieth century theology.” One may hope that twenty-first century theology will eventually twig that the case for it has been made only by distorting or ignoring Scripture.

The next section is entitled “Open process”, though without direct reference to Open theism or Process Philosophy. The theme, though, is the genuine indeterminacy of nature, in both quantum and chaos theory, which at least he sees as his own metaphysical choice rather than as Haught’s theological necessity. Furthermore, and very significantly for TE, he sees the necessity of making sense of openness beyond randomness, and to do that by including:

…the possibility of divine intervention within an unfolding evolutionary process.

This, he says, “is the proposal contained in the concept of ‘theistic evolution.'” What he presents is, essentially, a universe open to “making itself” but also open to being altered by human free will, and by divine action. Whether this is the same theistic evolution offered by Haught, van Till and Ayala (together with many others) is open to doubt. Certainly it is that presented by Robert J Russell or David Wilcox, only involving what seems to be a degree of conceptual confusion.

For if, as Haught says, and Polkinghorne has expressed in some of the most flowery rhetoric of any TE author, it is the essence of God’s love in creation not to interfere, then what does finding room for his activity in quantum or chaotic process achieve, apart from a reprehensible diminution of that freedom and love? And if God’s purposeful action is seen through chance events, then they’re not genuinely indeterminate. Incoherence hammers at the door yet again.

Furthermore there’s a dubious kind of univocity about such an openness of the universe: the inanimate cosmos, free creatures like mankind (angels are not mentioned) and God himself all close off its limitless possibilities in the same way, through exploiting indeterminacy (though how nature or humans do so is a little sketchy, to say the least).

What actually results, then, depends entirely on how the balance of power is allocated, or seized: who has more power, or more wisdom, or more votes … or what, exactly? How much divine intervention is acceptable, once non-intervention is no longer insisted upon as an absolute of divine love? How is Polkinghorne’s cosmology different from a kind of polytheism, in which God is not sole Creator of a unified world, but just one creative force amongst many? How can God be exonerated from natural evil (very much the concern of TEs) if he can act, and sometimes does, but not sufficiently to offset suffering?

In short, I ask which theological or scientific problems are being solved by what, to me, seems a rather inconsistent scheme, that are not better solved by Triple-A Theism?

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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9 Responses to John Polkinghorne and the (slightly altered) shape of theistic evolution

  1. Avatar photo penman says:

    One of the biggest problems with the kind of theology you’re describing & (rightly!) critiquing is, for me, is glaring lack of biblical exegesis. It’s an exclusively philosophical theology.

    But what about all the Bible’s affirmations of God’s sovereignty? In particular, what about biblical statements which, in close conjunction, affirm both divine sovereignty (meticulous providence) AND the free agency & moral responsibility of humans? J.I.Packer waxes eloquent on this somewhere, probably in his “Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God”. E.g. Acts 4:27-28, where the crucifiers of Jesus are aid to have done whatever God’s hand & counsel predetermined, yet without mitigating their wickedness. (The statement is prefaced by a quote from Psalm 2 about the rebellious earthly rulers conspiring to destroy God’s Messiah. Their sinfulness isn’t in any way watered down in the psalm & provokes God’s judgment.)

    Whatever creaturely freedom is, biblically it coheres with God’s control of events, including precise & infallible foreknowledge.

    And of course, as you say, what is “freedom” when applied to created entities lacking rational or moral agency? How free is a rock?

    I think the process theology is really a theodicy. Evolution & millions of years of predation are unpleasant, but God wasn’t responsible – that’s the freedom He allows creation, & behold, WE are the noble end product justifying it all. Or something.

    Why a moderately evolutionary interpretation of life needs such a theodicy eludes me.

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    As far as “contingency” is a genuine part of creation, it seems to me the strong association of this kind of theology with TE is contingent: there’s no necessary correlation, but it’s panned out that way in the current climate. Just as today’s natural theology is almost inevitably associated with the ID movement, with its own biases and shortcomings; and I suppose in the way that so many conservative churches have come out for Young Earth Creationism, despite its poor pedigree (Michael Roberts seems to have done a lot of work in unravelling that).

    But as to your first point I will quote Baxter, not for the first time. “Scripture does not change.” Sooner or later people notice if something claiming to be biblical isn’t. Once it’s out of fashion, it becomes vulnerable to truth – before that, one can only light candles in the dark.

  3. Avatar photo GD says:

    I agree that we need to base our view regarding God and the creation on the Bible, and then consider how we may understand Nature within that context.

    The Universe is not a mechanical work of art but a living Organism receiving Life from the Source of Life. A branch that is cut off from a tree, withers and dies. In the same way, the world cannot exist without Divine Providence. St John Chrysostom concluded that
    Sustaining the world is greater than Creating it, because through Creation God brought everything from nothingness into being, but through His Divine Providence and Preservation He sustains the whole Cosmos, and this is proof of His Almightiness.

    I also think that theoretical physics and mathematics have provided insights that challenge us in understanding our ‘place’ in the Universe. Polkinghorne seems to have made an attempt at this with his ‘open theism’ and his notion of a coarse grain; I think this is an attempt to include the notion of quantum mechanics with our understanding of nature and allow room for an external agent to intervene while maintaining the mechanical view of natural laws. Yet after we exhaust all arguments from science, I think we will still be left with our self-identity as human beings. This can only be intelligently discussed theologically within the notion of the Divine as Sacred, and human beings as suffering from the impact of braking God’s law (religiously termed sin); this puts the role of Christ as Saviour front and centre – I think that the modern attempt at considering nature seems to place this central tent of the Faith to one side while increasingly ‘scientific’ notions are given prominence in such discussions.

  4. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    Thanks for this. To be fair it seems that many of the science-faith boys are trying hard to put the crucified Christ at centre stage, which is where the “suffering God” theology of Moltmann feeds in.

    But somehow it always seems to end up as God making up for what he’s imposed on us, and on creation, by leaving us to suffer in pursuit of his goal that we should “become”. If God does not suffer with and for us, then he can’t face the “just accusations” of the afflicted (which in this context seems often to mean every cell that has died, or even every molecule that has broken down). What is lost is the unique counter-creation dynamic of human sin, and the sheer grace of God in providing for it.

    How, in your view, does Chrysostom view God’s “sustaining”? A lot of TEs seem to mean that it would cease to exist without him, whilst nevertheless it runs on autonomously.

  5. Avatar photo penman says:

    Apologies for the vile spelling mistakes in previous post. A process goblin must have been at work.

    One odd thing about these contingent alliances between theologies & sciences is that back in the period 1860-1920 (ish), some distinguished & impeccably orthodox Reformed theologians could see no incompatibility between their tradition & an evolutionary account of biohistory. They rejected all ideas of unplanned, unguided, random, “free” evolution, & affirmed the absolute sovereignty of God as controlling the process. I’m sure you know who I mean – Warfield, A.A.Hodge, McCosh, et al.

    I wonder why THIS contingent alliance dissolved in favour of its ideological opposite: evolution plus sub-Arminian process libertarianism. Worth investigating.

  6. Avatar photo GD says:


    This lengthy statement is obtained from a book but I cannot find the reference – nonetheless I have it on file because it summarises the Orthodox view, and includes material from the major Patristic writings and also well supported by Biblical references:

    Inseparable from Divine Providence is the Preservation of the Creation, (Frangopoulos, Christian Faith, pp. 73-74.) which is a positive and continuous Act of God that sustains all beings, secures the order of nature and maintains the Universe. As with the Providence of God, likewise the Preservation of Creation differs from the Creation in that no new Creation is produced. All creatures that already exist are protected from extinction and yet this Preservation differs from the Governing of the world that secures the perfect end thereof as planned by the Divine Will. However, this difference is a concept of our limited minds as it does not exist in reality.

    The Truth that has always been proclaimed by Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition of the Orthodox Church according to which God intervenes to sustain the world, was denied by those who separated the Creator from His Creation (Deism), as well as by those who confused God with the world (Pantheism). God’s Intervention in order to sustain the Cosmos
    does not remove the power of the laws of nature. On the contrary, even nature seeks God’s Intervention so that it is not led into disorder (in Greek “ataxia”) or extinction. Furthermore, the idea that the Universe has no need of the preservative Providence of God is similar to the heretical teaching of Dualism.

    I have not formed a clear idea of Polkinghorne’s view, but I think he has problems when considering Nature’s laws and intervention – this leads him to formulate uncertainty at the quantum level as providing ‘a window’ for God to act. I know this is a simplification of his views, that is why I have said I am unclear about his views. Orthodoxy states that this is the power of natural laws and God is Sovereign over all – however Orthodoxy also confesses that we cannot know everything about God and what He can do. Polkinghorne seems to say that because we cannot know all at the quantum level, things may still happen according to God’s providence. This needs some thinking, but it may not necessary mean and open theism.

  7. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    A quick one as I’m leaving on a journey for a couple of days. You’re right, I think, about Polkinghorne (like Russell) seeing quantum theory as a window – though he has also dabbled with chaos theory in the same light. I can certainly appreciate that one cannot logically, for example, say that everything is strictly according to physical laws but that nevertheless God does individual acts. But to affirm more than that is to pretend we know more about nature’s order than we do.

    Alvin Plantinga takes a more “open” view in that he sees no reason why natural laws should be strictly applicable all the time should God wish to act.

    The bottom line is whether or not God does guide, and here is where I feel P is inconsistent – on the one hand lauding the freedom of the Creation, on the other finding where God might be able to restrict it. I go with your Orthodox teaching above, however one might theorise on the details (for example, Jonathan Edwards’ “continuous creation” is a strong form of “preservation”, which has been accused of bordering on panentheism or occasionalism, but is really just what you said above in a different light.

  8. Avatar photo GD says:


    As you would realise I work within the Orthodox framework – in this context I am especially interested in developing a harmonious outlook regarding Law and Freedom. I do not accept any view that seeks to diminish one at the expense of the other (either law or freedom). I understand Polkinghorne trying to add an unpredictability notion to his thinking, but I prefer to see things as presenting possibilities to a human agent, whereas all possibilities are known to God, along with our proclivities and attributes. In this way, we choose what we do, but we cannot thwart God’s will or present a freedom that somehow diminishes God’s providential attribute. This notion of possibilities may be similar to the potentialities discussed by past thinkers – however in our current understanding, future possibilities may originate from the creative will of human beings – we however are limited so there is only so much good and bad we are capable of. With science and technology, the good and bad expand considerably.

    Once we accept that God determines all things (although our understanding of this is limited) I cannot see the point in discussing God guiding or intervening or whatsoever – it seems pointless to try and give detail in a way that leads to human error regarding God’s attributes. On the general question of God as the creator, I get back to my favourite ‘hobby horse’ in that science deals with phenomena, but the ultimate result of science is to show that ‘real’ things provide this phenomena that is accessible to human intellect.

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