Is a "theology of nature" or "a new natural theology" widely adopted by TE/ECs?

(Molecular Biologist/Virologist) #1

Reading this article of @TedDavis on BL, he quotes Polkinghorn in regard to the new natural theology:

“This new natural theology differs from the old-style natural theology of Anselm and Aquinas by refraining from talking about ‘proofs’ of God’s existence and by being content with the more modest role of offering theistic belief as an insightful account of what is going on. It differs from the old-style natural theology of William Paley and others by basing its arguments not upon particular occurrences (the coming-to-be of the eye or of life itself), but on the character of the physical fabric of the world, which is the necessary ground for the possibility of any occurrence (it appeals to cosmic rationality and the anthropic form of the laws of nature) … [Consequently] the new-style natural theology in no way seeks to be a rival to scientific explanation but rather it aims to complement that explanation by setting it within a wider and more profound context of understanding. Science rejoices in the rational accessibility of the physical world and uses the laws of nature to explain particular occurrences in cosmic and terrestrial history, but it is unable of itself to offer any reason why these laws take the particular (anthropically fruitful) form that they do, or why we can discover them through mathematical insight.” (pp. 10-11; Belief in God in an Age of Science, John Polkinghorn, Yale University Press, 2003)

My questions:

  1. How well-accepted and widespread within TE/EC would this view be?

  2. Would it (or do you think it would) be broadly accepted by others, e.g. OEC or non-adherents to any “creation camp”?

(George) #2


If I think your paragraph is saying what I think it is saying, I would expect to answer your two questions with an enthusiastic “Very well accepted” and “Yes, it would have a broad acceptance.”

So let’s take one of your sentences and tumble it around in the bright light for just a bit (with the understanding that if I break it, I buy it!).

What would have loomed before us a few years ago is the usual challenge:
"But what about an historical Adam and Eve?!"

If we can engage in just enough optimism to venture: “I think we have taken care of that problem…” the next barrier to loom before us might be something with two sets of antlers!:

The existential threat posed to the I.D. political program - - the I.D. camp is not content with a “more modest role of offering theistic belief as an insightful account of what is going on.” But your 2nd question did qualify it’s intent by excepting “non-adherents to any creation camp”. So I consider this existential problem to be in the next cycle of discussions.

The remaining Biblical entanglements, primarily the issue of Global Flood vs. Regional Flood, which differ from de novo creation of Adam & Eve for one simple reason:
A global flood would leave massive chunks of evidence behind, detectable to this day, which differs from the invisible traces left by God miraculously having Mary give birth to Jesus … or by miraculously creating 2 humans in the middle of a horde of illiterate humans.

I sincerely expect the question of Regional vs. Global to become the last refuge of generations of Creationists.

But I look forward to your thoughts on the matter.

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #3

Good questions @AJRoberts. I’m curious what @pevaquark thinks.

(Ted Davis) #4

This depends crucially on how broadly (in a theological sense) one defines TE. Like ID, TE is a big tent. Historical voices who might be identified under that label range from evangelicals to very liberal Christians, including more than a few who regarded themselves as Christians, but I hesitate to see them as Christian thinkers, though ultimately that call is made by Jesus himself, not me–people who didn’t believe in the Incarnation and bodily Resurrection. Someone like the great liberal preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick or Nobel physicist Arthur Holly Compton would fit here, and so would a number of contemporary authors whom I will leave to one side here so as not to get bogged down.

One advantage of the EC label, pushed especially by Denis Lamoureux (who wrote a book with that title) and also by BioLogos, is that the EC approach is self-consciously orthodox, in that its proponents could affirm the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds without crossing their fingers (something Fosdick or Compton simply couldn’t do).

So–confining my comments to EC, I think many would endorse Polkinghorne’s attitude and position (in the passages quoted above). For example, Francis Collins is well known for endorsing a form of the teleological argument based on fine tuning, about which Polkinghorne is particularly enthusiastic. Robert Russell (whom I consider an EC, though I don’t think he uses the term himself) also sounds like Polkinghorne on many occasions. My own enthusiasm for P is easily seen in my separate BL series all about him. Searching for Motivated Belief: Introducing John Polkinghorne - Articles - BioLogos and John Polkinghorne on the Resurrection - Articles - BioLogos

Partly b/c P is a professional theologian who rarely dumbs it down, many evangelical scientists can’t just pick him up and fully appreciate him on first reading. They need to do some hard work to get up to speed. Once they do that work, however, they tend to like him. So, I think on the issues pertinent to the quotes above, he is generally appreciated by those ECs who do read some of his work, particularly those people in the ASA who read fairly widely about origins.

Of course, not everyone in EC circles likes to read P, partly for reasons already suggested.

(Ted Davis) #5

Generally speaking, in my experience people outside an EC perspective don’t like P nearly as much as those within EC. Those on his theological left–which includes many of the most famous “TEs” of his own generation, such as Ian Barbour or Arthur Peacocke (if you don’t know those names, then just skip this part, b/c I’m not talking to you), did not entirely appreciate P’s commitments to orthodox views of what I like to call the “big 3,” namely creation, resurrection, and eschatology. P steered clear of both process theism (which in his opinion was unable to account for the Resurrection, a crucial component of P’s Christian beliefs) and panentheism (though P believes that God’s relationship to the eschatological world to come is panentheistic, that is not God’s relationship to the present world), both of which are popular in liberal circles. From conversations with the lay Catholic theologian John Haught (younger than P), I sense that he also sees significant theological space between himself and P.

As for people to P’s theological right, his willingness to move beyond Paley (see the quotes above) by avoiding design arguments about particular biological “contrivances” (a word Paley liked to use, following Robert Boyle and the classical British tradition of natural theology) in favor of arguments based on the general fabric of the physical universe that makes life possible in the first place, is often criticized by people in the ID camp. They see it as timid or inconsistent, at best. However, ID folks are especially bothered by P’s epistemic humility on all matters related to design. @gbrooks9 already hit that nail directly on the head. For example, see the text that accompanies footnote 25 in this article by Casey Luskin (formerly one of Steven Meyer’s bulldogs at Discovery): The New Theistic Evolutionists: BioLogos and the Rush to Embrace the “Consensus” - Christian Research Institute. There, Luskin comments directly on my columns about P. Many years ago, I agreed to read a draft of a book by a well known ID author, in return for that person reading parts of P’s book, Belief in God in an Age of Science. The ID person objected strongly to something P said on the very first page: “The world is not full of items stamped ‘made by God’–the Creator is more subtle than that…” That just wasn’t good enough for my friend, and it’s not good enough for Luskin either.

ID is all about natural theology, despite their official avoidance of “God” and “theology.” It’s essential to their position to see their arguments as fully scientific, not metaphysical or philosophical or (heaven forbid) theological. P doesn’t agree. He doesn’t hesitate to push the same kind of argument that Hugh Ross makes about fine tuning, but at the same time he doesn’t believe that such arguments are simply scientific. He realizes that they are ultimately metaphysical in character, and he knows that metaphysical arguments aren’t slam dunk proofs.

IMO, what I just wrote points to the single most fundamental difference between EC and ID. Certainly one can find other differences, but in the end it comes down to this one. And, some ID folks use the epistemic humility of ECs like P as evidence of intellectual cowardice (search Luskin’s article for “timid”) or even a character flaw. They actually see some prominent ECs (Collins or Stephen Barr come to mind) as too cowardly to stand up to the scientific establishment by challenging evolution, despite the fact that no one adds to their scientific prestige by speaking openly about their Christian faith as ECs typically do. This claim, that Christian evolutionists are just too worried about rocking the boat and keeping the respect of secular colleagues, is commonly leveled against ECs by YECs, IDs, and even some OECs. Honest differences of opinion about the weight of scientific evidence for evolution and the most effective strategy for doing apologetics are often painted as just caving into the establishment. This leaves many Christian lay people with the strong impression that there just are no good arguments for evolution, and that Christian evolutionists are just unwilling to pay the price for being Christians in their fields. Surely, we can do better than this!?

Of course, there are other reasons why P is not too popular among OECs, YECs, and IDs. First in line here is his acceptance of open theism. More than once I’ve heard critics say that P must be a process theist, because of this–despite the fact that P is a severe critic of process theism, for reasons that more traditional creationists would wholly endorse. Those who paint him as a process theist, of course, don’t know enough about P or enough about process theism to have the intellectual right to utter that opinion, any more than I have the intellectual right (as someone who doesn’t speak Spanish) to criticize Spanish novelists for stylistic deficiencies. He’s an open theist partly b/c he believes that complete divine foreknowledge contradicts genuine human freedom, and for him the latter is not negotiable. So, he believes that God freely chose to limit his own knowledge of the future when he created this world, in order that genuinely free creatures might be created. One might disagree with P, but one does need first to understand him before offering one’s opinion on that.

P also understands the Fall as an affirmation of the universal presence of sin in human lives, not as a specific act of disobedience by the first humans. Certainly OECs and YECs will strongly object to that view, and they have every right to do so. But, that need not/should not mean that P has nothing to offer to those on his theological right. I’ll end this long comment here.


Just a quick question: can you tell me whether it’s something like this that Polkinghorne has in mind when he thinks of the fall?

Only read if you have the time of course. Just as a note: this was inspired by non-canonical book of Enoch.

I think there’s a second part. I’ll try to hunt it down.