Skip to main content

Apologist From The World of Science: John Polkinghorne Frs

  • Paul Avis (a1)

John Polkinghorne FRS (b.1930), the Cambridge Professor of Mathematical Physics turned Anglican parson enjoys unrivalled opportunities as an apologist for the Christian faith to those with a general scientific education. Without reading a word of his writings, many Christians will be encouraged to know that a distinguished professional scientist is so firmly persuaded of the truth of the Christian faith as to resign a prestigious professional position and embrace the far from prestigious calling of a Christian minister in the secular environment of today. Some who embark on his books may not understand all the scientific allusions, but they will be impressed by his testimony that orthodox Christian belief can exist in harmony with the scientific worldview and vocation.

Hide All

1 Polkinghorne, J., The Particle Play (Oxford & San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1979); The Quantum World (London: Longman, 1984; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986).

2 Polkinghorne, J., The Way the World Is (London:SPCK/Triangle, 1983); One World (London: SPCK, 1986); Scienceand Creation (SC) (London: SPCK, 1988); Science and Providence (SP) (London: SPCK, 1989).

3 Munévar, G., Radical Knowledge (Avebury Pub. Co., 1981), pp. 118f.

4 Cf. Avis, P., ‘Does Natural Theology Exist?’, Theology, 87 (1984), pp.431437. For discussion of Barth's views on natural theology, see Avis, , The Methods of Modern Theology (Basingstoke: Marshall Pickering, 1986), pp.43ff.

5 Polkinghorne does not attempt to engage with the social sciences' relativistic account of scientific worldviews. Contrast Munévar's dictum: ‘There is no oneway in which the world is’ (op.cit., p.117) with Polkinghorne's ‘one world’.

6 Polkinghorne quotes N. Bohr's private remark: ‘There is no quantum world. There is only an abstract quantum physical description. It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature.’ (Cited in The Quantum World, p.79.) This extreme instrumentalism is vigorously rebutted by Bohm, David in Causality and Chance in Modem Physics (London: Routledge, 1957), pp.92, 100. See also Bohm, , Wholeness and the Implicate Order (London: Routledge 1980). A mediating or critical realist position is advocated by Born, Max in Natural Philosophy of Cause and Chance (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1949) who, while insisting that ‘quantum mechanics does not describe a situation in an objective external world, but a definite experimental arrangement for observing a section of the external world,’ nevertheless holds that ‘the particles are real, as they represent invariants of observation’ (pp.108, 104).

7 On two occasions Polkinghorne refers to the views of a certain ‘John Murray’ as cited by Torrance (SC, pp.xiv, 85; cf. Torrance, T. F., Theological Science (London: OUP, 1969), pp.11f), apparently confusing the distinguished personalist philosopher and Gifford Lecturer.John Macmurray (1891–1976) with the conservative presbyterian divine and professor at WestminsterTheological Seminary.John Murray (1898–1975). I suspect that neither of these gentlemen would have been flattered

8 Polanyi, M., The Study of Man (London: Routledge, 1959), p.80. Cf. Personal Knowledge (London: Routledge, 1958), pp.8287.

9 Lonergan, B., Philosophy of God and Theology (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1973), p.13: ‘Objectivity is the fruit of authentic subjectivity.’ Cf. Method in Theology (London: DLT, 1972), p.265. Lonergan does not have a direct dependence on Kierkegaard's ‘truth is subjectivity’ (Concluding Unscientific Postscript (London: OUP, 1945), p.169 — but even this is not intended in an irrationalist sense. Cf. also Torrance, , Reality and Scientific Theology (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1985), p.109: ‘Personal subject-mode of being is thus the bearer of objectivity.’

10 Bhaskar, R., A Realist Theory of Science (Hassocks, Sussex: Harvester Press, & New Jersey: Humanities Press, 2nd edn, 1978), p.17.

11 Pannenberg, W., Theology and the Philosophy of Science (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1976).

12 For Popper's concept of‘world 3’ see inter alia Objective Knowledge (Oxford: OUP, 1972), chs 3 and 4; Unended Quest (London: Fontana, 1976), pp.180ff [= ‘Autobiography of Popper, Karl’ in Schilpp, P. A., ed., TheLibrary of Living Philosophers: Karl Popper (La Salle: Open Court, 1974), ptl]; The Open Universe(Postscript to the Logic of Scientific Discovery) (London: Hutchinson, 1982), pp.114ff.

13 Cf. Avis, , Ecumenical Theology and the Elusiveness of Doctrine (London: SPCK, 1986) [= Truth Beyond Words (Cambridge, Mass.: Cowley Press)], ch.l: ‘Truth and Reality’; Torrance, Theological Science, ch.4: ‘The Nature of Truth’; Reality and Scientific Theology.pp.140ff.

14 Cf. Popper, , The Open Universe, p.125. For reservations regarding the notion cf ‘independent causal systems’ see Nagel, E., The Structure of Science (London: Routledge, 1961), p.327: ‘there are an infinite number of distinct causal determinants for the occurrence of any specific event.’

15 M. Born, p.102.

16 Einstein, A., Out of my Later Years (New York: 1950), p.91: cited in Nagel, p.310. Cf. M. Born: ‘physics would cease to be a science if it had given up the search for the causes of phenomena’ (p.4).

17 Popper, K., The Logic of Scientific Discovery (London: Hutchinson, 1959), pp.248f. Whitehead derived this presupposition of all science from the patristic conception of God, drawing as it did on Hebrew dynamicism and Hellenic rationality, and referred to ‘the inexpugnable belief that every detailed occurrence can be correlated with its antecedents in a perfectly definite manner, exemplifying general principles’. He added: ‘Without this belief the incredible labours of scientists would be without hope. It is this instinctive conviction, vividly poised before the imagination, which is the motive power of research.’ Science and the Modern World (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1938), pp.23f.

18 Popper, , The Open Universe, p.125n. See also E. Nagel, ch.10.

19 See Polkinghorne, The Particle Play and The Quantum World.

20 Prigogine's findings and their consequences are (comparativelyl) accessible to the layperson in Prigogine, I. and Stengers, I., Order out of Chaos (Bantam Books and W. Heinemann, 1984; London: Flamingo, 1985).

21 Popper, , The Open Universe, p.126. Cf. Cassher, E., Determinismus und lndeterminismus in der Modemen Physik (Göteborg: Elanders, 1937): ‘To mistake the choice [Auswahl] which an electron, according to Bohr's theory, has between different quantum orbits, wi thachoice [Wahl] in the ethical sense of this concept, would mean to become the victim of a purely linguistic equivocality.’ (p.259; cited Bom, p.208.)

22 Ibid., pp. 129f.

23 Leibniz, , Philosophical Writings, ed. Parkinson, G. H. R. (London: Dent [Everyman], 1973), pp.206f. Cf. D. Bohm's point that even more fundamental than the concept of causality is the axiom: ‘everything comes from other things and gives rise to other things’ (Causality p.1).

24 Torrance, T. F., Divine and Contingent Order (Oxford: OUP 1981), p. 102. D. Bohm also stresses that the indeterminacy principle is a result of ‘the extrapolation of classical physics to the atomic domain’ (Causality, p.84).

25 White, Vernon, The Fall of a Sparrow: A Concept of Special Divine Action (ExeterPaternoster, 1985), p.91. Cf. Ps 77.19: ‘Thy way was through the sea, thy path through the great waters; yet thy footprints were unseen.’ (R.S.V.)

26 Wiles, M., The Remaking of Christian Doctrine (London: SCM, 1974); God's Action in the World [Bampton Lectures 1986] (London: SCM, 1986).

27 Pollard, W. G., Chance and Providence (London: Faber, 1958); cf. MacKay, D., Science, Chance and Providence (Oxford: OUP, 1978).

28 Though Polkinghorne mentions the views of Austin Farrer, he does not seem to be acquainted with the helpful writings of B. L. Hebblethwaite which continue, though critically, the Farrer tradition: see Hebblethwaite, : ‘Providence and Divine Action’, Religious Studies, 14 (1978), pp.223236; some Reflections on Predestination, Providence and Divine Foreknowledge’, Religious Studies, 15 (1979), pp.433488.

29 Popper, , The Logic of Scientific Discovery, p.206. Popper's entire argument for indeterminacy in The Open Universeis couched in terms of the question of prediction.

30 Rahner, K., Theological Investigations 21 (London: DLT, 1988), pp.21f.

31 Rahner, p.20; Torrance, , Divine and Contingent Order, pp.26, 41. Cf. Avis, , Methods of Modern Theology, p.205: ‘The assumption of science as such is that this observable, measurable, predictable universe is all there is and that it is enough. Any other hypothesis is superfluous for science and this is what constitutes its inevitable positivism.’ Cf. further, Torrance, , Reality and Scientific Theology, pp.33, 54f.

32 I would like to think that this notion of humanity's priestly function, in the context of providence and theodicy, is complementary to that of Torrance, T. F. in ‘Man, the Priest of Creation’ [Templeton Prizegiving Address] The Ground and Grammar of Theology (Belfast: Christian Journals, 1980).

33 Bhaskar, p.190.

34 Polanyi, M., Science, Faith and Society (London: OUP, 1946), p.44; cf. Personal Knowledge, pp.53f.

35 Avis, : ‘Karl Barth: The Reluctant Virtuoso’, Theology, 86 (1983), pp.164171; cf. The Methods of Modern Theology, pp.35ff.

36 Barth, K., Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century (London: SCM, 1972), p.442. For Barth on apologetics, see Avis, , The Methods of Modern Theology, pp.47f.

37 For exposition and references see Avis, , ‘In the Shadow of the Frankfurt School: From “Critical Theory” to “Critical Theology”’, S.J.T., 35 (1982), pp.529540; ‘Fundamental Theology’ in Avis, , ed, The Threshold of Theology (Basingstoke: Marshall Pickering, 1988).

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Scottish Journal of Theology
  • ISSN: 0036-9306
  • EISSN: 1475-3065
  • URL: /core/journals/scottish-journal-of-theology
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed