March 21, 2018

Testing Scripture: A Scientist Explores the Bible- by John Polkinghorne, Chapter 10- Profundity

Testing Scripture: A Scientist Explores the Bible– by John Polkinghorne

Chapter 10- Profundity

In this last chapter Polkinghorne desires to look at three New Testament passages he feels are of great profundity.  He wants to explore their depth by looking at them from the viewpoint of a scientist who, as he says, “wishes to locate his understanding of the physical world within the more comprehensive context of wider intelligibility than a theological perspective affords.”  He wants this discussion to foster new insight even in relation to issues that were completely unknown in the cultural settings that the Bible originated in.  The first of these is the prologue of John:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

18 No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and[a] is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known. (John 1:1-5, 10-14, 18)

The Prologue speaks of the union of the eternal with the temporal.  The words “made his dwelling” are literally, “was entented”, a reference to the Tabernacle that accompanied the wilderness wanderings of Israel as a covenanted symbol of the divine presence with them.  For John the Word made flesh is the true form of the divine presence with humanity.  John’s use of “Word” (Greek- Logos) is a double reference to both Greek and Hebrew thinking.  Greek philosophers, such as the Stoics, spoke of the Logos as the universal ordering principle of the world.  To a physicist like Polkinghorne, this speaks of the deep and wonderful order that physics has discovered to lie at the root of the universe.  The physical laws governing the universe are expressed mathematically in what he calls “beautiful equations”.

The current quest of theoretical physicists is to find the Grand Unified Theory that combines these laws with those that describe other basic forces of nature.  Although, not successful yet, Polkinghorne believes such an ambition will eventually be achieved.  He says:

In its rational transparency and rational beauty, the universe that physics explores could well be described as a world shot through with signs of mind and so it does not seem unnatural to a physicist like myself to believe that it was through the Word that all things came into being.

In Hebrew thinking, Word (dabar) means both word and deed.  There is a dynamic character to Israel’s understanding of “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made” (Psalm 33:6).  In Genesis 1, God speaks creatures into being by the command, “Let there be…”  The opening words of John’s Gospel, “In the beginning” are a conscious echo of the opening words of Genesis.  I am going to quote Polkinghorne at length here:

The fusion of ideas of enabling order and unfolding dynamic process, suggested by the double linguistic reference of John’s use of Word, is highly consonant with science’s understanding of cosmic history.  The given laws of nature, which are the ground rules for physical process, are not only rationally beautiful, but also had to take a very specific form if the eventual evolution of carbon-based life was to be possible, anywhere or at any time in cosmic history.  For example, every atom of carbon in our bodies was made in the nuclear furnace of the stars.  We are literally people of stardust.  The process by which this happens is very delicate and it is only possible because of the laws of nuclear physics take a very precise, ‘finely tuned’ form.  It took ten billion years for life to appear in our universe, but the cosmos was pregnant with the possibility of life from the very beginning, because its laws took the specific form that was a necessary precondition for life to be able eventually to emerge.  Those of us who see the universe as a divine creation will here discern the work of the Word in the Greek sense of Logos.  Science also tells us that the potentiality that was already present in the early universe has been brought to actual fruition by a sequence of evolutionary processes, stretching over 13.7 billion years.  Here the believer will discern the character of the Word in the dynamic Hebrew sense, for the Creator is to be recognized as acting as much through the unfolding of natural processes, which are expressions of the divine will, as in any other way.

Chaplain Mike in his February 19th post On Resurrection and Eternal Life quoted Gerhard Lohfink to say:

When I look at this whole mysticism of dissolution, which (supposedly) is happy that we can flow into trees, mountains, and meteors, I ask myself: Didn’t human biological and cultural evolution develop in precisely the opposite direction? — namely, to a more and more powerful awareness of the self, freedom from mere instincts and compulsions, emancipation from the dominance of the collective, becoming persons, a more and more intense understanding of the irreplaceable nature of every individual?

Commenters then took him to task saying that evolution does not proceed from the simple to the complex.  Now perhaps from a strict biological definition of evolution that may be true i.e. evolution is the change in the average characteristics in a population as reflected in the change in alleles from generation to generation.  Strictly and technically speaking, there is no developmental direction except as benefits survival.  However, that is NOT the sole definition of evolution; note the online dictionary definition:




  1. the process by which different kinds of living organisms are thought to have developed and diversified from earlier forms during the history of the earth.

synonyms: Darwinism · natural selection

  1. the gradual development of something, especially from a simple to a more complex form: “the forms of written languages undergo constant evolution”

synonyms: development · advancement · growth · rise · progress ·

It is this second definition that Lohfink and Polkinghorne are referring to.  And, speaking as a geologist, this second definition has empirical justification.  It is reflected in the fossil record as the well-known “Law of Faunal Succession”.  Encyclopedia Britannica has the following definition (emphasis mine):

Law of faunal succession: observation that assemblages of fossil plants and animals follow or succeed each other in time in a predictable manner. Sequences of successive strata and their corresponding enclosed faunas have been matched together to form a composite section detailing the history of the Earth, especially from the inception of the Cambrian Period, which began about 540 million years ago. Faunal succession occurs because evolution generally progresses from simple to complex in a nonrepetitive and orderly manner.

It is correct to say that evidence from science does not imply theism.  However, it is more correct to say that evidence from science doesn’t imply anything religiously or philosophically.  Scientific evidence is always interpreted through some interpretive grid.  There is no such thing as an objective interpretation.  I know that sounds all post-modern and what-not, but every good scientist is aware of his or her confirmation biases.  Does cosmic fine tuning or the Anthropic Principle prove a theistic designer?  Not neccessarily, but cosmic fine tuning fails to reject the hypothesis that God has designed this universe.

I have talked before about how the atheist astrophysicist Fred Hoyle made an anthropic prediction about the states of carbon formation inside stars as illustrated in these two slides from my friend David Heddle, a nuclear physicist at Christopher Newport University.

Hoyle basically realized that the Anthropic Principle fails to reject the hypothesis that God has designed this universe.

As I have said before, the cosmos produced us, who are rational and see purpose. That rationality and teleos has to arise from something beyond the mere physical and that something has to equal or exceed our rationality. So the existence of rational creatures in this cosmos is, ipso facto, the evidence of a rational cosmos. A rational cosmos is most like a mind, as far as we can know. And that ultimate mind is what most of us call God.  Now the last time I said that I was accused of being a panentheist.  To which I reply: guilty, but so what?  I would classify myself as a weak panentheist as discussed in this video , which, by the way, I’m in good company with Kallistos Ware and other Eastern Orthodox thinkers.  So challenge my stance (and Polkinghorne’s) if you must, I’m not backing down.

The next scripture that Polkinghorne wished to examine is Colossians 1:15-20

15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

This extraordinary passage is claiming a cosmic significance for Jesus, an assertion that is being made about a person who had been crucified perhaps thirty years before the epistle was written.  The fact that the passage speaks of the one who through whom “all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together…”  surely elevates him above solely creaturely status of any kind, indicating we should understand “firstborn” as a way of expressing Christ to be prior to and supreme over all creation, which is surely to attribute divine status to him, Arian heretics notwithstanding.

Claiming that a provincial rabbi shamefully executed as a criminal 2,000 years ago somehow embodies the organizing principle behind billions of years of history and unthinkable expanses is, on the face of it, somewhat silly.  Or so the atheists try to shame us into thinking.  To have a creator who becomes a creature mixes up the conceptual layers of ordinary reality.  It’s like God poked a hole in reality and pulled reality through the hole and tied it into a Moebius knot.  Or like a story where the author is embedded on exactly the same terms as the other characters, his presence having the effect of making the story more real, more consequential (kudos to Francis Spufford and Unapologetic for the imagery).

The other thing about that passage that Polkinghorne points out is that Christ reconciles all things through the blood of the cross.  Notice it is “all things” not simply all people.  Redemption is proclaimed to be cosmic in scope.  As far as science can tell us, everything ends in death—ourselves on the timescale of tens of years, and the universe itself on the timescale of billions of years.  So theology must take this story of inescapable ultimate futility very seriously indeed.

The final passage Polkinghorne wants to look at is Romans 8:19-23:

19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.  22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.

Why should God have subjected the creation to futility?  This speaks not only to the ultimate cosmic futility of cosmic heat death, but also the cost of the evolutionary natural process.  In an evolving world the death of one generation is the cost of new life of the next.  Genetic mutation not only produces new forms of life to be sifted and preserved through natural selection, but sometimes is the source of malignancy.  Creative processes take place at the “edge of chaos” where order and disorder interlace.  If things were too tightly ordered they would never generate something really new.  If they were too haphazard, no novelty would be able to persist.  Creative processes of this kind will necessarily generate ragged edges and blind alleys as well as extraordinary fruitfulness.  Polkinghorne says in this insight there is some help for theology as it wrestles with the problems of disease and disaster in the divine creation.  They are not something gratuitous, that a God who was a bit more competent or a bit less callous could have easily eliminated.  They are the inescapable cost of a world in which creatures are allowed to make themselves.  John concludes:

The costliness of evolutionary process means that the creation has indeed been ‘groaning in labour pains until now’.  However, the last word does not lie with death and futility, but with God.  It is the Christian hope and belief that the divine faithfulness will not allow anything of good to be eventually lost, but God will give to all creatures an appropriate destiny beyond their deaths, as the old creation is ultimately transformed in Christ into the new creation.  Christians believe that this process has, in fact, already begun in the seed event of the resurrection of Jesus.  Paul sets before us the hope and promise ‘that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God’.  Ultimate cosmic destiny and ultimate human destiny lie together in the One who redeems all things by the blood of his cross.  Romans 8 is one of the most profound and hopeful chapters in the New Testament and reading it in the light of modern scientific understanding helps us to find new levels of profundity in it.


  1. Robert F says:

    Well, it is certainly true that biological evolution has produced some more complex and individuated and rational creatures out of ones that were less so, and that is certainly evidence that the cosmos itself is rational, although it not conclusive evidence. But then, for the sake of this discussion, conclusive evidence of either the existence or nonexistence of a rational universe or God is not what is being sought, is it?

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Well, it is certainly true that biological evolution has produced some more complex and individuated and rational creatures out of ones that were less so…

      As well as producing Reality TV and The Kardashians.

      • Robert F says:

        As well as producing Reality TV and The Kardashians.

        There would be some of the counter-evidence to the idea that the universe is the creation of a rational God.

  2. Burro (Mule) says:

    Why would anyone challenge panentheism? Is not the immanence of God part of the common confession of Christendom?

    • As is His transcendence. The problem is we tend to oveeemphasize one or the other according to our conceptions of what God should be like. Reformed, for example? Total obsessive transcendents.

      • Burro (Mule) says:

        As if by creating, God created a chasm so wide He could not span it. Ah well, it shouldn’t fall to the Orthodox to champion the logoi of things, although that would work out in Western categories as vegetable intelligences and nature spirits, and would strike us as archaic and superstitious modes of thinking.

        • As annoying as you Orthodox are, we can still learn from you. 😉

          I just worry that we Reformed are both annoying and don’t have much to bring to the table. :-/

          • Burro (Mule) says:

            They do. Outside of analytical philosophers (early Wittgenstein, Carnap, Ayer, Quine, etc) I cannot think of a better exhibition of the limits of reductionist rationalism.

          • Robert F says:

            Read Barth, Torrance, Hunsinger: these Reformed, and others like them, are not annoying, and bring a feast to the table.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          <blockquote…although that would work out in Western categories as vegetable intelligences and nature spirits…
          Which are very popular among the more Spiritual of the Rich and Beautiful out here in Cali. They pay big bucks to channellers of vegetable intelligence and nature spirits both in Hollywood and Sedona.

    • Christianity, perhaps. But you can see the power creep throughout Scripture.

      Yahweh and El were probably not omnipotent and omnipresent. Somehow, though, Christianity’s God (no formal first name, maybe Jesus sometimes) became those things.

  3. john barry says:

    Mike the G Man, another thanks for this great series. I have my own copy of the book now but appreciate your comments on the chapters. I am hoping that Polkinghorne gets into the red sun theory if I went to a red sun planet would I have super powers or is it too controversial ? When I ponder the question to my wife she just says it is not controversial just stupid but she is not a scientist and not intellectually curious as I.

    I first became interested in evolution in 1966 watching Raquel Welch in 6 Million Years B.C. This led me to research if it was possible for my Cousin Bertha, the one with the great personality, and Raquel Welch to be from the same species, as they were so different, does not seem possible to me. I am probably from the shallow gene pool you hear about. George Clooney and I are from the same genetic pool, he got the good looking and rich genes I got the hard of hearing , high forehead genes, thanks evolution.

    Astro comedian Henny Youngman was going to be an atheist but found out they celebrate no holidays. You may not know there is such a thing as astro comedian but I did not know about astrophysicist. I am still trying to figure out how “carbon” paper worked and does it still exist? “Carbon ” paper could replicate the original, so carbon may be the basis for life before copiers which evolved from carbon paper, see how it works, from the simple to the complex.

  4. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    Something you should know about Fred Hoyle (other than “Atheist”):

    According to Stephen Jay Gould, he was infamous in the scientific community for proposing outrageous (and often contrary) theories and daring everyone to prove him wrong. (The two I remember were the Steady State Theory (an anti-Big Bang) and Panspermia for abiogenesis.) A lot of cosmological research in the late 20th Century was motivated by “Prove Fred Wrong”.

    Hoyle also wrote twenty SF novels (of which his first, The Black Cloud (1957), is the best known).

    • Burro (Mule) says:

      The Black Cloud was an incredible hard-SF yarn, the likes of which seldom see the light of day currently. Loved it.

  5. Stephen says:

    Arius only becomes a heretic in retrospect. He lost the argument. But even his fiercest critics admitted that the majority of Christians at the time favored his view. And why not? Arius held the traditional view. It was the Trinitarians who were the innovators.

    I suspect the Kingdom of Heaven will be filled with people with mistaken theological views. I have it on Good Authority that the Gatekeeper uses other criteria to evaluate candidates for admission. (See Matthew 25)

  6. senecagriggs says:

    My view; God thought it,
    Voila! it existed.
    If He ever unthinks it,
    Voila, it no longer exists.

  7. Robert F says:

    For Christ, even the “blind alleys” of evolution are roads of redemption and resurrection.