Science and Theology: An Introduction

Written by John Polkinghorne Reviewed By Philip Duce

Academic studies in ‘science and theology’ are now well established, and in recent years many courses have been inaugurated in universities and colleges. John Polkinghorne is a well-known, major contributor to this challenging discipline. The purpose of Science and Theology is to provide an introductory textbook which ‘attempts the humble but useful task of surveying the whole intellectual scene in an even-handed manner, recording as clearly as possible the variety of issues under discussion, explaining the possible treatments they can receive, and surveying the opinions of those writers who have made significant contributions to the field’ (1).

Polkinghorne begins with general considerations and progresses ‘in a spiral fashion’ to more specific questions. The topics covered are: the nature of science; the nature of theology; a brief account of particularly relevant aspects of the scientific picture of the world (quantum theory, cosmology, chaos and complexity theory, time); the nature of the human person; the nature of God as understood in ‘the broad Western tradition’; the nature of divine action in the orderly universe described by science; subjects central to Christian belief (revelation, Christology, the Trinity, eschatology); a simplified survey of ‘the ecumenical scene’, with science posited as ‘a creative meeting point for mutual encounter’; and some comments on ethical issues which arise from scientific activity. The presentation of these wide-ranging and complex issues flows logically and is, in general, admirably clear and concise.

As a ‘scientist-theologian’, Polkinghorne appreciates a strategy of ‘bottom-up thinking’, ‘seeking to move from evidence to understanding in the quest for motivated belief, (2, cf. 68 (the nature of God), 109 (Christology), 126–127 (ecumenical debate)). For Polkinghorne, theology and science each have a due autonomy which the other must respect, but since ‘knowledge is one and created reality is one’, in general there must be ‘consonance’ between them. However, while science may not place constraints on Christology, ‘In considering the doctrine of creation … theology must respect what science has to say about the evolving processes of the universe’ (117–118). Polkinghorne accepts the mainstream cosmological and biological evolutionary scenarios, and these inevitably exert significant control over his presentation of issues and responses to them.

As with Polkinghorne’s previous books, evangelical readers will find this survey to be a frustrating mixture of orthodox and liberalising emphases and elements, needing careful sifting.

Polkinghorne gives postmodernity a fleeting mention (12, ‘sociologists of knowledge’): for Wentzel van Huyssteen, Professor of Theology and Science at Princeton Theological Seminary, it is the central issue in Duet or Duel? Van Huyssteen’s basic thesis is that ‘a constructive appropriation of some of the epistemological, issues raised by the postmodern challenge to religion and science will make it possible, first, to collapse rigid, modernist disciplinary distinctions into a more comprehensively interdisciplinary space, where, secondly, traditional epistemic boundaries and disciplinary distinctions are blurred precisely because the same kind of interpretative procedures are at work in all our various reasoning strategies, and, thirdly, through a creative fusion of hermeneutics and epistemology, reasoning strategies as distinctive and different as theology and the various social and natural sciences may be revealed to share the rich resources of, human rationality’ (31).

After a useful introduction to ‘the postmodern challenge’ (1–39), van Huyssteen’s strategy is to argue that ‘evolutionary epistemology, rightly understood, will reveal the biological roots of all human rationality and should therefore precisely lead to an interdisciplinary account of all our epistemic activities’ (32). This strategy is pursued through interaction with cosmologists Stephen Hawking and Paul Davies; examination of Charles Darwin, with a section on the response to him by Charles Hodge (94–104); critical engagement with Richard Dawkins; drawing on the response to Dawkins, Hawking, Peter Atkins et. al. by Keith Ward; and finally, utilization of the evolutionary epistemology developed by Franz Wuketits.

For van Huyssteen, ‘the theory of evolution by natural selection has for ever changed our perceptions of the origins of life, of the ongoing development of life processes, of various and complex cultures, of the way we perceive reality, and of the way we now know our concrete embeddedness in this reality’ (131). His response to this incredible claim is essentially to expound a post-foundationalist, theistic evolutionary epistemology, within which he finds the required ‘interdisciplinary space’ for the complementary duet between science and theology. The references to ‘Christian theology’ are vague, and much of the closing discussion is cast in generalities. The (occasionally exact) repetition of sentences and paragraphs throughout the book becomes somewhat tiresome.

Science, Life and Christian Belief by distinguished Science Professors Jeeves and Berry, is a revised version of Jeeves’ The Scientific Enterprise and Christian Faith (1969). It offers a comprehensive survey of the background, framework of understanding and current state of the sciences and their interaction with the Bible and Christian belief. The subjects covered are: Hebrew-Christian and Greek influences on the rise of modern science; God, creation and the laws of nature; the nature of the scientific enterprise; explanations, models, images and reality in science and religion; God and the physical universe; creation and evolution; biblical portraits of human nature; genetics and reproduction; brain, mind and behaviour; psychology; ecology and environmental issues; the implications of science. The discussion is detailed, with substantial endnotes. Each subject requires a searching review in its own right.

By their own admission, Jeeves and Berry write as working research scientists rather than theologians, philosophers or historians of science (11). In their guide to ‘science and faith’ (cf. 12, 26, 243), they barely acknowledge what they call ‘the ‘postmodernity’ debate, with its assumptions that all beliefs are relative’ (52, cf. 61). They ‘fully accept the revelation of God in his written and living Word; the problem in every generation is to interpret this revelation in a consistent way. This has sent us back repeatedly to check to the best of our understanding what the Bible actually says, as distinct from how it has been conventionally interpreted’ (12, their italics). So, the Bible is permitted to set its own agenda (137)—but our interpretation of the Bible may change in the light of scientific, or ‘secular’, knowledge (243–45, 251–52). All this sets hermeneutical alarm bells ringing.

In places, exegesis is compromised: e.g. the handling of Romans and Genesis to assert that only spiritual death came to humanity through Adam’s fall (110–13, 235)—a revival of a Pelagian doctrine for consonance with confident acceptance of biological macroevolution (where physical death is established as part of the ‘natural order’). Indeed, in the whole contentious area of Genesis, creation and evolution, the discussion proceeds essentially by assertion of the authors’ preferred position supported by selective quotation: there is little acknowledgement of, or interaction with, scientific critiques of evolutionary theories and exegetical or doctrinal critiques of theistic syntheses (108–109, 117–20, 128–33).

A significant claim with regard to ‘the core of the book’ is ‘the need to appreciate the complementarity of scientific (or causal) and formal explanations, which may involve divine activity. The latter can be approached only by faith’ (131, cf. 12, 80–82, 115, 154, 168–69, 216–17, 244, 249). So, for these authors, ‘An understanding and acceptance of modern science does not—and cannot—prove anything about the existence and activity of God’ (248).

Overall, then, Jeeves and Berry are right in so much of what they affirm, but can be profoundly wrong in what they deny. Their book represents something of an end-of-century manifesto, and, like its predecessor, will no doubt become a standard text. Nevertheless, for all its ostensibly evangelical atmosphere, it should be used with discernment, and different readers will probably find different sections particularly valuable—or particularly unconvincing.

Philip Duce