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Scientists as Theologians: A Comparison of the Writings of Ian Barbour, Arthur Peacocke and John Polkinghorne,
John Polkinghorne, SPCK, 1996

This is an unusual book in that a commentary on a group of writers would normally be written by someone outside the group, but in this case Polkinghorne includes himself as one of the authors under discussion. On Polkinghorne’s own admission (p. x) this is problematic and he owns that inevitably he gives greater space to his point of view in those areas where there is a difference of opinion amongst the three. I have been reading all three of these authors throughout most of my academic life, and I need to declare my own bias that I find Polkinghorne’s theology far more congenial to my evangelical and Biblical understanding of the Christian faith than the more liberal/process theological approach of Barbour and Peacocke.


Having said that, Ian Barbour was really the doyen and creator of the science and faith dialogue in the 20th century and until his death in 2013. His massively influential works—including Issues in Science and Religion, the Gifford Lectures Religion in an Age of Science (revised and reprinted as Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues) and Myths, Models and Paradigms: A Comparative Study in Science and Religion—are all must-reads for anyone wanting to get a handle on the key issues in the science and religion debate. Likewise Oxford biochemist and ordained Anglican priest the late Dr Arthur Peacocke has been equally active in writing about the life sciences, in particular his two major works: Creation and the World of Science and God and the New Biology. All of these books have been referenced in Polkinghorne’s analysis in this book. John Polkinghorne himself has been a prolific author in this area since resigning from his position as Oxford Professor of Mathematical Physics and becoming ordained as an Anglican priest. He has written 34 books on science and faith seeking to communicate the notion that there is no fundamental difficulty for Christians in the world of science.

Polkinghorne notes that Ian Barbour identified four models in the area of joint reflection on issues of science and religion, first conflict (e.g. creationism— Henry Morris et al.; the New Atheism— Dawkins, Dennett et al., p. 5). Second, independence (e.g. Stephen Jay Gould’s ‘non-overlapping magisteria’, p. 5). Third, dialogue (e.g. Barbour, Peacocke, the cosmological anthropic principle etc: ‘religion has to do what science has to tell it about the nature and history of the physical world’ but also, ‘religion can offer science a deeper and more comprehensive account of reality’ p. 5f). Fourth, integration (‘a still closer relationship’, e.g. Theilhard de Chardin p. 6).

Polkinghorne prefers a two-fold classification. It is either consonance (‘Science does not determine theological thought but it certainly constrains it. Physics provides the ground plan for the edifice of metaphysics’; Polkinghorne seeks to find a ‘causal joint’ of providential interaction between science and theology. p. 6f); or it is assimilation (‘a greater degree of merging of the two disciplines’). Polkinghorne would place himself in the consonance category and Barbour in the assimilation camp with Peacocke somewhat unhappily in the middle. Polkinghorne also notes, however (p.12f) that ‘all three authors agree that science and theology are indispensable partners, together with other forms of enquiry such as aesthetics and ethics, in the even-handed exploration of reality and in the search for a unified account of resulting human knowledge’. All three are opposed to the reductionism that often emerges with unbelieving scientists who ‘often espouse a covert scientism that attributes subjective experiences of beauty and moral imperative to the contingent “hard wiring” of the human brain, developed to implement a portfolio of strategies for survival’. He notes with approval philosopher Nancey Murphy’s ‘contrast arising from the difference between widespread participation in the common Christian life and the specially contrived experience created in the scientific laboratory’. ‘In physics, nearly all knowledge comes from the professional to the amateur. In the case of theology … knowledge of God begins with the amateurs … and the professional theologian is dependent on the findings of this community.’ (p. 13f)

Polkinghorne identifies his philosophical position as ‘critical realism’ (p. 14) ‘the rooting of knowledge in interpreted experience treated as a reliable guide to the nature of reality… motivated belief is held to afford an insight into what is actually the case’, and cites Barbour: ‘existence is prior to theorising’. Polkinghorne notes that ‘epistemology models ontology… intelligence is the key to reality … God is not available for inspection but then neither are quarks or gluons … entities with explanatory power are candidates for acceptance as components of reality’. Polkinghorne notes ‘the stable existence of diverse faith traditions’ (p. 18) amongst many cultures which could be said to contrast with the constant changing of scientific theories as new discoveries, approaches and evidences are developed and observed.

‘Science appears to describe an all embracing and self-contained causality a work in forming the future from the present … religion, on the other hand, wishes to speak of divine activity in response to prayer … there must be a way out of this dilemma … while philosophers may question free will, it seems to me to be the basis for rationality as well as action … What would validate human utterance it it were merely the mouthing of automata’ (p. 30).

In the area of mathematical quantum physics Polkinghorne’s major research area, he notes that ‘the existence of intrinsic unpredictabilities within the account of the observable world which does not permit the determination of a specific outcome on numerous occasions’ (p. 34). When combined with the discovery of chaotic systems the two developments challenge the notion of scientific certainty. Equally, early church thinking on the two natures of Christ arose out of the struggle with experiences of the divine, not, as outsiders might think, out of unbridled speculation without evidence. Polkinghorne wrestles with the problem of differing religious approaches to God in the world religions and accepts that some elements of religious faith are culturally limited and determined. Whilst Barbour and Peacocke are happy to find God’s truth in other religious faiths, Polkinghorne is in favour of an inclusivity which he describes as ‘recognising the salvific presence of God in non-Christian religions while still maintaining Christ as the definitive and authoritative revelation of God.’ (p. 60)

In relation to the Bible, Polkinghorne recognises the efforts of outstanding biblical scholars over the years nevertheless he has a view that, ‘the meaning of the biblical text cannot be left in the hands of the scholars’ (who in any case often disagree with one another p. 67). He notes ‘[l]ike Peacocke, I incline to “an a priori more trusting” attitude to the scriptures, though neither of us wishes to be credulous’ (p. 67).

In relation to the incarnation Polkinghorne rejects Barbour’s idea that the human Christ was simply a human being in whom the Holy Spirit was intensified to the highest possible degree, arguing that Christian ‘experience demands divine presence rather than divine inspiration … so that the incarnation must be expressed in ontological rather than functional terms. However mysterious and difficult to articulate … it seems to me that an indispensable Christian insight is that in Christ the Creator actually shared in the travail of his creation.’ (p. 70)

Thus Polkinghorne ends up stressing the importance of Chalcedon and the doctrine of the two natures of Christ (p. 71) and further notes ‘it is the work of Christ which is the key to the nature of Christ.’ (p. 71)

All of this starts to sound very complex, and Polkinghorne remarks disarmingly that, ‘like quantum theory Christian thought cannot be reduced to the banalities of common sense’ (p.74). Likewise, regarding the resurrection, Polkinghorne remarks—accurately I think—that, ‘it seems entirely possible that if Jesus had not risen from the dead we would probably have never heard of him’ (p. 74). Polkinghorne and Peacocke both grapple awkwardly with the actual nature of the resurrection body—as to an extent Paul also does in 1 Corinthians 15. Polkinghorne notes that Peacocke’s view is effectively totally reliant on the American theologian Phoebe Perkins who writes of the resurrection body as ‘a new kind of reality, previously unknown’ (p. 74). Polkinghorne himself notes that ‘in Christianity there is a destiny for matter as well as humankind’ (p. 77). He is not troubled, unlike Peacocke, by the problem of different atoms in the resurrection body, escaping the issue by the simple statement, ‘we shall be resurrected, not reassembled’ (p. 78). My own view of this is that our personal atoms are regularly changed over many times in our lifetime and it does not seem to affect who we are, so I doubt it will trouble the resurrection body! Re the virgin birth and X and Y chromosome problems Polkinghorne’s view is that it was a miracle, Peacocke’s that the story was a myth. Barbour does not deal with it. In general this is an engaging, if at times quite difficult, read. Polkinghorne does not have McGrath’s fluency of expression, but on the other hand he gets right down to real details that real questioners would ask about apparent conflicts between science and Christian faith. In particular, he writes especially for those who, like me, want to hold on to both the validity of a scientific world view as well as a faith in Christ that is centred on the revelation of God’s incarnate Word in faith experience, the life and history of the church universal and in a written scripture inspired by God. This book comes with an excellent index and some notes along with copious references to the primary sources of the three authors. A minor weakness is that there is no separate list of books referred to. Much ground covered with three major authors in view and much to think about. 5 stars.