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Thursday, 31 January 2008

Polkinghorne Quotes #7: Rejecting Process Theology

Polkinghorne is often accused of accepting and promoting Process Theology (PT). This theology, initially developed by Alfred Whitehead in the early 20th century, proposes that God is neither omnipotent nor directly active in his creation. To most Evangelicals, PT is heretical as its view of God can not be reconciled with the God revealed in scripture. I agree that PT is unacceptable but I strongly disagree that Polkinghorne subscribes to PT. Anyone who believes otherwise has badly misunderstood what he is saying.

God’s Omnipotence

PT rejects the possibility of an omnipotent God. To fulfill his divine purpose, God’s power is limited to persuasion. The PT divinity is a cajoling, pleading supplicant desperately trying to save his creation from itself. Thus the problem of theodicy is resolved but only by rejecting the God of the resurrection, the God who can, and will, “make all things new”. But this impotent God is not the God that Polkinghorne describes. Here is what he says in Science and Christian Belief, page 81

God remains omnipotent in the sense that he can do whatever he wills, but it is not in accordance with his will and nature to insist on total control.
The view that Polkinghorne describes is clearly not the PT God; it is in fact the God revealed in Jesus Christ who: "made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross! (Phil 2: 7, 8)

God’s Action

PT insists that either God has no power to intervene in creation, or is morally obligated not to intervene. After all, if you intervene once, why not intervene all the time to prevent evil? But the God of the Bible is certainly a God of action, something that Polkinghorne strongly affirms.

Christian theology cannot do without a God who acts in the world by more than simply keeping it in being, for it looks to the One who brought Israel out of Egypt and raised Jesus from the dead. Science and Providence, page 43
Given the insights of modern science, we must indeed rethink and rearticulate our view of divine action; the old view of a constantly intervening divinity is inadequate. At best, it reduces God to a slightly inept divine tinkerer, at worst it implies he is some sort of cosmic tyrant. But it is not necessary to swing so far towards PT. As Polkinghorne states in Science and Christian Belief, page 80

One is trying to steer a path between the unrelaxing grip of a Cosmic Tyrant and the impotence or indifference of a Deistic Spectator. I believe process theology to be impaled on the impotent branch of the horn of the dilemma.

The dilemma is real - articulating a model for divine action is indeed difficult. However, I believe Polkinghorne’s ideas are some of the most helpful ones we have. For Evangelicals to accuse him of being a Process Theologian because of God’s self imposed limits on divine action is grossly unfair and unreasonable, just as unfair and unreasonable as accusing him of being a hyper-Fundamentalist because of his insistence that God can act, has acted, does act, and will continue to act in order to fulfill his divine purpose.

Other Polkinghorne Quotes: [Introduction] [Previous] [Next]


Scooper said...

Indeed, Polkinghorne is no Process Theologian, a metaphysical enterprise that essentially seeks to use God for something other God's own purposes.

But I must make a more general comment about this blog: If you do not consider the account of the Creation and Fall to be historical fact, then you depart from the line that the Apostle Paul, St. Augustine, and others used to explain the necessity of Christ's Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection. That is to say, you deconstruct the traditional basis of the Church's Christology. This brings up the question: What do you build in it's place?

Reconstructing the argument for humankind's essential sinful nature and the necessity of Forgiveness and Redemption for a modern audience that is aware of the physical sciences, the life sciences, and psychology is a daunting project, but one to which I feel drawn, and I hope you do, too.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Scooper,
Welcome. And interesting blog & website you have … I’ve never been partial to chihuahua’s but maybe I need to be a little more open-minded :-)

I agree that the origin of sin is the most critical issue for those of us that wish to be faithful to the gospel and to the integrity of science - it is the toughest of the 10 I reviewed in my 2nd theological implications post (http://evanevodialogue.blogspot.com/2007/12/theological-implications-of-evolving_09.html). My first comment is that there are many TEs / ECs that still believe in a historical fall & a historical Adam & Eve. From my own (anecdotal) experience, I suspect that a majority of Evangelical TEs / ECs would take this line. I’m still on the fence with this one (although leaning strongly to the non-historical side).

However, I do not believe that a historical fall is necessary for Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection – rather, one can make a strong argument for the incarnation as God’s plan A - not plan B because of the fall. I found George Murphy’s essay “Roads to Paradise and Perdition” and Robin Collins’ essay “Evolution and Original Sin.” helpful. (see my bibliography at http://evanevodialogue.blogspot.com/2007/07/evangelicals-and-evolution-selected.html for details).

Scooper said...

Thanks for the kind words, Steve. Your blog is very scholarly.

Anyway, I think that Eden was outside of Time (i.e., not really in this Universe), and that Adam and Eve fell into Time. See On Time. Spiritually speaking, I sometimes feel as if the Universe were created both backwards and forwards in time from the Resurrection, an event which is powerful enough to redeem the entire Universe. See Radical Redemption. Finally, for now, I think that the Crucifixion is God's giving in to our needs - God did not kill Jesus, we did. Therefore we are the ones who required him to die so horribly. God let us have it our way, as God nearly always does in this Universe God loans to us.

Steve Martin said...

Scooper: re: “Spiritually speaking, I sometimes feel as if the Universe were created both backwards and forwards in time from the Resurrection, an event which is powerful enough to redeem the entire Universe.”

Very good point – I like to say that “The Resurrection is the Big Bang of spiritual redemption” ... I think we are saying the same thing.