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Sunday, 31 August 2008

Polkinghorne Quotes #10: The Creator as Author, Producer, Director, and Actor in the Cosmic Drama

Explaining divine action in an evolutionary creation model (or any model for that matter) is notoriously difficult. Many analogies and explanations have been attempted; none are entirely successful. All of them are limited since there is no parallel to the transcendent God and thus no parallel to divine action. If pushed too far, many analogies lead to a view of God that is either deistic, panentheistic, or pantheistic. Some explanations portray God as little more than a powerful demiurge, an almost natural deity that is more similar to Zeus than Yahweh. That being said, I think Polkinghorne’s comparison of divine action to roles in a theatrical production is helpful:

[The Christian] Creator is as far as possible from any idea of a demiurge. The latter is a cause among causes, an agent among the many agencies at work in the world, even if he possesses power and intelligence greatly superior to the other actors on the cosmic stage. The Creator God, on the other hand, is the author and producer of the whole play.

From Science and Creation, page 68

This is good as far as it goes (and really Polkinghorne should have assigned the role of director to the Creator as well). It implies (correctly) that the Creator has planned the universe’s entire historical narrative for a purpose, and that every creature (from atoms to Adams) receives its part from him. The Creator provides guidance to the actors, but does not micromanage every action, posture, breath, and facial expression. Within the play, creatures are given genuine freedom to act within the limitations of the parts they are given.

However, to complete the analogy, one must also acknowledge that God is more than just the author, producer, and director, but is also an actor. He is the God who revealed himself to the patriarchs, spoke to the ancient Hebrews through the prophets, launched the Church at Pentecost, and leads us today by his Holy Spirit.

And then there is Jesus Christ, the character scripted to endure ultimate unfairness, ultimate suffering, ultimate death, ultimate judgment, and damnation. For this central character, God chose to play the part himself.

Other Polkinghorne Quotes in this Series: [Introduction] [Previous]


Jonathan Watson said...

Hear! Hear! This is the biggest, most important, and most difficult point to get across to other Christians in this debate. But it's also the one point that totally changes how people think about the creation once they understand it.

crevo said...

So if God is also an actor, what is problematic about God having a direct (rather than indirect) role in the creation of life?

Jonathan Watson said...

what is problematic about God having a direct (rather than indirect) role in the creation of life?

Nothing at all, so far as I can tell. But when you realize that it's not philosophically or theologically necessary, and that to think that it is is to play Dick Dawkins's game, and you find out that there are way better ways of interpreting Genesis 1-3, and you come face to face with the overwhelming physical evidence for evolution, then you start realizing that there's no reason why you have to cling to this particular account of the divine action, and you go "Whoa. So cool," and you find that your knowledge and worldview is fundamentally whole, instead of being disquietingly bifurcated. And you recover your intellectual respect for Christianity and your confidence that God (or somebody's) not pulling a fast one on you.

And so you go home, take your Scientific American out from under your Books and Culture, pop open a beer, kick back, and have yourself a nice relaxing Saturday evening in preparation for church the next morning.

And life is good. Now if only you had a girlfriend.

Anonymous said...

Loved the picture of Jesus here, wonder-full. Awesome.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Crevo, Jonathan:
I agree with Jonathan that it is neither philosophically nor theologically necessary to insist on an “indirect” role (or “direct” role for that matter) for God in the creation & development of life. Then again, I would not insist on divine action being categorized as either direct or indirect – that is a false dichotomy. I believe God is directly involved in the development of children (Psalm 139) but I also believe we have some pretty good natural & scientific explanations for embryo development.

VBM said...

This was very good and reminded me of a bit I just read in Watson's "Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament" (which is GREAT so far). Watson points out that in the other ANE cultures, the gods all have jobs, things they must do which are imposed upon them from a greater power. Things happen because the gods are doing these jobs.

But the Israelite concept of God, OUR concept of God is not that God has a job, but instead he has a PLAN. Things happen as a result of God's bigger plan, not because God is fulfilling a series of jobs that make things move along.

I would have to work this out a bit, but it immediately struck me that there was some correlation what what Steve is saying in this post.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Vance,
Yes, I think this is very much related. Polkinghorne wasn’t specifically criticizing ID in the context of the quote, but I think he probably also had some ID thinking in his view here. The ancient Greek & ANE religions divvied out roles to their divinities; thus there were some roles that they did perform & some roles that they did not perform – ie. the demiurge refered to in the quote. The divinity is simply one agent in the stream of causation. Some (most?) views of ID do a similar thing since some tasks are assigned to “nature” (eg. embryo development) and some tasks to God (eg. most species development)

VBM said...

Yes, that is the correct correlation, I think. We really could show that the EC view is actually much more in line with the development of the Israelite, and thus the true judeo-christian, model of divinity and that, ironically, the creationist model harkens back to earlier misconceptions of the role of the gods.

I recommend Walton's book, btw, it is a fast read and summarizes the useful worldview issues while maintaining an underlying orthodoxy.

elbogz said...

”Explaining divine action in an evolutionary creation model (or any model for that matter) is notoriously difficult

You could simplify that statement by simply saying:

Explaining divine action is notoriously difficult”

The creation of hell has been on my mind lately. When was hell created? Why was hell created. Was hell created, when God created the heavens and the earth? Did God create hell before he created man? The biggest question is, why would God, send His creation to hell, for eternal damnation?

Science cannot answer biblical creation questions. Things like, why did God create malaria, and downs syndrome and leprosy? How could God not know his creation would sin, by their very nature?

Science cannot answer the most fundamental creation question. Why is there something, and not nothing. The biggest error in any evolutionary creation model, a failure to understand why there is creation.

Steve Martin said...


Your suggested simplified statement was actually what I had in the first draft. Maybe sometimes the first draft is the best :-).

I’m afraid I don’t understand your statement:

The biggest error in any evolutionary creation model, a failure to understand why there is creation.

Creation models (EC, progressive OEC, YEC) acknowledge that all creation is from God. Creation exists because God wanted it to exist; we all agree on that. However, we disagree on how it was created. So I don’t agree with the statement about the “error” in the model.

elbogz said...

Ok, I do concede to your point:

Creation exists because God wanted it to exist; we all agree on that.

Otherwise we would be debating Dr. Seuss’s Who Ville, and wondering if we really just exist on a snowflake.

I guess my point is more to, how God’s creation is often referred to as perfect. The laws of nature are exactly what they need to be for life to exist. The cell is exactly built the way it needs to be, to work like cell.

My real questions goes back to, why is there hell, in a perfect creation, and why would those you create be condemned to eternal damnation? If the Garden of Eden were paradise, you wouldn’t desire an apple. If you owned a perfect TV, you wouldn’t desire a better one. If you lived in a perfect house, you wouldn’t desire a bigger one. If God’s creation were perfect, we wouldn’t desire sin.

Steve Martin said...

I think the simple answer to your questions re: a perfect creation is that it wasn’t “perfect” – it was "very good". George Murphy’s paper on Original Sin addresses this somewhat.

But that really doesn’t address the question on hell. You could rephrase that the question as “in a very good creation, why would those you create be condemned to eternal torture” and it would be just as powerful. That is a excellent question.