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Peacocke and Polkinghorne Compared

Arthur Peacocke and John Polkinghorne are two important British scientist-theologians active in the last 20 years. Both have written importantly on God’s action in the world (see a classification of theories of divine action).

They stem from different scientific traditions and, though both Anglicans, reflect two different theological instincts.This reinforces the point made in different sciences - different relationships that there is not one simple relation between science and Christian theology (let alone theologies derived from other faiths)....Different sciences suggest different relations with theology, and different theological preconceptions lead to different approaches to the same data.

  • Polkinghorne is a physicist, at heart one who analyses the mechanisms by which the material world operates, and theologically somewhat conservative, much influenced by Jürgen Moltmann.

  • Peacocke’s science was the biology of macromolecules, the ideal vantage-point from which to consider different levels of description and the existence of irreducible levels of complexity. Theologically he belongs to a much more liberal Anglican school, much influenced by Geoffrey Lampe.

This difference can be seen in their two approaches to panentheism:

  • Polkinghorne remains suspicious of the concept. His theology holds the world at a distance from God, stressing divine transcendence. His God seems always in some sense an operator on the physics of the world. Panentheism, he thinks, will be the condition of the creation at its culmination at the eschaton.Polkinghorne, J, Science and Christian Belief (London: SPCK, 1994) p168

  • Peacocke wants to stress divine immanence. The creativity of the world, of which biology is so eloquent, is for him a sign of the divine omnipresence. And Peacocke is willing to consider a range of metaphors for God in relation to the world (see Peacocke’s view of divine action) He finds panentheism a helpful member of this range.

They differ too in their approach to theodicy:

  • Peacocke inclines to an ‘Irenaean’ approach which sees the world of suffering as a necessary context for the growth of free beings towards God,

  • Polkinghorne to a ‘free-will defence’ - if beings are genuinely free they will be free to inflict suffering. (He has also extended this to the problem of such ‘natural evils’ as earthquakes in his so-called ‘free-process defence.’Polkinghorne, J, Science and Providence (London: SPCK, 1989) pp66-67)

See Peacocke and Polkinghorne: comparison of models of divine action for more discussion of these two thinkers.

Email link | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. Christopher Southgate
Source: God, Humanity and the Cosmos  (T&T Clark, 1999)

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