"Wealth will increasingly be defined by our ability to go offline whenever we want." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Thoughts
February 6, 2007

Polkinghorne On Omnipotence, Faith And Creative Theology

These past few days I have re-read John Polkinghorne’s Science and Christian Belief, having recently cited as being rather influential on my thinking. The book represents his 1993 Gifford Lectures and takes the form of an extended commentary on the Nicene Creed. I first read this book in 1995 and looking back now, it seems […]

These past few days I have re-read John Polkinghorne’s Science and Christian Belief, having recently cited as being rather influential on my thinking. The book represents his 1993 Gifford Lectures and takes the form of an extended commentary on the Nicene Creed.

I first read this book in 1995 and looking back now, it seems likely this was the first time instance, in my reading, of the concept of Emergence being considered from a Theological perspective. Moreover, the first two chapters, on humanity and knowledge bring back a lot of memories – struggles to separate out the strands of postmodern thought, emergence, continental thought, cultural theory and pragmatism.

One pleasant surprise was being reminded of Polkinghorne’s wordcraft. I’ve often bemoaned the turid prose that some (many) theologians use; the sharpest theological writers, Augustine, Niebuhr, Barth not only expressed great thoughts, they also expressed them well. Passages like the following, reflecting upon the response of faith to the challenge of postmodernism, have an inspiring power and concision.

“Religious belief is not merely a disguised way of expressing motivations for conduct. But neither is it merely intellectual assent to propositions about reality. It involves both ‘believing that’ and ‘believing in,’ inextrivably intertwined. The Christian creeds arose as baptismal symbola, confessions at the threshold of commitment. They call for the obedience of the will as well as the recognition of what is the case.”

“…confessions at the threshold of commitment.” Wow!

But the passage that still stands out most forcefully is Polkinghorne’s outline of his views on divine omnipotence – what some call free-will Theism. In a brief paragraph he outlines his view of providence, theodicy and God’s providential relationship with creation. It’s a topic he expounds in a several other places and in other ways, but this statement has always stood for me as a brilliant summary of his position.

“Another consequence of the picture I am proposing is that God interacts with the world but is not in total control of its process. The act of creation involves divine acceptance of the risk of the existence of the other, and there is a consequent kenosis of God‚Äôs omnipotence. This curtailment of divine power is, of course, through self-limitation on his part and not through any intrinsic resistance in the creature. It arises from the logic of love, which requires the freedom of the beloved. God‚Äôs acquiescent will is part of every event, for if he did not hold the world in being there would be no such event at all, but his purposive will is not fulfilled in everything that happens. 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.”

[tags] John Polkinghorne, Providence, Theological Method [/tags]

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Responses
royd 16 years ago

Fern… interesting thoughts. I need to read this book. I’m reminded of a statement made by a Methodist pastor in a Sunday School film that I saw years ago and can’t remember the exact source… He said that his mother would say to him, “Even God can’t take away the beating that I just gave you…” Interesting to think about the self-limitations of God and the “kenosis of omnipotence” especially in light of the incarnation.

Fernando Gros 16 years ago

Roy thanks for your comment. You’ve made a good point, because a number of sharp minds easily allow scope for kenosis in terms of the incarnation but then categorically dismiss it for other issues related to cosmology and providence.

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