Monday, 31 August 2015

Book Review: Knut-Willy Sæther, Traces of God: Exploring John Polkinghorne on Theology and Science

Knut-Willy Sæther, Traces of God: Exploring John Polkinghorne on Theology and Science (Trondheim: Tapir Academic Press, 2011)

I am grateful to Tapir Academic Press for a review copy.

Science and theology are often presented as conflicting systems, where adherence to the latter precludes acceptance of the former – and vice versa. However, in recent years, a number of so-called scientist–theologians have defended the possibility that science and theology are in fact compatible. In Traces of God, Knut-Willy Sæther examines the output of one of these scientist–theologians, John Polkinghorne, to find where such consonance lies. But Sæther’s aim is broader than simply to explore, critique, and apply the thought of one man; his desire is to assess the impact Polkinghorne could have on the teaching of science and theology in schools. This is an interesting focus, and Sæther’s study stands out because of it.

Traces of God contains three long chapters placed between a short introduction and an even briefer conclusion. In the first of these (Chapter 2), Sæther analyses how Polkinghorne treats science and theology as rational disciplines. According to Sæther, Polkinghorne shows that science and theology can co-exist as each discipline benefits from a critically realistic approach to reality. While science and theology remain distinct fields and should never be conflated, they do complement each other. Indeed, science points beyond itself in ways that allow theology to contribute towards a more complete account of the world. Sæther is sure that Polkinghorne’s approach, if utilised by teachers, can lead to a more holistic account of reality than is usually presented.

In Chapter 3, Sæther considers Polkinghorne’s revised natural theology. Traditional natural theology searches for God apart from divine revelation; it looks for ‘proofs’ of God in the natural order. This, for Polkinghorne, is too lofty a goal for natural theology – all that can be discerned apart from divine revelation are ‘hints’ or ‘signs’ of God. Traces of God may be found in the intelligibility of nature, or in the fine-tuning or the beauty of the universe, but these traces can never amount to evidence for God’s existence. Sæther believes that Polkinghorne’s revised natural theology allows for a ‘dimension of wonder’ (p. 146): the intelligibility, fine-tuning, and beauty of nature all arise from science but can only be accounted for adequately by God. Once more, Sæther holds that Polkinghorne’s approach points towards a fuller description of reality than can be provided by science alone.

Chapter 4 addresses Polkinghorne’s understanding of God’s action and divine providence. Sæther engages Polkinghorne’s outlines of creatio ex nihilo and creatio continua, recognising that these traditional doctrines are used properly to distinguish Creator from creation while affirming the dynamic nature of creation itself. He also investigates Polkinghorne’s view that divine action is located in chaos theory while the quantum world points to the indeterminate nature of creaturely ontology. The implication here is that there is no conceptual inconsistency in holding God as the Creator of a world of evolution; the true conflict is between scientific naturalism and scientific creationism (and their shared assumption that Genesis 1–11 must be interpreted literalistically), or between evolution and evolutionism. Polkinghorne’s line is conducive for establishing the freedom of the natural order against an evolutionist purposelessness that finds its basis in a scientific determinism, and Sæther finds it an invaluable approach for use within a schools context.

Traces of God is an adapted PhD thesis, originally written in Norwegian but translated here into English. Positively, the adapted-PhD format means the study is well-structured and consistent in its presentation. Less positively, it means that Sæther’s prose, while not dry, is not especially lively (it could well be that the English translation loses something from the original Norwegian), and a number of sentences have not translated well into English. Thankfully, neither of these issues hampers the overall clarity or persuasiveness of Sæther’s thesis. Indeed, his analysis of Polkinghorne is fair, and he engages the work of other major scientist–theologians (e.g. Ian Barbour and Robert John Russell) to emphasise where Polkinghorne’s thought is particularly distinctive. In summary, Traces of God is a helpful overview of the majority of the latter’s corpus, and an important call for educational nuance in schools – and, I would suggest, in the media – that should not be ignored.


  1. Ooh that looks interesting. I'll have to get hold of a copy. My husband will be interested, too.

  2. Ah. In all seriousness, then, it might be worth getting hold of one of Polkinghorne's books (as Saether basically says Polkinghorne's stuff is good). My personal recommendation is his Science and Christian Belief.