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God and Natural Order: Physics, Philosophy, and Theology

Shaun C. Henson
Published by Routledge in 2013

Reviewed by Robert C. Bishop, Philosophy and History of Science, Wheaton College

Shaun Henson’s God and Natural Order: Physics, Philosophy and Theology should be praised for pursuing science-theology relations from a thoroughly Trinitarian perspective rather than the usual bland, generic monotheism. As Colin Gunton has diagnosed, many problems in Christian engagement with creation and the sciences are due to treating God monotheistically rather than richly triuneally.1 For this project, Henson focuses on Wolfgang Pannenberg’s Trinitarian approach to creation. However, his claim that

Certain unique characteristics of Pannenberg’s theological and philosophical works make him arguably the most important theologian since Aquinas to present a well-developed reading of the problem of unity and plurality in the natural world, particularly with regard to creatures (70)

is tendentious and never supported. What of Karl Barth, Colin Gunton, and Thomas Torrance, to name a few important theologians who had much to say about creation from a Trinitarian perspective as well as unity and plurality? We get no such comparison among these differing theologians. Instead, Henson’s book is a somewhat narrowly focused study of Pannenberg’s theology.

Henson begins by constructing a framework that creates a specific kind of tension between unity and plurality. In chapter 1, he takes it that “common human impulses” for intelligibility through unification, reduction and comprehension “have all given physics seeds for its rise and current power in Western civilization” (14). Though this is an overly simple view, it provides half of the framework for the struggle between unity and plurality that serves as Henson’s problematic. (In general, Henson’s narrative presupposes a fairly simplified view of the loss of religious authority as mainly due to the development of the sciences. His account could have benefitted from historical work that undercuts this overly simple story.2)

It is important to remember that God’s being the center of all things provides the ultimate unification of creation. Yet, sometimes scholars fall into transferring God’s unifying function to the sciences, viewing them – principally physics – as methodologically only seeking unification. Henson’s account suffers from this transference. For instance, Johannes Kepler certainly sought to understand the cosmos as unified in the Trinity (18-21). However, his vehicle for doing this, Pythagorean metaphysics combined with hints of Hermeticism, has a plurality of Pythagorean harmonies and symmetries at its base with a search for physical causes layered on top. So unification for Kepler did not mean monism, or an emphasis on the one in longstanding debates between the one and the many. He tried to find a way for unity and plurality to coexist. Likewise, Newton did believe that all of creation found its unity in God and argued that the laws of motion he discovered represented God’s normal ways of governing and acting in nature (23-28). But this also masks Newton’s admission that there were potentially myriad forces at work within this law scheme. Again, Newton’s natural philosophy attempted to show how both unity and plurality peacefully coexist.

Moving forward in time, in narrating debates surrounding the Superconducting Super Collider and other “big physics” developments, Hallam Stevens points out:

Further, condensed matter physicists [such as Philip Anderson in his famous 1972 Science article] asserted the importance of broken symmetry in understanding real-world problems; this counter-narrative not only suggested an alternative approach to fundamental physics, but also implied that no single, “grand,” approach could capture the complexity of nature. Under these circumstances the physics community fractured and the cohesive narrative of the 1960s and 1970s began to dissolve … The narrative of elegance, simplicity, and fundamental symmetries of the universe that had been told by high-energy physicists in the 1960s and 1970s dissolved into a multiplicity of competing narratives (strings, broken symmetry) that made their own claims to being beautiful and fundamental.3

It is this “narrative of elegance, simplicity, and fundamental symmetries of the universe that had been told by high-energy physicists in the 1960s and 1970s” that forms the mythology of unification discussed in so much popular literature. Still, it would be fair to say that some physicists and commentators on physics continue to trumpet a unification-through-reduction view of physics (for example, Steven Weinberg). This seems to be the target Henson draws on for one half of his framework.

For the other half of his framework, in chapter 2 Henson draws primarily on the work of Nancy Cartwright to represent the pluralist challenge to creation’s unity. Cartwright advocates a kind of metaphysical pluralism about the power and properties of nature. Tellingly, Henson quotes a 1984 Peter Gibbins’ review of Cartwright’s How the Laws of Physics Lie: “I think [it] will alter the course of contemporary philosophy of physics” (62). However, it does not take much reading in the philosophy of physics literature to see that this prediction failed. Cartwright perhaps has had some influence among philosophers of science and metaphysicians but not among philosophers of physics. Indeed, it is often the case that when philosophers of science, particularly philosophers of physics, mention Cartwright, they do so in a negative light. What gets more play in the philosophy of science literature is methodological pluralism.4 However, methodological pluralism is consistent with there being a unified nature, so metaphysical pluralism supports the other half of Henson’s framework better.

Yet, it is not clear that the science-religion literature has been affected much by either brand of pluralism. And Henson does nothing to show that any form of pluralism has been a serious counterpoint to unity in the science-religion literature. This raises a question about why Henson feels it necessary to introduce a notion of a “pluralistic creation” as part of his framework. It seems the answer is to interact with the work of Cartwright and connect Pannenberg’s theology to this work. However, one does not have to turn to the philosophy of science to find a view of creation that has plurality and variety. Reading through Job, the Psalms, or Isaiah, we find many observations and celebrations of God’s creativity and the multifariousness of creation.

Using his framework, Henson formulates his key question in chapter 3: “How might one with serious theological concerns respond to the conflicting claims and evidence proposed by viewing chapter 2 [metaphysical pluralism; a “pluralistic God”] in the light of chapter 1 [metaphysical unity; a “unifying God”]?” (61). I have suggested that the framework Henson erects is overly simple and problematic; indeed, he mischaracterizes it as “the recent, real scientific and philosophical state of affairs” (67). It is not. In other words, this key question is very much an artifact of Henson’s constructed framework. This becomes clearer as he starts his exposition of Pannenberg’s theology, where Henson, indeed, finds resonances between Pannenberg’s theology of God and creation and the “unifying physicists.” Pannenberg believes God is a God of order and, hence, freely creates an orderly, unified creation.

For the pluralizing half of the dialectic, Henson draws on Pannenberg’s discussion of the Trinity’s inner life. There he finds that “images of God freely fashioning creation after a design related to God’s own inner divine life and voluntary interactive preferences can also quickly conjure images of Nancy Cartwright’s theological allusions” (81). Henson further notes that, for Pannenberg, God’s creating a law-like unified order always leaves room for contingency. But these points seem weak as a case for a robust Trinitarian resolution to the unifying/pluralizing dialectic he set up. And the “resonances” with Cartwright get no better than this in the rest of the book. Indeed, Henson admits as much in a revealing footnote on page 143, where Pannenberg says he was completely unaware of Cartwright’s work and that he did not have any “scientific unifier/philosophical pluralist dialectic” in mind.

As Henson goes about comparing the “unifying physicists” Cartwright and Pannenberg in chapter 4, there are some other miscues. Most notably, Henson links the origins of covering-law explanations with Francis Bacon (1561-1626), which is a big stretch, and describes the mature deductive-nomological account of this form of explanation as being “standard” (126-127). Many philosophers of science, quintessentially Carl Hempel (1905-1997), have attempted to reconstruct scientific explanations as being of this covering-law form: laws and initial conditions form the premises of a deductive argument yielding, as its conclusion, an explanation for a particular phenomenon. And this account of explanation is called “the received view” in philosophical discussion but not because it is the standard account of scientific explanation. For one thing, there are well-known problems with such covering-law explanations (for example, they cannot distinguish between whether the Sun shining on a flagpole of a particular height at a precise angle explains the length of the flagpole’s shadow or whether the length of the shadow plus the angle at which the Sun shines on the flagpole explains the latter’s height). But more importantly, such deductive-nomological explanations are rare in physics and nonexistent in biology. Scientists actually use a wide variety of explanations. They are pragmatists about explanation, and many of these explanations do not appeal to laws of nature at all, even indirectly. Many philosophers of science in the first several decades of the twentieth century naively attempted to shunt scientists’ explanations into the covering-law model without studying what scientists actually do in their explanations. Henson, unfortunately, follows these mistaken sources.

Given the project Henson has set for himself, what of Pannenberg’s theology and this problem of the One and the Many? It is fairly easy to find implications for creation’s unity and coherence in Pannenberg’s Trinitarian treatment of creation, particularly in the Son as Logos:

Because the Logos who permeates the world of creation came to full manifestation in this man, all things in heaven and on earth are summed up in him (Eph. 1:10). As the creative principle of the cosmic order, then, the Logos is not a timeless universal structure like natural law or a theoretical system of order in terms of natural law. It is the principle of the concrete, historically unfolded order of the world, the principle of the unity of its history. The working in creation of the Logos thus includes its entry into the particularity of creaturely reality, its immanence – better, its intervention – which took place supremely in the incarnation as the Logos so united itself to one individual and distinct creature that it became definitively one with it. (Pannenberg, quoted in Henson, 86-87)

One can also find Pannenberg relating the Spirit to the variety in creation, though this is always connected to the unifying Son:

Whereas the creative dynamic in the events of creation relates to the Spirit, the Logos is the origin of the distinguishing form of the creature in the totality of its existence and in the ensemble of distinctions and relations of creatures in the order of nature. But we cannot separate the creative dynamic [the Spirit] and the specific form of its expression [the Logos]. The two go together in the act of creation. In the first creation story this fact comes to expression in the idea of the creative speaking of God by which the dynamics of his Spirit becomes the origin of the specific creaturely reality. (Pannenberg, quoted in Henson, 93, italics authors)

The Spirit is “the life-giving principle, to which all creatures owe life, movement, and activity” (Pannenberg, quoted in Henson, 93, italics authors).

Nevertheless, by his own admission, Pannenberg did not set out to solve some problem of unity versus plurality in his theology of creation. There are suggestions in Pannenberg that might serve as resources for working toward a resolution of the problem Henson constructs. However, Henson’s summary assessment in chapter 6 (“Conclusions”) is that as tantalizing as a Pannenbergian synthesis between unity and plurality might be, it is inadequate for the problem Henson constructed.5

After Henson sketches a number of “contact points” between Pannenberg’s theology and the unifying/pluralizing dialectic he constructs (chapter 3), Henson then turns to critique (chapters 4 and 5). He acknowledges that Pannenberg’s theology of creation only weakly engages with the unifying/pluralizing dialectic and diagnoses this as follows:

the physicists [“unifiers”], Cartwright [“pluralizers”], and Pannenberg are all making differing claims, or “theory choices,” about what counts as truth, reality, explanation, and understanding in their interpretations of the natural world, and of the ways in which these ideas shape their expressions of concepts like God, laws, unity and plurality. (106, italics authors)

Perhaps the most crucial difference is the “dissimilarity between a God acting freely via his law-governed universe (Pannenberg’s view) and a universe automatically ordered without necessary divine intervention” (117). Henson also concludes that Pannenberg’s theological methodology is quite limited with regards to resolving the unifying/pluralizing framework he set up for the book.

Two concluding comments. First, given the artificial nature of the unifying/pluralizing framework Henson constructs, it is not too surprising Pannenberg falls short of resolving that problem. As I indicated earlier, Henson created an artificial dialectic between “unifying physics” and Cartwright as an actual problem needing resolution. Second, one should not conclude from Henson’s book that Trinitarian theology, whether Pannenberg’s, Gunton’s, Torrance’s, or another, fails to help us understand creation and the role of the sciences in that project of understanding. These theologians have much on offer for enriching our understanding of creation in a science-saturated, age, and I heartily commend their study.

Cite this article
Robert C. Bishop, “God and Natural Order: Physics, Philosophy, and Theology”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 44:3 , 317-321


  1. Collin Gunton, The Triune Creator: A Historical and Systematic Study (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998).
  2. For example, James Turner, Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995).
  3. Hallam Stevens, “Fundamental Physics and Its Justification,” Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences 34 (2003): 152-153, 197.
  4. For instance, Stephen Kellert, Helen Longino and Kenneth Waters, Scientific Pluralism (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2006).
  5. I simply note, here, that Gunton, Torrance, and several other important theologians have been working out Trinitarian approaches that grapple with the diversity in unity of the creation. As a philosopher and historian of science, I believe one of the positive developments of the second half of the twentieth century is the degree to which these theologians valued substantial engagement with history and philosophy of science as well as the sciences (I count Henson as one who shares these engagements).

Robert C. Bishop

Wheaton College
Robert Bishop is Associate Professor of Physics and Philosophy at  Wheaton College.