From the Editor — The Specter of Enmity

BEFORE I started working on this issue, I had always harbored (though fancying I knew better) a vague, unsettling notion that the things of science and the things of God are somehow incompatible. Attached to this was an equally disturbing sense that, throughout its history, the church had seen science as a potential threat to the faith.

This shadowy sense of a historical tension between faith and science is a pretty disruptive poltergeist in the mental house of any modern Christian who suffers with it. For, after all, we live this science. Even the confirmed Luddites among us find our lives entangled, improved, and burdened a hundred ways each day by modern science. And we live, or try to live, this faith. That is, we know we have our being in Godand should have our minds conformed to Christwhile at our computers, in our cars, at the doctor’s office, and everywhere else science meets us.

So if there’s some kind of inherent opposition between faith and science, this is a problem.

Is there, then? Or at least, has there been?

Historian of science David Lindberg lays out a panoramic answer to this question in this issue’s Link Interview (p. 44). Lindberg traces the long history of the interaction between Christianity and science back to the earliest days of the faith, and what he finds there is eye—opening.

Philosopher Peter Harrison adds a dimension to this long view as he identifies, in his “God of Math and Order” (p. 18), three changes in Christian theology that contributed to the progress of scientific revolution.

A more impressionistic answer, with some of the mysterious power of impressionist paintings, develops out of the rich colors and fine details of this issue’s biographical articles. Here emerges, life by fascinating life, a group portrait of individuals gifted with a genius for studying the natural world.

These men were quirky, sometimes unorthodox in their theology, often struggling with aspects of their faith. Yet they were convinced, to a man, that when they peered through their lenses, worked out their equations, or conducted their experiments, they were gaining a privileged insight into God’s glory, in all of its macroscopic and microscopic detail.

This approach—the design of this issue as a gallery of mini-biographies chosen to illustrate a topic—is a new one for us. But I think it works. It leads us out of the fog that hangs around this subject and helps us discover what was always there, hidden behind: the tremendous power and attractiveness of science practiced as a Christian vocation.

Historian David Lindberg shows that Christianity and science are not at war — and may never have been.

But it was also clear that this body of writings (especially those by Aristotle) contained theological land—mines.

Aristotle believed in the eternity of the world.

He also judged the world to be deterministic, with no room for divine providence and divine action.

And Aristotle’s philosophy was set within a rationalistic framework that maintained that true knowledge could be achieved only through observation and reason—thereby ruling out revelation as a source of truth.

Now one of the most durable myths about science and religion is that the church responded to these theologically dangerous teachings by suppressing Aristotle’s writings and the rest of the ancient Greek scientific tradition.

What really happened?

Medieval scholars (university professors, including theology professors) were confronted by a terrible dilemma. They were not prepared to compromise the central doctrines of Christian theology. But they also recognized that the classical sciences had great explanatory power.

They preferred peace to warfare, so they looked for ways to accommodate this powerful tradition. They corrected the ancient sources where that seemed necessary, and on occasion they reinterpreted theological doctrines. And they argued vigorously for the usefulness of the classical sciences.

There were certainly skirmishes, including several cases in which a university scholar was condemned for teaching doctrines judged dangerous, but most of these were local and temporary. And there was never anything approaching intellectual warfare between theologians and scientists.

Roger Bacon, an outstanding scientist of the thirteenth century, is a good example of some of these developments. Borrowing a theme from St. Augustine, he argued that the classical scientific tradition could be the faithful handmaiden of theology and religion.

Thomas Aquinas and Albert the Great also contributed to this enterprise. They worked their way through Aristotle’s writings line by line, looking for ways to reinterpret him or revise Christian theological doctrines to make them consistent with each other.

The point is that in the end, Christendom made its peace with the classical tradition. Aristotle’s writings became the centerpiece of medieval university education, and the church became their greatest patron.

What guided medieval scholars as they worked out this accommodation?

St. Augustine (354—430), the most influential theologian of the Middle Ages, gave them their principal tool. Augustine had cautioned that Christians should not make fools of themselves by reading their astronomy from the Bible. Don’t embarrass the Christian faith with half—baked science.

Here’s what Augustine wrote in his Literal Commentary on Genesis:

"Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds as certain from reason and experience.

"Now it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people reveal vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh that ignorance to scorn.”

The result of Bacon’s work, and Aquinas’s, and Albert’s, and that of many others less well known, was a Christianized Aristotle and an Aristotelianized Christianity.

And does this Christianization affect or limit science in any way?

It depends on the area. In technical areas—the mathematical sciences, medicine, and other “non-worldview” sciences—not in the least. For example, in the history of geometrical optics (a favorite study of medieval scholars and one of my own historical specialties), I have yet to find a single theoretical claim that is in any way altered by the Christian context in which that research took place.

Did Christianization ever motivate scientific investigation?

Definitely. For example, Roger Bacon argued that if you wanted to interpret scriptural passages that touch on the heavens or other objects of scientific investigation, you had to have scientific knowledge. And quite a large amount of scientific content is found in medieval theological treatises.

Given everything you've said, what can we conclude about the causes of the scientific revolution?

There are two widely-held theories, both involving religion. One maintains that the scientific revolution was the product of European secularization, as Christianity lost its hold on educated Europeans. The other claims that the scientific revolution was a product of religious reform—specifically, the Protestant Reformation.

In my opinion, neither of these positions is defensible. Many factors contributed to the scientific revolution, but it was most fundamentally a continuation and outgrowth of medieval institutions (the universities) and of the Christianized classical scientific tradition of the Middle Ages.

So neither Protestants nor Catholics invented modern science. Their theology or worldview was not the ground or source from which modern science emerged; but they did provide a context within which the natural sciences developed and flourished. CH

By Chris Armstrong

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #76 in 2002]

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