Modern natural science, which received its charter in the seventeenth century, arose in Christendom during the century that produced the Protestant Reformation. This leads to the questions: Is modern natural science the offspring of Christianity? and, more particularly, Was it cradled in the Reformation? In answering these questions, Christians in general and Protestants in particular must be careful neither to claim nor to disclaim too much.
It is a fact that modern science arose in Europe not before but only after the continent was Christianized, and that it arose independently in no other part of the earth. This suggests that it owes much to Christian principles, which indeed it does. But, of course, it is also in debt to ancient Greece and Rome, as are all things Occidental. In its pure form it articulates the Christian mind, but it is not divorced from the Hellenic scientific tradition that culminated in Aristotle nor is it a stranger to the Latin sense of order transmitted to the Middle Ages by the Stoics. Its lineage is complex.
Modern natural science did not arise under pagan auspices, nor did it arise when the Roman Catholic understanding of Christianity was dominant in Europe. This suggests that for its emergence something was needed that neither medieval Christianity nor the revived paganism of the humanistic Renaissance could or did supply. Did the Reformation then supply what was needed? Did it touch off the scientific explosion? There are indications that it did, but Protestants are here obliged to press their claims with care.
There is no doubt that certain Christian principles which tend to stimulate men’s interest in God’s creation but which lay dormant or were compromised during the Middle Ages were disclosed and vigorously proclaimed in the Reformation. There is also no doubt that the Reformed teaching tended to draw men into a study of nature, for among the pioneers of the new science were numerous adherents of the evangelical faith. Yet Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, and many other distinguished scientists were loyal sons of the Roman church. To accommodate this fact it is not necessary, however, to withdraw the Protestant claim. It remains true that the Reformation purged and clarified the biblical conceptions that, when accepted and implemented, worked regeneratively in science. What must be acknowledged, however, is that the new understanding of Christianity thus attained was not absolutely new, nor could it be contained behind ecclesiastical walls; it bore relation to what had previously been confessed, and it worked as a leaven throughout the Christian Church. In view of this, it is perhaps best to say that it was Christianity that supplied the firm foundation for modern natural science, and that the Reformation was used by God so to delineate this foundation as to dispose men to build on it the vast new structure of science.
It is not necessary here to set forth, or even enumerate, all those points of Christian teaching that tended to evoke, and did in fact support, the new science of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But it is essential to consider the three points of doctrine—the teachings concerning God, man, and nature in their interrelations—which appear to impinge most immediately upon the scientific enterprise, and which N. Berdyaev may have had in view when he declared, “I am convinced that Christianity alone made possible both positive science and technics” (The Meaning of History, p. 113).
1. A fundamental affirmation of Christianity is that nature is a revelation of God. This entails at least two further affirmations: Nature can be known and nature ought to be known.
a. In Christian teaching God is the all-knowing One who created all things after the counsel of his plan and who has since regulated and disposed them in accordance with his good and all-wise purposes. This means that nature proclaims the wisdom of God, a wisdom that is accessible, within the limits of finitude, to those created in God’s image. Nature is imbued with rationality and thus intrinsically intelligible.
The Greeks never attained to this conception of nature’s intelligibility. God was for Plato and Aristotle intelligent enough; he was indeed Pure Thought and Perfect Rationality. But he was not infinite and omnipotent. Beside him there existed an independent and essentially intractable Matter, which could not be completely “formed” or rationalized. A natural thing or process in its empirical concreteness could therefore never be completely known—not even by God; it always retained a residue of irrationality and unintelligibility. This is one of the reasons why a natural science, as distinct from a philosophy of essences, was never developed among the Greeks.
It was only after the Greek notion of material intractability and mathematical imprecision, also in its attenuated medieval form, was abandoned by the Protestant Reformation that the way was opened for natural science to go forward. Science, if it is to proceed with vigor and confidence, must believe that a recognizable pattern is to be found in nature. Modern science is animated by this belief, and continues to be so animated even since the promulgation of Planck’s Quantum theory and Heisenberg’s Principle of Indeterminacy. And the origin of this belief is plain. As A. E. Taylor says, “The conception of God as perfect and flawless intelligence is manifestly the source of our rooted belief in the presence of intelligible order and system throughout nature; it has created the intellectual temper from which modern science itself has arisen” (Does God Exist?, p. 2).
b. But the fact that nature is a revelation of God means not only that nature can be known but also that it ought to be known. That it ought to be known, and therefore diligently studied, the Reformers never ceased to declare. Nature, they taught, is a book to be read or, more dynamically considered, a discourse to be heard; and no Christian with the requisite talents may absolve himself from this task. The traces of God’s steps, the patterns of his wisdom, the signs of his power, and the evidences of his glory are in nature, and these are to be carefully observed.
Stimulated and driven forward by this idea, men like Bacon, Beeckman, Boyle, Harvey, Newton, and Ray—men of massive intellect, consuming curiosity, and authentic Christian piety—went out to nature and helped determine the structure and direction of modern science. And men of like mind and similar Christian faith have appeared upon the plane of science in every generation since. In the nineteenth century there were Davey, Faraday, Joule, Kelvin, Maxwell. They were all devout Christians, and it was their religion that enlisted them for science. The power of the Christian idea, accented in the Reformation, that God wants to be heard and read in general as well as in special revelation, forced the Christian scientists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to make the same patient inquiries of nature that the conscientious theologians made of Scripture.
In the course of their investigations theologians and scientists might sometimes have arrived at incompatible conclusions, but both sorts of men knew that the message of nature and of Scripture is of one piece, and that where a difference appears, a mistake in reading has been made. What both understood, perhaps better than some of us today, is that the Bible is not to be interpreted in every place with strict literalness, nor to be regarded as a textbook on science. It would have been impossible for Calvin, for example, to oppose the Copernican theory on the ground that the inspired author of Psalm 96 had declared that “the world is established, it shall never be moved” (v. 10). He was too astute a student of the Bible to regard it as a purveyor of scientific lore. “He who would learn astronomy and other recondite arts,” he said, in commenting on Genesis 1:15 and 16, “let him go elsewhere.… The history of the creation … is the book of the unlearned.”
2. A second fundamental affirmation of Christianity is that nature is subject to man. The late M. Foster has pointed out a difference between ancient and modern attitudes to nature. “On the ancient view,” he says, “man is a part of nature and his true destiny is to conform himself to it, ‘to live according to nature’.… In modern times science has acquired a different aim, that of mastery over nature” (Free University Quarterly, May, 1959, p. 126). This is true. Bacon in his Instauratio celebrates and recommends the “dominion” of man, and Descartes in his Discourse on Method contemplates men as “lords and possessors of nature.” As a result of this attitude, science has produced a technical civilization such as antiquity never could produce.
The idea that man, through science, is called upon to “control” or “subjugate” nature comes, of course, from the Scriptures, and it was pressed upon the consciousness of men by the Reformers. It is rooted in the divine mandate: “God said to them … fill the earth and subdue it: and have dominion …” (Gen. 1:28). Bacon’s conception of the “Kingdom of Man” may seem to some to indicate humanistic pride, and it must be acknowledged that the conception readily lends itself to secularization and perversion; but in Bacon’s usage it was a simple translation of Psalm 8:5, 6: “Thou hast made him little less than God, and dost crown him with glory and honor. Thou hast given him dominion over the works of thy hands: thou hast put all things under his feet.”
It must be admitted, and even emphasized, that, the aim of science in Christian perspective is not merely “control.” The aim, as the Greeks discerned, is also “understanding.” And even more importantly, it is “praise.” It is significant that Psalm 8, which celebrates the “Kingdom of Man,” ends with the words, “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth.” This indicates that “control” must always be by a man in subjection to God—by a man, that is, who in religious fear stands humbly before his Maker and in strict obedience to God’s law of love directs his domination toward the true betterment of man.
Along with this, however, it must be acknowledged that “control of nature” is an authentic biblical idea, and that it is in modern science only because it was first in Christianity. Because it is a Christian idea, the Christian is justified neither in lamenting the existence of technology nor in setting arbitrary limits upon man’s jurisdiction. The splitting of the atom, the exploration of space, the sowing of clouds to make rain—all this and more is the prerogative of the man who in subjection to God is Lord of nature.
3. A third fundamental affirmation of Christianity is that nature is created. This entails at least two further affirmations: Nature has a beginning and nature is contingent.
a. In the view of Greek science, nature was an organism that grew (phusis, from phuestai), and not a thing or machine that was made. Nature was a self-generating, eternal, divine being, which had no beginning. It was the living, throbbing, but impersonal reproductive matrix from which all things—even the gods—arose and into which they were periodically resolved. The consequences of this conception were many and diverse, but one of them was that Greek science put the emphasis not on efficient but on final causes. Not beginnings but ends were in focus. In modern science the opposite is true. Final causes, considered as immanent explanatory principles, have been banished altogether, and explanations are made in terms of efficient causes only.
The reason for this shift is basically a Christian one. It was stated succinctly by Newton in his Principia: “This Being [God] governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all” (Scholium Generale). What is here said is that nature is not divine but creaturely; not eternal but temporal; not self-generating but made. The events and processes that occur in it are not self-caused; rather, they occur through the play upon them of a Power from without. The ultimate explanation of their behavior is the transcendent God, who in and with time made nature out of nothing.
The banishment from nature of innate final causes was a great gain for science, and it was effected directly by the Christian teaching on creation. By the force of that teaching, which was compromised in medieval times by a foreign alliance with Greek modes of thought, the Reformers effected the death of Greek animism. Appetites, natural tendencies, sympathies, attractions became moribund concepts, and the way was opened for the development of the classical Newtonian physics, and indeed for every later advance in modern science.
To Christians, who believe that all things exist for the glory of God, it may appear unfortunate that, under Christian auspices, modern science should banish all final causes and deal only with efficient causes. But, as A. F. Smethurst correctly observes, Bacon, Descartes, and Newton “did not suggest that there are no final causes, but only that these are not the concern of natural science. Nor did they mean that there is no purpose in nature, but only that such a purpose cannot be discovered by scientific, experimental, empirical methods” (Modern Science and Christian Belief, Abingdon, 1955, p. 23). No doubt they were right.
b. Greek science, like Greek thought generally, was rationalistic. The Greek mind supposed it knew beforehand what things were like. This is evident in Greek theology. Whereas the Hebrew knew he had to be told by God himself what He was like, the Greek supposed that he already possessed a pattern of perfection according to which he could challenge every claimant to divinity. In science, too, the Greek proceeded aprioristically. He supposed he knew, for example, that there could not be any change in heavenly bodies and that they could not move except in circles. In the words of Professor Hooykaas, for the Greeks “that which is not comprehensible is hardly real, and what is not logically necessary but contingent, is considered a defect in nature, hardly worthy to be studied.” But, he continues, “the Christian physicists of the seventeenth century, Pascal, Boyle, and Newton, did not recognize an intrinsic necessity of physical events. In their opinion regularity of the sequence of events depends wholly on the will of God” (Free University Quarterly, October, 1961).
It was when this conception entered fully into the consciousness of men through the mediation of the Reformers that authentic empiricism was born. Modern science is nothing if not empirical, but the origin of this feature is found in Christianity. In the Christian view, God is the Creator and nature is radically contingent. What happens in it the scientist can learn only through observation. What can or cannot happen in it he does not know beforehand, for here as everywhere he must wait upon God’s revelatory activity.
Modern science, then, can rightfully be claimed by Protestant Christians as a fruit of the Reformation. Natural science as such is no enemy of the Christian faith but its child, and it can and should be utilized in the service of the Father.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.