How Can the History of Science Encourage the Church? Part I (STEAM Grant Series)

ESN is currently creating a Faith/Science curriculum for young adult small groups. We’ve partnered with InterVarsity graduate student discussion groups to identify faith/science questions that are important to emerging scholars, and we’re commissioning thoughtful Christians in science or theology/philosophy/history of science to explore those questions in this series at the ESN blog. We will then publish these posts as a booklet curriculum for campus groups. You can find previous posts in the series and related posts here. Today, we are delighted to introduce a special three-part exploration of the history of science in this faith/science series, written by James Ungureanu. 

This project was made possible through the support of an award from the Science and Theology for Emerging Adult Ministries project at Fuller Theological Seminary. The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fuller or the STEAM project.


Ask the average man or woman on the street for an opinion on science and religion, and they will likely tell you that they are in “conflict” or at “war.” Indeed, perhaps the most tenacious view of the historical relationship between science and religion is that they are fundamentally and irrevocably at odds. In recent years, no group has propagated the trope of a perpetual conflict or warfare between science and religion more than those often called the “New Atheists.” These authors, who include Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Victor Stenger, Jerry Coyne, Lawrence Krauss and others, contend throughout their published writings that religion is the implacable foe of scientific progress. While most of their arguments are philosophical in character, they also appeal to the historical record. In various writings, for example, Harris refers to the “clash of science and religion,” describing the “conflict between religion and science” as “inherent and (very nearly) zero-sum.” He asserts that if “reason” had emerged at the time of the Crusades, “we might have had modern democracy and the Internet by 1600.” He provocatively proclaims that “science must destroy religion.”[1] Similarly, Hitchens refers to “the terror imposed by religion on science and scholarship throughout the early Christian centuries,” and states that “all attempts to reconcile faith with science and reason are consigned to failure and ridicule.”[2] Stenger also argues that “the totality of evidence indicates that, on the whole, over the millennia the Christian religion was more of a hindrance than a help to the development of science.”[3] While there are many differences between each author, the New Atheists all share the view that science and religion have been and still are irrevocably at war.

But the historical record is not so simple. Early in the twentieth century, for example, English mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) warned readers of the difficulty in approaching the subject of science and religion, writing that although “conflict” between science and religion is what naturally occurs to our minds when we think about the subject, “the true facts of the case are very much more complex, and refuse to be summarized in these simple terms.” The terms in question, “science” and “religion,” according to Whitehead, “have always been in a state of continual development.”[4]

While the media and more popular historical writing continue to emphasize conflict, professional historians of science tell a different story. Many historians of science have criticized what they call the widespread “myth” of an endemic conflict between science and religion.[5] Some have even attempted to turn the tables, arguing that Christian theology laid the foundations of modern science. More specifically, many scholars have argued that English Protestantism had especially shaped, nurtured, and encouraged a new empirical and experimental approach to understanding nature in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.[6]

But at its most elementary level, positions of either “conflict” or “concord” between science and religion are discredited by an abundance of historical evidence that precludes a complete description of how the two have interacted. The historical record, in short, reveals that the relationship between science and Christianity has always been incredibly complicated. Awareness of this complicated history is central in explaining how we have arrived where we are today and, more importantly, how the discipline of the history of science can encourage the church. In a series of papers, I would like to offer a brief survey of science-religion interactions in Early, Medieval, and Modern Christianity. In understanding this complex history, case examples provide crucial insights. The history of these interactions can serve as a rich resource for contemporary scientists and theologians seeking to better understand how to engage science-religion questions today.

Early Christianity

Discussions of Christianity and science often begin with the Carthaginian lawyer Tertullian (160-220), who famously argued: “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church?”[7] Tertullian was concerned about protecting Christian doctrine from the heresies of pagan philosophy, “that human wisdom which pretends to know the truth.” He thus mocked pagan philosophers for their speculations and for assigning divinity to natural objects. “What proof is afforded to us,” he wrote,

by the useless affection of a scrupulous curiosity, which is tricked out with an artful show of language? It therefore served Thales of Miletus quite right, when, stargazing as he walked . . . he had the mortification of falling into a well. . . . His fall, therefore, is a figurative picture of the philosophers; of those, I mean, who persist in applying their studies to a vain purpose, since they indulge a stupid curiosity on natural objects.[8]

But Tertullian was not a radical anti-intellectual, preferring blind faith to reasoned argument. His writings reveal that he was superbly educated in the Greco-Roman classical tradition, and that his argument against pagan philosophers was built out of the materials and the methods drawn from that same philosophical tradition.[9]

Patristic scholars have long pointed out that the early Church fathers did not renounce all contact with Greco-Roman ideas. Different though the Christians were from the pagans in religious belief, there was a large and important area of political and philosophical knowledge that Christians and pagans held in common. A closer examination of attitudes within the early Church reveals a range of reactions to pagan philosophy. Most of the Church fathers were adult converts who had received their education in the pagan schools. In their efforts to create and defend Christian doctrine, it was inevitable that they would employ the tools of the classical tradition and its philosophical content. While Tertullian himself had little enthusiasm for Greco-Roman philosophy, including natural philosophy (what we now call science), such Church fathers as Justin Martyr (100-165), Clement of Alexandria (155-220), and Origen of Alexandria (185-251) adopted an eclectic mixture of pagan philosophies, including Platonism, Neoplatonism, and Stoicism.

As a Stoic convert to Christianity, for example, Clement of Alexandria wanted to argue against the anti-intellectual Christians of his time. But he also wanted to discredit the gnostic patterns of thought characteristic of certain Christian intellectuals. Accordingly, Clement sought to meet the demand of thinking Christians for a more coherent defense of their faith, while at the same time steering them clear of what he considered heresy. In his Stromata (c. 198-203), Clement set out to demonstrate that Greek philosophy prepared the way for Christianity. “For philosophy to the Greek world,” he wrote, was “what the Law was to the Hebrews, a tutor escorting them to Christ. So philosophy is a preparatory process; it opens the road for the person whom Christ brings to his final goal.” But for Clement, Greek philosophy is not only propaedeutic but serves as a necessary aid to understanding Christianity itself. He says that while in matters of faith, “it is possible to have faith without being literate, it is not possible to understand the statements contained in the faith without study.” Put another way, one does not need philosophy in order to have faith, but philosophy is clearly needed to understand faith. Clement maintained that the person who yearns to “touch the fringes of God’s power must of necessity become a philosopher to have a proper conception about intellectual subjects.”[10] In short, Clement, as an intellectual and cosmopolitan Christian of Alexandria, wanted to set Christian theology in the framework of contemporary Greek philosophy, which included Aristotelian and Platonic theologies.[11]

Perhaps the most influential figure of the early Church fathers and the one who most eloquently addressed Christian attitudes toward the classical tradition in all its varieties, including natural philosophy, was Augustine of Hippo (354-430). Throughout his numerous writings, Augustine purposed that the classical tradition could serve as a handmaid of Christian theology. “If those who are called philosophers,” he wrote, “have said things that are indeed true and are well accommodated to our faith, they should not be feared; rather what they have said should be taken from them as from unjust possessors and converted to our use.”[12] Moreover, in his commentary on Genesis, Augustine expressed dismay at the ignorance of some Christians:

There is knowledge to be had, after all, about the earth, about the sky, about the other elements of this world, about the movements and revolutions or even the magnitude and distances of the constellations, about the predictable eclipses of moon and sun, about the cycles of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, fruits, stones, and everything else of this kind. And it frequently happens that even non-Christians will have knowledge of this sort in a way that they can substantiate with scientific arguments or experiments. Now it is quite disgraceful and disastrous, something to be on one’s guard against at all costs, that they should ever hear Christians spouting what they claim our Christian literature has to say on these topics, talking such nonsense that they can scarcely contain their laughter when they see them to be toto caelo, as the saying goes, wide of the mark. And what is so vexing is not that misguided people should be laughed at, as that our authors should be assumed by outsiders to have held such views and, to the great detriment of those about whose salvation we are so concerned, should be written off and consigned to the waste paper basket as so many ignoramuses.[13]

For Augustine, all truth is ultimately God’s truth, even if found in books of pagan authors. We should seize it and use it without hesitation.

Among Patristic theologians, then, we find the foundational elements of many modern scientific disciplines and practices. Christian theologians like Tertullian, Clement, and Augustine inherited from the classical tradition of ancient Greece a body of philosophical knowledge dealing with the physical world. The classical tradition embraced many subjects, including history, drama, poetry, political theory, metaphysics, epistemology, and what we would call the mathematical and natural sciences. Indeed, these sciences included what we now know as cosmology, astronomy, physics, optics, metallurgy, medicine, botany, zoology, and more. Though not intrinsically of great value to the Church fathers, if there was anything in the natural sciences of the classical tradition that could aid the Christian’s understanding of God, nature, or even Scripture, they called on Christians to use it. While Augustine was the primary transmitter of the classical tradition to the medieval world, he was ultimately ambivalent toward the natural sciences. But his notion that all truth is God’s truth remains relevant to Christians in science today. We are called to bring all human learning, research, and discovery to bear on fundamental questions, especially in interpreting Scripture.

Discussion Questions

  1. Which ideas from this essay or the early church figures mentioned stand out to you as helpful to your own thinking on faith and science?
  2. Where do the attitudes of the early church as described here seem similar to the attitudes you have encountered among other Christians in your own experience? Where do they seem different?
  3. How can you imagine incorporating ideas from this essay and discussion into conversations with friends and colleagues about faith and science?


[1] Sam Harris, “Science Must Destroy Religion,” in What is Your Dangerous Idea? ed. John Brockman (New York: Harper Perennial, 2007), 148-51. See also The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York: W. W. Norton, 2004), 15, 109, 165; and Letter to a Christian Nation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), 62-68.

[2] Christopher Hitchens, god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Hachette Book Group, 2007), 64-65, 260.

[3] Victor J. Stenger, God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion (New York: Prometheus Books, 2012), 31-46.

[4] Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York: Macmillan, 1925), 180-82.

[5] The literature is extensive, but more accessible surveys can be found in Ronald L. Numbers (ed), Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009); and Ronald L. Numbers and Kostas Kampourakis (eds), Newton’s Apple and Other Myths about Science (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015).

[6] See, e.g., the classic studies in E. A. Burtt, Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science: A Historical and Critical Essay (New York: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1925); Marshall Clagett, The Science of Mechanics in the Middle Ages (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1959); R. Hooykaas. Religion and the Rise of Modern Science (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1972); and Stanley Jaki. Science and Creation: From Eternal Cycles to an Oscillating Universe (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1974). More recently, see, e.g., Peter Harrison, The Bible, Protestantism and the Rise of Natural Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

[7] See Tertullian, “The Prescription Against Heretics,” in Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (eds), The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol.3 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996).

[8] See Tertullian, “To the Nations,” The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3.

[9] On revising our understanding of Tertullian, see, e.g., Justo L. González, “Athens and Jerusalem Revisited: Reason and Authority in Tertullian,” Church History, 43:1 (1974): 17-25; and esp. Eric Osborn, Tertullian: First Theologian of the West (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

[10] See Clement of Alexandria, “Stromata,” The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 2.

[11] On Clement of Alexandra and his appropriation of Greek philosophy, see, e.g., Henry Chadwick, Early Christian Thought and the Classical Tradition: Studies in Justin, Clement, and Origen (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966); and Elizabeth A. Clark, Clement’s Use of Aristotle: The Aristotelian Contribution to Clement of Alexandria’s Refutation of Gnosticism (New York: Edwin Mellon Press, 1977).

[12] See Augustine, “On Christian Doctrine,” in Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (eds), Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. 2 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996).

[13] See Edmund Hill and John E. Rotelle (eds), On Genesis (New York: New City Press, 2002), 186-87.

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James Ungureanu

James C Ungureanu has a B.A. in Religious Studies and Philosophy from the University of California-Davis, where he graduated in 2008. He also has a M.A. in Church History from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and a PhD in Studies in Religion from University of Queensland. He is Honorary Post-Thesis Fellow in the School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry at University of Queensland and Honorary Fellow in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. An historian of science and religion, his research is mostly focused on nineteenth-century religious thought. He resides in Madison, Wisconsin, USA, with his wife and two children.

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