How Can the History of Science Encourage the Church? Part 2: Medieval Christianity (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 continue a special three-part exploration of the history of science in this faith/science series, written by James Ungureanu. See last week’s post on the early church here

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.


Pagan antiquity had bequeathed to Christianity a vast heritage of philosophical speculation, much of which was absorbed in the metaphysical framework underlying early and medieval Christianity. While popular historical accounts tend to portray medieval Christians as philistine, suspicious of learning, the truth is that the classical tradition of philosophy, art, literature and the natural sciences was kept alive largely by Christians in monastic communities. Indeed, there was a concerted effort by Christians to “baptize” such works. There were numerous writers of great influence from late antiquity and the early medieval period who bridged pagan and Christian worldviews. Augustine’s “handmaiden” formula continued to sanction the pursuit of studying nature through the early Middle Ages, but some writers began going beyond its original religious or theological utility.

Medieval Christianity

The University and the Natural Sciences

As the Roman Empire descended into civil disorder with the barbarian invasions, Christianity became the sole source of centralized authority. Fortunately, a new institution emerged that not only sustained but sanctioned the classical tradition. For in addition to vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and agricultural work, monastic orders included the preservation of ancient literature. Monastic orders thus made education a prerequisite for the religious life.[1] Monks copied sacred writings for their own use in church services, and when their cloisters developed into monastic schools, they copied important texts of antiquity. Such figures as Isidore of Seville (560-636), Venerable Bede (672-735), John Scotus Eriugena (815-877), Gerbert of Aurillac (946-1003) and Anselm (1033-1109) were not only prolific scholars who wrote treatises on philosophy, they were also monastic educators. It is an incontrovertible fact that our modern libraries are greatly indebted for the preservation of the works of both patristic writers and ancient natural philosophy by these monastic schools.[2]

In time monasteries became the center of literary culture, and therefore were crucial to the development of the natural sciences. Although entirely religious in structure, monastic schools provided a style of religious life that lent itself to the intellectual life. Indeed, kings and emperors turned to the monasteries as the only source of education. Beginning late in the eighth and early ninth centuries, there was a burst of scholarly activity connected to the court of Charlemagne (742-814), otherwise known as the “Carolingian Renaissance.” Part of Charlemagne’s imperial campaign to strengthen the church and the state was the task of developing educational reforms. He issued a decretal that every cathedral and monastery was to establish a school to provide free education and the copying of books.

These monastic schools grew into urban schools, which subsequently grew into larger cathedral schools, and then into public schools, which were not linked to any ecclesiastical authority. Although the latter schools were not affiliated with any church and typically had a broader range of subjects studied, they nevertheless maintained the religious aim of monastic schools. In time, the course of study expanded into two parts, the trivium, consisting of grammar, rhetoric, and logic; and the quadrivium, consisting of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. As monasticism matured in the following centuries, its store of scientific knowledge increased. These schools eventually grew to become the great universities of Bologna, Paris, Oxford, and Cambridge in the thirteenth century. The university quickly became the center of intellectual and literary life, offering advanced religious, professional, and scientific education.

As a repository of learning and philosophical speculation, several features of these new universities are important for understanding the development of science. First, as we have already mentioned, the universities of the late medieval period were instrumental in the recovery and translation of Arabic, Latin and Greek classics. These newly recovered and translated texts took their place alongside sacred writings and the works of the Church fathers.

The second feature of the new universities was a remarkable rationalistic turn, in the sense that students were required to apply their minds and energies to a number of discursive subjects, from law, philosophy, theology, to the study of nature. This method of learning came to be called “scholasticism,” where students and their masters employed dialectical reasoning, which approaches any field of study in terms of a set of propositions, problems, arguments, and counter-arguments. Scholasticism can be seen as an attempt to reconcile the philosophy of Greek and Arabic thinkers with medieval Christian theology. It is not a philosophy or theology in itself, but an instrument and method for learning, which emphasized rationality. The primary purpose of scholasticism was to find the answer to a question or resolve a contradiction.[3]

But perhaps the most important feature of the new university was its corporate structure. The separation of church and state was not merely an American phenomenon, for its roots appear in the structure of the medieval university of Western Europe. This in turn gave the masters of the universities great liberty and autonomy in structuring curriculum and lessons for their students. What took place in the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries in Western Europe was a revolutionary transformation and development of legal systems, providing new levels of autonomy and jurisdiction to the masters of the universities.[4]

As a result, the curriculum and structure of the late medieval university quickly moved beyond the trivium and quadrivium. In addition to these seven liberal arts, moral philosophy, natural philosophy, and metaphysics were added to the curriculum, with medicine, law, and theology becoming ever increasingly complex and advanced subjects of study. The medieval university scholar is best characterized as an “organizer, a codifier, a builder of systems.” Distinction, definition, and tabulation was his delight. Highly sophisticated and complex philosophical speculations were framed within a rigid dialectical pattern copied from the Aristotelian tradition.[5]

The philosophers and theologians at those mainly autonomous universities freely debated a wide range of scientific and theological questions. In the process, they developed powerful analytical tools that aided in the subsequent development of modern science. This process was carried out almost exclusively by highly placed literate Christian clerics, who perceived no contradiction between their obligations as Christian leaders and the pursuit of scientific knowledge. The task was to master a body of knowledge, astonishing in breadth, depth, and width, to assess its compatibility with a well-developed Christian theology, and to appropriate it for religious purposes.

From these medieval universities emerged brilliant theologians and philosophers like Peter Abelard (1079-1142), Peter Lombard (1096-1160), Robert Grosseteste (1168-1253), Albertus Magnus (1200-1280), Roger Bacon (1214-92), Bonaventure (1221-1274), Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), and many others. Among these thinkers, however, we begin to see attempts of moving beyond the Augustinian tradition.

Roger Bacon

Bacon, for instance, a Franciscan monk who is often considered the “first true scientist” of the Middle Ages, argued that the theologians of his day must use the new learning provided by the translations of Greek and Arabic works in order to understand Christianity itself.[6] Bacon began his Opus majus (1267) with a discussion of four obstacles, or errors, that prevent theologians from attaining total truth. Tellingly, the first of these was “submission to faulty and unworthy authority.” The second is the persistence or “influence of custom.” The third is “popular prejudice.” The fourth and most serious error was the human tendency to cloak ignorance in a show of wisdom, or, as he puts it, the “concealment of our own ignorance accompanied by an ostentatious display of our knowledge.” In order to expose and refute these errors, Bacon relies not only on Scripture and the Church fathers, but also Greek, Roman, and Arabic philosophers. In short, Bacon’s entire explanation of the causes of error boils down to his evident interest in the new learning and his fear that orthodox opinion will inhibit freedom of thought. While he accepts Augustine’s view that there is “one perfect wisdom” and that truth is to be reclaimed from the philosophers “as from unlawful possessors,” Bacon also maintained that philosophy “raises itself to the science of divine things.” That is, philosophical contemplation itself, even when not focused on theology, is still profitable. For Bacon, philosophy provided the “methods of proof of the Christian faith.” Bacon pushed for a new understanding of the “handmaiden tradition,” one that went beyond being merely sympathetic to pagan philosophy, as Clement of Alexandria or Augustine had done.[7]

Thomas Aquinas

But it was Aquinas, famed Dominican friar who taught theology at Paris, who is justly considered by most scholars as the greatest philosopher and theologian of medieval Christianity. He was particularly influenced by the Greek philosophy of Aristotle, and his best-known work, the Summa Theologiae (1265-1274), reflected a careful and considerable compromise between Aristotelian philosophy and Christian theology.[8] According to Aquinas, God is the “primary cause” of everything. While creation depended on divine activity, and was thus in this sense “secondary,” God empowered creation to act on its own accord. Aquinas believed that God gives created things active and passive causal powers of their own—that is, creation has the capacity to affect other things and to be affected by them. God may be the primary cause who directly sustains the existence of everything, but He chooses to act indirectly through the operation of the created order. God therefore can only act by means of the order of nature to produce effects in the world.

This distinction between primary and secondary causes led Aquinas to make important distinctions between philosophy and theology as well. Fully conversant with the science and philosophy of his day, Aquinas argued that empirical science studies the nature and activity of secondary causes, whereas metaphysics and theology study divine action and the spiritual dimension of the human being. While these two disciplines are different, they are not necessarily opposed. Whatever conflict exists between faith and reason, religion and science, may be defused by a proper understanding of each domain. The philosopher uses only those things that are accessible to reason, whereas the theologian also accepts as true what he learns from authority.

Perhaps the first systematic natural theologian, Aquinas also proposed several a posteriori arguments for the existence of God. His famous “five ways,” for instance, sought to demonstrate the existence of God by arguing that he is the necessary condition of certain observable phenomena. He thought arguments from motion, causation, possibility, necessity, and the beauty and harmony of nature proved the existence of God. While Aquinas supposed the philosopher can prove by reason alone that God exists, he was careful to emphasize that the triune God of the Christian tradition can only be established by Scripture alone. Yet, while he argued that the truth of Scripture was inviolable, Aquinas nevertheless warned against rigid interpretations of the biblical text. A hasty choice could prove detrimental to faith where new knowledge could later prove that choice untenable.[9]

Aquinas’s various distinctions, however, particularly his notion of separate domains or spheres between philosophy and theology, reason and faith, could lead to the belief, as we shall see, that science and religion are ultimately incompatible. Thus, while he was careful to limit the scope of reason, Aquinas’s approach opened the way to view science and religion as two separate truths.


In sum, for the first time in history a culture supported universities, permanent institutions dedicated to the intellectual life that equipped hundreds of thousands of students epistemologically, methodologically, and mathematically to investigate the nature of the cosmos. Most of the universities had the support of patrons, and by far the greatest patron of the medieval universities was the Church. As historian John Heilbron observes, “the Roman Catholic Church gave more financial and social support to the study of astronomy for over six centuries, from the recovery of ancient learning during the late Middle Ages into the Enlightenment, than any other, and, probably, all other, institutions.”[10] To be sure, while some theologians worried about the theological dangers of liberal higher education, they were nevertheless aware of the practical and scientific benefits to the point of protecting and supporting these institutions.

But as the Church patronized the classical tradition, including the natural sciences, the Augustinian approach became increasingly insufficient for many late-medieval thinkers. New distinctions had emerged. Perhaps the greatest gift of the medieval Christianity was the idea of “God’s Two Books”—the book of Scripture and the book of nature. While elements of the metaphor are present among Patristic authors, it was during the Middle Ages that such a binary epistemology became firmly established. Medieval theologians and philosophers were confident that knowledge from Scripture and nature were compatible and went to great lengths to show it. As we shall see, this metaphor continued to enjoy currency in the early modern period, particularly among English Protestant thinkers.

At the same time, conceding such autonomy to natural revelation had the unintended consequence of enabling it to compete with and even supersede special revelation as a basis for authority. Between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, for instance, the “two books” metaphor will ultimately collapse into the one book of nature. Men of science will begin to see naturalism in contrast to supernaturalism. Belief in the supernatural or divine providence will be seen as actually diminishing or opposing the integrity of the natural. The implication is that revelation is no longer necessary. The recognition of a revelation, coming from above and educating humanity in discerning those ways which are higher than our ways, and those thoughts which are higher than our thoughts, will come to be seen by many in the proceeding generation as entirely superfluous.

The notion that medieval Christianity ushered in the “dark ages” is a myth. The history of science reveals that medieval Christian theology provided the presuppositions, sanctions, motivations, and institutional settings for studying the natural world. At the same time, the history of science also reveals that while medieval Christianity and the study of the natural world shared a long and intimate relationship, there is also the ever-present danger of compartmentalizing and thus separating the study of the book of Scripture from the study of the book of nature.

Discussion Questions

  1. Have you encountered the idea of Scripture and nature as “God’s Two Books” before? Do you see any ways that it applies to your own experience of reading the Bible and learning about nature through science? If so, how? If not, are there other metaphors you have found more helpful?
  2. Does this brief account of medieval interactions between science and faith change how you had previously thought about this period of history? If so, how?
  3. What encourages you as you think about interactions between science and Christian faith in the Middle Ages? What do you find challenging?


[1] See David C. Lindberg The Beginnings of Western Science (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1992); Edward Grant, The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996); and Marcia L. Colish, Medieval Foundations of the Western Intellectual Tradition, 400-1400 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997). More accessible treatments may be found, e.g., in Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role From the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe (New York: Anchor Books, 1996); Thomas E. Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization (Washington D.C.: Regnery Publishing Inc., 2005); and James Hannam, How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (London: Icon Books Ltd., 2009).

[2] For a good brief overview of the institutional settings of the monastic orders, see, e.g., William Chester Jordan, Europe in the High Middle Ages (New York: Penguin Books, 2002), 115-20.

[3] See, e.g., Toby Huff, The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China, and the West (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[4] See, e.g., Harold J. Berman, Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983).

[5] C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964), 11.

[6] Brian Clegg, The First Scientist: A Life of Roger Bacon (London: Constable & Robinson Ltd., 2003).

[7] See Robert Bella Burke (ed), The Opus Majus of Roger Bacon, 2 vols (New York: Russell & Russell, Inc., 1962).

[8] See the concise translation by Timothy McDermott (ed), St Thomas Aquinas: Summa Theologiae: A Concise Translation (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, Inc., 1989).

[9] On the philosophical and theological work of Aquinas, see, e.g., Rudi Te Velde, Aquinas on God: The ‘Divine Science’ of Summa Theologiae (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006). See also Brian Davis (ed), The Oxford Handbook on Aquinas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[10] John L. Heilbron, The Sun in the Church: Cathedrals as Solar Observatories (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 3.

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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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