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 present the final post of a special three-part exploration of the history of science within this faith/science series. See last week’s account of medieval history here and the previous 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.
The “two books” metaphor—the belief that God has revealed Himself in both the book of Scripture and the book of nature—enjoyed its greatest currency in the early modern period (c. 1500-1800). But during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a host of new and often competing natural philosophies emerged. Since natural philosophy was still seen as the “handmaiden of theology,” these competing theories of how the natural world works brought into conflict competing theological schools of thought. It is in this internecine warfare where we begin to see the true origins of what many contemporary historians of science call the “conflict thesis,” the notion that science and religion are fundamentally and irrevocably at odds. As we already intimated in the previous post, the collapse of the “two books” metaphor into the one book of nature took place in the early modern period. This collapse continues to profoundly shape contemporary discussions about science-religion relations. Therefore we shall close this series by fleshing out this process in more detail, and conclude with some reflections on how a better understanding of this history may encourage people of Christian faith.
The early modern period has been traditionally divided by historians as three successive events—the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Scientiﬁc Revolution. These divisions or periodizations have been appropriately challenged by many contemporary historians, but they may still serve as useful signposts. As it relates to the relationship between science and Christianity, Renaissance thinkers pursued an even deeper and more comprehensive engagement with classical learning than that witnessed in the twelfth through the fourteenth centuries. The Renaissance witnessed the revival of a number of different strands of ancient thought about nature, including some of the more esoteric elements such as magic, astrology, alchemy and the Neoplatonic writings known as the “hermetic corpus.”
But these pagan traditions often came into conflict with historical Christian theology. In this period, for example, we also see the revival of ancient Greek atomism. The rediscovery of Democritus (c. 460-370 BC), Epicurus (c. 341-270 BC), and especially Lucretius (c. 99-55 BC) gave rise to a crisis of atheism among some Christian theologians. Greek atomism provided reasons and arguments for materialism and a naturalized world. Strictly speaking, these ancient Greek writers did not deny the existence of the gods. Rather, they simply maintained that the gods care nothing for us and do nothing for us, and therefore we ought to be content with the simple pleasures of nature. This revived mechanical philosophy insisted that there is nothing eternal but matter and void, that the universe is not divinely created but the product of the impact and concurrence of atoms, guided by nothing else but chance and necessity. The Epicureans believed that the material world is best described in terms of interactions of tiny, indivisible particles. This mechanistic theory of matter obviously had great importance for the development of modern science.
Early modern Christians attempted to accommodate the revival of Epicurean naturalism with Christian faith. From this attempt came the idea that the regularities observed in the natural world were thought of as “laws” imposed by God. Laws of nature, in short, were understood to consist in divine commands bestowed by a Lawgiver. Thus most Christian writers throughout the Renaissance continued to see both reason and Scripture as valid sources of knowledge. Nevertheless, such attempts at reconciliation only served to heighten tensions. As we shall see, the problem of atheism will loom large in later treatises on natural philosophy and theology, particularly among the “English virtuosi” of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. If anything, the Renaissance revival of ancient atomism presented Christian thinkers with alternatives to the prevailing Aristotelian tradition.
The Protestant Reformation, however, offered a unique challenge to ancient knowledge. Prominent Protestant reformers—and Martin Luther (1483–1546) in particular—were sharply critical of the pagan philosophical tradition, accusing the Roman Catholic Church of being “corrupted” by pagan thought. Moreover, the Protestant Reformation, although it was by no means a monolithic phenomenon, eroded the centralized authority of the Catholic Church, not only making possible the cultivation of heterodox religious positions but also allowing departures from the ofﬁcially sanctioned range of scientiﬁc doctrines.
While Luther was indeed a vociferous critic of Greek philosophy, railing against the admixture of pagan philosophy with Christian teaching in ways similar to Tertullian, other leading Protestant reformers were more moderate and somewhat more ambivalent in their views. According to John Calvin (1509-64), for instance, while Aristotle was “a heathen whose heart was perverse and depraved,” he was nevertheless “a man of genius and learning.”
The Protestant condemnation of the authority of the Catholic Church should help to explain, in part, the Church’s reaction to the heliocentric hypothesis. While the Catholic Church had initially been quite complacent about Nicholas Copernicus’s (1473-1543) thesis that the earth and planets revolve around the sun, after the Reformation, when controversies about the interpretation of Scripture were at their height, the Holy Ofﬁce was concerned to impose its authority on questions of biblical interpretation, particularly when Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) defended his position by claiming that the Bible teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.
Although the Protestant stress on Scripture was not new, Protestant insistence on the Bible’s “literal” sense seemed to spur scientific advance. This emphasis on a literal approach to understanding Scripture had an indirect bearing on approaches to the natural world. The Protestant emphasis on the literal sense of Scripture and a corresponding skepticism about the value of allegory and symbolism were accompanied by a new, literal reading of the natural world. When Protestants stripped the book of Scripture from its symbolic or emblematic meaning, all texts, including the book of nature, became open to a more literal interpretation. A hermeneutical revolution had taken place, both in interpreting the book of Scripture and the book of nature.
Against popular claims about their inherent incompatibility, it has long been established by historians of science that religious conviction frequently stimulated, rather than inhibited, scientiﬁc inquiry. But while this may be the case, definitions of “religion” and even “Christianity” were modified by some to better cohere with the new learning. During the so-called Scientific Revolution, the English virtuosi, men such as Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Samuel Hartlib (1600-1662), John Beale (1603-1683), Kenelm Digby (1603-1665), Thomas Browne (1605-1682), Benjamin Whichcote (1609-1683), Henry More (1614-1687), John Wilkins (1614-1672), John Wallis (1616-1703), Elias Ashmole (1617-1692), Ralph Cudworth (1617-1688), Walter Charleton (1619-1707), Henry Oldenburg (1619-1677), John Evelyn (1620-1706), John Aubrey (1626-1697), Robert Boyle (1627-1691), John Ray (1627-1705), Isaac Barrow (1630-1677), Christopher Wren (1632-1723), Robert Hooke (1635-1703), Thomas Sprat (1635-1713), and Isaac Newton (1642-1727), among many others, sought not only to demonstrate how God has revealed himself in nature, but how a more “rational” Protestantism provided an atmosphere more conducive to the sciences. Protestantism, in other words, embodied the principles that would allow for the progress of learning, society, and religion itself.
But a deeper reflection at once reveals that many of these men held rather unorthodox views of Christianity. Indeed, many if not most were anti-Trinitarians, and some even denied the divinity of Christ. Most importantly, Latitudinarian divines, or liberal Anglicans, were deeply impressed by the new learning, and sought to minimize doctrinal discord by emphasizing human reason in understanding revelation. They frequently preached for a more “reasonable Christianity” at the pulpit. They were united in belief that the most serious threat to religion was the irrational, and thus hoped to continue the reformation of religion along more rationalistic lines. By emphasizing a more liberal theology, one which underplayed doctrine and opposed superstition, enthusiasm, and fanaticism, they hoped to align Christianity to the modern age.
The philosophy of John Locke (1632-1704) is representative of the “rational supernaturalism” of the latitudinarian tradition, combining elements of a more liberal religion with scientific interest. In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), for instance, Locke argued that the existence of God is “the most obvious truth that reason discovers,” that its “evidence” is “equal to mathematical certainty.” For Locke, however, reason not only provided proof of the existence of God, it also established the criteria to judge what counted as genuine revelation. He argued that for revelation to be accepted it must be subject to reason. In his The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695), for instance, he argued that while religion is not contrary to reason, any divine revelation claimed by religion must be subject to the judgments of reason. Based on reason rather than superstition, such religion would abandon belief in such things as miracles, the virgin birth, and the Trinity, and would retain only the more rational and ethical elements of Christianity: belief in a creator God, in the brotherhood of man, the immortality of the soul, and the duty of love and care for one another.
A Religion without Revelation
Many seventeenth- and eighteenth-century ﬁgures argued that the pursuit of science was itself a form of religious activity. Indeed, throughout the Scientific Revolution and the subsequent Enlightenment, religion and science remained closely intertwined.
But it must be emphasized at once that with the rise of modern science we also see the decline of a strictly more orthodox Christianity. One of the most striking patterns that emerges from an examination of the thought of early modern English and continental men of science, whatever their particular religious commitments, is an almost universal suspicion of theological dogma accompanied by a pronounced desire for religious compromise and unity. Thus when the so-called English deists first appeared during the period of the Enlightenment, they had an abundant selection of histories and rhetoric which supported their critique of orthodox Christianity. Protestant historians and natural philosophers in particular had produced numerous polemical books condemning the “irrational” and “corrupt” Catholic Church for continually obstructing the progress of religion and new knowledge. This anti-Catholic polemic easily transformed into an intra-Protestant critique.
Rather than advocating atheism, for example, the English deists proposed a new rational “natural religion” that would offer, they believed, a firmer basis for a more stable and prosperous society. With a more diffusive Christianity emerging, such men as Edward Herbert (1583-1648), Charles Blount (1654-1593), Matthew Tindal (1656-1733), Thomas Woolston (1669-1733), John Toland (1670-1722), Anthony Collins (1679-1729), Thomas Morgan (d. 1743), Thomas Chubb (1679-1747), Conyers Middleton (1683-1750), and Peter Annet (1693-1769), promoted a non-institutional, and therefore non-partisan and non-dogmatic, “natural religion.”
That the English deists appropriated much of their understanding of history from their Protestant forebears is often overlooked by Christian apologists. Indeed, the borders between deism and liberal Christianity are difficult to establish. When abandoning the church for deism or natural religion, the English deists simply extended the Protestant critique of Roman Catholicism to include most or all of Christianity. For such thinkers all hierarchical established religion had been and still was “priestcraft,” instituted by the clergy for gain; they thus advocated a non-institutional belief in God.
More Recent Controversies
A generation later, such sentiments continued to be promoted by liberal Protestant thinkers. Of all of the topics that have fueled the antagonism between science and religion, evolutionism remains perhaps the only one with power to stimulate debate even today. Following the impact of geology and paleontology in the early nineteenth century, evolutionary theories seemed to many to challenge the story of human origins recounted in Scripture. Despite the ongoing sources of conflict, historians have shown that the conventional image of nineteenth-century Darwinism sweeping aside religious belief is an oversimplification. As a number of historians of science have pointed out, the religious response to Charles Darwin’s (1809-82) Origin of Species (1859) suggests more a compromise than a confrontation.
But as we have intimated, historians of science often neglect to point out that more orthodox Christians remained strictly anti-Darwinian. That is, Darwinism, or some modified version of it, was supported by liberal intellectuals and religious thinkers, while more religiously conservative thinkers quite correctly pointed out the materialistic implications of Darwin’s theory. Many had indeed joined Presbyterian theologian Charles Hodge (1797-1878), for example, in declaring that Darwinism is tantamount to practical or effective atheism.
Even today, the question of Darwinism remains hotly debated. From Young Earth Creationism to Theistic Evolutionism, there is an immensely wide spectrum of attempts at reconciling scientific discoverers and Christian faith. But as recent sociologists have shown, the conflict today is strikingly similar to the one in ages past.
A brief survey of when science and Christianity meet reveals that there are no easy patterns of “conflict” or “concord.” The one pattern that does consistently emerge, however, is that by holding such negative attitudes toward traditional Christian theology, liberal Protestants of the early modern period actually eliminated the very possibility of having a genuine Christian dialogue with science, rather than just a monologue dominated by science. Men and women in the history of Christianity have perhaps been too eager to embrace the latest scientific “facts,” and have thus attempted too quickly to “harmonize” Christianity with these “facts.” But by doing so, many lost their faith in the process. This loss of faith should not be interpreted simply as mere atheism, which is almost never the case, but the abandonment of core Christian beliefs.
This danger remains present for Christians today. A recent study by the Pew Research Center, for example, found that while many Americans continue to believe in a higher power, a very small majority believe in the God of the Bible. Here we must remind ourselves what the Apostle Paul told the church in Corinth many years ago. We ought to “demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God,” to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10.5). When Paul says to “demolish” arguments and arrogant opinions against God and, to take thoughts or minds captive, he means the minds and thoughts of others. In other words, Paul is calling on the Corinthian Christians to demolish the boastful worldviews of the pagan Corinthians, taking their philosophies captive for Christ. And by implication, Paul is still calling on the Christian Church today to destroy arguments and take captive every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God.
Paul’s call is essentially the Augustinian approach to the non-Christian world and its ideas. Christians in science today can still plumb from the wisdom of the Bishop of Hippo, who wrote at least five commentaries on the creation narrative in Genesis. Augustine sought to defend the integrity of Genesis against other philosophers who criticized Genesis as legend or derided its narrative as irrational. He argued in response that human language is tricky, and to understand the meaning of words we must be careful to discern their intentions. When it comes to the biblical text, we must be attentive not only to the human element but also its divine source. According to Augustine, the purpose of the Bible is redemptive. As we have seen, he did not think knowledge of the natural world useless, but simply inferior to the knowledge of God in revelation. Since knowledge of the natural world is constantly changing, it is dangerous for the Christian to insist on the constancy of certain scientific theories. Augustine believed we become obstacles of salvation to others by equating a scientific theory with the meaning of the Bible. Not much has changed today. The Augustinian solution to conflict is humility both in the interpretation of nature and the interpretation of Scripture.
The history of science serves as a warning to Christians about embracing too quickly every new idea or new discovery in the natural world. What the history of science teaches the Church, in short, is that our faith must be placed not in the latest scientific discoveries or theories, but in Scripture and the guidance of Christian history. We must pursue our research, whether in the sciences or in the humanities, for the glory of God. For Augustine, all truth is God’s truth. Since He has revealed himself in both nature and Scripture, both are ultimately compatible. At the same time, we, as finite, fallible, and fallen creatures, must approach the study of these two books of God with the utmost humility and openness. We cannot do this alone. Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us constantly remind ourselves that while the grass withers and the flower fades, the Word of our God shall stand forever.
- What did you find most illuminating or helpful in this history of early modern interactions between science and faith?
- Having read all three parts of this short series on the history of science, what encourages you? What do you find most challenging about it?
- How would you translate what you have explored in this series to a conversation with a scientific colleague interested in faith/science questions?
- How would you translate what you have explored in this series to a conversation with a fellow church member interested in faith/science questions?
 See the classic study by Frances A. Yates, “The Hermetic Tradition in Renaissance Science,” in Charles S. Singleton (ed), Art, Science, and History in the Renaissance (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1968), 255-74.
 See William B. Ashworth Jr., “Christianity and the Mechanistic Universe,” in David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers (eds), When Christianity & Science Meet (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 61-84. For an entertaining account of the recovery of these ancient Greek writers, see Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the World Become Modern (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2012).
 See, e.g., Edgard Zilsel, “The Genesis of the Concept of Physical Law,” The Philosophical Review, vol. 51, no. 3 (1942): 245-79; Francis Oakley, “Christian Theology and the Newtonian Science: The Rise of the Concept of the Laws of Nature,” Church History, vol. 30, no. 4 (1961): 433-57; and Alan G. Padgett, “The Roots of the Western Concept of the ‘Laws of Nature’: from the Greeks to Newton,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, vol. 55, no. 4 (2003): 212-21.
 For a recent survey of the unintended consequences of the Protestant Reformation, see, e.g., Brad A. Gregory, Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts that Continue to Shape Our World (New York: HarperOne, 2017).
 John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, 5 vols., trans. James Anderson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949), 4.107.43.
 See, e.g., Maurice A. Finocchiaro, “That Galileo Was Imprisoned and Tortured for Advocating Copernicanism,” in Ronald L. Numbers, Galileo goes to jail, and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 68-78.
 A number of scholars have argued that Protestantism had shaped, nurtured, and spurred the development of modern science. See, e.g., the famous thesis by Robert K. Merton, “Science, Technology, and Society in Seventeenth-Century England,” Osiris, vol. 4 (1938): 360-632. A more recent version of this thesis can be found in Peter Harrison, The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).
 See, e.g., Paul H. Kocher, Science and Religion in Elizabethan England (San Marino, CA: Huntington Library, 1953); Richard S. Westfall, Science and Religion in Seventeenth-Century England (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1970); and Margaret C. Jacob, The Newtonians and the English Revolution: 1689-1720 (Hassocks, Sussex: The Harvester Press, 1976).
 See, e.g., John Brooke and Ian Maclean (eds), Heterodoxy in Early Modern Science and Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).
 John Locke, “An Essay concerning Human Understanding,” in Works of John Locke, 9 vols., 12th Ed. (London: Printed for C. and J. Rivington et al, 1824), 2.187-88.
 For a recent discussion of Locke’s theology, see Victor Nuovo, John Locke: The Philosopher as Christian Virtuoso (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).
 See, e.g., Wayne Hudson, The English Deists: Studies in Early Enlightenment (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2009).
 Perhaps the best survey is James R. Moore, The Post-Darwinian Controversies: A Study of the Protestant Struggle to come to terms with Darwin in Great Britain and America, 1870-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979). See also David N. Livingstone, Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders: The Encounter between Evangelical Theology and Evolutionary Thought (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987).
 Charles Hodge, What is Darwinism? (New York: Scribner, Armstrong, and Co., 1874), 177.
 See, e.g., Eliane Howard Ecklund and Christopher P. Scheitle, Religion vs. Science: What Religious People Really Think (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017); and John H. Evans, Morals Not Knowledge: Recasting the Contemporary U.S. Conflict Between Religion and Science (Oakland: University of California Press, 2018).
 “When Americans Say They Believe in God, What Do They Mean? 2018,” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (April 25, 2018): http://www.pewforum.org/2018/04/25/when-americans-say-they-believe-in-god-what-do-they-mean/.