Christianity and Science in Historical Perspective, Part 1
The following series is taken from Ted Davis' paper "Christianity and Science in Historical Perspective" for the Test of Faith project. You can download the full paper in PDF format at their website, www.testoffaith.com, as well as find many other wonderful resources about science and faith.
Ask the person on the street for an opinion about science and religion, and you are likely to hear something about a confrontation, perhaps combined with a reference to Galileo’s trial for heresy by the Roman Inquisition in 1633. The view that science and religion have always been and are still engaged in an ongoing, inevitable conflict pervades the Western world and provides crucial support for the aggressively anti-religious agenda of the New Atheists. It is surely no accident that the two nineteenth-century books most commonly associated with advocating the ‘warfare’ view – A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, by Andrew Dickson White, and History of the Conflict between Religion and Science, by John William Draper – are available for free downloading at infidels.org and positiveatheism.org, respectively. (They are not accompanied by links to any of the many scholarly sources offering devastating criticisms of the works of White and Draper.)
White was an historian himself, and for several generations his riveting narrative of enlightened and progressive science triumphing over ignorant and obscurantist theology set the tone for many other historical studies of science and religion. In the past few decades, however, historians of science have decisively rejected the ‘warfare’ view, along with many of the widely believed myths that White and Draper promulgated – such as the fictitious claim that John Calvin cited Psalm 93 against Nicolaus Copernicus or the wholly unfounded assertion that most Christians prior to Christopher Columbus believed in a flat earth. By insisting that all aspects of the history of science and religion must fit into one poorly chosen conceptual box, the ‘warfare’ view lied by gross oversimplification and led numerous scholars to overlook the large amount of historical material that just didn’t f t into that box. The history of Christianity and science is much richer and far more interesting than White and Draper could have imagined. We will mainly discuss the interaction of science and religion during the Scientific Revolution, a period of roughly two centuries (1500 to 1700) during which most of the important aspects of modern science emerged, but first we will look briefly at the first fifteen hundred years of interaction between Christianity and science.
Christianity & Science before Copernicus
Discussions of Christianity and science often begin with the Carthaginian lawyer Tertullian. Around 200 A.D., he formulated the central question for Christian scholars of all ages: ‘What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the academy and the church?’ Tertullian himself had no enthusiasm for Greek philosophy, including natural philosophy (what we now call science), but most early Christian authors took a more favourable view, especially Origen and Augustine. No Christians actually contributed to natural philosophy, however, until the sixth century, when John Philoponus of Alexandria wrote insightful commentaries on several works of Aristotle. Even at that time, though, Philoponus was an exception. Cultural and historical circumstances were such that, for the most part, Islamic scholars encountered Greek science and began making contributions of their own long before there was a thriving scientific tradition in Christian Europe.
It was not until the creation of the first universities by ecclesiastical and secular authorities in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries (or later, depending on the location) that Christian scholars began to engage Greek science and medicine in more than a sporadic and incomplete manner. Prior to that time, most of the writings of Aristotle, Ptolemy, and Galen had been unavailable to scholars in Western and Northern Europe. During the High Middle Ages, however, scientific texts and topics constituted about one-third of the undergraduate (arts) curriculum at the universities, which existed with active support from the church. Furthermore, 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.
How did these early scholars conceive of the relationship between science and religion? Most Christian writers down through the Renaissance saw both reason and Scripture as valid sources of knowledge, but they did not usually regard them as equally authoritative. Philosophy (including what is now called science) was considered a ‘handmaiden to theology’, and not an autonomous enterprise in its own right, but it was still an important area of study to which considerable resources were given in the universities. Theology was ‘queen of the sciences’, or queen of all knowledge. These scholars thought that one of the roles of scientific knowledge was to help explain biblical passages about nature. The author of a commentary on Genesis, for example, might draw on Aristotelian cosmology and physics in connection with references to the heavens in the creation story. They did not think it appropriate, however, to question the traditional interpretation of a biblical text on the basis of a scientific theory. The book of nature (as philosophy was often called) did not have nearly as much authority as the book of Scripture.
All of this changed, however, with the advent of the new astronomy of Nicolaus Copernicus, an administrative officer at the cathedral in Frombork, a small coastal town in northern Poland. We'll explore the impact of his work, and of the rise of modern science, in our next post.
Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. At Messiah, Davis teaches courses on historical and contemporary aspects of Christianity and science and directs the Central Pennsylvania Forum for Religion and Science.