Christianity and Science in Historical Perspective, Part 2
This 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. In part one, Davis looked at the relationship between science and faith before Copernicus. Today, we look at how this view changed.
Christianity & the Rise of Modern Science
All of this changed 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. At the time, Roman Catholic officials recognized that the calendar that had been in use since the time of Julius Caesar was increasingly out of step with the stars. Copernicus was known to be working on a new theory of celestial motion, according to which the earth revolves around a stationary sun, and the church wanted him to participate in conversations about fixing the calendar. Copernicus, however, preferred to work quietly on his own. For many years he ignored the pleas of at least one cardinal and two bishops to publish his ideas, until finally a young Lutheran astronomer from the University of Wittenberg, Georg Joachim Rheticus, came for an extended visit and was able to persuade Copernicus to allow his book to be printed back in Germany. Contrary to what is often said or implied, Copernicus had full freedom to pursue his ideas while working for the church and was even encouraged to publish them.
It is true that Copernicus’ ideas were controversial, but scientific objections (rather than religious objections) constituted the lion’s share of this criticism. Most astronomers prior to Galileo considered heliocentrism to be a highly speculative hypothesis, entirely lacking in observational support and contrary to common sense. As Galileo himself said, his admiration for the Copernicans was so great precisely because they had ‘done such violence to their own senses as to prefer what reason told them over that which sensible experience plainly showed them to the contrary’. The inability (at the time) to observe the annual parallax of the stars counted heavily against the idea of a moving earth, and Aristotelian physics made no sense if the earth were not at rest in the center of the heavens. Such considerations led Tycho Brahe (1546–1601), the greatest astronomer of his generation and an outspoken opponent of Aristotelian cosmology, to reject the Copernican view decisively. He advocated an alternative geocentric model that later proved adequate to account for everything Galileo observed with his telescope.
In short, it made perfect sense for theologians to reject the new theory – and to stick with a literal interpretation of the Bible. A handful of biblical texts appear to speak of the earth as immobile, or of the sun as in motion. Why should anyone seek to alter interpretations that only agreed with the best science of the day? Although Martin Luther had dismissed heliocentrism as a foolish idea that contradicted the account of Joshua’s long day in the Bible, his disciple Philip Melanchthon revered mathematical astronomy: in his view, neither the perfection of the heavens nor the certainty of mathematics had been adversely affected by the Fall. Melanchthon also considered the earth’s motion unbiblical, but he encouraged the teaching of Copernican theory as a false but useful hypothesis at Lutheran universities. Thus, a young Johannes Kepler learned about it from astronomer Michael Maestlin at Tübingen, where he was preparing to be a theologian. Kepler liked the Copernican view partly because he believed that the three parts of the heliocentric universe constituted an image of the Trinity – the central sun with its emanating light representing God the Father, the starry sphere God the Son, and the intermediate space God the Holy Spirit. As he realized, the opponents of heliocentrism had to be persuaded that it did not contradict the Bible. In the preface to his most important book, Astronomia nova (1609), Kepler argued that, in order to be widely understood, the Bible is written in the ordinary language of the common person and not in the technical language of the astronomer. Therefore, the Bible should not be read as a scientifically accurate text or used to refute an astronomical theory. Galileo made an identical argument a few years later, in an open letter about biblical interpretation and astronomy written for Christina of Lorraine, the Dowager Duchess of Tuscany and the mother of his patron, Cosimo II de’ Medici.
The Roman Catholic Church’s response to Galileo is often misunderstood. It is true that Galileo’s views on biblical interpretation ultimately led to formal charges of heresy – but this was hardly the only factor. Galileo actually agreed with his principal Vatican critic, Roberto, Cardinal Bellarmine, that solid proof of the Copernican view would be required before the church should consider alternative interpretations. Although Galileo believed he had met the burden of proof, he pushed his conclusions more forcefully than the available evidence warranted, and when he appeared to portray the pope as a boorish ignoramus in the final paragraphs of his Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems (1632), he brought the Inquisition down on his own head.
Kepler also figured prominently in another type of interaction between science and religion. For some early modern scientists, science became a form of religious worship, supplementing or even supplanting the offices of the church. Denied the Eucharist by his minister because he did not accept the Lutheran doctrine of the ubiquity of Christ, Kepler poured out his deeply spiritual soul repeatedly in rapturous praises to the Creator in the pages of his dizzyingly difficult astronomical treatises. Robert Boyle (1627 – 91), whose remarkable piety did not go unnoticed by his friends, considered himself a ‘priest’ in the ‘temple of nature’ and decided to become a chemist partly because he thought it would lead to advances in medicine. He publicized recipes for various pharmaceuticals in order to benefit everyone, especially the poor, and he believed that science was crucial for the biblically-mandated dominion of humanity over the creation. Above all, Boyle believed that the actual practice of laboratory science – and he was one of the creators of the scientific method – was highly conducive to leading the Christian life. The virtues of the scientist (honesty, humility, and devotion to one’s calling) are also those of the Christian. And, Boyle claimed, the more we know about nature and the more deeply we understand the details, the more we will be led not only to glorify God, but also to admire and thank God – in short, science could help make us more pious. Isaac Newton (1643 –1727) went even further than Boyle in his endorsement of natural theology, the use of science to draw inferences about God. In a query added to the Latin edition of his book, Optics (1706), he said that ‘The main business of natural philosophy is … to deduce causes from effects, till we come to the very first cause, which certainly is not mechanical.’
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.