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Mark Noll
 on October 31, 2017

How Did the Reformation Reform the Study of Nature?

The Reformation isn’t solely responsible for modern science, but the two developed simultaneously—and that’s not a coincidence.


Although too much can be made of connections between Protestantism and science, it is not coincidental that the Reformation and the rise of modern science occurred at the same time and in many of the same places. To be sure, developments in medieval Catholicism certainly paved the way.  As Stanley Jaki documented entertainingly some years ago, the trajectory of modern science originated in Catholic Europe and not in China, even though China was more advanced technologically and economically.1 Even longer ago, Michael Foster emphasized that medieval theology taught much that prepared the way for the scientific revolution: God was separate from the world, nature was separate from God, and experience was necessary to find out what God had done in nature as well as in the spiritual realm.2

Yet main teachings of the Reformation did make a significant difference in how Europeans approached the natural world. In the Reformers’ determined search for peace with God, they were more than willing to challenge church authority, along with traditional Catholic doctrines.  That doctrinal authority, not incidentally, had become heavily invested in Aristotle’s picture of the world. To challenge that picture for questions affecting personal redemption and ecclesiastical order was, therefore, to challenge significant aspects of thought inherited from the Catholic middle ages.

That inheritance had favored deductive method as an analogy to top-down models of ecclesiastical authority.  It held that nature has intrinsic powers; that is, material objects represented emblems of higher ontological realities. It also took for granted that human nature enjoyed intrinsic powers as well; the urging to “do what lies within you” (facere quod in se est) had been a major hurdle impeding Martin Luther’s search for a loving God. In addition, major church doctrines, like the difference between “substance” and “accident” in the definition of transubstantiation,took shape with Aristotelian categories.

The reformers were not particularly interested in questions of science when they insisted that the fall of humanity into sin led to complete moral inability and that justification before God came by grace alone through faith alone. These religious convictions were, however, fraught with implications for the study of the physical world. If self-criticism about human capabilities was imperative, it meant that more authority should accrue to what humans discovered than to what they simply knew before the benefit of experience. In the authoritative summary of Peter Harrison,

Contrary to first impressions, the anthropology of the reformers, informed as it was by the biblical account of Adam’s Fall, had the potential to promote a new, more critical, appraisal of human intellectual capacities. Renewed suspicion about our cognitive capabilities . . . was the starting point for the methodological discussions of the early modern period and was particularly important in the development of what became known as the experimental philosophy.3

An additional Protestant idea moved easily from the religious to the physical sphere. If sinful human nature was passive until quickened by grace, nature should also be viewed as passive, a perception that became a key to the Newtonian mechanistic philosophy.

On questions of religious authority, it was not revolutionary for reformers to put their trust in Scripture, for the Bible had always undergirded Christian theology of whatever sort. Rather, it was revolutionary when Protestants insisted that Scripture’s “literal” and Christological meanings should be given prominence over its allegorical meanings. By “literal” they meant what texts said about events, circumstances, or the workings of other minds. By extension they understood the Bible in its entirety as revealing a story culminating in Christ that really happened. With these commitments, they turned deliberately away from the allegorical interpretations of Scripture that had been favored in the fourfold method of medieval exegesis.

In turn, this approach to biblical interpretation encouraged a parallel approach to nature. Natural objects, in this view, should be studied as things in themselves, not as emblems for ontological truths. In an earlier book, Peter Harrison concludes that “when in the sixteenth century people began to read the Bible in a different way, they found themselves forced to jettison traditional conceptions of the world.”4 When reformers, following Scripture as they read it, rejected Catholic doctrines like the sacerdotal priesthood (in favor of the priesthood of all believers), they abandoned even more dogmas that had been construed in Aristotelian categories.

The carry-over was suspicion of everything associated with Aristotle, including science. As replacements, this rejection of church authority stimulated a turn to new methods. In France, the Huguenot Peter Ramus promoted “invention,” a procedure that replaced Aristotelian logic with an effort to divide complicated phenomena into ever smaller pieces until each piece could be understood directly. In England, Francis Bacon championed empiricism and induction, instead of deduction, as the best approach to understanding the physical world. Throughout Europe, interpretation (or hermeneutics) in all spheres led to intellectual and institutional struggles, with experience and reason given much greater weight than inherited authority.

In sum, the revolt against Aristotle, the rise of modern science, and the development of Protestantism were interwoven in many ways; for the era as a whole, religious uncertainty over traditional authority coincided with a rise of new authorities. For some, the new authority was sola Scriptura, for others imperial monarchies or self-governing cities, for still others the new science—and for many it was some combination of these newer guides.

Again, however, the synergy of Protestantism and science should not be overstated. Catholic Europe continued to produce outstanding students of nature like Copernicus and Galileo. Catholic opposition to the new science, as in the case of Galileo, came as much from struggles for dominance in the church as from a desire to shut down scientific inquiry. Major Protestant leaders, like Luther and Calvin, rejected new scientific proposals like heliocentrism, even as other Protestants welcomed them.5 And as has been evident throughout Protestant history, the willingness to question experts on the basis of what individual conscience has determined to be the correct understanding of Scripture or the natural world can easily lead to every-man-for-himself anti-intellectualism. Those who see a strong Protestant impetus behind early modern science also need to recognize how such an impetus could lead to Descartes and other moderns who moved from Luther’s “my conscience is captive to the Word of God” to a reliance more simply on “my conscience” (cogito ergo sum).

Yet with qualifications in place and triumphalism eschewed, it is possible to describe the Reformation as one of the keys that brought on modern science. The specific connections between Reformation teachings and scientific breakthroughs that have been persuasively documented by Peter HarrisonJohn Hedley Brooke, and others might also serve as encouragement to expect a similar fruitful confluence of spiritual and natural inquiry in our own day.

About the author

Mark Noll Headshot

Mark Noll

Mark Noll is a historian, essayist and professor specializing in the history of American Christianity. In 2016 he retired as  the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. His books include In the Beginning was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783 and The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, which has been widely recognized for making a strong appeal for a better approach to intellectual life among American evangelicals.  He is also the co-editor of Evangelicals and Science in Historical Perspective.