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Christianity and the Rise of Modern Science

(A Radical Departure from Greek and Medieval Science)

The following is my condensed version of the text from “Christianity and the Rise of Modern Science” by Henry Stob in his book, Theological Reflections (pages 3-8). Emphases are mine. I have inserted in parentheses a few transitional words to assist in the flow of reading.

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Modern natural science… arose in Christendom during the century that produced the Protestant Reformation…. Is (then) modern natural science the offspring of Christianity?… Was it cradled in the Reformation?… (We) must be careful neither to claim nor disclaim too much.

… modern science arose in Europe … only after the continent was Christianized… it arose independently in no other part of the earth…. In its pure form, it articulates the Christian (Biblical) mind, but it is not divorced from the (Greek) scientific tradition which culminated in Aristotle, nor is it a stranger to the Latin sense of order which was transmitted to the Middle Ages by the Stoics. Its lineage is complex.

Modern natural science did not … arise when Roman Catholic understanding of Christianity was dominant in Europe. This suggests that something was needed which neither medieval Christianity nor the revived paganism of the humanistic Renaissance could or did not supply….

There is no doubt that certain Christian (Biblical) principles, tending to stimulate men’s interest in God’s creation, but lying dormant or compromised during the Middle Ages, were disclosed and vigorously proclaimed in the Reformation. There is no doubt that the Reformation tended to draw men into a study of nature, for among the pioneers of the new science were numerous adherents of the evangelical faith…. But (there were) also loyal sons of the Roman Church…. (This) new understanding of Christianity … was not entirely new… it worked as a leaven throughout the Christian Church…. It is perhaps best to say that it was Christianity that supplied the firm foundation for modern natural science… that the Reformation was used by god to delineate this foundation (so) as to dispose men to build on it the vast structure of science.

… three points of doctrine -- the teachings concerning God, man, and nature in their interrelations -- appear to impinge most immediately upon the scientific enterprise…

Nature Is A Revelation of God

1) A fundamental affirmation of Christianity is that nature is a revelation of God… in Christian (Biblical) teaching, God is the all-knowing one who created all things after the counsel of His plan… nature proclaims the “admirable wisdom” of God…. It means that nature is shot through with rationality and (is) thus intrinsically intelligible.

God was for Plato and Aristotle intelligent enough… but he was not infinite and omnipotent… there existed … independent and essentially intractable matter… a natural thing … could not be completely known, even by God; it always retained a residue of irrationality and unintelligibility. This is one reason why a natural science, as distinct from a philosophy of essences, was never developed among the Greeks.

(This Greek notion) … in its attenuated medieval form was abandoned by the Protestant Reformation … (opening the way) for natural science to go forward. Science, if it is to proceed with vigor and confidence must believe that a recognizable pattern is to be found in nature… modern science is animated by this belief…. The origin of this belief is plain… the conception of God as perfect and flawless intelligence….

… that revelation … entails that … (nature) ought to be known. That it ought to be know, and diligently studied, the Reformers never ceased to declare… (Nature is) a book to be read… a discourse to be heard… the traces of God’s steps, the pattern of His wisdom, the signs of His power, and the evidences of His glory in nature…

… Bacon, Boeckman, Boyle, Harvey, Newton, and Ray -- men of massive intellect, consuming curiosity, and Christian piety -- … helped (to) determine the structure and direction of modern science… In the nineteenth century, it was …. Davey, Faraday, Joule, Kelvin, and Maxwell…. (all making) the same patient enquiries of nature that the conscientious theologians made of Scripture.

… theologians and scientists might sometimes arrive at incompatible conclusions, but both sorts of men knew that the message of nature and Scripture was of one piece, and that where a difference appeared, a mistake in reading had been made.

(At this point, Dr. Stob briefly mentions that the Bible is not a textbook on science. However, I think that he says too little here for the reader to get a solid grasp of the issues involved.)

Nature Is Subject to Man

2) A second fundamental affirmation of Christianity is that nature is subject to man…. The idea that man, through science, is called upon to “control” or “subjugate” nature comes, of course, from the Scriptures… pressed upon the consciousness of men by the reformers…. “God said to them, … ‘fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion…”

… the aim of science in Christian (Biblical) perspective is not merely “control,” …. (but) also “understanding.” And, even more importantly, it is “praise.” It is significant that Psalm 8, which celebrates the “Kingdom of Man,” ends with the words, “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth.” This indicates that “control” must always be by man in subjection to God, by man… who in religious fear stands humbly before his Maker, and who in strict obedience to God’s law of love, directs his dominion towards the betterment of man (and the necessary conservation of nature -- Ed).

… “control of nature” is an authentic Biblical idea, and … is in modern science only because it was first in Christianity. Because it is a Christian (Biblical) idea, the Christian is justified neither in lamenting the existence of technology nor in setting arbitrary limits upon man’s jurisdiction. The splitting of the atom, the exploration of space, the colonization of habitable planets, the sowing of clouds to make rain -- all this and more is the prerogative of the man who in subjection to God is lord of nature.

Nature Is Created: Departure from Greek Thinking

3) A third fundamental of Christianity is that nature is created. This entails at least two further affirmations: nature has a beginning and nature is contingent.

A) In the view of Greek science, nature was an organism that grows, and not a thing or machine that is made. Nature was a self-generating, eternal, divine being, that had no beginning. It was the living, throbbing, but impersonal reproductive matrix from which all things -- even the gods-- arose and into which they were periodically resolved…. Greek science put the emphasis not on efficient but final causes. Not beginnings, but ends were in focus. In modern science, the opposite is true. Final causes, considered as immanent explanatory principles, have been banished altogether, and explanations are made in terms of efficient causes only.

The reason for this shift is basically a Christian one…. nature is not divine, but creaturely; not eternal, but temporal; not self-generating, but made. The events and processes that occur in it are not self-caused, but they occur through the play upon them of a power from without. The ultimate conception of their behavior is the transcendent God, who in and with time made nature out of nothing.

The banishment from nature of innate final causes was a great gain for science and it was effected directly by the Christian teaching concerning creation. By the force of that teaching, which was compromised in medieval times by a foreign alliance with Greek modes of thought, the Reformers effected the death of Greek animism…. the way was opened for the development of the classical Newtonian physics, and indeed for every later development in modern science.

…. Bacon, Descartes, and Newton “did not suggest that there are no final causes, but only that these are not the concern of natural science. Nor did they mean that there is no purpose in nature, but only that such a purpose cannot be discovered by scientific, experimental, and empirical methods.” (Quote from A. F. Smothers, Modern Science and Christian Belief, page 23).

B) Greek science, like Greek thought generally, was rationalistic. The Greek mind supposed that it knew beforehand what things were like… Whereas the Hebrew knew he had to be told by God himself what He was like, the Greek supposed that he already possessed a pattern of perfection in terms of which he could challenge every claimant to deity. In science, too, the Greek proceeded apriorily. He supposed he knew for example, that there cannot be any change in heavenly bodies and that they cannot move except in circles. In the words of Professor Hooykaas, for the Greeks, “that which is not comprehensible is hardly real, and what is not logically necessary but contingent is considered a defect in nature, hardly worth to be studied.” But, he continues, “the Christian physicists of the seventeenth century -- Pascal, Boyle, Newton -- did not recognize an intrinsic necessity of physical events. In their opinion, regularity of the sequence of events depends wholly on the will of God.” (Free University Quarterly, October 1961).

It was when this conception entered fully into the consciousness of men through the mediation of the Reformers that authentic empiricism was born. Modern science is nothing if not empirical, but the origin of this feature is found in Christianity. In the Christian view of God is the creator and nature is radically contingent. What happens in it the scientist can learn only through careful observation. What can or cannot happen in it he does not know beforehand because here, as everywhere, he must wait upon God’s revelatory activity.

*All bolding for emphasis is Ed's.

Other Authorities Who Believe That Christianity Caused the Development of Modern Science

1.  Rodney Stark. "The long heritage of rational Christian theology was the basis for the Scientific Revolution and the rise of the West."  One True God: Historical Consequences of Monotheism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), 17.  In The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (page 14), Stark cites 10 authors who agree with Christianity causing the rise of modern science.

2.  A. N. Whitehead, Pierre Duhem, and Stanley Jaki.  "Duhem's conclusion (was) that the failure of Greek science was due to the influence of such theological doctrines as the divinity of the heavens and the eternal recurrence of all... an influence which ... was operative in other ancient cultures, as well.... (Duhem gave) overwhelming documentation of a solid interest in science from the twelfth century onward, and of the support given that interest by the Christian theism of the medievals.  Duhem's scholarly testimony to that theism could but remain systematically overlooked amid the positivist resurgence of the 1930s.... Duhem had already massively documented Whitehead's statement that medieval theism was a crucial factor in the emergence of science."  (Stanley Jaki, The Road of Science and the Ways to God (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1978), 13-14.)

3. Toby E. Huff.  The Rise of Modern Science: Islam, China, and the West. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2nd Ed. 2003).

4. Grant, Edward. The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages: Their Religious, Institutional, and Intellectual Contexts.  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

5.  Peter Harrison, The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).  In this book Harrison explores the beginning of modern science as the rediscovery of Augustinian thinking about the Fall of Man and its distortion of an understanding of the natural universe in which man lives.  Natural science, then, became the quest to understand how man's thinking had been distanced from his account of this world in which he lives.

5. Gary B. Ferngren, ed.  Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002).

6.  David N. Livingstone, D. G. Hart, and Mark A. Noll, eds.  Evangelicals and Science in Historical Perspective (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1999).

7.  R. Hooykaas.  Religion and the Rise of Modern Science.  (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1972).

 


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