This is the 10th episode in our series examining the impact Christianity has had on history & culture. Today we consider the impact the Faith has had on science.
This subject is near & dear to me because when I first went to college in the mid-70’s, I was studying to be a geologist. I’d always been fascinated by science and loved to collect rocks, so decided geology would be my field. I took many classes on the trajectory of one day working in the field as a geological engineer.
I was only a nominal believer in those days and when I first entered college saw no incompatibility between evolution and Christianity. It seemed obvious to my then uninformed mind that God had created everything, then used evolution as the way to push things along. I now realize my ideas were what has come to be known as theistic evolution.
One of my professors, who was herself an agnostic, was also a fastidious scientist. What I mean is, she hadn’t imbibed the ideology of scientism with its uncritical loyalty to evolution. Though she admitted a loose belief in it, it was only, she said, because no other theory came any closer to explaining the evidence. She rejected the idea of divine creation, but had a hard time buying in to the evolutionary explanation for life. Her reason was that the theory didn’t square with the evidence. She caught significant grief for this position from the other professors who were lock-step loyal to Darwin. In a conversation with another student in class one day, she acknowledged that while she didn’t personally believe it, in terms of origins, there could be a supreme being who was creator of the physical universe and that if there was, such a being would likely be the Author of Life. She went further and admitted that there was no evidence she was aware of that made that possibility untenable. It’s just that as a scientist, she had no evidence for such a being’s existence so had to remain an agnostic.
For me, the point was, here was a true scientist who admitted there were deep scientific problems with the theory of evolution. She fiercely argued against raising the theory of evolution to a scientific certainty. It angered her when evolution was used as a presumptive ground for science.
It took a few years, but I eventually came around to her view, then went further and today, based on the evidence, consider evolution a preposterous position.
I give all that background because of the intensity of debate today, kicked up by what are called the New Atheists. Evolutionists all, they set science in opposition to all religious faith. In doing so, they set reason on the side of science, and then say that leaves un-reason or irrationality in the side of faith. This is false proposition but one that has effectively come to dominate the public discussion. The new Atheists make it seem as though every scientist worth the title is an atheists while there are no educated or genuinely worthy intellects in the Faith camp. That also is a grievous misdirection since some of the world’s greatest minds & most prolific scientists either believe in God, the Bible, or at least acknowledge the likelihood of a divine being.
A little history reveals that modern science owes its very existence to men & women of faith. The renowned philosopher of science, Alfred North Whitehead, said “Faith in the possibility of science, [coming before] the development of modern scientific theory, is[derived from] medieval theology.”‘ Lynn White, historian of medieval science, wrote, “The [medieval] monk was an intellectual ancestor of the scientist.” The German physicist Ernst Mach remarked, “Every unbiased mind must admit that the age in which the chief development of the science of mechanics took place was an age of predominantly theological cast.”
Crediting Christianity with the arrival of science may sound surprising to many. But why is that? The answer goes back to Andrew Dickson White, who in 1896 published A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. Ever since then, along with the growth of secularism, college & university professors have accepted White’s argument that Christianity is an enemy of science. It unthinkable to many that Christianity could have fostered the arrival of science.
There are differences between Christianity and pagan religion. One is that Christianity, with its heritage in Judaism, has always insisted that there’s only one God, Who is a rational being. Without this presupposition, there would be no science. The origin of science, said Alfred North Whitehead, required Christianity’s “insistence on the rationality of God.”
If God is a rational being, then human beings, who are made in His image, also employ rational processes to study and investigate the world in which they live. That idea moved Christian philosophers to link rationality with the empirical, inductive method. Robert Grosseteste was one of these philosophers who in the 13th C went further and began to apply this idea practically. A Franciscan bishop and the first chancellor of Oxford University, he was the first to propose the inductive, experimental method, an approach to knowledge that was advocated by his student Roger Bacon, another Franciscan monk, who asserted that “All things must be verified by experience.” Bacon was a devout believer in the truthfulness of Scripture, and being empirically minded, he saw the Bible in the light of sound reason and as verifiable by experience. Another natural philosopher & Franciscan monk, was William of Occam in the 14th C. Like Bacon, Occam said knowledge needed to be derived inductively.
300 years later another Bacon, first name Francis this time, gave further momentum to the inductive method by recording his experimental results. He’s been called “the creator of scientific induction.”‘ In the context of rationality, he stressed careful observation of phenomena and collecting information systematically in order to understand nature’s secrets. His scientific interests did not deter him from devoting time to theology. He wrote treatises on the Psalms and prayer.
By introducing the inductive empirical method guided by rational procedures, Roger Bacon, William Occam, and Francis Bacon departed from the ancient Greek perspective of Aristotle. Aristotelianism had a stranglehold on the world for 1500 years. It held that knowledge was only acquired thru the deductive processes of the mind; the inductive method, which required manual activity, was taboo. Remember as we saw in a previous episode, physical activity was only for slaves, not for thinkers & freemen. Complete confidence in the deductive method was the only way for the Aristotelian to arrive at knowledge. This view was held by Christian monks, natural philosophers, and theologians until the arrival of Grosseteste, the Bacons & Occam. Even after these empirically-minded thinkers introduced their ideas, a majority of the scholastic world continued to adhere to Aristotle’s approach.
Another major presupposition of Christianity is that God, who created the world, is separate and distinct from it. Greek philosophy saw the gods and nature as intertwined. For example, the planets were thought to have an inner intelligence that caused them to move. This pantheistic view of planetary movement was first challenged in the 14th C by Jean Buridan, a Christian philosopher at the University of Paris.
The Biblical & Christian perspective, which sees God and nature as distinctively separate entities, makes science possible. As has been said, Science could never have come into being among the animists of Asia or Africa because they would never have experimented on the natural world, since everything—stones, trees, animals & everything, contains the spirits of gods & ancestors.
Men like Grosseteste, Buridan, the Bacons, Occam, and Nicholas of Oresme, and later Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo, saw themselves as merely trying to understand the world God had created and over which He told mankind in Gen 1:28 to have “dominion”. This paradigm shift is another example of Christianity’s wholesome impact on the world.
Belief in the rationality of God not only led to the inductive method but also to the conclusion that the universe is governed by rationally discoverable laws. This assumption is vitally important to scientific research, because in a pagan world, with gods engaged in jealous, irrational behavior, any systematic investigation of such a world was futile. Only in Christian thought, with the existence of a single God, the Creator and Governor of the universe, Who functions in an orderly and predictable manner, is it possible for science to exist and operate.
From the 13th to the 18th C every major scientist explained his motivations in religious terms. But if you examined a science textbook for the local public school you’d never know. Virtually all references to the Christian beliefs of early scientists are omitted. This is unfortunate because these convictions often played a dominant role in their work.
One early cutting-edge concept was “Occam’s razor”, named in honor of William of Occam. This idea had a tremendous influence on the development of modern science. Simply put, it’s the scientific principle that says what can be done or explained with the fewest assumptions should be used. This means that a scientist needs to ‘shave off’ all excess assumptions. The idea first arose with Peter of Spain but Occam finessed it into usable form. Modern scientists use this principle in theorizing and explaining research findings.
As was common with virtually all medieval natural philosophy, Occam didn’t confine himself just to scientific matters. He also wrote 2 theological treatises, 1 dealing with the Lord’s Supper and the other with the body of Christ. Both works had a positive influence on Martin Luther.
Most people think of Leonardo da Vinci as a great artist and painter, but he was also a scientific genius. He analyzed and theorized in the areas of botany, optics, physics, hydraulics, and aeronautics, but his greatest benefit to science lies in the study of human physiology. By dissecting cadavers, which he often did at night because such activity was forbidden, he produced meticulous drawings of human anatomy. His drawings and comments, when collected in one massive volume, present a complete course of anatomical study. This was a major breakthrough because before this time and for some time after, physicians had little knowledge of the human body. They were dependent on the writings of the Greek physician Galen whose propositions on human physiology were in large measure drawn from animals like dogs and monkeys. Leonardo’s anatomical observations led him to question the belief that air passed from the lungs to the heart. He used a pump to test this hypothesis and found it was impossible to force air into the heart from the lungs.
Lest anyone think Leonardo’s scientific theories and drawings of the human anatomy were divorced from his religious convictions, it’s well to recall his other activities. His paintings—The Baptism of Christ, The Last Supper, and The Resurrection of Christ—are enduring reminders of his Christian beliefs.
The anatomical work of Leonardo was not forgotten. The man who followed in his footsteps was Andreas Vesalius, who lived from 1514 to 64. At 22, he began teaching at the University of Padua. In 1543 he published his famous work, Fabric of the Human Body. The book mentions over 200 errors in Galen’s physiology. The errors were found as a result of his dissecting cadavers he obtained illegally.
When Vesalius exposed Galen’s errors, he received no praise or commendation. His contemporaries, like his former teacher Sylvius, still wedded to Greek medicine, called him a “madman.” Others saw him as “a clever, dangerous free-thinker of medicine.” There’s little doubt of his faith in God. On one occasion he said, “We are driven to wonder at the handiwork of the Almighty.” He was never condemned as a heretic, as some anti-church critics have implied, for at the time of his death he had an offer waiting for him to teach at the University of Padua, where he first began his career. Today he’s known as the father of human anatomy.
Where would the study of genetics be today had the world not been blessed with the birth of the Augustinian monk Gregor Johann Mendel? As often stated in science textbooks, it was his working on cross-pollinating garden peas that led to the concept of genes and the discovery of his 3 laws: the law of segregation, the law of independent assortment, and the law of dominance. Mendel spent most of his adult life in the monastery at Bruno, Moravia. Though Mendel is used by secularists to explain genetics & evolution, he rejected Darwin’s theory.
4 names loom large in the textbooks of astronomy: Copernicus, Brahe, Kepler, & Galileo. The undeniable fact is, these men were devout Christians. Their faith influenced their scientific work, though this fact is conspicuously omitted in most science texts.
Nicolaus Copernicus was born in Torun, Poland, in 1473. While still a child, his father died, and he was sent to his mother’s brother, a Catholic priest, who reared him. He earned a doctor’s degree and was trained as a physician. His uncle had him study theology, which resulted in his becoming a canon at Frauenburg Cathedral in East Prussia. History knows him best for having introduced the heliocentric theory that says the Earth orbits the sun, not the other way around. During the Middle Ages it was suggested the Earth might be in motion, but nobody had worked out the details. Copernicus did, and therein lies his greatness.
Copernicus received a printed copy of his masterwork Concerning the Revolutions of the Celestial Bodies on his deathbed in 1543. He’d hesitated to publish his work earlier, not because he feared the charge of heresy, as has often been asserted without any documentation, but because he wanted to avoid the ridicule of other scientists, who were strongly tied to Aristotle and Ptolemy. It was Copernicus’ Christian friends, especially Georg Rheticus and Andreas Osiander, 2 Lutherans, who persuaded him to publish.
Although Copernicus remained a moderately loyal son of the Roman Catholic Church, it was his Lutheran friends that made his publication possible. That information is surprising to many people, including university students, because most only hear that Christian theologians condemned Copernicus’s work. For instance, critics like to cite Luther, who supposedly called Copernicus a fool. John W. Montgomery has shown this frequently cited remark lacks support.
When Tycho Brahe died in 1601, Johannes Kepler succeeded him in Prague under an imperial appointment by Emperor Rudolph II. Kepler, who’d studied for 3 years to become a Lutheran pastor, turned to astronomy after he was assigned to teach mathematics in Graz, Austria, in 1594. Unlike Brahe, who never accepted the heliocentric theory, Kepler did. In fact Kepler, not Copernicus, deserves the real credit for the helio-centric theory. Copernicus thought the sun was the center of the universe. Kepler realized & proved the sun was merely the center of our solar system.
Kepler’s mathematical calculations proved wrong the old Aristotelian theory that said the planets orbited in perfect circles, an assumption Copernicus continued to hold. This led Kepler to hypothesize and empirically verify that planets had elliptical paths around the sun.
Kepler was the first to define weight as the mutual attraction between 2 bodies, an insight Isaac Newton used later in formulating the law of gravity. Kepler was the first to explain that tides were caused by the moon.
Many of Kepler’s achievements came while enduring great personal suffering. Some of his hardships were a direct result of his Lutheran convictions, which cost him his position in Graz, where the Catholic Archduke of Hapsburg expelled him in 1598. Another time he was fined for burying his 2nd child according to Lutheran funeral rites. His salary was often in arrears, even in Prague, where he had an imperial appointment. He lost his position there in 1612 when his benefactor the Emperor was forced to abdicate. He was plagued with digestive problems, gall bladder ailments, skin rashes, piles, and sores on his feet that healed badly because of his hemophilia. Childhood smallpox left him with defective eyesight and crippled hands. Even death was no stranger to him. His first wife died, as well as several of his children. A number of times he was forced to move from one city to another, sometimes even from one country to another. Often he had no money to support his family because those who contracted him failed to pay.
Whether in fame or pain, Kepler’s faith remained unshaken. In his first publication he showed his Christian conviction at the book’s conclusion where he gave all honor and praise to God. Stressed and overworked as he often was, he would sometimes fall asleep without having said his evening prayers. When this happened, it bothered him so much that the first thing he’d do next morning was to repent. Moments before he died, an attending Lutheran pastor asked him where he placed his faith. Calmly, he replied, “Solely and alone in the work of our redeemer Jesus Christ.” Those were the final words of the man who earlier in his life had written that he only tried “thinking God’s thoughts after him.” He was still in that mindset when, four months before he died, he penned his own epitaph: “I used to measure the heavens, Now I must measure the earth. Though sky-bound was my spirit, My earthly body rests here.”
We’ll end this podcast with a brief review of the 17th C, scientist Galileo. Like Kepler, a contemporary of his, Galileo searched and described the heavenly bodies. He was the first to use the telescope to study the skies, although he didn’t invent it. That credit goes to Johann Lippershey, who first revealed his invention in 1608 at a fair in Frankfurt. With the telescope, Galileo discovered that the moon’s surface had valleys and mountains, that the moon had no light of its own but merely reflected it from the sun, that the Milky Way was composed of millions of stars, that Jupiter had 4 bright satellites, and that the sun had spots. Galileo also determined, contrary to Aristotelian belief, that heavy objects did not fall faster than light ones.
Unfortunately, Galileo’s observations were not well received by his Roman Catholic superiors, who considered Aristotle’s view—not that of the Bible—as the final word of truth. Even letting Pope Paul V look through the telescope at his discoveries did not help his cause. His masterpiece, A Dialogue on the Two Principal Systems of the World, resulted in a summons before the Inquisition, where he was compelled to deny his belief in the Copernican theory and sentenced to an indefinite prison term. For some reason the sentence was never carried out. In fact, 4 years later he published Dialogues on the Two New Sciences. This work helped Isaac Newton formulate his 3 laws of motion.
Galileo was less pro-Copernican than Kepler, with whom he often disagreed. He largely ignored Kepler’s discoveries because he was still interested in keeping the Ptolemaic theory alive. He also criticized Kepler’s idea of the moon affecting tides.
The mystery is – If he was less pro-Copernican than Kepler—why did he get into trouble with the theologians who placed his books on the Index of forbidden books? The answer was because he was Roman Catholic, while Kepler was Lutheran.
When modern critics condemn the Church & Christianity for its resistance to the Copernican theory, it must be noted and underscored that it was not the entire church that did so. Both Lutherans & Calvinists supported the Copernican theory.
And it needs to be stated clearly that the reason the Roman Church proscribed Galileo’s work was precisely because they adhered to the scientific ideas of the day which were dominated by the Aristotelianism. Their opposition to Galileo wasn’t out of a strict adherence to the Bible – but to the current scientific thought. I say it again – It was errant science, or what we might call scientism that opposed Galileo. This is the mistake the Church can make today – when it allows itself to adopt the politically correct line of contemporary thought; the majority opinion – what the so-called experts hold to – today; but history has shown, is exchanged for something else tomorrow.
Listen: History proves that while scientific theories come and go, God’s Word prevails.
And that brings us to the end of The Change series. Next week we’ll return to our narrative timeline of church history.