Science before the Revolution: a continuity of Christian thought
Posted on Fri Jun 23 2023 01:01:01 GMT+0000 (Coordinated Universal Time)
You’ve heard the claimed dichotomy between Christianity and science, how the dark ages ended and the enlightenment showed the way beyond religion.
This ‘conflict thesis’ continues in many minds today. Maybe you’ve heard the strident atheist version. The conflict between the church, as far back as the murder of Hypatia (360–415), of Giordano Bruno, Galileo’s trials, and others.
Maybe you’ve heard the response that 60% of 20th century Nobel prize winners, and many of the highest ranked scientists today are church attenders. Maybe you’ve read Karl Popper, who, as a leader in the philosophy of epistemology and science, notes that scientific ideas are commonly ‘mythogenic’, that is, they had their genesis in religion and mythology, and may not exist but for this. Maybe you’ve heard that the idea of a divine law-giver enabled physics, as the world was understood to operate via created laws.
So how valid is the conflict thesis? How revolutionary was the Scientific Revolution? Could the conflict between science and Christianity be overblown?
Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626), a Christian, was one of the key advancers of the scientific principle, building on what is known as the Scientific Revolution which started in the 1540s through to Isaac Newton in the latter half of the 17th century.
But not so simple! A greater understanding of historical theology, examining how various theologians in the past two millennia, will show Christian thought was scientific in nature well before the scientific revolution. Indeed it was fundamental to this revolution.
Since the early adoption of Platonic philosophy, Christian theologians have grappled with the relationship of science and faith by recognizing their complementary roles. They understood that science was vital to understanding God through his laws and effects, providing an important step towards understanding God directly.
To understand how scientific thinking existed well before the Scientific Revolution, let’s examine a few key theologians and how they understood the relationship between faith and science. We’ll start well before the Scientific Revolution, and show Christian thought leading to it.
John Scotus Eriugena (815–837):
John Scotus Eriugena was a 9th century Irish theologian commonly noted for translating Greek texts into Latin, particularly the works of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Maximus the Confessor, and Gregory of Nyssa. His engagement with Greek patristic texts inspired him to write the Periphyseon, a synthesis of Eastern and Western patristic sources from a distinctively Irish perspective. Spanning five books, the Periphyseon addresses the topics of Christology, soteriology, and exegesis in a Christian Platonist manner. A revolutionary text in his time, Eriugena was later charged with the heresy of pantheism due to a misunderstanding of the text’s theological nuances.
According to Eriugena, the role of science and faith pertains to the process of formation and how one embodies the Christian life. In his Carmina, Eriugena offers a three-step spiritual program with influences from Evagrius Ponticus and Maximus the Confessor: the praktike, physike, and theologia. In particular, the physike stage pertains to engagement with science and philosophy as part of one’s spiritual path. By engaging with science, or “natural contemplation,” one’s mind and perspective on reality is “healed” from which our selfish tendencies are ameliorated by a shift in vision.
Science and philosophy are understood as a means by which we uncover the hidden principles in the “Book of Nature,” dissolving the artificial divisions we place between ourselves and reality.
Maximus the Confessor (c. 580–662):
A Christian monk, theologian, and scholar most notable for his position of Jesus having a human and divine will. Like Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Maximus was highly influenced by Late Platonic philosophy and continued the work of Pseudo-Dionysius. He has been described as a proponent of apocatastasis, the idea that all rational souls will be redeemed, though this has been debated by scholars. Using the scientific knowledge of his time, his theology included a view of the cosmos that has given him the title “enlightener of the universe” in Eastern Christianity.
Michael Psellos (c. 1017–1096):
A Byzantine monk and philosopher who served as a high- ranking advisor for several Byzantine emperors. Possessing a universal education, he had the reputation of being one of the most learned men of his time and wrote treatises on the topics of rhetoric, grammar, astronomy, medicine, and music. He was a key figure in reintroducing Plato into Byzantine scholarship, to the extent that his critics perceived him as teaching “Hellenizing” ideas.
Robert Grosseteste (c. 1175–1253):
An English statesman, scholastic philosopher, theologian, and scientist who served as Bishop of Lincoln. He wrote a variety of texts in Latin and French, including scientific texts on astronomy, mathematical reasoning, and commentaries on Aristotle’s works. An originator of what is now known as the scientific method, he introduced into the Latin West the notion of a controlled experiment with associations with demonstrative science.
Albertus Magnus (c.1193–1280):
A German Dominican friar, philosopher, and scientist who was later canonized in the Catholic Church as a saint and distinguished as one of the 37 Doctors of the Church. His writings have been collected into 38 volumes on topics including logic, theology, botany, geography, astronomy, physiology, and law. His principal works include a commentary on the Books of the Sentences of Peter Lombard and Aquinas’ Summa Theologica.
Roger Bacon (1219–92):
Bacon was a Franciscan friar who stressed the importance of mathematics, empirical evidence, and experimentation in science. He conducted early studies in optics, astronomy, alchemy, and languages. He argued that we must understand natural philosophy through evidence-based investigation, not relying solely on religious doctrine.
Jean Buridan (1301–60):
Buridan was a French priest and philosopher. He applied reason and logic to analyze concepts like free will, the circular motion of planets, the refraction of light, and more. He made empirically-based arguments in areas like physics and astronomy, relying on mathematical reasoning and natural philosophy rather than religious authority.
Nicole Oresme (1320–1382):
Oresme was a bishop, philosopher, and scientist. He used logical reasoning and mathematics to study empirical questions in physics, astronomy, and geography. He argued for the diurnal rotation of the Earth on its axis, discussed infinite sets, and calculated fractional exponents — all based on empirical and rational evidence rather than religious precepts.
The Oxford Calculators (14th century):
The Calculators were a group of priests, philosophers and mathematicians at Oxford University. They applied reason, logic, and mathematics to analyze empirical problems in physics, astronomy, and more. They calculated parameters like instantaneous velocity and acceleration, and proposed arguments for concepts like the mean speed theorem, using empirical rather than religious reasoning.
Nicholas of Cusa (1401–1464):
Nicholas of Cusa was a 15th century German theologian more commonly known as an ecclesiastical reformer, church administrator, and cardinal. While he is noted for his education and understanding of canon law, he actively engaged in learning philosophy and mystical theology through his interactions with Heimerich of Campo. Through these interactions, he became increasingly learned in Neoplatonic philosophy and was introduced to writings such as Proclus’ commentary on Plato’s Parmenides. He wrote De docta ignorantia, a treatise that asserts that the finite human mind cannot fully know the infinite divine mind. Thus, the human mind becomes aware of its limitations in knowing God and attains a state of “learned ignorance.”
Rather than emphasizing the relationship between faith and science, he focused on the relationship between faith and mathematics. To Nicholas, mathematics plays a vital role in the human mind turning itself towards God. In De docta ignorantia, Nicholas draws from Thierry of Chartres to establish a lineage from the Pythagoreans to the Platonists, leading to the Christian theologians Augustine and Boethius. These connections were made because of Augustine’s retreats into Pythagorean thought when confronted with the ineffable nature of God. The connection between Pythagoras and Boethius was derived from Albert the Great’s commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, to which he used against Aristotelianism. Through these connections, he identifies himself within a long-standing heritage of Christian Pythagoreanism.
From the beginning of the Christian tradition, we observe how theologians utilized the philosophical education of their time to produce solutions to difficult questions. The resultant of this is a robust Christianity that bears influences from Platonic and Pythagorean thought, offering insights on how faith and science are not observed as incompatible but as intellectual bedfellows.
The exploration of Christian history demonstrates to us that science, mathematics, and philosophy are both shaped by and shaping the Christian faith. Christianity provides a fertile ground on how the individual can perceive God through creation. Thus, we must acknowledge this tradition and endeavour towards a Christian life where science, mathematics, and philosophy are instruments of understanding God as mediated by faith.
Similarly, science should acknowledge its debt to Christianity, and celebrate how Christianity continues to guide the values and direction of the world, in both scientific and other endeavours.
The Scientific Revolution was not anti-Christian. There is no conflict — there is a larger unity of Christianity and Science as truth-seeking processes that share a love of knowledge and the future of humanity.
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