How scripture nursed the men of science

The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science
August 7, 1998

Why did modern science originate in 17th-century Europe, rather than in ancient Greece or in medieval China, both civilisations of considerable sophistication and intellectual power? Such counterfactual questions do not lend themselves to certain answer, but their consideration can raise significant issues whose discussion can prove to be illuminating. Many authors have suggested that religion had something to do with it. At its broadest, the thesis often proposed is that the doctrine of creation, as understood within the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, was naturally hospitable to scientific investigation of the physical world. Because God was understood to be rational, creation could be expected to be endowed with an order reflecting the mind of its Creator. Yet God is also free, so that no pre-existent realm of Platonic ideas constrained the Creator's will. Therefore it was necessary to observe and experiment in order to find out the precise form of rational order the Creator had chosen to bring into being. This realisation supplied the vital element that had been missing in most Greek thought about nature. Finally, because the world is the creation of God, it is a worthy human task to investigate its character.

Such arguments point to a consonance between religious ideas and the ideological matrix capable of bringing science to birth. They do not, however, of themselves explain why it was in the 17th century that this happy event took place. After all, the doctrine of creation had been an enduring theme in Christian thinking from the earliest days. Perhaps the Reformation had something to do with it? Protestant authors have warmed to that theme, but merely recalling the names of Catholic thinkers such as Copernicus, Galileo and Descartes shows that a more nuanced discussion is necessary than merely an appeal to something like the Protestant work ethic. In his new book, Peter Harrison makes the very interesting suggestion that it was new modes of thinking about how to interpret the text of the Bible, originating with the Protestants but also influencing post-Tridentine Catholicism, which played a significant role.

The Church of the first few centuries used a many-layered approach to its reading of scripture. In addition to the literal and historical meaning, the higher levels of allegorical, moral and purposive understandings were also to be uncovered. This polysemous approach to scripture was extended also to Christian thinking about nature. By the later Middle Ages, this had led to bestiaries whose concern with animals was principally with their symbolic significance, for which purpose mythical beasts such as centaurs were as useful as fanciful notions of the pelican in her piety. About that time there arose the popular idea of God's "two books", the book of scripture and the book of nature. The pioneers of modern science often had recourse to this concept in order to defend the idea that there could be no ultimate discordance between their discoveries and the teaching of the Bible, since a single Author was behind them both. Yet the scientists had learnt a different, plain and single, way of reading the book of nature that paralleled the Protestant emphasis on a similar approach to the Bible itself. By the early 18th century, the development of such an attitude meant that a focus on meanings in nature had been replaced by a concern for the purposes that might be read from it. This interest in questions of design flourished at the hands of John Ray, William Paley and others concerned with "physico-theology", persisting until natural theology in that form received its coup de grce from the evolutionary ideas of Charles Darwin. By then, the emphasis on the literal meaning of scripture had "opened up for the first time in the history of biblical interpretation the real possibility that parts of the Bible could be false".

This, in essence, is Harrison's proposal of how to think about religion's influence on the birth of science. It is presented in the book with a wealth of scholarly detail, ranging from Origen and Augustine to extensive quotation from many medieval and early modern writers of fair obscurity to the general reader. Harrison's comments and suggestions are always stimulating. However, one would not have guessed from what is said here that Augustine, though he read much of nature through theological spectacles, also said that where established science appeared to contradict the sense of scripture, the latter needed to be reconsidered: a comment to which Galileo appealed in his disputes with ecclesiastical authority. The case presented here is certainly extremely interesting, even if the principal actors in the drama of the rise of modern science, such as Galileo, Kepler, Newton, only appear as bit players in this book. Thomas Sprat, the first historian of the Royal Society, linked together the reformations in religion and in what he called "philosophy". It is hard not to believe that there was indeed some connection and Harrison has helped us to think further about what its character might have been.

John Polkinghorne was formerly president, Queens' College, Cambridge.

The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science

Author - Peter Harrison
ISBN - 0 521 59196 1
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £40.00
Pages - 313

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