The History of Science and Christianity

Editor's note: The following is a chapter from When God and Science Meet: Surprising Discoveries of Agreement. Published by the National Association of Evangelicals, the book has 12 authors total, discussing areas of agreement between science and Christianity. You can get a free download or order hard copies at the NAE website.

Mark Noll, Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame
Mark Noll, Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame | (Photo: William Koechling)

Strong statements have described Christianity as the fountainhead of modern science. Equally strong statements have called it the greatest opponent of scientific progress. Neither is adequate. Instead, the best historians offer a complicated picture for which the key words are negotiation, compromise, maneuvering, accommodation and rethinking.

In the Middle Ages, theologians like Thomas Aquinas taught that God was separate from the world and that experience (not just thought) was necessary to discover what God had done in creation. Yet these positive steps were matched by negatives. The strong influence of Aristotle meant that medieval theology viewed nature as an emblem for higher realities and that it favored reasoning by deduction over learning based on experience. Yet an enduring gift from the Middle Ages was the powerful idea of "God's Two Books" — knowledge from Scripture and knowledge about the physical world both come from God and therefore cannot be contradictory.

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At the Reformation, Protestant challenges against Aristotle's medieval theology spilled over into doubts about his concept of nature. These protests paved the way for Francis Bacon's "Novum Organum" (1620), which contended that inductive experience (gathering facts through experimentation) gave the truest picture of the world. Although the Protestant stress on Scripture was not new, Protestant insistence on the Bible's "literal" sense spurred scientific advance. "Literal" did not rule out the ancient conventions, symbols or metaphors in Scripture, but meant that texts should be studied first for what they described historically and for how they pointed to Christ.

Still, the era's greatest scientific breakthroughs came from Roman Catholics, especially Copernicus, with his theory that planets moved around the sun, and Galileo, who offered astronomical evidence to support this theory. The judgments by the Vatican against Galileo in 1616 and 1633 may have had as much to do with philosophical controversies, political machinations, and the state of observational data as with specifically theological objections.

For their part, both Martin Luther and John Calvin denounced Copernicus' heliocentric views as heretical (though a few other Protestants were early supporters of the new picture). Moreover, Protestant attacks on traditional authority could stimulate an anti-intellectualism that favored direct inspiration by the Holy Spirit over disciplined human learning.

The leaders in what historians call the Scientific Revolution were usually friendly to the Christian faith. At the beginning of the 17th century, the German Lutheran Johannes Kepler credited God for his understanding of the actual behavior of planets. In England, many of the scientists who in 1660 founded the Royal Society had some connection with the Puritans, whose questing spirit spurred study of nature as well as church reform.

At the end of the 17th century, Isaac Newton gained immense international renown with his description of the universe functioning as a grand mechanism — matter in motion governed by regular mathematical laws. While a few of Newton's devotees felt that he was shoving God aside, the scientist himself believed that God could and did intervene in the rule-run universe he had created. It is a fact that Newton spent more time studying the apocalyptic books of the Bible than he did conducting scientific investigations. Throughout most of the century that followed, Alexander Pope's epitaph spoke for learned Europeans as a whole:

Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night;
 God said, "Let Newton be," and all was light.

Yet a few far-sighted theologians insisted that a more dynamic view of God's sovereignty was required to keep Newton's science from slipping toward materialism. With variations, the French Catholic Nicolas Malebranche, the Anglican Bishop George Berkeley and the American Congregationalist Jonathan Edwards all proposed that modern science revealed the world accurately, but only because God at every moment upheld observable relations of cause-and-effect.

Most of western society, however, moved in other directions. During the age of Newton, a few thinkers began to speak of scientific knowledge as rendering the hypothesis of a divine creator irrelevant. Some Christians reacted by emphasizing "natural theology," or the desire to show that objective scientific evidence demonstrated the existence of God. The culmination of that effort came in the works of William Paley who in 1802 wrote that if someone found a watch on an empty heath, it would be necessary to conclude that a watchmaker existed. Since the world is much more complicated than a watch, we must assume that a much more powerful artificer had brought it into being. Paley was certainly correct to insist upon the world as ordered, or designed, by God. But he made a mistake to think that finite humans could understand with God's own clarity how God ruled the universe.

The Newtonian picture of a static, law-ordered world was breaking down before Charles Darwin published "The Origin of Species" in 1859. Napoleonic warfare, conservative political reaction, industrialization (William Blake's "dark, Satanic mills"), class conflict and rapid population growth unsettled the social landscape into which Darwin (along with Alfred Russel Wallace) announced his version of evolution. That version made "natural selection" the key (organisms vary, more offspring are produced than can survive, those that survive are better adjusted to their environment for the purpose of survival). Darwin, who had been reared on Paley's idea of a creation whose order was transparent to human inspection, thought of his own theory as random purposelessness. By contrast, many theologians and most Christian scientists of the day came to accept some variety of evolution (though not always natural selection), while affirming that it too reflected order and design consistent with a divine creator. Asa Gray of Harvard, who was Darwin's chief promoter in the United States, always maintained his commitment to traditional Christian supernaturalism while trying to convince Darwin that his theory was compatible with a view of God as creator.

Responses to Darwin were strongly affected by many factors unrelated to science. Conservative Protestants in Scotland mostly made their peace with evolution, because they accepted a progressive view of human knowledge and were much more worried about destructive biblical criticism. Conservative white Protestants in the American South mostly opposed evolution, because it undercut the biblical literalism that had provided their defense for slavery.

The era of fundamentalist-modernist controversy saw issues of biblical interpretation replace questions of design as the most contested scientific questions. Modernists criticized fundamentalists for defending literal biblical interpretation — for the book of Revelation as well as the book of Genesis. As a result, loyalty to the Bible for many in the United States moved easily into loyalty to a strictly literal interpretation of Genesis 1–3. So strong was this reaction that some even came to question the broad acceptance of an ancient age for the earth that Christian geologists in the 19th century had embraced.

Today the Christian world contains a diversity of opinion on questions related to evolution and considerable controversy over proposed responses to climate change. Ethical questions about the application of science conclusions to genetics and stem cell research can also be controversial. These hot spots also co-exist with a nearly universal acceptance of scientific conclusions and empirical methods in all other areas of life.

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