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Christianity, Lutheran, Issues in Science and Religion

Christianity, Lutheran, Issues in Science and Religion

When Martin Luther (14831546) in 1517 publicly attacked the notion of merit and grace in scholastic theology, denounced the church practices of penance and indulgence, and soon after opposed the authority of the Pope, he inadvertently triggered a long-term schism between Catholics and Protestants within the Western church. All reformation movements of the sixteenth century are indebted to Luther's notion of unconditional grace, but the movements developed differently. Already in 1524 Luther fiercely opposed the Radical Reformed movement of Thomas Müntzer (14901525) and others, and from 1526 to 1528 Luther took issue with the interpretation of the Eucharist among the Swiss reformers. Consequently, relatively few countries in Northern Europe (notably Germany and the Nordic countries) defined themselves as "Lutheran," whereas the Swiss, Dutch, and English reformations were eventually more influenced by John Calvin (15091564) than by Luther. In the nineteenth century, new Lutheran emigration churches were formed in the United States, Brazil, and Argentina. During the twentieth century major indigenous Lutheran churches emerged in Africa, especially in Tanzania, Madagascar, and Namibia, and in Asia, especially in India and Indonesia.

Views of nature

In his early career, Luther's view of nature was framed by the contrast between divine grace and human nature. In the Heidelberg Disputation (1518) Luther renounced natural theology as a "theology of glory" that vainly sought to identify God in the niceties of life. Not nature, but the cross of Christ is the gateway to God. The target of this critique, however, was not nature but self-centered trust in the capacities of human reasoning in grasping God. Luther regarded life as a divine gift, and according to Small Catechism (1529) the human body and soul as well as nature and society are created and preserved by God "out of pure fatherly, and divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness of mine at all." Luther was not so much interested in "pure nature" as in the manner in which nature and culture interweave in ordinary life: "Our house, home, field, garden and everything is full of the Bible, because God through his wonderful work knocks on our eyes, touches our senses and shines right into our hearts." Thus, even if Luther rejected the pursuit of natural theology, he articulated a rich theology of nature from the existential perspective of faith.

Luther's positive view of nature came to the fore in his controversy with Huldreich Zwingli (14841531) on the Eucharist. Luther insisted on a literal understanding of the words of Jesus Christ: "This is my body." God is not only present in creation as Spirit, but through Christ God is ubiquitous in the midst of the material world, in the natural elements of bread and wine. The Medieval distinction between the natural and the supernatural thus became obsolete, and Luther criticized the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation accordingly. Natural bread and wine are not changed (substantiated) into the supernatural body and blood of Christ. Rather, Christ is present "in, with, and under" natural bread and wine. In later Lutheranism, this idea of consubstantialization was developed into a more general principle of finitum capax infiniti (the finite is capable of embodying the infinite). In this vein, seventeenth-century Lutheran Orthodoxy developed a theological materialism in contrast to the more spiritual ontologies of Zwingli and Calvin. In the twentieth century, these ideas also influenced the sacramental realism of Anglican theologians such as William Temple (18811944) and Arthur R. Peacocke (1924).

Interaction with the sciences

Luther did not himself show any interest in natural science; he preferred to stay within the Biblical worldview. But Luther's close collaborator Philip Melanchthon (14971560), who was in charge of the university reform in Wittenberg, strongly supported natural philosophy, as the sciences were called at that time. In his textbook The Elements of Natural Philosophy (1549) Melanchthon taught that the entire physical cosmos manifests God's providential order. Melanchthon also wrote a highly influential textbook On the Soul (1552) in which he emphasized the compelling force of the human affects on human reasoning, but also recommended the value of anatomical studies, including Andreas Vesalius's Fabric of the Human Body (1543). This textbook of Melanchthon was used by the Calvinist Otto Casmannus, who in 1594 coined the term anthropologia for the general field to be further subdivided into psychologia and somatologia. In Melanchthon's many university orations he emphasized the value of the sciences from astronomy and astrology to medicine and psychology, both for the practical needs of society and for the theological contemplation of divine order in nature. Thereby Melanchthon placed natural philosophy in the context of a natural theology of Stoic flavor (Frank, 1999).

The impact of Lutheranism on science, however, is difficult to evaluate. Some argue that distrust in the a priori human reasoning led Melanchthon to a stronger empirical orientation (Kusukawa, 1995); others emphasize the traditional Aristotelian character of Melanchthon's philosophy of nature (Methuen, 1998). Some see the Lutheran emphasis on the Bible as disconnecting the Lutherans from any scientific interest (White, 1896, vol. 1); other interpreters see the careful literal reading of the Bible as a motivation for a likewise careful and unbiased study of the book of nature (Harrison, 1998). The case of astronomy may show the complexities. Nicolaus Copernicus's (14731543) On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres was published in Tübingen in 1543 by the Lutheran theologian Andreas Osiander (14961552). In his preface Osiander declares Copernicus's work a fruitful hypothesis, though hardly literally true. Melanchthon was initially hostile to Copernicus, but later claimed "to love and admire Copernicus more." Even though Melanchthon could still not believe the theory to be literally true, he integrated the data and figures of Copernicus into the second edition of his 1562 book Elements (Barker, 2000). The Lutheran Copernican Johannes Kepler (15711630) came out of this astronomic school, and in 1616, when Copernicus's work was listed on the Papal Index of prohibited books, Copernicus appeared alongside the names of Luther, Erasmus, and Calvin.

Rather than seeking a global theory of a distinctive Lutheran involvement with science, it may be wiser to take one's departure in the observation that the Lutheran tradition in general takes a high view of nature, but a low view of disengaged reasoning. Whereas the Reformed and Anglican traditions highlight rationality (and played a major role in the emergence of classic physics), there are some affinities between Lutheranism and Romanticism. Both Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (17701831) and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (17751854) were self-conscious Lutherans. Much later, Paul Tillich (18861965) explained how his own mystic and aesthetic attitude towards nature was nourished, via Schelling, by the Lutheran principle that the finite is capable of the infinite.

In this perspective it may be more than a coincidence that some of the most counterintuitive theories of modern science were produced by scientists working in a Lutheran milieu. In 1820 the Danish physicist Hans Christian Ørsted (17771851) discovered electro-magnetic force. In line with Schelling, Ørsted believed that the spiritual forces of attraction and repulsion are more basic than material particles, and their laws were claimed to reign in nature as well as in society. The quantum theory of the 1920s involved even more counterintuitive notions, and the embrace of paradoxical statements in the Copenhagen Interpretation by Niels Bohr (18851962) and Werner Heisenberg (19011976) was probably facilitated by a philosophical climate in which paradoxes could be better guides to truth than more pedestrian appeals to order and rationality. Bohr's indebtedness to Søren Kierkegaard (18131855) is an interesting case of a disguised presence of a religious tradition in the heuristics of science as well as in its subsequent interpretation.

There exists no official Lutheran view of the natural sciences, or worldviews. The general distrust in the project of natural theology (despite Melanchthon's legacy) is based on the prior conviction that the preaching of theology does not rely on particular philosophical or scientific foundations. Since the nineteenth century, Luther's doctrine of the two regiments (the spiritual and the secular) also led to a widespread assumption of an autonomy or Eigengesetzlichkeit (Max Weber) of the sciences. Rudolf Bultmann's (18131855) famous program of demythologization may count as one such example of separation. However, the conviction that natural processes are the "masks of God" present in creation has continued to prompt Lutherans to enter the science-religion dialogue. Since the 1980s significant initiatives have been taken by the German Evangelical Academies (Hans May, 1990), by the Evangelical-Lutheran Church of America (Mangum, 1989) and by the Lutheran World Federation (Mortensen, 1995). But in general the dialogue is left to individual scholars working in nondenominational settings.

See also Christianity, History of Science and Religion; Natural Theology


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niels henrik gregersen

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