Science and Christianity During the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries

views updated

Science and Christianity During the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries


In the late 1800s, John W. Draper and Andrew D. White established a widespread belief in an irreconcilable "warfare" of science with "dogmatic theology." Both depicted a historical battle of enlightened, progressive, objective reason (science) continually advancing against blind ignorance, superstition, and prejudice (religion), with Galileo's trial and condemnation as the central illustration. Although historians have long known that this portrait relied on highly biased selections and interpretations of the historical evidence, it remains fixed in the popular imagination. In fact, relations between Christianity and science in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were extremely complex—by turns mutually antagonistic, indifferent, or supportive—as both underwent profound changes during the parallel courses of the Reformation and the Scientific Revolution.


Prior to the sixteenth century, relations between natural philosophy (as science was called until the nineteenth century) and Christianity were generally harmonious, if not entirely free from tension. Early Christian theology adopted a somewhat equivocal attitude toward science. On the one hand, the Scriptures viewed the universe as an orderly and purposive realm, originally created by God as "good" and reflecting His nature, above all in man as a rational being made "in the image and likeness" of God. The study of nature was thus not only possible but desirable, offering a means to the greater knowledge and glorification of God. The Genesis creation account of God's granting stewardship over Earth to Adam and his descendants likewise encouraged investigation of nature. On the other hand, the Scriptures also depicted the Creation as fallen and distorted by sin, with the New Testament emphasizing the renunciation of worldly concerns for heavenly ones as vital to personal redemption. This implied that curiosity about nature should be a matter of relative indifference to the believer, lest it become a snare to sin by distracting attention away from spiritual devotion to God and the pursuit of salvation.

In adapting ideas about nature from pagan philosophies (Aristotelianism and Platonism) it found compatible, Christian thought strove for a balance between two extremes. The natural order was neither to be worshipped as divine (Stoicism), nor rejected as without purpose (Epicureanism) or evil (Gnosticism), but contemplated as an originally good creation, corrupted by sin but destined with man to divine redemption and restoration. Faith in God and scriptural revelation was not a restriction on the exercise of human thought, but rather the initial foundation which made right reasoning possible. Philosophy, including natural philosophy, assumed its proper role as the "handmaiden of theology"; along with prayer and the sacraments, it was instrumental to salvation, providing rational methods for understanding God's revelation. As the primary literate class in medieval Europe, priests and monks were the chief practitioners of natural philosophy, focusing upon mathematics, physics, astronomy, zoology, and botany.

The recovery of ancient Greek scientific and medical texts by Aristotle (384-322 b.c.), Ptolemy (c. 140) and Galen (130-200) during the thirteenth century dramatically expanded Western scientific knowledge and altered relations between natural philosophy and theology. Scholastic theologians distinguished between the created "book of Nature" and the written "book of Scripture" as two complementary avenues of divine revelation. Each book had its own integrity and proper principles of interpretation, and knowledge gained from either one could be used to correct understanding of the other. Natural philosophy thus implicitly assumed a position of autonomy rather than subservience with respect to theology. When Aristotle's metaphysical notions contradicted basic Christian doctrines, such as in asserting the eternity of the universe instead of its creation in time by God, they were modified or rejected. The famous condemnation in 1277 by the Bishop of Paris of 219 propositions drawn from Aristotle may actually have advanced rather than impeded medieval natural philosophy, by opening avenues to alternative approaches.


Relations between natural philosophy and Christian theology became increasingly unsettled beginning in the sixteenth century. The recovery during the Renaissance of additional ancient Greek texts gave rise to a Christian humanist movement that challenged both Aristotle's natural philosophy and existing scholastic methods of textual interpretation, especially as applied to Scripture. Advances in astronomical, mathematical and medical techniques generated new observations that existing theories could not accommodate. Thousands of novel plants and animals observed in the newly discovered Americas rendered the ancient zoological and botanical systems of Aristotle and Theophrastus (372-287 b.c.) obsolete. The heliocentric theory of Copernicus (1473-1543) confronted the geocentric theory of Ptolemy in astronomy; Paracelsus (1493-1541) with his system of immaterial chemical principles rejected both Aristotle's theory of material elements and Galen's medical theory of bodily humors; and the observations of Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) over-threw Galen's authority in anatomy.

At the same time, deepening theological divisions between Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism resulted in significantly revised approaches to biblical interpretation. Patristic and medieval theologians had exercised considerable latitude in expounding scripture, understanding many passages figuratively or allegorically. Against this, however, most Protestant Reformers stressed a more strictly literal interpretation of biblical texts as the only one assuring fidelity to their true meanings. Similarly the Catholic Church, seeking to counteract both Protestantism and extreme heretical sects, narrowed the range of acceptable interpretive approaches, by systematizing church doctrine in authoritative pronouncements such as those of the Council of Trent. One consequence of these trends was that scientific theories which previously were of little concern now came under scrutiny for their possible theological implications.

The most famous adversarial encounter between science and Christianity arising from these myriad cross-currents was the case of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). For some theologians, the displacement of Earth by the Sun from the center of the universe in the Copernican theory also implied a heretical displacement from the focus of the Creation of man's redemption by Christ. In 1616, the Catholic Church briefly placed Copernicus' De Revolutionibus on the Index of Prohibited Books until a few objectionable passages could be excised. Galileo, the leading advocate of the Copernican theory, was summoned to Rome, where he accepted a certificate from Cardinal Robert Bellarmine pledging that he would not present the theory as anything other than a hypothesis. Bellarmine died in 1621, and in 1623 Galileo's friend Cardinal Maffeo Barberini ascended to the papal throne as Urban VIII. After six private audiences with Urban, Galileo rashly believed he had permission to publish a defense of Copernicanism, and in 1632 his Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems appeared. Summoned to Rome and interrogated by the Inquisition, the aged Galileo was compelled in 1633 to renounce Copernicanism as a heresy contrary to the Catholic faith, and his book was placed on the Index. A sentence of life imprisonment was commuted to house arrest at his estate in Florence.

The Galileo affair involved far more than a supposed conflict between new science and old dogma, however. Attacks on and defenses of Copernicanism often reflected not just opposing theological views, but also power struggles between different priestly orders within the Catholic Church, and the theory was also an issue in Jesuit efforts to reconvert Protestant areas of Germany back to Catholicism. As a recipient of royal patronage from the Venetian, Pisan, and Florentine courts, Galileo was enmeshed in a complex web of political intrigue and envious competition for prestige between rival Italian city-states. In an age of violent personal invective unrestrained by libel laws, Galileo also excelled in penning scorching insults of his Jesuit opponents, earning several bitter and influential enemies. With a singular lack of humility and tact, he even presumed to instruct cardinals on points of biblical exegesis and doctrinal interpretation, and offended Urban VIII by inserting one of his arguments into the mouth of Simplicio, the Aristotelian dupe of the Dialogue. Galileo's support for atomism may have been yet another complicating factor. Far from being simply an instance of persecution of enlightened science by religious obscurantism, Galileo's condemnation percolated in a seething cauldron of potent political and personal rivalries, containing a poisonous stew of hostile theological and philosophical agendas, spiced by his own arrogance.

Unfortunately, the notoriety of the Galileo affair has obscured its exceptional nature. Historians have discredited apocryphal criticisms of Copernicus attributed to Martin Luther (1483-1546) and John Calvin (1509-1564), and the Copernican theory faced little formal theological opposition in Protestant areas. Even in Roman Catholic dominions, little effort was made outside of Italy and Spain to hinder its study and use. Although the French philosopher René Descartes (1598-1650) withheld his recently completed Le Monde from publication for several years because it endorsed Copernicanism, his colleagues Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655) and Marin Mersenne (1588-1648), both priests, continued to discuss the theory in public correspondence without interference. By 1700, even Jesuit astronomers in the many church-based observatories throughout Catholic parts of Europe used the Copernican theory to make astronomic calculations. The belated removal of Galileo's Dialogue from the Index in 1832 was merely an acknowledgment of what had been a dead letter for over a century.

A second area of tension between scientific theories and religious doctrines concerned seventeenth century corpuscular matter theories. Because ancient atomic theory had posited that atoms were uncreated, eternal, indivisible, infinite in number, and in unceasing motion according to immutable laws of impersonal fate, with occasional completely random swerves, they were long associated with atheism, as denying God's creation of matter and providential governance of events. Atomism also implicitly contradicted the key Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation—that the underlying substance of consecrated bread and wine in the Eucharist changes into the Body and Blood of Christ, while the equally real external accidents remain the same—by denying the Aristotelian doctrine of substantial essence and making the qualities merely phenomenal appearances. In response, advocates of corpuscularian theories such as Gassendi adapted them to conform to Christian doctrine, with God first creating a finite number of atoms in time out of an infinitely divisible matter and then setting and maintaining them in motion by His power according to His purposes. While this did not allay all suspicions of heresy, corpuscular theories nonetheless were widely accepted by the end of the century.

A third and very different challenge to Christian orthodoxy came from neo-Platonic advocates of "natural magic." Along with many Paracelsians, they championed a science based upon mastery of immaterial cosmic powers, according to an occult or esoteric knowledge of divinely created "signatures" embedded in every natural object. The close affiliation of such notions to Gnosticism and sorcery, and belief by many of their partisans in anti-Christian heresies such as denial of the Trinity and the Incarnation, led both Roman Catholic and Protestant authorities to oppose these ideas strenuously, a famous instance being the execution of Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) by the Inquisition. Also, advocacy of atomism and Copernicanism by some neo-Platonists imparted a suspicious taint to those theories that was not easily removed.

Aside from these occasional points of friction, however, most theologians and natural philosophers alike viewed the study of nature as cultivating rather than undermining real faith and devotion. The regularities, harmony, and hierarchical structure of the Creation, discovered by science and embodied in natural laws, revealed for many the marvels of God's creative omnipotence and goodness. Both the published books and private letters of virtually every scientist of the era are studded with innumerable religious references, expressing unquestionably genuine piety rather than mere lip service, and many scientists were deeply involved in church matters. Two founders of the Royal Society of London, John Wilkins (1614-1672) and Thomas Sprat (1635-1713), became Anglican bishops; the anatomist and geologist Nicolaus Steno [Niels Stensen] (1638-1686) became a Roman Catholic bishop and was canonized as a saint in 1988; the physicist Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) is more famous today for his devotional Pensées than his scientific research; and Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) left thousands of pages of unpublished theological notes that far exceeded his published scientific output.

Consequently, most historians now ask whether and how Protestant or Catholic theology may have actively encouraged the development of science, and whether and how the religious convictions of individual scientists influenced their scientific theories. Much attention has been given to the "Merton thesis," which argues that English Puritans constituted an usually high percentage of English scientists, due to a strong emphasis in Calvinist theology on the study of nature as a chief means to the glorification of God, a sense of divine calling to a specific earthly vocation, and the fruitful production of good works as a sign of predestination to eternal salvation. While a connection clearly existed in England between Protestant nonconformity and science, it is debatable whether this was due to a special Puritan theological affinity for science, or because dissenters were legally excluded from preferment in government, university, and established Church positions, and therefore sought other avenues for social advancement. The same applies to the large number of Protestants among scientists in Catholic France. At present, most scholars believe that while Catholicism as such was no less favorable to science than Protestantism, the greater institutional centralization and uniformity of the Catholic Church reinforced a more conservative outlook among Catholic scientists, making them less receptive to novel theories at variance from Aristotelian natural philosophy.

New tensions between science and religion emerged, however. The development of the scientific concept of natural law, and its successful application to the explanation of many hitherto puzzling phenomena, reduced the scope previously allowed for divine miracles. The tremendous increase in scientific knowledge mitigated the loss of ancient knowledge once thought to form part of original sin. The abandonment of teleological (purposive) explanations of natural phenomena for merely descriptive ones—of questions asking why for ones merely asking how—appeared to neglect or even deny the role of Divine providence. Reliance on reason and sensory observation eroded trust in divine revelation, as rationally demonstrable "natural religion" and Deism rejected any mystical aspect to faith. While many scientists successfully resolved these tensions, the very fact that some felt it necessary to marshal science in defense of Christianity against scepticism—the chemist Robert Boyle (1629-1698) endowed a lectureship for this purpose—indicated a widespread uneasiness over an increasing estrangement of science from religion.

Early modern science and Christianity thus were neither necessarily allies nor enemies. Instead, due to profound changes in each, a growing divergence between them gradually surfaced; science ceased to be the handmaid of theology and assumed an independent status. Because of its spectacular and continuing success in adding to man's knowledge and control of the natural world, science has gained such power and prestige that for many people it has displaced rather than supported religion as the foundation for their most fundamental beliefs. As scientific and religious thought both have continued to deepen and change, their mutual relations have also continued to converge and diverge in complex, unpredictable and fascinating ways.


Further Reading


Brooke, John H. Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Draper, John W. History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1875. Reprint ed. New York: De Young, 1997.

Harrison, Peter. The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise ofNatural Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Hooykaas, Reijer. Religion and the Rise of Modern Science. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1972.

Langford, Jerome L. Galileo, Science and the Church. 3rd rev. ed. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992.

Merton, Robert K. Science, Technology, and Society in Seventeenth-Century England. New York: Harper and Row, 1970. Originally published in Osiris 4 (1938): 360-632.

Numbers, Ronald L., and David C. Lindberg, eds. God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter Between Christianity and Science. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

Westfall, Richard. Science and Religion in Seventeenth-Century England. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1958.

White, Andrew D. History of the Warfare of Science withTheology in Christendom. 2 vols. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1896. Reprint ed. New York: Dover, 1960.

Articles in Books

Dear, Peter. "The Church and the New Philosophy." In Science, Culture and Popular Belief in Renaissance Europe, ed. by Stephen Pumfrey, Paolo L. Rossi and Maurice Slawinski. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991: 119-139.

Pedersen, Olaf. "Science and the Reformation." In University and Reform: Lectures from the University of Copenhagen Symposium, ed. by Leif Grane. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1981: 35-62.

Russo, François. "Catholicism, Protestantism, and the Development of Science in the 16th and 17th Centuries." In The Evolution of Science, ed. by Guy S. Métraux and François Crouzet. New York: New American Library, 1963: 291-320.

About this article

Science and Christianity During the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries

Updated About content Print Article