The scientific revolution is a term that describes the period of upheaval in Europe beginning around the 16th century in which Aristotelian natural-science was supplanted by the Baconian method of science undergirded by a Neo-Platonist philosophy. Many pinpoint the publication of Polish scientist Nicholas Copernicus’ treatise on a moving earth and fixed sun, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies, as the seminal event leading to Newton’s work a century and a half later which was the capstone of this philosophic shift in Western thought.

The accompanying Protestant reformation was one of the key influencers in the scientific revolution. The Reformation solas emphasizing God’s sovereignty, the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit on individual believers, and biblical authority over Roman Catholic tradition, shaped scientific interpretation.[1] Reform theology helped moved science away from the Medieval view of an Aristotelian organic cosmos to a mechanistic philosophy of motion that could be understood through mathematical formulations.[2] The mechanical philosophy of the 17th century is represented by Pierre Gassendi, René Descartes, Robert Boyle, and Isaac Newton. Buoyed by the new astronomy and physics of the day, scientists rejected Aristotelian epistemology and metaphysics which endowed matter with innate qualities, dominant since the 13th century, and replaced it with an atomistic, historically epicurean, philosophy.[3]

Three Lutheran astronomers, Georg Joachim Rheticus (1514– 74), Michael Mästlin (1550– 1631), and his pupil Johannes Kepler (1571– 1630) were crucial to the spread of Copernican heliocentrism by giving theological validity to Augustine’s principle of accommodation.[4] Whereas the Roman Catholic Church rejected Kepler, Protestant scientists generally accepted his ideas. Reformed theology had two key impacts on 17th century science. First, the emphasis on God’s sovereignty over man’s salvation was mirrored in nature’s mechanistic or ontological passivity orchestrated by God’s direct working. Second, understanding God’s work for the rationalists was found in the human capacity to reason as a reflection of the imago Dei.

As empiricism grew the scientific revolution led to the overthrow of God who was slowly replaced by science. Scientists such as Boyle and Newton built upon these early ideas while taking seriously the theological implications of their work.[5] “For Boyle— and many other natural philosophers of his day— the practice of natural philosophy was an act of worship since it led to greater knowledge of the Creator by directly acquainting the careful observer with God’s wisdom and benevolence in designing the world.”[6] Eventually, the mechanistic philosophy opened the door for men like Locke accept the reasonableness of Christianity, yet deny the central doctrine of original sin. The rise of deism and atheism followed in the 18th century and led to Laplace’s exposition of a purely deterministic cosmology.

[1] Edward B. Davis and Michael P. Winship, “Early Modern Protestantism,” in Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction, ed. Gary B. Ferngren (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), 118.

[2] Ibid., 119.

[3] Margaret J. Osler, “Mechanical Philosophy,” in Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction, ed. Gary B. Ferngren (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), 142.

[4] Davis and Winship,  in Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction, 121.

[5] Osler,  in Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction, 148.

[6] Ibid., 149.

Dr. J.R. Miller is a Professor of Applied Theology and Leadership & Dean of Online Learning at Southern California Seminary. Outside work, he is a church planter. Dr. Miller has a diverse educational background and authored multiple books on church history, biblical theology, and Leadership. Joe and his wife Suzanne enjoy the sun and surf with their 3 sons in San Diego, CA.

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