The Roman Catholic, Fundamentalist, and Evangelical Response to Science

The Roman Catholic, Fundamentalist, and Evangelical Response to Science

The Roman Catholic response to the scientific revolution was mixed as it encompassed both positive and negative elements. By the beginning of the 17th century, the Roman Catholic Church had fully adopted Aquinas’ 13th century Aristotelian philosophy. This set the framework for the oft overstated conflict between Papal authority and the Copernican minority. When Galileo began espousing Copernican astronomy, the Roman Catholic Church chose to accept the more well-attested scientific paradigm; backed by esteemed astronomers like Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) and bolstered by Aristotelian scholasticism, and reject a minority scientific opinion with questionable veracity.

Ultimately, the conflict between The Roman Catholic Church and the Copernican theory was more about the neo-Platonic natural philosophy advancing against Aristotelianism than it was science vs. religion. The new heliocentric scientists reinterpreted key passages the Roman Catholic Church interpreted to support geocentric cosmology: Genesis 1, Ecclesiastes 1: 4– 6, Joshua 10: 12, and Psalm 19: 4– 6. Galileo’s cosmology required a different biblical hermeneutic that the Pope, relying on the decision made by the Council of Trent (1545-1563) and the early church fathers, was not willing to make. The conflict between Galileo’s views and the Roman Catholic church’s acceptance of the dominant scientific view of the day occurred at a time when the Roman Catholic church was losing power to the Protestant Reformers. This made the Pope more sensitive to any dissent and fostered a reaction to try and preserve their power. Despite their reasoned rejection of heliocentrism, the Roman Catholic Church in the 19th and 20th centuries continued to support scientific research and supported men such as Georges Lemaître who postulated big bang cosmology.[1] A view which was originally rejected by secular scientists as overtly religious in nature and which today has become the accepted standard of most cosmologists.

The terms evangelical and fundamentalist are very broad terms defined differently depending upon who is using these terms. Still, broadly speaking, both traditions developed in the English-speaking West as descended of the Protestant Reformation and both were highly engaged in social issues including science. However, Evangelicalism tended to focus on experiential faith and did not have a strong bent toward the integration of science and faith.[2] This idea is reflected in a letter written to the Methodist theologian Adam Carke whose commentary on Genesis offered a unique integration of science and religion. Mr. Butterworth wrote to Clarke,

I conceive that the generality of our commentators are divines only, and have but little knowledge of natural philosophy and science in general, which greatly serves in the illustration of the sacred text.[3]

So while some evangelicals have promoted an anti-intellectual faith, others, as illustrated in the preceding quote, had a great concern to integrate science into biblical understanding.

Fundamentalism is another term often used disparagingly of conservative Christian groups who rejected the influences of intellectual and moral liberalism. Like evangelicalism, this broad spectrum included both those who were opposed to scientific pursuits perceived to undermine the authority of the Bible and others who saw science as an ally of Christian faith. Dispensationalists are often characterized by historians as a dominant force in fundamentalism that was strongly literal in their biblical interpretation, overly focused on eschatology and unwilling to accept naturalistic science.[4] However, fundamentalists such as the Scottish theologian James Orr were in favor of integrating science and faith. Orr wrote in The Fundamentals:

It is an unhappy illustration of how the best of men can at times err in matters which they imperfectly understand, or where their prejudices and traditional ideas are affected. But it proves nothing against the value of the discoveries themselves, or the deeper insight into the ways of God of the men who made them, or of real contradiction between the new truth and the essential teaching of the Scriptures.[5]

In the works of men like Clarke and Orr one finds an Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism that are both interested in developing a holistic approach to reality that integrates faith and science. This history is matched well in the many evangelical apologists and academics who today integrate natural theology and science into their arguments in favor of a reasoned faith.

[1] Steven J. Harris, “Roman Catholicism since Trent,” in Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction, ed. Gary B. Ferngren (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), 252.

[2] Mark A. Noll, “Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism,” in Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction, ed. Gary B. Ferngren (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), 262.

[3] Adam Clarke, An Account of the Religious and Literary Life of Rev. Adam Clarke, vol. 1-3 (New-York: T. Mason and G. Lane, 1837), 396.

[4] Noll,  in Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction, 263.

[5] James Orr, Science and Christian Faith, vol. 1, 4 vols., The Fundamentals: a testimony of truth (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2005), 335.

Darwin’s impact on religion in the US and Europe

Darwin’s impact on religion in the US and Europe

Without question, Darwinian science had a tremendous influence on religious development in the United States and across Europe. The complex relationship between science and religion is difficult to frame as the social and cultural influences peculiar to various regions generated a variety of responses across the globe and among different religious traditions. Following is just a few basic observations of Darwin’s impact in the United States and Europe.

First, in the United States, the devastating impact of the civil war and social upheaval accompanying urbanization seemed to break the promise of Darwinian evolution for a greater society. The intellectualism and dry faith of Enlightenment religion opened doors for the spiritual revivalism and experientialism of the late 19th century vivified the growth of Pentecostalism.[1]  Second, the ideal of “survival of the fittest” advanced by Herbert Spencer and Charles Darwin was used by some capitalists “to justify the notion that wealth is a sign of worth.”[2] Combined with the unique influence of Puritan theology, these concepts laid the foundation for the prosperity gospel latent in much of popular Protestant-Evangelical religion. Third, racists in the United States and Europe construed the polygenism of human origins as the source of distinct species, combined it with a unique hermeneutic for the genealogies of Genesis, and found a scientific-religious justification for discrimination against non-white races.

Second, in Europe, Darwin’s new teleology was combined with socialist-materialism in the theology of men like Charles Kingsley who saw in it the scientific justification for the religious impetus to demand social improvement through social engineering.[3] In the Americas, this would seem to be the precursor to the Social Gospel / Social Justice movement. Across Europe in places like Italy, Germany, and France, Roman Catholicism had been reduced to a political movement devoid of transcendent spiritual power. It is there that the Darwinian worldview provided an opportunity for secularists to propose a rational science capable of striking a death blow to the impotent political-religion which could not compete with the newly revealed power of nature’s glory.[4] In the 20th century, Darwin’s evolutionary concepts were foundational for the rise of Marxism, Communism, Nazism (National-Socialism) and the Eugenics movement.

In summary, secularists like Feuerbach and religionists like Charles Hodge in both Europe and in the US agreed that science and traditional Christianity could not be reconciled. This unfortunate area of agreement fostered the warfare model of science and religion that took root in the 19th century and blossomed in the 20th. This agreement helped marginalize Christianity in popular writing and academia today.

[1] J.R. Miller, Promise of the Father: Healing the Christian Legacy of Segregation and Denominationalism, vol. 1, 2 vols. (Puyallup, WA: Emerging Life Resources, 2008), 43-44.

[2] John Hedley Brooke, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives, Canto classics edition. ed., Canto classics (United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 397.

[3] Ibid., 399.

[4] Ibid., 404.

The Reformation Influence on the Scientific Revolution

The Reformation Influence on the Scientific Revolution

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.

The Shortfall of David Hume’s Critique of Natural Philosophy

The Shortfall of David Hume’s Critique of Natural Philosophy

Natural Philosophy is a term which has various definitions. During the enlightenment era, the natural philosophy was a form of monism, espoused by men such as Joseph Priestly, which sought to purify Christianity of distortions that could not be substantiated by observation or reason so that in cooperation with science it could withstand superstition and political oppression.[1] Against this view, the skeptical agnosticism of David Hume posed the greatest threat.

Hume’s central premise was that it was impossible to obtain knowledge of God through observation of the natural world. The virtuous purists of humanity; justice morality politics and religion were conditioned by culture not reason.[2] Hume emphasized the limitations of the analogical logic which undergirded the teleological argument from natural theologians on the basis that an infinite God needs not be extrapolated as the necessary cause of the finite mechanistic creation. The limits of inductive logic meant, according to Hume, that while God might be possible, there was no empirical test to validate Him as the supernatural causal force. The greater the claim, the greater the evidence one must have to establish it and not such extraordinary evidence can be construed from science. Additionally, since our cosmos is a singularity unverifiable by observation of multiple worlds, there was no way to conclude it is a result of design. The illusion of design is a failed attempt to explain natural adaptation and which fails to account for suffering.

The strength of Hume’s thought was recognizing the limitations of the mechanistic analogs favored by natural theologians which were in no way superior to the older organic analogies. Hume’s rejection of the Deistic transcendent God unintentionally opened the door for God’s imminent work in creation. However, Hume’s skepticism fails on three grounds. First, his assumption that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence is itself a non-scientific assertion. Nothing in experimental science reinforces this claim that singularities require extra evidence. The claim itself becomes unique and extraordinary but lacks any extraordinary evidence. Thus, Hume’s first premise becomes self-refuting and invalid. Second, his claim that science disproves a supernatural cause for nature is flawed in that he assumes the conclusion in the premise. Hume’s argument is rooted in the assumption that miracles cannot occur and therefore no evidence of miracles can be found. Finally, Hume’s threshold for validating the teleological argument is absolute certainty, but this is not the test for any scientific truth. The philosophic and scientific threshold is one of high probability, not absolutism.

[1] John Hedley Brooke, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives, Canto classics edition. ed., Canto classics (United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 240.

[2] Ibid., 246.

Did the Early Church Fathers reject scientific knowledge?

Did the Early Church Fathers reject scientific knowledge?

The Christian intellectual tradition began in second and third centuries A.D. among a small group of highly educated elites who dialogued with the varies pagan philosophies of the time.[1] Many of these thinkers were well educated in pagan philosophy before their conversion and worked to defend the core theology of the Christian message. In disciplines not specific to Christian theology, these intellectuals were methodologically men of their age.

The charge of Christian anti-intellectualism is traced to a few proof-texts from the Apostle Paul (Colossians 2:8 and 1 Corinthians 3:18-19) interpreted through the writings of Tertullian. However, Tertullian did not reflect the entirety of Christian thought on the usefulness of Greek philosophy (science). Christian apologists From Justin Martyr (c. 100– 165) to St. Augustine (354– 430) allied themselves with Greek philosophical traditions, especially Platonism and Neo-Platonism, that they considered congenial to Christian thought to help persuade pagans of the salvation truth found in Jesus Christ.[2]

During the first centuries A.D., Early Church Fathers like Tertullian and Basil did attack the pagan natural philosophy (science) that had once consumed their own thinking, yet employed arguments rooted in a Greco-Roman worldview to persuade those outside the Faith. Tertullian, for example, invoked the Platonic idea of a finite cosmos to reinforce his own cosmology. Christians were not ‘anti-science’ but institutionally represented the largest influence on the study of natural science and employed serious philosophical argumentation demonstrating a deep understanding and, in some cases, respect for it. [3]

St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo in North Africa, continued in the tradition of Tertullian and Basil in his strong criticism of natural philosophy. However, his critique of philosophy was tempered by the utility he found in using it to fashion arguments that favored his Christian theology.[4] For Augustine, worldly knowledge was justified not by itself, but insofar as it was used as a means to achieve the greater ends of Divine knowledge. The early church esteemed a robust defense of the Faith over the handmaiden of natural science; however, low priority did not mean the Early Church Fathers had no value for natural science, during the patristic period the church was the most significant institutional influencer for the study of the natural sciences. Creation cosmology, the earth’s shape, and medicine are but three fields of study that demonstrate how the Early Church Fathers sought to integrate theology and natural science.

[1] David C. Lindberg, “Medieval Science and Religion,” in Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction, ed. Gary B. Ferngren (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), 47.

[2] Ibid., 48-49.

[3] Lindberg, “Early Christian Attitudes toward Nature,” in Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction, 50.

[4] Lindberg, “Medieval Science and Religion,” in Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction, 51.

Does history prove science and Christianity are incompatible?

Does history prove science and Christianity are incompatible?

How should we view the historic interplay between science and religion in general and, more specifically, between science and the Christian faith? There are four popular models commonly discussed. Of the four, the Dialogue Model is the ideal framework for understanding the historical relationship between science and religion. This model espoused by men like Thomas F. Torrance and John Polkinghorne states that science and religion cover overlapping domains sharing common ground in their presuppositions, methods, and concepts. This common ground, rooted in a philosophical realism, presupposes that empirical methodologies can work together to uncover real truths about the cosmos. The dialogue thesis of science and religion is supported by the following examples.

An openness of Christians to incorporating new scientific ideas can be observed in the story of Polish scientist Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543) who published his treatise on a moving earth and fixed sun titled, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies, which he believed was the “handiwork of the Almighty Creator.” In part, Copernicus was persuaded to publish his work by the Lutheran astronomer from Wittenberg, Georg Joachim Rheticus (1514– 1574). This historic work was edited by another Lutheran clergyman who believed the interplay between experimental science, philosophy, and Divine revelation from the Scripture could be used to discover truth. Wittenberg, Germany became the leader in publishing and teaching about the Copernican system and helped educate the likes of Johannes Kepler (1571– 1630). Although lacking experimental proof, requisite to the rising Baconian philosophy of science, Kepler accepted the Copernican model believing it reflected the plain teaching of Scripture the trinity; God in the sun, Christ in the shell of fixed stars, and the Holy Spirit in the expanse of space.[1]

The above is one of many stories that demonstrate the validity of the dialogue model over and against the three alternatives methodologies: first, the Conflict or Warfare Model espoused by men such as James White and William Draper argues that science and religion cover the same domain using an irreconcilable methodology such that the truth of one must exclude the truth of the other, second, the Independence Model espoused by men like Immanuel Kant and Stephen J. Gould, which argues that science and religion cover distinct domains using understandably distinctive methodologies or by focusing on distinctive objects such that both can be true, but only if they remain in their distinct domains of knowledge, and third, the Integration Model espoused by men such as Auguste Comte, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Ian Barbour which argues that science and religion cover the same domain such that when united they form one all-inclusive portrait of reality.

[1] Owen Gingerich, “The Copernican Revolution,” in Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction, ed. Gary B. Ferngren (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), 101.

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