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.

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.

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