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Is Christianity At War With Science? (13/20

The following is a continuing list of Christians down through the centuries who, far from being constantly at war with science (commonly called ‘natural philosophy’ in previous times), took an active interest in seeking to understand how the universe worked. The first page in this list is here.

1679-1767:  Firmin Abauzit:  A French Protestant who was highly accomplished in physics.  On his visit to England he was introduced to Newton, whose great work ‘Principia Mathematica’ he had read. Newton graciously acknowledged an error in ‘Principia’ which Abauzit identified to him, and corrected it in the second edition of the worck.  Abauzit was well known for his considerable breadth of knowledge, and held in high esteem by intellectuals such as Rousseau and Voltaire.

 1707-1778:  Carolus Linnaeus:  Called the ‘father of modern taxonomy’, and considered by some to be one of the founders of modern ecology, Linnaeus was an accomplished botanist, zoologist, and physician.  His greatest contribution to science was his system of zoological classification, first published as ‘Systema Naturae’ in 1735.  This was an ongoing work, and ran into 13 editions in Linnaeus’ lifetime (the first being only 11 pages long, the last, published in 1770, some three thousand pages long).

Linnaeus’ system of classification became the foundation for all subsequent studies of zoological taxonomy, and it remains the system used by modern biologists.  Taking great pride in his work, Linnaeus coined the phrase ‘Deus creavit, Linnaeus disposuit’ (Latin, ‘God created, Linnaeus organised’), seeing himself as a ‘second Adam’ by naming the handiwork of God.

Arguably the most controversial aspect of Linnaeus’ classification was his placing of humans within a class he called ‘Anthropomorpha’, in which he also included primates.  Misunderstood by theologians of his day, Linnaeus was accused of impiety, and some have since suspected him of being an evolutionist.

However, Linnaeus believed firmly both in God and in the Genesis creation account, and evolutionary theory did not even exist during his time.  His classification of humans in the same class as primates was made purely on the basis of shared characteristics, which was the same basis used for his entire scheme of classification.  Linnaeus was not referring to humans as monkeys (as some mistakenly believe), or saying that humans were descended from (or even genetically related to), apes (as others mistakenly believe).

In a letter he wrote to German naturalist Johann Georg Gmelin, Linnaeus explained the reasoning behind his decision, and defended himself against charges of impiety:

It is not pleasing that I place Man among the primates, but man is intimately familiar with himself. Let’s not quibble over words. It will be the same to me whatever name we use. But I request from you and from the whole world the generic difference between Man and Simian, and this from the principles of Natural History. I certainly know of none. If only someone might tell me just one! If I called man a simian or vice versa I would bring together all the theologians against me. Perhaps I ought to, in accordance with the law of the discipline [of Natural History].’

Carolus Linnaeus, letter to Johann Georg Gmelin, 25 February, 1747


1707-1783
:  Leonhard Euler:  A Swiss mathematician and physicist who was the most important mathematician of the 18th century, and the most published of any mathematician in history.  He is considered by some to have been the greatest mathematician ever to have lived.

His contributions to mathematics included systems of notation and terminology which are used today, and his other accomplishments include achievements in physics, mechanics, astronomy, and optics.  A student of Johann Bernoulli (the finest mathematician then living), Euler soon demonstrated an aptitude for mathematics which led Bernoulli to encourage him to become a professional mathematician rather than a pastor (as his father wished).

Euler won the prestigious Paris Academy Prize Problem (an annual challenge from the French Academy of Sciences), twelve times in his career, and extraordinary achievement.  With an agile and photographic mind (he was able to recite Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’ from memory alone), he made significant advances in an incredible range of fields within mathematics, including calculus, trigonometry, geometry, number theory, and algebra, as well as several areas of physics, engineering and mechanics, and astronomy.  Euler’s contribution to applied mathematics was also important, combining Leibniz’s differential calculus with Newton’s ‘fluxions’ to create new mathematical tools for practical problem solving.

In astronomy, Euler successfully made extremely accurate measurements of the orbits of comets and other bodies, as well as the parallax of the sun.  Building on Huygen’s work in optics, he championed the wave theory of light, which would only become integrated with Newton’s particle theory much later.

Euler’s written output was prolific, filling up to 60 quarto volumes (a quarto page is about the size of a standard magazine page).  He was a devout and vocal Christian, and one of his most significant works was ‘Defense of the Divine Revelation against the Objections of the Freethinkers’, in which he presented arguments for the existence of God and divine revelation.

1718-1789:  Maria Gaetana Agnesi:  An accomplished linguist and mathematician, Maria wrote and presented a one hour lecture in Latin at the age of nine, and could speak at least seven languages by the age of thirteen.  At fifteen her father arranged meetings in his home for learned members of society to hear Maria present and discuss her theses.  When she was twenty years old she made the decision to retire from public life, though she continued her studies in mathematics, particularly in calculus.

Her most significant work was ‘Instituzioni analitiche ad uso della gioventu italiana’ (1748), which was translated into French and English, and became extremely influential.  Two years later she was appointed to the chair of mathematics and science at Bologna by Pope Benedict XIV, but in 1752 she left this to study theology, and dedicated herself to relief work for the destitute.  She was the directress of a hospice in Milan, and finally entered a Franciscan order of nuns.

1733-1804:  Joseph Priestley:  A remarkably gifted man who contributed to a broad field of disciplines (including chemistry, science, education, philosophy, theology, history, and political science), Priestley was also a dedicated Christian who wrote extensively on the Bible and in defence of apostolic Christianity.

Most famous for the discovery of oxygen in 1774 (though later studies have shown that he was preceded in this discovery by Polish alchemist Michael Sendivogius in 1604), Priestley made a number of important discoveries in the properties of gasses, which he presented in ‘Observations on different Kinds of Air’ (1774-1777), still considered one of his most influential works.  His scientific papers (which were many), were clearly written and well presented, with his experiments carefully detailed for the benefit of those who wished to repeat them.

Accepted into the Royal Society in 1766, he published ‘A History of Electricity’ the following year, a 700 page book which met with very favourable reviews.  In this work he summarised the history of research into electricity, described various scientific theories and conclusions, and contributed his own personal research and experimentation.  One of his most influential books, it was translated into several languages, and remained the standard work on the subject for the next 100 years, being used by Alessandro Volta, William Herschel, Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell, and Henry Cavendish, all of whom contributed significantly to advances in the understanding of electricity, and most of whom reached achievements as a result of reading Priestley’s book.

Priestley considered public education to be extremely important, and dedicated a large part of his life to it.  He started a school sometime around 1755, and provided an extensive education to his students, covering Latin, natural philosophy, mathematics, geography, and English grammar.  He taught science using instruments he purchased for the school, and some of his advanced students gave public lectures on science to demonstrate their education.

Considering English grammar to be essential to a good education, Priestley actually wrote his own book of English grammar, ‘The Rudiments of English Grammar’ (1761), which was so innovative and well written that it remained in print for 50 years, and was an influence on all of the great 19th century grammarians, including Noah Webster.  He continued his improvements in education when he moved to Warrington Academy in 1761, presenting original thoughts on education in his work ‘Essay on a Course of Liberal Education for Civil and Active Life’.

This was so well received (becoming one of his most frequently reprinted works), that in 1766 Warrington revised its entire curriculum in accordance with Priestley’s suggestions, and Priestley taught language and history in lectures which became popular and influential.

His curriculum of modern history was particularly well received, being totally revolutionary (Warrington was at this time the only English university teaching modern history),  The two works he wrote to support the curriculum became extremely popular, with one of them (‘A New Chart of History’, 1765), running into 15 editions by 1816.  An important feature of Priestley’s teaching was his encouragement of independent thinking, which was also reflected in his theological studies.

Though famous for his experiments and notes on gasses, electricity, and chemistry, Priestley also became very well known for his numerous theological works.  Although raised a Calvinist, Priestley underwent a slow and gradual shift in his religious views, through Arminianism and Arianism to Unitarianism.  A firm believer in the existence of a loving God who is directly involved with His creation, Priestley took it upon himself to answer contemporary atheist and sceptical attacks on Christianity, such as those launched by David Hume and Edward Gibbon:

‘Having conversed so much with unbelievers at home and abroad, I thought I should be able to combat their prejudices with some advantage, and with this view I wrote… the first part of my ‘Letters to a Philosophical Unbeliever’, in proof of the doctrines of a God and a providence, and …a second part, in defence of the evidences of Christianity.’

Joseph Priestley, ‘Memoirs’, page 111

Priestley’s output in this area was huge.  In defence of Christianity against those who dismissed it as worth no more than the pagan religions it had replaced, he wrote ‘The Doctrines of Heathen Philosophy, Compared With Those of Revelation’ (1804).  In response to Gibbon’s criticism of Christianity in ‘Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’, he published ‘An History of the Corruptions of Christianity’ (1782), in which he addressed Gibbon directly, inviting a response (Gibbon declined to reply).

In ‘Letters to a Philosophical Unbeliever’ (1787), he defended Christianity against criticism by skeptics such as David Hume and the famous atheist Baron d’Holbach (whose attack on Christianity, ‘The System of Nature’, had become known as ‘The Atheist’s Bible’).  Similar arguments are also found in his three volume 800 page work ‘Institutes of Natural and Revealed Religion’ (1772), which gave a detailed description of how Priestley considered Christianity to be taught.

He also wrote against a number of the proponents of the Scottish ‘School of Common Sense’, a philosophical outlook which was frequently used to depict religion as irrational and illogical.  This was a view held by famous men such as David Hume, John Locke, and George Berkeley, and Priestley took issue with a number of the typical arguments in his lengthily entitled work ‘An examination of Dr. Reid’s Inquiry into the human mind on the principles of common sense, Dr. Beattie’s Essay on the nature and immutability of truth, and Dr. Oswald’s Appeal to common sense in behalf of religion’ (1774).  The work was extremely popular, and was read and discussed widely.

Priestley’s theological works unfortunately made him enemies both secular and religious.  Atheistic and sceptical scientists objected to Priestley presenting Christianity as both rational and in harmony with science, whilst members of the religious ‘orthodoxy’ of the day condemned his Unitarian theology and feared his objective scientific criticism of popular Christianity.  It was ironic that such a free thinking and methodically minded man should be criticized by the scientist of his day, though the opposition from the ‘orthodox’ clergy and congregations was to be expected.

Replying to a theory of the mind in his work ‘Hartley’s Theory of the Human Mind’ (1775), Priestley indicated that he rejected the classical ‘mind body dualism’ which was the natural product of the ‘orthodox’ doctrine of the immortal soul.

In his later work ‘Disquisitions relating to Matter and Spirit’ ‘1777), he made it even more clear that there were powerful scientific reasons for rejecting the immortal soul as a rational belief, a position which brought him into considerable disfavour with contemporary theologians.

On matters of prophecy, Priestley was a dedicated Historicist, holding the standard interpretation of Daniel and Revelation and teaching the restoration of the Jews prior to the return of Christ and the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth.

In 1794 he gave an impressive sermon on the French Revolution as the fulfilment of Bible prophecy (specifically Revelation 11, the usual Historicist interpretation), an event which he hoped was a herald of the soon return of Christ:

‘And it appears to me highly probable, as I hinted in my last discourse on this  occasion, that the present disturbances in Europe are the beginning of those very calamitous times.’

‘It is enough for us to know the certainty of these great events, that our faith may not fail on the approach of the predicted calamity, confident that it will have the happiest issue in God’s own time. For the same being who foretold the evil which we shall see come to pass, has likewise foretold the good that is to follow it.

That the second coming of Christ will be coincident with the millennium, of the future peaceable and happy state of the world (which, according to all the prophecies, will take place after the restoration of the Jews), is evident from what Peter said, in his address to the Jews, on the occasion of his healing the lame man at the gate of the temple (Acts 3.19)

This great event of the late revolution in France appears to me, and many others, to be not improbably the accomplishment of the following part of the Revelation, chap. xi. 13: “And the same hour there was a great earthquake, and the tenth part of the city fell, and in the earthquake were slain of men (or literally, names of men) seven thousand, and the remnant were affrighted, and gave glory to God.”

An earthquake, as I have observed, may signify a great convulsion, and revolution, in states; and as the Papal dominions were divided into ten parts, one of which, and one of the principal of them, was France, it is properly called a tenth part of the city, or of the mystical Babylon.

And if by names of men, we understand their titles, such as those of the nobility, and other hereditary distinctions, all of which are now abolished, the accomplishment of the prediction will appear to be wonderfully exact.’

What could have been more unexpected than the events of any one of the last four years, at the beginning of it?’

Joseph Priestley, ‘The Present State of Europe Compared with Antient Prophecies; A Sermon, Preached at the Gravel Pit Meeting in Hackney, February 28, 1794, Being the Day Appointed for a General Fast’, 1794

Priestley came under considerable criticism for his questioning of ‘orthodox’ beliefs, especially for his work ‘Corruptions of Christianity’.  His outspoken views on religious freedom and tolerance were attacked relentlessly, and he was eventually forced to leave England for North America when a mob attacked his home and burned it to the ground in 1791.

The move proved influential for North American history, since Priestley would start the first Unitarian church there, and his theological studies had a profound impact on Thomas Jefferson (emphasis added):

‘I have read his [Priestley’s] Corruptions of Christianity, and Early opinions of Jesus, over and over again; and I rest on them, and on [Conyers] Middleton’s writings, especially his letters from Rome, and to Waterland, as the basis of my own faith.  These writings have never been answered.’

Priestley is significant in that his scientific studies had a direct impact on his theology, and many of his works not only make this clear but encourage others to interpret the Bible in harmony with ‘natural philosophy’ (that is to say, science).  He was convinced that ‘orthodox’ Christianity was a major stumblingblock to belief in God, and that the criticisms of atheists and skeptics were directed more against these ‘corruptions of Christianity’ than at the true teaching of Scripture.

For this reason, Priestley sought at all times to present the Bible in an intelligent and rational manner, disassociating it from mysticism and superstition, and showing how it merited both belief and faith.  He was convinced that more could be won to Christ by properly demythologizing the Bible and presenting it as in harmony with science using well reasoned arguments, than could be won by fighting science every step and holding to the accumulated traditions of former centuries.

As with Newton, his unquenchable conviction in the true Christian faith was ever present, even in his scientific writings.  In the second volume to his scientific treatise ‘Experiments and Observations on Air’ (1776), he spent the first two parts of the book explaining the theological significance of his observations and discoveries and how they provided evidence for intelligent and reasonable religion.  The presentation of his scientific investigations does not start until Part III.

By the end of his life, Priestley had written more than 150 works on a vast range of subjects, had accumulated a wealth of scientific knowledge and discovery, and belonged to every major scientific society in the world.  Priestley stands in a long tradition of brilliantly minded independent thinkers who subjected their Christian beliefs to rigorous objective scrutiny, and altered them where they were found to be wanting in reason or rationality.

1784-1856
:  William Buckland:  An influential geologist and palaeontologist, Buckland was one of the pioneers of fossil research in the 19th century, and wrote the first scientific report on the fossil remains of a dinosaur.

Geology and palaeontology were developing sciences which proved challenging to some traditional readings of Scripture, particularly where the age of the earth and the flood were concerned.  Buckland was convinced that the Scriptural record was true, and that it could be reconciled with the new science.  In 1819 he gave a lecture on the subject, which was subsequently published in 1820 as ‘Vindiciæ Geologiæ; or the Connexion of Geology with Religion explained’.

Buckland held to the view of an old earth creation, and a form of the ’gap’ theory, believing that the scientific evidence demonstrated the earth was far older than 6,000 years, and that numerous creations and extinctions had taken place prior to the creation account starting in Genesis 1:2.  In 1823 he published a detailed work entitled ‘Reliquiæ Diluvianæ, or, Observations on the Organic Remains attesting the Action of a Universal Deluge’, in which he argued that the fossil record provided physical evidence of the global scope of Noah’s flood.  This was very well received, and popularly appealed to as demonstrating the agreement of the Biblical record with science.

Buckland’s theological views continued to develop with his scientific studies, and by the time he was invited to write for the Bridgewater Treatises (in defence of the Christian faith, under the subject ‘On the Power, Wisdom and Goodness of God, as manifested in the Creation’), he was theorising on day/age and gap models of the Genesis creation account, as well as theistic evolution (though Buckland was a fierce opponent of evolution, which was already being suggested by Darwin and others).  This material was later published as ‘Geology and Mineralogy considered with reference to Natural Theology’ (1836), and was already a departure from some of the views he had expressed in ‘Reliquiæ Diluvian’.  Buckland no longer believed that the flood could account for all the geological and fossil evidence, and re-interpreted certain fossils as the remains of animals which were made extinct prior to the flood, instead of by the flood.  Further evidence convinced him that animals had lived and died before the creation of man.

He was further influenced by studies in glacier activity carried out by Swiss geologist and glaciologist Louis Agassiz, who theorized that glacier activity was responsible for geological striation and polishing.  After examining the evidence Buckland agreed with Agassiz.  This had a direct impact on his geological studies, and caused him to abandon his previously held idea that the Genesis flood was responsible for these features.  Although his work on glacier activity as an explanation for certain geological formations was opposed by the Geological Society of London (of which he was president), later research would prove Buckland’s theories correct.

Buckland became one of the 19th century’s most famous and influential geologists.  He carried out important work in the field, and contributed significantly to palaeology, especially in his research and study of fossil remains and dinosaurs.  Like Copernicus, Bruno, Kepler, Galileo, Boyle, and Priestley, he was unafraid to alter his theological views on the basis of his scientific discoveries, always remaining convinced that the Biblical record was true, and would never contradict any valid discovery made by science.

During an era in which the Bible and science were frequently seen as being in conflict, Buckland stood as an example of an honest student of the Scriptures who felt unthreatened by acknowledging scientific truths.  His work contributed to a growing body of conservative Biblical scholarship which effectively countered sceptical attacks on the Scriptures by demonstrating the harmony of the Bible with science.  Important contributors included influential Christians such as Thomas Chalmers, George Faber, John Pye Smith, Robert Bakewell, Lord Kelvin, and John Thomas, all of whom were ‘Old Earth’ creationists.

‘Hence it seems more probable, that the event in question, was the last of the many geological revolutions that have been produced by violent irruptions of water, rather than the comparatively tranquil inundation described in the Inspired Narrative. It has been justly argued, against the attempt to identity these two great historical and natural phenomena, that, as the rise and fall of the waters of the Mosaic deluge are described to have been gradual and of short duration, they would have produced comparatively little change on the surface of the country they overflowed.’

William Buckland, ‘Geology and Mineralogy Considered with Reference to Natural Theology’, Bridgewater Treatise series, number 6, 1837

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