Is Christianity At War With Science? (4/20
The following is a 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.
190 AD: Tertullian: He believed that reason is a gift from God by which we understand the world around us, and that God’s character is discernable from the blessings of nature He gives to all men, good and evil.
‘Reason, in fact, is a thing of God, inasmuch as there is nothing which God the Maker of all has not provided, disposed, ordained by reason – nothing which He has not willed should be handled and understood by reason.
All, therefore, who are ignorant of God, must necessarily be ignorant also of a thing which is His, because no treasure house at all is accessible to strangers. And thus, voyaging all the universal course of life without the rudder of reason, they know not how to shun the hurricane which is impending over the world.’
Tertullian, ‘On Repentance’, chapter 1, sections 2-3, 190 AD
‘There has been given to us as a model in the practice of patience no [merely] human product fashioned of the dullness of Cynic indifference, but the divine ordinance of a life-giving and heavenly way of life which points out as an exemplar of patience God Himself.
Long has He been scattering the brilliance of this light [of the sun] upon the just and unjust alike and has allowed the deserving as well as the undeserving to enjoy the benefits of the seasons, the services of the elements, and the gifts of all creation.’
Tertullian, ‘Letter On Patience’, chapter 2, 190 AD
370 AD: Basil of Caesarea: Understood from Scripture that nature operates according to unchanging Divinely ordained laws. The knowledge that the universe is an orderly system which operates in a regular and predictable manner is central to modern science. Without this initial premise, Western science could never have developed accurately.
‘It is this command which, still at this day, is imposed on the earth and, in the course of each year, displays all the strength of its power to produce herbs, seeds, and trees.
Like tops, which after the first impulse continue their evolutions, turning upon themselves, when once fixed in their center; thus nature, receiving the impulse of this first command, follows without interruption the course of ages until the consummation of all things.’
Basil of Caesarea, ‘Hexamaron’, chapter 5, sections 10, 370 AD
400s AD: Augustine: Augustine is frequently depicted as an irrational enemy of science and reason. Whilst Augustine certainly expressed doubts as to the extent to which what was termed ‘natural philosophy’ could explain the universe, and his theology was certainly grossly inaccurate.
But though not responsible for significant scientific advances himself, he did contribute usefully to the relationship of Christianity and science:
‘Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience.’
‘Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.’
Augustine, ‘The Literal Meaning Of Genesis’, chapter 19, section 39, 400s AD
Augustine’s intelligent advice should be taken by all Christians who see an apparent contradiction between scientific investigation and their interpretation of Scripture.
400s AD: Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius: A mathematician, Boethius wrote extensively on geometry, mathematics, music, and accoustics. He did not believe that God is only knowable by personal revelation, but that God can be known through observation of the natural world, which provides evidence of His existence and His character. His most important contribution to science was the discovery that musical notes are dependent on the frequency of sound.
‘Although the cares of my consular office prevent me from devoting my entire attention to these studies, yet it seems to me a sort of public service to instruct my fellow citizens in the products of reasoned investigation.’
Boethius, from the preface of his commentary on Aristotle’s ‘Categories’, 400s AD
490-570: John Philoponus: Possibly the earliest investigator to make use of what is called the ‘scientific method’, the method of investigation which involves testing a hypothesis through experimentation. He suggested theories be proved by experiment, corrected Aristotle’s wrong ideas about the stars, the vacuum of space, and the movement of the planets, and made contributions to the understanding of gravity, theories which were so far ahead of their time they were not scientifically proven until Galileo confirmed them by practical experiment:
‘Philoponus’ philosophy found no echo in his time, and twelve hundred years had to pass until the impact of Galileo’s ideas brought about a complete change in scientific thought.’
Shmuel Sambursky, as quoted by John McKenna, article ‘John Philoponus, Sixth Century Alexandrian Grammarian, Christian Theologian and Scientific Philosopher’, Quodlibet Journal, Volume 5, Number 1, January 2003
Importantly John Philoponus proved that the philosophy and religion of pagan Greece and Rome had led to false ideas about the universe which were preventing the advancement of science, and that the Bible’s description of the universe was a better guide:
‘The Greek concept of God caused a deep confusion between cosmology and theology and was a dead-end to science, as we know it in our time.
The Judeo-Christian God provides the ground upon which a scientific culture can be pursued. This is a fact not well enough appreciated in our time.’
John McKenna, article ‘John Philoponus, Sixth Century Alexandrian Grammarian, Christian Theologian and Scientific Philosopher’, Quodlibet Journal, Volume 5, Number 1, January 2003
‘Philoponus’s application of Christian theology to physics prefigured a new era in science. The Alexandrian scholar was the first to combine scientific cosmology (the study of the nature of the universe) with monotheism and the Christian doctrine of creation.
In doing so, Philoponus anticipated not only the findings but also the methods of modern science.’
Dan Graves, ‘Aristotle’s Earliest Creationist Critic’, 1998
Later students of science relying on Philoponus (not including the Arabs, who studied and used him extensively), include such important men as Bonaventure, Gersonides, Buridan, Oresme, Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirandola, Galileo Galilei, and Sir Isaac Newton.