The Christian Foundation of the Scientific Revolution

Spiral Gallery M83. Image from the Hubble Heritage Project.
Spiral Gallery M83. Image from the Hubble Heritage Project.

The story of how science advanced seems to have been obscured in the record of history. I can’t tell you how many times I debate atheists who are uninformed about how the growth of science came about. They seem to think the Scientific Revolution was an outgrowth of the Enlightenment period, but the truth is that the Enlightenment period was an outgrowth of the Scientific Revolution–and the Scientific Revolution was a direct result of the growth of Christianity.

John Calvin, in particular, had a great impact on the scientific imagination. He brought attention to one scripture which impacted Newton and others who were interested in astronomy.

“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” (Psalm 19:1)

This one verse piqued the curiosity of many men. HOW did the heavens declare God’s glory? HOW did the sky proclaim his handiwork? Are there ways to measure the heavens or recreate the blueprints God used to design the universe?

The most important aspect of Calvin’s theology was that it moved western civilization away from the monastic/mystical views that were prevalent in Catholicism. The monastic view insisted on isolation and separation from an evil world of temptations. The mystical view was that God could be found in ecstatic attempts to accomplish divine union through contemplative activity. But Calvin insisted that Christian living should occur in the real, material world. This emphasis alone contributed to the phenomenal growth of science.

The Catholic Church had also insisted on blending the scriptures in with the Greco-Roman view of the universe, but the explosion of scriptural knowledge brought about by the Reformation allowed Christians to explore  the world without the fetters of classical thought holding them down. They no longer had to fit in with the Catholic Aristotelian world view. They could move beyond the bounds of Catholic dogma without being called before the Inquisitors.

Calvin also reminded us that Christ is the Lord over all creation, not just over the church. The slide toward a Gnostic view of the universe through contemplative mysticism (which considered the physical world to be evil) caused the church to forget that God looked at what he created and said it was good. Calvin would specifically encourage Christians to find proof of God in His creation:

“In attestation of his wondrous wisdom, both the heavens and the earth present us with innumerable proofs not only those more recondite proofs which astronomy, medicine, and all the natural sciences, are designed to illustrate, but proofs which force themselves on the most illiterate peasant, who cannot open his eyes without beholding them.”

This new found respect for the material world, coupled with the thought that God had revealed himself through his creation, opened up a whole universe filled with excitement and new revelations as men now attempted to find God in the world around them.

In this, the scriptures didn’t act as a hindrance, but as a help. Francis Bacon, who developed the scientific method of using experimentation, observation, and induction from the data, rather than Aristotelian deduction, would declare:

“There are two books laid before us to study, to prevent our falling into error; first, the volume of Scriptures, which reveal the will of God; then the volume of creatures [his creation], which express his power.”

Johannes Kepler, who was a Lutheran, was excommunicated by the Catholic church in 1612. He discovered the laws of planetary motion because he wanted to understand the mind of God, and he was thrilled to find out that God was a designer!

“We see how God, like a human architect, approached the founding of the world according to order and rule and measured everything in such manner.”

Robert Boyle, whose Skeptical Chymist would become the foundation of modern chemistry, and who was a charter member of the Royal Society of Great Britain (whose motto was “Nullius in Verbia” which means “nothing in word,” emphasizing the importance of experimentation), would overturn the Aristotelian viewpoint that all things were composed of the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water. He rejected the Hellenistic basis for science and preferred using a truthful method of experimentation in order to know how God designed the universe, saying:

“I ignore not that not only Leucippus, Epicurus, and other atomists of old, but of late some persons, for the most part admirers of Aristotle’s writings, have pretended to be able to explicate the first beginning of things, and the world’s phenomena, without taking in or acknowledging any divine Author of it.”

John Ray, one of the earliest biologists, opposed the Aristotelian concept of spontaneous generation, saying:

“My observation and affirmation is that there is no such thing in nature.”

And that it was “the atheist’s fictitious and ridiculous account of the first production of mankind and other animals.”

Louis Pasteur, the founder of modern medicine and one of the founders of microbiology, who developed the process of pasteurization and a cure for rabies, is also known for discrediting spontaneous generation. His attempt to stop milk from spoiling came as a result of his desire to prove that “life could only come from life.” Consequently, he invented a way to heat liquids enough to kill the bacteria and then not let them be exposed to the air where bacteria would thrive. He was a Christian who was inspired to find God’s handiwork in nature, and he said,

“The more I study nature, the more I stand amazed at the work of the Creator.”

Joseph Lister, who developed a method of sterile surgery, would also disprove Aristotle’s belief in spontaneous generation by stopping infection through a combination of the use of carbolic acid (which kills bacteria without being too harsh on the skin) and covering the wound with bandages. He also introduced the use of sterile catgut, allowing the thread to dissolve without having to upset the abrasion. Lister was a Quaker who gently affirmed:

“I am a believer in the fundamental doctrines of Christianity.”

Attempts to associate the origins of the Scientific Revolution with the Renaissance or Enlightenment periods are inaccurate. The Renaissance was a rebirth of the Aristotelian worldview, which had been recovered as a result of contact with the Muslim scholar, Averroes, but science didn’t advance as a result of this knowledge. In fact, it was stunted as the medieval Church attempted to blend this knowledge in with the scriptures (just as they had also blended Greek philosophy in with the scriptures and formed medieval scholasticism). Instead, it was the direct attempt to overthrow classical thought by the men of the Reformation that led to the explosive growth in science, The Enlightenment was merely a consequence of the Scientific Revolution, particularly as found in the work of Isaac Newton.

For example, it was Newton’s belief in the First Cause that led to deism and Enlightenment philosophy.(I want to reiterate: the Scientific Revolution came BEFORE the Enlightenment!) But Isaac Newton was not an atheist. He was a believer who said that he was motivated by a desire to prove the existence of God when he wrote Principia Mathematica, saying:

“When I wrote my treatise about our Systeme I had an eye upon such Principles as might work with considering men for the beleife of a Deity & nothing can rejoyce me more then to find it usefull for that purpose.”

He was inspired by his desire to know the mind of God (much as Stephen Hawkings is) and believed:

“This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent Being.”

Modern day skeptics point to the trial of Galileo as evidence that having faith in God is a hindrance to science, but the truth is that the Scientific Revolution was precipitated by men of faith. It was their desire for truth based on physical evidence, rather than philosophy or reason, which led them to discover and understand the workings of the universe—from the smallest atom to the limitless galaxies. Because the scriptures told them that God was a God of order, not confusion, they began to search for that order, and as a result of their studies, Isaac Newton, for one, could confidently assert:

“He is a God of organization not of disarray.”

The list of scientists who would declare that it was their faith in God that led them to their scientific knowledge could read like a virtual “Who’s Who” of Scientific Advancement and Discovery.

  • Antiseptic Surgery—Joseph Lister
  • Bacteriology—Louis Pasteur
  • Calculus, Dynamics—Isaac Newton
  • Celestial Mechanics, Physical Astronomy—Johannes Kepler
  • Chemistry, Gas Dynamics—Robert Boyle
  • Comparative Anatomy, Vertebrate Paleontology—Georges Cuvier
  • Computer Science—Charles Babbage
  • Model Analysis, Dimensional Analysis—Lord Rayleigh
  • Electronics—John Ambrose Fleming
  • Electrodynamics, Statistical Thermodynamics—James Clerk Maxwell
  • Electromagnetics, Field Theory—Michael Faraday
  • Energetics, Thermodynamics—Lord Kelvin
  • Entomology of Living Insects—Henri Fabre
  • Fluid Mechanics—George Stokes
  • Galactic Astronomy—Sir William Herschel
  • Genetics—Gregor Mendel
  • Glacial Geology, Ichthyology—Louis Agassiz
  • Gynecology—James Simpson
  • Hydrography, Oceanography—Matthew Maury
  • Hydrostatics—Blaise Pascal
  • Isotopic Chemistry—William Ramsey
  • Natural History—John Ray
  • Non-Euclidean Geometry—Bernard Riemann
  • Optical Mineralogy—David Brewster
  • Paleontology–John Woodward
  • Pathology–Rudolph Vichnow
  • Reversible Thermodynamics–James Joules
  • Stratigraphy–Nicholas Steno
  • Systematic Biology–Carolus Linnaeus
  • Thermokinetics–Humphrey Davey *

This list could go on and on. Recently, the scientist who helped to decipher the genetic code through the Human Genome Project, Francis S. Collins, explained that he felt as though his work was like learning the language of God. He said this about faith in the introduction of his book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief: 

“Belief in God can be an entirely rational choice and that the principles of faith are, in fact, complimentary with the principles of science.”

Collins’ faith didn’t hinder his scientific work. It motivated him and filled him with awe. This was a common experience of believing scientists. Isaac Newton said that his work was like child’s play.

“I was like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

To these great scientists, unlocking the secrets of the universe was like an adventure. It inspired wonder and respect for the sheer genius and elegance of the Creator. Is there not magnificent order in the universe? And is it not governed by powerful and dependable laws such as the point at which water freezes or the gravitational pull necessary to keep things in place? The Scientific Revolution was an attempt to discover evidence for God in the material realm and their discoveries have blessed humanity.

Christianity isn’t the enemy of science. It has been the foundation for some of the greatest scientific achievements ever produced.

*This list is based on one found in the book by Henry Morris called Men of Science, Men of God. San Diego, CA: Creation Life, 1982, p. 121-123.

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