God and the Scientific Revolution

timeline of reformation, revolution, enlightenment

The Scientific Revolution was a direct consequence of the Protestant Reformation. While some would argue that it was the result of the Enlightenment, the truth is that the Enlightenment was a direct consequence of the revolution in science caused by Christianity. This revolution wasn’t spontaneously generated. Like most revolutions it was birthed out of rebellion. The root word for “Protestant” is “protest,” and the Catholic stronghold had become so corrupted that it was no longer possible for faithful Christians to be compliant.

One expression of the Catholic experience of the Middle Ages was monastic mysticism. It was the belief that a person could obtain a higher level of spirituality by separating themselves from the evil world of temptations and trying to obtain “divine union” with God through contemplative activity. The result was an attitude of spiritual superiority, as though the further a person got away from the earthly, physical world and delved into the silent, ascetic world of mystical pursuits; the closer they were to God.  This perspective wasn’t conducive to the study of earthly or material things!

Ascetic Monk Pursuing Divine Union With God
Ascetic Monk Pursuing Divine Union With God

Another problem with the medieval Catholic Church was that they had blended Christian beliefs with Greek philosophy. For example, while most people know that Galileo was in conflict with the church, most people don’t realize that the church he was in conflict with was a church that had blended Christianity in with Aristotelian “philosophy” (another word for knowledge or science).

Galileo didn’t have a problem with the scriptures, but he did have a problem with the geocentric view of the universe–which had its source in Greek thought. The person he named “Simplicio” in his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems held Ptolemaic/Aristotelian views. Because Galileo was clashing with the church you would think he was also clashing with the Bible, but this wasn’t the case. He was actually clashing with the Greek philosophy that had infiltrated the Catholic Church.

In fact, Francis Bacon, a Protestant, was rebelling against the Catholic/Aristotelian blend when he developed the scientific method.  He is now known as the “Father of Empiricism” because he established the use of experimentation, observation, and making inductions from what can be sensed or measured, rather than starting with a set of philosophical beliefs and making deductive conclusions. His Novum Organum, outlining the new scientific method, was a direct challenge to Aristotle’s Organum. Most people don’t know that the person who made such a great contribution to science loved God and his Word. Yet Bacon declared:

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.–Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon
Francis Bacon

John Calvin may not have been perfect, but his insistence that the physical world was good, and could give glory to God, was a form of rebellion against the Catholic monastic view. Calvin declared that nature was “the theater of God’s glory”  and encouraged Christians to see proof of God’s existence in His creation.  He said:

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.–John Calvin

This new 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 proof of the mind of God in the world around them. In this, the scriptures didn’t hinder; they helped.

Johannes Kepler, who was a Protestant, 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!

Johannes Kepler
Johannes Kepler

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. — Johannes Kepler

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 Greek basis for science and preferred using a truthful method of experimentation in order to know how God designed the universe. He explained why he rejected Aristotlianism:

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.– Robert Boyle

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.” He said 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.

Louis Pasteur
Louis Pasteur

 The more I study nature, the more I stand amazed at the work of the Creator.–Louis Pasteur

Joseph Lister, a British abolitionist, developed a method of sterile surgery. Using Pasteur’s principles, he 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. — Joseph Lister

The attempt to associate the origins of the Scientific Revolution with the Renaissance or Enlightenment periods are disingenuous. The Renaissance was a rebirth of the Aristotelian world view 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 the stranglehold that Greek philosophy had on the Catholic Church by men of the Reformation that led to the explosive growth in science.

The Enlightenment was a consequence of the Scientific Revolution, particularly as found in the work of Isaac Newton.It was Isaac Newton’s belief in the First Cause which led to Deism and Enlightenment philosophy. But Isaac Newton was not an atheist. He was a believer who says that he was motivated by a desire to prove the existence of God when he wrote Principia Mathematica.

Newton's Notes
Newton’s Notes

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

He was inspired by his desire to know the mind of God and believed that . .

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

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 evidence, rather than Greek philosophy, 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 which 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 – Johannes Kepler

Chemistry, Gas Dynamics – Robert Boyle

Comparative Anatomy – Georges Cuvier

Computer Science – Charles Babbage

Model Analysis, Dimensional Analysis – Lord Rayleigh

Electronics – John Ambrose Fleming

Electrodynamics – James Clerk Maxwell

Electromagnetics, Field Theory – Michael Faraday

Energetics – 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 (1)

Isaac Newton said that his work was such an exciting pursuit for him it 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. — Isaac Newton

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 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 it blessed humanity in ways too numerous to count. But it took men who stood on the Word of God alone, not the Word blended with worldly philosophy, to unlock the truths of the physical universe. And they did it for a simple reason: they loved God and wanted to know more of Him and the glory of His mind as seen in His creation.

Works Cited:

(1) Henry Morris. Men of Science, Men of God. (San Diego, CA: Creation Life, 1982), 121-123.

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