The Faithful Church Began the Scientific Revolution

Isaac Newton (1642-1727) English scientist and mathematician, using a prism to break white light into spectrum. With Cambridge room mate John Wickins. Engraving of 1874.

The Lie:

Christianity is the enemy of science.

The Truth:

Bible-believing Christians gave birth to true science.

There’s a meme on the internet that goes something like this:

Christians: Atheists shouldn’t share our Christian holiday. Just work instead.

Atheist Response: And you shouldn’t share our medical research. Just pray instead.

Some of the atheists I’ve debated believed that the Enlightenment period led to the Scientific Revolution, but the truth is that the Christians of the Protestant Reformation gave birth to the Scientific Revolution! The Enlightenment happened more than 150 years after the beginning of the Scientific Revolution.

timeline of reformation, revolution, enlightenment

The Influence of Aristotle on Catholic Science

Unlike the Protestants, one expression of the Catholic experience of the medieval era was monastic mysticism. It was the belief that Christians could obtain a higher level of spirituality by separating themselves from an evil world of temptations and obtaining “divine union” with God through contemplative activity. (Contemplative prayer is the attempt to empty the mind of all intruding thoughts so that the person praying can place all of their focus on attaining a state of divine union with God.)

One consequence of this belief 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!

Instead, John Calvin (one of the Protestant reformers) insisted that the physical world was good, and could give glory to God (a form of rebellion against the Catholic monastic view). He declared that nature was “the theater of God’s glory,” and encouraged Christians to see proof of God’s existence in His creation, saying:

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.[1]

Another way the Catholic Church stunted scientific growth was by blending Christian beliefs with Greek philosophy. As I mentioned in the last chapter, Aristotle was introduced to the church through the Muslim scholar Averroes. The Catholic scholar Thomas Aquinas blended Aristotle’s philosophy into his work, Summa Theologica, and as a result, Aristotle’s “natural philosophy” became an entrenched part of Catholic theology.

This was one of the main reasons why Galileo was rejected by the Catholic church. Galileo didn’t think the Bible was his enemy, but he did have a problem with the Greek philosophical view of the universe. In his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (the writing that was being inspected by the Inquisition), Galileo’s heliocentric (sun-centered) views (in which he agreed with Copernicus) were represented by the character Salviati, and the Aristotelian geocentric (earth-centered) viewpoint (which he accepted from the Greek astronomer Ptolemy) was held by the character “Simplicio” (a name which was insulting in itself). Galileo juxtaposed the two positions in the opening paragraph of his argument:

Yesterday we resolved to meet today and discuss as clearly and in as much detail as possible the character and efficacy of those laws of nature which up to the present have been put forth by the partisans of the Aristotelian and Ptolemaic position on one hand, and by the followers of the Copernican system on the other.[2]

Galileo wasn’t arguing against God! In fact, he often gave glory to God in his Dialogue. Because Galileo was clashing with the Catholic Church, it would also seem he was clashing with the Bible, but this wasn’t the case. He was actually clashing with the Greek philosophy that had infiltrated the Catholic Church. Although the Inquisition prosecuted Galileo partly on the grounds that his views violated the scriptures, Galileo never believed that they did.

He argued that the scriptures were merely describing astronomical events from a human perspective, rather than from a scientific perspective. For example, when Joshua described the sun standing still, Galileo reasoned that the story was merely being told from the perspective of Joshua’s experience, so it shouldn’t be used as a scientific explanation.

Francis Bacon was also 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, as Aristotle did. 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.[3]

Bacon believed the mind of God could be discovered in his creation!

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 inductive experimentation, rather than deductive philosophy) was rebelling against the Catholic/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 Aristotelianism:

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 [referring to Aristotle’s belief in spontaneous generation] and the world’s phenomena, without taking in or acknowledging any divine Author of it.[4]

A New and Exciting Attempt to Discover the “Mind of God”

Because the Protestant Reformation freed men from the constraints of the Catholic/Aristotelian and monastic/mystical worldview, science exploded. A 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 discovery 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. New meaning was gathered from verses such as Romans 1:21:

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

They also pointed to Colossians 1:17, and looked to God as the miraculous force that holds the physical world together:

All things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

One example of the impact of the scriptures on scientific endeavor was the pursuit of the gulf stream by Matthew Maury. After reading Psalm 8:8, which speaks of “the paths of the sea,” Maury, a sea captain, decided to believe the Word and document the rivers that ran through the oceans. He enlisted the help of other captains and began the process of charting the seas. This is just one example of how the Bible impacted these early scientists.

Another example of the Bible being used as a source for scientific advancement was through the work of James Simpson, a British obstetrician who was searching for a way to help women experience less pain in childbirth. He used the example of God putting Adam to sleep in order to remove a rib and create Eve, as a justification for administering anesthesia, which he said was a gift from God.

Recently, a 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.”[5] This was similar to the attitude of Isaac Newton, who 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. [6]

Johannes Kepler (who was excommunicated by the Catholic Church in 1612) discovered the laws of planetary motion because he wanted to understand the mind of God in his creation, 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.[7]

Isaac Newton was also inspired by his desire to know the mind of God, and believed that his research proved the universe was intelligently designed.

This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent Being . . . [8]

I’ve debated atheists who didn’t know that Isaac Newton was a believer, or if he was a believer, argued that his love for God had nothing to do with his scientific pursuits, yet Newton, when speaking of his greatest work, Principia Mathematica, said it was his desire to prove the existence of God that gave inspiration to his work:

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.[9]

Modern day skeptics point to the trial of Galileo as evidence that having faith in God is a hindrance to science, but true science was precipitated by men of faith. It was their desire to discover the mind of God in creation and to find truth based on evidence, rather than relying on 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.”[10]  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 (1827-1912)

Bacteriology – Louis Pasteur (1822-1895)

Calculus, Dynamics – Isaac Newton (1642-1727)

Celestial Mechanics – Johannes Kepler (1571-1630)

Chemistry, Gas Dynamics – Robert Boyle (1627-1691)

Comparative Anatomy – Georges Cuvier (1769-1832)

Computer Science – Charles Babbage (1792-1871)

Dimensional Analysis – Lord Rayleigh (1842-1919)

Electronics – John Ambrose Fleming (1849-1945)

Electrodynamics – James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879)

Electromagnetics – Michael Faraday (1791-1867)

Energetics – Lord Kelvin (1824-1907)

Entomology of Living Insects – Henri Fabre (1823-1915)

Fluid Mechanics – George Stokes (1819-1903)

Galactic Astronomy – Sir William Herschel (1738-1822)

Gas Dynamics – Robert Boyle (1627-1691)

Genetics – Gregor Mendel (1822-1884)

Glacial Geology – Louis Agassiz (1807-1883)

Gynecology – James Simpson (1811-1870)

Hydraulics – Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519)

Hydrography – Matthew Maury (1806-1873)

Hydrostatics – Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)

Ichthyology – Louis Agassiz (1807-1873)

Isotopic Chemistry – William Ramsey (1852-1916)

Model Analysis – Lord Rayleigh (1842-1919)

Natural History – John Ray (1627-1905)

Non-Euclidean Geometry – Bernard Riemann (1826-1866)

Oceanography – Matthew Maury (1806-1873)

Optical Mineralogy – David Brewster (1781-1868)

Paleontology – John Woodward (1665-1728)

Pathology – Rudolph Virchow (1821-1902)

Physical Astronomy – Johannes Kepler (1571-1630)

Reversible Thermodynamics – James Joule (1818-1889)

Statistical Thermodynamics – James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879)

Stratigraphy – Nicholas Steno (1631-1686)

Systematic Biology – Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778)

Thermodynamics – Lord Kelvin (1824-1907)

Thermokinetics – Humphrey Davy (1778-1829)

Vertebrate Paleontology – Georges Cuvier (1769-1832)[11]

To many of 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 initiated by 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.

The Rejection of Spontaneous Generation and the Advance of Medicine

Christopher Hitchens, the infamous atheist, speaking of the beliefs of the American people on an interview with Bill Maher (before he died) said:

They tell the pollsters they believe in Satan more than they believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution, but they don’t know anything about either, and when they go to the hospital, they act as if they think Darwin is probably more likely to be right.[12]

The implication of that statement is that medical advancements were a result of the work of Darwin. This is revisionist history!

One of the greatest blessings to humanity, in the form of medical advancements, came as a result of the work of scientists who were trying specifically to disprove spontaneous generation—the Aristotelian idea that living things such as fleas or maggots, could arise from dead flesh or even dust.

For example, the experiments of Francesco Redi proved that maggots didn’t spring forth from rotten, decaying meat; they came from eggs that were laid on the rotten, decaying meat. And it was a Christian, Antony van Leeuwenhoek, the father of microbiology, who developed microscopes which were able to reveal the existence of bacteria, explaining how life came from life, even though the naked eye couldn’t see it.

John Ray, one of the earliest biologists, opposed the Aristotelian concept of spontaneous generation also, saying: “My observation and affirmation is that there is no such thing in nature”[13] and that it was “the atheist’s fictitious and ridiculous account of the first production of mankind and other animals.”[14]

Louis Pasteur was trying to disprove spontaneous generation when he performed a series of experiments to prove that bacteria don’t magically appear in a sterile environment. His simple “swan-necked” bottles showed again that life only produces life. He believed that his experiment (establishing the law of biogenesis) struck a “mortal blow” to the “doctrine of spontaneous generation.” Pasteur, who is known as the founder of modern medicine and one of the founders of microbiology, was a actually a creationist who was attempting to disprove Aristotle!

As a result of his work, humanity has been blessed with germ-free food through the process which has come to be known as “pasteurization.” Pasteur, who also discovered a cure for rabies, wasn’t an atheist. He was a creationist who claimed:

The more I study nature, the more I stand amazed at the work of the Creator.[15]

Joseph Lister, who was a British abolitionist, also made medical advancements in surgical sterilization based on the rejection of the concept of spontaneous generation. His use of carbolic acid (which kills bacteria without being too harsh on the skin) in combination with covering wounds with sterile bandages has saved countless lives. He also introduced the use of sterile catgut, allowing the thread to dissolve without having to upset the abrasion.  Lister wasn’t an atheist either; he declared:

I am a believer in the fundamental doctrines of Christianity.[16]

Canned food is another blessing that came from rejecting the concept of spontaneous generation. Germ theory, the foundation for modern medicine, is also based on the creationist principle that life comes from life and isn’t spontaneously generated. John Snow, who traced London’s cholera outbreak in 1854 to a dirty water well, is now known as the father of epidemiology. As a result of Snow’s efforts, clean water has been made a priority throughout the world. Hygiene, cleanliness, and health owe much to the belief that God was the Creator.

And yet, Darwin tried to take us right back to the concept of spontaneous generation. Writing in a letter to Joseph Dalton Hooker, he suggested that life may have begun in a “warm little pond, with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, lights, heat, electricity, etc . . . present so that a protein compound was chemically formed ready to undergo still more complex changes.”[17] This primordial soup theory hasn’t been able to be replicated in a laboratory even though there have been numerous attempts (such as the Miller-Urey experiment)—all of which have failed.

The attempt to associate the origins of the Scientific Revolution with the Renaissance or Enlightenment periods are false. The Renaissance was a rebirth of the classical (Greek/Roman) era, and any contributions to science in that era came from the Aristotelian world view which had been recovered as a result of contact with 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. Instead, it was the direct attempt to overthrow the stranglehold that Greek philosophy had on the Catholic Church by the men of the Reformation that led to the explosive growth in science.

The Enlightenment was a consequence, not a cause of the Scientific Revolution.  To the philosophers, God was Newton’s “First Cause” who had set the universe in motion like a grand watchmaker and then stood back, without intervening. Their faith was based on reason and the highest understandings that human knowledge had attained, and yet, as we’ll see in the next chapter, the Enlightenment philosophers were scientific racists! They cherry-picked the scriptures that fit with their worldview and discarded those they disagreed with. Unfortunately, when they abandoned biblical truth, they were able to justify human slavery.

Most of the atheists I debated over the last decade had no idea that Christians had such an impact on science. Somehow, they absorbed the idea that a “conflict” exists between science and religion. Perhaps this came from the mocking influence of the agnostic reporter H.L. Mencken as he covered the Scopes Trial (which determined whether evolution could be taught in Tennessee schools), or perhaps the “conflict theory,” promoted by John Draper and Andrew Dickson White at the end of the nineteenth century,[18] permeated the educational atmosphere of the twentieth century. Even though this belief in a conflict between science and religion has been discarded by most historians, it still continues to influence popular culture and thought.

I hope this conflict theory will no longer influence the minds of Christians, and that if an atheist tries to argue that Christianity is a hick religion that has hindered science, remember that Christianity– loosed from the bonds of philosophy—and tethered to the truth of the Bible—gave birth to true science.

 

[1] John Calvin, Institutes, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.html (accessed 02/08/2009).

[2] Galileo Galilei, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, trans. Stillman Drake, ed. and cond. by S.E. Sciortino. (http://www.famous-trials.com/galileotrial/1010-dialogue.) (accessed 11/13/17).

[3] Henry Morris, Men of Science, Men of God (San Diego, CA: Creation Life Publishers, 1982), 35.

[4] Robert Boyle, Selected Philosophical Papers of Robert Boyle, ed. M.A. Stewart (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1991.)

[5] Francis S. Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (New York: Free Press, 2006), 3.

[6] https://www.brainyquote.com/authors/isaac_newton (accessed 11/13/17).

[7] J.H. Tiner, Johannes Kepler: Giant of Faith and Science (Milford, MI: Mott Media, 1977), http://www.answersingenesis.org/creation/v15/il/kepler.asp (accessed 02/02/2009).

[8] Isaac Newton, Newton’s Principia: The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, trans. Andrew Motte (London: Benjamin Notte, 1729), 504.

[9] Isaac Newton, “Original Letter from Isaac Newton to Richard Bentley, Dated 10 September 1692.” The Newton Project, Trinity College Library, Cambridge, http://www.newtonproject.ox.ac.uk/view/texts/normalized/THEM00254 (accessed 11/13/2017).

[10] Gale E. Christiansen, In the Presence of the Creator—Newton and His Times (London: The Free Press, 1984), 261.

[11] Morris, Men of Science, 121-123.

[12] “Bill Maher Interviews Christopher Hitchens” Jan. 5, 2010. https://youtu.be/EoRxnZ8wgpw.

[13] John Ray, The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of Creation, Part II, etc. (London: J.F. Dove, 1827), 246.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Allan L. Gillen and Frank J. Sherwin III, “Louis Pasteur’s Views on Creation, Evolution, and the Genesis of Germs,” Answers Research Journal, Vol. 1, 2008, 43-52, http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/arj/v1/louis-pasteurs-views (accessed 02/13/2009).

[16] Morris, Men of Science, 89.

[17] Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 7471,” accessed on 14 November 2017, http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/DCP-LETT-7471.

[18] John William Draper is an example of an author who tried to equate Christianity with scientific oppression. In his book, History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science, he cast the Galileo incident “not as divisions between different scientists, but as theologians on the one side and scientists on the other, and they were made to typify all relations between the two groups” [Jonathan Hill, Zondervan Handbook to the History of Christianity, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 36]. Andrew Dickson White also attempted to assert this “conflict theory” between religion and science in his book, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, but Gary Ferngren, in his 2002 volume on the relationship between science and religion, dispels this myth: “While some historians had always regarded the Draper-White thesis as oversimplifying and distorting a complex relationship, in the late twentieth century it underwent a more systematic reevaluation. The result is the growing recognition among historians of science that the relationship of religion and science has been much more positive than is sometimes thought. Although popular images of controversy continue to exemplify the supposed hostility of Christianity to new scientific theories, studies have shown that Christianity has often nurtured and encouraged scientific endeavor, while at other times the two have co-existed without either tension or attempts at harmonization. If Galileo and the Scopes trial come to mind as examples of conflict, they were the exceptions rather than the rule.” [Gary Ferngren, “Introduction,” Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2002), ix.]

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3 Comments

  1. The claim that “Bible-believing Christians gave birth to true science” is just as trite and inaccurate as the claim that “Christians are the enemies of science.”

    Ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Chinese were engaging in scientific endeavors for centuries before Christianity even existed.

    1. Yes, you’re right, Boxing. Other cultures were curious about the natural world and tried to learn about it. I’m talking specifically about the Scientific Revolution that occurred in western civilization. I hope you can read the post and see how Bible-believers contributed greatly to this specific era, which was ushered in by the Protestant Reformation.

      1. So, you’re not counting Greece, Rome, the Byzantine Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, and Medieval Europe as being a part of Western civilization? Look, I completely agree that Christian thinkers acting on religious motivation contributed a great deal to the advance of science. I’ll even agree that the Protestant Reformation helped to create an intellectual environment which aided in scientific progress. However, the same can be said of pagan, Islamic, Hindu, and Confuscianist thinkers as well as the eras which produced each of them.

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