The First Several Thousand Years: Theology First
“Science” as we think of it – a systematic attempt to uncover and catalogue knowledge through testable hypothesis – is a modern term. The word “science” was first used in the seventeenth century. Since then “science” has become one of the most respected forms of knowledge.
As we reflect on the historical inter-relationship between what we (in modern times) call “science” and faith, it is helpful to know that the sort of “scientific knowledge” we value so highly in our culture – theorizing, experimentation, and observable, testable, prove-able results – was not highly regarded in the ancient Jewish or Christian cultures for 16 centuries. The knowledge they valued most, from both nature and from sacred texts, was the theological meaning and truth about God they could glean from them.
From ancient Jewish, Greek, and Roman times (the world of the Bible) through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the type of knowledge we now label “science” was considered a branch of philosophy. The term “natural philosophy” was used to describe most of what we would call “science” today.
For the ancient Greeks philosophy and observation, understanding, and theorizing about the nature of the universe were intimately intertwined. For instance, Aristotle (384-332 BC) assumed as a matter of faith three basic principles: (1) the Earth is at the center of the Universe, (2) all motion in the heavens is uniform circular motion and can be described mathematically, and (3) the objects in the heavens are made from perfect material, and cannot change their intrinsic properties (e.g., their brightness).
He developed a model in which the earth was at the centre of 55 concentric, crystalline spheres to which the celestial objects – the moon, planets, sun, and stars – were attached and which rotated at different velocities. Unfortunately, even with many refinements by Ptolemy and other philosophers, Aristotle’s model struggled to describe accurately the observed movements of astronomical bodies. Aristotelian physics dominated European thought from the days of the ancient Greeks through the early Middle Ages.
Unlike the ancient Greeks, who spent much time investigating the natural world around them, Jewish scholars and later Christian thinkers showed less interest in systematic observation and study of the natural world. While Jewish and Christian academics and authorities believed natural philosophy had some value, they prized God-centered theology much more highly. The main purpose of studying natural philosophy – science – was in what could be learned about God through the process. Observation of the natural world was viewed as a tool to assist theology, “the Queen of the Sciences.”
In a global context of competing religions, barbarian invasions, war, and devastating diseases, delineating and articulating correct theology was much more important than observing and understanding the natural world.
Because natural philosophy was not considered to be of great importance, Jewish and early Christian writers added little new knowledge about the world. Their “scientific observations” simply reflected what they easily observed (e.g. Job 38-42, Psalm 104) or they reiterated what the Greeks had already discovered (e.g. Isidore’s Etymologies). What these theologians did contribute was reflection on the theological lessons that could be learned from God’s creation. For Jewish and Christian authors, the main reason to observe and understand the natural world was to identify spiritual allegories that revealed truths about God. Jewish and Christian writings about spiritual matters became so intense, detailed, and systematic that there was little energy left for anything else. They certainly did not seek what we would call “scientific” knowledge from Scripture.
Theology and natural philosophy in context
This is important because all theology – including interpreting biblical texts, their meaning and application – reflects culture and context. To quote eminent physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne, “All theology is done in a context. The accounts that the theologians give us are not utterances delivered from some lofty detachment, independent of culture – views from nowhere, as it were – but they are all views from somewhere, offering finite and particular human perspectives into the infinite reality of God. Each such perspective not only offers an opportunity for insight, but is also open to the danger of imposing limitation and distortion.”
- The authors of ancient Biblical books often cited in religion and science conversations (like Genesis, Job, or Psalms) wrote from their context: to understand Genesis, for instance, we need to wrestle with the issues, cultures, religions, worldviews, and capacity of the audience of his age (including the literary genre, style, competing religions, and understanding of the natural world of the ancient near east – good biblical commentaries help), ;
- The Biblical prophets wrote from their contexts: to understand their message, we need to study the cultural context and social, economic, and political issues God inspired them to speak in and to;
- Paul wrote from his context: to understand his writings, we do well to learn about Judaizers, Gnostics, and other struggles of the early church;
- The early Church Fathers wrote from their contexts: to appreciate their writings we need to be aware of their drive to define key doctrines, to deal with persecution, and to confront specific heresies from gnosticism to docetism;
- Later scholars spoke from their contexts: reflecting the knowledge, assumptions, and worldviews of their times;
- Writers today are influenced by the scientific worldview – and scientific theories – that are dominant in Western societies. Contemporary scholars also react to specific authors and ideas (e.g. Richard Dawkins and the “New Atheists”). In a few decades/centuries people may look back and smile at our scholarship and marvel at what we obsessed over, our ignorance, misunderstandings, or naivete …
In the really important things, context just doesn’t matter: the facts and implications of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection transcend time and space.
But other times context does matter. Augustine’s specific reflections on the meaning of Jesus crucifixion and resurrection are best understood in context of his attempts to address Gnosticism. The Nicene Creed (325 AD), with its emphasis on the co-divinity of Jesus, is a direct response to Arianism. The theologies of reformers like Luther and Calvin were profoundly shaped by their 15th-16the Century Roman Catholic context, European politics, and technological and social changes. While not directly determining Luther or Calvin’s theologies, these influences (and more) helped shape their theological emphases and issues.
Since at least the late 19th Century, modern science is one important cultural context for theology. This was a growing reality since at least the 16th Century with the rise of Renaissance thought and the accompanying cultural, political, and scientific revolutions. While some pre-modern theologians and scientists did seek to explore connections between theology and natural philosophy (“science”), this was not a critical issue. Certainly through most of church history, theology and natural philosophy were not perceived to be in conflict, but rather explorations of God’s creation was approached as a way to know, appreciate, and understand God more fully.
Now, in the 21st Century, however, Christianity exists in a world obsessed with science, scientific methodologies, and scientific knowledge. Observable, measurable, testable data is perceived to be “true,” while other ways of knowing – including spirituality – can be devalued or even ridiculed. Our contemporary challenge, then, is to wrestle with Christian faith in this highly “scientized” cultural context. As 21st Century Christians – lay people, pastors, theologians, biblical scholars, and scientists – we wrestle more deeply with what our faith means in a scientific context than ever before.
For some writers, science has become the only true source of knowledge – referred to as scientism: “a term generally used to describe the cosmetic application of science in unwarranted situations not covered by the scientific method” (MIT Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering, Ian Hutchinson is has a good Christian critique of scientism at monopolizingknowledge.net).
For some, this has also resulted in a strident atheism and aggressive attacks on religion, in general, and Christianity, in particular. “New Atheists” like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens have aggressively attacked Christians as not simply unscientific but anti-scientific (Alister McGrath’s Dawkins’ God is helpful).
These developments have created a cultural context in which some non-Christians and some Christians perceive science and faith to be mutually exclusive. This is a recent cultural shift. It was not always so …
In the next few pages we will consider the history of the relationship between theology/Christian faith and natural philosophy/science …
I am thankful for sabbatical time from my congregation and a Pastoral Study Project Grant from the Louisville Institute to support my research.