Science and Faith: The Early Church

The earliest Christian theologians after the New Testament writers, from Clement I of Rome (died 99 BC) through Origen (184-254), Basil of Caesarea/the Great (329-379), and Augustine (354-430) focused more on spiritual issues than exploring and describing the natural world.

Think about their context.  They were Christian leaders, teachers, and apologists at a time when Christianity was, at worst, a brutally persecuted minority religion and, at best, just becoming formalized.  Essential doctrines were just being established in a context of persecution, competing worldviews, a plethora of other religions, and barbarian invasions.  The first centuries of the Christian church were a time when differences with other religions (including Judaism) were bring delineated, heresies were being challenged, orthodox doctrine codified, church order was being established – and Christians were struggling to survive. 

In keeping with the 1st century Jewish philosopher, Philo, most early Christian writers viewed passages like Genesis 1-2 as having deep, allegorical, theological meaning.  They were not understood as “scientific” (as we would use the word today) accounts of either the creation of the world or of natural phenomena in the world.

For instance, they believed seven days mentioned in Genesis provided a literary structure emphasizing a perfect number and demonstrate the profound order within creation.  They believed God actually created everything instantaneously.  For Philo, Augustine, and others, to argue that God created the Earth over 6  24 hour periods was to challenge His omnipotence.  In their high view of God, it was more honouring to believe God created instantaneously than to believe He took several days to do so.

I will briefly touch on a few of the more interesting early church leaders:

Macrina the Younger (330-379)

Macrina was the older sister of two of the early church’s great leaders, Gregory of Nyssa and Basil the Great.  Gregory of Nyssa composed a dialogue “On the Soul and Resurrection” in which he describes a fascinating conversation he had with Macrina on her deathbed.  Macrina seeks to prove the eternal existence of a person’s “mind” beyond the physical body by appealing to careful observations about the phases of the moon (our mind is able to know the moon is always a sphere even though it appears to shrink and expand), and she has a long discourse about experimenting with a jar of air in water to demonstrate the power of human thought.  Contemporary scientists David Hutchings and Tom McLeish comment, “We have observation, theory, experiment, and even the notion of ‘seeing with the mind what the eye cannot – all in the fourth century AD.”

Augustine of Hippo (354-430)

Although Augustine has little specifically to say about the natural world or natural processes without allegorizing digressions, he does write extensively with the book of Genesis.  Genesis is one of the texts most often debated in modern science and faith discussions.  Augustine’s primary purpose is to defend orthodox Christianity against heretics, not to expound on natural theology or “science.” To that end, he emphasizes God is both the transcendent Creator and immanent Sustainer of the universe:  “It is the creator’s power, after all, and the virtuosity, the skill and tenacity of the almighty, that causes every created thing to subsist.  If this tenacious virtuosity ceased for one moment to rule and direct the things that have been created, their various species would at once cease to exist and every nature would collapse into nothingness.  It is not, you see, like a mason building houses; when he has finished he goes anyway, and his work goes on standing when he has stopped … No, the world will not be able to go on standing for a single moment if God withdraws form it his controlling hand.”

Augustine explicitly held Scripture as the ultimate authority.  However he emphasized that human interpretations of it – including human interpretations of Genesis – can be fallible and problematic.   He argued for a humility in our attempts to understand specific texts.  In his Commentary on Genesis, he writes:  “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 …  Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for a non-Christian 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. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men.

“If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.”  (De Genesi ad Litteram I, xix, 39.  Translation by J. H. Taylor in Ancient Christian Writers, Newman Press, 1982, volume 41)

John Philoponus (490-570)

Unique – and unpopular among other early theologians – was the Alexandrian scholar, John Philoponus.  Philoponus articulated a Christian cosmology, over against that put forth by Aristotle, non-Christian scholars, and the general consensus among early Christians.  Summarizing Christian doctrine he argued (1) the universe is not eternal, but was created by God, (2) earth and heaven have the same physical properties, (3) there is only one God (the stars, for instance, are not deities).  Significantly, Philoponus also developed theories of light, impetus, space and place, and matter.  Among other things, he challenged the dominant belief that heavier objects fall faster than lighter objects, challenging one of the fundamental premises of Aristotelian physics.

Isidore of Seville,  (560-636)

More typical than Philoponus was Isidore, Bishop of Seville in the early 7th Century.  He gathered together an encyclopedia of all of the worldly wisdom of his time, the Etymologiae.   Isidore’s work was an attempt to summarize everything the bishop thought anyone might want (or ought) to know.  He covers topics from grammar and rhetoric to the earth and the cosmos, buildings, metals, war, ships, humans, animals, medicine, law, religions, and the hierarchies of angels and saints.  He drew extensively on Greek and Roman writers rather than making any new observations himself.  However, unlike the Greeks, who recorded what they observed in the world, Isidore began with the authority of the Bible.  In his literal reading of the Bible, then, he modified the Greek texts to describe an earth-centered (geocentric) universe in which the sun revolved around the earth.  This was bounded by a revolving sphere on which the stars were fixed.

From Genesis 3, he believed Eden was still  in existence, guarded by cherubim and walls of fire, containing a spring which was the common source of the Nile (Gehon), Ganges (Pishon), Tigris, and Euphrates Rivers.  Isidore believed that Eden, being pure and holy, must have been spared destruction and still existed.  Like most early Christians, Isidore was less concerned with what we would call “scientific accuracy” than spiritual allegory.  Isidore believed the spiritual meaning – whether in Scripture or the natural world – was critically important knowledge; the material, physical reality was of little or no value.  The Bible, therefore, was a rich source of theological truth, but was not about the physical nature of the universe.

Bede (673-735)

The early English monk, Bede, is best known for his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. He also wrote De Natura Rerum (On the Nature of Things), a natural history probably based on Isidore’s Etymolgies but with Bede’s own observations and theorizations interwoven.  Bede, as a theologian, scholar, and teacher, wrestles with how Biblical history connected to natural history and the history of the peoples of the earth.  Bede explores the cosmos downwards from the heavens, through the atmosphere, to the oceans and rivers of earth.  However unlike Isidore, Bede does wrestle with new topics, immediately relevant to himself and his Northumbrian pupils, such as the cause of tides and reflections on why the ocean remains salty when freshwater rivers continuously flow into it.  Bede was a careful observer of his environment, recording and measuring what was happening, then theorizing about why things are the way they are.  He also conducted rudimentary experiments to verify his theories.

Bede, Isidore, and other early Christian scholars assumed as a matter of common knowledge that Aristotle’s basic elements (earth, air, fire, and water) was true.  They also believed, based on Aristotle and their interpretation of Scripture, that the earth was the centre of the universe.  Apart from the practical need to understand their immediate environment, they saw no need to question basic Aristotelian cosmology, understanding of matter, or physics.

I am thankful for sabbatical time from my congregation and a Pastoral Study Project Grant from the Louisville Institute to support my research.