Science and Faith: The Middle Ages

Contrary to popular caricatures of the “Dark Ages,” natural philosophy – “science” – was valued through the Middle Ages.  Formal education was centred in monastic institutions and cathedral schools (including the first great universities such as the University of Bologna,  University of Paris, and Oxford and Cambridge Universities).  Teaching theology was the core purpose of these schools.  The universities were established to train people for ecclesiastical offices, to clarify and defend orthodox doctrine, to establish church and canon law, and to further the legal rights of the church.

Theology was “The Queen of the Sciences” – other subjects, including natural philosophy, existed primarily to help with theological thought.  But natural philosophy was still an important area for active investigation.  Historian Peter Dear comments, “Learning about God by learning what he has made, and understanding the whys and wherefores of its fabric, was seen by many as an eminently pious exercise” (Revolutionizing the Sciences, p.15).

The  teaching of natural philosophy in the early Middle Ages was dominated by the writings of scholars like Isidore and Bede, by growing accessibility to earlier European writers like Aristotle, Euclid, Archimedes, Ptolemy, and Galen, and Arab writers such as al-Farabi, al-Farghani, Ibn Sina, Jabir ibn Aflah, and al-Khwarizmi (all translated into Latin by scholars like Gerard of Cremona by the end of the 12th century).  Aristotle’s writings continued to be particularly influential in medieval Europe.

Individuals and other contributions of note:
Robert Grosseteste (1175-1253)

Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln, was a theologian and scientist, writing extensively in both areas.  He articulated the concept of controlled experiments, instrumental in the later development of the scientific method.  Drawing on the best of Aristotle, he argued for a dual path of scientific reasoning: generalizing from particular observations into a universal law, and then back from universal laws to predict specific results. Grosseteste also developed the concept of the subordination of the sciences.  For example, when looking at geometry and optics, optics is subordinate to geometry because optics depends on geometry.  Focusing his research on light, Grosseteste concluded that mathematics is the highest of all sciences and the basis for all others.  Grosseteste explicitly understood a  close connection between wisdom about nature and wisdom about God:  “According to truly wise men, every notice of truth is useful in the explanation and understanding of theology” (cited in David Hutchings and Tom McLeish,  Let there be Science, p. 45).

Albertus Magnus (1200-1280)

A German Dominican friar, Albertus studied at the universities of Padua and Bologna and taught at the University of Paris before eventually founding the University of Cologne.  Albertus commented extensively on Aristotle’s works and wrote prolifically himself on topics such as logic, theology, botany, geography, astronomy, astrology, mineralogy, alchemy, zoology, physiology, justice, law, friendship, and love.  Among other things, Albertus provides an elaborate demonstration of the sphericity of the earth; his views on this subject were influential in the voyages of Columbus.  He emphasized experimentation as well as investigation, but he respected authority and tradition so much that many of his investigations or experiments were unpublished.  According to Daniel Kennedy, Albertus would often keep silent about many issues such as astronomy, physics and such because he feared his theories were too advanced for the time in which he was living.  In De Mineralibus, Albertus writes, “The aim of natural philosophy (science) is not simply to accept the statements of others, but to investigate the causes that are at work in nature.”  Albertus was declared patron saint of natural scientists in 1941 by Pope Pius XII.

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)

A student of Albertus in Paris, Aquinas followed Albertus to Cologne, before returning to Paris to teach.  While more specifically a theologian than Albertus, Thomas is recognized as a strong proponent of natural theology, the conviction that the existence of God can be established based on reason and ordinary experience of nature.  Reason, he argued, is found in God, and therefore revealed in his creation.  Aquinas was strongly influenced by Aristotle and adopted his cosmological perspectives.  Aquinas did wrestle with some of the literalistic biblical interpretation popular in his day, including interpretations of the creation narrative in Genesis.  Aquinas argues one should neither assert that something false is in Scripture, nor should one insist upon a particular meaning to the exclusion of others that contain the truth and that fit the “circumstances of the letter.”  What he meant by this is that we must recognize that in Genesis Moses was adjusting his speech to the capacity of his audience:  he describes how things appear to be rather than how they actually are.

The Condemnations of 1277

One of the best things for the development of observation and critical thinking about the natural world may actually have been the “Condemnations” delivered to the University of Paris.  On March 7, 1277, the Bishop of Paris, Étienne Tempier, prohibited the teaching of 219 philosophical and theological theses of Aristotle and Aquinas in the University of Paris, on pain of excommunication.  On the one hand, these condemnations dramatically restricted academic freedom.  On the other hand, because some of Aristotle’s more religious and philosophical teachings were banned. the Condemnations also may have finally broken the influence of Aristotle’s philosophy, astronomy, and physics.   The Condemnations encouraged academics seriously to begin to question the Earth-centered cosmology and four element worldview advocated by Aristotle and Aquinas, and almost universally accepted throughout Europe.  While scholars debate the actual extent of the  influence of the Condemnations, they likely had a considerable effect, by allowing scholars to explore and investigate more possibilities than strict adherence to the teachings of Aristotle.   “The condemnation saved science from dogmatic Aristotelianism,” writes physicist Steven Weinberg, “while the lifting of the condemnations saved science from dogmatic Christianity” (To Explain the World, p.132).

Thomas Bradwardine (1290-1349)

A cleric, physicist, and mathematician, Thomas Bradwardine, was part of a group of scholars at Merton College, Oxford, known as the Oxford Calculators.  They first formulated the properties of uniformly accelerated motions, centuries before Galileo.  Bradwardine and his compatriots also began to use mathematical terms to describe the laws of nature.  For Bradwardine and his colleagues, no conflict existed between the ways in which mathematics helped explain the world and their faith in a God who created and sustained His world in an orderly way.

Jean Buridan (1295–1363)

Buridan, a French priest and rector of the University of Paris, was an empiricist:  he made careful observations about natural phenomena and then tried to draw general conclusions from them.  Unlike Aristotle, however, he was more careful with his measurements and more modest in his theories, leading to greater accuracy.   Studying projectile motion, he developed the concept of impetus or momentum provided by the thrower (foreign to Aristotle’s thought), the first step toward the modern concept of inertia.  He argued that God gave the planets impetus, setting them in motion.  This notion of God as the One who established and set in motion the cosmos, then largely let it function on its own, continues to be influential throughout the history of Christianity and science, popularized in the notion of a “watchmaker God” by Newton and Descartes.

Others of note …

Some other medieval Christian natural philosophers are:

  • Roger Bacon (1219-1292), an English natural philosopher and Franciscan friar who placed considerable emphasis on the study of nature through empirical methods.
  • Albert of Saxony (1320–1390), Bishop of Halberstadt in Saxony (Germany, was a student of Buridan,  and expanded on Buridan’s notions of impetus and motion in his writings on physics and logic.
  • Nicole Oresme (died 1382 ), also a students of Buridan, became Bishop of Lisieux after earnign a doctorate in theology.   Oresme discussed a range of evidence for and against the daily rotation of the Earth on its axis. From astronomical considerations, he maintained that if the Earth were moving and not the heavens, all the movements that we see in the heavens that are computed by the astronomers would appear exactly the same as if the spheres were rotating around the Earth.  Like Aquinas, he rejected some of the oppressive biblical literalism of his day, concluding that the texts that speak of the sun moving around the Earth “conforms to the customary usage of popular speech” and are not to be taken literally.
  • Henry of Langenstein, also known as Henry of Hesse the Elder (1325-1397), was a philosopher, theologian and mathematician in Hesse (Germany).
  • Nicholas of Cusa (1401–1464), a German philosopher, theologian, jurist, and astronomer.   A free thinker, he posited that the earth is a star like other stars, is not the centre of the universe, is not at rest, nor are its poles fixed.   He is also credited with the idea of taking a person’s pulse in medical treatment.  Challenging Aquinas, he believed you could know God with more than reason with a “divine human mind.”
  • Johannes Müller von Königsberg, better known as Regiomontanus (1436-1476), a German mathematician and astronomer, whose theories were instrumental in the development of Copernican heliocentrism.
  • Alessandro Achillini (1463-1512), an Italian physician who wrote extensively on anatomy and the human body,  results of his dissections.  He began studies to be a priest before switching to medicine, but remained an active theologian throughout his life  contributing to two General Congresses of the Franciscan Order.
  • Girolamo Fracastoro (1476-1553), an Italian physician, poet, and scholar in mathematics, geology and astronomy.

In conclusion, Alfred North Whitehead claims that, contrary to popular opinion, Christianity is the mother of science because of “the medieval insistence on the rationality of God.”  Because of the confidence of the early scientists in this rationality, they had an “inexpungable belief that every detailed occurrence can be correlated with its antecedents in a perfectly definite manner, exemplifying general principles. Without this belief the incredible labours of scientists would be without hope.”  That may be an exaggeration, but it certainly is true that medieval scholars were supportive of both natural philosophy (“science”) and Christian theology.  They were able to hold both in dynamic tension

Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards argue:  “Since they believed that God is one and that human beings are created in God’s image, medieval Christians and Jews could expect nature to have a sort of unity (to be a universe) and to be accessible to the human mind. These ideas, brought to fruition by interaction with the Greeks, were the seedbed from which natural science slowly grew. It’s hardly a coincidence that science emerged in the time and place where these many factors converged. Although they are now forgotten, modern science draws on the interest of specific theological convictions.” (in The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos is Designed for Discovery)

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