Science and Faith: The Reformation and Scientific Revolution

With access to more scholarship and growing knowledge, more and more people began to question everything from church order to social relations, and from political power to established technologies.  Moving beyond Aristotle’s Earth-centered model, people began to conceptualize the universe in new, deeper ways as Columbus, De Gama, and Cabot expanded people’s world and worldview.  The motivation for these thinkers was to understand God better through understanding His creation better.  Rather than seeing their discoveries as challenging their faith in God, in fact their research affirmed their belief in a creative, rational, loving God.

During this era of ecclesiastical and theological reformation, social and political change, and technological advancement, many people sensed new freedoms of religion, thought, and personal opportunity.  They felt free to explore alternatives to inherited understandings of religion, politics, philosophy, and social order. 

Natural  Philosophers were breaking free from the preconceived ideas of Greek philosophy.  They spoke of submitting their ideas about the universe to the Book of Nature, just as they submitted all matters of faith to the Book of Scripture.  Since God was the author of both Creation and the Bible, there could be no conflict between them.  Any apparent conflicts had to arise from human misunderstanding.  As Galileo wrote,  “the world is the work and the Scriptures the word of the same God.” Kepler expressed it like this:  “The tongue of God and the finger of God cannot clash.”  Francis Bacon, one of the proponents of this new approach in England, said, “Let no man think or maintain that a man can search too far or be too well studied in the Book of God’s Word or in the Book of God’s Works.”  (FYI this quote appeared opposite the title page of Darwin’s original Origin of the Species).

These changes are often referred to as “the scientific revolution,” a phrase both lauded and criticized by historians.  Many of the developments and discoveries of later centuries emerged naturally from the theories and research of previous generations.  Some of the “new” natural philosophers/scientists were still struggling to leave behind Aristotelian and Platonic models.  However as contemporary Nobel Prize winning physicist, Steven Weinberg notes, “I am convinced that the scientific revolution marked a real discontinuity in intellectual history.  I judge this from the perspective of a contemporary working scientist.  With a few bright Greek exceptions, science before the sixteenth century seems to me to be very different  from what I experience in my own work, or what I see in the work of my colleagues …  In physics and astronomy after the seventeenth century I feel at home.  I recognize something very like the science of my own times: the search for mathematically expressed impersonal laws that allow precise predictions of a wide range of phenomena, laws validated by the comparisons of these predictions with observation and experiment”   (To Explain the World, p.146).

Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543)

“Whatever the scientific revolution was or was not,” Weinberg writes, “it began with Copernicus” (To Explain the World, p. 148).  Nicolaus Copernicus is most famous as a mathematician and astronomer who formulated a sun-centered, rather than an earth-centered model of the universe (heliocentrism) – but his doctorate was in church canon law.   Most astronomers, steeped in Aristotle’s earth-centered universe, like Christoph Clavius and Tycho Brahe argued against Copernicus’ sun-centered solar system.  Copernicus’ scientific arguments, however, were compelling.

Several theologians of the day, emphasizing the authority of a rigid biblical literalism, disputed Copernicus’ theory.  Roman Catholic scholars like Giovanni Maria Tolosani  and Francesco Ingoli, and early Protestants like Martin Luther and John Calvin, believed that the Bible taught the sun revolved around the Earth.   In Scripture it clearly states “the sun rises” and “the sun sets.”  In a letter to Pope Paul III, Copernicus responded to his critics that, “If perchance there should be foolish speakers who, together with those ignorant of all mathematics, will take it upon themselves to decide concerning these things, and because of some place in the Scriptures wickedly distorted to their purpose, should dare to assail this my work, they are of no importance to me, to such an extent do I despise their judgment as rash.”

For Copernicus, God was personally responsible for all the activity in the heavens and his work was an extension of his Christian faith:  “So vast, without any question, is the divine handiwork of the most excellent Almighty” (quoted by Gerald Holton, The Advancement of Science and Its Burdens, p. 232).

The predictable, mathematical regularity he observed in the movements of the planets was, for him, a manifestation of the faithfulness of a loving Creator.  Rather than threatening his Christian faith, Copernicus understood the expanding wonders of the universe he observed affirming his belief in God:   “To know the mighty works of God, to comprehend His wisdom and majesty and power; to appreciate, in degree, the wonderful workings of His laws, surely all this must be a pleasing and acceptable mode of worship to the Most High, to whom ignorance cannot be more grateful than knowledge” (quoted in Francis Collins, The Language of God (2006), pp. 230-31).

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642)

Galileo was a physicist, engineer, philosopher, mathematician and astronomer.  As a physicist he studied pendulums, falling bodies, and light.  As an engineer, he improved the military compass, developed the thermometer, and built telescopes and microscopes.  As he constructed larger and large telescopes, Galileo became more and more intrigued with astronomy.  From 1609 on he observed craters and mountains on the moon, spots on the sun (itself apparently rotating), the four largest moons orbiting Jupiter, and the phases of Venus similar to those of the moon.  Galileo, building on the work of Copernicus, recognized that the old Aristotelian (and official church) understanding of an earth-centered universe could not be substantiated by empirical observation.

Galileo published his observations and explanations in 1610, creating instant controversy.  In the midst of the ongoing Protestant Reformation emphasizing the authority of Scripture and Scripture alone, his theories seemed to challenge biblical and church authority.  In a long letter of self-defense, Galileo argued that there did not need to be a conflict between Scripture and what we now call “science.”   He reasoned that (1) the biblical authors accommodated their use of language and imagery to the “capacity of ordinary people” and were not trying to be scientifically accurate, (2) Scripture can be interpreted at many levels and when apparent conflict with observations occurs, the actual observation must be true, (3) Scripture’s primary message is about salvation and topics that are beyond human reason, thus it does not have much to say about things observable by human reason, (4) the God who has given us intelligence and senses would want us to use them, especially in domains (like astronomy) barely mentioned in Scripture, and (5) we should be careful to emphasize a particular interpretation of Scripture that may later be proven incorrect.

For a variety of reasons – political, theological, and scientific – after almost 20 years of conflict with Roman Catholic authorities, on June 22, 1633, Galileo was found “vehemently suspect of heresy” and “erroneous in faith” (a helpful summary, “The Galileo Affair,” by Ernan McMullin).  He ended his days under house arrest.

In a fascinating letter to Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany, Galileo thoroughly outlines his convictions about his science and his Christian faith, seeing no irreconcilable problems:

  • Some scholars “make a shield of their hypocritical zeal for religion. They go about invoking the Bible, which they would have minister to their deceitful purposes. Contrary to the sense of the Bible and the intention of the holy Fathers, if I am not mistaken, they would extend such authorities until even in purely physical matters — where faith is not involved — they would have us altogether abandon reason and the evidence of our senses in favor of some biblical passage, though under the surface meaning of its words this passage may contain a different sense.”
  • “Nothing physical which sense-experience sets before our eyes, or which necessary demonstrations prove to us, ought to be called in question (much less condemned) upon the testimony of biblical passages which may have some different meaning beneath their words. For the Bible is not chained in every expression to conditions as strict as those which govern all physical effects; nor is God any less excellently revealed in Nature’s actions than in the sacred statements of the Bible.”
  • “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can attain by them.”
  • “I would say here something that was heard from an ecclesiastic of the most eminent degree: ‘The intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes.'”

Despite this quarrels with and opposition from church authorities, Galileo understood his studies to understanding the work of the Creator.  He remained a devout Roman Catholic until he died.

Johannes Kepler (1571-1630)

Johannes Kepler, a contemporary of Galileo’s, was also a mathematician and astronomer.  He is best know for his laws of planetary motion.   More explicitly than Galileo, Kepler incorporated religious arguments and reasoning into his work, motivated by his belief that God had created the world according to an intelligible plan which human beings, through their use of God’s gift of reason, could discover.  Among Kepler’s many reflections on his faith and his work are these:

  • “I am merely thinking God’s thoughts after him.”  
  • “I wanted to become a theologian; for a long time I was unhappy.  Now, behold, God is praised by my work even in astronomy.”
  • “Here we are concerned with the book of nature, so greatly celebrated in sacred writings.  It is in this that Paul proposes to the Gentiles that they should contemplate God like the Sun in water or in a mirror.  Why then as Christians should we take any less delight in its contemplation, since it is for us with true worship to honor God, to venerate him, to wonder at him?  The more rightly we understand the nature and scope of what our God has founded, the more devoted the spirit in which that is done.”
  • “Since we astronomers are priests of the highest God in regard to the book of nature, it befits us to be thoughtful, not of the glory of our minds, but rather, above else, of the glory of God.”
René Descartes (1596-1650)

Descartes, most famous for his contributions to philosophy, was also a mathematician and natural philosopher.   He developed the Cartesian coordinate system to locate points in space as a set of numbers and allowing  algebraic equations to be expressed as geometric shapes in a two- or three-dimensional coordinate system.  Descartes was a devout Roman Catholic and wrote his Meditations on First Philosophy as an apologetic defense of his faith.  In it he  proposes two proofs for God’s existence.  Some of his theological thinking was unconventional and revolutionary:  he essentially shifted the authoritative guarantor of truth from God to humanity, arguing individuals makes their own laws and take their own stand.  This radical shift in theological emphasis would pave the way for later theological thought, including the religious emphasis on individualism and personal experience in nineteenth century revivalism.

Robert Boyle (1627-1691)

Regarded as the the first modern chemist, Robert Boyle was an influential natural philosopher, physicist, chemist, and proponent for the modern experimental scientific method.  A devout Anglican, Boyle devoted much time to theology, gave large donations to support mission work in Asia, helped finance biblical translations into various languages including his native Irish, and funded an apologetic lecture series.  Among his quotes:

  • Doubtless, it shews the wisdom of God, to have so fram’d things at first, that there can seldom or never need any extraordinary interposition of his power; or the employing from, time to time, an intelligent overseer, to regulate, assist, and control the motions of matter.”
  • “The subsequent course of nature, teaches, that God, indeed, gave motion to matter; but that, in the beginning, he so guided the various motion of the parts of it, as to contrive them into the world he design’d they should compose; and establish’d those rules of motion, and that order amongst things corporeal, which we call the laws of nature. Thus, the universe being once fram’d by God, and the laws of motion settled, and all upheld by his perpetual concourse, and general providence; the same philosophy teaches, that the phenomena of the world, are physically produced by the mechanical properties of the parts of matter; and, that they operate upon one another according to mechanical laws.”
  • “God is the author of the Universe and the free establisher of the laws of motion … the nature of this or that body is but the law of God prescribed to it.”
John Ray (1627-1705)

Ray, a botanist, zoologist and theologian was the first to define the biological term “species” and began the modern taxonomical system of organisms.  His work laid the foundation for Carl Linnaeus‘ work.  He also gave an early description of dendrochronology, dating trees by their rings.

A devout Christian and lay-preacher, Ray believed that contemplation of God’s creation was part of the duties of everyone on the Sabbath day.  Among his quotes:

  • There is no greater, at least no more palpable and convincing, argument of the existence of a Deity than the admirable art and wisdom that discovers itself in the make and constitution, the order and disposition, the ends and uses, of all the parts and members of this stately fabric of heaven and earth. For if in the works of art, as for example a curious edifice or machine, counsel, design, and direction to an end, appearing in the whole frame, and in all the several pieces of it, do necessarily infer the being and operation of some intelligent architect or engineer, why shall not also in the works of nature, that grandeur and magnificence, that excellent contrivance for beauty, order, use, etc., which is observable in them, wherein they do as much transcend the effects of human art as infinite power and wisdom exceeds finite, infer the existence and efficiency of an Omnipotent and All-wise Creator?
  • It may be part of our employment in eternity to contemplate the works of God, and give him the glory of his wisdom manifested in the creation.
  • Let us then consider the works of God, and observe the operations of his hands: let us take notice of and admire his infinite wisdom and goodness in the formation of them. 
Isaac Newton (1642-1727)

Born on Christmas Day, 1642, the year of Galileo’s death, Isaac Newton, was a profoundly influential physicist, mathematician and devout Christian (although he privately struggled with the concept of the Trinity).

His book Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), published in 1687, provided a the basis for understanding laws of motion and gravitation. Through his discussion of gravity he derived  Kepler’s laws of planetary motion from his mathematical description of gravity, and then using the same principles to account for the trajectories of comets, the tides, the equinoxes, and other phenomena.   Newton removed the last doubts that the sun – not the Earth – was the centre of of the solar system.  He also predicted that the Earth is shaped as an  oblate spheroid – it bulges at the Equator – later proven through precise measurements.  Newton also made important contributions to optics, and he shares credit with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz for the development of calculus.

As a member of the Anglican Church he was involved in distribution of Bibles to the poor and the construction of new churches.  He actually wrote more than a million words on the Bible and theological topics, more than he wrote on science. His well-worn Bible, with marginal notes in his own handwriting, is in the Wren Library of Trinity College, Cambridge.

Newton wrote:

  • “In default of any other proof, the thumb alone would convince me of the existence of a God.”
  • “It is the perfection of God’s works that they are all done with the greatest simplicity. He is the God of order and not of confusion. And therefore as they would understand the frame of the world must endeavor to reduce their knowledge to all possible simplicity, so must it be in seeking to understand these visions. “
  • “This most beautiful System of the Sun, Planets and Comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being. And if the fixed Stars are the centers of other like systems, these being form’d by the like wise counsel, must be all subject to the dominion of One; especially, since the light of the fixed Stars is of the same nature with the light of the Sun, and from every system light passes into all the other systems. And lest the systems of the fixed Stars should, by their gravity, fall on each other mutually, he hath placed those Systems at immense distances one from another …  This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all: And on account of his dominion he is wont to be called Lord God παντοκρáτωρ or Universal Ruler.”
  • “Godliness consists in the knowledge love & worship of God, Humanity in love, righteousness & good offices towards man.”
Gottfried Wilhelm (von) Leibniz (1646-1716)

Leibniz, a contemporary of Newton, is credited with developing calculus independently his English counterpart.  He was one of the most prolific inventors in the field of mechanical calculators, leading to the first mass-produced mechanical calculator.  He also refined the binary number system, which is the foundation of virtually all digital computers, proposed the earth has a molten core, suggested that biological organisms are the outcome of a combination of an infinite number of possible microstructures, studied comparative anatomy, catalogued fossils, urged doctors to ground their treatment in comparative observations and experiment rather than metaphysics, and theorized around consciousness and perception.

Leibniz was also a sincere Christian, writing theology as well as mathematics and physics.  In his Theodicy, Leibniz emphsizes his faith in a good, perfect God.  This world, he argued,  must be the best possible and most balanced possible world, because it was created by an all powerful and all knowing God.  Leibniz asserted that the truths of theology (religion) and natural philosophy (science) cannot contradict each other, since reason and faith are both “gifts of God.”

Like Newton and other Christian natural philosophers, Leibniz believed in a rational Creator, and in a rational, intelligible creation.  Because reason and faith must be reconcilable, any tenet of faith which could not be defended by reason must be rejected.  Leibniz addressed one of the great problems in faith:  if God is all good, all-wise, all-knowing, and all-powerful, why is there evil in the world?  Leibniz argued that while God is indeed unlimited in wisdom and power, his human creations, as creations, are limited both in their wisdom and in their will (power to act), thus can make poor choices because of their free will.  God, he contends, does not arbitrarily inflict pain and suffering on humans; rather he permits both moral evil (sin) and physical evil (pain and suffering).

As a Christian, Leibniz wrote a haunting fundamental question:  “Why is there anything at all rather than nothing whatsoever?”  This is a question that continues to challenge theists and atheists alike.

Leibniz  also wrote:

  • “In whatever manner God created the world, it would always have been regular and in a certain general order.  God, however, has chosen the most perfect, that is to say, the one which is at the same time the simplest in hypothesis and the richest in phenomena.”
  • “I do not believe that a world without evil, preferable in order to ours, is possible; otherwise it would have been preferred.  It is necessary to believe that the mixture of evil has produced the greatest possible good:  otherwise the evil would not have been permitted.”

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