Christianity and the Birth of Modern Science

Christianity and the Birth of Modern Science

 Stacy Trasancos

It is important for all Christians to know this story because it is part of our heritage. Christianity nurtured and helped modern science emerge as a formal discipline, intimately as a mother might help a child grow, mature, and become independent. So what does that mean? That the Church is the Mother of Science. Let’s unpack it.

We owe a Catholic priest, Fr. Stanley L. Jaki, theologian, physicist, historian, and philosopher our gratitude for piecing this story together with facts. In 1966 after earning doctoral degrees in theology in physics, Fr. Jaki published a 600-page volume detailing the history of physics using original sources available in the Firestone Library of Princeton University, back when 400-year-old books were out in the open. He titled the book The Relevance of Physics. Fr. Jaki also demonstrated with exhaustive historical research in his 1974 volume Science and Creation: From Eternal Cycles to an Oscillating Universe that science was born of Christianity. In 1987, Fr. Jaki was awarded the Templeton Prize for being “a leading thinker in areas at the boundary of science in theology.” Fr. Jaki’s facts are facts of the written word, facts of historical events, facts of cultural mindsets, and facts of Catholic dogma.

The story goes like this. Ever since Genesis 1:1 was written 4-6,000 years ago to tell of the origin of the universe and the founding of the Hebrew nation, there has been a literary codification of the concept of a Creator and creation out of nothing. We take this theology of creation for granted, but it unites all of Judaism and Christianity, and it is also the world view that gave rise to, and as I will argue, sustains modern science as a legitimate work towards true progress for humanity. The universe is observed as something good, created from the beginning of time with order for us to study its laws.

All the other ancient religions viewed the universe through some lens of pantheism. Pantheism is a belief or philosophical theory that God is immanent in or identical with the universe; the doctrine that God is everything and everything is God. It is fundamentally nature-worship. Catholic teaching maintains that God the Creator of the universe operates in it, but there is an infinite difference in saying that God is the universe rather than God created the universe and holds everything in existence. The universe is not God; it is God’s creation, God’s handiwork, a distinction that puts science in its place as the study of the handiwork of God.

Like all cultures, ancient people searched for God. Creation is the first revelation, and so people noticed the cyclical regularity in nature, including days and nights, the rising and setting of the moon, sun and stars, and the intervals of seasons. They witnessed rhythms in life such as breathing, hearts beating, sleeping and waking, reproduction, and the life cycles of plants and animals. Pantheism, the idea that the universe is one big eternally cycling organism, is the only logical conclusion.

There were various myths:

The Egyptians pictured parts of the world as animal gods. Anubis was a god with a man’s body and a jackal’s head. Apis was a sacred bull born of a virgin cow impregnated by another god, Ptah. Bast was a cat goddess, Taueret a hippopotamus goddess.

The goal of Taoism in ancient China was to merge into the rhythm of cosmic cycles. Confucius taught that the individual should seek what is in himself and leave external things to their natural destiny.

The Hindus held the doctrine of the atman, the Indian expression for “first principle,” which taught that the individual self should strive to lay hold of the ultimate Soul of the Universe, the Atman, who bred himself. This world-soul is understood as an endless cycle of births and decays with no starting or ending points.

For the Babylonians, the Enuma Elish was a portrayal of personified forces engaged in bloody battles. They thought that the mother goddess, Tiamat, was dismembered to form the sky, Earth, water, and air.

It might seem that nature worship is conducive to science. After all, people should want to know more about nature if nature generates gods. But think of being born into a world view of pantheism. If time runs in endless circles, then your life is but part of an endless cycle that you cannot change. Under this view, there can be no progress, for progress implies moving forward not in circles. Furthermore, think of how pantheism would affect the cultural desire for scientific enterprise. What motivation is there to understand and control the laws of physics if it is impossible to change a person’s lot in life?

The history of science is a human story though, and those cultures all made contributions even if they did not give rise to modern science. Fr. Jaki reviewed them all: Egypt, Mesopotamia, pre-Columbian America, China, India, Babylon, Greece, and Arabia.

The Greeks came closer to a birth of science as a self-sustaining discipline than any other culture.

Jaki wrote in Science and Creation (p. 104) that the “extraordinary feats of Aristotle in biology were in a sense responsible for his failure in physics.” Because he thought of the world as an organism, Aristotle thought all things have a soul and seek a final cause. Be it celestial body, man, animal, or object, all motion, he thought, is directed toward what the soul most desires. This continuous resort to animistic simile was compatible with biology, but not with the physics of inanimate matter.

The “cosmic treadmill” belief survived among the Muslims who followed Aristotle’s orthodoxy into the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Both the Bible and the Koran teach that God created the world with a beginning in time. Muslim philosophers, however, adopted the works of the Greeks without refuting pantheism, even though this view was in conflict with the Muslim theology. Without the accompanying dogmas of the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation to safeguard a teleological progression from an absolute beginning to an end, a “beginning” in time can easily be taken for a beginning of a new cycle. The Muslim scholars advanced far in the biological sciences, for the same reason Aristotle advanced in them, but they did not bring about a scientific revolution. You could say this failure of Muslim science is a failure to reconcile science with religion.

That reconciliation would come from Christian scholars who, in adherence to the Christian Creed, rejected the teachings of the Greek scientific corpus which contradicted Christian dogma, particularly pantheism and the eternal cosmic cycle. You can find these refutations all through the early Church Fathers’ writings.

Let’s go back and compare the ancient Hebrews to the pantheistic religions. The Hebrews worshipped a Creator who created the Earth and all living things out of nothing. Recall that when the Israelites in Babylonian captivity hoped for the restoration of Jerusalem, God spoke to the prophet Jeremiah to remind him that God is faithful. God orders the day and night, and the heavens and the Earth, and he promised that the heirs to King David’s throne would include descendants as innumerable as “the hosts of heaven” and the “sand of the sea” (Jer 33:22). The nations were told to submit to God’s will and obey his commands because God’s covenant is as lasting as his covenant with nature.

God’s power in controlling the laws of nature is often mentioned in the Book of Isaiah. “Who has measured with his palm the waters, marked off the heavens with a span, held in his fingers the dust of the Earth, weighted the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance” (Is 40:12)? The Israelites believed that the law of God extended to all things—moral, societal, and natural, including the order and measure of physical objects and motion.

The Book of Wisdom was written in Alexandria around the first century BC as Jewish thinkers met Hellenistic learning. The wisdom literature addresses the prevalent polytheistic nature worship of the Greeks compared to the unique belief of creation ex nihilo of the Jewish people. They believed in one God who is Creator of the universe and source of all wisdom who “disposed all things by measure and number and weight” (Ws 11:21).

The same conviction that the world was created out of nothing by one God was defended in early Christianity as they communicated the Gospel to other cultures. Let’s take a look at those.

St. Justin Martyr (ca. AD 100–165) rejected this pantheistic view in his First Apology. “Stoics (a school of Greek philosophy) teach that even God himself shall be resolved into fire, and they say that the world is to be formed anew by this revolution; but we understand that God, the Creator of all things, is superior to the things that are to be changed.”

Athenagoras (ca. AD 133–190), another Church Father, taught that Christians “distinguished God from matter” and that “matter is one thing and God another, and that they are separated by a wide interval, for the Deity is uncreated and eternal.” He also taught that the world was “an instrument in tune, and moving in well-measured time,” and that God is the only one who deserved worship because he gave the world “its harmony, and strikes its notes, and sings the accordant strain.”

As Christianity spread rapidly throughout the Roman Empire, Christian beliefs about creation and fundamental characteristics of Greek science began to unite. Church Father Clement of Alexandria (died AD 215) taught where the first school of Christian thought emerged. He also refuted paganism and pantheism. In his Exhortation to the Greeks, Clement taught that their worship of idols bound the intellect to the blind forces of nature. “Why, pray, do you infect life with idols, imagining winds, air, fire, Earth, stocks, stones, iron, this world itself to be gods?” Clement urged for a more confident attitude toward nature, a view of a world created by a rational Creator.

The medieval Christian scholars purified the Greek scientific corpus.

Thierry of Chartres (1155) had no illusion about the difference between the Creator and creation. He explained the circular motion of the firmament and the stars as a projectile similar to how a “stone is thrown; its impetus is ultimately due to the hold of the thrower against something solid.” Classical physics was to be born of such a view towards naturalness of the heavens and this early impetus theory.

Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln (1168–1253) rejected the idea that the universe emanated from God. The role of the Creator was in the forefront of Grosseteste’s thinking, evidenced in his treatises, the “Hexaemeron” and the “De universitatis machina.” In these, Grosseteste forcibly rejected the Aristotelian idea that the world had no beginning in time. The central theme of Hexaemeron was the biblical theme that God is light, truly, essentially and not in the metaphorical sense. Both treatises document that Grosseteste’s scientific methodology depended on the Old Testament understanding of the Creator as a rational and personal planner, builder, and maintainer of the universe.

In Western Christendom, Albertus Magnus (St. Albert the Great, 1193–1280), was the first to comprehensively interpret Aristotle’s philosophy. Albertus rejected astrology and magic and instead argued for reason and investigation to go as far as possible. He wrote a complete encyclopedia of philosophical disciplines based on the Aristotelian texts for his students of the Dominican Order and began the part on natural sciences: “Overcome by the request of certain of these brethren we have undertaken this work first to the praise of Almighty God, who is the fountain of wisdom and the creator, ordered and governor of nature.”

St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) likewise granted a generous acceptance of the Aristotelian system to show respect for the scholarship of the time. His first major synthesis was the Summa Contra Gentiles (1257), which brought the authority of reason to bear on Muslim philosophy. Recall that Muslim philosophers did not effectively refute pantheism. St. Thomas began the Summa Contra Gentiles with the questions about the Creator and the search for truth. Aquinas departed from Aristotelic orthodoxy only where no compromise could be allowed by the Christian Creed, and in this spirit expressed that the rejection of the eternity of the world was a matter of faith in divine revelation and not a matter of demonstration or reason.

“The articles of faith cannot be proved demonstratively . . . By faith alone do we hold, and by no demonstration can it be proved, that the world did not always exist.”

Three years later, in 1277, the Bishop of Paris, Étienne Tempier (died 1279), issued a list of 219 condemned propositions relating to the Aristotelian texts that were irreconcilable to the Catholic worldview. These propositions served as a guide for the scholars at the University of Paris. Most of them dealt with the eternity of the world and creation.

As the Aristotelian texts, unchallenged by Greek or Muslim scholars, were accepted into Christendom, it could only have followed that theologians and philosophers of that time would seek to reconcile the contradictions. Jaki’s work has provided undeniable evidence that medieval faith in the predictability of nature was rooted in the theology of the “Maker of Heaven and Earth.”

Jaki named the “classical and most influential case” that represents the birth of modern science from Christianity, that of Fr. Jean Buridan (1300–1358), the French priest who took the concept of the impetus proposed by Thierry of Chartres two hundred years earlier and developed it further. Impetus theory led to the modern concept of inertia and paved the way for Isaac Newton’s first law of motion. It is instructive to consider Fr. Buridan’s refutation of Aristotelian physics.

Buridan was concerned with explaining the movement of bodies.

Aristotle’s On the Heavens proposed a serious error that went uncorrected for seventeen hundred years under the influences of pantheism. The Aristotelian theory of motion held that moving bodies naturally desire rest. When an object moved in any way other than according to its nature, Aristotle believed, a mover had to be in contact with the object.

The Greeks thought there were two kinds of bodies, celestial (divine) and terrestrial (natural). The celestial bodies were the bodies from the Moon upward. These heavenly bodies were in their most desired place as long as they were in contact with the Prime Mover. They moved in perfect circles in a divine substance called the ether. Thus, the heavenly realm moved in continuous circles because the bodies were in a perpetual contact with the Prime Mover. This doctrine was the basis of the eternal cycles called the Great Year in which the eternal cosmos emanates from the Prime Mover.

Likewise, the terrestrial bodies were thought to desire rest but towards the center of the Earth. If a mover, such as a person’s hand, ceased to move it, the rock fell straight to the earth and became suddenly at rest.

Aristotle coined the term antiperistasis to explain why the objects moved. The word means that there is a surrounding (peri) resistance (anti) caused by an unchanging equilibrium (stasis). In the heavens, the ether surrounded the bodies. As they parted the ether, it flowed in behind them to fill the void and maintain the equilibrium, thus pushing the objects along.

This concept explained projectile motion on Earth. Once the mover (the hand, for instance) throws the object and the object is no longer in contact with the mover, the surrounding air that resists the object (anti) is divided by the object and likewise impels the object along as air fills in the vacuum in the wake. A ball thrown on earth will be moved by antiperistasis, but the ball’s nature will also cause it to search for the ground. Thus, the motion is an arc, in much the way physics students today learn to treat both vertical and horizontal components of two-dimensional motion, with one major exception.

The pantheistic view of physics led Aristotle, and his followers, to conclude that if two bodies were dropped from the same height on earth, the one with twice the weight of the other one would fall twice as fast because it had twice the nature and twice the desire to seek its place. Aristotle writes this specifically in his On the Heavens, Book 1, Part 6. Simple observation proves otherwise. It is easily observed that two balls of different masses fall at the same rate of acceleration. But the hold of the pantheistic orthodoxy on the Greek mind prevented them from seeing it. This simple observation was not noticed or not admitted by the ancient Greeks or by the Muslims who followed Aristotle.

Fr. Buridan, however, rejected the doctrine of the Great Year and eternal cycles of the universe. In thinking scientifically, he pondered the cause of motion for heavenly and terrestrial bodies and appealed to common experience, judging Aristotle’s position to be unsatisfactorily solved.

Fr. Buridan gave the example of a child’s toy, the top. A top spins in place, so there is no vacuum left behind. No antiperistatic effect moves the top to continue spinning. Furthermore, if a cloth is placed over the top to block any movement of air, it continues to spin.

Buridan pointed out that if an arrow is sharpened at both ends, it still moves the same way it moves if the back end were blunt. If the motion were caused by the impulsion of the air moving in behind the arrow as it pierced the air, the arrow with a sharp posterior should not fly as far, but this is not observed.

Further, Buridan argued, common experience shows that when a person pushes his hand through the air, he does not feel the air behind his hand pushing it along.

Buridan concluded there must be another explanation, and he adopted the concept of impetus.

Impetus is what we now call a “force”. This force continues to move a stone after the hand throws it. The impetus continually decreases due to air resistance. The stone falls to the ground by a force called gravity. Further tying this reasoning to common experience, Buridan explained that impetus is the reason one who wishes to jump a longer distance takes a few steps back to run faster and drive himself farther, and why the jumper does not feel the air propelling him but rather the air in front of him resisting him against the force of his jump.

Finally, Buridan noted that the Bible does not claim that God had to keep his hand on the celestial bodies to maintain their motion. Buridan was confident that the motion of celestial bodies could be answered another way. “God, when He created the world, moved each of the celestial bodies as He pleased, and in moving them He impressed in them impetuses which moved them without His having to move them any more except by the method of general influence whereby He concurs as a co-agent in all things which take place.”

Buridan became the rector of the University of Paris in 1327 and taught there for over three decades until about 1360. In 1377, his theory was formally proposed by Nicole Oresme (1320–1325), was destined to be adopted by Albert of Saxony (1316–1390), then Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543), then Galileo Galilei (1564–1642), and furthered by Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1727), all Christians.  Hence, science was born in a Christian culture, on purpose.

The Muslim scholars failed to refute pantheism because there is a major difference in it and Christian monotheism—that of the clear distinction between the Creator and creation. Christian monotheism is Trinitarian and Incarnational. God is one God in three Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Christ is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Son, who became man. Therefore, Christ is also the Creator. In St. John’s Gospel, Christ is also called the Word, the Logos.

The Greeks also had a word for the logos in the pantheism universe: Monogenes, which in Latin is unigenitus. Because Catholics defended the divinity of Christ against the Arian heresy that denied the divinity of Christ, they formulated the word consubstantial, that Christ is the Son of God, fully God and fully human. The divinity of the Logos demands, therefore, that the universe created by the Father in the Son be fully logical, fully ordered as befits a truly divine Logos. Nature cannot be random.

Where the Greeks held an “only begotten” universe, Christians worshipped and worship still a flesh and blood being, Jesus of Nazareth, as the only begotten Son of God, which absolutely demands the refutation of pantheism – then and now. Either Jesus or the universe is only-begotten, and we do not worship nature. There is a certain scientific significance to the beginning of St. John’s Gospel:

This idea, this truth, that science was born of Christianity is professed every time we read the beginning of the Bible. It is throughout the Old Testament and the New Testament, sung in our hymns and remembered in our prayers. We all know it.

And don’t forget that God didn’t just create a universe for no reason. He created it as our home. He created us! “The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his ways, before he made any thing from the beginning” (Prov 8:22).

So, the next time you look at the stars or admire the trees, remember that your scientific curiosity is very human, that you were created to know God more so you can love Him more, and that by learning more about science, you stand in a line of a long tradition of Christians who saw science as a way to serve God better and hope to be with Him for all eternity in the next life.

In the next lectures, we will talk about modern science today and how to assess contemporary science in the light of faith – or if you are interested in science, how to lead this adolescent entity in need of its Mother towards a mature unity with philosophy and theology.