Protestantism And The Emergence Of The Natural Sciences

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To some, the notion of any positive link between religion and science seems highly improbable from the outset. Surely science and religion have always been locked in mortal combat? Yet the stereotype of the "warfare of science and religion" is a product of the social conditions of the late nineteenth century and is now regarded as historically unac-ceptable.50 The interaction of science and religion is far too complex and interesting to be represented in such a simplistic, inaccurate way. The massive advances made in the history of science now allow the early relationship of science and Protestantism to be seen in a much more persuasive light.51

It is often noted that the emergence of the natural sciences is specifically linked with the Christian intellectual environment of western Europe. Less obvious, however, is a theoretical explanation for this that is firmly anchored to the historical evidence. A good case can be made for arguing that the Christian doctrine of creation affirmed that the universe was regular and ordered and that the study of nature was an indirect way of recognizing and honoring the divine wisdom, as seen in the order of things.

In recent years, however, a growing body of scholarly work has emerged arguing that the decisive contribution to the emergence of the natural sciences came not from Christianity in general but from Protestantism in particular. A major factor in this argument concerns changes in how the Bible was interpreted, a process in which Protes tantism played a strategic role.52 The fundamental change emerged in the first years of Protestantism, whose new approach to the biblical text brought about a hermeneutical revolution that led to a new approach to natural objects. This arose from the new meaning that approach lent to the old and religiously appealing "two books" metaphor: God as the author of both a "book of words" (the Bible) and a "book of works" (nature).53

Early Christian writers were well aware that the "book of nature" could be "read" in various ways. The great Alexandrian theologian Origen held that the visible world is invested with symbols that, if correctly interpreted, teach the diligent observer about God. To understand these, however, the reader needed to penetrate beyond the material appearances of the creatures and discover their deeper and more profound meanings. The same attitude was adopted toward reading the Bible, which was widely held to possess a superficial "literal" or "historical" sense as well as deeper symbolic meanings accessible to discerning readers. Both the Bible and nature possessed deeper symbolic meanings.

In the Middle Ages, these symbolic meanings tended to be given the greater weight. Natural objects were understood in terms of how they fitted into a complex web of theological and spiritual symbolism, rather than being treated as "natural" objects in their own right. Similarly, the allegorical reading of the Bible was held to disclose deeper truths than might be possible by a literal reading of the text.

It is at this point that the significance of Protestantism can be appreciated. Although Luther and early Protestants were fully aware of the importance of symbolic and spiritual meanings of texts, they emphasized literal or historical readings.54 What, they asked, was the natural sense of a biblical passage? This way of reading the book of scripture led, when transferred to reading the book of nature, to a way of engaging with the natural order that emphasized a direct, "natural" account of things. The new hermeneutical strategies promoted by the first Protestants were thus of central importance in establishing the conditions that made the emergence of modern science possible.

This literalist mentality toward the Bible was transposed into an insistent empiricism in the field of science. Both religious and scientific truth were held to arise from the immediate, literal sense of what met the human eye. No professional intermediaries, sacred or secular, were required in either case. Science and religion alike were democratized. In his History of the Royal Society (1667), Thomas Sprat perceptively remarked that, just as there were two "books," so there were also two "reformations," each prizing direct engagement with God's two books without the need for scholars or priests.

This emerging tendency to see nature as "natural" was linked with the Protestant hostility toward images, which further reinforced the demise of the symbolic conceptions of the natural order. Protestant iconoclasm deeply distrusted objects that were asserted to have significance as religious symbols. The same line of thought that held that human artifacts could not mediate or symbolize the divine led to natural objects and phenomena being stripped of their symbolic associa-tions—and hence allowed to become objects of scientific investigation.

This theme of the "desacralization" or "disenchantment" of nature has been studied in depth by scholars of the early modern period who have noted its implications for the emergence of the natural sci-ences—and also for secularism and atheism. Peter Berger's analysis of the role of Protestantism in causing secularization deserves mention at this point.55 For Berger, Protestantism can be thought of as having caused "an immense shrinkage in the scope of the sacred in reality." Protestants did not see themselves as living in a world that was "ongo-ingly penetrated by sacred beings and forces." Instead, they understood their world to be "polarized between a radically transcendent divinity and a radically 'fallen' humanity" that was devoid of any sacred qualities or connections. Catholicism had contained secularizing forces through its deeply symbolic understanding of the natural world and humanity's place within it. Without realizing what it was doing, Protestantism, for Berger, opened the floodgates of the forces that would shape modernity and ultimately cause Protestantism such grief in its heartlands.

Yet Protestantism created a new motivation—or perhaps, some might argue, enhanced an existing one—for the scientific study of nature. A persistent theme throughout the works of John Calvin was that the wisdom of the invisible and intangible God might be discerned and studied through his works—such as the created order. Calvin thus commended—and even ventured to express some little jealousy of— natural scientists, who were able to experience and appreciate the beauty and wisdom of God through what God had created and molded.

This fundamental motivation for the scientific study of nature has since pervaded Protestantism. It can be seen in many confessional documents of the Reformed church in western Europe. For example, the Belgic Confession affirmed that nature is set "before our eyes as a most beautiful book, in which all creatures, great and small, are like so many characters leading us to contemplate the invisible things of God" (2). The trajectory of thought could not be clearer: reading the "book of nature" enhances our appreciation of what is known of God through the "book of scripture."

Others have noted that the Protestant motivation for studying science was not limited to factors that emerged as significant during the sixteenth century. In 1938 the sociologist Robert Merton (1910-2003) suggested that certain types of Protestantism played a significant role in consolidating a scientific culture in seventeenth-century England. At the heart of the "Merton thesis" is a variation of Max Weber's famous theory concerning Protestantism and the rise of the "spirit of capitalism." The Protestant ethos—especially that found in English Puritanism and German Pietism—stimulated scientific research by giving it a religious dimension.56

In our discussion thus far, we have emphasized that changing fashions in the interpretation of the Bible underlay, at least to some extent, the rise of the natural sciences in western Europe. This in itself is an important witness to the importance of the Protestant enterprise in that it demonstrates that the reexamination of traditional interpretations of the Bible often stimulated new ways of envisaging and investigating the natural world.

Yet there is more—considerably more—than this to the relationship between the natural sciences and Protestant approaches to biblical interpretation. In the view of a growing number of Protestant theologians and scientists, especially during the seventeenth century, the natural sciences offered a means of providing the church with the best possible system of biblical interpretation. Might the manner in which the scientist interpreted the book of nature provide a paradigm for the way in which the theologian interpreted the book of scripture?

Although it has become something of a scholarly habit to speak of the "scientific revolution" of the early modern period, this expression reflects the perspective of today's scholars. At the time, contemporary observers often spoke of the emergence of the natural sciences as a "reformation," and they drew an explicit parallel between the reformations in religion and science. Using the imagery of "God's two books" of nature and the Bible, it was easy to suggest that the remarkable successes and advances made in the interpretation of the former might also assist with the cognate biblical undertaking.57 Might the somewhat precarious enterprise of biblical interpretation be placed upon a new, rigorous intellectual foundation firmly grounded in the order of things?

It was an idea that entranced many, including Isaac Newton. Yet its appeal to the wider Protestant community soon paled as it became clear that this new method of biblical interpretation led into the byways of heterodoxy. Newton's reformation in science-based biblical interpretation led him to reject the Trinity, although he was careful not to draw attention to this fact during his lifetime.58 The new strategies seemed to lead to deist readings of the Bible and were treated with growing suspicion by orthodox Protestant writers.

It is thus important to note that the issue of heterodoxy makes the link between Protestantism and the scientific revolution more com-plex.59 Earlier, we noted that Protestantism is thought to have emerged in part because of the intellectual turbulence of the early sixteenth century, when new options for understanding the world of culture and nature were being eagerly explored and evaluated. Many of those Protestants who were at the forefront of the scientific movement were of questionable theological orthodoxy. Newton, for example, was associated with anti-trinitarianism and Arianism, both of which could be accommodated without difficulty to his system of natural philosophy.60 Joseph Priestley, the discoverer of oxygen, saw scientific advance as a means of securing religious reform—including the revision of traditional theology along more rational lines.61

The history of the Protestant interaction with the emerging natural sciences is thus neither simple nor uniformly positive. To understand the complexity of the interaction, we shall consider two landmark areas of debate in which Protestantism found itself in an ambivalent relationship with the sciences—the Copernican controversies of the sixteenth century and the Darwinian controversies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

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