Science in Christian Perspective





From: JASA 16 (March 1964): 12-15.

Examination of the statements of Paul, Tertullian and Augustine reveals that the common belief that there has always been antagonism between scientific thought and Christanity is fallacious. Scrutiny of the lives of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo similarly reveals the falsehood of the conclusion that they were persecuted by the Church for their scientific views. The much-touted conflict did not begin until the latter half of the nineteenth century. The real source of the problem resides in three naive assumptions.

That there is a conflict between science and Christianity is accepted by many today. Indeed, one quite often hears that there has always been antagonism between science or protoscientific thought and religious thought. But specifically, we are faced with the relationship between science and Christianity. Some people trace the problem back to Galileo's time. Some go back to Copernicus and his theory of planetary motion. Others trace the attitude back to Augustine, Tertullian, or even the writings of the Apostle Paul. Let's go back to this beginning and see.


Paul wrote: ". . . the Lord knoweth the reasonings of the wise, that they are vain. Wherefore let no one glory in men." (I Cor. 3:20f.)l And again: "For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning will I bring to naught. Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?" (I Cor. 1:19f. cf. 1:17-2:16; 3:18.) Further, the only occurrence of "philosophy" in the New Testament is derogatory (Col. 2:8).

This has been taken to indicate that Christianity is totally opposed to any human being thinking, and that it is specifically opposed to that type of thinking which later gave rise to the modern sciences. But is this true? No! What Paul was opposing was the pride of man, which sets itself up as the judge of all things, which would make that which man cannot discover has not discovered-the ultimate criterion of truth. Paul was not against knowledge; he merely wanted a proper recognition of its place and purpose. Man's knowledge is useful only for time; God's revelation offers eternal life. Man's discoveries leave untouched the most important and basic problem of existence, his relationship to God.

We need to remember that it was this same Paul who wrote: ". . . whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honorable, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely,

* Revised version of a paper presented at the 18th Annual Convention of the ASA held at Westmont College, Santa Barbara, Calif., Aug. 19-23, 1963.

** Mr. Siemens Is Writer-Producer, Moody Institute of Science, and Lecturer in Philosophy, Los Angeles City College. He Is the author of Exploring Christianity.

whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things." (Phil. 4:8) This was written in a pre-scientific era, so it does not use the terms which specifically characterize our current outlook. Yet the terminology clearly indicates that anything that is worthy of consideration is open to the Christian, provided its limitations are kept in mind. Thus one cannot trace back an anti-intellectual bias to Paul, even though some who are anti-intellectual have claimed Pauline authority.

Next stop is at Tertullian, that early apologete. He is reported to have said, "Credo quia absurdum (I believe because it is absurd)." This kind of attitude obviously cuts one off from the down-to-earth rational empiricism of the practicing scientist. This statement is supposed to show that Christianity is anti-rational and ridiculous. But Tertullian never said credo quia absurdum. What he did say, speaking of the death of the Son of God, was: "It is to be believed because it does not fit" (ineptum, not absurdum).2 This is Tertullian's striking way of saying that the Gospel is such that it forces belief. A Greek might write that a god or goddess might have a son by a mortal. But he would be like Memnon, son of the goddess Eos or Aurora, a king and great warrior who, according to the legends, died gloriously in battle. But that a Jew would say that the Lord God had a Son, that this Son was a Galilean working man, that He died as a common criminal, this is so far from what men would consider a suitable career for a Son of God that such a tale would not have been invented.

True, the language that Tertullian used is extreme. But there is no evidence in this statement of TertulHan's that orthodox Christianity would oppose scientific thought.

What about Augustine, that giant of Christian thought, the one to whom both Luther and Calvin returned in their attempt to reform the church? It is possible to find passages in Augustine that attack the mathematicians and depreciate various secular studies.3 Some people have seized the statements about the mathematicians as evidence that Augustine opposed rational thought. These people are ignorant of the situation Augustine attacked. The mathematicians of his day were astrologers, practitioners of a superstition which Augustine rightly opposed.4

As to Augustine's depreciation of secular studies, the passage in which this occurs is part of a lengthy discourse on the understanding of Scripture. He notes, for example, that the study of astronomy is no help to the study of Scripture because there are practically no references to heavenly phenomena in the Scriptures, and because "by engaging the attention unprofitably [it] is a hindrance" to the study of Scripture. Further, it is liable to lead into astrology.5 This last was true in Augustine's time and many centuries later, as may be seen in the life of Kepler.

Almost immediately below, Augustine adds a note on the practical arts and sciences of his time, carpentry, medicine, agriculture and navigation. He says that the Christian needs only a superficial knowledge of them and then immediately says that he is speaking, not from the need of such arts, but only from the standpoint of understanding Scripture.6 Augustine then commends the work of scholars.7 It is true that he finally says that anything of value is to be found in Scripture.8 But this extreme statement is contradicted in the discussion preceding. It appears that the preacher was carried away with the importance of his subject until he exaggerated it beyond proper bounds. Elsewhere he notes that he was saved from the Manichean heresy by his recollection of "scientific" knowledge.9

It may further be noted that speculation and study had not, in Augustine's time, given rise to the advances which we today recognize. We have come to recognize, as Augustine could not, that any type of scientific study may pay practical dividends. So we cannot castigate Augustine for not recognizing the benefits of science not yet born. Still, it is instructive to note that Galileo, the founder of modern science, turned to the thought of Augustine and other "Platonists" for inspiration and defense of the scientific approach to the universe.10 And some of the things that Augustine said sound more modem than some ideas propounded during the last century.


What has been said thus far for the most part goes back beyond the beginnings of modem science. It is not until we come up to the time of Copernicus (14731543), Kepler (1571-1630) and Galileo (1564-1642) that we find the beginnings of physical science-in the modem sense of the term-and the possibility of a conflict between physical science and Christianity. At this point we are told that these three men were persecuted because of their scientific views. Specifically, it is stated that Copernicus was persecuted by Bishop Dantiscus, his immediate ecclesiastical superior, and that he refused to publish for some thirty-six years because of his fear of additional persecution.11 The fact of the matter is that pope, cardinals and bishops urged Copernicus to publish. Even Dantiscus, when he heard that Copernicus was ready to publish, far from persecuting him, sent him a friendly letter, with a poem to be used as prologue. Copernicus did not use the poem. Certainly, Luther growled that "the fool would upset the whole science of astronomy," which Luther conceived as being taught in Scripture. But De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium was published in the Lutheran city of Nuremberg. There was no persecution of Rheticus for his part in seeing the book through the press, nor of Maestlin, professor at the Lutheran University of Tuebingen, who taught the Copernican Theory to Kepler.12

Kepler was persecuted. But the persecution came as a result of his religious views, not because of his scientific views. As a matter of fact, the Jesuits were influential in having Kepler reinstated as professor at the University of Graz after all Protestants had been ordered out of the area. Further, although it was well known that he was a Copernican and a Protestant, he was offered the chair of mathematics at the University of Bologna.

What actually was going on at this time was a confrontation between astronomers and theologians who favored the Copernican Theory, the Tychonie Theory and the Ptolemaic Theory. It was into this discussion that Galileo leaped with a cudgel. His telescopic observations of the moons of Jupiter showed the untenability of the Ptolemaic-Aristotelian system. As a direct result, there was the refusal of Cremonini, the aging Aristotelian philosopher, even to look through the telescope, for it might upset his philosophy. Actually, Cremonini was not being obstinate but merely being human. He was nearly convinced of the error of Aristotelianism, and he did not want to be faced with that final bit of proof which would destroy the system to which he had devoted a lifetime. But it should be noted, to give Cremonini his due, that the old man later abandoned Ptolemy; his integrity overcame his reluctance.

Other Aristotelians were not so honest. They hated Galileo for showing them up, for writing acidulous verse and caustic rebuttals. They were joined by others whom Galileo had offended by his gratuitous insolence and intellectual dishonesty. When Galileo finally alienated the pope, he was doomed. The arrest, trial and condemnation of Galileo came, not because Galileo and Copernicus came into conflict with Christianity, but because Galileo was arrogantly egotistical and libelously insoIent.13 Unfortunately, the power of the church was used to pay back old scores with usurious interest, thereby clouding the actual issues. The examination and proof of these statements would take too much space here, but they can be documented.14 Sir Francis Bacon, a contemporary of Galileo,, saw no conflict between Christianity and science.15 But he was convinced that Aristotelian philosophy was a brake on scientific advance.16 In this he was probably correct, for Aquinas, who gave the standard interpretation of Aristotle for practically all Christians, said that ". . . knowledge is in inverse ratio to materiality.17 Further, it is a matter of record that the group which is fundamentally Aristotelian has produced relatively few scientists compared to the number produced by the non-Aristotelians.

During "The Century of Genius" (the seventeenth), Newton, Boyle, Hooke, Descartes, Borelli, Halley, Cassini, Grimaldi, Huygens, Gassendi, Fermat and Leibnitz were all active. Of this amazing group of scientists and mathematicians only one, Huygens, was not religious.18 This means that they apparently believed that there Is no conflict between physical science and Christianity. In other words, apart from the unfortunate identification of Aristotelian philosophy with Christian truth, there was no general feeling of conflict.


More recently, however, there has been a general feeling of conflict. Where did it arise, and how? To seek to answer this question fully would take us into another lengthy topic. However, I must note that John William Draper, History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science, and Andrew D. White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, were first published in 1874 and 1895, respectively. They could not have been published much earlier.19 These books reflected the attitudes of their times back into the earlier period, when the conflict did not exist. Even as they were writing their books, the spaciousness of their claims was recognized:

The antagonism between science and religion, about which we hear so much, appears to me to be purely factitiousfabricated, on the one hand, by short-sighted religious people . . . and on the other, by short-sighted scientific people.

That statement was made in 1885 by Thomas Henry Huxley.20 That was his belief, though he certainly was no Christian.

This is not to say that there have been no Christians who have not opposed scientific discovery. But opposition was not general until the latter part of the nineteenth century. The opposition of the Deists to Christianity, for example, was not dqrived from scientific considerations as much as from philosophical considerations. Today, opposition more generally claims scientific backing. But what is the real source of the problem? Huxley said that it is shortsightedness. I would suggest rather that the source of the problem is threefold:

1. The naive assumption that what one thinks Scripture says is the only possible meaning. This can be illustrated by the recent statement that anyone who does not believe in the universality of the flood is denying the truth of Scripture.21

2. The naive belief that a scientific explanation excludes the creative and providential acts of God. This would make God limited by human ignorance, a ridiculous situation for the Infinite One, yet it is put forward by philosophers.22

3. The naive insistence that science is materialistic or (philosophically) naturalistic.23

These three views are as common among religious people as among the non-religious. Although they are so naive as to be ridiculous, they unfortunately are very common.


1. All citations are from the ASV.

2. Tertullian, De Carne Christi, 5. For a more extended discussion of this passage, see David F. Siemens, Jr., Exploring Christianity: A Guided Tour (Chicago: Moody Press, 1962). pp. 139f.

3. St. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, II, x1li, 63 (translated in Great Books of the Western World [Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1952], 18:656; 11, xxii, 32 (18:647); St. Augustine, City of God, V, 1, 3-5, 7 (18:208, 209-211, 212).

4. Idem.

5. St. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, II, xxix, 46 (18:651); Confessions, V, iv, 7 (18:28).

6. St. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, 11, xxx, 47 (18:651).

7. Ibid., 11, xxxviii-xl, 57-61 (18:654-656).

8. Ibid., 11, x1ii, 63 (18.656). .

9. St. Augustine, Confessions, V, 111, 3.6 (18:27f).

10. Galileo, Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, In Stillman Drake, Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1957), pp. 175f, 184f, 1943 198f, 2043 206-208, 211f.

11. Hermann Kesten, Copernicus and His World (New York: Roy Publishers, 1945), pp. 33, 237, 259, 265, 301, 330, 365. See also Charles Glenn Wallis, Great Books, 16:481.

12. This and succeeding statements are abundantly documented in Arthur Koestler, The Sleepwalkers (New York: The MacmilIan Company, 1957). The part of this book concerning Kepler has been published as The Watershed: A Biography of Johannes Kepler (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 190).

13. Koestler, The Sleepwalkers, pp. 469, 434, 468 and many other passages. Koestler's charge that Galileo's claim of priority was specious (pp. 429f) Is invalidated by the evidence. See Stillman Drake, Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo, p. 82. However, since Galileo made the claim of priority without confirmatory evidence, it would certainly seem to a contemporary that the claim was specious.

14. In addition to Koestler, one may consult Giorgio de Santillana, The Crime of Galileo (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955).

15. Francis Bacon, Advancement of Learning, 1, 1, 1-3 (Great Books, 30:2-4); 1, v, 11 (30:16); New Atlantis (Great Books, 30:200, 201, 202f, 206, 214).

16. Bacon, Novum Organum, 1, 63 (Great Books, 30:113f); 1, 54 and 67 (30:111, 115); Advancement of Learning, II, vil, 7 (30:45). Bacon was opposed to other philosophies as well, but he kept his strongest statements for Aristotle. See for example his Cogitata et Visa (Works, Spedding edition, 7:115f) and Temporis Partus Masculus, H (7:18-20). These are translated in Basil Montagu, ed., The Works of Francis Bacon, Lord Chancellor of England (Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1844). 1:426f; 2:545-547.

17. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologia, P. 1, Q. 84, A. 2, Ans., p. 3 (Great Books, 19:443). See also Q. 56, A. 1, Rep. 2 (19:292); Q. 57, A. 1, Obj. 3 and Rep. 3 (19:295); Q. 57, A. 2, Obj. I and Rep. 1 (19:295-297); Q. 86, A. 1 (191:461f); Q. 86, A. 3 (19:463).

18. A. E. Bell, Christian Huygens (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1947), p. 7.

19. On this topic see Charles E. Raven, Science, Religion and the Future (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1943), and Edward LeRoy Long, Science and Christian Faith (New York: Association Press, 950). pp. 25f.

20. Thomas Henry Huxley, "The Interpreters of Genesis and the Interpreters of Nature (1885)," In his Collected Essays (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1893-1894). 4:160f. Huxley was more strongly antagonistic in earlier statements. See, for example, "Mr. Darwin's Critics (1871)," in Collected Essays, 2:146-148.

21. Alfred M. Rehwinkel, The Flood in the Light of the Bible, Geology and Archeology (St. Louis, Mo.: Concordia Publishing House, 1951), p. 95; cf. pp. 57, 90, 94. Cf. Fred Elder, Morals and Religion (N.Y.: Philosophical Library, 1963), pp. 24, 41, 153ff. The problem Is discussed by Bernard Ramm, The Christian View of Science and Scripture (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1955), pp. 96-102.

22. Paul A. Reeder, Introduction to Philosophy (Columbia, Mo.: Lucas Bros., Publishers, 1959), p. 51. Cf. Wm. James, "Philosophy and Its Critics," in Reeder, p. 154. The problem Is discussed by Ramm, op. cit., pp. 89-92.

23. See, for example, Elder, op. cit., pp. 5f, 9. The problem is discussed by Carl F. H. Henry, Remaking the Modern Mind (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1946), p. 89, n. 19; p. 95.