Science in Christian Perspective




From: JASA 18 (September 1966): 84-86, 95.

Although it is commonly held that science and religion are irremediably in conflict, it can be shown that science owes it birth to Christian thought. The non-Christian civilizations did not develop scientific thought because they lacked the concept of the Creator. Only when Galileo combined Greek mathematical thought with the Hebrew-Christian concept of the omnific, omniscient God did science in the modem sense start. The secularized version of this belief still undergirds science, even though its secular form cannot function as a rational foundation. Christian morality was also important in the development of science.

We live at a time when religion and science seem to be either pretty well divorced or very definitely in conflict - more usually the latter. None other than Einstein tells us: "It is therefore easy to see why the churches have always fought science and persecuted its devotees."1 In this sort of situation, it is a little hard for us to realize that science is Christian in its origins and continues to bear the marks of its Christian origins.. There is a corollary to Christianity. As Galileo, the man basically responsible for the founding of modem science noted : 2

... the holy Bible and the phenomena of nature proceed alike from the divine Word, the former as the dictate of the Holy Ghost and the latter as the observant executrix of God's commands . . . . . nor is God less excellently revealed in Nature's actions than in the sacred statements of the Bible.

If both come from God, they obviously cannot contradict each other. But it is not time to start providing a corollary until the original theorem has been demonstrated.

My thesis is that science is Christian in its origins. One aspect of the proof is involved in the question: Why did the Greeks not develop modem science? They certainly had the thinkers to do it. Thales, who predicted an eclipse on May 28, 585 B.C., was apparently absentminded enough: he is reported to have walked along watching the stars until he fell into a well. The Pythagoreans discovered the laws of harmony and the vibration of strings, but went no further. Plato was a genius and a first rate mathematician. Aristotle, another genius, developed logic, collected facts, and left massive collection of works. Besides these, there were host of mathematicians - Euclid, who produced geometry; Archimedes, who extended geometry in connection with the circle; Appolonius of Perga, who developed the theory of conic sections; Nichomacus Of Gerasa, who developed the system whereby tremendous numbers, such as quintillions (1018), were handled. Yet with all this logical and mathematical ability, the Greeks, and the Romans who followed them, never developed any empirical science. Why?

All the Greeks thought that the world of experience could not be understood. Plato's God was a craftsman, not a Creator; a workman who had to do the best he could with what was available to him. But the stuff would never work out exactly. There were always tolerances, Plus or minus, and rejects that somehow got back in the good bin. So Plato says repeatedly that one cannot have a science of things, only of ideas.3

Aristotle, who followed Plato, and who became "the Philosopher" of the later Middle Ages, did not even have a Creator. God, relative to things, was the ultimate

*David F. Siemens Jr. is on the faculty of Los Angeles Pierce College, Woodland Hills, California. Paper prepared for the 19th Annual Convention of the American Scientific Affiliation, August 1964, at John Brown University, Siloam Springs, Arkansas.

Form which reacted against eternal prime matter, and thus produced everything in the world. But, everything except God was produced by the combination of the rational, understandable form with the formless, irrational, incomprehensible matter. There is no use trying to understand things: they cannot be understood because they have a meaningless core .4 Moving on in time, Aristotle was-after Aquinas sprinkled him with holy water in his Summas - the ultimate authority for the majority of Christians. Aquinas did make God the Creator, but he kept Aristotle's doctrine that matter makes things incomprehensible .5 It was a revolt against the dead hand of Aristotle that made Galileo the Father of Modem Science.

The Greek atomists, who have been given credit by some for beginning a sort of science, were no better off. Heraclitus believed that all things are in a perpetual state of flux, so that no knowledge of them is possible.6 A later heir of Democritus and Epicurus wrote : 7

... our world has been made by nature through the spontaneous and casual collision and the multifarous, accidental, random and purposeless congregation and coalescence of atoms...

And there is no science of the accidental,

Obviously, no hope of science can be found in the Eleatic school of Parmenides, Melissus and Zeno, who held that all the changes reported by the senses are mere illusions. Yet it is from one or another of these views that the philosophical outlook of the later Greeks and Romans came.

Obviously, no one is foolish enough to seek order where they are sure that there is only disorder or illusion. This is why the Greeks never turned to nature. They turned instead to mind, to the rational and orderly world of thought, to mathematics. But even here there was a problem. The Pythagoreans, in the process of the investigation of numbers, came across the surds, which we still call the "irrational numbers", although they are as reasonable as any of the others. They did not fit into the pattern which the Pythagoreans thought numbers ought to have; so they tried to suppress the discovery.

Now, I do not want to give the wrong impression: the Greek contribution to science is essential. Without mathematics and logic, science could not come into being. But something else is absolutely necessary: a belief in the orderliness, the rationality of the world. Where did this idea come from?

It came from Genesis 1:1: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." And from Ephesians 1:11, where Paul speaks of God "Who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will." The Christian believes that the world is orderly because it was created by the God of all order, the One who is the Truth, the Word. And remember, "Word" or "Logos" means also reason.

Coupled to this view is the insistence that man is rational, in the same way that God is rational, although in a more limited fashion, for man was created in the image and likeness of God. Therefore man can think God's thoughts after Him. This is the real motivating force behind science. Whitehead, the noted philosopher, spoke of this belief in order: 8

Without this belief, the incredible labours of scientists would be without hope. It is . . . the motive power of research - that there is a secret, a secret which can be revealed. When we compare this tone of thought in Europe with the attitude of other civilizations when left to themselves, there seems but one source for its origin. It must come from the medieval insistence on the rationality of God, conceived as with the personal energy of Jehovah and with the rationality of a Greek philosopher. Every detail was supervised and ordered: the search into nature could only result in the vindication of the faith in rationality.

But Christianity is even more crucial than this, although it is a matter of record that science never developed anywhere except where there was Christian influence. In fact, it came into being only once.9 And it is also enlightening to note that the extension of science came mainly in the areas where the Bible was most often and freely read.

What do I mean: that Christianity is even more crucial? Galileo considered the similarities and differences between man and God. If God and man both know the world, where is the point of similarity? God has no senses, as man has, so the point of contact cannot be on the basis simply of the senses. What can man have in common with the infinite, all-wise God? Galileo says:10

As to the truth, of which mathematical demonstrations give us the knowledge, it is the same which the Divine Wisdom knoweth; but ... the manner whereby God knoweth the infinite propositions, whereof we understand some few, is highly more excellent than ours. . .

Kepler had the same view."

God wanted us to recognize those laws by creating us after his own image so that we could share in his own thoughts. For what is there in the human mind besides figures and magnitudes? It is only these that we can apprehend in the right way, and if piety allows us to say so, our understanding is in this respect of the same kind as the divine, at least as far as we are able to grasp something of our mortal life.... for God's counsel's are impenetrable, but not his material creation.

Is this view still to be found in science today? Yes, but in a secular form. There is still the insistence that man can understand the universe by applying mathematics. Certainly, there are those who deny that the universe is rationally organized. But even these act in spite of their statements as if it can be understood. And they go on making discoveries. But they can give no explanation as to why we should be able to understand things. Indeed, they become a little ridiculous, for their basic belief, shorn of big words and complicated phrases, is: The universe is orderly because I am orderly; the universe is understandable because I make it understandable. If I tell you: "I am the source of all reason," you will immediately conclude that I should have psychiatric treatment. But if I use big enough words, I am a philosopher, and the sanest of the sane.

What of the others who do not go so far? They believe that the world is rational, and that man is rational, but they do not believe in God. There are such. They are faced with the problem that they can give no reason why man and the universe should so match each other. They can only believe that they match with a blind faith - and these are commonly the ones who accuse the Christians of credulity. One American philosopher wrote of them: 12

They perceived that the Newtonian world without God must be a world in which the reach and certainty of knowledge is decidedly and closely limited, if indeed the very existence of knowledge at all is possible.

Let me emphasize this latter: they held their views in spite of grave doubts about the validity of any conclusion they might have. Do you see why I accuse them of blind faith, rather than attributing to them intelligent f aith?7

There is another Christian element in the development of science. A great deal of scientific development comes from concern for the needs of others, that is, from mercy or compassion. As Bacon prayed:13

Wherefore, seeing that these things do not , depend upon myself, at the outset of the work I most humbly and fervently pray to
God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost, that remembering the sorrows of mankind and the pilgrimage of this
our life wherein we wear out our days few and evil, they will vouchsafe through my hands to endow the human family with
new mercies.

Again, he notes that science is "for the glory of the Creator and the relief of man's estate ."14

These are the words of a philosopher. But they are backed up by the works of many. In the prefaces of book after book detailing advances in various areas, the authors express their concern for the needs of men. One of the early treatises on architecture three times mentions the "public benefit" as the goal of the author (Mathias Roriczer, 1486).15 The same is noted by Robert Norman, who wrote about the navigator's compass in 1581. Scientific discoverers "chiefly respect either the glory of God or the furtherance of some publick commoditie." Tartaglia, the noted mathematician, in his Quaesiti Inventione (1546), notes service to the public and progress as grounds for publication, and assails those who would hold discoveries secret. The same attitude is seen in Simon Stevinus in his several books on applied mathematics, published between 1605 and 1608. Pare, a French surgeon, in La methode de traicter les plages (1545), hopes to stir superior minds to write so that all may have greater knowledge, so that "some fruit and benefit to the support of the weakness of human life" may, by God's will, come from his labors. Generally, be suggests the public benefit, the benefit of France, the benefit of patients and the glory of God as his goals.

Apian published a Latin treatise on a quadrant for measuring angles (1532). The next year he published a German version for the general benefit of his countrymen. The quadrant was invented "to benefit the whole of Christianity and almost the whole world." Mercator, the geographer, notes in his Adas (1595 . "we are not born to ourselves alonie, but the Czeator ordered us to live for the common weal."

Under the impact of Bacon's view, the Royal Society of London was founded for "the Grand Design improving Natural knowledge . . . All for the Glory of God, I the Honour and Advantage of these Kingdoms, and Universal Good of Mankind."

In addition to all this, the virtues of the scientist, those attitudes which make science possible, include truthfulness, honesty, integrity, humility, patience and cooperation - to name some that seem to appear on nearly every list. These are Christian virtues, taken over by science and maintained within science even though science has departed from its Christian origins. And even though there are some scientists who will deny the value of these virtues, they continue practising them.

Yes, even in the denial of Christianity which is so prevalent today, science continues to bear the marks of its Christian origin. Indeed, to try to remove the Christian parts of science would utterly destroy any possibility of science.


1. Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1954), p. 39. This is a quotation from an earlier period, F930. Einstein later modified his view, giving religion the area of values and science the area of facts, asserting that there could then be no conflict. But conflict arises if the absolute truthfulness of the Bible is insisted on.

2. Galileo, Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, in Stillman Drake, Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1957), pp. 182f.

3. Plato, Timaeus, 27-30, 41, 52f; Phaedo, 75; Republic, 6:509-7:519; 7:529f, 533f; in Great Books of the Western World, 7:446-8, 452, 457f, 229, 386-390, 395f, 397f.

4. Aristotle, Posterior Analytics, 1, 30, 87bl8-26; Metaphysics 11, 3 995al5-20; VI, 2 1026a33-1027a28; VII, 15, 1039b2O1040b4: 17, 1014b5-11; X1, 2. 106020-23; 6, 1062bll1063b35; Nicomachean Ethics, VI, 3, 1139bl4-15, 1140b30; in Great Books, 8:119, 513, 548f, 563f, 565, 588, 590f,; 9:388f.

5. Aquinas, Summa Theologia, Part I, Q 12, A 4, Ans.; Q 14, A 13, Ans.; Q 56, A 1, Rep. 2; Q 57, A 1, Obj. 3 and Rep. 3; Q 57, A 2, Obj. I and Rep. 1; Q 84, A 2, Ans., Par. 3; Q 86, A 1 and 3; in Great Books 19:53, 87, 292, 295, 295-7, 443, 461f, 463.

6. Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1, 6, 987a32f; in Great Books 8:505.

7. Lucretius, De Natura Rerum, 11, 1058-1062; in Great Books, 12:28.

8. Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1948), p. 18.

9. See Joseph Needham, Science and Civilization in China (Cambridge: University Press, 1954- 1:146f, 2:214f, 286f, 163, 283f, 518, 561f, 579f, 582f.

10. Quoted by Edwin Arthur Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science: A Historical and Critical Survey (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1950), p. 72.

11. Quoted in A. C. Crombie, Medieval and Early Modem Science (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1959), 2:188.

12. Burtt, op. cit., p. 298.

13 ' Francis Bacon, Great Instauration, in his Works (Spedding), 8:34f; cf. 14:101.

14. Bacon, Advancement of Learning, Bk. 1, V, par. 11, 6:134. Also in Great Books, 30:16.

15. Edgar Zilsel, "Genesis of the Idea of Modem Progress," Journal of the History of Ideas, 6:325-349 (1945). Reprinted in Philip P. Weiner and Aaron Noland, eds., Roots of Scientific Thought: A Cultural Perspective (New York: Basic Books, Publishers, 1957), pp. 251-275.

This, and the following references, are found on pp. 333, 337, 338, 339, 341f, 343f, 345, and 348 of the journal, or pp. 259, 263, 264, 265, 267f, 269f, 271 and 274 of the book.