From Being to Becoming: Science and Theology
in theEighteenth Century


History and Biology Departments
Wheaton College
Wheaton, IL 601871

[From Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, 43 (December 1991): 215.]
© 1991 Americian Scientific Affiliation

Voltaire (1694 1778)
pseudonym of Francois - Marie Arouet
French writer, the embodiment of the 18th Century Enlightenment

The 19th century French historian, Ernest Renan, characterized the conceptual shift that took place during the 18th century as a change from being  to  becoming. At the beginning of the century, it was believed that an immutable God had created a static Nature and given us an absolute revelation of Himself in Scripture. Natural theology, utilizing Lockean sensationalism, justified studying Nature as a means of learning about God. This approach undermined the authority of Scripture by giving primacy to reason and by linking particular theological views to specific scientific theories. When those static theories, emphasizing  being,  gave place in the 19th century to more dynamic explanations, the theological views were viewed as having also been overturned. The scientific theories of the French  philosophes , relying on a different view of Locke, eliminated God and revelation. Their theories, however, displayed the characteristics associated with  becoming  that would determine the direction of 19th century science. The theological position associated with  becoming   was developed by John Wesley. Looking at Locke in yet a third way, Wesley tried to validate a continuing, dynamic revelation of God. But this revelation was subjective, and according to Locke, incapable of being communicated to another individual. In a culture that valued scientific objectivity, subjective religious knowledge was irrelevant. Thus the 18th century, while not presenting Christian theology with major scientific challenges in the form of theories, did raise basic epistemological questions, and science provided the answers that proved to be acceptable.

The 18th century was a golden age for science. This was the period in which Newtonian science became the model for all other sciences, in which breakthroughs were made in chemistry by men such as Lavoisier and Priestley, and in which taxonomic systems, such as the one designed by Linnaeus, began to allow natural historians to catalogue the myriad organisms and minerals found in nature. Mathematicians such as d'Alembert and Euler began to apply theoretical, deductive thought to physical reality, developing in the process what they called Amixed mathematics." Other thinkers like Condorcet and Turgot started to apply math, and, more importantly, scientific methodology, to problems of society and to create the "social sciences." LaPlace looked beyond the solar system to study the origins of the universe itself; Jenner developed vaccination. Science was fulfilling the Baconian dream of allowing humans to control nature.

Religion did not fare so well in the 18th century, however. This period is often viewed as synonymous with rationalism, materialism, deism, growing agnosticism and skepticism, and the rise of secularism. D'Holbach, Diderot, and many of the French philosophes made it clear that God, revelation, Scripture, and all of the other ingredients of traditional Christianity were subjects of scorn. Scholars in many countries found it increasingly difficult to bridge the gulf between natural and supernatural, to reconcile natural law and divine providence, and to balance moral philosophy and spiritual virtue. Revealed religion was under siege, and the answer seemed to be to reject the new modernity or to reject traditional dogmas that relied on non-scientific epistemology.

For many, the response was the former - to reject the new modernity. One scholar has described the Enlightenment religious scene in these terms:

Change ought not to be the main theme in any discussion of eighteenth-century churches. The church was a conservative institution that reflected and reinforced social hierarchy, privilege, and tradition.2

The church defended the status quo. It adopted some of the science, but only if this did not demand too much in the way of change - social change, political change, theological change. But for those who accepted the new science, change was everywhere. If mankind could know only through experience and reason, if there was no foundation in revealed knowledge, then kings had not been established by divine right and morality had no absolute basis. New forms of government should be based on rational, "scientific" bases, and ethical systems would emerge as the social "sciences" developed. Thus for many Christians, to be pro-science was to be unpatriotic and amoral at best, and treasonous and licentious at worst.

When we look at the issues facing the church in the Enlightenment, therefore, we really need to examine more than just science and theology. The encounter included a mixture of concerns including methodology, politics, hermeneutics, epistemology, ethics, and civic duty. As is often the case when there are many problems and questions, there were many approaches and answers, and non-scientific issues and influences were intricately involved in these disputes. It is impossible within the constraints of a brief paper to examine all of these issues, influences, and implications. In this article I will simply characterize a variety of scientific positions proposed in the 18th century and describe some of the ways individuals and groups responded theologically to the new ideas of science.

The Static World View

Science and religion agreed on one thing at the beginning of the 18th century: the world was static. Whether it was a question of Linnaean biology, Newtonian physics, corpuscular matter, or preformationist embryology, nature was a static system. An immutable God had created once and for all a universe that was as unchangeable as its Creator. In his Spectacle of Nature (1732), Noel-Antoine, the AbbÈ Pluche, described creation in terms of the Great Chain of Being - each work of God being providentially designed for its precise place. The static character of AbbÈ Pluche's nature is even more explicit in his History of the Heavens (1739). Admitting the fullness and diversity of God's creation, the AbbÈ Pluche nevertheless insisted that God had "limited their number. Nor," he said, "shall any action or concurrence imaginable add a new genus of plant or animal to those of which he has created the germina, and determined the form .... But he prevents the destruction of that universe by the very immutability of the nature and number of these elements."3

This static and immutable universe was conceived in geometric terms - all beings were points on a line - and the points (or beings) were ordered according to the hierarchy of creation. Thus, the Great Chain of Being provided a paradigm for seeing the world. The Chain of Being not only ordered nature - animals were "higher" than vegetables, which in turn were "higher" than minerals, but also society - nobles were "higher" than the bourgeoisie, clergy were "higher" than laity, men were "higher" than women, and all humans were "higher" than brute animals. Such a view was easily derived - or at least justified - from Scripture. Had not God given man (undoubtedly understood as the male of the species!) dominion over the rest of creation? Had not Bishop Bossuet clearly shown that Scripture taught not only the Divine Right of Kings, but the duty of all Christians to submit to the King's authority? Revelation disclosed the guidelines, theology interpreted the guidelines, and natural philosophy (or science) employed them in describing Nature.

Hence most natural philosophers at the beginning of this period saw little conflict between science and theology. Carl Linnaeus, a good Swedish Lutheran, believed that there was a "true order" for Nature and sought to devise a system that reflected that "true order." Such a system would allow humans to catalogue and organize all of terrestrial creation. The idea that Linnaeus could formulate a classification system that truly revealed the order of creation makes sense only if Nature is static. Species existed as they were created, unless, of course, God had wiped them out in the Flood. Linnaeus believed, and his system was predicated on the belief, that by using the rational powers God had given them, humans were able to maneuver through the multitudinous objects and untold phenomena of nature that appeared to the uncritical and unprepared mind as chaotic, and see the Divine Order established by the Divine Creator. Science and Nature became vehicles to confirm the unchanging truth of Scripture; Reason was guided by and subordinate to Revelation.

This kind of approach is often used to describe the relationship between science and theology resulting from Isaac Newton's work. For many, 18th century science is epitomized by Newton's Principia Mathematica and Optiks, despite the fact that the former was written at the end of the 17th century. Nevertheless, their impact during the early decades of the 18th century, especially in England, is pivotal. The law-like regularity of Newton's Nature confirmed its creation by a Law-giving God: the watch must have a Watch Maker. But the implications of this mechanistic view are profound, and they point not only to the regularity of phenomena but also to the passivity of matter. Indeed, it was this latter issue that was most critical for theology. Following other 17th century mechanists such as Robert Boyle and Pierre Gassendi, Newton insisted that the motion of objects - be they planets or atomic corpuscles - was due not to any activity or force inherent in matter, but rather to movement imposed by God. In fact, matter itself was directly contingent on the will of God. Gary Deason states Newton's position this way:

While he explored many explanations of gravitational forces, characteristically avoiding definitive claims where he felt the evidence was weak, the picture of the immediate presence of the divine will moving material bodies according to freely established laws was never far from his mind. It was a picture consistent with the early Protestant and mechanist view that nature is completely passive and that God is the exclusive source of activity in the world.4

Newton, and his 18th century followers, insisted on the radical distinction between the Creator and the created. God was the only active, self-moving, self-willing, self-sufficient, and eternal being. Matter, by contrast, was passive, inert, determined by God's will, contingent upon His nature, and finite. Matter in motion is not due to some inherent property called motion that matter possesses, but rather to God's acting on matter so that it conforms to His will.

Evidence to support this passive view of nature came also from theories of generation. In 1688 Jan Swammerdam had demonstrated that various stages of an insect could coexist simultaneously within an organism. Using these data to combat the epigenetic theory, Swammerdam decided that the embryo existed preformed in the adult. Moreover, microscopic observations by Marcello Malpighi were interpreted by many as proving the pre-existence or preformation of embryonic germs. Building on these works, Nicholas Malebranche reasoned that Swammer-dam and Malpighi had only moved the problem back one generation. The obvious conclusion, at least to Malebranche, was that all generations were preformed, like a box within a box, when God first created the organism. Embryological development was the unfolding of this preformed being. The Swiss Huguenot Charles Bonnet, in the middle of the 18th century, continued to defend this position, first because it was consistent with a passive Nature and an active God, and second because it accounted for the "genetics" of original sin. All humans, being present in the germ cells of Adam and Eve, were corrupted by their sin.

From Miracles to Mechanism

The mechanistic world view of science, then, assumed that Nature was orderly, static, and passive, and that there was a well-defined distinction between the Creator and His creation. Such a conception fit well with Christian theology. To many, the more science was uncovering the wonders of Creation, the more it was evident that a Providential, Omnipotent God was responsible for bringing it into being and sustaining its existence. But there had been a subtle shift in the understanding of His relationship to His world. From the mid-17th century on, there was an increasing belief that the Providential, sustaining activity of God was through the Laws of Nature, not through specific, miraculous, Divine activity. Descartes, a 17th century mechanist, had written:

For we understand it to be a perfection in God not only that He is in Himself immutable but also that He acts in a manner as constant and immutable as possible, so that, with the sole exception of those instances which the evidence of experience or divine revelation makes certain, and which we perceive or believe to have been brought about without any change in the creator, we must not admit any other alterations in his acts lest any inconsistency be thence inferred in God Himself.5

Miracles were no longer consistent with the "consistency" of God Himself, and so scientists could seek to understand the "natural" basis of these extraordinary or mysterious events.

More importantly, there were no longer specific acts in nature by which God could be known. Instead, He could be known only in the complex, consistent, harmonious working of His creation. Natural theology became the means by which the wonders of Nature were shown to reveal the wonderful God of Nature. Books such as John Ray's Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of the Creation (1691), Nehemiah Grew's Cosmologia sacra (1701), and William Derham's Physico-theology, or a Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God from his Works of Creation (1713), as well as the prestigious Boyle Lectures, emphasized the way in which the study of Nature increased one's understanding and knowledge of the God of Creation. Dr. Samuel Clarke, in his Boyle Lectures on The Being and Attributes of God, argued that

[the] harmony and order of the universe pointed to a Creator who is as beneficent as he is wise. The fatherly rule of God demanded of his children a benevolence like his own, and these elementary truths - the fatherhood of God and our duty to show a good will comparable with his - were the essential ingredients in their teachings.6

A reasoned study of God's workmanship would lead to a reasoned appreciation of the Worker and a reasoned understanding of one's duty.

But what happened in the process to the God revealed in Scripture? At first, nothing. The God revealed by Nature was certainly not dissimilar to the God proclaimed in the Old and New Testaments. Omnipotent, omniscient, providential, eternal - this God had the attributes of the God traditionally known by Scriptural revelation. Moreover, a God revealed by Nature solved the problem of interpreting Romans 1:18-20. Creation itself should be enough for any person to know God's Nature and His Will, and hence even those without the Scriptures - a group whose size was appearing more and more large with the increased exploration of the earth - had no excuse. The purpose of Scripture was now viewed primarily in terms of salvation-history, as the story of what the God who can be known from Creation had done on behalf of human beings in Jesus Christ.

Regarding Scripture this way involved two changes from earlier periods. First, its domain was severely restricted. No longer was it believed to be the source of authority for science, and soon it would not be the authority for politics, history, and moral theory. It spoke authoritatively about salvation: it told of our need and of God's response. Second, its status was greatly limited. No longer was God's revelation in Scripture the highest authority, but now it was understood in terms of how human reason had deciphered God's revelation in Nature. G. R. Cragg, in The Church and the Age of Reason, stated that in this period

[E]veryone conceded that belief stands or falls as it commends itself to human intelligence. In this respect the defenders of Christianity met its foes at least halfway. They were willing to put orthodoxy on trial at the bar of reason, and were satisfied that it would emerge triumphant from the test. God himself was expected to produce credentials satisfactory to reason. Christianity is the religion of reason; the Christian God is the God of Nature. The title of Locke's work, The Reasonableness of Christianity, epitomizes the basic conviction of the age. In this sense, rationalism was not a doctrine about religion but an approach to its problems.7

From Revelation to Reason

It was not long, however, before it did become a doctrine about religion, and perhaps the place where one can see that most clearly is France. Whereas some of the French philosophes, Voltaire and probably Jaucourt, for example, were theologically quite close to the natural theology and deism of England, others rejected religion completely. Moreover, this latter group based their rejection of revealed religion on a combination of a revised scientific methodology and new scientific theories.

Let's look at the theories first. When the corpuscular theory of matter emerged in England during the 17th century, one of the accusations it had to live down was that of atheism. The old Greek theories of atomism were viewed to be materialistic and, by definition, atheistic. English scientists, including Charleton and Boyle, had managed to rehabilitate the old theory and even to give it a Christian dress, but the philosophes were not so easily convinced. Instead they adopted a more Leibnizian conception of matter, one that considered the atom as eternal and as possessing inherently the properties of motion and sensitivity. Denis Diderot, the chief editor of the EncyclopÈdie, his disciple and biographer, Jacques Naigeon, and the Baron d'Holbach were some of the more outspoken advocates of this position. Diderot's cosmos was composed of one substance, and there was nothing outside of that substance: "The supposition," Diderot said, "of any being whatever placed outside of the material universe is impossible .... There is no more than one substance in the universe, in man, in animal."8 For Diderot, all things were formed by the inherent motion of atoms; his was a kind of materialistic monism. But this philosophy no longer needed the First Cause or Watchmaker of natural theology, and so Diderot rejected all theologies and philosophies that posited an immaterial God. In the article "NATURALISTE" Diderot added a paragraph to the original contribution stating:

One also gives the name of naturalist to those who do not acknowledge God, but who believe that there is only a material substance, clothed with diverse qualities that are as essential to it as length, width, and depth, and as a consequence of which everything is accomplished in nature as we see it. Naturalist in this sense is synonymous with atheist, spinozist, materialist, etc.9

Here we see the sharp break between science and religion, between scientist and religious believer. But what we have not yet seen is that in addition to positing an exclusively materialistic cosmos, Diderot and his associates, borrowing selectively from Leibniz, proposed a dynamic system in which all parts of the universe are bound together in an organic unity of moving particles. In his unsigned article "PŠRIR" [to perish], Diderot wrote:

Nothing is destroyed, but everything changes its state. In this sense we perish constantly or we do not perish at all because there is no instant in the eternity of our life where we differ more from ourselves than any other instant, either before or after, and because we are in a perpetual flux.10

This same idea was expressed in other articles. "Beings are born, grow, and disappear," he wrote in "IMPŠRISSABLE" (imperishable), "but their elements are eternal."11 In his RÍve d'Alembert [D'Alembert's Dream] Diderot described a living world, infinitely elastic, filled with force, and determined in its outcome. At one point in the dream, Diderot had D'Alembert say:

So I am what I am because it was inevitable that I should be. Change the whole and of necessity you change me. But the whole is constantly changing Y. Man is merely a frequent effect, a monstrosity is a rare one, but both are equally natural, equally inevitable, equally part of the universal and general order. And what is strange about that? All creatures are involved in the life of all others, consequently every species...all nature is in a perpetual state of flux. Every animal is more or less a human being, every mineral more or less a plant, every plant more or less an animal ....There is nothing clearly defined in nature ....12

Active matter, that is, matter that is uncreated and indestructible, that has as inherent properties motion, feeling, and thought, that is constantly in flux throughout the universe according to well-defined laws, this kind of matter eliminated the need for a God who created and sustained.

One might accuse the philosophes of practicing "arm-chair science," but "experimental science," especially in the area of biology, was supporting their position. In 1744 Abraham Trembly had published the results of his work on the fresh-water hydra or polyp. It had been assumed that these organisms were plants because they reproduced by budding, but Trembly showed that they acquired food like animals, reacted to touch like animals, and were capable of locomotion like animals. They seemed to be therefore a sort of transition form between plants and animals on the chain of being. Continuing his experiments, Trembly sought to discover if these organisms were capable of regeneration. No matter how he cut the polyp - lengthwise, crosswise, big pieces, small pieces - each piece always gave rise to an entirely new polyp. Soon other experimental work showed that worms, which were known to be animals, could do the same thing, and so the hydra's place in the animal kingdom was established.

But this created a problem. If every portion of an animal could reconstitute a new animal, where was the animal soul or organizing principle? And what did this do to the idea of preformation? To say that every piece of tissue, no matter how small, contained the soul was to stretch credulity and meaning. To say that every piece of tissue, no matter how small, contained a preformed embryo of the next generation was just as implausible. The work on the polyp added weight to the epigenetic theories of embryological development that were floating around in the mid-1700s, but it also supported the materialistic views that denied the existence of soul. Without soul, matter must possess the ability to express all the properties seen in Nature. These properties exist in potential form in some atoms or groups of atoms, and in actual form in others. Over the course of time, new forms arise, old forms are recycled. Listen to Diderot speaking through the words of the blind English mathematician, Saunderson, in Lettre sur les aveugles [Letter on the Blind]:

You may imagine, if you want to, that the present order with which you are so much impressed, always subsisted; but let me believe that it hasn't, and if we were to go back to the birth of things and of eras, and if we perceived matter in self-motion, and the fog clearing away from the chaos, we would encounter a multitude of unformed beings for each well-organized being...The monsters destroyed themselves successively, all the vicious combinations of matter disappeared...only those survived whose mechanism did not have any important weaknesses or contradictions, and which were able to exist and to perpetuate themselves.... But why cannot I also posit for worlds what I believe about animals? How many atrophied worlds are missing, have dissipated, are reforming and dissipating themselves, perhaps at each instant, in the distant spaces, where motion continues and will continue to combine masses of matter until they become arranged in such a way that they can persevere... What is this world, Mr. Holmes? A composite, subject to revolutions, which indicates a continual tendency towards destruction; a rapid succession of beings which follow upon each other; an ephemeral symmetry, a momentary order ... the earth is eternal for you as you are eternal for the being which is sensitive for only a moment.13

Here is a clear statement of the implications of active, dynamic matter. Rather than an immutable world, conceived in the mind of God and executed by His omnipotent power, Nature is in a constant state of ceasing to be as it is and beginning to be something else. Rather than motion being the result of God's will, it is an inherent property of matter itself, and the specific motion is the determined result of prior motions. Such reactions have occurred eternally and will occur eternally. God as an explanatory hypothesis is no longer needed.

Obviously Christian scientists, whether Catholic, Reformed, Lutheran, or dissenter, rejected these philosophical views and especially the idea of active matter, but it was more difficult to reject the biological findings concerning the polyp and generation. The general tendency was to accept the data but reject the interpretation or implications. Hence Charles Bonnet, whom I mentioned earlier as staunchly defending the preformationist position, performed some of the regeneration experiments on worms. Data were objective and irrefutable; conclusions were bound up with philosophical prejudices. One could not deny the data; one could postpone the interpretation if the obvious one was heretical.

Saying this implies a certain view of science or scientific methodology. What constituted "proper science" for any of the people or groups discussed so far is not as easy to explain as one might wish it were. One source of difficulty is the diversity of opinion in the 18th century. British Newtonians did not approach science the same way or utilize the same tools that the French materialists did. Cartesians and Lockeans advanced different theories of knowledge - and therefore disagreed about what constituted evidence. The aims of science for Baconians diverged from those emphasizing the centrality of mathematics. The implications of science for moral philosophy were radically different for natural theologians and for atheists.

Historians also have problems explaining what "science" was and how it should be done because they tend to see the world in 20th century categories and definitions instead of the terms of the 18th century. However, given these difficulties, one can learn by looking at what constituted "good scientific methodology" or "methodologies," and see how those impacted - and in turn were influenced by - theology.

The Static Character of Natural Theology

In Great Britain and America - what can be called the Anglo-American tradition - there had been a strong emphasis on observation and experimentation building on the Baconian model. This model of science fit well with Puritan theology. Bacon's "two books" doctrine, his anti-scholasticism, his inductive methodology, and his emphasis on utility resonated with Puritan beliefs and values. This passage from Bacon might well have been written by any Puritan divine:

Our savior saith, "You err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God"; laying before us two books or volumes to study, if we will be secured from error; first the scriptures, revealing the will of God, and then the creatures expressing his power; whereof the latter is a key unto the former: not only opening our understanding to conceive the true sense of the scriptures, by the general notions of reason and rules of speech; but chiefly opening our belief, in drawing us into a due meditation of the omnipotency of God, which is chiefly signed and engraven upon his works.14

Thus the 17th century Anglo-American view of science was strongly tilted toward a "hands on" approach - observe in the field, test in the laboratory, gather data, and then draw conclusions and implications.

Such a method differed greatly from the Continental, and largely Cartesian, strategy. There rationalism, including an emphasis on mathematical abstraction, dominated scientific endeavors. The difference in method stemmed from epistemological beliefs about the source of knowledge: Descartes and other rationalists argued that the nature of human knowledge can be explained only by appealing to the ideas innately found within the mind itself. These innate ideas, which God imprinted upon the human intellect, were the basis for all philosophy and the starting point for all human knowledge. In this system, a static nature is known and comprehended by static ideas implanted in a static mind.

The individual whose views would provide the epistemological justification for Baconian experimentalism and the alternative to the innate ideas of Cartesian rationalism was John Locke. Cragg concluded that if Newton was the creator of scientific physics, then Locke was the originator of scientific philosophy, going so far as to call him the "moving spirit" of the 18th century.15 Repudiating innate ideas, Locke believed that except for our intuitive awareness of our own existence, all our knowledge is derived from our senses or from reflecting upon our sense perceptions. The combination of sensing and reflecting constitutes experience, which in turn is the basis of all ideas. Locke saw reason to be operating within the act of reflecting, thus giving a support and an epistemological basis to Baconian induction.

Locke was as easily incorporated into Anglo-American theology as Bacon had been. One American theologian who was influenced by Locke was Jonathan Edwards, and although historians disagree as to the extent to which Edwards incorporated the Lockean system, it is fairly clear that he did accept the epistemological basis. One historian, Edward Davidson, wrote:

Edwards learned that experience, which necessarily comes from the outside (Locke had proved that truth), turns inward: it moves from fact to idea, from substance to concept; it conforms to a logic which God has implanted in His universe since the beginning of time.16

But Edwards recognized that sensations had to have causes, and he ultimately moved those causes back to the Mind of God. Moreover, anything that the human mind can know is a direct result of God's Sovereignty - what Edwards would call the physical law of the universe, the cognitive route of sensing and thinking.17 But the Fall had created problems in our apprehension of that law, in our correct incorporation of the sensations from Nature. In his sermon, A Divine and Supernatural Light, preached in 1734, Edwards was obviously trying to work out some principle, some foundation by which Nature - affected as it was by the Fall and continually corrupted by human sin - could be the origin or source of grace and understanding, just as Locke's philosophy had affirmed it would.

In the end, Edwards worked out what seems to be a balance between the revealed knowledge of Scripture and the reasoned knowledge derived from Nature, both of which resulted from the Sovereign activity of God. He rejected the deism and mechanism of natural theology, I think, because of his epistemology. He wrote:

'Tis a strange disposition that men have to thrust God out of the world, or to put Him as far out of sight as they can, and to have in no respect immediately and sensibly to do with him. Therefore so many schemes have been drawn to exclude, or extenuate, or remove at a great distance, any influence of the Divine Being.18

In his "Notes on Science," Edwards defined the "Laws of Nature" as "the stated methods of God's acting with respect to bodies." As a result, he said, "there is no such thing as Mechanism, if that word is intended to denote that whereby bodies act, each upon the other, purely and properly by themselves."19

But in many respects, Edwards was not that far from the intellectual leaders of the Continent who believed that revelation, properly understood, was reasonable, and in that respect he can be grouped with the French Jesuits and conservative reformed theologians of France, Holland, and Switzerland. It is significant that in his notes were plans to write a Natural History of the Mental World, along with other notes for a "Treatise on the Mind," that indicate a moral philosophy based on nature and reason, not on Scripture.

But it is clear that however reasonable God and God's revelation might be, Edwards would not join forces with those who believed that reason should rule revelation. Those in this group were the deists or socinians, including by some accounts the reformed theologians in Geneva. Mechanism ruled, miracles were ruled out by definition, and the chief function of religion was to provide the basis of morality. The revelation of Scripture was to be understood only within the bounds of reason, and its message was essentially limited to God's offer of salvation and the human moral response. For both of these groups, both God and Nature were viewed as static and immutable, with activity being the attribute of God and passivity being the character of matter and Nature. A third group, strongest in France, denied the existence of God and anything spiritual or immaterial and therefore found no reason to accord revelation any epistemological status. For them Nature was much more dynamic and active, and the universe was very much in flux.

So far I have described the ways in which science and reason in the 18th century directly undermined the authority of Scriptural revelation by elevating the status of reason. I want now to look briefly at the way in which Lockean sensationalist psychology, and its incorporation into Christian theology by a non-rationalist likewise subverted - although in this case I think indirectly and somewhat innocently - the status of Scripture during this period. Our subject for this portion is John Wesley.

The Dynamic Character of Wesleyan Theology

As early as 1725, John Wesley was looking for a philosophically satisfying faith, and his language is very Lockean. In a letter to Susanna he wrote that "there is - no Belief, and consequently no Faith - without Rational Grounds."20 In another letter he described "faith" as a "species of belief," and then defined "belief" as "assent to a proposition upon rational grounds."21 In an argument and in terms reminiscent of Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Wesley seems to have followed Locke in affirming a God both transcendent and immanent, known through the senses - senses that allow us to perceive order among phenomena. In the 1730s he copied in abridged form and commented on Bishop Peter Browne's book The Procedure, Extent, and Limits of Human Understanding. Browne had emphasized, on the basis of Hebrews 11:1 ("Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen ....") and of Lockean epistemology that faith is related to sense-based methods and reason. One scholar, J. Clifford Hindley, explained it this way:

Hebrews 11:1 has a philosophical cast peculiarly in tune with eighteenth-century rationalism, and suggests at once that the definition of faith which these philosophers could accept was the one which the Bible offered: faith is primarily the attitude of mind which believes truths about an unseen spiritual world which reason is unable to discover, but which satisfies the demands for evidence.22

The "evidence" that Browne - and Wesley - provided was human feeling interpreted by human understanding. As Robert Brantley succinctly stated: "things hoped for" are data of experience and so provide an at least quasi-sensationalistic grounding for the rational method implicit in the verse.23

Browne went on in Procedure 2.6 to provide an exhaustive account of Locke's definition of reason as "natural Revelation, whereby the eternal Father of Light, and Fountain of all Knowledge communicates to Mankind that portion of Truth, which he has laid within the reach of their natural Faculties."24 Browne argued that reason, provided with data by the natural faculties, i.e., the senses, learns of God's existence and something about His nature from the book of creation. He continued to suggest that even "evangelical faith," i.e., complete trust in New Testament Revelation, is either dependent upon or bolstered by natural theology. He wrote:

Thus we see that Men must Know, before they can rightly Believe; and have a full Conviction of their Judgment upon sufficient Evidence, before there is any closing of the Will to Complete the Nature of Evangelical Faith; which is literaly [sic] as the Apostle defines it, the Evidence of Things not seen, or the Assent of the Understanding to the Truth and Existence of Things Inconceivable, upon certain and evident Proof of their Reality in their Symbols and Representatives.25

Some might argue that Wesley's copying of this material did not necessarily imply agreement. Others, more historically astute, might contend that this was all before Wesley's conversion in 1738, and therefore does not reflect the thought of the "converted" Wesley. These words of Wesley himself, written in 1740 in "An Earnest Appeal," demonstrate how he did appropriate the Lockean-Browne philosophy in his own thought:

You know ... that before it is possible for you to form a true judgment of the things of God, it is absolutely necessary that you have a clear apprehension of them, and that your ideas thereof be all fixed, distinct, and determinate. And seeing our ideas are not innate, but must all originally come from our senses, it is certainly necessary that you have senses capable of discerning objects of this kind - not those only which are called "natural senses," which in this respect profit nothing, as being altogether incapable of discerning objects of a spiritual kind, but spiritual senses, exercised to discern spiritual good and evil ...

And till you have these internal senses, till the eyes of your understanding are opened, you can have no apprehension of divine things, no idea of them at all. Nor consequently, till then, can you either judge truly or reason justly concerning them, seeing your reason has no ground whereon to stand, no materials to work upon.26

Throughout this "Appeal" Wesley argued by analogy from our senses and knowledge based on physical sensations to faith and the assurance based on its testimony.27 What Wesley did was to add a spiritual sensation, a feeling, which perceived data from the supernatural realm, to the physical or natural sensations that perceived data from the natural realm. The new sensation is activated by God's spirit at conversion, and then is capable of receiving spiritual data - including the recognition that Scripture is God's word. Before the new birth, the spiritual mind is dark, a tabula rasa, just as is the infant's before physical birth.

Wesley's philosophy provided a quasi-scientific basis for the "enthusiasts" and other Christians who insisted on the present, immediate activity of God's spirit, for those who believed in a continuing revelation of God to humans. It was also much more compatible with the emerging dynamic view of Nature, since it assumed a dynamic revelation. Wesley himself insisted that the reality of the immediate revelation must be judged by the authority of Scripture, but for others the inherent tensions between personal faith and common authority would lead to an undermining of Scripture's absolute authority in matters of faith and conduct. The Holy Spirit, as perceived by the individual, became both the source of data and the witness to the validity of that data. The individual, enlightened by the fire of God, could then draw rational - and truthful - judgments, without appealing to either tradition or Scripture.

Thus by the end of the 18th century scientific theories and methodologies had raised crucial questions for Christians. The nature of the debate centered on theories of knowing, the reality or illusion of revelation as a source of knowledge, the role of reason in understanding, and the degree to which the reality, which humans apprehend only in part, is static, immutable, and passive or is dynamic, evolving, and active. Science's answers, even when appropriated in some way by theology, reduced the domain of God and the authority of Scripture. Moreover, since the theology that remained most faithful to Scripture was one that adopted the static and passive world of Newtonian mechanism, it was ill-prepared for the radical changes of the 19th century in which science operationally embraced the concept of "becoming." The theological positions that were most prepared for a view of Nature in flux, those influenced by Wesley and other "enthusiasts," tended to abandon Wesley's interest in science and focus on individual pietism and personal "spiritual" life.

In summary, the issues science and theology face in the 1990s saw their origins in the 18th century. The terms of the debate, the rules of the debate, and the answers from both sides of the question, were essentially set down in the Age of Enlightenment, and for the most part, what has happened since has been an entrenchment by both sides. Science began more and more to set the terms of the debate, and as a result, theology has found itself in the position of adjusting. The natural theologians in England and people such as Jonathan Edwards found ways to make theological doctrine conform to scientific theories, but when the scientific theories were overthrown, the theological doctrines were also rejected. Those like John Wesley who tried to justify revelation in "scientific terms" found themselves isolated from science. Science was objective and by its objectivity capable of communal appropriation. Religion became subjective and, according to Locke, incapable of being shared knowledge.

As 20th century scientists and Christians, ASA members are heirs of both traditions, and thus live somewhat schizophrenic lives. As professional scientists, historians, theologians, we try to accommodate theology and science, with science largely dictating the terms and methods of the accommodation. As committed Christians, we experience God's revelation, but we have no epistemological basis for communicating either to each other or to the non-believer the truth of that revelation, or even of determining if "my" revelation is indeed true. In some ways, then, we have not moved far from the 18th century. The column "Why Must there Be an ASA," in the June 1991 issue of Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith stated that we "have confidence that ... integration [of scientific and Christian views of the world] is not only possible but necessary to an adequate understanding of God and His creation."28 If we are serious in this belief, then we must spend more time examining the issues that dominated the period just described, and learn to focus not so much on problems of individual scientific theories and theological doctrines, but more upon fundamental theories of knowledge, that is to say, on epistemology.


1This paper was prepared while attending an NEH Summer Seminar at Brown University, 1991, on "Science and the Enlightenment as seen in the Encyclopdie.  Joan Richards was very helpful, and some of the ideas undoubtedly reflect the talks we had on the subject of natural theology and science in Great Britain. John Pannabecker and Martha Baldwin also read earlier drafts and made valuable comments and suggestions. Final responsibility for content and form, however, are mine.

2Woloch, Isser.   Eighteenth-Century Europe: Tradition and Progress, 1715-1789. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1982. p. 271.

3Cited in Baumer, Franklin L. Modern European Thought: Continuity and Change in Ideas, 1600-1950. New York: Macmillan, 1977. p. 204.

4Deason, Gary B. "Reformation Theology and the Mechanistic Conception of Nature," in God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter between Christianity and Science, ed. David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986. p. 182.

5Quoted by Robert S. Westfall, "The Rise of Science and the Decline of Orthodox Christianity: A Study of Kepler, Descartes, and Newton," in Lindberg and Numbers, God and Nature, p. 227.

6Quoted by G. R. Cragg. The Church and the Age of Reason (1648-1789). Baltimore: Penguin Books, Inc., 1960. p. 158.

7Cragg, The Church and the Age of Reason, p. 159.

8Diderot, Denis. Oeuvres compltes de Diderot, II. Paris: Ed. Asszat-Tourneux, 1875-77. pp. 69, 117.

9Diderot et D'Alembert. L'Encyclopdie ou Dictionnaire Raisonne des Sciences des Arts et des Mtiers. XI. Paris: Briasson, David, LeBreton, et Durand, 1765. p. 39b.

10Diderot, L'Encyclopdie, XII. p. 379b.

11Diderot, L'Encyclopdie, VII, p. 593a.

12Diderot, Denis. Rameau's Nephew/D'Alembert's Dream. Translated by Leonard Tancock. London: Penguin Books, 1966. pp. 180-181.

13Diderot, Oeuvres compltes, I, pp. 309-310. Trans. by Mark Wartofsky. I have gained much by Wartofsky's analysis of Diderot's monism in "Diderot and the Development of Materialist Monism," Diderot Studies II, edited by Otis E. Fellows and Norman Torrey. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1952. pp. 317-318. My comments have been based on his work.

14Cited by James R. Moore, "Geologists and Interpreters of Genesis in the Nineteenth Century," in Lindberg and Numbers, God and Nature, p. 322.

15G. R. Cragg.   Reason and Authority in the Eighteenth Century. London: Cambridge University Press, 1964. pp. 5-6.

16Edward H. Davidson, "Biography: Interpretative  Sover eign God and Reasoning Man" in   Critical Essays on Jonathan Edwards, ed. by William J. Scheick. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980. pp. 38-39.

17Davidson.   Jonathan Edwards. pp. 31, 125.

18Jonathan Edwards. "Treatise on Grace," in  Selections from the Unpublished Writings of Edwards, ed. A. B. Grosart. Edinburgh, 1865. p. 40.

19 Jonathan Edwards. "Notes on Science" in  The Works of President Edwards, I, ed. by Sereno E. Dwight. New York, 1829. p. 714.

20Cited in Richard E. Brantley,  Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, 1984. p. 28.

21Brantley,   Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism, p. 28.

22J. Clifford Hindley. "The Philosophy of Enthusiasm."  The London Quarterly and Holborn Review 182 (1957):208.

2323Brantley,  Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism. p. 31.

2424John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 4.19.4 Ed. by Peter H. Nidditch. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1894. p. 698.

2525Browne, Procedures, 2.6, p. 250.

2626John Wesley.  The Appeals to Men of Reason and Religion and Certain Related Open Letters. Ed. by Gerald R. Cragg. Vol. 11 of  The Works of John Wesley. Edited by Frank Baker. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975. pp. 56-57.

2727See Cragg's comments to "An Earnest Appeal," p. 56n.

2828ASA Description/Application Page,  Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, 43  (June, 1991):143.

*ASA Fellow