Essay Review


Christianity and Early Modern Science:
Beyond War and Peace?

Edward B. Davis

Associate Professor of Science and History
Messiah College
Grantham, PA 17027

From: PSCF 46 (June 1994): 133-135.                                                   Response: Lyons

p. 133

Wybrow, Cameron (Editor). Creation, Nature, and Political Order in the Philosophy of Michael Foster (1903-1959): The Classic Mind Articles and Others, with Modern Critical Essays. xxvi + 347 pp., frontis., bibl. Lewiston, N.Y./Lampeter, Wales: Edwin Mellen Press, 1992. $79.95. Wybrow, Cameron. The Bible, Baconianism, and Mastery over Nature: The Old Testament and Its Modern Misreading. (American University Studies, Series 7: Theology and Religion, Vol. 112.) vi + 231 pp., bibl. New York/San Francisco: Peter Lang, 1991. $43.95.

Does the history of science show that Christian theology was the principal source of the differences between Greek science and early modern science? The question would have shocked Voltaire, provoked a heated denial from Andrew Dickson White, and astonished George Sarton. Yet just when that child of positivism, the "warfare" school of thinking about religion and science, seemed at the height of triumph in the period between the world wars, others were working to turn positivism on its head by showing that religious assumptions about nature and knowledge were deeply embedded in the ideas and practices we associate with the modern scientific world view.

One of these renegade scholars was the British logician Alfred North Whitehead, who argued that the very possibility of modern science depended upon the unconsciously held belief, derived from medieval theology, that the created order was indeed intelligible. Although Whitehead's process metaphysics have had a profound influence on some important modern theologians and philosophers, his claim has thus far inspired little scholarship in the history of science, and must still be taken as an unestablished, if bold, conjecture. Another renegade was the American sociologist Robert Merton, whose work on the influence of Puritanism on the social activity of science in England has led to a veritable mountain of research, most of it inconclusive but still of great interest to students of the seventeenth century. Yet another renegade was the central figure in the books reviewed here, the late British philosopher Michael Beresford Foster. Foster's very strong claims about the influence of Christian theology on the epistemic content of early modern natural philosophy have also inspired much research, though a mere foothill next to Merton's mountain.

Foster made his long, convoluted, often confusing argument in a series of three articles published in the journal Mind in the mid-1930s, early in his career as a Student (read, "tutor") at Christ College, Oxford. His unabashedly intellectualist approach focused on the doctrine of creation as the vehicle through which theology impinged on natural philosophy, and identified the source of modernity in science as the voluntarist attitude toward God within the Christian tradition. According to Foster, only a voluntarist theology makes God's creative activity truly free: the products of God's creative activity are not necessary, but contingent, from which it follows that the created world can be known only by a science that is fundamentally empirical rather than a priori.

p. 134

The first of the volumes reviewed here reprints Foster's Mind articles along with four others (three of them almost unknown) that further develop his main points and offer brief remarks on some other theological and philosophical issues raised by modern science. An apparently complete, annotated bibliography of Foster's writings is also included. This is noteworthy in itself, since Foster remains a viable source of provocative statements about religion and science, and his articles (even including those in Mind) are hard or impossible to find on the shelves of many research libraries.

But there is much more, including reprints of two famous articles on Fosterian themes by theologian Rolf Gruner and historian Francis Oakley. Gruner takes issue not only with Foster, but with all "revisionists" who see Christianity as the source of modern science. His goal is to put a stop to the apologetic uses of revisionism, in the hope that "many theologians will perhaps think it in future more promising to further the prestige of their religion by maintaining that it demands man's respect for his so-called environment rather than its manipulation and control" (p. 214). This is a point well worth making. Science and technology are no longer viewed uncritically as unmixed blessings in many circles, and this fact alone ought to give pause to anyone seeking to base an apologetic argument on alleged causal connections between Christianity and modern science. Against revisionism Gruner argues that true Christianity is contemplative rather than active, and really has more in common with the classical world than with the modern. He also attacks the highly abstract, unhistorical nature of the revisionist argument a fair challenge when leveled at Foster and certain others at the time Gruner raised it in 1975, but one that cannot really be mounted against much recent scholarship along Fosterian lines. Oakley's paper, first printed in 1961, calls attention to the medieval voluntarist notion that the laws of nature were imposed on the world by an act of arbitrary divine will. This, Oakley argues, became the dominant view of natural law during the scientific revolution. In an interesting afterword written for this volume, Oakley (now president of Williams College) reaffirms his argument, but notes that he did not get it from Foster, whose essays he first read only when his own work was almost finished. (Like Reijer Hooykaas and some others, Oakley came to similar conclusions from a different, more genuinely historical starting place.)

Six more essays, written specifically for this volume, offer critiques of various aspects of Foster's main message and help round out the picture of Foster and his thought, which embraced political philosophy as well as science. Most readers of this journal will probably find little to interest them here. But some may want to read James Patrick's essay about Foster's place in historiography for its illuminating portrayal of Foster as a foil to the great Catholic historian and philosopher Etienne Gilson. As Patrick points out, Foster emphasized the seminal role of Descartes and the early modern tradition in bringing about modern science, where Gilson and the neo-Scholastics placed the origins of modernity further back, in the subtle theological atmosphere of the late middle ages. Since Foster opposed modern scholastics on this crucial point, his work was viewed favorably by the editor of Mind, a journal that otherwise was not given to publishing articles like Foster's about the importance of religious beliefs for modern science. This explains the contemptuous tone of an essay by one modern scholastic, Stanley Jaki, who comes to Gilson's defense in an attack on Foster replete with cheap shots directed at other scholars who do not share Jaki's view that modern science began in the fourteenth century. Jaki's patron saint is the French physicist and historian of science Pierre Duhem, who tried at the turn of century to show just how much modern science really owed to the medievals. For the sins of opposing Gilson and ignoring Duhem, Foster and those who agree with him are all but confined to perdition. It is unfortunate that Jaki has chosen to shout down, not to talk with, his opponents, for his important points about the relevance of medieval theology (which Foster missed or would not grant) are difficult to hear over the din.

Anyone interested in Foster's ideas, however, should read the superb essay by Wybrow which opens the collection. Here we find a study of Foster's troubled life, dedicated work, and self-inflicted death that is thoroughly researched and exquisitely sensitive to the various influences that operated upon him. This is followed by a splendid overview of his thought that is entirely without parallel in the scholarly literature. Wybrow concludes that Foster's attempt to "dance on the grave of Greek thought" (p. 43) while placing "the stamp of Christian approval upon a world-view already articulated by modern philosophy" was far too glib.

p. 135

For more than a few ASA members, this will be difficult to accept. Exaggerated claims about Christianity causing modern science have been popular among the membership for many years, partly because of their apologetic value and partly because the notion of contingency is often thought (with good reason) to be indispensable to a genuinely Christian view of nature. Writers such as Hooykaas and his disciple, the late Donald MacKay, have been particularly influential in this connection. My own research on theology and early modern science, however, has led me to conclude that Foster overstated his case:1 thus far I agree with Wybrow.

The key word here is "overstated." Though Foster may have failed to prove a necessary connection between Christian theology and modern science, he focused our attention on two of the right questions  how in fact did early modern thinkers construe the relation between God and the creation, and what did they think this meant for human efforts to understand the created order?

For this reason I take issue with Wybrow's statement that the "only crucial question" in appraising Foster's work is whether "he hit upon a true affinity between modernity and Christianity" (p. 44). What matters most to historians like me is not whether Foster was correct about Christianity and modernity, but whether his analysis helps us to understand the relationship between theology and science as it was actually worked out in the seventeenth century. Here I can do no more than state my view that it most decidedly does, and note that I am hardly alone in saying this. Numerous carefully crafted historical studies, far more than Wybrow seems to be aware of, have established that early modern natural philosophers were deeply influenced by just the sorts of theological assumptions that Foster said ought to have influenced them.2 If Foster erred by seeing certain historically contingent connections between theology and science as necessary ones, Wybrow errs by failing to see much significance in those very connections: where Foster claims too much, Wybrow claims too little.

Wybrow's book on Baconianism features a similar critique of the revisionist notion that Christianity is harmonious with modern ways of viewing the world. Like Gruner, he is anxious to refute the "mastery hypothesis," the frequently repeated claim that the Western urge to master nature is rooted in those parts of the Old Testament that give humans dominion over nature. Defenders of the hypothesis include those who use it for apologetic purposes (Foster and R.G. Collingwood are prominent examples), as well as those who see it as a black mark for Christianity (such as Lynn White, Jacques Ellul, and Theodore Roszak). Wybrow stands with Gruner above the fray by denying the validity of the hypothesis itself as he demonstrates, it has never been properly documented by its proponents. Thereby he hopes to deflect both praise and criticism from Christianity and direct them toward what he believes to be the true source of the spirit of environmental conquest: Renaissance humanism, which equated human artistic and technical ability with the image of God. Early modern thinkers, he rightly says, made human beings "divine in essence, a kind of God on earth" (p. 166). Wybrow shows that such hubris gains no support from Genesis, which places specific boundaries on the scope and the degree of human dominion, and that both pagan and Biblical writers held to a limited view of dominion and were suspicious of the power of technology. Nevertheless Wybrow admits (p. 34) that the mastery interpretation of the Bible, though incorrect, has had "a profound influence" in the West since the late Renaissance. "By appealing to the Bible against the Greeks," he concludes (p. 193), Francis Bacon and other early modern thinkers "managed to win widespread consent for the building of a scientific society which proved to be neither Greek nor Biblical."

Wybrow's book is interesting and well argued, intellectual history on a rather high level. It is best understood as an answer to the recent call by several scholars for an historiography of religion and science that goes beyond the narrow ideological interests of both the warfare thesis and its apologetic antithesis  "beyond war and peace," to borrow the title of an influential article published a few years ago in this journal.3 It is hardly surprising that ASA members have tended more toward apologetics than warfare. Whether Wybrow offers a viable alternative remains to be seen; certainly it stands as a good candidate.


1For details, and a much lengthier discussion of the Foster thesis, see my forthcoming essay, "Rationalism, Voluntarism, and Seventeenth-Century Science," in Science and Belief: Proceedings of the First International Pascal Centre Conference, scheduled to appear in 1995.

2Several of these studies are listed in my forthcoming essay, cited above.

3David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers, "Beyond War and Peace: A Reappraisal of the Encounter between Christianity and Science," Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 39 (1987), 140-9, a slightly revised version of an article that appeared originally in Church History 55 (1986), 338-354.