The biblical roots of modern science
A Christian world view, and in particular a plain understanding of Scripture and Adam’s Fall, was essential for the rise of modern science.
Published: 29 September 2009 (GMT+10)
This is the pre-publication version which was subsequently revised to appear in Creation 32(4):32–36.
Portrait by Godfrey Kneller, Wikipedia.org
Sir Isaac Newton (1643–1727)
Many atheopaths1 and their compromising churchian allies claim that biblical belief and science are mortal enemies. Yet historians of science, even non-Christians, have pointed out that modern science first flourished under a Christian world view while it was stillborn in other cultures such as ancient Greece, China and Arabia. The historical basis of modern science depended on the assumption that the universe was made by a rational Creator. An orderly universe makes perfect sense only if it were made by an orderly Creator (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:33). For example, evolutionary anthropologist and science writer Loren Eiseley stated:
‘The philosophy of experimental science … began its discoveries and made use of its methods in the faith, not the knowledge, that it was dealing with a rational universe controlled by a creator who did not act upon whim nor interfere with the forces He had set in operation… It is surely one of the curious paradoxes of history that science, which professionally has little to do with faith, owes its origins to an act of faith that the universe can be rationally interpreted, and that science today is sustained by that assumption.’2
But if atheism or polytheism is true, then there is no way to deduce from these belief systems that the universe is (or should be) orderly.
Furthermore, Genesis 1:28 gives us permission to investigate creation, unlike say animism or pantheism which teach that the creation itself is divine. And since God is sovereign, He was free to create as He pleased. So where the Bible is silent, the only way to find out how His creation works is to experiment, rather than to rely on man-made philosophies, as did the ancient Greeks. So no wonder that sociologist and author Rodney Stark affirmed:
“Science was not the work of western secularists or even deists; it was entirely the work of devout believers in an active, conscious, creator God.”3
Furthermore, science requires that we can think rationally, and that results should be reported honestly, more teachings found in the Bible but do not follow from evolutionism.4
Science in the Middle Ages
While this period used to be called the “Dark Ages”, responsible historians recognize that it was far from dark. Rather, it was a period of great scientific advances, stemming from the logical thought patterns of the medieval Scholastic philosophers of the Church, and the extensive inventiveness and mechanical ingenuity developed in the monasteries. Small wonder that this period saw the development of water and wind power, spectacles, magnificent architecture, the blast furnace, and the stirrup.5
An enormous advance in physical understanding was 14th-century logician John Buridan’s development of the concept of impetus, essentially the same as the modern concept of momentum. Previously, Aristotle’s followers argued that a moving object required a force to keep it moving, but Buridan proposed:
“…after leaving the arm of the thrower, the projectile would be moved by an impetus given to it by the thrower and would continue to be moved as long as the impetus remained stronger than the resistance, and would be of infinite duration were it not diminished and corrupted by a contrary force resisting it or by something inclining it to a contrary motion.”
This is a forerunner of Isaac Newton’s First Law of Motion.
So it’s not surprising that James Hannam, who recently earned a Ph.D. on the History of Science from the University of Cambridge, UK, pointed out:
“During the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church actively supported a great deal of science, which it also kept control of when speculation could impinge on theology. Furthermore and contrary to popular belief, the Church never supported the idea that the earth was flat, never banned human dissection, never banned zero and certainly never burnt anyone at the stake for scientific ideas.”
“Popular opinion, journalistic cliché and misinformed historians notwithstanding, recent research has shown that the Middle Ages were a period of enormous advances in science, technology and culture. The compass, paper, printing, stirrups and gunpowder all appeared in Western Europe between AD 500 and AD 1500.”6
Scientific jump after the Reformation
While Europe in the Middle Ages had a Judeo-Christian world view, it took the Reformation to recover specific biblical authority. With this came the recovery of a plain or historical grammatical understanding of the Bible, recovering the understanding of the New Testament authors and most of the early Church Fathers. This turned out to have a huge positive impact on the development of modern science. This is so counter to common (mis)understanding, yet it is well documented by Peter Harrison, then a professor of history and philosophy at Bond University in Queensland, Australia (and one-time Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford):
“It is commonly supposed that when in the early modern period individuals began to look at the world in a different way, they could no longer believe what they read in the Bible. In this book I shall suggest that the reverse is the case: that when in the sixteenth century people began to read the Bible in a different way, they found themselves forced to jettison traditional conceptions of the world.”7
As Prof. Harrison explained:
“Strange as it may seem, the Bible played a positive role in the development of science. …
Had it not been for the rise of the literal interpretation of the Bible and the subsequent appropriation of biblical narratives by early modern scientists, modern science may not have arisen at all. In sum, the Bible and its literal interpretation have played a vital role in the development of Western science.”8
Stephen Snobelen, Assistant Professor of History of Science and Technology, University of King’s College, Halifax, Canada, writes in a similar vein, and also explains the somewhat misleading term “literal interpretation”:
“Here is a final paradox. Recent work on early modern science has demonstrated a direct (and positive) relationship between the resurgence of the Hebraic, literal exegesis of the Bible in the Protestant Reformation, and the rise of the empirical method in modern science. I’m not referring to wooden literalism, but the sophisticated literal-historical hermeneutics that Martin Luther and others (including Newton) championed.”9
And Prof. Snobelen explains the reason why: scientists started to study nature in the same way they studied the Bible. I.e. just as they studied what the Bible really said, rather than imposed outside philosophies and traditions upon it, they likewise studied how nature really did work, rather than accept philosophical ideas about how it should work (extending their allegorizing readings of Scripture to the natural world8).
“It was, in part, when this method was transferred to science, when students of nature moved on from studying nature as symbols, allegories and metaphors to observing nature directly in an inductive and empirical way, that modern science was born. In this, Newton also played a pivotal role. As strange as it may sound, science will forever be in the debt of millenarians and biblical literalists.”9
Belief in the Fall of Adam: how it inspired science
Francis Bacon (1561–1626)
Prof. Harrison has researched another commonly overlooked factor in the development of science: belief in a literal Fall of a literal first man Adam. These founding modern scientists, including Francis Bacon, reasoned that the Fall not only destroyed man’s innocence, but also greatly impaired his knowledge. The first problem was remedied by the innocent Last Adam, Jesus Christ—His sacrifice enabled our sin to be imputed (credited) to Him (Isaiah 53:6), and His perfect life enabled His righteousness to be imputed to believers in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21). But as for recovering what they believed to be Adam’s encyclopedic knowledge, they looked to science. Harrison explains:
“New [sic] literal readings of the creation narratives in Genesis provided 17th century thinkers with powerful motivating images for pursuing the natural sciences.
“Adam was thought to have possessed a perfect knowledge of all sciences, a knowledge lost to posterity when he fell from grace and was expelled from the Garden of Eden. The goal of 17th century scientists such as Francis Bacon and his successors in the Royal Society of London was to regain the scientific knowledge of the first man. Indeed, for these individuals, the whole scientific enterprise was an integral part of a redemptive enterprise that, along with the Christian religion, was to help restore the original race to its original perfection. The biblical account of the creation thus provided these scientists with an important source of motivation, and in an age still thoroughly committed to traditional Christianity, the new science was to gain social legitimacy on account of these religious associations.”8
“For many champions of the new learning in the seventeenth century, the encyclopaedic knowledge of Adam was the benchmark against which their own aspirations were gauged. …
“The experimental approach, I shall argue, was deeply indebted to Augustinian views about the limitations of human knowledge in the wake of the Fall, and thus inductive experimentalism can also lay claim to a filial relationship with the tradition of Augustinianism.”10
Some atheopaths admit that science was in effect a child of Christianity, but now claim that it’s time science grew up and cut the apron strings. However, none other than former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher answered that type of claim:
“I think back to many discussions in my early life when we all agreed that if you try to take the fruits of Christianity without its roots, the fruits will wither. And they will not come again unless you nurture the roots.
“But we must not profess the Christian faith and go to Church simply because we want social reforms and benefits or a better standard of behaviour; but because we accept the sanctity of life, the responsibility that comes with freedom and the supreme sacrifice of Christ expressed so well in the hymn:“‘When I survey the wondrous Cross, On which the Prince of glory died, My richest gain I count but loss, And pour contempt on all my pride.’”11
- Atheopaths often disparage the Bible, especially its account of creation. Yet …
- Science requires certain presuppositions to work at all, and these are found in the Bible.
- Europe in the Middle Ages, with its general Christian world view, advanced greatly in science and technology.
- The Reformation, with its emphasis on the authority of Scripture and a historical-grammatical understanding, led to a great leap forward in science as such methods were carried over into the study of nature.
- Belief in a literal first man Adam and his Fall inspired science as a means to rediscover knowledge Adam had before the Fall.
- It is futile to expect continued fruits of the scientific enterprise while undermining the roots in biblical Christianity.
- Leading misotheist Richard Dawkins often calls theistic religion a ‘virus of the mind’, which would make it a kind of disease or pathology, and parents who teach it to their kids are, in Dawkins’ view, supposedly practising mental child abuse. But the sorts of criteria Dawkins applies makes one wonder whether his own fanatical antitheism itself could be a mental pathology—hence, “atheopath”. Return to text.
- Eiseley, L., Darwin’s Century: Evolution and the Men who Discovered It, Doubleday, Anchor, New York, 1961. Return to text.
- Stark, R., For the Glory of God: How monotheism led to reformations, science, witch-hunts and the end of slavery, Princeton University Press, 2003; see also review by Williams A., The biblical origins of science, Journal of Creation 18(2):49–52, 2004; creation.com/stark. Return to text.
- Sarfati, J., Why does science work at all? Creation 31(3):12–14, 2009. Return to text.
- Carroll, V., and Shiflett, D., Christianity on Trial: Arguments Against Anti-Religious Bigotry, ch. 3, Encounter Books, 2001; see review by Hardaway, B. and Sarfati, J., Countering Christophobia, Journal of Creation 18(3):28–30, 2004; creation.com/trial. Return to text.
- See Hannam, J., God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science, 2007; jameshannam.com/Godsphilosophers.pdf. Return to text.
- Harrison, P., The Bible, Protestantism and the rise of natural science, Cambridge University Press, 2001; see review by Weinberger, L., Reading the Bible and understanding nature, J. Creation 23(3):21–24, 2009 (in press). Return to text.
- Harrison, P., The Bible and the rise of science, Australasian Science 23(3):14–15, 2002. Return to text.
- Snobelen, S., Isaac Newton and Apocalypse Now: a response to Tom Harpur’s “Newton’s strange bedfellows”; A longer version of the letter published in the Toronto Star, 26 February 2004; isaacnewton.ca/media/Reply_to_Tom_Harpur-Feb_26.pdf. Return to text.
- Harrison, P., The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science, Cambridge University Press, 2007, introduction. Return to text.
- Thatcher, M., Christianity and Wealth, Speech to the Church of Scotland General Assembly, 21 May 1988. Return to text.
Thank you for this article Jonathan, and thank you for eloquently contending against the attacks on this article assertively and respectfully.
Complete rubbish. Centuries BC Eratosthenes made a good approximation of the circumference of the earth—a fact taught in first year uni geology lectures.
The ancient Greeks were way ahead in science, maths, philosophy, and governance. If anything, Christianity borrowed from and was influenced by the Greeks. After all, the new testament was written in Greek and Latin, the scholarly languages of the day.
Only with the most selective ignorance can any case be made for science having biblical roots. Which scientific propositions are deducible solely from biblical axioms?
It’s become a trendy line of argument that science and ethics couldn’t have come about without christianity. However, as the bible notes, even the ungodly care for their own, so christianity can't claim exclusive rights over ethics either.
As for the concurrent rise of christianity and science, neither correlation nor coincidence proves causation.
It also ignores the fact that medieval islam was far more scientifically advanced than the western world at the same time in history. The Dark Ages of the west was the islamic Golden Age. This Golden Age also preceded the rise of western science. If you want to see how religion, particularly fundamentalist religion, is likely to contribute to science, look how far islam has advanced since then!
Way to go, in ignoring all the points made in the article, including about the Middle Ages that you still libel as ‘dark’, and documented by historians of science, not all of them Christians.
In the first article linked, Why does science work at all? I pointed out:
Informed historians of science, including non-Christians, have pointed out that modern science first flourished under a Christian worldview while it was stillborn in other cultures such as ancient Greece, China and Arabia.
This article explains more what biblical axioms are required, and how they can't be deduced from evolution.
Indeed, some good discoveries were made by the ancient Greeks, such as the one you mentioned, but real experimental science never got off the ground. The reasons were given by the non-Christian Eiseley in the main article.
The claims about an Islamic ‘Golden Age’ ignore the fact that most of the discoveries came from the non-Muslims in Islam-conquered lands. It didn't take long for Christianized Europe to overtake Islam in science and technology. For more, see Christianity, Islam and science: Was modern science birthed by Islam? This was applied in the naval Battle of Lepanto (7 October 1571), where the Catholic Holy League of maritime republics annihilated the Islamic Ottoman Empire fleet, thanks to the gunpowder developed in Europe.
BTW, the New Testament was written in Koinē Greek, the language of the marketplace, different from the ‘scholarly’ classical Greek. I have no idea where you got Latin from.
David R: This is a well written, but one sided article.
Dr Sarfati replies: No apologies for that. The usual stories in the educracy and media present the misleading slant of science v religion. CMI is the other side!
DR: Yes, there were fantastic minds discovering amazing thing pertaining to many aspects of science. But not everything was an intellectual ‘bed of roses’.
Indeed, as you stated, the world was not considered to be flat. In 1633 Galileo published Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems for which he was charged with heresy. This book was then forbidden for two hundred years.
JS: That was more about papal politics than theology, as we have pointed out in a number of articles such as Galileo Quadricentennial: Myth vs fact and Answering another uninformed atheist: Galileo, Miller–Urey, probability. The latter cites science historian John Heilbron showing that the heresy was ‘inquisitorial’ rather than ‘theological’ because Galileo never contradicted an officially proclaimed Church doctrine.
DR: And now those ‘apron strings’ have been cut widely by the Scientific community,
JS: Which is a great danger as pointed out by Margaret Thatcher in the quote above: cut the supply line from roots to fruits, and the fruits will wither.
DR: and we are now entering into the next Dark Age.
JS: More likely, we are entering a dark ages in reality, unlike the Middle Ages which were not dark but a fruitful time of scientific discovery, as documented above.
DR: An age when Creationism is being forced into the educational system without the benefit of Peer Review.
JS: Actually, we do have peer review, but see how over-rated this process can be, and a device to protect the ruling paradigm, in Creationism, Science and Peer Review.
DR: Yes, your article was educational but it was also one sided. And yes my response to it is also one sided. I detest those that are trying to put religion into basic education.
JS: Evidently not the religion of atheistic evolutionism, which even atheistic evolutionary philosopher Michael Ruse admitted was religion. In any case, CMI is not a lobby group for imposing anything into the government schools, we have made very clear. My own view is to separate school and state.
DR: Religion requires a leap of faith, whereas educational curriculum needs to stick to facts and truths.
JS:Actually, Christianity requires a step of faith, which in the Bible was never divorced from reason or evidence, but contrasted instead with sight. See for example Loving God with all your mind: logic and creation.
In particular, science requires a number of presuppositions that atheists must treat as axioms, or unprovable first principles. But these same propositions are theorems deducible from biblical axioms.
DR: And unlike the Theory of Evolution, which required no faith, Creationism is a teaching ignorance to the truth.
JS: Ipse dixit. Evolutionism is a deduction from the naturalistic faith, while creation is consistent with what we do know about chemistry and information. See also Evolution & creation, science & religion, facts & bias.
It is not the history of science and religion that is the real issue. It is that religion is now taking people away from the fundamental truths that science is revealing about the true evolution of the Universe, the Earth, and Man.
It took Modern Man two hundred thousand years to develop the skill of communication through writing, and now you are using that skill to deny our own history.
That is sad.
Did you actually bother to read the article, quite aside from the fact-free nature of your comment? It’s actually the antitheists like you and Dawkins who are damaging science by attacking its Christian roots.
Magnificent article! and presented direct and concise without sacrificing clarity—very refreshing indeed … and I am encouraged I belong to a great team that credits the Almighty as the source and reason for all things. God bless you more CMI.
Wow, I really appreciate the depth you have gone to in this and other articles. Thank you also for listing your sources so I can further study the topics listed. I'll be reading further. :)