A Short History of Science and Christianity

Peter E Hodgson FAITH Magazine November-December 2008s

It is becoming increasingly recognised, at least within the Church, that science has developed only in the context of a Christian civilisation, and has deep Christian roots.
If we consider the great civilisations of the past such as those of Egypt and Greece, India and China, we find great achievements in art and architecture, philosophy and drama, but nothing remotely like our own civilisation. Undoubtedly they had many men and women of high intelligence who made notable advances in many felds, but they failed to develop science. Why was this?

We can begin to answer this question by asking ourselves what is necessary in a civilisation for science to develop. There must be a well-developed social structure so that some people can devote themselves to thinking about the world, without the necessity of worrying where the next meal is coming from. They must have a language so that they can discuss things and writing materials to record what they have found. Later on, as science becomes more quantitative, mathematics is also needed. These are what might be called the material conditions for the development of science.

The ancient civilisations possessed all these, but still science did not develop. They are necessary for science but not sufficient. What is missing?

The answer is to be found in their attitude of mind, in their beliefs about the world. To develop science they must be curious about the world and want to understand it. They must believe that the world is rational and orderly, so that if they fnd out something one day it will still be applicable on the next, and in other places. A more subtle requirement is that the order in nature is not necessary but contingent; it could be otherwise. The reason for this is that if we believed that the order is necessary we might try to fnd out about the world just by pure thought, as we do in mathematics. However if we believe the order to be contingent, the only way to fnd out about the world is to look at it, to make experiments. We must also believe that the whole enterprise is practicable, thatthe world is at least partly open to the human mind. We must believe that whatever we find out must be freely shared with other scientists and not jealously guarded as our special secret. If anything we discover has any practical applications this must be used for the general good.

This is a very special set of beliefs, and if we examine the ancient civilisations we fnd that these beliefs are not there. Some believed that the world is evil, or at the mercy of the whims of gods. Others believed that whatever they found out about the world must be kept secret. Perhaps a few individuals had some of the right ideas, especially in Greece, but they were not held by the whole community. We then understand why science did not develop in those civilisations. Even the Greek efforts to develop science failed, although they knew that it must be based on experiment and reason, and had developed much of the mathematical knowledge that was to prove so important for science.

The ideas that eventually made science possible came from an unlikely source. The Israelites were a small tribe in the desert, surrounded by the mighty empires of Egypt, Assyria and Babylon. Unlike their neighbours, they believed in one supreme God, who made and sustains everything. When He had created the world, God looked on all He had made, and saw that it was good (Genesis, 1.31). He ordered the world ‘in number, measure and weight’ (Wisdom, 11.20). He was free to make the world as He chose, so it is not necessary but contingent on the Divine will. He commanded man to conquer the world and subdue it (Genesis, 1.28), and this implies that the enterprise of understanding the world is a practicable one. He emphasised that wisdom is a treasure above gold and silver that must be freelyshared (Wisdom, 7.13).

These Jewish beliefs in the Old Testament were reinforced and extended by the Incarnation of Christ. This greatly ennobled matter, and destroyed the belief in cyclic time that is found in all ancient civilisations. The Incarnation happened only once and was the ultimate fulfilment and exemplar of the unique one-off salvific events in the history of the People of Israel. Time was confirmed as a linear sequence, with a beginning and an end. During the first few centuries of the Christian era the creeds formulated to clarify Christian beliefs contained many statements that further emphasised truths essential for science. Thus the Nicene creed starts with an affirmation that God created everything. Only Christ has the same nature as God, so matter is created. All things are created throughChrist, and so all matter is good. Christ Himself tells us that we must feed the hungry and clothe the naked which is to apply our knowledge of matter, especially today from science and technology, to our material needs.

It took many centuries for these beliefs to be thoroughly absorbed, and social conditions were not favourable for the birth of science for a thousand years. Then gradually a new civilisation arose in the Middle Ages, a civilisation permeated by Christian beliefs.

The most fundamental part of physics is the theory of motion, and if science is to begin it must begin there. A philosopher in the fourteenth century university of Paris, John Buridan, was trying to understand motion. Why is it that when we throw a stone, it goes on moving after it has left our hand? The Greek philosophers never found a satisfactory explanation. The Greeks held that the world is eternal, but Buridan remembered the Christian belief that the world was created. God did not create a static world, but a world in motion. Buridan realised that at creation God must have given each particle an impetus whereby it continues in motion. This insight was eventually to develop into Newton’s first law of motion. This idea of Buridan, derived from Christian theology, is the beginning ofmodern science, in its discovery and description of intrinsic, ordered inter-relationship.

From that small beginning many other scientists in the Middle Ages developed new ideas of space and time. Then Brahe and Copernicus replaced the Greek geocentric cosmology theory by a new idea, that the sun is in the centre of the solar system with the earth going around it. Kepler’s laws of planetary motion described accurately how the planets move. Galileo showed how motion on the earth could also be described mathematically.

All this new understanding was brought together by Newton’s three laws of motion together with his theory of universal gravitation. From it the laws of Kepler and Galileo could be deduced, thus unifying celestial and terrestrial dynamics. The motions of the planets and of projectiles could be calculated to high accuracy. Eclipses and other celestial phenomena could be accurately predicted.

With the work of Newton physics came to maturity for the frst time in history, and science was put into a condition of continuous growth. During the subsequent centuries the work of these pioneers was extended and applied to understand many features of the natural world. Electric and magnetic phenomena were described by Maxwell’s theory and in the twentieth century came the discovery of the atomic and nuclear worlds and the quantum. This has increasingly unified knowledge of our cosmos, transformed our lives and given us cause for increasing wonder at the One Intelligence behind it.

Thus we see that modern science, far from being an alien threat, is a natural consequence of Christian beliefs about the world. Science has Christian roots and is the Christian way of understanding the world and using it for the benefit of mankind.

Faith Magazine