Tom Gilson

Christianity and the Birth of Science

Series: Faith & Science Podcasts 2012

Thinking Christian
Thinking Christian
Christianity and the Birth of Science

Myths abound concerning Christianity and the early development of science. You’ll find the truth to be quite a surprise. This talk, delivered at a Cru student conference in Albany last Thursday, is the third in a series I’m posting this week on faith and science.

Related Resources:

  1. Books:
    The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution by James Hannam
    For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery by Rodney Stark
    The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success by Rodney Stark
  2. Articles:
    The Myth of Conflict by James Hannam (you might want to explore the rest of his website there)
    Beyond War and Peace: A Reappraisal of the Encounter between Christianity and Science by Lindberg and Numbers
Series Navigation (Faith & Science Podcasts 2012):<<< Is Faith Rational In an Age of Science?
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7 thoughts on “Christianity and the Birth of Science

    In the cases of the Copernican System, the Church was slow to act because it did not see immediate danger to the faithful in De Revolutionibus (1543). For one thing, it was written by a member of the Church. Copernicus was a canon in a monastery, and he dedicated his book to Pope Paul III. For another, the book contained a preface (discovered by Kepler not to have been written by Copernicus) that stated that the geocentric system proposed in the book was only a mathematical hypothesis and made no claims about how the universe was really constituted. But with Galileo’s writings, which reached out to a wide audience and brought the argument about Copernicus into the mainstream of educated discourse, the Church acted. In 1616, after 73 years, it placed De Revolutionibus on the Index subject to revision, along with several other books that defended the Copernican System. It is interesting to note that the revisions required in Copernicus’s book were, in terms of the total work, actually very minor. Copies of De Revolutionibus that were in Italy at this time show the revisions: a few deleted passages and a few changes of individual words. None of Galileo’s books were placed on the Index at this time. Kepler’s New Astronomy, his Epitome of Copernican Astronomy, and his World Harmony were quickly placed on the Index. During the proceedings against Galileo in 1633, his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Systems of the World was placed on the Index, where it remained until 1824.

  2. Apparently then it was placed on the Index 73 years later. Nevertheless:

    Although the official imprimatur of the church had been secured, Galileo’s enemies, including the now angry Urban VIII, determined to bring him to trial. The inquisition ulti- mately condemned Galileo and forced him to recant. Although sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life, he lived comfortably in a villa outside Florence. He was neither tortured nor imprisoned-simply silenced. The Galileo affair was a multi-faceted event. Certainly it raised serious questions about the relationship between reason and revelation and the proper means of reconciling the teachings of nature with those of scripture. Nonetheless, it was not a matter of Christianity waging war on science. All of the participants called themselves Christians, and all acknowledged biblical authority. This was a struggle between opposing theories of biblical interpretation: a conservative theory issuing from the Council of Trent versus Galileo’s more liberal alternative, both well precedented in the history of the church. Personal and political factors also played a role, as Galileo demonstrated his flair for cultivating enemies in high places.


  3. Recall what I said, Nick. The relation between the church and science has been complex and multifaceted. The relation between Christianity as a system of thought and science has been that Christianity provided the necessary (though not the only necessary) motivation that launched the pursuit of science.

  4. The relation between Christianity as a system of thought and science has been that Christianity provided the necessary (though not the only necessary) motivation that launched the pursuit of science.

    I admire your modesty. But I’ve got to say – let’s not be modest here.

    Christianity provided not only necessary motivation – it also provided a tremendous number of cleric scientists, built and sustained universities – many of which persist to this day, supported all manner of scientific endeavors materially, and encouraged philosophers, theologians and metaphysicians who stressed the intelligibility of nature. These were not exceptions – they were the rule.

    Absolutely, the relation has been multifaceted and complicated. But not so much that the above can’t be said, without qualification.

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