Mark Noll, The Reformation, and Science

Mark Noll, The Reformation, and Science October 31, 2017

From BioLogos:

The carry-over was suspicion of everything associated with Aristotle, including science. As replacements, this rejection of church authority stimulated a turn to new methods. In France, the Huguenot Peter Ramus promoted “invention,” a procedure that replaced Aristotelian logic with an effort to divide complicated phenomena into ever smaller pieces until each piece could be understood directly. In England, Francis Bacon championed empiricism and induction, instead of deduction, as the best approach to understanding the physical world. Throughout Europe, interpretation (or hermeneutics) in all spheres led to intellectual and institutional struggles, with experience and reason given much greater weight than inherited authority.

In sum, the revolt against Aristotle, the rise of modern science, and the development of Protestantism were interwoven in many ways; for the era as a whole, religious uncertainty over traditional authority coincided with a rise of new authorities. For some, the new authority was sola Scriptura, for others imperial monarchies or self-governing cities, for still others the new science—and for many it was some combination of these newer guides.

Again, however, the synergy of Protestantism and science should not be overstated. Catholic Europe continued to produce outstanding students of nature like Copernicus and Galileo. Catholic opposition to the new science, as in the case of Galileo, came as much from struggles for dominance in the church as from a desire to shut down scientific inquiry. Major Protestant leaders, like Luther and Calvin, rejected new scientific proposals like heliocentrism, even as other Protestants welcomed them. And as has been evident throughout Protestant history, the willingness to question experts on the basis of what individual conscience has determined to be the correct understanding of Scripture or the natural world can easily lead to every-man-for-himself anti-intellectualism. Those who see a strong Protestant impetus behind early modern science also need to recognize how such an impetus could lead to Descartes and other moderns who moved from Luther’s “my conscience is captive to the Word of God” to a reliance more simply on “my conscience” (cogito ergo sum).

Yet with qualifications in place and triumphalism eschewed, it is possible to describe the Reformation as one of the keys that brought on modern science. The specific connections between Reformation teachings and scientific breakthroughs that have been persuasively documented by Peter HarrisonJohn Hedley Brooke, and others might also serve as encouragement to expect a similar fruitful confluence of spiritual and natural inquiry in our own day.

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