International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

The Bible, Protestantism and the Rise of Natural Science

by Peter Harrison

Introductory Essay by Owen Gingerich

Was the Judeo-Christian tradition essential for the rise of modern science? In the middle part of the twentieth century this view, in various forms, found strong exponents ranging from Alfred North Whitehead to Robert Merton and to Reijer Hooykaas.  Peter Harrison, in this pioneering study, turns the inquiry on its head. “While it is commonly acknowledged that modern science had its origins in the seventeenth century,” he writes, “it is less frequently appreciated that modern religion, too, emerged at this time” [272]. When, in 1513–15, the young Martin Luther published the Psalms without a huge Catholic matrix of commentary from the Church Fathers, he set in motion his credo of Sola Scriptura! — “by Scripture alone!” As individual readers interpreted the Scriptures, the older metaphorical or allegorical interpretations dropped away, leading to a more literalistic reading. The Catholic Church was driven toward the same position at the Council of Trent. Thus when Galileo argued from Augustine and other Church Fathers for an acceptance of the heliocentric cosmology, he came up against the literal reading of Psalm 104, “The Lord God laid the foundation of the earth that it not be moved forever.”

Harrison points out that Christian religious practice through the Middle Ages was primarily ritual performance of certain activities, whereas science was a matter of subscribing to particular doctrines. Sticks, stones, and creatures were imbued with sacred meanings; as natural sciences began to flourish, a fresh hermeneutic was required. Now, in the seventeenth century, religion became a matter of subscribing to unchanging dogmas while science became an activity. The practice of science brought a new shape to the Western quest for redemption, he concludes.  “No longer was salvation considered to be a process in which the divine image in mankind was restored. Instead, the impulse to restore the divine likeness within was redirected outwards into the natural world, and scientific activity became an increasingly material means of obtaining secular salvation” [273].

These conclusions come at the end of a wide-ranging and highly erudite reading of sources, with an impressive concentration on seventeenth-century English authors.  Certainly the intricate intertwining between religious beliefs and the practice of science makes abundantly clear that Protestantism and modern science grew up together. The Judeo-Christian tradition, as it evolved in the modern period, may not have been required for the birth of modern science, but it surely provided a congenial environment.